A Day Out

or Why being a Catholic is OK

Beirut 2009

Anyway.  It’s a wonderful idea for the Jesuits to provide a day out for the ancillary workers at the boarding school just outside Beirut and someone very kindly suggested that it would be nice for me to tag along and perhaps get a chance to stutter a few words of broken Arabic.  One of the problems with being in a Jesuit community is that it can end up quite a good way of isolating yourself from the Rest of the World, so for a number of reasons this seemed like a good thing.

So there they all are, the big cheese (in charge of admin) looking very venerable (silver hair, a moustache and a certain amplitude are necessary for high office here), about forty other employees of the school and four Jesuits, y compris moi.  Our vehicles are two rather battered twenty-five-seater minibuses.  We clamber in in a random sort of a way, someone’s loaded up water and coffee and stuff and we head off.  I position myself near the back on the grounds that if there’s to be any action this is probably where it is going to be.

There appears to be basically a male female divide between the two buses and the blokes, including the big cheese, are mostly in my bus, with the less secretarial end of the female staff (I think).  Next to me is a bloke who looks like a 60 year old Burt Lancaster, who is in charge of carpentry.  At the front are clearly the lads (electricians as it turns out) – at the front in this case means squeezing next to and around the driver – and in front of me is an ex lad – the chief electrician who has recently married.

I am hazy about where we are going and what we are going to do, except I know there’s supposed to be some holy stuff on the way (just trying to imagine going on a pilgrimage with all the staff of a British school, teaching or ancillary) but my Arabic is at the catch-every-fifth word stage (and that’s only because the word in question is ‘but’) so ear-wigging doesn’t give me much of a way in.

As we race along the coast road north (big cheers all round as we pass the other bus), I am rather wondering how to get through the day.  However, as we hang a right and head off into the hills (and by the way these are serious hills, we’re talking 2000/3000 metres), one of the lads, who is master of revels and is sitting on the dashboard, starts stuffing in the tapes.  I don’t know whether you’ve ever listened to Arabic music, but it’s pretty much what you’d expect half way between India and Greece, lots of dramatic sliding, v. rhythmic and some good, rousing shouting choruses, and words like ‘habibi’ (darling) ‘lail’ (night) etc.

So we start tearing up the narrowing, winding, and badly asphalted roads to our first pilgrimage stop, Our Lady of something I can’t quite remember (Our Lady is big in Lebanon, in some places absolutely enormous), and as we go, a lady in red, who’s sitting in one of the pull-out seats in the middle of the gangway is getting really into it – she’s got the movement of the hands and head, though she’s still sitting down.  She’s not an oil-painting but is clearly prepared to be the life and soul, and before you know it everyone else is clapping away, and Burt Lancaster in the seat next to me is doing his own arm-waving.  The Lady in Red is v encouraged and as a particularly rumbustious number comes on, undeterred by unfriendly g-forces from the bends in the road, she gets up and does a bit of a twirl – remember that moment in Casablanca with the dancer, before the Germans get going?  Though the effect is slightly spoiled by her having to hold onto the roof in order to stay relatively upright.  Burt Lancaster is also about to leave his seat, but at this point we arrive at the first sanctuary.

Without any co-ordination everyone sort of seems to know what’s happening, and it all happens at a fairly leisurely pace, so we go into the sanctuary, which is adorned throughout with rather alarming life-size statuary.  You turn round one corner and there are the magi with camel, worshipping the infant etc.  As we go in a large notice proclaims in its English translation:

Sanctuary of Our Lady of X

Everything is Forbidden

Except prayer and reflection.

The large modern Church has a tower with Our Lady of X on top of it looking out to sea.  She has a fantastic view, over a plain filled with olive trees, going out towards Tripoli.  Inside, in front of the sanctuary, there is a life-size group of the apostles at the last supper, made even more disconcerting than the other statues outside because they are painted.  Most of them are sitting cross-legged except for Judas who is just getting up to leave, this makes for a very strange effect during Mass, as he prepares to head through the rest of the congregation on the margins.  They handed out leaflets with lots of hymns to Our Lady – one of them was the Arabic version of the Lourdes hymn and one was, I suspect, a shade political with reference to Lebanon and Arz (the word here refers to cedars).

After Mass we turn a corner and see a sign ‘Lift to the Blessed Virgin’, before we go on to enjoy the still life scene of the Wedding at Cana, which has a very smiley Jesus presiding over a fountain which flows into pitcher 1 as clear water and comes out of pitcher 3 (horizontal) as wine.  The notice warns ‘undrinkable water’.

Non-verbal communication got under way in the bus as I was offered coffee and a bit of a pitta and thyme sandwich, while we waited for people to return from discovering the cafeteria.  Eventually we were all back and ready for the next bit of the outing, to a boating lake on the way to the next sanctuary.   Things were really hotting up in our bus by this stage – in the other bus, apparently they’d been singing hymns – the volume was turned up and the L in R was really letting herself go.  Burt couldn’t hold himself back, he too had all the moves, with the come-hither gestures, though because he was tall he had to crouch a bit.  At the boating lake everyone raced out – the lads headed straight for the jetty, not for the boats but to take pictures of one another by the lake.  A group of teenagers and their teachers started doing the local Lebanese round dance to a large bongo-like drum.  Our lot had to be dragged away.

We partied on to another hilltop shrine to Our Lady which would have offered a fantastic view if it wasn’t for the low cloud (I think we were about 1200 m) but which did have a spectacular modern Church and a 7th Century shrine.  In impressive Catholic fashion, the party moved seamlessly into fervent prayer and then, after our visit, back into the mood-setting for the Big Eat.  This was to take place at a restaurant with a huge amount of tented space, which on a sunny day… etc. but today felt decidedly brisk.  The management was adamant that the indoor section of the restaurant was closed and the mood of the meeting was temporarily muted.  However, cloaks were provided for us to wrap ourselves in, out came the Araq (basically Ouzo) – the electricians had brought their own whisky to supplement this – and along came the bits and pieces, various plates of white houmous like paste, sliced veg including beetroot and baby cucumbers (these seem very popular here) and various sorts of bread to accompany the other starting eats.

The just- got- married electrician took me under his wing and we talked in French, so I ended up between the lads at the far end of the table and the respectable we- remember- what- it- was- like- to- be at the other, with the big cheese looking patriarchal, and a harmless little bloke just enjoying the mood, and Hanna (a bloke) older, but not ready to hand in the towel just yet.

You know how in every group of twenty-thirty something males, there’s always one who is a complete psycho and who keeps the party spinning?  With eyes that stand out just a little bit?  Well there was one of those – they were quite calm for most of the Meze but when the main course was half-way through, even though the restaurant’s sound-system was kaputt, they insisted on singing.

One of the female members of staff had brought the drum and this was passed from one to another.  The singing got louder and more enthusiastic, though not entirely more tuneful.  Hanna seemed particularly skillful when the drum was passed to him, while the electricians were only too happy to take to their chairs and bust some sinuous moves for the benefit of the clapping multitude.  One of the bus drivers (I had been counting his beers – only two I think) found a child from another table with a camera.  Photo’s all round.    Burt Lancaster had ended up on the other table, as had the women in red, but everyone had a little go at the round dance eventually, though I managed to knock over someone’s hubble-bubble, on my way.

When we got to the buses, not everyone was ready to stop partying.  Our bus driver cannily seized the initiative and the drum, gave a deeply impressive performance for the space of one song and then handed it back to its owner, the Lady Responsible For The Outing, before the psycho-electrician realised that it had been taken off him.

Alas, a kilometer down the road, the party was continuing in our bus to the sound of the tapes, when the woman in red signalled frantically to the driver to stop.  The poor thing had to step off and be sick.  This had a chastening effect on the general mood.  The volume was turned down.  Even the electrician on the dashboard was muted in the vomiting gesture with which he explained what was happening to the bus in front.  Clearly some members of the bus were grateful for the more sedate atmosphere which was supervening.  The lady in red lay down and a hush surrounded her.  But as the roads began to straighten out, she started to perk up.  You can’t keep a good girl down.  By the time we hit the straight coast road, she was up and dancing with the tape at full volume.  She clearly decided it was time to get the harmless little bloke to join in the fun and so she grabbed a sheaf of the hymns to Our Lady and waved them fan like in front of his face.  He, unfortunately, was not in such a positive mood at this stage, snatched them from her and threw them out of the window.  She did not take this amiss and however hard he tried to keep a fold-out chair between him and the dance, she did her best to make sure that he did not feel left out.

And so at last we returned, partied out (at least I was).  I hardly spoke a word of Arabic and I’ve no idea what they were talking about, but they clearly know how to have a good time.

It was Catholic.