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.