NAJAF, Iraq, Nov. 23, 2015 – “Jalal. Your name means ‘love’ in our language back home,” the Uber driver told me as I waited in the car for Ali to come down with his bags. “Oh,” I replied. I wasn’t sure how to respond to the friendly driver I had just met.
He said he was from Ethiopia. His smile was like that of many friends I have met from the great continent of Africa.
“Where are you from?” he asked.
“I’m from here,” I replied.
“Oh,” he paused. Almost the same “Oh” I had given him a minute ago.
“My family and I are originally from Lebanon – a coastal country on the Mediterranean Sea in the Middle East. I was born and raised in Detroit. I went back to Lebanon as a kid and spent some years there before coming back and completing my education here…”
To that he smiled and gave an extended, “Oh!”
That seemed to reassure the quick categorization he seemed to have made in his mind when he saw me, I suppose. Ali came down with his bags and we were off to the airport.
When we landed in Beirut, it dawned on me that I hadn’t been to Lebanon in over three years. The land of my father, the country where I spent my elementary years and the place where half of my childhood was spent – a place I called home.
Last week, Beirut was rocked by a terrorist attack that tragically took the lives of 43 innocent souls and wounded 240 more. The attack was the day before the Paris bombings that killed over 120 French citizens.
More than being grieving sisters in tragedy, Lebanon and France have a long history. Lebanon was a mandate of France before it achieved its independence in 1948.
Still, French influence remains in Lebanon – something apparent in Lebanese society, politics and culture.
From the confessional system of parliamentary governance in Lebanon to instituting French as the default secondary language in educational curriculum, you feel the Français in Liban. I spoke French as an elementary student in Lebanon, but now after years of no practice I don’t attempt more than ‘Bonjour.’
During dinner with some of our friends in Beirut, one of those present said, “You may not be going to Najaf tomorrow morning…”
Looking up from my plate of food I asked, “What do you mean?”
“The Russians want to stop all flights from Beirut airport for the next couple days. They’re doing munawarat [military drills]…”
We waited a couple hours to see what the outcome would be. In the morning our flight was still on to leave for Najaf, Iraq. It turns out that Beirut airport refused to stop its flights and would continue “business as usual,” but essentially conceded to rerouting its flights away from the scheduled Russian naval activities.
As the customs officer at the Beirut airport stamped my passport, he said, “That was quick. You were only here for a day. Where are you headed now?” I replied, “Najaf, Iraq.”
Handing my passport back to me he smiled, “Pray for us there.”