Could Lebanon’s 18 different communities find a common history to teach future generations? One young educator believes they can. She was interviewed by Carole Khakula for this story, compiled by Mike Brown.
It was during a visit to Robben Island where Nelson Mandela was imprisoned for 18 years that Wadiaa Khoury was confronted by her reactions as a Lebanese. She was in South Africa as one of the team accompanying Rajmohan Gandhi, President of Initiatives of Change International, on a 14-nation tour. Reflecting afterwards on her sarcastic comment about the presentation of a guide – who turned out to be an ex-prisoner – made her very uncomfortable.
It took her back two years, when an Iraqi delegation to Beirut showed a movie about terrorist attacks in Baghdad. It was supposed to make the hardest heart cry. But the reaction of some of her Lebanese friends was: ‘Now they know what we went through during our 1975-1990 war when their consciences were on vacation… so why should we sympathize with them now?’
‘Is it an accumulation of unhealed pain that causes us to become that stone-hearted?’ Khoury asked herself. ‘Years of conflicts, topped by the July 2006 war on Lebanon, have hardened my feelings. I need to face this repelling truth and then engage on a journey of inner healing, both for my sake and for the sake of those similarly contaminated.’
In fact, for the past eight years, 30-year-old Khoury has been building her commitment to healing in her war-scarred country. It is why she works as Community Service Coordinator at the International College in Beirut, taking 600 students through a civics programme that crosses the divides of religious and communal conflict. It is why she – from a conservative Catholic background in a quiet farming valley – chose to study in a Muslim campus. And to study law, because Lebanese law – which protects the rights of each of 18 religious confessions to have its own institutions, laws of heritage, marriage and divorce – is itself divisive.
Last year, she joined workshops editing two books on the history of religions of the Middle East and Lebanon. ‘Our ambition is to help rewrite one agreed Lebanese history, to establish a common curriculum for teaching history and civics.’
That commitment was seeded eight years ago in India. Khoury’s mother had been part of a Christian-Muslim dialogue, run by IofC, involving former militia leaders from the 15-year civil war. Feeling she had to understand those beyond her limited Christian circle, Khoury applied for a year in Asia with IofC’s ‘Action for Life’ programme. ‘It was the biggest turning point in looking at myself from a third dimension.’
For a start, the changes were personal and not very easy. She realized that many of her relationships reflected her lack of a meaningful father-daughter relationship. ‘My father is moral and honest, a great man indeed, but cannot connect well as he has serious hearing problems. In addition, he does not come from an emotionally expressive family.’ After two months of prevaricating, she wrote her father telling him for the first time how much she loved him, and acknowledging his patience through his frustrating hearing problem.
It created ‘an awakening moment’ in relationships with the whole family. But also, she found, with Muslim students she had encountered at university. ‘I had experienced the same frustration with them as with my father: I could not communicate my feelings and have them understand. It was like speaking to a wall. However, when the wall was broken with my father, it was easier for it to be broken with Muslims.’
Resolving to use her career to create a different story for Lebanon, she turned down a tempting offer to study in France, and instead studied Law at the Muslim majority campus of the Lebanese University in Beirut. One of only three Christians among 1,300 Muslim students, she discovered ‘the new strength that writing that letter (to my father) had given me. For four years I learnt the Muslim thinking, understood their and my own prejudices.’
She noted that prejudice was passed on to students even by some of the lecturers. ‘Innocent students in their freshman year were slowly corrupted, becoming fanatics by their final year.’ However, with her small group of friends, she recognized ‘a thirst for truth. We asked each other very deep questions, had many honest conversations including during the most difficult times, like after the 2005 killing of Prime Minister Hariri, and the 2006 war on Lebanon.’
Days after that war ended, she went with those students to see buildings surrounding their University in Beirut demolished by Israeli bombs. But the most searing trauma came through the death of a friend from her home town of Zahle. Michael Jbaily, as part of the Zahle Red Cross team, was accompanying a large convoy of cars fleeing the fighting between Israeli and Hezbollah forces. Though the exodus was negotiated with Israeli and UN officers, it was attacked en route by Israeli MK drones. Rushing to rescue a badly injured man, Jbaily was killed by yet another MK missile.
For two months Khoury could not cry: not at the viewing of his body, nor at his funeral with his wife and young family. Though she prayed, ‘Please help me because I am torturing myself’, the fury was shut up within her bones. On the first anniversary of his death, she wrote: ‘I know that no matter how much I am angry, loved ones will not come back and destroyed places will not build themselves. The worst thing would be to complete the destruction of what Israel missed in summer.’ As a Lebanese psychologist said at that time: ‘The real battle resides in refusing to be turned into monsters ourselves.’ Months later, after wrestling with herself late one night in prayer and then being greeted unexpectedly by Michael’s brother in a street next morning, she broke and wept for hours. She understands his death as a pure sacrifice for the resurrected peace that came three days later.
In South Africa she reflected on her experiences. ‘In my region taking sides is almost an obligation. And inside Lebanon, one’s confession almost constantly imposes a political affiliation. But in South Africa, maybe for the first time, I find it absolutely impossible to take sides. There are a number of equally great and wounded communities on all sides. I cannot miss seeing the tremendous effect the different communities have had on each other. How can I help people in South Africa value their diversity, far more than the gold of their land?
‘Maybe that’s all meant to remind me of the richness that has resulted from the Christian-Muslim coexistence in Lebanon: from the maintenance of both freedom of expression and a spiritual life, in each community and in the country as a whole.’
Asked what she prays for, she replies it is that ‘people of good will, who are the vast majority of Lebanon, will see their work flourish. There has been a tremendous work of dialogue and reconciliation going on; and our IofC group are a small part of it. I pray that our work will prevail for the stability of our country, and that it will be enough for the Lebanese to forbid the Middle East’s condition from imposing itself on Lebanon. Even though we are a small country and face the repercussions of what happens around us, we can be a torch in this dark region if only we are faithful enough.’