Wednesday, November 3, 2010

doing well by doing good

If love maifests itself within you,
it has its origins in beauty.
You are nothing but a mirror in which beauty is reflected.

wednesday, 3 november

Steve and Ace left this morning at 1 AM. It has been good to have them here. They approach this whole world with different eyes than I do and they helped me to see things I might not have otherwise seen. Certainly they both approach Beirut as businessmen, both of them very successful and competent businessmen, while remaining honest and fair. But Steve is especially astute at politics, national and international, and with his background in journalism and political science it was like having a running commentary by a professional pandit. I was amazed at his ability to remember names and dates, and to tie things together. Ace brings his own perspective as a Shi'a Muslim of Lebanese origin. The two of them didn't always agree on the conclusions, but each always had a valid perspective.

We had quite a few good discussions, espeically with Dr Nayla again the other night, about the place of religion in all this. It is rightly suggested often by many people that if religion, especially fundamentalism, is the cause of so much discord, why not just do away with it? My answer is that religion is not the cause, but is used as a weapon. That's just the very surface of the dialogue we've had going on about this, enough to say that is why we (whoever "we" are) are trying to separate the fish from the bones in religious discourse, get to the essentials, the universals, the "ground we share," the transformative practices, while we try to understand each other. In my interactions with Nayla, for instance, I find absolutely no room for discord, even if we disagree about some fundamental things (though I am not sure we do) as a Muslim and a Christian. The ground we share is a lot bigger than the ground we don't. Why is that? What is that? It's at least the existential truth that religion, or at least the spiritual life, is not, or at least need not be, a source of discord but instead is and can be the "ground we share."

While Ace was off with his relatives in the south on Sunday Steve and I called up Deeb and Nadia, my monk friend Ildebrando's family, in East Beirut and invited ourselves over for Sunday lunch again. Mr Deeb came and fetched us from the hotel and gave us another guided tour across Beirut on the way to their house. Their three girls were all home (as is always the case, so Deeb told us) for Sunday lunch, and they made the gathering even more fun. All three are bright, articulate and friendly, and beautiful. The oldest is already working as a banker, the middle one is the associate producer for an afternoon TV show, the youngerst is just starting university studies. All spoke English quite well and we had a lively conversation throughout. Deeb beams with pride when he looks at them or speaks of them or even when he is not-too-convincingly complaining about them. He is intent on them having a good education. Their mother Nadia cooked up a wonderful lunch with many concessions to my vegetarian viral-wracked stomach, but Steve feasted on everything.

On the way home Deeb showed us a few more famous sites in the city. The most powerful one was the exact spot where former prime minister Rafiq Hariri was assassinated in 2005, along with his aides. All told 22 people were killed that day. They say the bomb was so powerful it cut a 100 foot hole in the ground. It's simply amazing. Even more than the Israeli bombing in 2006, it is that event that seems to remain as the latest of bookmarks in a long series of horrific events in this land. And no one is still sure how, or why, or who. That is the business of the STL, the UN's Special Tribunal on Lebanon. Some thought it was Syria, but the current prime minister, in London the other day, publicly said that it was not them. (How is he sure?) Some say it might have been the Israelis; if the tribunal were to find that, there would be apocalyptic repercussions, but many say that if the STL were to find that they would hide it. Of course some think that it was Hezbollah, and it looks even worse for them now since their leader Nasrallah recently demanded that his followers not co-operate with the investigations of the STL, becaase doing so would be like co-operating with oppression and because, he said, everything was being reported back the Israelis.

Some say Hariri was killed because he was too close to Saudi money, money that was actually helping to rebuild Beirut. (It was helping rebuild Beirut and still is.) Everywhere we went we saw construction going on, large new malls and office buildings, and of course the wonder that is Solidaire, a high-end shopping district down by the water, with a mammoth new mosque, lots of fine dining, many restored old buildings from the French period--the time arguably of Beirut's modern glory days, when it was the Paris of the East. This was the part of Beirut and the thing about Mr Hariri that Ace and Steve were particularly interested in, how a man of business could do so well by doing such good.

I decided to spent the whole day with Steve and Ace yesterday, since it was there last day, no matter what they wanted to do. So we went to a distirct known as Basta, an antique district. The stores where we started were crowded dirty little places stuffed with room after room of stuff, some of it good, some of it just junk. It was strange to see ancient Oriental items next to Art Deco French furniture, Persian rugs and Herb Alpert and Tijuana Brass LPs. As we moved on the stores got nicer and the prices as well. The two of them knew a lot about what was there, and it was fun to watch them bargain and search, though not much was bought. Then we walked down to Solidaire, for a little snack (Ace chose for us to stop at Starbucks, ignoring my protestations), to get a wider view of the place (we had been once before) and to make a stop at the Virgin Mega Store, into one of which neither Ace nor I had ever been. In Amin Maalouf's book "On Identity" he points to Toynbee's thesis about history in three phases, that has been very much on my mind these days: first the slow accumulation and dissemination of knowledge, when many cultures grew at pace; then a large increase of knowledge but slow dissemination when some cultures advanced ahead of others so greater differences emerged; now the massive increase in knowledge but an ever faster dissemination which homogenizes cultures but doesn't necessarily make them smarter. Talk about homogenization! So there I was in Beirut looking at the same Top 10 CDs and movies that I would in Monterey, and having a snack at Starbucks.

We were going to go and see the mosque as well but on the way in we found something that we had had no idea was there. It was a large tent-like structure with armed guards that contained the grave of Rafiq Hariri and his bodyguards. It was perched right there on the edge of Solidaire near the entrance to the mosque, both of which were of course his dream come true.

I've got our modest business suite to myself this morning. I turned the living room into a little yoga room and did my asanas while watching the results of the American elections, about which many people here have been fascinated. I am feeling just about 100 pecent better now, so then I ate the equivalent of all three of our free breakfasts down at the buffet. In an hour or so my young Danish friend Petter, who we met on the way to Minyara, is coming at noon to show me a few more things in the city and have lunch. Then Fadi is picking me up at 2 to drive me off to the Convent of Saint Maron, patron of the Maronites and the Oasis Saint Charbel, named for the most famous hermit monk saint of that place, whose picture you see everywhere. I was thinking this morning, I have gotten a really good dose of the political, cultural and even religious landscape of this region, but I am not sure if I have caught anything of the spiritual genius of this region. The closest I got was the few moments in the mosque yesterday, seeing how many people, even young ones, and especially young men, were coming in and performing their salat, putting their hands to their ears, bending low at the waist or prostrating to the ground, kneeling on their calves with eyes closed silently facing Mecca, listening, attending. I am sorry that we never got to Mar Musa or any of the monastic areas of Syria but maybe this little sojourn to the lap of Saint Charbel and reading Kahil Gibran will cure that.

I have this sense that it is that monastic impulse, of Christianity or of religion in general in its simplicity, that is the only real response for me, and the best thing I have to offer. A life rooted in purity of heart, mind, body, emptying oneself completely, content with the grace of God. Nothing else seems to really be able to make us really well nor bring about real good. But that combined with the Sufi impulse--to live in the world and still pursue the highest mystical goals. (Robert Frager). Is this not also "To do well by doing good"? I keep remembering the line that Gitanjlai and I heard in Delhi that I typed immediately into my iPhone: "What I thought was hidden in mystery, I found in the marketplace." To be in the world but not of it, Jesus asked of his disciples.