Sunday, October 24, 2010

rachel's lament

Softly and far there sounds a lament
and a warring behind and before,
the grief of a mother whose life is rent
for her children are no more.
("Rachel's Lament," Tim Manion)

24 october, last day in Beirut

The other day we arrived in Saida a little earlier than we thought we would, and everyone, espeically Abdo, the driver, was a little hungry. So our intrepid organizer, Linda, got on the phone and found us the best Falafel place in the area. While the others were inside waiting for our orders to be prepared, Agnete and I stood outside looking over the city below us. We were already high in the hills. Agnete asked me what my impressions of Lebanon were. I said something about how hard it was for me to find a center anywhere, that there were so many ideologies and factions in tension. Suddenly, as if on cue, from our left a little boy came running down the hill. He was followed shortly by another young boy carrying a toy machine gun. As the first boy rounded the corner and disappeared further down the hill, the second boy got up on a mound of rock and aimed his gun at him and started "shooting," making noises with his mouth, "Pchew! Pchew!" Then four other little boys came down from the left, each carrying his own gun and they all stood up there on that mound and started shooting at the escapee. Who were they pretending to be? Who were they pretending the other boy was? Agnete said unfortunately, this is what they are used to. We used to "play war" and "cowboys and Indians" when I was a kid too, but it had no relation to anything in reality. For these kids, they may well have been imitating something they knew only too well.

We then went up to the Circle Dialogue and Developement Center. We were warmly formally welcomed by various members of the staff, then by the director, Mr Emil and the local Maronite Bishop Samil, neither of whom spoke English, only French and Arabic, so Linda did the honors of translating for us. Mr Emil explained to us some of the history of the place. They have been at it over thirty years, even before the construction of the beautiful facility they have now. They concentrate both on bringing together Muslim and Christian youth, but also on educational programs and vocational training. We asked who they thought might be coming to the concert, and Mr Emil said, "Nuns and politicians, faculty members and maybe some youth." We ascertained that there would certainly be a few who did not speak English, so Linda would continue her task of translating.

The concert that night was "a lot of work," I said later. Trying to figure out what songs would speak to that particular crowd and how to explain them as simply as possible to put them in the proper context. It went fine and I think that the crowd received it well. Again, the Bismillah song was the hit of the night. I had been wanting to sing Tim Manion's "Rachel's Lament" as part of this series of concerts, both because of its allusions to war and its topographical references--the valley of bones and the river of tears--that seem to fit so well in this region. I sang it at the concert Thursday night, prefacing it by telling the crowd about that scene in front of the falafel shop, and that there were many ways to kill a child, and that it was too bad that these kids knew so well how to play with guns, and how it was too bad, too, that I had as well when I was a child, and that the whole reason I was singing these songs is to raise up "the strength of a people whose lives will be spent / so that the children may die no more."

That night when we returned to Beirut, we met Rev Dr Riad Jarjour. He is the chairperson of the Forum for Developement, Culture and Dialogue, Linda's immediate boss, and one of the people directly responsible for my being here. Though he has not been in the area and so not at any of the events yet, he has been checking in regularly. This was to be our only opportunity to meet. He treated us to a feast of a meal at a very luxurious restaurant, once again three times as much food as we could possibly eat, complete with four different waiters tending to our every need, even replacing the plate and silverware ever time we finished a course. Ace and Steve were also with Agnete and I, and I spent more time listening than talking. Dr Riad travels all over the mideast both for the FDCD and for his own Prebyterian Synod. He had just arrived from Qatar and had spent the day dealing with some problems within his own synod. He is also very well respected by the government, so his perspective was rare and insightful. He seems to be the kind of man who can make things happen with a single phone call. I am coming back to Beirut to do a concert with John on Tuesday and there was some speculation as to how I would get here and who would come with me and whether or not we would stay the night or go right on to Aleppo, Syria where the rest of the group would be. Dr Riad decided that I would come in by taxi and that Linda would accompany me and, in spite of the fact that we had been told that were no rooms available at the Casa D'Or for me to stay the night, he made a call and, alas, there was one. Fait accomplit.

Yesterday then we had a concert up in Minyara. Luckily, John Pennington had a free day from his extremely packed schedule here in Beirut and was able to go with us and perform with me. It was the farthest out of town I had been thus far. We drove north past Tripoli and then headed inland and up into the hills of Akkar to the little town of Minyara. Our caravan this time included two others, Simiha, a young Muslim woman who has been to several of Agnete's Dialogue Camps and other events, and Petter, a young Dane who is studying at the American University of Beirut. Both of them were well informed about Lebanese history and politics. I had brought along my Lonely Planet guide, which has a pretty good essay about the poltical history of the region, but there were still some blanks and nuances that I was unable to fill in. Speaking with them both, I felt like I understood a little more and could also see why it is so complicated and frustrating. There are so many factions, each with its own agenda. There are the Sunni Muslims who are in the majority and who tend to be more pro-Western and pro-Saudi Arabia with all its wealth. There are the Shia Muslims, generally poorer, in the minority and more prevalent in the south. They are the ones who were thrilled by the visit of President Ahmadinajad last week, and are often the proterctors of the Hizbollah, and friends of the Palestianian refugees in the south of Lebanon. There are also two other Shia sects that are very prevalent here, the Druze and Alawites, the latter whom we will meet more in Syria. (I'll try to write more about them later.) There are various Christian denominations but most prevalent is the Maronites, who are also for the most part pro-Western. Some Christians also aligned themseves with Israel, who is for the most part considered all around the greatest enemy of Lebanon because it has blanket punished the whole country for the actions of one portion of the population. There are other Christians who align themselves with Hizbollah however, as well. And then there are some who are rather neutral. There is no real agreement whether or not the division of this region into two separate countries--Syria and Lebanon--was arbitrary, or positive or negative. And that it still only a crusory look.

And so, back to what I said to Agnete: it is hard for me to find a center, to find a specific spirit of Lebanon. I have this image of this country as a chessboard that the surrounding countries and some Western ones as well have been using for an ongoing confusing and deadly game of chess, but the children of Lebanon are the pieces. It is not that long ago that the US Embassy was bombed by a jihadist nor that American and British hostages were taken, so those of us visiting here also have the possibility of being used in the game.

The concert at the National Evangelical Presbyterian Church last night was easier, even though more translation was needed. Rev Hadi Ghantous and his wife Anna were our hosts, and again took us way up in the hills for a sumptuous lunch. From the terrace of the restaurant we could look out to our east and see Syria, and to our west and see the Meditarranean Sea. It was chilly and cloudy, threatening rain the whole time. They and Agnete are old friends. Hadi has built a beautiful new modern church with an ample hall below, where we performed the concert. There was some discussion about Bismillah (that song is the center of everything!), the fact that there might be some Christians this time who would object to it. I was sincerely questioning whether or not I should sing it, because I am here to encourage their work in dialogue but not here to "provoke" anyone. But Agnete was insistent and Hadi just wanted me to put it in the right context, which of course was going to have to be conveyed in translation. I put it in the context of how surprised I was when I found out that Christians in Indoneisa use the word "Allah" for God and how beautiful it was that we shared a word with Muslims. And then I talked about our own Tent of Abraham gathering in California and how beautiful it was that we--Jews, Christians and Muslims--have a song that we can share in common, something which isn't the easiest thing to do in America either.

Anyway, it went fine, as did the whole concert. The young people especially loved John's playing and were staring at him throughout. The crowd sang along well, even though in English, on Lead Me From Death, and I taught them my ostinato of The Lord is My Light as well. Hadi had thought it best if I accented the Christian biblical songs more for this concert, and I did, with a few of the others peppered in. There was still one old gentleman who complained that he hadn't known that there were going to be non-Christian songs sung, but I think he was in the minority. I am beginning the think the nervousness I feel before each of these performances is actually good for my focus--I don't take anything for granted--but it may eventually take a toll on my stomach...

We leave today for Syria. I fill in a little more later but I wanted to get this muich off to you all now. Ma'a salama!