Encountering Followers of Jesus in Beirut

One day, my roommate Dan and I were touring around American University of Beirut as well as the sea front. When we ventured on the way back to our airbnb house, we passed by a bookstore that had an English sign board. I wanted to visit it earlier but always passed it during night time after it closed. This time it was open, so we entered. The decor was very nice and cozy, with a full cafe. Trendy English Christian music played in the background. All the books were related to Christianity. The store also sold decorations as well as stationary imported from China. A math student named Hasan welcomed us and offered us juice with biscuits from a famous western brand. We were a bit hesitant until he said it was his offer. We have clearly underestimated Lebanese hospitality!

Later we met Hiam, who was the person in charge of the place. She had a bespectacled, learned look and a motherly demeanor. Her English accent was quite versatile. When she knew that we were tourists, she warmly recommended some spots for us to tour. Then we moved to a sitting spot to sit down and chat. We learned through her that it was more of a fellowship for followers of Jesus Christ rather than a for-profit bookstore. They had Bible study meetings thrice a week. They also offered us cake from the famous chain Roadster Diner, which was also sent to them for free by some mysterious person. That person sent the desserts in a very passive aggressive way, as a form of apology for some small misunderstanding. Hiam said, "If you are sending the desserts because you think you made us mad, we are really not mad!" But the person still sent the desserts anyways.

Hiam first asked about our story. She asked how we came to decide to come here, since zlebanon was quite "dangerous." I told her I was interested in understanding the society after hearing about the cartoon incident.  She was especially intrigued by Dan, who was half-Syrian and half-British and could speak phrases in Arabic. He was also studying French and Deutsch, so they conversed in French as well. She praised that some people just have a knack for languages, such as her nephew who learned Mandarin, Turkish and Russian in addition to the regular three. She requested to see a picture of Dan's Syrian mother. But he said his mother didn't have a picture. Hiam exclaimed that his mother is quite extreme on the religious front. Hiam mixed some Arabic phrases in her speech and had a very chic dressing style. She is teaches Arabic as a private teacher for foreigners who live in Beirut.  I learned that she has no kids. I said that it is quite fortunate since she would have fewer problems. She said that problems do not come from children or marriage. Happy people find happiness with or without marriage. But she also frowned down upon divorce when she heard that Dan's parents divorced; she did not cite theological reasons. Rather, she finds that two people who have lived together for a long time would find it very difficult to separate and the general outcome is not a good. Her way of talking about the faith reminded me a lot of the people I had met in the US. 

Other tha Hasan, there were many others also helping around the store. One woman, who I will call Jane, shared with us her conversion story. It seemed that she was already from a Christian family from her name, but Jesus Christ did not have the same role in her life until she was healed from a jaw-lock in the recent years. All her close relatives had died from various reasons and she was the only one. Hiam said that she walked through many dark phases in her life. Hiam said that the beggars who usually said "Bless your parents" or "uncle" in idiomatic Arabic did not have anyone to bless when they encountered Jane. One beggar even offered to give her money instead when they heard about her story. Jane was painting a very nice painting with a cross on it. She later played the piano very well and also played crazy, improvised tunes for the fun of it. Her entire demeanor was very jolly, so it was even more intense when she did not smile and looked intently at Dan throughout the story of meeting Jesus Christ, as if that could push him towards conversion in some way. Jane and Hiam had a very casual and close relationship. Hiam used the phrase "Ma too zghale" to ask Jane for a favor and explained to me that it means "Don't be made small".

Hiam also shared the story of a Lebanese man with a Shi'a name in the store, whom I will call D. D was homeless when an Ethiopian maid found him. He was considering suicide. But the maid told him about Jesus's love and introduced him to Hiam's brother-in-law. Her brother-in-law met up with him every day to study and talk about things unrelated to "the street." Hiam said that his mother tried to kill him, which was the main reason for his mental instability and homelessness. She emphasized how unusual it was in Lebanese society to be homeless, since family ties are really strong. (I was a bit skeptical about this claim but had no way to figure out the truth of it.) Both Dan and I listened but later we both found it odd that she was sharing this story with us without D's consent or involvement. He wore casual western clothes, looked around 26 years old and shyly hung around without doing much work related to the store. According to the story, Hiam considered to take him in, since there was room in her place. But she was a single person living with her mother at the time, and she said that the neighbors would talk if they took in a single male. She said that as a follower of Jesus Christ, she could not let people of Beirut think about her religion in the wrong way: "I can't talk about Jesus and do something against our Culture. people don't think nicely." Since he has found a place, he has been coming to the book shop for the past 6 months.

They closed the shop around 8:30. After unexpectedly spending around two hours there, Dan and I left with the others. Hiam said that we should come by again to volunteer or study, and we said sure. I later visited again to introduce my friend Morgana to the project. They didn't seem like they needed extra hands, so I didn't go as a volunteer. Dan brought his brother the next time he went and they also just talked about Jesus. Still, it was quite eye opening to see how some Christians with the evangelical streak are similar in this vastly different part the world. 


A Visit to the Hizbollah Museum

 I first heard of this museum from a former airbnb roommate. Our host jibed at him for paying 4000LL as well as some souvenir money to Hizbollah, which he despised. The roommate also noted how the guide he met there personally hated Israel, which surprised him a lot. Our host said, they are the worst neighbors. The conversation piqued me interest as well. 

My friend Morgana and I met at the Saifi Institute's Arabic class. She is from Peru and studies a degree related to law and humanitarianism. She is researching on Syrian refugees in Lebanon and was also interested in checking out the place. On July 29th, which was my last Saturday in Lebanon, we decided to visit the South, namely Saida and the town that hosts the famous Hizbollah museum.

We met up at 10AM, close to our institute, took a cab from downtown to the main long-distance bus station for South Lebanon. We only knew the name of where we were supposed to stop, namely a bridge, and relied on the other passengers to notify the moment we should descend.

We were extremely under-prepared and mostly relied on the local people to guide us to the museum. I did little research about the place. We learned mostly on the way, about the surroundings and the relation between the museum and the environs. It is known by many names: The Museum of Resistance, the Mleeta Tourist Landmark, but mostly we used the term "Hizbollah Museum" when asking for directions.

Why did we need to ask for so many directions? It was because the cab driver tried to charge us a lot for the cab fare. He said 2000 LL when in reality he meant 20,000. But by that time we were already 1/3 through the journey. He was praising Peru and China for having very good people and telling us his life story about his years in Australia and divorcing a Turkish wife back there. Then he asked if he wanted him to wait for us to drive us on the way back down. Morgana said that she would probably need 90 minutes in the museum. The driver said that 1 hour is sufficient. Then he said it would cost 40,000 LL both ways. We were shocked and decided to give him 8000 and leave the cab on the road. 
After leaving the cab, we asked a truck driver Hassan how to get up to the Hizbollah museum. He chuckled and wrote down the town name for us on the Manaoosh (Lebanese pizza) paper wrap, in case we had to ask someone else. Then he said with good humor that it would take us 1 hour to reach there by walking. We said thanks and kept on walking. A few minutes later, he drove to us with his truck and his assistant hanging on the back of the truck, telling us to get on and offering to take us to the next bus stop. We catched up to a bus and we were tailing it. Hassan tried to stop it from his position by honking.  It took the bus around 5 minutes to stop and we finally got the bus driver's attention. We took a bus up a few more steps, but then it dropped us off and took another turn to some other town. The driver was considerate enough not to charge us the fare, since we did not reach our destination. The bus route reflects that the people in the area do not visit this museum. After the bus dropped us off, I took a small detour to check out the scenic town. It reminded us of Bcharre, which was north of Beirut and the hometown of writer Khalil Gibran. We bought water there and washed some peaches. Someone offered us drinks inside but we decided to press on.

We stubbornly walked the last 4 km uphill... We later learned that it's far up because the Hizbollah fighters were fighting for it against the Israelis who occupied it during the war. 

The up side was that we had a full view of the scene as well as unique positions for the cool stuff on the way, such as these flags being placed side by side. But I definitely would not do it again. Morgana was also exclaiming: No wonder the driver wanted to charge 20,000LL!

Seeing the museum from afar

"Who comes to this museum?? Definitely only people with cars!" I complained...

We saw something protruding from the museum area for quite a while, and it was our point of reference for hiking upwards. It looked like a tank, but we found out later that it wasn't--it was a lookout point that was never detected by the Israelis during the late 1980s until Hizbollah decided to unveil it. Sometimes it was no longer in sight. When we finally made it up there, we were exhausted. We paid for our tickets at the door. The person said we should find someone with the museum logo on his shirt for an explanation of the museum layout. We found one who was tall, in his middle-age years and wore a cap and shades. He introduced the place with great confidence and experience. He said we can come back to him for any further questions. 

I did not have very high expectations even though we traversed a long distance to reach the place. I was expecting a dingy dark building, like the Stasi museum in Leipzig. But museum was very informative and well-researched.

What surprised me most was that the design of the metaphors was very well thought out. The Israelis are represented by the deserted objects. "Attractive landscaping surrounds 'The Abyss,' full of booty apparently left behind in southern Lebanon after Israel's withdrawal in 2000, and after the 33-day July War in 2006." In addition to the political context, the scenery was also very nice. It seemed that many Lebanese tourists come for the view as well as for the educational value. I also was really surprised when we toured the well-equipped, "180-m tunnel leading to an operations bunker." A soldier was standing on guard at the entrance. But I later read that their presence in the museum had lessened since it first opened.

First time seeing spy equipment

Here is a description of the history reproduced by The Velvet Rocket post about the museum:
On April 3rd, 1985, the Israeli army retreated from Mount Lebanon and the villages and cities of the southern coast to an area that extends from Haasbayah and Mount Sheikh in the east, to Naqoura coastal town in the west, planting hilltops and mountaintops with dozens of fortified outposts and barracks. Soon afterwards, the resistance militants followed the enemy to its bases, to initiate the “war of bases”. From 1985 and over a period of 15 years, the resistance took Mleeta and other mountains and valleys as their strongholds, in defiance of the enemy.
So in that sense, Hizbollah is truly modern: it engaged in a war or multiple wars, in which many pauses and confusion happened in between. The result is that the history is difficult to write. 

These objects from Israeli soldiers containing Hebrew text remind me of how disconnected the two countries Lebanon and Israel are even though they are right next door. Many ancient Mediterranean trade connections were severed since the rise of the nation state.

Morgana reminisced about the time when she and her classmates were trained to be "kidnapped" in Poland for the purpose of becoming bona fide humanitarian workers. I was shocked that they had to go through that process. Later we discussed the Syrian War when we finished touring the bunker. She had the opinion that peace should be achieved in an ideal situation and only then can the Syrian society start to rebuild. I said that even in times of so-called peace, there is hegemony and oppression. I gave her the example of Gandhi and the Congress movement: even though it achieved independence for India through a peaceful movement, it also allowed for upper castes to maintain hegemony for decades. I also said that party politics happens even during times of war, i.e. how Mao built the Chinese Communist Party even when it was engaged in civil war with the Kuomintang. Similarly, FARC was trying to do that in Columbia, although with less success. Although we could have had this discussion elsewhere, we were rather exhausted to keep moving.

Later we had a very interesting political discussion with the tour guide who initially introduced us to the place. He knew about our Arabic program and said many other students from the program have visited before. Morgana asked him about the relationship between Lebanon and Palestine. He gave us a concise history: The Arab league funded the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) to fight Israel. Israel did not like it and bombed Lebanon; it reached Beirut in 6 days. Then all sides fought. The PLO left Lebanon and went to Iraq and other Arab countries. But the Palestinian refugees stayed. But Israel continued to use Palestine as a reason for interfering in Lebanon. The Israelis still influenced Lebanese politics through the Phalangist party. They manipulated the politics which resulted in the election of a PM who was from that party. Speaking of the present, he said, "Some Palestinians are involved with ISIS. This is no secret." Then Morgana asked him about Syrian refugees. He said without blinking an eye, "We don't have anything to do with Syrian refugees. We are just observing them for any activity. Any conflict is between the state and the refugees." I was surprised by the shrewd reaction from him. During that week, Hizbollah was conducting military campaign against SIS in the Lebanese town Arsal that borders Syria. They claimed that there are many ISIS militants hiding in the refugee camps. At the same time, Hizbollah also burned down areas of the camps illegally and Syrian men have died in military custody. (See this article for more details about the anti-refugee violence in Arsal.) He later was pretty nervous and decidedly changed the topic to our background and the usual meet-a-tourist talk (e.g. how China is a great country).

Morgana and I didn't really have a way to go back down. We asked a bus driver Moustafa up in the parking lot on the mountains if we could take a lift down to a town. Even though he was on duty waiting for other people, he still took us down to an intersection. On the way down he asked in Arabic about our situation and our future plans. We communicated haltingly. He chided us that we have been here for a month while learning Arabic and we still only know "shway shway!" (Meaning: a little bit) In my defense we were living in Beirut, where people spoke English very well. He left us his number in case we had any problems. Then we waited on the road for a while, until a service taxi took us to the point where we could get another service taxi. We then proceeded to tour the ancient port city Saida, which deserves another post. 

Overall, although the museum is a semblance of violence, it is not entirely a celebration of it. It shows the labor and the efforts of war in a sobering manner. There is room for reflection and contemplation for the visitors. One can disagree with Hizbollah's party politics, such as its slow disarmament process and condemn its support of the Syrian Asad regime, but at the same time it is also important to value the cultural memory of the resistance in terms of actual people with families and ties to the area. Politics often hides more violence, while this museum looks at violence and death as a necessity for survival, however grim that survival is.

For more information about this controversial museum, this is a good article: 

Hezbollah museum: Shrine to resistance or a dying image?


Identities in Beirut: Who is an Arab?

Overlooking the street in Hamra from the balcony of where I lived
During my one-month stay in Beirut, I mostly walked and took the bus to the Arabic language institute Saifi in the area called Gemmayze. I lived in Hamra, which is towards the west side of the city. Although they are only three miles apart, they are vastly different. Gemmayze is an art district frequented by hipsters and fashionably-dressed tourists at day and party-goers at night. While Hamra is also known for its party-goers and tourists, the European / white Americans are less conspicuous. More locals patronize Hamra, which has also been known for its historical cafe culture. More pan-handlers are also visible in Hamra. It is also much more hustling and bustling throughout the day and night. In between these two areas, I would cross by heavily guarded Christian churches, poorer Shi'i neighborhoods, as well as the heavily gentrified / reconstructed Downtown area. 
Houses of a poor Shi'i neighborhood

Through traveling from the West to the East side of Beirut almost every day, I picked up many markers of gender, class, and sects in the urban spaces. While the class differences and high level of commercialized property in Beirut were more obvious to me, symbols of sects and discourses surrounding identity also came to me through my walks or chance-encounters. This is one of the experiences I have encountered; it is significant not only because the conversation was related to identity, but also because it was one of the few times the interlocutor was extremely vocal in regards to politics. I will write at least two more, featuring a Christian book shop in Hamra and a friend who lives in Dahiya.


On my last day in Beirut, I ordered an Uber car for my trip to the airport. Dani accepted my request and drove up in a rather large car. He could not help me move the luggage from upstairs, since he could not leave the car unattended, but he helped me load it in the car. I was very flustered because I packed most of the things last-minute and was drenched in sweat. I was also worried about the cab fare's payment option, since I was not very familiar with the Uber app. (The last time I used it was in eight months ago.) The east-bound traffic was also terrible. Dani noticed my stress and he was very eager to divert my attention to other things. He offered me water and mints and told me that even if the payment doesn't go through, things will be alright. I noticed that there was a wooden cross hanging at the rear view mirror as soon as I entered the car, and picked up that he was probably a Christian.

He could speak some sentences in English, such as praising the flavor of the mints or informing me the adequate time one should arrive at the airport for an international flight (3 hours, according to him, although later I found out that nobody really does that). I also used some Arabic that I learned over the summer course.  I learned that he is 42 years old and lives about 20 minutes away from Beirut (Either in the town of "Baouchriyeh" or "Bacha"). For more complicated conversations, we relied on the Google translate audio function on his phone, which was surprisingly accurate. Somehow he knew that I was in a very reflective period of my life. He told me in a heart-felt and philosophical manner that happiness is most important thing. "Money is not important. If you have a loving family and a house of your own, you will be happy," showed Google translate. He was curious about my deal in Beirut as well. At one point he asked me if I work for the US government (in a totally calm and natural way). I knew that many Americans in the region probably work for the government, so I said no without thinking too much about it. Then he asked, Why are you studying Arabic? I tried to express my interest in politics and history. He was even ready to settle for the seemingly unsatisfactory answer.  Then I landed on "hab"(which i wanted to use for a special interest in  cultures) but then he understood it as love in general. I also accepted at that point of the difficult conversation that the reason can be explained as for love. I said I have an Iraqi friend. 

"Have you been to Iraq?"

"Not yet. Will go some day."

I said that Beirut does not seem to be a very happy place. He did not disagree outright, but explained it through economic terms. He said that Lebanon has a lot of money. Some people have jobs and money, some people don't have money. Some people work a lot, and have three jobs. 

He complimented US society because it is the dream for a lot of people and is the land of opportunity. I did not know how to explain to him the various issues of race and economic inequality, so I just nodded along. 

Then he started to talk about how the politicians in Lebanon are corrupt. He said that Lebanon is using a multi-denominational system. There is no accountability because of this arrangement. I said that there will be a new constitution next year, so hopefully things will change then. He said that if they apply constitution, Lebanon would be the most beautiful country in the world. (In my opinion, it is already very beautiful, but I thought it is always nice to aspire to more as a public citizen, so I didn't say anything.) He also pointed out later that there is trash littered on the road to the airport and it hurts him to see it as such.

Then the conversation took a surprising turn. He started blaming Arabs. He said that 90 percent of Arabs are bad. I asked, are you not an Arab? He said, I am Phoenician (Fini). I did not need Google translate for this identity marker.  I already knew about the politicization of the ethnic marker Phoenician and it was also featured during a Father-Son dialogue in the film West Beirut. (It was also strangely similar--they started discussing problems of Lebanon and how the Arab world has made it worse, to which the son decidedly distances himself by declaring that he is Phoenician.) The last time I asked this question related to the Arab ethnicity was during the start of my Lebanon trip. A friend of my host, who I will call W, was giving me a concise version of his view of Arab historiography. His politics of Arab nationalism, which included a union of Jordan, Palestine, Syria and Lebanon, stemmed from his view of history. At one point I asked, if everyone is "Arab", then why different languages exist? And are you an Arab? W said that different groups of people decided to adopt the language, and that those who did adopt the language "became" Arab, like he did. The ironic thing was that he was a light-skinned ginger who has emigrated to Italy and often passes as an Italian.

Back to the cab ride. Dani proceeded to say something that astonished me so much I could only laugh: "The Arab was created to sleep." Google translate wrote. I was kind of confused until he clarified with gestures that he meant--Arabs were created to eat and sleep. He explained that Arabs take things for granted: "Thank you China, thank you Japan. Without the west we would only be on horses. No cars, no nothing (Ma fi shi)." I did not say much to that, because it was the first time someone was so honest to me about this issue. Later he helped me exchange my remaining Lebanese pounds to dollars, we arrived at the airport and I shook his hands goodbye. Behind this sentiment is a lot of colonial baggage (akin to intellectual and dissident Liu Xiaobo's statement that China should be colonized for societal progress) and also reveals the trend in which many Lebanese Christians have emigrated abroad. I am still confused how someone like Dani could be so attuned to societal problems and care for its betterment yet still come to simplistic conclusions. It is far too simple to say that Dani is "racist" or pro-Western: at least he has chosen to stay in Lebanon. He could see that religion is not only a practice but also an institution, since he knows that the multidenominational institutions in Lebanon systematically separate the people into groups so that the elites can divide the spoils. These were the same sentiments expressed during the 2015 "You Stink!" protests against the corruption of the Lebanese government. (Read more about the antagonistic relationship between sectarianism and government reform from the chapter "The Architecture of Sectarianization in Lebanon" by Bassel Salloukh in SectarianizationStill, I am hopeful that behind contradictory notions, there is also hope.