Tea with Hezbollah
- Thursday, February 18, 2010
EDITOR'S NOTE: The following is an excerpt from Tea with Hezbollah: Sitting at the Enemies' Table, Our Journey Through the Middle East by Ted Dekker and Carl Medearis.
Into the Lion's Den: A Journey into Madness
THE FIRST CLUE that I had thrown myself into the mouth of madness should have been clear before the Middle East Airlines 767 took off from Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, with hardly a soul aboard besides me, the lowly writer, and Carl Medearis, the fearless trailblazer who sat beside me, trying to look at ease.
Correction. The first clue should have come five days earlier when I received the call that the Hezbollah had just stormed the parliament buildings in Beirut, had declared their own form of martial law, and were killing dissenting party members who'd taken up arms. A full-scale war had broken out in the very city Carl had talked me into visiting on this quest of ours.
Tanks and military vehicles, hundreds of them, were rolling down the streets. Citizens were fleeing. Hezbollah had seized control of the airport and stopped all flights. The American State Department had just issued a travel advisory, essentially prohibiting travel into the region.
I remember the call vividly. I was standing in a small luggage shop in my hometown of Austin, Texas, trying to decide whether the exorbitant price they were suggesting I pay for Tumi bags was worth the extra coin. I could buy a good Samsonite suitcase for a third the price.
It was then my cell phone chirped and I stepped out of the shop, glad for the distraction.
"Have you heard the news?" Carl asked in his ever-nonchalant voice.
"Lebanon's at war."
"The airport is shut down."
"Many are reported killed."
You see, my own use of those words, really and wow and seriously, should have sealed the deal for me. Going to Beirut at a time like this was ill advised. And going to Beirut to have tea with the top leaders of the Hezbollah, of all people, was now just plain absurd.
"What about Saudi Arabia?" I asked with as much bravado as I could muster. I was the apprentice here, playing the role of adventurer-in-training, and it was important that I didn't start squealing like a frightened child.
"Well, this is the Middle East," Carl came back casually. "Samir just evacuated his children on a private plane. He's adamant that we cancel the entire trip."
Samir. One of Carl's many friends in the Middle East, but unique in that Samir knows and is trusted by everyone. A linchpin for this trip, he was responsible for many of our appointments. If he said cancel, clearly we canceled.
My partner wasn't panicking, so I followed his most admirable example. I glanced back through the window where my wife, Lee Ann, was talking to the clerk about the Tumi bags. Naturally we wouldn't be needing either Tumi or Samsonite—the world was coming to an end.
"What about Syria?" I asked.
"Yeah, well, the road from Lebanon into Syria is blockaded with burning tires."
"Seriously?" Again that word. "So our meeting with Assad's government—"
"Is now probably out of the question."
"What about the West Bank? The Hamas?"
"Yeah, crazy, huh? Same with the bin Laden brothers in Saudi Arabia. The whole region could erupt. This is big news."
What does Chris think?" Chris is Carl's Greek goddess, his marriage partner who has given him three children and traveled the world at his side with superhuman grace. That's my take.
"Yeah, she thinks the trip is dangerous."
Now that I think about it, I did take notice of those early clues that traveling through the Middle East to ask "never before asked questions" of Islam's most influential ideologues and America's "enemies" was a misguided mission. In fact, I distinctly remember feeling buckets of sweet, cool relief washing over my body as Carl broke the news.
The trip was off. I felt jovial! I was liberated from the fear that had nagged at me for many months as Carl slowly but surely put together this unprecedented trip.
Honestly, I never really thought he'd pull it off. Without fail, my mention of the trip to publishers or people of influence would garner the same coy smile. "Yeah, good luck with that." Who'd ever heard of such a thing? I mean, it's one thing to sit in a coffee shop in downtown Denver and dream about the ultimate trip to the most dangerous parts of the world, but the list of people whom Carl wanted to meet amounted to a delusional dream. Or a nightmare, depending on your perspective.
Did I say delusional? Add impossible to that. No one from the State Department could get the meetings Carl was going after. In fact, no one but Carl Medearis could land them, but more on that later.
As the months stretched into a year and the appointments began falling into place, I tried to back out a dozen times. Finally, two days before we were scheduled to leave, God Himself had reached down and mercifully rescued me from almost certain death. Not to mention an overpriced luggage purchase.
Being the puppy in tow of the great mastiff, I put on a brave face. "So, what do we do?" I asked.
"Well, we wait and see."
"Wait for what?"
"For things on the ground to change. Could all be fine tomorrow."
I'm here to tell you that nothing was fine tomorrow. I'm still not sure what—besides foolishness—put me on a flight from Denver to Cairo two days later.
And I'm even less sure of what absurd notions could possibly have persuaded me to board the first flight into Beirut four days later, following a week's upheaval that had sent souls far braver than me either running for cover or to their graves.
Yet here I was, cranking open the vent over my head to dry the ribbons of sweat seeping from my forehead, never mind that the cabin was already freezing. Samir Kreidie, the wealthy Muslim businessman in Saudi Arabia who'd helped to set up the trip, was returning to Beirut with us. Indeed, without his help, the trip would have been impossible—many of the muftis and clerics we would meet agreed to do so only because of his unshakable reputation as a powerhouse of reconciliation.
But Samir himself, only days earlier, had insisted the trip was now far too dangerous.
Such is the Middle Eastern mind-set. I suppose when you spend your whole life dodging bullets, the threat of a sniper on the corner doesn't keep you housebound for long. Better to run rather than walk, naturally, but you can't let dissenters with machine guns make you a prisoner in your own house.
On the bright side, Carl, Samir, and I had virtually the whole jet to ourselves. It turns out that the owners of Middle East Airlines know Samir well. We'd canceled our flights from Saudi Arabia to Beirut a few days earlier on my urging, during a time when all three of us possessed our full share of good sense. Rebooking would normally have been impossible at a time like this, but a single call from Samir and we were on. Such is the power of a man who spends the day talking to heads of state on his flip phone.
And business class to boot. Wonderful. The staff was excellent, as was the food. It was certainly better than any service I'd experienced in the United States. The stewardesses all knew Samir—no surprise there.
But the essential facts remained: One, Beirut was a city besieged by the Hezbollah. Two, we were on the first flight in after a week's closure. Three, according to reports, anywhere from dozens to hundreds had been killed in fighting around the city, and the Lebanese army controlled the streets only by lining them with tanks and machine-gun placements.
Four . . . I mean, please. Anything could happen. Anything.
Sometimes I feel like hugging Carl and slapping him on the back. The kind of guy who would befriend a starving grizzly bear, he is loved by all, and I do mean all. Other times I feel more like locking him in the bathroom and making a run for it. Both his love and his bravery are greater than mine.
Sweating bullets at thirty thousand feet and headed into the lion's den better known as Beirut, I was feeling the bathroom might be a good idea. But I had nowhere to run. I was committed.
No longer interested in stewing in my own fears, I turned to Carl. Thankfully, the seats in business class are large, because Carl—a good Nebraska boy with blue eyes and a smile that won't quit—stands six foot two and is built like the grizzly bears he befriends.
"So you really think this is a good idea, huh?"
"Teddy, Teddy, you worry too much." His standard answer. I don't find it remotely comforting and I don't even try to smile.
"Seriously, Carl." There's that word again. "I got a bad feeling about this."
"Samir wouldn't have agreed if it wasn't safe," he said.
I looked over at the wealthy Lebanese businessman who made his home in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. He grins and winks. Honestly, this is a man who could make the most hostile enemy lower his gun and settle down for a cup of tea. Being with him coaxes a perpetual smile from all in his presence. I'd just spent two days smiling.
But that was before this flight.
I politely forced a smile and remembered that Samir went to extraordinary lengths to get his family out of Beirut just days ago. I'd lain awake each night since then with visions roiling inside my head of gunmen bursting into my hotel room.
We'd already been to Egypt and met with perhaps the most powerful ideologue in the Muslim world. We'd spent three days in Saudi Arabia meeting with those who shaped Saudi thought, and we'd sat down with Osama bin Laden's brothers.
I'd heard countless nerve-wracking accounts that testified to the frailty of human life in this part of the world: the time when the CIA had kicked Carl and his family out of Lebanon for their own safety; the time when he was kidnapped at gunpoint in Iraq and very nearly assassinated; the time when Bonnie, one of his coworkers from the United States, was shot in the face and killed, south of Beirut. And this was just Carl—everyone we met had a dozen similar cautionary tales of death or near death.
This was only the beginning of our trip. Ahead lay the gravest dangers, the West's greatest perceived enemies, the making and unmaking of war: Beirut, Baalbek, southern Lebanon, Syria, the West Bank.
I've had my encounters with danger, naturally. I was born in the jungles of Indonesia, where my parents spent their lives as missionaries among headhunters. The father of one of my best friends was killed and consumed by the cannibals in the valley next to ours. He was one of two missionaries who were eaten by the locals when I was a child. I saw war and destruction, and I've had more than my share of close encounters with death.
But that was my life before I turned twenty. Since I've been living as an adult in America, the danger I've faced has been of my own making—the dark antagonists who populate my novels.
Now I was facing real danger again, and it made my blood run cold. Honestly, I was having difficulty remembering exactly why we were subjecting ourselves to this madness.
"Carl, remind me again exactly what we hope to accomplish with all of this," I said, turning back to my friend of fifteen years.
"Well . . ." For the hundredth time we rehearsed our ambitions.
It all started nearly two years earlier when Carl Medearis, the man with a thousand stories and ten thousand friends, had lunch with one of those friends, Ted Dekker, the man who has befriended his computer keyboard. It was a pleasant day in July and we sat in an outdoor patio at a Hard Rock Cafe on the Sixteenth Street Mall, downtown Denver. Our wives, Chris and Lee Ann, were deep in a discussion about traveling abroad; Carl and I had each other's ear.
"Tell me, Ted," said my good friend, "what is one thing Martin Luther King, Gandhi, and Jesus have in common?"
I thought for a moment. "They were all murdered?"
"Actually, that's right. And they all died for the same message, at least in large part. So, what was that message?"
"To love your neighbor. Even if they're the enemy."
I nodded. "They make us all look like hypocrites. Is it really possible to love your enemy?"
We both fell into a few moments of introspection. Then Carl looked up with bright eyes.
"Why don't we find out?"
"Seriously." That word. "Why don't we go to this country's greatest so-called enemies and ask them what they think about this scandalous teaching."
"The Middle East?"
"Not just the Middle East. The Hamas, the Hezbollah. The greatest minds and influencers in Islam."
"And ask them what they think of Martin Luther King, Gandhi, and Jesus?"
"Well, it's a thought. The parable of the Samaritan is probably the most famous teaching on loving your neighbors. Muslims revere Jesus, who gave the teaching. We could start with that."
He actually was serious.
"So we go together, sit at the table of our greatest enemies." I paused. "We're talking about one of the most complicated regions of the world, brimming with violence. Huge divides between Muslims, Jews, and Christians. Bus bombs, terrorism, massive loss of life . . . You honestly think anything we hoped to accomplish with a trip to the Middle East would really do anyone any good?"
"It would do me good," Carl said. "And it would do the people we talked to good. Talking is always good."
"You're talking about the people who blew up the Twin Towers! Thousands of our soldiers and citizens have lost their lives at the hands of Muslims. They want to push Israel into the sea, for heaven's sake. Talking would do no good."
He shrugged. "Maybe not. But it would be one heck of trip. Imagine it."
"I am, that's the problem. My imagination is pretty good and I'm imagining nothing but trouble." Pause. "You really think you could set it up?"
"It will be difficult, but yeah, I think I can."
"We sit with these so-called enemies, ask them what their favorite joke is, and what they think of the parable of the Samaritan, which teaches us to love our neighbors even if they are our enemies. And we do it all to discover if anyone really can love his enemy. That about it?"
"Pretty much, yes. And in writing about it all for an American audience, we would be sitting Americans at the table with their enemies. We'll let them decide what to do with this radical teaching that got Martin Luther King, Gandhi, and Jesus killed. I would be willing to go out on a limb for that."
He stared at me and his lips slowly curled into a daring smile. When Carl talks about going out on a limb, it brings to my mind the time he went out on a limb in Iraq and was kidnapped at gunpoint. I have no desire to follow Carl out on his limbs.
"Sounds dangerous." But man, imagine the book. "You could really pull off meetings like that?"
"If I could . . . Interested?"
I let my mind go. The idea suddenly sounded irresistible, in part because it seemed so impossible. A protected fantasy.
"Maybe. If you could, maybe I could. Maybe. If you could."
As it turned out, he could. And he did.
It took Carl a year to talk me from a maybe to a yes. It took another year to line it up. And a third to write the book.
Though Carl and I are about as similar as the mastiff and the puppy, we do share some basic points of connection. We both used to live in Colorado, where we first met eighteen years ago. We've both lived in predominantly Muslim communities (Carl in Lebanon, me in Indonesia) for many years. We both realize our views of the world are colored by our own experiences and as such are subject to change.
We are both Christian. We both cringe at being called Christian, because in both of our worlds, Christians are the bad guys who either slaughter civilians or destroy civilization in the name of God.
We both have a personal, profound belief that there is purpose in this world that has little to do with rules and regulations and has everything to do with faith in God. We both believe that whether you are Christian or Muslim, the teachings uttered by Jesus in the Middle East two thousand years ago are utterly life changing. We both believe that over the centuries those teachings have been misunderstood and misappropriated by most of those who claim to revere them, both in America and abroad, Christian and Muslim.
And we have both developed a fascination with the one teaching that Jesus himself claimed was second only to his instruction to love God, namely to love your neighbor as you love yourself. Carl was right—Martin Luther King and Gandhi were both killed in large part due to their message of hope based on this one teaching.
But who is willing to follow Martin Luther King today? Who will turn a cheek to the enemy's batons as Gandhi did? Who will love the heretic as Jesus did?
Two thousand years ago the world was torn by conflicting beliefs and terrible political struggle. The Romans occupied Palestine and subjugated the Jews, among many others, stripping them of their rights in the same way that today invites war. Into this world was born a man who came with a message so offensive that most followers abandoned him two years after he went public with his outrageous teachings: to love rather than revolt against the Romans who subjugated them. Even more extreme, to love heretics, such as the Samaritans, who were viewed as the Great Satan, blasphemers, so deceived and evil that they could hardly be counted as human.
Love your neighbor as you love yourself. This was his cry in the wilderness. When those who had given their lives to following God asked him what he meant by loving your neighbor, Jesus did what he frequently did.
He told them a fictional story.
Like all good tales, his story had a strong antagonist, a killer who took a man, pummeled him within an inch of his life, and left him for dead. And it had a strong protagonist, a man who went out of his way to nurse the victim back to life after others refused to help the dying man.
But what really cooked the goose of those who heard the teaching that day was the twist at the end of the story. In this story, you see, the protagonist wasn't the pious man or the religious leader. The hero of the tale was a Samaritan. A heretic. A bigot. Scum.
It would be like telling a story in which the hero was a Christian among Muslims. Or in the West, a Muslim among Christians. This man, Jesus said, was following the most important teaching. This man was the hero of his story.
So, what is it like to love an enemy? What are our so-called enemies really like, one on one? What are their favorite movies? When was the last time they cried? What is their favorite joke? If we could only take People magazine-like snapshots of the very people who make many in the United States cringe.
And what do our "enemies," being deeply religious people, think of this great teaching to love your neighbor, even if that neighbor is your enemy? It's no secret that Muslims believe that even though Muhammad is the last prophet, Jesus is also greatly revered, having lived a perfect life, and destined to return one day and claim his own. What do they think of the parable of the Good Samaritan? Do they follow its lesson as poorly as most American Christians?
The events and people of the Middle East are inarguably crucial to every human being's future, whether or not they recognize that fact. Our presidents are elected and rejected in part because of what occurs in this misunderstood land so far away. Mothers will lose their sons, and daughters will lose their fathers, as ideas and convictions clash in the desert. Countries will stand and fall. It's an important place and its people are even more important. Are they our enemies? And if so, should we love them?
Surrounded by the aroma of food in the safety of a Hard Rock Cafe, Carl and I toasted the ideal travelogue. Assuming it could come together, of course. Little did we know what trouble we were inviting.
First, what this book is not: This is not a religious book that seeks to correct anyone's misguided beliefs, Christian or Muslim. This is not a political book that undermines any one ideology. And it certainly is not a historical narrative that pretends to revise any previous work by far more qualified historians.
Rather, this is a travelogue, albeit one with some fairly major twists.
In the pages that follow we will trace our journey of discovery through the heart of the Middle East with some simple questions for some unique and influential personalities whom most in the United States, including the government, think of as enemies who belong on Most Wanted lists.
We will ask ourselves whether anyone is interested in loving his neighbor. Whether, for that matter, it's even possible to follow this scandalous teaching.
Along the way we will wander through the corridors of little-known history in Egypt, Baalbek, Damascus, and Jerusalem to see just how the teaching of love has fared among enemies over the centuries.
And with each step we take we will seek the Good Samaritan, both figuratively and literally, because we've learned that there are still roughly seven hundred Samaritans alive today.
But as much as these, this is the story of the mastiff and the puppy, boldly and not so boldly going where few have tread. It is the story of fear and misunderstanding, of ignorance and pain, and, above all, it is a story of love.
"Right," I said, peering out the window as the jet banked toward the streets of Beirut lined with tanks below us. "Right," I repeated hopefully. But it didn't feel right.
Carl leaned over. "Streets look deserted. Sophie says there are two tanks guarding the house we're staying in."
"We need tanks? Why's that?"
As we arrived at Samir's house we saw the two tanks stationed outside the building. When we asked why, Sophie said it was for security reasons.
"We're staying with her? What happened to the Marriott?"
"Naw, man. We're their guests—that would be rude. Besides, this will make it more real for you."
I turned back to the window and swallowed, in desperate need of distraction. Maybe I should have bought the Tumi luggage after all.
THE PARABLE OF THE SAMARITAN
On one occasion an expert in the Law stood up to test Jesus. "Teacher," he asked, "what must I do to inherit eternal life?"
"What is written in the Law?" he replied. "How do you read it?"
He answered: " ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind' and ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.' "
"You have answered correctly," Jesus replied. "Do this and you will live."
But he wanted to justify himself, so he asked Jesus, "And who is my neighbor?"
In reply Jesus said: "A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he fell into the hands of robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead. A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. So too, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, took him to an inn, and took care of him. The next day he took out two silver coins and gave them to the innkeeper. "Look after him," he said, "and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have."
"Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?"
The expert in the Law replied, "The one who had mercy on him."
Jesus told him, "Go and do likewise."
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