Monday, February 19, 2007

Flying into Beirut

Not literally, I landed quite safely at the Beirut airport which has undergone much construction since the war of last summer in which it was bombed. Beirut is beautiful, its right on the mediterranean. The city is mostly white houses and buildings overlooking a turquoise and deeper blue sea. We've been lucky to have lovely weather while here, although rain was forecasted it's been mostly sunny and warm during the days. Up in the mountains its chillier and breezier but close to sea level I can even go without a jacket if I'm walking.

The Lebanese should all be fat, they've shown us such hospitality that except for upon arrival I haven't had to buy any food and go to bed pleasantly stuffed each night. There is snow in the tips of the mountains! It is possible to ski in the middle east. We've been told that in April it's possible to ski in the mountains, drive one hour to the sea and then swim! Imagine what a blissful day that would be.

Habib Malik has set up a number of meetings for Anna and myself. The first day I arrived we went to his house for dinner and met with a number of intellectuals and professionals in different fields. I truly believe genius runs in families, his cousins and relatives were the majority of those we met and were all such accomplished and distinguished persons. It was a fruitful meeting with much enthusiasm generated about the future of the WYA in Lebanon, and commitments to help however they could.

Saturday morning we spoke at an inter-faith organisation called CrossTalk. There are classrooms for children from 3 years to adults, where they can meet and discuss the commonalities and differences of their faiths in a positive manner and also participate in cultural activities together. We presented the WYA to a number of the older students and some of the teachers who were all excited for the WYA. A number of them were amazed to learn how many members WYA has, and as one boy stated "I didn't realise there were so many good people in the world, I thought it was mostly evil but now I see it isn't."

Anna and I then spent Saturday afternoon and Sunday touring nearby Lebanon. We visited the Virgin of Lebanon. A statue of Mary, the mother of Jesus, located at the top of a hill near Beirut This statue is quite large and looks out over many cities and can be seen at night for quite a distance illuminated on the hillside. We then walked through downtown Beirut. Many buildings were harmed or destroyed by bombs in the war last summer and the buildings are either under repair or being rebuilt. The downtown is beautiful but almost deserted. We had a spanish photographer take our picture - he was so excited to see tourists! We also met a rather odd journalist, an american girl living in Lebanon, who interviewed us on a home recorder to tell her friends back home that it was safe to travel to Beirut, two other americans alive in Beirut as proof.

We walked through the gallery districts which were empty and were told that the benches in the square could not be sat upon because security was so strict, if someone sat down for a substantial length of time they would be asked to leave by the military or police (who were standing nearby monitoring) since it would look suspicious. We then walked by the government buildings where protesters representative of every political party are camped out in front. The protesters have divided their tents into areas representative of their party. The protesters are separated from the streets and buildings by barbed wire and armed barricades, while we were there however it was quite quiet. A number of young men/boys were playing soccer in the streets just across from their tents. Women covered from head to foot walked past the guards nonchalantly, while others relaxed in their tents watching television. I tried to take a few pictures and learned quickly that it was absolutely fine to take pictures, but just had to warn anyone who might be in the picture first. Some of the protesters are quite important persons in the party, the country, or their religion and object to having their pictures taken. I'm sure there are also enough tourists and journalists always taking pictures that they've had to implement the rules to protect their privacy somewhat.

We left the tents and walked a block down through designer stores and fancy cafes. There were three young boys playing soccer in the streets while the father looked on from a distance. There was a soldier in the center of the square who also joined in the game whenever the ball came close enough for him to participate without leaving his post. It was amazing to see this young soldier, not more than 25 years, playing soccer with three small boys while he carried a massive gun slung across his shoulder. Life goes on even in the midst of war and conflict.

Sunday we visited the tomb of St. Charbel. St. Charbel was a lebanese monk and mystic who lived in the hills and had the stigmata while alive. Many miracles have been attributed to him both while he was alive and after his death and he is highly revered by the Lebanese Christians. I should mention that in this tiny country which takes 2.5 hours to drive from tip to tip without traffic, inhabited by 4 million people, there are 17 official religions. There is no problem here of indifference or disbelief, rather the citizens must work to understand and appreciate their differences. As one member stated today "we have the same problems as the rest of the world, we're just more upfront with them and in a smaller country so we're forced to confront them."

Sunday we were able to visit the city of Byblos, this city is apparently 5,000 years old, has 17 layers from different civilizations and proudly sent off the Phoenicians to enlighten the rest of the world centuries ago. There is some beautiful architecture and scenery in Byblos. There are gardens filled with orange trees, avocado trees, almond trees, olive trees, pecan trees, etc. There is such a beautiful contrast among the orange trees dripping with large balls of sunlight scattered through the greenery, beside the almond trees in full bloom with delicate white petals, beisde the olive trees with their silvery green leaves, a little slice of paradise. The Lebanese say that when the world was created Lebanon was the macquette for the rest of the world since it has everything here - mountains, valleys, beaches, snow - the rest of the world received the fruits of God's experimentation within Lebanon which got expanded to larger expanses in the rest of the world.

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