Middle East Diary
6th-22nd June 2006
The planning for this Middle East tour goes back several years. Dr Riad Jarjour, General Secretary of the Arab Group for Christian-Muslim Dialogue, originally invited me to visit Lebanon and Syria two years ago, following a series of lectures I gave in Amman, Jordan, in early 2004 for the Fellowship of Middle East Evangelical Churches arranged by his wife Rosangela Jarjour.
A lecture tour of Syria and Lebanon, originally scheduled for February 2005, was postponed following the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in Beirut. Then an invitation to deliver a paper as part of a panel on Christian Zionism at the World Congress on Middle East Studies, in Jordan, in June this year made the visit to Lebanon and Syria possible.
Riad kindly put together a speaking tour of Lebanon, Syria as well as Egypt to follow the conference in Amman. Then, additional invitations came to participate in events in Palestine with some colleagues from the USA. Coincidentally, Garth Hewitt was to be made a Canon of St George’s Cathedral around the same time so we explored if we could some how be present for this special occasion as well. And so this unique tour of six countries in 15 days came about.
A photo journal to complement this diary is viewable from www.sizers.org/photos.htm
Tuesday 6th June: Amsterdam to Amman
Leave for Amman via Amsterdam on KLM. The cheapest flight necessary because I’m paying. A brief stop over in Amsterdam - time to enjoy the airport - renowned for its famous men’s loos.
Wednesday 7th June: Amman to Jerusalem
Arrive at 00:30. Temperature in the 30’s. I have a wait. A long wait. The King Hussein/Allenby Bridge border crossing into Palestine is not open until 08:00. This crossing point is Occupied Territory in international, law so Jordan does not recognise it as an international border crossing with Israel. This makes the visa requirements considerably more complicated and so a ‘multi-entry visa’ must be obtained in the UK.
It is necessary to fly to Amman to get to Jerusalem (rather than via Tel Aviv) because in order to then travel to Lebanon and Syria my passport cannot show I have been to Israel. An entry stamp at Amman airport will satisfy.
I work out it will take me an hour to travel by taxi to the Bridge which means I have to kill five hours in the airport lounge. It’s hot and I’m tired but this will save a night in a hotel so I stay awake drinking coffee and reading and re-reading the complimentary newspapers courtesy of KLM. Trying to stay awake on your own from 01:00-06:00 in a public place in a foreign country is a challenge experience. Looking at my watch does not make the hours go quicker.
The dawn begins to break and I try the automated cash machines to obtain some Jordanian Dinars. No luck - they won’t recognise my credit cards - any of them - a good start. Will just have to use dollars for the taxi.
Finding a taxi is not a problem. No English spoken but a fixed rate to the Bridge is reassuring. Lesson 1. Always negotiate the price of a taxi before you get in. The sun is rising low over the desert as I check my bearings. Yes, the sun is rising in the right place which means we are travelling West - in the right direction and not towards Iraq - one of my dark fears, but let’s not go there. The ride is down hill all the way through the Mountains of Moab to the Allenby Bridge and the River Jordan. Here we are well below sea level and the early morning heat is already oppressive. Egyptian labourers are hard at work in the fields and we weave in and out of an endless convoy of lorries crawling up to Amman from Saudi Arabia and the Gulf.
07:00 We arrive at the Jordanian checkpoint and the taxi driver dumps me with my luggage by the road side. The queue is already forming, The temperature is already in the upper 30’s. The Jordanian border post is not open which means the toilets are not open either. The desert looks very tempting.
08:00 the border post opens and along with a mixed company of diplomats, tourists, business men, UN workers and refugees, we get our passports stamped. The toilets convince me I would have been better off in the desert.
Getting across the Bridge is not straight forward. We board a special bus for the mile or so ride through the bleak and deserted (or so it seems) security zone. There’s one bus with air conditioning for internationals and another older bus for Palestinians and Jordanians. Their luggage is precariously piled on the roof of the bus as there are no compartments underneath like ours. There is an embarrassing scene as our passports are checked once again on the bus. A married couple is split up. No, they cannot travel together on the same bus as they have different passports. He is an American married to a Palestinian from Nablus - she only has a Palestinian ID card. They must be in their 60’s. It is distressing for us to watch and humiliating for them, but it’s a requirement Israel imposes. The other bus will take much longer to cross to Bridge.
9:00 we are crossing the Bridge that seems to separate not just two sides of the Rift Valley but two continents – Europe and Asia. The Jordan River at this point is only a stream as most of the water has already been siphoned off higher up. Don’t let anyone tell you that the Middle East conflict is about oil. Its not. It is about water. Just over the Bridge, we get off the bus. Our passports are checked and the bus is checked, for explosives, then we get back on again until we reach the Israeli terminal a few hundred yards away.
The scene reminds me of a cattle market. We are the cattle but no one seems to be herding. There are no signs to tell you what to do, so you just do what others are doing who seem to have done it before. We are separated from our luggage and given receipts. The luggage is taken away. I’m nervous at this point. Separated from our luggage we have no control over what happens to it, but no one complains. Inside the terminal there are long queues, then the interrogations and passport controls. Mine is taken away when they discover my itinerary. An hour later we ‘choose’ our luggage from a giant pile in another large hall. Further checks to ensure we have the right luggage. Then we stumble out into the dazzling sun confronted by a fleet of minibuses. It is not clear which is going where as there are no signs. I go back into the terminal to change some money at the refreshments kiosk. The owner gives me a ‘complimentary’ drink with my shekels. Is he being generous or is it because I’ve not got a good exchange rate? That’s my fault for not knowing.
11:00 and we finally say goodbye to the Allenby Bridge. Four hours to cross a mile, it seems a lifetime. We make our way up and up through the Judean Hills to Jerusalem.
12:00 I’m dumped along with other passengers at the Damascus Gate. Its lovely to be back in Jerusalem. The smells of Arabic herbs and spices are intoxicating and the music of the street traders for some reason reminds me of the seagulls on Hastings Beach. It’s a half mile walk with luggage to St George’s Hostel along Saladin Street but the thought of a bed and cool drink get me there. The rest of the day is a haze but being near the Old City of Jerusalem again is very relaxing – it feels like coming home. My small window gives a view of the Tomb of the Kings. Sometime while I am asleep, my co-conspirators, Don Wagner, Mike Spath and Ann Helmke, arrive from the USA.
Thursday 8th June: Jerusalem & Ramalleh, Palestine
8:00am A meeting with the Evangelical Lutheran Bishop of Jerusalem, Munib Younan, in the heart of the Old City near the site of Calvary and the Garden Tomb. He is a gracious man and shares his concerns for the future of the indigenous Church in Palestine. He laments attempts made by some to incite enmity between Christians and Muslims. He is keen for us to draft a statement on the plight of the Church in Israel/Palestine and the destructive influence of Christian Zionism. His office is thankfully air conditioned and I work on the document which he will seek to get endorsed by the other heads of the Churches in Jerusalem.
11:00 A briefing with the Interreligious Christian Council in Jerusalem. The ICC brings together representatives of Christian agencies working in Jerusalem such as World Vision, Christian Aid, Christian Peacemaker Teams, the Middle East Council of Churches, etc. We make presentations on the influence of Christian Zionism on the contemporary Arab-Israeli conflict. Discussion follows and they share their frustrations and hopes over lunch.
12:30 A car is waiting at the Jaffa Gate to take us to Ramallah. The journey north takes us through ruined Palestinian villages and new high rise blocks of the burgeoning Israeli settlements that almost reach Ramallah itself. The two cities are now cut off by the Separation Barrier - an 8 metre high wall through the built up areas. It reminds me of the Berlin Wall separating East and West although this is twice as high. Several checkpoints are negotiated before we arrive in Ramallah. The city is now a ghetto – sealed off by the Israeli military and surrounded by the Wall. In a strange sort of way I feel safer inside.
2:00 a meeting with members of the Palestinian Legislative Council. We are in a room with some of the senior leadership of the Palestinian government. Its hard to take in. The windows are open because there is no electricity so there is no air conditioning. I imagine an Israeli helicopter hovering outside and then try to forget the images of what happened on the beach in Gaza earlier in the day. We trace the roots of the Arab-Israeli conflict and Western involvement and share how Christians are contributing to the peace process. The atmosphere is warm and the politicians and officials present are very positive and have lots of questions. As we leave we discover everyone present is a member of Fatah. We are disappointed no one from Hamas is present. We suspect they were not invited. The events later that week in Ramallah give a hint as to the reason why. The tensions within the Palestinian leadership, as much as the wider population, run high as they are gripped ever tighter within the noose of Israel’s unilaterally imposed solution.
4:00 Getting out of Ramallah is a whole lot harder than getting in. The traffic at the checkpoints isn’t moving at all so our driver finds a circuitous route in the opposite direction along the route of the Separation Barrier which somehow leads us onto one of the new roads built exclusively for Israeli settlers. Three more checkpoints and we are back in the bustle of Arab East Jerusalem. It has taken two hours to drive just ten miles. We could have walked it but for the heat.
Friday 9th June: Jerusalem & Netanya
10:00 A meeting with the Latin Patriarch - Archbishop Michel Sabbah. He is pleased to meet us and is encouraged by our support for the Church in Jerusalem. He shares his concerns for their future without a negotiated peace deal. He says the Christian community is haemorrhaging and perhaps only one generation from extinction.
1:00 We negotiate a taxi to Netanya on the Israeli coast north of Tel Aviv. $120 return is a rip off but there is no other way to get there in an hour. We split it three ways.
2:00 We are here not to sunbathe but to meet Akivar Eldar. Akivar is an Israeli Jew and the Senior Columnist with Haaretz, the leading Israeli newspaper. He has also just contributed to a new Arab-Israeli film called “The Iron wall”. We met a month ago in Amsterdam where the film was premiered. It is Friday afternoon and close to the start of Shabbat so although he was keen to interview us, we must go to him so he won’t have to travel when the Sabbath begins in a couple of hours. We meet in a café close to the beach. You can smell the Mediterranean and it feels very European here. There are security guards on the door who check us and our bags. It is hard to imagine suicide bombings in such an idyllic setting yet this is the nightmare contemporary Zionism has created.
Akivar shares how his Editorial Board at Haaretz has agreed to oppose the Israeli Separation Barrier. They regard it as deeply detrimental to the security of Israelis as well as Palestinians. It will not further the peace process he insists. For nearly two hours we discuss across the table Israeli, American and British perspectives on the future of the peace process. I drink three coffee milkshakes and feel pregnant all the way home.
Back on the main road to Jerusalem we pass through remnants of the Occupied West Bank. The Separation Barrier – in places, carefully camouflaged with trees and landscaping or painted with mock viaducts. We notice how all the junctions leading to Palestinian villages on either side of the main road are now blocked with rubble or concrete barriers. There is no way out and I remember a conversation with Olivia, an old Palestinian friend, from the night before. “Palestine is like a volcano” she had said. How long before it blows, I wonder?
7:30 A meal with Naim & Mahar Ateek. They live in a Palestinian village on the edge of Jerusalem, soon to be cut in two by the route of the Separation Barrier. Garth Hewitt and his family are also invited. On Sunday Garth is being made a Canon of St George’s Cathedral in recognition of his work for justice and peace in the Middle East. Garth founded Amos Trust - an agency we support as a church. www.amostrust.org Ten years or so ago, Naim founded Sabeel, a Palestinian Ecumenical Theological Centre in Jerusalem. www.sabeel.org Sabeel is the leading ecumenical voice of the indigenous Christian community of Palestine. Committed to non-violent resistance to the occupation, Sabeel sponsors theological research, youth projects and interfaith dialogue. It is a relaxing evening with friends and we hone the Jerusalem Declaration on Naim’s computer between the courses.
Saturday 10th June: Bethlehem & Jerusalem
10:00 A morning with Professor Jeff Halper. Jeff is an Israeli Jew who founded the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions www.icahd.org Jeff kindly takes us on a tour of the Israeli settlements and Palestinian villages to the south of Jerusalem.
We stop at the new terminal controlling entry into Bethlehem. Bethlehem is now a ghetto. The deportations, especially of the 200,000 Palestinians who now find themselves caught between the 1967 international borders and the Separation Barrier, can only be a matter of time. The wall surrounding Bethlehem is hideous. I am unable to find words to express my horror and shame. How could Western churches be so silent and allow this to happen to the very birthplace of Jesus. The International Court of Justice, the highest court in the world, has already ruled the Barrier illegal, demanding its removal with compensation to be paid to Palestinians whose homes have been destroyed. But no one is listening.
Our only companions as we tour the wall are a pack of wild dogs. They seem as annoyed as us at not being able to enter for their lunch. And overlooking the Wall to the north is the ever encroaching settlement of Gilo. As we stand at the checkpoint absorbing the view, an Arab stops and kindly offers us a lift into Bethlehem. But we don’t have enough time to negotiate the check points so we turn west and drive through the settlement of Har Homa, Hebrew for ‘the Mountain of the Wall’. It is an apt description for what has become a small city on the edge of the Barrier. It is hard to remember that this was once a beautiful nature reserve covered in trees and called Jabal Abu Ghoneim - the ‘Green Mountain’ in Arabic. Watching the destruction, reminds me of how Aslan, in the Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, is humiliated on the stone table when his beautiful mane of hair is shorn. Visit www.sizers.org to view some photographs.
We get lost several times trying to use the back roads through the small Arab villages between Jerusalem and Bethlehem. The Israelis have blocked off many of the access roads and in Silwan we view two new Israeli settlements built by the controversial American gambling mogul Irving Moskovitch. We stop in an Arab village and buy drinks. Smiling, Jeff remarks that most Israelis would not dare shop in a Palestinian village. The juice is cool and the hospitality warm. As we drive into West Jerusalem from the Palestinian village on the outskirts, suddenly the pitted dirt road gives way to smooth tarmac, and mysteriously, pavement’s and street lights and waste bins appear. We have crossed the invisible Green Line from Occupied Palestine to pre 1967 Israel proper. Both communities pay the same Jerusalem taxes, indeed the 30% who are Arab pay 50% of the taxes, yet receive only 8% of the municipal budget.
5:00 I give a presentation on Morally Responsible Investment at the East Jerusalem YMCA sponsored by Sabeel. Don speaks about Christian Zionism and then we field questions. The room is packed out - maybe 120 are present. Some of the staff of World Vision working in Jerusalem have come. The question time reveals a high level of understanding of the complex issues surrounding the conflict. There is hope.
Outside the YMCA, however, I catch sight of a cluster of Israeli flags near the Mount Scopus hotel, less than 200 yards away. These identify yet more Arab homes confiscated and fortified with armed security towers to provide another foothold for Settlers. Their presence adds yet more tension in this rapidly shrinking part of Arab East Jerusalem.
Sunday 11th June: Jerusalem to Amman
10:00 A combined bi-lingual Arab and English communion service at St George’s Cathedral. During the service Garth Hewitt is made Canon of Damascus within the Diocese of Jerusalem and in his new robes sings a couple of songs with a borrowed guitar. It is a joyous celebration in what are the last few months before Riah retires as the Episcopal Bishop in Jerusalem. Sadly, we can’t stay for the party because the taxi is waiting to take us back to the Allenby Bridge for the crossing into Jordan.
11:30 The journey down to the Jordan Valley takes us past Bedouin camps, their black sheep and goats, a random pattern of polka dots across the inhospitable and bleached wilderness. Even the Bedouin are being evicted from their traditional grazing to make way for the expanding settlement of Maale Adumin that now encroaches almost as far as Jericho.
Hurtling down the main road, ever downward, passing the sign indicating sea level, I am tempted to hold my breath, pretending I am now under water. But the landscape before us, eroded by some primeval flood has long evaporated to form a moonscape of wind-blown rock sculptures.
The mirage of Jericho rises as an oasis of green on the horizon. The Separation Barrier here is more subtle but just as effective. The entire city of Jericho is surrounded by a two - three meter wide and deep ditch. Electric fences and a dirt road on the outside of the ditch is raked by the Israeli security forces using a jeep pulling what looks like a lawn roller to detect the footprints of unwanted intruders. There is just one road in and out of Jericho manned by several Israeli check points. Another ghetto. We drive around the circumference bypass ‘ring road’ to reach the Allenby Bridge passing the Monastery of Saint Gerassimos with its lone Greek monk.
The crossing is much quicker - just an hour - and less stressful when a shared experience.
4:00 We arrive in Amman - the Regency Hotel – it reminds me of the splendour of the London Ritz – an oasis of tranquillity from a bygone age. There is just enough time to shower, change my shirt and meet up with Professor Norton Mezvinsky for a lift to Petra University on the outskirts of Amman. Norton and I are co-authoring a book for Pluto on Christian Fundamentalism. His earlier work with Israel Shahak on Jewish Fundamentalism is a classic.
5:00 At the invitation of Professor Fuad Shaban, Petra University is hosting a special evening seminar for Norton and I to deliver papers on Christian Zionism. The invitation came about after I reviewed one of Fuad’s books www.cc-vw.org/articles/zionssake.htm The room is full of distinguished academics and I feel very intimidated. Norton is in good form and ignores repeated requests by Fuad to finish his presentation on time. A good deal of bantering ensues between friends.
Professor Kamel Abu Jaber, of the Jordan Institute for Middle East Studies and the former Foreign Minister of Jordan, gives a gracious response. There is a constructive exchange of ideas. We meet Tareq and Jacqueline Ismael, both professors at the University of Calgary, in Canada, and have a delightful and animated ride home with them in their taxi.
Monday 12th June: Amman, Jordan
We are in Amman for the Second World Congress on Middle East Studies organised by Prince El Hassan Bin Talal and the Royal Institute for Inter-Faith Studies (RIIFS). www.riifs.org Don, Mike, Anne, Norton and I are to deliver papers tomorrow in a panel on Christian Zionism. Don, Mike and I are sharing a triple room to save funds. But we are still paying more than Norton in his double room. Sometimes it seems what matters is who you know not what you know.
10:00 We attend the opening ceremony at the Palace of Culture and hear a moving presentation by Prince Hassan and a welcome delivered on behalf of King Abdullah. Security is tight although the metal detectors appear only symbolic. They bleep constantly as the 1,200 participants snake through, non stop, single file.
12:00 A luncheon banquet follows for all the participants, and yes, there is a seat and more than enough food for everyone. Arab hospitality again. We discover we are sharing a table with the only Israeli’s present at the Congress. Is this providence? A group of Jewish ladies from the Negev are here to deliver papers on feminism, at least that is what they say. We have an interesting ‘interesting’ dialogue about Zionism. We discover several Arab participants are now boycotting the Congress because these Israelis have been invited. How can an international conference exclude one nationality? We can empathise with both perspectives. Peacemaking is not easy. Perhaps that is why I am not a diplomat.
19:00 A delightful evening meal with Professors Kamel Abu Jaber, Tareq and Jacqueline Ismael and Fuad Shaban. We briefly find ourselves also joining in the festivities of a Jordanian wedding party who take over the restaurant. The Bride and Groom are serenaded into a lift. The discussion on our table takes in the implications of over a million Iraqi refugees, some very wealthy, many very poor, now impacting the stability of Jordan.
Tuesday 13th June: Amman, Jordan
10:00 The big day has arrived. We find our venue - it only holds about 30-40 seats. Given that there are around 15 seminars running simultaneously, as well as a fashion show billed at the same time as our seminar, we agree that if we fill the room, we will consider it successful. We start late as they try and accommodate around 100 people who cram into our room. Eventually we leave the doors open so folk sitting and standing outside can join in. The atmosphere is electric. With discipline we each take 15 minutes for our presentations. We’ve agreed who ever goes over time buys lunch. It works. The question time overruns and no one kicks us out. We are elated.
20:00 We find a late night street café for an authentic Jordanian fast food meal - a kind of mixed grill with salad and chips with loads of warm flat bread served up in a cardboard box. Not sure what kind of meat we are eating but it is definitely not pork.
Wednesday 14th June: Amman to Beirut
07:30 Instead of attending the conference, I decide to visit the Holy Land Institute for the Deaf in Salt with Yousef Rizik for the day. I first met Yousef in 2004. He is the Project Manager for one of the Institute’s projects. An early start for the drive to Salt. The temperature is soon in the 40’s. Run by the Diocese of Jerusalem, I was last here about ten years ago when Garth Hewitt gave a concert as part of a tour of Jordan and Palestine. He sang to the deaf children and they held balloons to feel the vibrations from his guitar. Brother Andrew used sign language to communicate the words. It was the most moving concert of the whole tour. The work now embraces support not only for deaf but also blind and disabled children and young adults. The Institute provides much needed education and vocational training. www.allah-kariem.org It is so good to meet Brother Andrew again and see how the work has expanded. Scope for a possible link with Christ Church. Most of the day is spent with staff and pupils. Their dedication and love for the children is infectious.
18:00 Depart for Beirut, Lebanon with Middle East Airways. 19:00 Arrive in Beirut and a short drive to the Casa D'or hotel in Hamra in downtown Beirut. First impressions are of one giant construction site. The old scars left by shell fire from the civil war are still just visible behind the new glamorous European Beirut rising from the ashes.
Second impressions are that I am glad I am not driving. Red lights, stop signs and double white lines seem entirely optional, while constantly changing lanes is the norm. The principle seems to be ‘who dares gets there first’ and this applies as much to car drivers as to pedestrians. People you want to cross the road just walk into the traffic and it drives around them as they cross the road, the slower the better.
Thursday 15th June: Beirut, Lebanon
10:00 I am pleased to be able to spend some time with Nabil Shehadeh, Vicar of All Saints International Congregation, Beirut. We met at Wycliffe Hall in Oxford when Nabil was completing his theological studies a few years ago. He shows me round Beirut including the beautiful Anglican church, now dwarfed by the luxury sea front developments. We view the new Roman excavations, the beautiful Greek Orthodox Church of St George and the tent memorial to the former Prime Minister Rafiq Harari, assassinated along with 22 others in the massive car bomb explosion.
Harari’s giant photographs are everywhere, on the side of buildings and draped high over main roads. Some include the phrase “The truth will set you free”. We visit the site of his assassination and see the swath of destruction that has torn out the soul of the surrounding buildings in this part of Beirut. The reconstruction of Beirut as a whole has enabled planners and architects to cut a wide avenue of open space through what was once densely built ‘no man’s land’ in the civil war.
The ravages of war even intrude into the sanctity of St George’s Church. The fresco of the trial of Jesus before Pilate is riddled with bullet holes. Jesus is the target. The hole in his heart is more than symbolic. Another fresco of the Garden of Gethsemane has Jesus kneeling in prayer - a spray of bullets form a halo around his body.
12.00 Dr Riad Jarjour arrives to take me to the Makassed Shia Institute for Islamic Studies for a presentation on Christian Zionism. We receive a warm welcome and my presentation is filmed for TV. An interview with a Lebanese newspaper follows.
18:00 We leave for Saida (Sidon) for a presentation at another Islamic college. This time Professor Nicolas Mrad, who is presently translating my book into Arabic, acts as a translator for my presentation. Nicolas is Professor at Balamand University and the Lebanese American University, Beirut. Sidon is south of Beirut, along the coast, and the journey seems to take for ever as we encounter several military checkpoints. This week the Lebanese security forces have arrested members of a Mossad spy ring and they are looking for their accomplices. To celebrate the end of the day we have a meal at a simple fish restaurant on the beach. You pick your own fish before they are cooked. Its very tasty. I am already asleep by the time we get back to the hotel.
Friday 16th June: Beirut, Lebanon
This morning I get to visit the famous Jeita Grotto. These are the largest natural caves in the Middle East and contain massive stalactites and stalagmites. They are as impressive as those found in the Cheddar Gorge. The humidity reaches more than 90% and breathing in little oxygen deep inside the mountain is difficult.
13:00 I dress smartly for a lunch appointment with Michel Eddeh, a former Cabinet Minister for Culture and Higher Education in Lebanon. He is generously sponsoring the Arabic translation of my book.
19.00 I give a presentation to the Haigazian Armenian University, Beirut on a Christian perspective on the peace process. This has been advertised widely and Muslims as well as Druze leaders are present along with members of the local Christian community, students and faculty. The response is very positive. What strikes me about each presentation so far is how the feedback is the same – the audiences, both Muslim and Christian, want to work together to bring lasting peace with justice in the Middle East.
Saturday 17th June: Beirut to Damascus
Something I ate last night did not agree with me and I am up much of the night with stomach ache. I’m drained and washed out but some strong medication from the local chemist keeps me going. You know I think it must be part of the training chemists receive the world over - how to diagnose your medical condition in front of other customers - maybe its to engender group therapy or demonstrate their prowess. Other people in the queue commiserate with me as I pay for my medication and put my sunglasses on again.
The journey from Beirut to Damascus takes us through some of the most beautiful scenery I have seen. Windy roads lead us higher and higher into the mountains and then down into the Beqaa Valley before crossing the border into Syria. The distance between the two checkpoints is a couple of miles revealing the degree of ambiguity as to the exact location of the border. Security is not so tight here. The taxi driver takes my passport and visa and manages to get it stamped without my presence. I stay and rest in the car. It is exceedingly hot and I am longing to get to the hotel.
We stop soon after the border for a lavish meal to meet some distinguished guests - and all I can cope with is some plain boiled potatoes, despite constant protestations that I must be starving. A can of the local Seven Up helps psychologically. Eventually we arrive at Le Meridian. It’s the most luxurious hotel I have ever seen and I get to stay here just one night! An hour on the bed (and the air conditioning) revives me.
First impressions of the cars in Syria (what else are boys interested in) is that there seem to be a lot of old American classics on the roads - the kind you see in 1960 movies. They all seem to have aircraft tail fins and boots (trunks) designed to take a double bed.
19:00 I give a presentation in Damascus at the Islamic Studies Centre and meet various members of the Syrian Parliament including Professor George Jabbour, President of the Syrian UN Association who are in the audience. I also meet Michael Danke, a diplomat from the South African Embassy. Afterwards I am feeling much better and hungry. Nicolas has translated for me and we are working well as a pair. I sleep well tonight. The bed is most comfortable.
Sunday 18th June: Damascus, Syria
Today is a big day. We have an audience with the Grand Mufti of Syria - Ahmad Badr Al-Din Hassoun - the most senior Muslim leader in Syria. He is gentle and gracious and speaks encouragingly of the need for closer dialogue between the faith communities. He is critical of the fundamentalists and pleased to know my book will soon be in Arabic.
Then we visit the government media headquarters for an hour long interview for Syrian TV. The building is also the home of the Syrian government Minister of Communications, Mohsen Bilal. We meet briefly for coffee. We then visit Fayez Saygh, the Assistant Minister for Communication and General Director of Syrian TV station for another coffee.
In the afternoon, we visit Straight Street and the House of Judas where Saul was brought, and where Ananias leads him to faith in Jesus (Acts 9). We visit a church associated with the event - its a beautiful place for quiet contemplation. I buy a cross. We also visit the impressive Great Umayyad Mosque which incorporates a chapel dedicated to John the Baptist. He is seen as a prophet within Islam and the chapel allegedly contains his body. Many Muslims come forward to pray near it while children play inside his baptistery nearby. It reminds me to buy some olive oil soap to bring home.
In the afternoon we make the journey home to Beirut. It turns into the hairiest ride of my life. We are frequently overtaking cars as they are themselves overtaking other cars on the wrong side of the double white lines. I begin composing my obituary then the words for my grave stone. The driver ignores the pleas in Arabic from Riad on the back seat, so I pray. We survive the hairpin bends and I eventually get a good night’s sleep.
Monday 19th June: Beirut to Cairo
The morning flight to Cairo goes smoothly although the heat when we land is debilitating. Now in the upper 40s.
The driving here reminds me of Roman chariot racing - as innovative as anything seen in Lebanon and Syria. Although here the cars seem even older. This must be where all the MOT failures of Europe escape to and start a new life. They are painted black and white and become taxis. There are fleets of Ladas and Fiats that seem trapped in an Egyptian equivalent of the Bermuda Triangle time warp. I am convinced of one thing however. I don’t need to change my own car so often. Clearly Egyptian car mechanics are among the best in the world. I save my energy for the evening.
We check into our hotel - the Nile Hilton - overlooking the Nile and next to Cairo Museum . Thankfully, I’m not having to pay for this one either.
17:00 A three hour meeting at Cairo University. Here they go in for seriously long lectures. I get to speak for an hour and then they open it up for questions. The lecture theatre is packed with students and faculty, journalists and politicians, Egyptian, Palestinian and Expats. I get to meet some very interesting people including Sofian Alkhaldi of the Palestinian Embassy, Essam El-Din Hawas, former Egyptian Ambassador to Qatar and Ghaith El Lulki of the League of the Arab States. Several journalists from Al-Ahram and Roseel Youssef want to do some interviews.
Tuesday 20th June: Cairo, Egypt
9:00am I visit Cairo Museum and finally meet Tutankhamen and members of his family. It is a highlight of the tour. It is like going back in time - to when I visited museums as a child - the exhibits here are still displayed with faded hand typed descriptions in English and French. Priceless treasures are housed in simple glass cupboards with minimal security. However, the museum is surrounded by armed Egyptian soldiers in bright white uniforms - one every twenty yards. The museum or surrounding hotels are clearly seen as potential targets for terrorists.
16:00-18:00 I appear on Islam Online. It is housed in a nondescript building somewhere in downtown Cairo yet receives a cool 250,000 hits a day. The taxi has great difficulty finding the location. Islam Online is the clearing house for discussion and ideas on Islam. www.islamonline.net If you want to follow the hour long conversation visit http://www.islamonline.net/livedialogue/english/Browse.asp?hGuestID=jDMzQk
People around the world raise questions and all I have to do is comment. A young lady types my replies as I speak - very fast. Islam Online are pleased that I have been willing to participate and are keen to involve more Christians in similar dialogues in the future. The staff are young, articulate and dedicated.
19:00 I give a lecture at an Islamic Centre in Cairo on Christian involvement in the peace process. It’s a small building packed with friendly men and women. They all speak English as well as the translator so they freely interject when they think they can improve on his translation. They are very pleased to have me. As we leave around 22:00, it looks as if the men are about to settle down for another lecture or discussion.
22:00 We find a popular fish restaurant and I get to choose my fish again - this time with the biggest ‘giant’ prawns I have ever seen. I get home around midnight and dream of fish.
Wednesday 21st June: Cairo, Egypt
8:00 This morning at long last I get to be a tourist. It is my last day and we take a taxi to Giza and see the Pyramids and the Sphinx. I’ve seen plenty of photos and I kind of imagined they were miles from no where - not on the edge of Cairo. They also look smaller than I had imagined but are no less impressive. And no - I am not in the least bit tempted to try and climb one. I also resist all temptations to ride a camel, donkey, mule and horse or have my photo taken with one of either. I get to stand next to the pyramid builder, however, or at least his stone replica, in his own tomb and have my photo taken.
12:00 A visit to Old Cairo and the Coptic quarter. We visit the 'hanging church' or Mo'allaqa church built on the Old Roman watch-tower. It is associated with the flight of Mary and Joseph with baby Jesus from Herod. The local Christians like to remind you that Jesus was safe in Egypt. I buy a cross to complement the one from Damascus.
17:00 A meeting with the leadership of the Al-Wasat Party. Al-Wasat is kind of in the middle of the political spectrum which means it is seen as far left by the ruling party. Abou Elela Mady, the founder, and his colleagues are calling for Western style accountability and reforms, challenging the government imposed ban on their party through the Egyptian courts. I give my presentation and they are keen to dialogue in the future.
19:00 The final event. A lecture at the Evangelical Theological Seminary, Cairo. It is well attended with students and faculty, with guests from other faith communities. I meet the President of ETSC, the Revd Dr Atef Gendy, the President of the British University in Egypt, Dr Mostafa El Feki, who is also chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee, and other church leaders in Cairo. The faculty are pleased and we have a wonderful meal together. We say goodbye. It is 22:30 and as we leave I realise the temperature outside is as warm as it was inside. I try and get my last few photos of Egyptian taxis.
23:00 Time to pack and I try and stay awake for the 01:00 wake up call.
Thursday 22nd June: Cairo to London
01:00 Riad phones to make sure I am awake for the 01:30 taxi. I seem to remember I’ve done this once before. A final ‘goodbye’ to Riad. We begin planning another visit to the Middle East to coincide with my book’s publication in Arabic.
02:15 Check in at Cairo Airport and an 04:15 departure for Amsterdam. I feel sad to be leaving but sleep on the plane like a baby and nearly skip breakfast. A two hour stop over in Amsterdam enables me to view the airport exhibition on Rembrandt and begin working on Sunday’s sermon.
10:30 Arrive Heathrow and home for another nap.