Letter from Beirut, by Zohreh Sullivan

By Zohreh Sullivan

I arrived in Beirut, walked out of the Rafik Hariri International airport to find my longtime friend, the novelist and activist Evelyne Accad waiting for me. Because she’d recently suffered a near-fatal accident, she picked me up in a car driven by her close friend and former student Jihad. We drove through green hills towards his home in the Shiaa district, the Dahieh where I would meet his wife and five children. When we passed stops guarded by the Lebanese army, Jihad greeted them with what seemed like a code/ recognized greeting “Vataan” (nation). They smiled and let us pass. Jihad, an intense talker, was passionate about Lebanese politics and angry at the state of the Middle East. His reading of the current Great Game was that the US, Saudi Arabia, and Israel have colluded in a strategy of “crash, split, divide,” assassinating leaders and destabilizing any regime in any country that appears strong—all aimed at strengthening and centering Israel as the lead player in the area. This naturally explains, he said, the creation of ISIS out of deliberate negligence, dismemberment, and loss of army and structure in Iraq. The area around his house had guards, mosques, shops, and a Hezbollah guarded enclosed cemetery for recent Lebanese martyrs. This cemetery was also near Sabra and Shatilla, the site of the 1982 massacres in the Palestinian refugee camps.

From his home in the south we drove north-west to the Christian quarters—Achrafieh—to the apartment Evelyne shares with her active and feisty 93 yr old aunt Maliki and her live-in Ethiopian maid Hanna. One day Evelyne, tante, Hanna and I drove past villages filled with recent arrivals of Syrian and Iraqi refugees to Evelyne’s family mountain homes, now restored after heavy occupation and damage during the civil war. Our driver, a family friend, Adam, was an evangelical revivalist who lectured us on the world’s 2000 year cycle that was about to come to an end, on the beginning of a new world with the second coming, and on the United States as the world’s most blessed land. Why I asked? Because it’s the only land that allows freedom to evangelists. Europe, he lamented, had not one single Christian radio station—the US blessedly has 3500. How can we support a hateful leader like Obama who was the creation of a secret society that encouraged such abominations as abortion and same sex marriage? When I asked how he reconciled such unchristian hatred with Christ’s doctrine to “love thy neighbor,” he continued to quote the Bible on “abominations.”

Evelyne was born in the mixed neighborhood of Hamra into a stern evangelical family and a patriarchal father who was a minister in the Church of God. When we drove to Jeanne d’Arc street, she showed me the house where she was born and raised. A house made famous in life and art ( The Excised), a house where, to return her to Christ and to permanent separation from her Palestinian lover, her father once nailed the window shutters of her room, each nail “driven into her flesh, her freedom, her hope.” In spite of and because of her deeply conservative, religious family, Evelyne, at the age of 20, fled to the US where she studied in Indiana and then, for thirty years, was a professor in the departments of French and comparative literature at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. But she always returned to Beirut as home—a city made even more beloved by the blood and struggle of war. From her 7th floor apartment in Achrafieh, she pointed out the view from our bedroom windows: “how could I not love and return to this Beirut and the sea before me?” She loves the proximity to her aunt and other family, but is heartsick at the distances that religion has built within and between her family and friends. When her aunt fell ill, the only family that took her into their home and cared for her for a month was her Shiaa friend Jihad/Hasan – who told me that during the month of her illness, not a single one of Evelyne’s Christian family came to visit her in his home.

Like most educated Lebanese and all her family and friends, Evelyne speaks Arabic, French and English. Because she was educated in French schools – the effect of the 25 year French Mandate over Lebanon after WW1— her fiction and non-fiction written in French, has been translated into English and Arabic. Evelyne’s sister and brothers followed the hopes and expectations of their father by belonging to the evangelical Church of God, a calling rejected by Evelyne. Both her brothers became ministers, and the eldest brother Lucien was, like his father, the director of the Bible Society in Lebanon. The irony of Evelyne’s relation with her father was that, in spite of her rebellion ( recorded in her first novel) in old age before his death, he chose Evelyne over his other more submissive children to be the executer of his estate and director of Bridges of Peace International. This organization founded through the vision of her parents, Fouad and Suzanne Accad, is designed to build bridges “between religious groups around the world.” When her sister had, in trepidation, showed their father her angry descriptions of their toxic confrontations in her first novel, Evelyne expected further rejection. Instead, he read the book and apologized for his behavior: “I should have realized how sensitive you were and not treated you as I did,” he said, finally accepting their difference.

To fulfill the expectations of her father’s legacy, Evelyne and her sister Jacqueline have established Beit al Hannane (Home of Tenderness), a shelter for abused women. It works towards sheltering and nurturing women into mental and physical rehabilitation, and re-entry into society. They also oversee another other center, Spring of Life, founded by her niece Cecile and her husband Saiid. This center founded in the Nabaa district of Beirut was designed to feed, educate, and shelter around 100 “at risk children.” But the severity of the refugee crisis has compelled them, these days, to feed up to 800 children a day. Evelyne’s brother Lucien had rescued the young Saiid when he found him some 20 years ago, a street fighter and part of the Christian militia, during the civil war. Lucien would say that Saiid’s transformation was the work of Christ. Recently, when Saiid was on the Syrian border, he found and rescued five siblings between the ages of 7 and 15 whose parents had been killed in the Syrian war. With no other available refuge, Saiid brought the children into their home where they already had 4 children of their own. One of the Syrian children tried, by leaping off a balcony and then cutting himself, to commit suicide.

As we walked through the fashionable cobble stone streets of Hamra and Gemmayze with their art houses, elegant boutiques, cafes, and restaurants towards Martyr’s Square and the Rafiq Hariri mosque where he is buried we saw bullet-holed and bombed remnants of the war. Only the universities—the AUB and the LAU—seemed physically unscarred. The presence of the more ancient past was made vivid by remnants of Beirut’s 5000 year old history — archeological digs in the city center that uncover Canaanite, Phoenician and Roman canals and cities. And the braiding of the past into the present was geographically illustrated by the location of the National Museum of Beirut on what had once been the infamous Green Line of the civil war. I recalled high school and college friends in Pakistan telling of the vibrant “Paris of the middle east”—the beautiful city situated between the cedars, the mountains, and the sea. But I had also read about the city through its novelists, even written about the seaside city that once killed itself through its 15 year civil war (1975- 90), that “ City the center of all prostitutions, ” (Etel Adnan), the city that “burst open …its guts spilling out” (Elias Khoury) transformed and dismembered. I knew it was a much divided city split, not only by the Green Line, not only by its nine major religious groups and seventeen ethnic communities, but by more current divisions between proxy wars and mysterious alignments with and between Syria, the Hezbollah, the Saudis, Israel, Iran, and the U.S. This place, this Beirut, was a space that memory had made poetic even as it was bloodied by time and history.

A week after I returned to Champaign-Urbana, Evelyne arrived to give her usual round of class lectures in Chicago and other talks at local Churches to raise support for their family organization Bridges of Peace. She sent me a link to a documentary she showed on Syrian refugees. I did not like it and told her that although the idea was potentially ok, I was disturbed and offended by the unnecessary demonizing of Islam and privileging of Christianity in the voice of one of the Syrian Muslims who says “I used to persecute Christians” before finding the love of Christ. Surely this is not part of the dream of her father who wanted his “bridges” to bring reconciliation, not division. “Yes,” Evelyne said, “There you have it — the divisions that made me flee Lebanon and my father’s evangelism. But now I’m divided even more between my skepticism of religion, my disapproval of evangelical Christianity, and my acceptance of the good work done in the name of that religion.” Could I, as a symbolic non-acting figure on the board of advisors of her organization, continue to be implicated in their un-Christian vision of “bridges?”

On November 8, Evelyne watched the election in my house. One of her evangelical brothers, a U.S. citizen, and Trump supporter, offended at the anti-Trump links she sent him on Face book, scolded and then un-friended her. Her sister’s skype call from Beirut advised Evelyne to pray because God and Jesus were sure to be there with certain help. And we sat and watched a man who promised to admit and deport people on the basis of their religion become the President-Elect of a country dissolving into irreconcilable beliefs. I had seen in Evelyne, in her family, in Beirut and Lebanon —even as I see back home in the U.S—how tribal beliefs divide families, build walls and bridges, blow up cities, and upend countries.

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