Monday, 3 November 1997Yesterday I was the lay reader in our church in Vienna. I read the Old Testament lesson from the book of Ruth. Today I am in Karak, in the land of Moab—Ruth’s home town.
It was dark when I arrived here in Father Khalil’s 15 year old Peugeot 505, still going strong and without a single body creak after 135,000 kilometres. The road from Amman, Jordan’s capital, took us by Mount Nebo, down into the Jordan Valley, along by the Dead Sea and up the rugged mountains again to Karak.
Jean Bouchebl, the national director of World Vision Lebanon, who also supervises our work in Jordan and Syria, greeted me with a kiss on three cheeks and the honest hug of an old friend and a long-time colleague. I returned the hugs and kisses gladly. Jean’s living Christian faith has always been an inspiration to me. Despite all that Lebanon’s furious civil war threw at him, he remained true to a positive and confident faith. With Jean was Father Khalil a Roman Catholic priest in charge of a school which is to receive support from World Vision Korea.
“Ours is the only Christian school in the South Jordan area” Father Khalil told me. “We have students from every Christian church, Catholic, Orthodox, Evangelical. And many Muslims too. You will see the school tomorrow, but there will be no children.” He went on to explain that since my visit was arranged Tuesday had been declared a public holiday.
“In honour of your visit,” joked Jean who was quickly onto my wavelength.
I was not surprised to hear that the real reason for the holiday was elections.
We drove out from the airport and were immediately in the desert. Rocky, barren, undulating desert. Within minutes we came upon a small town with the road carving a wide slice through the middle of square stone houses, mostly of recent construction. We drove through the town while Father Khalil searched for the short-cut to Mount Nebo. By then it was four o’clock in the afternoon and he and Jean were anxious to show me Mount Nebo before the sun set.
The town featured a panoply of electioneering banners and a large contingent of armoured personnel carriers and tanks. “It’s a dangerous night tonight,” commented Father Khalil ominously.
With practised nonchalance and well disguised self-interest I asked, “Dangerous? For you?”
“No,” replied the Father. “For the Bedouin. They all want their own man elected. Sometimes they will use force to exert their will on others.”
If I could I surely would, Stand on the rock where Moses stood. The words of an old spiritual sprang to mind as we arrived at the mountain. From this point, Moses looked out across the Jordan valley and Yahweh showed him all the land of Israel. You can read about it in Deuteronomy 34.
At first sight, Mount Nebo seems to be wrongly named. It is not a mountain if you are thinking about the Austrian Alps or the Canadian Rockies. It just happens to be a round hill slightly higher than the surrounding plain across which we had driven from Amman. That, and the fact that the plain stops at this point and drops around a thousand metres down into the rift valley of the Jordan river makes it an ideal look-out. God already knew this, of course.
The approach to the summit brought us to a closed gate where we parked the car. A large tourist bus was also parked there with one or two other cars. Jean and I followed the priest through a side gate where a Bedouin man stopped us and insisted that we buy entry tickets.
“I am the priest of this place,” Father Khalil said sternly. “This is my home.”
The man argued a bit, but the Father dismissed him and we walked on.
“You have to be firm with Bedouin people,” explained Father Khalil. “If you speak kindly to them, they abuse you.”
On the round crest of the mountain lie the ruins of a large monastery. Built in the 3rd century it was destroyed in the 6th by the invading Muslims. Now some restoration has been completed. Many of the floor mosaics have been recovered owing to the foresight of the monks who covered them with sand and cement and kept them safe for centuries. Nothing of the buildings above a metre height remains save for a few pillars in a central section now protected under an incongruous corrugated iron roof.
Near the edge of the summit a large bronze monument has been raised in the form of a serpent raised on a T-shaped stick. It represents the “serpent raised in the desert” of Moses and stands about five metres high framing the view across the Jordan valley to the ancient city of Jericho (believed to be the oldest continuously inhabited city on the planet) and a little further beyond to Jerusalem. You can read about it in Numbers 21: 8-9.
The scene was shrouded in a grey evening haze thick enough to turn the setting sun into a moon-like silver ball. Even so, it was clear that the view presented to Moses was hardly of a land flowing with milk and honey. Catching my mood, Father Khalil suggested that perhaps Moses died of a heart attack. “He took one look at this and it killed him!” This humourous interpretation of Deuteronomy 34, in which Moses death is reported immediately following his sight of the Promised Land, at least would explain why he died even though (according to the Scriptures) “his eyes were not weak nor his strength gone.”
Encouraged by my laughter, Father Khalil continued in the same vein. “You know Moses used to stutter?” he asked.
“Yes. That’s why he got Aaron to speak for him.” I said.
“Correct. Well when God asked him which country he wanted, Moses stuttered, ‘Ca-Ca-Can’ and God was a little impatient so he interrupted ‘Yes, I know. You can have Canaan.’ Unfortunately, Moses had in mind Canada.”
The drive took us down the side of the Jordan valley on a steep and twisting route. We passed by three or four Bedouin encampments with their black tents and herds of sheep and goats presenting a scene which has remained unchanged for centuries.
“Would you like to stop for a chat?” enquired Jean, affirming the reputation of Bedouin hospitality. “I am sure they will be glad to give us tea.” But it was already dark and cold and we decided to press on.
The rocky, dry, forbidding hills gradually gave way to the plain covered in dead winter grasses and dotted with occasional buildings. Every now and then we would come by a substantial home with olive groves and grape vines.
“These are the Palestinian homes” explained Father Khalil. “Everywhere they go, the first thing they do is plant their trees.”
Father Khalil’s family don’t plant trees in Palestinian soil any more. At least not literally. While he ministers to a community in Karak, his family live in Honduras. In 1967 his parents were evicted from their home in Bethlehem, like Palestinian families continue to experience. After a short time in a refugee camp they emigrated to Honduras.
“My brothers consider themselves Honduran now. And our family language is Spanish.” One of six or seven languages Father Khalil can speak with relative fluency.
“I cannot go back to our home in Bethlehem. Jews live in it now.”
Somewhere along the way our conversation turned to peace. The so-called “Peace Process” has resulted in one tangible benefit. Tourists can now cross from Israel to visit the Jordanian sacred sites. Accompanying us on Mount Nebo had been a polyglot lot of Americans, Japanese and Indians.
“Can peace really come?” asked Father Khalil at one stage. “You know, our text books we are provided by the government describe the Jews as our enemy. Even I, as a Christian who wants to live a life of Christian charity, find it hard to overcome my education about the Jews. I think the answer lies in educating our children a different way. It will take time.”
I hoped time was in better supply than good text books.
The Dead Sea glowed silvery under the sliver of a moon as we drove along its East Bank towards Karak passing by the site of Sodom and Gomorrah and the rock that is known as Lot’s wife. All these were invisible in the darkness.
Turning east again we began to climb the walls of the Jordan valley again. The road was four lines wide and smooth bitumen. An ideal place for a competitive car hill-climb, I thought. I could just see Vaatenen driving on the ragged edge up Pike’s Peak. Wouldn’t he make mince meat of this climb?
In Karak we encountered more election banners, although Jean tried to pass them off as welcome signs for me. We stopped by the Italian hospital so Jean could pick up an English language copy of the Bible, so that later he and I could check our Old Testament references for the places we had visited today. I offered to let him use my computer-based Bible, but he preferred the ordinary paper kind.
Around a couple more corners and we came alongside a ruined castle, built by the Crusaders, and next to it our hotel with a large yellow neon sign announcing its presence and purpose. A porter took our bags and we were swept past the reception desk into the manager’s office. Here we exchanged hugs, handshakes and kisses and conversation flowed, mostly in Arabic, for twenty minutes or so. Then the manager actually arrived and we were shown our rooms. Minutes later we were eating a pleasant salad followed by a substantial and tasty mixed grill. During the meal the manager arrived and took a place at the table and the conversation flowed freely. Then a local Parliamentarian arrived with another man and they joined in as well. “Visiting” seemed to be the name of the game. And a pleasant game it was too.
Tuesday, 4 November 1997
On Tuesday I woke and looked out of my window. I have a collection of photos sub-titled, “View From My Room.” I added another to it. Perhaps there is a coffee table book in those 100 photo albums. This view was across a landscape of vastness. Mountainous hills on a grand scale, covered in rocks and occasional shrubs. Here and there a grove of trees. And scattered throughout houses built of the naturally camouflaged local stone. Roads cris-crossed this landscape and a few vehicles sped along them, small and distant as if viewing them from a low flying plane.
Jean and I met for breakfast and he shared his daily devotion with me. There was a message about developing a faithfulness in one’s personal walk with God that reached through to me amidst the dangerous business of going about doing good.
We checked out, but no-one was there to take our money. Later I discovered that our accommodation was “on the house”, another example of hospitality and their way of making a contribution to our work helping the needy children of Karak.
Father Khalil had not yet arrived, so I wandered over to the Karak Castle, a Crusader built fort dating from the 12th century. At first glance it seemed to be merely a few stony outcrops across the top of a large hill, then I saw some steps leading down. Under the “hill” the castle had been rediscovered and was being excavated. There were hundreds of rooms, and long stone passages to explore. Seven levels had been unearthed and I wandered along the topmost two, like Basement One and Basement Two, where natural light flooded in through judiciously opened air-holes, windows, and stairwells. I could have spent hours exploring and imagining the life of this vast Crusader community but I knew our friend would be waiting.
As I emerged in the sunlight near the hotel, Father Khalil arrived in his sturdy auto. He took us along streets festooned with electioneering banners, photos, and graffiti.
“How do you say graffiti in Italian?” I asked.
“Graffiti,” replied the multi-lingual priest missing the obscure joke until he caught my smile.
Even the statue of Saladin riding his rearing horse with his sword held high in vanquishing triumph was plastered with election photos and slogans. Everyone was being coopted to some cause or other.
“Not everyone is content with the election process,” admitted Father Khalil. “About 5,000 dead people voted in the last election.” I heard later that a number of major parties had boycotted the election, but later news reported that the day had progressed without major clashes. Fifteen women had presented themselves for election. Not one was elected.
The purpose of our visit, apart from meeting and talking with Father Khalil, was to visit the project he supervises and which is supported by sponsors in Korea. The Latin Catholic Church and Parish House are joined together in a narrow alley in the middle of Karak. Across the alley three nuns live in a small convent and from here they run a kindergarten and school in two buildings next door. This small crowded complex is the weekday home for more than 600 primary school children. They have a tiny playground to accommodate them, so they spill out into the alley at play times. We toured the school building, part of it some hundreds of years old and, although elegant, increasingly frail. Recent road sealing had to be done the old-fashioned manual way, when the pounding of the steam roller threatened to shake the building to pieces. Inside this building and a new annex are a dozen or so classrooms. None is large and a few accommodate 35-40 students. There is little room for activity. Yet the school is popular because the Sisters have set and maintained a high scholastic standard, and their personal witness to a value system of selfless service and compassion infects the whole life of the school. Roughly two-thirds of the student body is not Christian and they come by choice.
I discovered that the sponsored children were all from Christian families. At first, I thought this discriminatory on the basis of religion. Something that is clearly against World Vision policy. Yet, it became clear soon enough that the real reason for this classification is poverty. It is the Christian families in this community who are the poorest.
“There is no official discrimination in Jordan, of course,” explained Father Khalil, “but it is very hard for Christian men to find work to support their families. Work is in short supply. Naturally Christians are not the first to get it.”
We spent an hour or two walking around the facilities and discussing the various plans for improvement and the impact that the school had on the community—in the past, now and in the future.
“One Muslim man came to me last week and said I had to enrol his child,” said Father Khalil. “I said I had no room. He said, ‘Excuse me, I am not asking you a favour. I am telling you that you must enrol my child.’ So I asked him why, and he told me that he was educated in this school 25 years ago and it was his school.”
Jean urged the Father and Sisters to begin now, right at the beginning, to think of ways to develop self-sufficiency.
“What would happen if World Vision stopped our support?” Jean asked.
The Father shrugged with eloquent resignation. “It would be the end.”
“Then let us plan now for that day. Why do we need to pay the school fees?”
“Because the families cannot afford them. Maybe one dollar this month, two next month, nothing for three more months. It is not enough to run a school.”
“And why cannot they afford to pay more?”
“They have no work.”
“Then let us begin to think about how we can help them to create work.” The discussion moved to ideas about sewing classes, small business development and other things for adults and young people as an extension of the school program. This is true development. Moving beyond the hand-out that is needed today, to address the underlying causes of poverty and begin to find solutions. Of course, there are deeper problems that have to be worked on as well.
We drove out of Karak and headed for Petra, two hundred kilometres to the South were Father Khalil wanted us to have an afternoon’s “holiday.” En route we stopped by a family from his parish simply to meet some people in their home. A family of five, renting three rooms in part of house on the outskirts of town. The father was a painter, but work was hard to find. His wife was gracious and friendly, and the four children full of life and energy. We stopped only a brief time and moved on.
“On” took us out into the desert for two hours of driving. It was a mild sunny day, ideal for desert driving and, if the rain held off, for walking through Petra. The fabled land of Petra, mentioned in the Bible under a different name is a city sculptured out of rock. It existed as a community from around 2BC until the 7th century after Christ. Then it disappeared from the sight of most of the world, although perhaps some Bedouin nomads knew about its existence. Until last century when an Austrian explorer stumbled upon it. The empire ruled by Petra had extended far to the north, as far as Damascus in present-day Syria. After Christ, the city became predominantly Christian and the Bishop of Petra is mentioned in some historical writings.
The desert drive reminded me a lot of the area in Australia between Broken Hill and the North Flinders Ranges. Dry, rocky, sandy, with low hills, vast distant horizons, and a big sky. The road was wide and generally of a high standard allowing the Peugeot to cruise at an almost legal 110 km/h. A constant breeze around my head kept me cool and blew my hair (what little remains) across my forehead. I thought someone else’s window was open but never bothered to check.
I found myself humming an ironic hymn. “There is a Green Hill Far Away, Without A City Wall.” Ironic, because Calvary would not have been a green hill except perhaps for a few short weeks in Spring when the desert blooms. Ironic, too, because I was journeying through an unrelenting landscape that almost completely lacked green.
We stopped for a comfort break at a nondescript concrete block building standing alone beside miles of highway. Inside it was an oasis complete with fountain, restaurant, rest rooms, souvenir shops and lounge chairs for people to sit in and smoke tobacco through hookahs, those hubbly-bubbly contraptions like large elaborate glass bottle towers with a snake like sucking tube attached.
Eventually we arrived at the fast growing metropolis beside Petra feeling hungry for lunch. Sandwiches seemed the order of the day as we were anxious to spend as much time in Petra itself. There seemed to be plenty of options as the town has exploded since the Peace Process with more than two million tourists coming here every year, mostly from Israel. However, when we enquired at one place we discovered they were short-staffed owing to the holiday and not able to put a sandwich together for us. Winding our way down the steep hill sides we looked out across to a series of low steep rocky hills below the general level of the surrounding plain. These were the walls of Petra. As we got closer we spotted a hotel with the name “Mövenpick.” Since this is the name of a restaurant chain in Europe, we thought we might be able to get a quick lunch there. We were right, but only accidentally. This Mövenpick is a brand new hotel built in the style of the Middle East out of huge stone blocks. Under a circular portico a fountain played beside the place to drop guests from their cars. Inside the whisper quiet sliding doors was a small lobby decorated with dark wood screens and a very large copper chandelier. This seemed impressive enough until we walked through into the atrium which rose four storeys on each side. The guest rooms looked into this public space through windows decorated with ornate wooden screens and balconies. The room was furnished in truly grand style with large leather lounges and sturdy wooden framed chairs inlaid with mother of pearl in delicate patterns. Hanging over all like an ancient Battlestar Galactica was a giant burnished copper chandelier on a huge chain. It hung from an ornate wood-panelled ceiling surrounding a skylight that illuminated the whole room with natural light. We gasped at the grandeur and ostentation reminiscent more of a King’s castle than a hotel.
To our right was a dining room of breathtaking beauty. Every table and chair was elaborately carved and inlaid with pearl. And there were thirty or more tables. The walls appeared to covered in pressed gold. The room was not open for lunch.
Across the room was the regular cafe. Here a pleasant and comprehensive buffet had been set up and we were all a little dubious whether it would be in our price range but, to my surprise, it was only about USD15 each. Expensive by local standards, but cheap by international ones. So we enjoyed the surroundings of this grand place and wished, not too seriously, that we were rich dilettantes for longer than it took to eat lunch.
Soon we were walking again. It was sunny and I needed head covering so a keffiyeh was purchased on my behalf and I was shown how simple it was to fit it. I wore it the rest of the day feeling distinctly rakish. It also proved the most sensible head covering for the weather and I understood and appreciated the logic behind the fashion.
A graded road winds down to the edge of the steep cliffs that provide the natural defences of this ancient rock city. The cliff walls surround the city entirely making entry virtually impossible except for mountain goats, and except for one small entrance. As we walked along Father Khalil pointed out the first graves, holes dug into rocks, some of the rocks cut into huge cubes four metres a side, a few decorated with fake arches and caps.
“They put some of the graves out here to fool intruders,” explained Father Khalil. “People would think it was just a graveyard, not a city.”
The road we were on obviously formed a natural water course. Well, it seemed obvious to me. Unfortunately a few years ago it had not been obvious to others. During one sharp rainstorm a wall of water came rushing down this wide passage. At the bottom, the opening in the rock that led down further into Petra created a funnel which turned a one hundred metre wide stream into a raging torrent less than five metres across. Thirty-five French tourists walking ahead of the stream were swept away and drowned. One survived by clinging to a fig tree four metres up a cliff wall.
The disaster would never have happened when Petra was governed by its ancients. Knowing the danger, perhaps through bitter experience, they had dug a water escape channel that enabled most of the water to by-pass the entrance. Not understanding the purpose of this channel, Jordanian authorities had blocked it. After the disaster the channel was re-opened and a new barrage built across the entrance way to further ensure the problem would never repeat.
Now we walked down through this entrance. Some people went by us on donkey-drawn carts that looked distinctly less comfortable than walking. To my surprise the entrance was not the mere crack in the rocks I anticipated, but a kilometre long canyon that wound awesomely down and down never more than a few metres wide and open to the sky thirty metres or more above. Along each wall of the entrance canyon at hip height were the remains of water channels designed to catch the rainwater off the rock walls like roof gutters and channel it down into the city.
Along the way Father Khalil pointed out the remains of carvings that represented the pre-Christian Gods of Petra, then a large series of carvings that exploited the natural bulges of the rock face to create a caravan of camels accompanying us on our walk down the hill.
After walking for many minutes, Father Khalil came up beside me and said, “One, two ...”
I wondered what on earth he was doing, when I looked up and, through a vertical crack in the canyon ahead I saw the face of a Greek temple with Corinthian columns and smashed statues. It was carved right on the face of the canyon, as high as a four storey building and in amazingly good condition given its 2000 year age. The height of the door, at around four metres, makes the carving look smaller than it is when seen in pictures. We pondered this sight together with the hundreds of others who streamed in and around this entrance courtyard. Then we walked over to the temple and went inside. Petra is all front. It seemed that none of the carvings have any elaborate interiors. This had one large room with three other rooms leading off which served as graves. Many, according to Father Khalil, merely have one small room behind the entrance door for the tomb.
To our left was a long stairway leading up to the top of the canyon and a high place of worship. We went to go that way, but Father Khalil said we would not have time. He had something better to show us in the other direction.
The early view of a narrow canyon with one impressive temple soon unfolded into a valley a kilometre or more across surrounded on all sides with carvings in the rock walls. Each one was a work of art and impressive engineering. We walked for twenty minutes or so and drank in the sights.
Soon we were in the former main street. Much of the paving remained, elsewhere was sand. To our left and right were two huge hills of stones. Many of the stones regularly shaped. “This was where people lived and shopped.” Apparently, the stone carvings were mainly ceremonial in purpose, mostly for burials. The people of Petra had built stone buildings only a couple of which remain standing today. They were apparently better carvers than builders. Four columns still stand in the main street recalling a city gate and one large stone building with a still standing arch about four storeys high stood on the left side of the street. All else was desolation.
A donkey brayed loudly and one of us drily remarked, “Ah, the two o’clock donkey.”
At the bottom of the street a dry stream meandered through a green area with a few trees, including Australian eucalyptus. A hostel had been built a few years back and a museum was open twenty metres up the cliff face. An open air cafe served soft drinks and coffee. We passed it by, carrying our own water, and headed for the “convent” that Father Khalil wanted to show us. We arrived there by way of a long hour’s walk up to the top of the canyon. Every now and then, Father Khalil would say, “It’s only about five minutes.” After five minutes we would look up and see other hikers hundreds of metres further up the trail on ledges that appeared to be still a long climb distant. “Another five minutes,” he would say encouragingly.
After about an hour of one of the world’s most interesting hikes up the canyon walls, we emerged onto the flat summit and there, carved in the rock, was another temple. This one had served as a convent for nuns who looked across the tops of the mountains to the Tomb of Aaron, visible on a peak a kilometre or two distant. Younger people than me were climbing in and out of this temple, it being possible to climb onto its sloping roof by scaling the rocks from the rear. One young couple perched themselves high above the sandy ground on the edge of the circular central roof and sat meditatively (or frozen in fright, I wasn’t sure) for the entire time we rested before the return.
A donkey brayed. We all looked at our watches and someone commented, “That’s the three o’clock donkey, but it’s slow.”
The walk back down was slightly easier than the one coming up and a little faster. The route was dotted with various Bedouin women and children selling soft drinks and souvenirs out of tents. Most had shut up shop by the time we headed back.
As we walked up the main street on the return journey, a donkey brayed loudly. We looked at our watches and automatically burst into common laughter. It was exactly four o’clock.
By the time we finally arrived back at the car we had been walking for four hours and we were tired. Ahead of us lay a two to three hour drive across the desert to Amman. Father Khalil, what a precious companion, shouldered the driving responsibility without complaint, despite a headache, and steadfastly refused Jean’s offers of help. His ability to safely guide the Peugeot seemed altogether undiminished, but I fancied he slept well later.
Later was to be much later, because we had a dinner engagement yet in Amman with Rev Yousef Hashweh, of the Christian and Missionary Alliance church. We had a little difficulty finding his home and finally arrived after 9pm with he and his family politely waiting for us before starting dinner. This proved to be a banquet of Jordanian delicacies which we enjoyed around the kitchen table with the whole family, save for their 12 year old son who seemed delighted to sit in the next room watching TV.
Rev Hashweh talked about the remarkable impact of the church in ministry with Iraqi refugees. Over the past few years they had helped 50,000 or more Iraqi refugee families. Amman has become a transition point for such people. They come to Amman, usually former middle class or even wealthy families, who have lost everything in the battle to survive in sanction-constricted Iraq. And here they wait for the visas to another place, most commonly to Australia.
“I wonder why Australia allows them in,” I said, feeling this to be out of character of a country which seems more determined than ever to base immigration on pragmatic reasons.
Jean speculated it might be mere humanitarian concern, but even knowing the kind-hearted Minister for Immigration, Philip Ruddock, I found this hard to believe.
“They have many skills, these people,” said Rev Hashweh, providing the rationale. If you can demonstrate an economic earning capacity, you’re points ahead in any immigration test.
The conversation was free and the food generous, but we were tired after our long day and soon we excused ourselves and went to our rooms in the not-too-many-stars Commodore Hotel. Jean argued with the porter about the price of tomorrow’s taxi and finally got the price he wanted by negotiating directly with the taxi driver, thus cutting out the 50% surcharge for the middle man.
Wednesday, 5th November 1997
Wednesday morning we woke at five to head for the airport and our flight to Beirut. At the terminal we bumped into the Lebanese embassy First Secretary putting his wife on the flight. After greetings, we parted and Jean commented, “Isn’t it amazing, I was apologising that we had no time to visit him on our brief time in Amman, and here he is at the airport!”
In Beirut we took Jean’s car and he drove me to the hotel. The traffic in Beirut was as unbelievably dense as I remembered it from five years before, but little else of the city was recognisable. There had been so much reconstruction that little of the bomb damage remained. Once there were whole streets of ruined and collapsed buildings. The majority appeared to have been removed or repaired. If I hadn’t known it, I would have believed this was not Beirut. Not as I remembered it anyway.
At Noon I went up to the office and spent the next three hours with the staff talking and sharing about World Vision, their work, challenges and our vision for ministry. It was a rich time for me, and I hope useful for them.
At three we left and headed to inspect the conference centre that Jean had proposed we use for our regional conference next February (‘98). “Seidet el Jabal—The Lady of the Mountain” Conference Centre is run by an order of nuns who live in an attached convent. The facility itself is world class with excellent accommodation and facilities for a conference. It was clear it was a good choice. Jean is ever reliable in such things using his former experience as an executive in the hotel industry to good effect.
Our evening meal was to be with two archbishops of the Syrian Orthodox Church with whom World Vision has worked. Archbishop Gregorius Yohanna Ibrahim from Aleppo in Syria and Archbishop Theophilus George Saliba, the Syrian Orthodox Archbishop of Mount Lebanon. But that was not until 8 pm and it was still only 5, although beginning to get dark. Jean’s plan had been to take me to see a castle from Crusader times as one of the places we might take regional conference delegates for a recreation activity. But now such a visit seemed pointless with an hour in the traffic and no light to see by when we arrived. Suddenly, as we passed by a large university-style building, he said, “Why don’t we visit with Mother Superior, Chidiac, who is coming to our conference in December in Germany. She is right here!” He swung the wheel around and we drove into an impressive complex of buildings that looked like a cross between a hospital and a school. This it was. The Institution Monseigneur Cortbawi, a university-accredited physiotherapy training and practice centre run by Mother Louise Marie Chidiac.
After we met and enjoyed some coffee together I discussed the upcoming conference in Germany and my hopes for the program and the role of participants. Then another sister entered and Jean greeted her as if she were his mother. For this she was! Jean grew up as an orphan in Beirut and he had been cared for by this same order of nuns. A number of those young Sisters continued to faithfully follow their vows in this new institution.
They invited us to watch a video with an English soundtrack that described the founder of the institution they now led and worked in. It was a very moving tribute to Father Antoine Cortbawi who had built a massive and effective institution in the three decades after the Second World War and then saw it completely destroyed in the early stages of the civil war. Undeterred and apparently without disappointment he set about to rebuild in temporary accommodation. He died of a heart attack in 1979 and the “temporary accommodation” became the institution’s home for almost twenty years. Then, with the peace, came the fulfilment of the priest’s legacy faithfully carried out by the order of nuns who had committed themselves to extending his ministry. Today a new facility stands testament to his memory and work on a piece of land now worth millions, that the priest had the foresight to purchase when it was virtually wasteland.
I left the institution with a full heart of gratitude for having been introduced through video to one of Lebanon’s modern saints and to have met a few of those who keep his ministry alive.
It was still early for dinner but we went to the restaurant chosen by the bishops to wait and discuss affairs of World Vision. Renee, Jean’s vivacious wife, joined us, adding extra colour and life to our party. Jean asked me to sign his expense report and then presented it to me written entirely in Arabic. They both laughed loudly at my dilemma. I was ready to sign it in trust for Jean, but he revealed his joke by presenting an English version. We recalled a rather bad skit that he had been involved in at a conference in the Philippines where he played out this joke. In the comedy routine, colleagues quizzed him on his “amazing ability to get his expenses approved without question” and he revealed his technique of submitting them in Arabic! It was all a joke, of course. Fortunately, in real life there is no deceit about the man.
Soon enough the Archbishops arrived. Middle Eastern church leaders always look splendid. The Syrian Orthodox regalia is, as usual, basic black but decorated with symbols of office and a fine cowl of silvery stars on black material framing their faces. These princes of the church received royal attention by the restaurant staff. Indeed, this reverence for religious leaders is common-place in the Middle East. And it is fair to say that in most cases it is deserved. Certainly our company this night were typical of many Christians who dedicate their entire lives to living out, in its many manifestations, the living reality of Christian faith. Archbishop Gregorius had driven down specially from Aleppo to visit with me and I appreciated his efforts, since the most I had done to deserve it was to drive across one Vienna district to spend time with him in the company of a friend, Rev Dr Ian Allsop from Australia. World Vision is involved in a school in his community in Aleppo and we both looked forward to a time in the near future when I find my way to his place.
Archbishop George is the first gourmet Archbishop I have met. He organised the meal with generous and knowledgeable zest, issuing careful instructions to affectionate waiters. Someone once said that all a man could ask for is “the love of his wife, the tolerance of his children and the affection of waiters.” For this Syrian Orthodox Archbishop he clearly had the latter. We enjoyed a Lebanese banquet. Flavours of pickles, garlic, masses of tabouli, dollops of hommos, two kinds of delicious flat breads that evoked redolence of my youth when from the age of five to fifteen I lived beside Lebanese neighbours in Sydney. Many kinds of meat with complimentary sauces. So many plates on a table for five that they piled on top of one another.
Once upon a time the Protestant ethic within me would have labelled this as excess. Such is the guilt with which so many Protestant grow up. Today, while maintaining some anxiety about waste and excess, I have learned to respect, appreciate and even celebrate the value of generosity that motivates such events. These two Christian brothers wanted to give me something that was within their power to give. It was a pleasure for them to give it. And it was a pleasure to receive it.
Of course, it was not all play. There was lots of talk about the State of the Nation, both religious and secular.
“It is worse in Lebanon now than during the war,” said Archbishop George with deliberate tendentiousness. I had heard this from the staff earlier, and was to hear it again the next day from the leader of the Evangelical Church. “During the war we had no security, but people could earn money here and there and it was worth something. Now prices are higher. Wages are lower. The currency is so weak. Many jobs are taken by people from outside of Lebanon. And now we have a government, so we have huge taxes.”
We also talked about the Government’s recent surprise decree to eliminate all import tax exemptions. As a result of this overnight change in regulation, World Vision had cancelled three container loads of donated goods that were intended for the poor. We did not have the money to pay the duty and no donors could be found in the originating countries.
“OK. They wanted to stop people exploiting the system,” said Archbishop George. “We agree with this. But it has hurt a lot of poor people too.”
The Archbishop had spoken up to the President of the nation urging him to review the regulation. They refused to consider it at all.
I said later to Jean that, in my experience, politicians are rarely moved to action by humanitarian concerns unless there is an accompanying community backlash that shows significant support for a change of plan. However, they might respond to political or economic arguments. I argued that such actions do not appear consistent with a government that wants to encourage overseas business interests. The government must demonstrate that the economic jurisdiction can be relied upon, otherwise Lebanon becomes a bad business partner. Sudden changes to regulations which upset peoples business plans are death to investment. Lebanon will look foolish in the eyes of the world for this severe and bullying approach to the problem of tax evasion. It needs to react with more sophistication, more worthy of a government that wants to portray Lebanon as a good place to do business.
Around ten o’clock Jean and Renee drove me back to my hotel not far from the office and after a short time writing this diary, I retired to sleep.
Thursday, 6 November 1997
The alarm woke me at seven and I staggered into the bathroom and nearly knocked myself unconscious. The room was a kind of suite in a brand new and elegant hotel. As usual, Jean had negotiated a room rate at about one-quarter of the normal tourist asking price and then the management had topped it off by telling me I was being upgraded. I appreciated the careful design of the room. One thing that is often in short supply is power outlets. This room had about a dozen including one on each side of the bed in the headboard. I appreciated this sort of thoughtfulness for the modern computer-carrying executive.
What I appreciated a little less was the design of the bathroom. The roof line sloped in over the bath. Once before, in Brussels, I had been in a room with a bath like this. On that occasion too I had stepped into the bath for my shower and cracked my skull on the low roof. I staggered for a moment and my head cleared as I sat on the bath edge making a note to add this to my list of things-to-check-for-when-checking-in. I always look for fire exits as soon as I arrive in a hotel. Now I shall check out the bath head room before I awake too groggy to pay attention.
I was soon in full charge of my faculties again without apparent ill effects and set about dealing with the usual daily avalanche of emails which, in Lebanon, but not yet in Jordan, I could receive via my digital mobile phone connected to the laptop. At 8:30 I wondered where my breakfast was and decided to check whether the staff had picked up my breakfast menu from the door handle. No. Well, that accounts for why it hasn’t arrived yet. I rang room service and they were prompt in remedying the error. The staff were very pleasant, but I was getting the impression that there might be some gaps in training and management. Jean politely took these issues up later with the management. One would think that a good hotel would appreciate this sort of feedback. I’ve always said that your best customers are the ones who complain. Sometimes it is difficult to be on the receiving end of complaints, but this kind of feedback always results in ways one can improve the business. It is as true in development work as in the hotel business.
Jean and I discussed some issue relating to the regional conference then I checked out and we drove along the ridge line to the north of Beirut. This is one of the great scenic drives of the world, comparable with the drive up to the Peak in Hong Kong, though considerably longer and more varied. After 15 minutes or so we were descending again and joining the crowded, and mostly stopped, coast road.
In “five more minutes” we arrived at the gates of an Evangelical School for Boys and Girls. Here was the office of Rev Dr Salim Sahiouny, the President of the Supreme Council of the Evangelical Community in Syria and Lebanon. We were late but Dr Sahiouny was gracious and we were soon enjoying coffee and conversation. I was impressed with the style of the office. While not elaborate it had a definite Presidential feel about it that seemed at first incongruous for an Evangelical church leader who, elsewhere in the world, tend to minimise the trappings of religious office. Then as we talked I realised how important it is for this smaller section of the Christian community to fit into the patterns of Lebanese religious life. Dr Sahiouny is an “Archbishop” as far as government protocol is concerned. He deserves to be seen as one.
Again the conversation turned to the State of the nation, religious and secular. On taxes, Dr Sahiouny added the observation that while they hit common people a lot, “many big companies and rich people seem to find a way around them.” Ah, ‘twas ever thus. And not only in Lebanon.
Our meeting was necessarily brief and soon we were back into the mountains again, climbing at first then descending among trees and greenery to visit a limestone cave which Jean was suggesting as a second recreational visit for the upcoming conference.
Here Jean left me to make the visit myself. A cable car took me up a narrow valley for two minutes and deposited me outside the “Upper Grotto.” After depositing my camera in the storage lockers provided so that I would be prevented from violating the no-photos rule, I walked down into the cave through a long well-lit tunnel in which piped music and nature sounds prepared me for the visit. I noticed there were “no-touching” signs alongside the “no-photos” signs, but I did not observe any storage lockers for hands.
Inside the Upper Grotto was a stunningly beautiful limestone cave. I have seen such caves in Australia and France, but this one takes the cake. It is a huge cave in two or three increasingly spectacular sections. A wide concrete path winds through it, first at ground level, then winding higher and higher. The lighting effects are wonderfully executed and the variety of naturally sculpted formations is breathtaking. From one point I looked down a deep hole and spied a lake of water below through gaps in the cavern. A few minutes later, after exiting the Upper Grotto and boarding a trolley bus made to look like a small train, I was in a boat in the Lower Cavern.
Here again the careful thought given to presentation was evident. We started in a small cave with a low roof that arched across the water barely a metre high. Our boat slid silently under this dripping arch and suddenly we were in a cathedral of limestone formations and superb lighting. The boat trip would have been less than five minutes and there appeared to be a further section of the cave to explore, but perhaps the boats couldn’t go that far.
No doubt this is a sight worth seeing from anywhere in the world and we agreed to include it in the conference agenda as a break from the serious stuff.
Time was now tight before my afternoon flight back to Vienna so Jean called Rev Sami Dagher to suggest we meet at his office and eat sandwiches rather than go to a restaurant for lunch. Sami readily agreed, since a restaurant lunch added two hours to the day in travel time. We arrived at Sami’s office at the same time as our lunch. As I was beginning to get used to, there was much more food than we could eat. And all of it good. I’d mentioned Falafel from Down Under experience and this had been duly procured as well. It was delicious, but one Falafel is a whole meal for me. We had lots else besides.
Sami showed me his church and told me the story of its founding and growth. Every year they had to expand the sanctuary until they could so no longer. So they started satellite churches. The fourth one would begin in Sidon within a week or two.
Sami echoed earlier comments about the difficult state of the economy and also talked about his work in Baghdad. “Is there a social price to be paid in Iraq for being a Christian?” I asked.
“You know, it is easier to worship as a Christian in Iraq now than in any other Middle Eastern country,” Sami replied. No, I had to admit I did not know that.
“Really? How come.”
“Saddam Hussein is not stupid. He wants to avoid creating opposition at home, so he is reaching out to minority groups. The Presbyterian Church in Baghdad can hold 800 people. And hundreds come. The organ they use was personally donated by Saddam Hussein!”
This was an interesting and important answer, but not to the question I had asked, so I rephrased it.
“In Jordan they told me that while it is hard for any person to get a job given the state of the economy, it is even harder for Christians. Is that so in Iraq?”
“Oh yes,” replied Sami. “Very difficult. And sometimes it is worse. One family I have living right here in Beirut used to run a shop in Baghdad. Gangs came along and told them they had give everything in the shop to them. They could do nothing except comply. What could they do? They were a minority as Christian shop keepers. The authorities would not take too much trouble to help minority groups. They decided it was too hard for them to stay. They came here.”
Lunch and a tour of the church over, Jean drove me to the airport and the routine flight home on Austrian Airlines.