Count Your Blessings (instead of Sheep)

When I’m worried and I can’t sleep

 I count my blessings instead of sheep

 And I fall asleep

Counting my blessings

     — Irving Berlin (sung by Bing Crosby)

Car bombs in eastern Lebanon, street-fighting in Tripoli, one million refugees in a county of four million. With all that is happening here in Lebanon and the surrounding region, counting one’s blessings suddenly becomes really easy.

An intact family? Check. A roof over my head? Check. A good school for my children? Check. Adequate medical care? Check. Enough food for everyone? An abundance really.

I am family/shelter/education/health/food-blessed.

Fitting then, to share some of that abundance with the hunger-relief initiative foodblessed.

I first heard of foodblessed when my kids’ school organized a food drive for their benefit last spring. Foodblessed works in a number of ways to support hungry families and individuals:

  • soup kitchens in Beirut that provide hot meals
  • home delivery of meals to AIDS patients
  • delivery of food boxes to Syrian refugees and vulnerable Lebanese

The organization is entirely volunteer-operated, and when they put out a call for volunteers at the beginning of this year, I decided to join them at one of the soup kitchens not far from my home. Every Thursday I serve up rice and stew (or spaghetti with meat sauce, or traditional Lebanese dishes such as kibbeh) to somewhere between 25 and 40 hungry folks. Another volunteer hands out salad, another dessert, and one of the nuns from the church that lends the space for lunch hands out silverware and bread.



I’m happy to give an hour and a half of my time each week. As is typical when volunteering, I get much more than I give. I get the chance to practice my Arabic, to get to know lots of people (both clients and fellow volunteers) that I wouldn’t otherwise meet, and I get to feel like I am doing something, no matter how small, in the face of the ever-growing crisis for those in need in Lebanon.

April 12 is Global Day of Service, and my alma mater, Boston University, encourages its alumni to participate in a service event in some way during the month of April. There haven’t been service events anywhere I’ve lived in the past decade, so this year I decided to take matters into my own hands, and offered to be the volunteer event leader in Lebanon. I am now in the throes of a food drive, and on April 5, I will join with other BU alumni, our friends and families, to pack up food boxes for hungry families and individuals.

You may have already seen one of my appeals – via email, Facebook or Twitter. Forgive me if I’m being redundant. But I wanted to share a little more about what I’m doing and why. And if this post makes you think of your own blessings, take a minute to count them.

If you find that you have enough to go around, maybe you can consider sharing one:

http://www.volunteerforever.com/volunteer_profile/amy-robertson




foodblessed recently delivered 50 boxes of food to Syrian refugees outside of Arsal in northeast Lebanon, in a no-man’s land beyond where international agencies can safely travel.

Photo credits: Ruth Moucharafieh

Beirut Essential Reading (Part II)

Here is Part II of the reading list I’ve compiled over the past two years in my effort to get to know my new home in Beirut a bit better. My previous post covered culture, memoirs and other non-fiction (including a graphic novel), while this post will point you to literary fiction, guidebooks and books for children that have helped me to familiarize myself (and my family) with our home in the Middle East. As in my previous post, the gems are marked with an asterisk.

Literary Fiction

* Beirut Blues by Hanan Al-Shaykh (1996)

Sidestepping the traditional story-telling format, Beirut Blues is composed of a series of ten letters from its protagonist Asmahan to the people and places she loves – including her grandmother, her lover, her city (Beirut). The book is not a straight-forward account of Lebanon’s civil war, but its stories paint a picture of the war’s effect on the people (both collectively and individually), the land, and the city of Beirut. Currently resident in London, Al-Shaykh is one of Lebanon’s best-known modern-day writers.


Hikayat: Short Stories by Lebanese Women edited by Roseanne Saad Khalaf (2007)

Some of these stories are by previously-published authors while others introduced newer writers onto the scene – and the stories are, as one might imagine, a bit disparate and uneven. However, it is the dissimilarity itself that adds value to this book, as it defies stereotypes of the modern Lebanese woman by offering a variety of perspectives. The editor is assistant professor of English and creative writing at the highly-regarded American University of Beirut.


De Niro’s Game by Rawi Hage (2006)

Two childhood friends, Bassim and George, come into adulthood during the Lebanese civil war. One ends up joining a militia, while the other dreams of escaping abroad. De Niro’s Game earned critical acclaim in Canada and Ireland, but I found myself agreeing with reviewers who found that the final section of the book, which takes place outside of Lebanon, loses steam.


Ports of Call by Amin Maalouf (1999)

Described as “a powerful allegory for the struggles and anarchy that have beset [Lebanon] for the last half-century,” Ports of Call tells the story of Ossyane, a Turkish-Lebanese nobleman, including his marriage to a Jewish woman named Clara, from whom he is separated for many years because of their respective cultures, a world war, and the later (1948) Arab-Israeli War. The narrator of the story is a third person to whom Ossyane recounts his life, and it is perhaps this choice by Maalouf that keeps the story from fully drawing in the reader. Maalouf is another of Lebanon’s foremost modern writers, and as Ports of Call is the first of his novels to be set in twentieth-century Lebanon, it is well worth reading.

* Mornings in Jenin by Susan Abulhawa (2010)

Elegant and moving multi-generational story of a Palestinian family that is displaced from their home at the creation of Israel in 1948, and moved to the Jenin refugee camp. Narrated by Amal, the granddaughter of the old village patriarch, the story stretches from the village where her grandfather grew up to Jenin, the refugee camp where she was born, to Jerusalem, where she was housed when orphaned, Beirut, where she became a newlywed, to Philadelphia, where she studied and worked, back to Jenin, when she brings her own daughter for a visit.

Guides


* Bet You Didn’t Know This About Beirut! By Warren Singh-Bartlett (2010)

Always entertaining, and sometimes laugh-out-loud funny, this compilation of factoids about Lebanese life and culture is a must-have for anyone newly arriving to the country.

* Living Lebanon by Saskia Nout (2013)

The most recent guide to Lebanon on bookshelves, and with the kind of information that a resident needs as opposed to just a tourist – like driving directions, and a deft explanation of the convoluted political system. Nout is a Dutch expatriate. While the guide is not easily available outside of Lebanon, it can be easily found in a bookshop upon arrival.

For Children

Sitt Sobhiyeh and the Quest for the White Horse  * Sitt Sobhiye and the Quest for the White Horse, by Karim Al-Dahdah (2013)

The charming tale of Farida, a young girl that travels the world in search of a white horse whose appearance will mean that all the village girls will have a happy marriage. What Farida learns on her search for the horse, and what the village girls learn in Farida’s absence, is a tale of discovery and self-empowerment. The book is bilingual Arabic/English, and the illustrations are lovely. (This book added to post on March 24, 2014.)

* Oranges in No Man’s Land by Elizabeth Laird (2008)

This novel tells the story of 10-year-old Ayesha during the civil war. Her grandmother desperately needs medicine that is available only from her doctor on the other side of Beirut’s infamous “Green Line”, and Ayesha dares to get it for her. The death of Ayesha’s mother at the beginning of the story may be upsetting for younger/more sensitive children, but it is not dwelt upon, and ultimately, it is a story of the triumph of human spirit and what a spunky young girl can achieve. Laird lived with her husband and infant son close to Beirut’s notorious “Green Line” during 1977.


Golden Domes and Silver Lanterns: A Muslim Book of Colors by Hena Khan (2012)

This beautifully illustrated book introduces colors through a Muslim lens, from the blue hijab (head covering) to the silver coins for the zakat (alms) box. Suitable for families of any faith that wish to introduce cultural awareness to their younger children.


Sami and the Time of the Troubles by Florence Parry Heide and Judith Heide Gilliland (1992)

Ten-year-old Sami has grown up during Lebanon’s civil war, going to school and helping his mother with chores when he can, and living in his uncle’s basement when the fighting flares up. One day, the children march for peace, and Sami knows that when another chance comes, he will march again. Well-written, and good for sparking discussion between children and their parents or teachers. For children living in Beirut today, however, with the war in neighboring Syria, the story probably will hit a bit too close to home.

On My Bookshelf

No reading list should ever be complete, because there are always more good books out there to read. Here is the next one on my list. While I can’t tell you yet what I think of it, renowned author Amy Tan has written an absolutely glowing review of it on Amazon.com, and you don’t need me to top that – take her word for it and go out and get this book.

* The Hakawati by Rabih Alameddine (2008)

Hakawati means storyteller, and Osama’s dying grandfather is one. When Osama returns to Beirut in 2003, after many years in America, to sit vigil at his grandfather’s deathbed, stories begin to unfold. According to the back cover, “an Arabian Nights for this century,” and described by an Amazon reviewer as full of tales of “love, sex, murder, heroism, magic, loss, triumph, skullduggery, noblesse, repentance, lies, redemption, loyalty, curses, and just about everything else.”

After a gloriously sunny Saturday, the rain returned to Beirut yesterday. No problem. I’ve still got plenty on my shelf to read.

Beirut Essential Reading (Part I)

When my husband first proposed Lebanon as a possible destination for our family, I embarrassed myself by momentarily confusing it with Libya. (Cringe.) A little internet research cleared up that confusion, and also let me know that Lebanon is also not the tragic and war-torn place that it had been during its 15-year civil war. (It’s been nearly a quarter-century since that ended – and for now the Lebanese people are holding out against the forces trying to destabilize the country once again.)

Once we made the decision to move here, I upgraded my reading from internet to books, to familiarize myself with the region, its history and culture. I’ve kept on reading about Beirut and the region in the 20-odd months I’ve been here, in everything from children’s books to graphic novels, light fiction to academic treatises. Most helped me better understand the region, its culture and its history, and a few were real gems. (Look for those marked with an asterisk below.*) If you have a suggestion to add or a comment on any of the books, please add your voice, I’d love to hear your opinion!

Today’s list focuses on culture, memoirs, and other non-fiction; my next post will include books for children, literary fiction and guidebooks. Peruse, and you’ll surely find a book or two to pique your own interest — residency in the Middle East not required.

Culture

* One Thousand and One Nights: A Retelling by Hanan Al-Shaykh (2013)

A ribald retelling of what is perhaps the Arab world’s most famed piece of fiction, the centuries-old One Thousand and One Nights. In order to keep herself and the women of the kingdom alive, Shahrazad tells the king a new story each evening. Some tales date as far back as 850 AD, and Arabian, Persian and Indian tales were added over the centuries. Al-Shaykh has selected 19 of them. Modern language makes them accessible and entertaining, but Al-Shaykh did not edit out the eroticism, so this classic is adults-only. (Here is a version that for the most part looks more family-friendly, and also contains more stories.)

* The Prophet by Kahlil Gibran (2010)

Kahlil Gibran is Lebanon’s most famous writer, and The Prophet is his masterpiece, with some 100 million copies sold since its original publication in 1923. A compilation of poetic essays, The Prophet recounts the advice of the prophet, Almustafa to the people of the city of Orphalese as he is about to depart for home. He holds forth on topics such from love to laws, passion to pain. While some of Almustafa’s recommendations felt ordinary or even trite, others are inspiring and given its premiere place in Lebanese literature, it should not be missed. This version in particular is worth seeking out, as it is accompanied by beautiful Persian artwork. (Published by Arcturus and available on Amazon and in the Antoine chain of bookstores in Beirut. Note, while his name is usually spelled “Khalil“, this edition puts the “h” after the “a,” and so I have done so here.)


The Dream Palace of the Arabs: A Generational Odyssey by Fouad Ajami (1999)

Fouad Ajami is a professor of Middle Eastern studies at Johns Hopkins University, and is widely regarded within Lebanon as one of the region’s foremost scholars. The book is an “amalgamation of literary criticism, history and political commentary” that starts with a recounting of the life of Lebanese poet and Arab nationalist Khalil Hawi. It then moves on to discuss Khomeini’s revolution, modern Egypt and more, but I have to admit that I abandoned the book after the second chapter, when the focus on Lebanon ended. Not a light read, but a good fit for those interested in Middle Eastern studies.

Graphic novel

*Bye Bye Babylon: Beirut 1975-1979 by Lamia Ziadé (2011)

Well-executed graphic novel about the early years of Lebanon’s civil war, told through images from the author’s own childhood memories. Pictures are both simple and vivid, making it a great and easy-to-grasp introduction to the complexities of Lebanon’s civil war. This is a fantastic book.

Memoir

Beirut I Love You by Zena El Khalil (2008)

After growing up in Lagos and New York, El Khalil moved back to Lebanon post 9/11, and was in Beirut at the time of the 31-day war with Israel in 2006. Anecdotes such as her friend Maya trying to escape the city for a day at the beach in the midst of the war, each time turned back at a military or militia check-point, highlight the struggle to lead a “normal” life in a decidedly abnormal situation. Her writing felt tinged by self-pity, but given that she was writing about living through a bombardment, it’s hard to blame her for that.


War Diary: Lebanon 2006 by Rami Zurayk (2011)

This slim book is the diary of a Lebanese university professor from the 33-day war in 2006 (known both as the Israel-Lebanon war, and as the Israel-Hezbollah war). According to his diary, Zurayk is “a veteran activist from the Lebanese left,” and not affiliated with a particular religion or political party. Among the elements of the book, Zurayk writes about how he came to support Hezbollah. Life during either this war or the civil war is not something that is easy to bring up and chat about over a cup of coffee with Lebanese friends, and I found it helpful for understanding a perspective that I might not otherwise have a chance to hear about first-hand.


Jasmine and Fire: A Bittersweet Year in Beirut by Salma Abdelnour (2012)

A light read about a Lebanese-American woman’s return to Beirut. As a food and travel writer, Abdelnour is adept at bringing the sights and sounds and smells of the streets of Beirut to life. She struggles to find her place amongst expats and Lebanese, and to start a life in a new place. Although I found it a bit hard to sympathize with her struggles (you speak the language! you already have an apartment in Beirut before you arrive! you have aunts and cousins and childhood friends here!), I enjoyed seeing Beirut through her eyes, and those about to embark on a life as an expat might find some insight about what to expect.

Non-fiction


From Beirut to Jerusalem by Thomas Friedman (1989)

It’s impossible to understand Lebanon today without understanding its past. This engagingly-written account of Lebanon’s 15-year civil war, by renowned correspondent Thomas Friedman, is one popular place to start. It was one of the first books I picked up on Lebanon, and by reading it I came to understand that the civil war was not a simple Christian versus Muslim divide as I had thought, but that one of shifting, complex, and unpredictable alliances between multiple sects and factions.

That said, I have Lebanese friends who urged me to read Lebanese writers on Lebanon, feeling that the Lebanese, well, understood themselves better. (See this article on Al Jazeera written on the occasion of the 2010 re-release of Friedman’s book, which echoes some of the criticisms.) They suggested renowned Lebanese scholar Fouad Ajami (see Culture, above), but it wasn’t the comprehensive modern history I was seeking. Other friends cut some slack for Robert Fisk, author of Pity the Nation: The Abduction of Lebanon (2002), as “the only Westerner who understands Lebanon.” That book is now on my shelf, but first I want to read my husband’s new book by Lebanese author Samir Kassir…


Beirut by Samir Kassir (2010)

Much more than modern history, Beirut tells the story of this city from its ancient roots to modern day (or at least up until 2005 when the book’s author was assassinated).  Kassir was a professor of history at Beirut’s Saint-Joseph University, a journalist, and a vocal critic of the Syrian presence in Lebanon. He was killed by a car bomb on June 2, 2005, shortly after the Syrian withdrawal from Lebanon. My husband is reading this right now and says the writing is beautiful; I’m looking forward to picking it up when he has finished.


Hezbollah: The Global Footprint of Lebanon’s Party of God Hardcover by Matthew Levitt (2013)

I think it’s going to become uncomfortably obvious that I prefer the personalized perspective of memoirs over other types of non-fiction, because this is yet another book on my shelf that I want to read, but haven’t actually cracked open yet. (Well, it’s on my Kindle, so the shelf is figurative, but you get what I mean.)

Living in Honduras (one of the pit stops on the drug route from South to North America) I became aware of how groups in distant countries have their tentacles into the drug trade, and was intrigued by the book’s description as the “first thorough examination of Hezbollah’s covert activities beyond Lebanon’s borders, including its financial and logistical support networks and its criminal and terrorist operations worldwide.” There are often allegations against Hezbollah for money laundering and drug trafficking networks that stretch to South America, and I’m curious to see what Levitt might have to say on the matter. I’ll get back to you when I’ve read it.

It’s a rainy day in Beirut today. Just the right kind of day for curling up on the couch with a good book.

 

Beirut Must See, Must Do

Instability, car bombs, and yet you’re still heading to (or already in) Beirut. What to do now?

Here are a few of my suggestions, over on AOL travel.

Plenty of suggestions to keep you busy for a few days in Beirut, as well as ideas for your free time from evenings out to weekend trips.

By the time you’ve finished those suggestions, I should have my Beirut reading list ready, for those days that you just want to snuggle up on the couch instead.

Books and Bombs

By many critical accounts, The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt was the book of the year for 2013. I read glowing reviews in Time Magazine and in O magazine by Oprah, and it topped the list of Amazon’s Editor’s Top 20 Books of 2013, but somehow the plot didn’t appeal to me –something about a boy who steals a painting, the art underworld. But when the Kindle version was offered as a daily deal for just $2.99, I decided to give it a chance. I started reading it last week, and in the wake of two terrifying bombs in Beirut, words in the novel’s opening chapter boomed in my mind.

“…there was a black flash, with debris sweeping and twisting around me, and a roar of hot wind slammed into me and threw me across the room.”

A friend of a friend works in an office just where a bomb exploded on December 27th in Beirut. The sonic boom sent waves strong enough to knock the friend to the floor. Luckily – well, it’s not luck really, but tragic foresight – the office windows have a layer of film to make them shatterproof, or else our friend and his colleagues would have been coated in fragments of glass.


(1) Window film in the U.S. is advertised to protect against break-ins and storms. (2) Ads for window film are now popping up around Beirut, but for different reasons…

“…I ached all over, my ribs were sore and my head felt like someone had hit me with a lead pipe. I was working my jaw back and forth… when it came over me abruptly that I had no clue where I was. Stiffly I lay there, in the growing consciousness that something was badly out of joint. The light was all wrong, and so was the air: acrid and sharp, a chemical fog that burned my throat. The gum in my mouth was gritty, and when – head pounding – I rolled over to spit it out, I found myself blinking through layers of smoke at something so foreign I stared for moments.”

Not my friend’s recounting of the experience, but Tartt’s vivid imagery. Reading it I imagined how the passersby – those who survived the December 27th and subsequent January 2nd attacks – might have felt after the explosions.

I’ll admit, I’m an introvert by nature (hence a writer, not an actress). Books are an important way for me to gain understanding of other people’s experiences, emotions and thoughts, and help put perspective on my own. Books transport us, and the best of them can even transform us. So naturally, I turned to books to help me better understand my new home when I moved to Beirut. In a few days I’ll post my Beirut Reading List – some of the regionally-focused books I’ve read over the past 18 months.

My passion for books made it that much more painful when I read that an important library in Tripoli (in northern Lebanon, near the border with Syria) was attacked on January 3rd. Owned by a Greek Orthodox priest, the library was torched in response to unfounded rumors that the priest had written an article published online insulting Islam and the Prophet Mohammad. (According to Lebanon’s Internal Security Forces, “Father Sarrouj has nothing to do with the article and the source of the website is from Denmark and was published on Jan. 7, 2010.”) Nearly two-thirds of the library’s 80,000 volumes were destroyed.

Lebanese of all stripes have banded together in indignation, rallying to replace the library’s volumes and restore the building.

Those in Lebanon (or, for that matter in Michigan or Florida, where there are also drop-off points!) can contribute near or near-new books. (In Lebanon books are accepted at all Virgin stores, as well as at other sites listed on the drive’s Facebook page.) If cash is more convenient, there is an online drive to raise $35,000 to help repair the library and make an attempt at replacing some of the rare texts that were torched (and to dutifully install a new security system).

The Goldfinch won’t appear on my Beirut Reading List because the bombing scene is the only one that has resonated with my life here, at least so far. I’m just one-third of the way through the book, but I already would highly recommend it. The writing is silky and vivid, and emotions are so skillfully portrayed on the page that I found that it doesn’t really matter what the plot is – Tartt could write about something as mundane as a visit to the grocery store and render it compelling. How the plot twists will resolve, and what kind of resolution will be made at the end of its 755 pages, I don’t yet know.

Much like the story of Beirut.

I’m still here, unable to tear my eyes away as the story of Beirut unfolds. Hoping that for Beirut’s story we don’t have to wait the equivalent of 755 pages before we reach a resolution. Wondering desperately what form that resolution might take.

The Never Ending Holidays

Christmas, Epiphany, then Christmas again, then Christmas #3(!), next the Prophet’s Birthday. The holidays never end here in Lebanon.

I like it that way – I love how festive the city feels during the holiday season, whether the streets are hung with lanterns and silver moons for Ramadan or fairy lights for Christmas. Myself I love celebrating Christmas starting at the first Sunday in Advent (four Sundays before Christmas) all the way through the famed 12th day of Christmas (January 6). Also known as Epiphany. few people observe the last day of Christmas in the US, but in Latin America (where we lived for 8 years), it is the day the Three Kings arrived bearing gifts for baby Jesus – children set out their shoes or stockings the night of the 5th for those final Christmas gifts and treats. In Italy (where my husband’s from), Epifania is when La Befana arrives. The Befana is a crotchety old witch who declined joining the Three Kings’ procession when they passed her house on their way to Bethlehem, and in regret, piled her basket high with treats and presents for baby Jesus, and flies on her broom during the night of January 5th each year, leaving gifts for children around Italy (and in Italian homes around the world) in the hopes that one of them might be the special baby.

Today is the 8th, and it seemed time to take the tree down.

I felt sad to see the festive season end. Christmas decorations are still up around the city of Beirut however – because the Armenians (which ethnically make a large number of Lebanese) just celebrated their Christmas on January 6th (and who knew, but apparently that was the date Christmas was celebrated for the first four centuries A.D.) .

“Oh that’s right,” I said to my husband, “It’s the Orthodox Christmas.”

“Well, Eastern Orthodox,” he corrected me. “Greek Orthodox celebrate their Christmas the same time as Catholics and Protestants.”

Ah no, it turns out: Greek Orthodox do celebrate Christmas on December 25th, but Eastern Orthodox celebrate on January 7th. If that weren’t confusing enough, I found out that Ethiopians (of which there are a huge number in Lebanon, working primarily as household helpers, and are a mix of Orthodox and Protestant) also celebrate Christmas on January 7th. I wondered if I should give the day off to the lady who works for our family, so that she could celebrate.

“It’s okay, we are going to celebrate on Sunday [the 12th] since everyone else has to work,” she informed me.

So Christmas celebrations in Lebanon will wind up on the 12th, just in time to get ready for the first Muslim holiday of the year, the Prophet’s Birthday, which falls on January 13. (My kids are really loving all the school holidays!)

I came across this map yesterday, which didn’t really help clear anything up for me, but did make me feel like it was excusable to be a little confused about religion in Lebanon once in a while.

Just look how colorful Lebanon is!

This map is titled “The Levant: Ethnic Composition”. (The Levant is the region encompassing Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Palestine and Israel.) As explained in the column of dense text to the right of the map, they use ethnicity to refer to group identity, which includes religion as a factor, and the biggest divisions are identified on this map. The used here divisions are debatable (are the Druze not Arabs? are all Christians in the Levant non-Arabs? the answer to these questions depends on who you ask – for what geneticists have to say about it, see my earlier post here). But this map nonetheless gives an idea of the religious diversity of the region. Think how colorful it would be if it were further broken down from “Levantine (Christian)” to “Eastern Orthodox” and “Western Orthodox”, “Catholic” and “Protestant”.

This map was number 32 in Max Fisher’s collection for the Washington Post of “40 Maps That Explain the World.” Looking at the jumble of color and diversity that this map illustrates, I suppose it comes as no surprise that a battle drawn along religious lines has no end in sight.

Upending Expectations in Lebanon

The Christmas season is upon us – here in Beirut as much as in the Americas or Europe. If you don’t live in Beirut, you might be surprised to find out how big of a celebration Christmas is here. (I was.)

Just as Lebanon doesn’t neatly fit into Middle Eastern preconceptions of desert sands or uniformly conservative clothing and culture, its religious diversity is far greater than what I expected upon moving here. According to good old Wikipedia, Lebanon has “the most religiously diverse society in the Middle East,” with 18 officially recognized sects: 4 Muslim groups, 12 Christian groups, the Druze, and Judaism. Freedom of religion and the freedom to practice all religious rites are protected by the Lebanese constitution – freedoms that are backed up by the Lebanese Army. Soldiers are stationed outside places of worship to protect that right.

Soldiers stationed outside a Beirut church on a Sunday morning.

The dance between politics and religion is delicate and complicated and flawed in Lebanon, and the soldiers in front of the church I attend made me… well, more nervous than comforted the first time I went. But they did also make me also much more appreciative of Lebanon’s commitment to religious freedom – something I hadn’t thought much about prior to living here.

While religious conflict abounds in Lebanon, they are not as clear-cut as international headlines might lead you to believe. At a national level, political parties (which are largely based on religion) make cross-religious alliances. On a personal level, there is a cross-religious acknowledgment of holidays that I didn’t expect. Although Christians make up just over 40% of the population (according to Statistics Lebanon), Christmas cheer in Lebanon isn’t limited to Christians. I was surprised to see a photo of a Muslim acquaintance of mine on Facebook wearing her headscarf and hugging her children in front of a Christmas tree. But then I suppose it fits hand-in-hand with the Ramadan dinner that Muslim friends invited me to earlier in the year – a spirit of respectfully acknowledging one another’s traditions and wanting to share them.

As part of the holiday celebrations, Beirut Chants, a local non-profit organization, organizes an annual series of concerts in churches in and around the city during the month of December. (If you click through to the website for Beirut Chants you will see a picture from the press conference announcing this season’s offerings. In the center is a woman in a headscarf – Bahia Hariri, a Sunni Muslim woman representing the Hariri Foundation, who was the main sponsor for the month-long festival.)

My husband and I attended this season’s inaugural concert this past Sunday: Handel’s Messiah, performed by the Beirut Chants Orchestra and Antonine University Choir in the Saint Maroun Church, a Maronite Catholic church in the Gemmayze neighborhood of Beirut.

Beirut Chants opening concert, Dec 1, 2013

That lady in the red? She’s Beirut-born Joanna Nachef, the first female conductor from the Middle East. Her accomplishments aren’t limited to leading orchestras in Beirut either – her conducting debut was at New York’s famed Carnegie Hall.

Female conductors are few and far between in the U.S. – Marin Alsop made headline news when she became the first female conductor of a major U.S. orchestra, and that was less than a year ago. I’d never seen a female conductor lead an orchestra before, and would never have expected that this first would occur for me in Lebanon.

By writing about Christmas and conductors I don’t mean to diminish the grave importance of other things happening here in Beirut – from rain-flooded roads to a militarized Tripoli, from another car bomb to the assassination of a Hezbollah leader. But those things are thoroughly covered elsewhere, in the newspapers, and by other bloggers. Given the reputation that Beirut has in the United States thanks to its painful history of civil war and current instability, the strife, tragic as it is, is not the surprise. But Christmas cheer and female conductors and heart-warming hospitality – those are the things that continue to upend my expectations.