Monday, November 1, 2010

the tension

Would that I were a never blossoming tree, which gave no fruit.
For the pain of fecundity is more bitter than the pain of bareneness,
and the torments of the well-to-do with their inalienable wealth
hold horrors greater than any suffered by a pauper who goes without food.
(Kahil Gibran)

hallow's eve, beirut

It has taken me this long to realize that I should be reading Kahil Gibran here in Lebanon in the same way that I read Tagore in India. The small volume I picked up is called "The Vision," meditations, essays and prose poems on the nature of the spiritual life, maybe a companion to Tagore's "Sadhana." But even more than that, these above verses reminded me of the Book of Job, which I inexplicably have wound up reading during this trip, though a whole different kind of mourning.

Everything seemed to conspire against me getting to Mar Musa, the ancient monastery of Moses the Ethiopian prince turned desert monk, now a great site of cultural artifacts (especially the Coptic iconography) as well as for Christian-Muslim encounter under the prophetic hand of Don Paolo. First of all, because of some dispute with the community (over commercial and/or environmental issues, or simply because the leader of the community is a firebrand Italian Jesuit), the government would not give the necessary permission for me to do a concert there. We were still going to go, though I was requested not even "to take the guitar out of its case" so that no one would get the impression that I was sneaking a performance in. But then, as I wrote last week, we had all gotten a variety of levels of deathly ill, even Linda and Agnete by the time we left Aleppo, except the intrepid Dane, Jonas. So Steve and Ace had decided that they were going to go straight back to Beirut via Damascus, because Ace had had a particularly bad bout of the yuk. But Linda, Jonas and I were till going to brave on. But to crown it all, we heard from Dr Riad of Adhyan, requesting that we three not go either. It was still my call, but by that time it felt like a losing battle. I was pretty weak and Linda looked worse than I felt. So we all piled into a mini-bus and headed out of Aleppo Thursday morning, without any of us (outside Jonas!) having gotten to experience any of Aleppo's ancient majesty.

It was a long long journey along the east side of the mountains. We were told a number of times that Lebanon was "just over those mountains." It was a very harsh landscape, about what I was expecting, dotted with villages and some small cities, washed in a kind of dove grey. I was imaging, no doubt way too romantically, the early Christian monks in this region. We saw all kinds of folks on the road, the Bedouins with their herds, many smiling young men with the typical red headscarf and black sunglasses zipping along full speed on small motorbikes. At one point, we stopped at a large modern road market, and our driver Muhammad pointed out that just over the hills to our east was Mar Musa itself. I remember it as being kind of a happy ride, that first leg at least, much conversation and a lot of us sharing snacks along the way, having recovered somewhat, kind of relieved that the worst was over, also knowing our merry little band of six was going to part ways in Damascus. At Damascus we left Agnete and Jonas behind, as they were both to be leaving from there the next day, and piled into another taxi, which took us through the various check points, obstructions, greased palms and genuine official border business, all of which took some time. Then a few more hours into the outskirts of Beirut, which was hopping with early evening traffic. Syrian cars (in one of which we were) cannot drive into Beirut, so we stopped at a gas station outside of town and transfered our persons and stuff into two other cabs, one for Linda and the other to take us to our hotel in Hamra. By the time we got there, between the noise and diesel fumes let alone the sheer number of hours driving, we were not such a happy bunch anymore. Luckily we found out that the Casa D'Or, the modest hotel where I had stayed the week before, had a business suite that could accomodate the three of us and was available until the guys leave on Wednesday. Steve and Ace were ready to go find some food, but I was done and decided to just get a simple soup and rice downstairs. But I couldn't get the rice down. And when the guys came back, Ace had had much the same problem. The next morning I was feverish and not holding things in again and spent the day in bed, and the past three days have been pretty much alternating in that pattern, with only Steve hardy enough to withstand all.

The latest diagnosis is that it has been a viral infection all along, not food, which explains why we all got it and why it won't just go away just like that. But we've somehow kept going anyway. I've been getting out in the early morning and walking (if not running) on the corniche along the sea coast before the other guys get up, along with hundreds of other Beirutis, who are often drinking coffee, smoking the ever-present argille (I'm not sure of the spelling but in 'merica we call it a "hookah pipe"), fishing or even exercising.

The education about the complexity of this country is ongoing and makes one more and more humble if not maddened and mystified. Saturday I was invited to attend Adhyan's annual Day of Spiritual Solidarity. (Recall, Adhyan is the Christian-Muslim organization that partly sponsored my being here in partnership with Danmission.) We met our friend Nayla (Dr Nayla Tabbara, whom we have come to enjoy immensely) and a few dozen other pilgrims in front of the National Museum, where we boarded the bus that was to take us deep into the south to Sour, the biblical city of Tyre, where the event was to be held. We actually dropped a happy Ace off just north of the town of Saida where he caught another ride up into the hills to go spend the night with his family there. We had no idea what the event was going to entail, and Steve spoke about drifting off to visit the old souq (market) in Tyre, but in the end he generously, though perhaps a little reluctantly, agreed to stay with me for the whole event.

Travelers have been warned by the State Department not to venture south of the Latani River, but we were well below the Latani River now, in Hezbollah territory, predominantly Shiite Muslims, very much in sympathy with Iran. There were innumerable posters Hassan Nazrallah,the Secretary General of Hezbollah, hung by the roadsides, and even some of Aytollah Khomeini, so I was told. This is the area that some feel has "met with indifference" at the hands of Lebanon's powerful Maronite Christians and Sunnis with Saudi money. This is where the largest Palestinian refugee camps are. We passed one coming into town. It's also a place mentioned over and over in the Jewish Scriptures as well as in the Gospels, a place Jesus visited. It is from here that Hiram made a bond of friendship with King Solomon and supplied the cedar wood and workers for the Temple in Jerusalem. I yelled out to Steve in the hotel room last night, "Listen to which psalm I just ran into:
The voice of the Lord breaks the cedars;
the Lord breaks the cedars of Lebanon.
He makes Lebanon skip like a calf,
and Sirion like a young wild ox.
The Lord shakes the wilderness;
the Lord Shakes the wilderness of Kadesh. (Ps 29:5-8)

These are not war images, mind you, but a confession that the power of God is so awesome that it is mightier than the glory of this great land, which would have been renonwed in the psalmist's day.

The event was being held at the Musa al-Sadar Center (not to be confused with Muftattah al-Sadar of Iraq). He was the prominent Shiite civil leader who did great things for the people of the South until he got on board a place bound for Libya and mysteriously disappeared, never to be heard from again. His sister now runs the organization that bears his name, and it was at her invitation that Fr Fadi and Nayla had chosen to hold the event there. By the time we arrived another several hundred people had already gathered. We still had no idea what to expect. Steve and I sheepishly walked into a circular aula that was the initial gathering space and the first thing to notice was dozens of men in mostly black costumes, with various headresses, and many women gathering around the outside of the circle. The men of course were Muslim and Christian clerics, but it was interesting that at first the difference isn't what struck me. It was the visual impact of all those black robes and the variety of headwear. Of the Christians, my guess is all were either Syrian Orthodox or Catholic; there was no note of Protestant presence that I could tell. Nayla helped us distiguish some of the Muslim ones.

We had arrived just as the events of the day were beginning. The first thing we did was split up into two groups: the Muslims went to another building to do their evening prayer and the Christians went upstairs to another hall to do theirs. (I was warmly recalling this year's Tent of Abraham, and how moving it was to share ritual, and even for us non-Muslims to "hold sacred silence" while they performed the salat. We are fortunate; it is a lot easier for us in California to do such things.) We went up with the Christians and that's when we discovered that everything was of course going to be in Arabic. Our prayer service was a type of evening prayer, with a lot of lusty (if you'll excuse the word) singing, I believe a psalm recitation, various prayers and even a short homily. There were also an annoying number of photographers and videographers.

We then gathered in the main hall for the program proper. There were even more cameramen there (there were definitely all men), and a number of press microphones on the dias as well. It became obvious to us that this was a big deal, and I felt pretty pleased that our friends had pulled off something like this, about dialogue and solidarity, that merited this kind of national attention. Fadi presented a short speech, there was a sldie show, and short film, two different young peoples' music performances (the second one was all girls in white clothes with rose colored hijabs, quite picturesque), the dramatic recitation of a poem and also an award given out, as is done every year. To our surprise the humble little bishop Samil, whom we had met in Saida the week before in his dusty cassock and beautiful smile, was the guest of honor and honoree of the award, now with his own proper Maronite archibishop's headress, a crozier and a beautiful Byzantine cross around his neck. Still smiling beatifically, he reminded me of what I imagined GK Chesterton's Father Dowling to look like, blinking and wondering what all the fuss was about. There was a slide show of his life, a tribute and his acceptance speech. We were told later that his known for both his work for people of all faiths and for his humilty. May that be said of us!

Afterward there was a lavish spread of food. We were a little shy, both gastronomically and culturally, but we did okay. During the second helf of the bus trip home, Nayla came back and offered us a ride back to the hotel, then stayed and talked with us, and we were able to pepper her with questions about the significance of what had taken place. During the walk to her office and on the ride home we had another very educational conversation, as we walked or drove along the infamous Green Line that divided Muslim West Beirut from Christian East Beirut during the civil war years in the mid-1980s. She told us the story of her mother in their Buick Skylark defying the snipers along the demarcation zone to go and visit her Christian friends on the other side of the line, and telling young Nayla to duck down under the dashboard. She told us about the times when there was no government at all, no water, no electricity. Every time we venture out across town I see more evidence of those years, rubble, walls pock marked with bullet holes, and I don't have to ask anymore, "Is that from the war?"

A man asked me on the bus what my impression of Lebanon was. I said, "I find it very tense here. There is a lot of tension." Where, he asked me, where do you feel the tension? "Here," I said, pointing to my belly. "I feel it here."