Monday, 26 July 2010

A 30 Day Retreat: Book Review

Over the next couple of days I want to share a couple of books I have been reading lately, and  found useful. Firstly, there is this gentle but  engaging spiritual manual, A 30 Day Retreat by William C Mills.

Wiliam C Mills is an Eastern Orthodox priest, a university teacher and a pastor. This book of spiritual exercises reflects all of these aspects of his life, but particularly the last. While it draws from the depths of Orthodox theology and reflects an impressive depth of scholarship, it is aimed squarely at ordinary, everyday Christians seeking to deepen their spirituality. The format is one which is common enough: there are 30 chapters, each beginning with a brief passage from scripture. The heart of each chapter  is a commentary on the passage, usually running to 3 or 4 pages, which is followed by a few questions, aimed at leading the reader into  deeper reflection on the passage and on the points raised by the commentary. Each chapter ends with  some suggestions for further Biblical reading. Very helpfully, there is an appendix which describes the Lectio Divina: a way of reading the Bible in order to maximise engagement with The Word of God contained within it, and this inclusion nicely indicates the tenor of the book. While the format is similar to more famous offerings from the likes of Oswald Chambers, C.S. Lewis and William Barclay, this is a book for a rigorous workout for the soul, rather than for ongoing day to day spiritual feeding.

That being said, the approach to spiritual growth is pastoral; the reflections in the book are couched in terms and filled with examples that everyone should find accessible. The language is gentle, and the reader is led calmly and logically through each of the 30 themes. The tone of each chapter is that of a well crafted sermon by an erudite but pastorally connected priest. To deal with each of the day's exercises properly : to read the passage prayerfully, read the reflection and spend some time with the questions takes at least half an hour, and again, this indicates the uses the book has been designed for. I  imagine this would be a useful companion on a private individual retreat, or  as a devotional manual for Lent, or as a study and devotional series for a housegroup; but there is another use I could see for it in my own Diocese of far flung, sometimes under resourced parishes. A congregation lacking a preacher could do a lot worse than reading a chapter of A 30 Day Retreat, and inviting the congregation to take  the questions home for reflection during the week.

This is a useful, well written text. The theology is sound, the tone is gentle but, ultimately, challenging, and there are plenty of pithy little illustrations to keep the imagination up to speed. It would be a useful addition to any private or parish library

Wednesday, 21 July 2010

A Tale Of Three Cities

I have been driving around Doha for the last couple of days, which was initially daunting because they drive on the wrong side of the road and almost every intersection is controlled by a roundabout. Roundabouts I generally regard as one of the more enlightened forms of traffic control: as long as everyone keeps cool and keeps moving the traffic slips on through with no problems at all. But add in the factors of having to remember to look the other way, and the standard of Qatari driving they can be a bit nerve wracking. We're all still alive, though, and I've gone a long way through the heat and dust with large 4X4s looming in the rear view mirror with the driver mouthing in Arabic unkind things about my parents .

Doha is about the size of Auckland, both in geographical and demographic terms. It is criss crossed by a network of new roads, often up to 8 lanes wide, which feed traffic into a maze of smaller and often older streets. Yesterday the wide roads took us to the Villagio, a shopping Mall dressed up as Venice, complete with a canal, gondolas and Rennaisance facades.This is just the place to go if you want a bit of a bargain on that new Porsche or you're sick of the old Rolex. It has a wonderful  Dean and Delucca deli and lots of places where you can buy big brand name stuff for cheap. While Clemency and Bridget sought out the bargains, I paid 21 Riyal (about $8) for a glass of orange juice and wondered if they did test drives on the Porsches until I remembered the roundabouts.

Later in the day we went to another city. The old Doha: the Souk. Or at least, it's what people think the old Doha should have looked like if it had only got its act together. The Souk is a labyrinth of small shops selling Arabic stuff. There's no airconditioning. There are old guys with wheelbarrows who follow you around so you don't have to carry whatever it is you've bought. It has spices and colour and people smoking Shisha and a shop which sells falcons, the birds not the cars and accessories for the same. There's been a Souk here for a very long time but the old one was a bit tatty so they replaced it with a better one complete with authentic antique Islamic ATMs, I kid you not. We bought strange sweets and "pies" made from 30 second old flatbread stuffed with deliciousness and Arabic family baboushka dolls.

Then today another Doha. This is one the Emir, so rumour has it, has  marked for demolition as soon as he's finished spending the trillions required for the massive up to the second hyper-city that is arising from nothing all around the shoreline. We visited the Islamic cultural centre, where we were received with great warmth and hospitality. We were given an expensive looking book on Islam, water, and Arabic tea and coffee. We were taken into the mosque and told why people never take the Koran into the toilet, or write in it, or place it on the ground, or carry it under their arm. We were given an object lesson on how to make a faith look hospitable and attractive that I only wish my own Diocese could observe and learn from. Then we went outside into the bit of Doha that the Emir is not so keen on. It is all flat, ugly 1960s modernist architecture and streets clogged with cars and battered airconditioners spewing hot air into the already 50 degree noontime. We went into a mall that sold nothing but Burkas: dozens and dozens of small shops displaying black frocks whose coloured cuffs and collars were the only distinguishing feature; and incongruously, all the tailors and salespeople seemed to be Indian men.

And incidentally there is lesson in here somewhere about the relationship of the genders in Islamic society, which is not quite as we Westerners have caricatured it. There is a story to be told that can only be told by Islamic women, and, obviously, they are hardly likely to tell it to me. But family life here is kinder, softer, richer, more finely nuanced, more balanced than I had imagined it to be. In the Souk I passed a man my own age. He was handsome and dignified in his thobe and kaffiyeh. He was holding hands with a very old man, obviously his father, and the old man, his powers well diminished, had slowed the flow of pedestrian traffic somewhat. The son looked at me and smiled, apologising in a glance for holding me up, but expressing not the slightest degree of embarrassment or regret. It was a 10 second vignette of  love and belonging which spoke a depth of family life we have long lost, if ever we had it.

All this life and vitality and eclecticism and ability to get things done and openness to the future and good taste and style and history and goodness and generosity and decency are not what I expected of Arabia and I find it enormously attractive. At 1 am tomorrow we will drive to Doha airport and begin the long, albeit quite comfortable thank you ma'am trip back to the land of the long white cloud. From this perspective New Zealand looks very young and very cold. I will be happy to get back, but hope it won't be long before I'm here, where it all started, once again.

Tuesday, 20 July 2010

Wadi Rum

Friday was our last full day in Jordan. We left Wadi Musa at Midday and headed for Lawrence of Arabia country. Wadi Rum, where we arrived in mid afternoon is a thousand square kilometres or so of sand, basalt and sandstone. It is the place where T.E. Lawrence did his bit for the Arab revolt and where the 1962 film about him was shot. We were taken for a hair raising ride through some of it in a beat up Nissan Patrol driven with consumate skill by a Bedouin driver who could not get his tongue around any of our names, except Scott's. "Ah," he said," like Saddam Hussein! Scud!"  We spent the night in tents, albeit ones equipped with beds and mattresses, but sleep was scarce on account of the heat and of the Lebanese girls dancing to very loud Arab pop music.

Wadi Rum is a place of  quiet and power and beauty. You know what they say about the relative worth of pictures and words so:

Friday, 16 July 2010

The Rose Red City

 It seems no work of Man's creative hand,
By labor wrought as wavering fancy planned;
But from the rock as if by magic grown,
Eternal, silent, beautiful, alone!
Not virgin-white like that old Doric shrine,
Where erst Athena held her rites divine;
Not saintly-grey, like many a minster fane,
That crowns the hill and consecrates the plain;
But rose-red as if the blush of dawn,
That first beheld them were not yet withdrawn;
The hues of youth upon a brow of woe,
Which Man deemed old two thousand years ago.
Match me such marvel save in Eastern clime,
A rose-red city half as old as time. 

 -John William Burgon
We woke early and left for Petra at 8 am. It was not quite early enough as the gates open at 6 am and by the time we had got tickets and linked up with Mahmoud, our guide, there were already people walking back and we weren't quite early enough to dodge the folks on bus tours. Not that there's anything wrong with people on bus tours, of course, but they do seem to have a penchant for standing in front of the pretty bits taking pictures of each other, and there are usually 40 of them. I had three expectations of Petra. 1. that it would be hot. 2. that it would be crowded and 3. that it would not live up to the exalted imaginings I had of the place. I was right about 1 and 2, but I was wonderfully wrong about number 3.
Nabatean tomb
We walked down the entrance path, past a few tombs hewn into the sandstone. Mahmoud, who had been raised in Petra pointed out the differences in Nabatean and Roman architecture. This city, situated to control the caravan routes through Arabia had been capital to the Biblical Edomites, then the Nabateans.  It had fallen under the control of the Romans, the Ottomans and the Arabs. All had left their mark but it was the Nabateans who made it what it is. A kilometer down the path we entered the narrow canyon called the Siq which is Petra's front door, and it was here that I realised that nothing in my imagination could possibly prepare me for the experience of the place. The Siq is in some places a hundred metres wide, and in others five. As you walk down the gradual slope towards the city it curves and turns, shifting from cool passageways to open sunny plazas, all naturally formed, of course. The sandstone twists and turns skyward: pink, ochre, red, burgundy, tan, cream, white blending together or laid in stripes or fading one into the other. In the walls are small tombs and niches, stairways, dams and partitions. A water channel runs the length of it, and was once connected to an ingenious system of cisternsand reservoirs. There is Roman paving underfoot, and perhaps Nabatean paving under that. In places there are the remains of what must have once been huge and impressive statues, and all of it is carved out of the rock.
A dam and part of the water channel in the Siq
It is not hard to imagine what it must have been like: from the ferocious desert the traveller would have entered this cool pink alleyway; running water on both sides; pools and cisterns dotted regularly along the course; trees and gardens planted in terraces or in small side valleys; cool even paving underfoot. It must have seemed like paradise.Then nearly a mile in, there would be the sight which remains unchanged, 2,000 years later. Turn a corner, and through the slit which is the end of the Siq is "The Treasury," glowing pink in the sunlight. I had seen it in hundreds of pictures. It was the backdrop for an Indiana Jones movie. But nothing prepared me for its beauty nor for its grandeur. Seeing it is to be transported back to the time before this was a ruin.

 A couple of tourists getting a snap in front of the Treasury
Emerging from the Siq the illusion of timelessness disappears in the bedlam of gawking tourists, stalls selling cold drinks and souvenirs, vendors flogging camel or donkey rides and children accosting us with armfuls of trinkets. 5 dinar sir, because I like you, but if you twist my arm who knows? I might go lower... The wide courtyard is full of movement, but there is nevertheless a sense of hushed quiet: Petra is bigger, older, more serene than the frantic pantomime of the courtyard in front of the treasury; and besides, the Nabateans were traders and would heartily approve of their descendents making a buck in this place. The valley opens up and in the walls around us are many tombs, homes and monuments carved into the rock. To make a cursory survey of the city would take, so they say, about three days. It is huge and we had one day. So we walked. It is possible not to walk. There are camels and donkeys for hire and you can, if you want, ride to even the highest points in the city, but walking, particularly with a knowledgable guide, connects you with a place in a way nothing else can.And thankfully, as we moved away from The Treasury out into the bright sunlight and the rest of this huge city, the crowds thinned.
Bridget and Scott look into the striped house
In about 3 hours we walked the length of the city and climbed up the 900 uneven, broken, steep steps to "the Monastary" (names are a bit arbitrary and bear no relationship to the original use of the buildings) and then further up to a place where the whole city and the deep rift valley containing the dead Sea lay before us and the mountains of Israel lay beyond. We dined in one of the two restaurants, the one housed in a large tent. We looked at the remains of the Roman collonaded street, and entered a house whose naturally striped walls and view out over the amphitheatre had once made it a guest house for VIPs.
The Monastery. The 2 people in front of it give a sense of scale
By the time we began the return journey up the Siq the temperature was well into the 30s, we had lready walked about 8-10 km, some of it almost vertically and my shirt was sodden. The sun was directly overhead as we walked back and the Siq took on a whole new character. An hour or so later we were back in the hotel with showers and a pool and beds. Petra is the reason I wanted to come to Jordan in the first place, and the trip has been worth it for today alone. I shall be back.

Thursday, 15 July 2010

Arabian Evenings

We drove a long way yesterday through the gray gritty Jordanian countryside. Every so often there would be a small business like town with its collection of shops and mosques, a bazaar and a church, and people for whom we were objects of mild curiosity. Near the towns were sometimes ragged Bedouin encampments: tents of brown camel hair or orange plastic; sheep; a few cows; camels; children; a mess of plastic litter. There was mile after mile of gently rolling hills, some of it well tended cropland baking in the post harvest sun, some of it bare gray desert.

At one stage we crested the brow of a hill and the Wadi Mujib opened out before us, about 1300 metres deep, a small version of the Grand Canyon. There was a slow winding descent and a winding slow slimb through its grandeur. We stopped at Madaba to see the ancient mosaic map on the floor of St George's (what else?) Orthodox church. We had a look at the magnificent Crusader castle at Kerak and arrived here, at Wadi Mussa (the Spring of Moses) around 5 pm.

We checked into our smallish but comfortable Arabian hotel, took a dip in the pool, and gathered on the roof terrace at 7pm for dinner. Us Europeans, dining as we do at the quaint time of 7 or 8 are bound to get a good table because we beat the Arabs to the smorgasboard by at least an hour. People here breakfast around 7, lunch - the main meal of the day- about 2 and dine about 9. Work and sleep fill the hours between.

Evenings are conducted in a very civilised fashion. Men gather for conversation (personal, and maybe some business), and perhaps to share a shisha and a cool drink between the office and home. Then around 9 the family gathers: men women and astonishingly well behaved children. All sit together as a nuclear unit or with friends or members of an extended family. The meal follows a well rehearsed pattern. First is salad, falafel, hummous, fresh flat bread, spices. Then meat dishes, usually lamb or beef but never, obviously, pork. Then there are sweets which are to European expectations mild and understated, usually centred on large plates of sliced melon, with jellies perhaps honey cake and a bland but refreshing junket. If someone told me I would have to eat Arabian cuisine every day for the rest of my life I would heartily thank them.

Then, after dinner, there is thick sweet coffee and shisha. Shisha is the traditional water pipe, shared by all adult members of the party, with smoke enjoyed for its flavour and aroma rather than for the buzz of nicotine, which it lacks anyway. Shisha is blended to give various flavours: apple, lemon, mint and so forth and in a culture with strong injunctions against alcohol, fills the same niche as wine in European cuisine.

So we sit. The familes begin to gather around us just as we finish and they are far too polite to stare. The waiters are attentive and the sun begins to sink behind the mountains of Petra to the West. Our food has been, as usual, delicious, and our pipe tonight is lemon and mint, which is regarded as more of a men's flavour than one for women; in any case Bridget doesn't like it as much as usual. As the sun sinks, the call to prayer sounds from the nearby mosque and is taken up by the other 4 mosques in town. Echoing, intertwining across what seems like a vast space in the twilight, there is a haunting, eerily beautiful challenge which no one in town can ignore:

God is greater than any description. 
There is no deity but God and Muhummad is a messenger of God. 
Make haste toward prayer. 
Make haste towards success. 
Prayer is better than sleep. 
God is the greatest! 
There is no deity but God,

The families pause their conversations. Within the hour the devout among them will respond but for now there are the gifts of God to share: fine food and shisha and shared words and each other

Wednesday, 14 July 2010


The Jordan River, looking towards the Orthodox Church of St. John The Baptist

Humanity had its beginnings in Africa, which means that in order for there to be people in the bits of the world that are not Africa, at some stage they had to pass through the narrow corridor we now call the Middle East. Unsurprisingly there are artefacts from every epoch of human history buried beneath Jordanian soil. We saw some of them this morning. There is a hill above Amman called the Citadel of Amman which has been inhabited for at least 10,000 years. There are very visible Roman and Ottoman ruins there, lots of archaeological diggings and the Jordanian Archaeological Museum. As far as exhibition space and facilities go, the JAM might best be described as basic, but it houses some amazing bits of kit. There are some Dead Sea Scrolls, for instance; real ones, not copies. There is the oldest statue ever discovered; and again, the actual statue is sitting there, not a copy of something out the back in an air conditioned vault.

The citadel is one of the high points of Amman, in every sense, so from here it was, literally, downhill all the way. In the space of about 30km we dropped from about 1100 metres above sea level to the Jordan valley about 480 metres below sea level. When we arrived at the site where Jesus was baptised by John, the temperature was in the low 40s. Because the site is in a military reserve, we travelled to it in an approved shuttle and by approved shuttle I mean the back of a truck. Before reaching the sacred site, we stopped to view the Jordan, and I must say Naaman sums it up pretty well. “there are a lot better rivers where I come from.” The Jordan, never a huge river, has been badly depleted by irrigation schemes and is now a narrow polluted muddy creek. At the site where, consensus has it, John worked and Jesus, in obedience, allowed John to minister to him, there is a shallow grey green puddle and the ruins of the 5 churches which have been built on top of the site and on top of one another. The River has changed course since John was here, and floods and earthquakes haven’t been kind to the buildings people have erected to try and preserve that holy moment from so long ago. There is now just an archaeological dig and a temporary wooden roof to keep the sun off the boffins’ heads. A hundred metres walk away there is the Eastern bank of the Jordan, from which we looked into Israel about 5 metres away. We visited the impressive little Orthodox Church of St. John the Baptist, ate some dates from a date palm (about as different from the dates we put in scones back home as a dried apricot is from a fresh one. Exactly as different) and headed south.

I crossed myself with water from the Jordan, and although a dove flapped down from a nearby tree, I was profoundly unmoved by it all. You can’t step into the same river twice, the old saying has it, and the river in which my Lord was immersed disappeared thousands of years ago. Now there is a wooden platform above a creek and Israeli and Jordanian soldiers nursing automatic weapons and glowering nonchalantly at each other across a line someone had arbitrarily drawn on a map. There are shops selling religious tat and coca cola. Not one bit of it spoke to me at any level of the Good News which Jesus was baptised to proclaim.

10km further South Ibraham dropped us off at a hotel – a very nice hotel – on the shores of the Dead Sea. We did the Dead Sea things. We floated uncannily atop the water. I couldn’t swim as my body was too far out of the water to execute any proper strokes. Instead I lay on my back and rowed myself along like a Phoenician trireme. Stately and noble and gracious, I thought I looked. The water looks like hydrochloric acid, and it has probably the strongest taste of anything thing I have ever had in my mouth. We all coated ourselves with the slimy black mud which is scooped from the bottom of the sea, waited until it dried and washed it off by swimming or rather bobbing in the sea once more; It made me feel a) very soft and slightly oily and b) itchy. Supposedly, I am now looking ten years younger, but only I and one other can verify that and the vote is inconclusive.

We had yet another wonderful meal, this time sitting on a broad terrace in the still hot and dry evening air with the flat, still sea before us and the lights of Jerusalem twinkling on the hillside beyond.

Tuesday, 13 July 2010

Middle East Day 6: Amman

It's about 45 minutes as the Boeing flies from Beirut to Amman, but a bit further than that in terms of culture and politics. Jordan has no oil, so unlike other gulf countries the citizenry can't go importing folk from other lands to sneer at and make do all the work. Unlike Lebanon, Jordan has also enjoyed a long period of peaceful, benificent and generally level headed government.Just like Pepsodent you can feel the difference. Everything is brighter, whiter and cleaner. Whiter, certainly. The place is built on limestone. It shows in the soil and it is quarried for the buildings. All the houses, most of the shops and some of the public buildings are glistening white, straight edged and regular. There are 2 million people in Amman and the little white cubes stretch off to the horizon in every direction.

The cars are newer and shinier than Beirut, and the traffic behaves itself. Not that it used to. Jordan was once reknowned for the most reckless traffic in the Middle East, but a few years ago they had a massive motorway pileup in which many people were killed. It was too much for King Abdullah. He gave orders. Now there are undercover cameras, checkpoints, traffic patrols and lots of warning signs. And today the traffic flows in an ordered and restrained fashion.Whether or not Plato was right about benificent autocrats, this is a country with systems and order, and one in which the government, while it may not be by the people in quite the same way that we are used to, is by and large for the people.

We are travelling in Jordan with a guide. He is Ibrahim, drives a new Hyundai minivan, speaks excellent English, and for $100 a day each we get him, his Hyundai, all our accommodation and all our breakfasts. Last night we stayed in the Canyon Hotel, which is 3 star (* = Grotty ** = Basic *** = Comfortable **** = Hey! Not too shabby! ***** = Snap! Plump my cushion again, if you please, Fatima ). Today he took us south to Jerash, which is the Ancient city of Gerasa, one of the ten cities of the Decapolis mentioned in the New Testament. It is the largest and best preserved Roman city in the Middle East. Although only 15% of its 800,000 square metres have been excavated, it is impressive. The main street is all there with shops, ingenious sewage system, running water system and ancient stones piled together into temples, fountains and columns. With its mosaic pedestrian promenade running beside the chariotway it must have been a truly beautiful city.

On the way we passed over an insignificant river. I realised, later, that it was the Jabbok, beside which Jacob lay to wrestle with angels and dream of ladders and have his name changed, and I had the oddest sense of homecoming. This was the landscape of my faith. we were driving through the Kingdoms of Aram and Moab, traversing country once walked by Jacob and Rebekkah and all their wily clan. Personally, the Jabbok runs deeper in my imagination than does the Jordan, which we will see tomorrow, and I almost missed it.

We left there to go to the castle of Ajlun, one of several fortresses built by Salah ad-Din. It is in remarkable good shape considering its age and the purpose for which it was built. The interior was dark and cool and quirkily unpredictable. There were a number of people clambering about in it as we were, and amongst them was a party of Jordanian teachers. Clemency being Clemency, joined their group, sang their songs, played with their children and left the castle with maybe a dozen invitations to lunch and the promise of lots of new facebook links.

Ibrahim took us to a local Jordanian diner, where few travellers go, except the ones he takes there. Lunch was delicious. The system is that the food is put in the middle of the table with a basket of fresh, steaming hot Jordanian bread and a variety of relishes. The waiters hover, and when they see a dish is getting empty they replace it with a new one. This continues til no-one is left standing. The cost for as much as 5 people could eat was a little over 15 Dinar or about $NZ25. Later Ibrahim introduced us to Kanafeh, which seems to consist of equal parts of cheese, honey, olive oil and pastry. It needs a fairly reasonable scientific calculator to work out the calorific load per bite and it is absolutely impossible to leave any of it on the plate. The diet will start as soon as I return. Honest it will.

Sunday, 11 July 2010


In the older parts of town, ie most of it, you will see sights to quake the knees of even the most hardened New Zealand building inspector. Wires are draped everywhere. They run from lamposts in great thick braids, descending to head height or lower in places. They are attached, roughly, to the sides of buildings where they run off to flats and houses and workshops. Electricity, telephone and data cabling are randomly clumped into great rats nests which are nailed or taped to walls. Look closely and there is a logic to it all: the circuits are properly albeit untidily constructed; wiring seems appropriate to the load it needs to bear. Everything is properly insulated, although the methods are "ingenious. " They tell their own story.

From 1975 until 1990 this place tore itself apart. Groups of Christians and Muslims fought each other in alliances which shifted and changed with the month. Through it all was the rattle of kalashnikovs and the crump, crump, crump of rocket propelled grenades. There was the whine of fighters and the grumble of tank engines from whoever was trying to exact advantage at the moment: the USA and the USSR through their proxies the Syrians, the PLO and the Israelis. Between 130,000 and 250,000 civilians died. A quarter of the population was wounded. And ordinary, everyday Lebanese lived through this. Children grew up through this, and they picked up some remarkable skills. They learned to drive very quickly and deftly for example. You need to if your car is out in the open and/or you don't know if the guys in the car beside you might want to add you to their trophy list. And they learned to make running repairs to infrastructure. When a bazooka took out the water supply or knocked out the wiring, it was no use ringing the city council to complain. Instead, you found whatever wire or pipe or tape you could and made the darned thing work again. You did this on a daily basis. You became so good at it that some of the ugly solutions you came up with are still working perfectly, 20 years later. You became so good at it that when you needed to wire your apartment just last year you wouldn't think of calling an electrician.

The tangle of wires draped across the streets and tacked to the sides of buildings are badges of honour; they are tokens of the resilience and energy of the Lebanese, whose close proximity to death for so long has sharpened up people's ideas of what is really important; what the real dangers are. Us Kiwis pride ourselves on our number 8 wire self reliance and ingenuity. We ain't got nothin' on the Lebanese.

Today there was one last wistful stroll into downtown. Every time I have walked into the city I have seen a different Beirut. This morning it was hyper modern and trendy, cool, spacious, aesthetically sophisticated and interesting. We visited the Orthodox cathedral (St. George's) and the Marionite cathedral (St. George's) and a Capuchin chapel. There was a brief stop at the Kahlil Gibran gardens, set up in memory of those martyred in the civil war, and a walk through the souk. In other Arab cities the souk sells coriander and shisha. Here it sells Armani and Calvin Klein. Beirut has not quite finished its restoration. When it has, I think it will be the city to be in. Already I love it more than I love San Francisco and that's saying something. Give me another week here I might love it more than Dunedin, so perhaps it's just as well we're hopping on the plane to Amman this afternoon.

Strolling the Corniche

We've had enough of long taxi trips for the meantime, so this morning we walked downtown. It's no big deal. The CBD is maybe 2 or 3 km away and the walk through narrow streets past tiny shops was intriguing. As we neared downtown, the evidence of the destruction of the civil war became more apparent in the buildings, until we arrived at the area near the docks which had been the frontline between opposing factions, and where all the buildings were gone. In their place a new Downtown Beirut is nearing completion. The buildings are of brown sandstone, and about 3 or 4 storeys high. They are seaparated by wide tiled walkways dotted here and there with refined, understated statuary. All has been designed to evoke the Beirut that was once called the Paris of the Middle East; not a copy but a 21st Century evocation of what once was. It's working.

Winding through the stores selling big name European goods we arrive at the waterfront, where the enormous glass towers of hotels rise above Porsche agencies and coffee shops with elegantly quirky names. This is the Corniche, which curves gently around the shoreline. It is Saturday, and Beirutis not at work are out to enjoy the bright clear day. Men fish using strange long rods with no reels. Men swim and sunbathe from the rocks. Women swim and sunbathe in a screened off section of the waterfront. I see a woman in a full abaya jogging. She has a water bottle strapped to her waist: it's about 35 degrees; she needs it. I see another swimming in a burka and yet another fishing from the rocks, the black fabric soaked to about waist level. A couple of girls in shorts and t shirts rollerblade past. Men older than me with impossibly muscled and chiselled bodies jog past in skimpy shorts, their naked backs glistening with sweat.

With a pang of recognition I see the old Intercontinental Hotel, the setting for ten thousand newsreels. It is now restored to its former glory and behind it, one of its contemporaries stands stark and empty, pockmarked with shellholes and rifle fire still after all these years. The yacht club is still damaged though not by the civil war but by the immense car bomb which killed ex President Rafik al-Hariri, probably at the behest of the Syrians, in 2005. The brutal past is not too far past.

We find a leafy, shady coffee shop and order an Arabian specialty: lime juice, slightly sweetened and served in a large glass of crushed ice. We turn and walk back through downtown, which looks for all the world like the downtown of any modern city. The signs are in French and Arabic but it doesn't take much imagination to think you might be in Auckland or Cincinnati or Manchester. Well, maybe not Manchester. We pass a sushi bar, one of the ones with the little train that zims on past with plates of deliciousness, and enjoy the airconditioned coolness and watch a replay of Germany thrashing the Ockers at the World Cup. We catch a taxi to the National Museum and look at the ancient bits and pieces and see a video of people restoring priceless artifacts after some local commander or other lobbed a few shells through the place in the bad old days. War stuffs everything up. Everything of value, anyway. Absolutely everything. We catch another taxi home: fare, 10,000 Lebanese pounds or about $NZ10 and sleep for the afternoon. Despite the recent tendency of the certain and the self righteous to park cars full of TNT about the place, this is a city I could really and truly fall in love with.

Saturday, 10 July 2010

Our Lady of Lebanon

Last night Bridget, Clemency and I walked through the old, strangely leafy, bustling, wonderful Ashrafiyeh district to a restaurant recommended to Bridget by a Lebanese friend. We found Abdal Wahab after a 15 minute walk and once the staff got their head around the idea that we didn't want to eat meat (You are vegetarian? Try this one it only has lamb....) were served what was, up to this point, the most delicious vegetarian meal of my life, no doubt about it, by a country mile. Just before 7 Bridget's phone rang. It was Scott from Doha airport. There had been a mix up in his bookings for the flight he had to board NOW and he desperately needed some information or he would be walking from Doha. The info was a mile away, and it was panic time. The waiters asked what was wrong, and in seconds, without question, gave us username and password to the restaurant's in house network so Bridget could access the net on her phone and get the info to Scott. Now think about this for a moment.This was a vibrant business and we were strangers. They trusted us with access to menus, accounting, staffing rosters, email.... It was humbling. Later, one of the waiters, not the one who was serving us, came to invite us to an art show in which he was exhibiting on Saturday.

These were Lebanese and Arabs. Muslims. The enemy. They were open, welcoming, charming, friendly, willing to put themselves out for us, willing to trust us strangers with valuable information, urbane, cultured, polite, decent men. And so it has proven, all day today.

It has been a long and wonderful day. We briefly considered hiring a car but after almost 5 seconds of in depth consideration opted for a taxi instead. A lovely guy in a fairly late model Mercedes estate arrived, and for $100 was at our service all day. He drove us first to the Jeita Grotto. There was an hour or so of dodging the heaviest, most chaotic traffic I have ever seen. - How many lanes is this road? How many will fit? - then a left turn and suddenly we were in another Lebanon. Steep hills. Winding roads. Blue sky. Forest. Then the grotto: think Waitomo Caves, multiply your thought by... Oh I don't know.... lets say 10, and you might have some approximation of it. They are huge limestone caves with astonishing formations and a lake in the lower one. Then, it was off to Biblos, another 45 minutes up the road to see the Roman ruins and have lunch. Biblos is some distance from Beirut but it is more or less built up all the way: this part of the country is a single, conjoined, enormous city, where one district seagues seamlessly into the next in a cacophany of colour and energy and variety.

Biblos is, so the locals say, the home of the first alphabet, hence the name. There is a market flogging souvenirs and fossils and "antiquities" and the oldest church in Lebanon (closed, unfortunately), extensive ruins and many restaurants at one of which I had the second most delicious vegetarian meal of my life before staggering bloated to the Merc for the trip to catch the cable car to Harissa.

In a district just a little south of Biblos called Jounieh we caught the Teleferique. It runs on a cable across the motorway and up through tower blocks of apartments, missing one by a matter of inches, then up the side of a very large hill to Harissa where there is the Basilica of Notre Dame de Liban - Our Lady of Lebanon. In 1908 the French gave a gigantic statue of the Blessed Virgin the the Lebanese people and she was mounted on the top of this hill. It is possible to walk up a circular stairway to the base of the statue, which we did, and the views are flabbergasting. We then walked into the nearby basilica which is an enormous modern church, seating about 5,000 people. Why do the Catholics do church architecture so much better than the Protestants? It is designed to mimic, depending on which way you look, the shape of the cedar of Lebanon, or a Phoenician trading ship, the Phoenicians being ancestors of the Lebanese. The roof soars perhaps 70 metres straight up and the light and sense of space is astounding. Through the enormous windows the statue is visible, and the volunteer guide told us about her, including a modern legend. It is said that she was built facing out to sea. During the civil war in the 1980s she slowly turned, and now looks instead towards Beirut. Is it true? I don't think so, but I found the story so profoundly moving I had to walk away for a while.

I suppose the statue of Our Lady represents all that is caring and motherly about God. She is the God who broods over her people as a mother hen over her chicks. The legend thus speaks of God's sorrow at the civil war, that God looked on, not in judgement or wrath but in profound sorrow and compassion and love for her foolish children. All day we had been meeting kind and generous people, relatives, friends, and who knows, participants in the terrible events of 30 years ago. And in that legend the utter tragedy and stupidity of the war - right up to the idiotic Israeli air raids of 2006- hit me with force. And the tragedy and stupidity of the current demonising of Muslims by the West.

We rode the cable car down the mountain. Then our driver: a kind and generous Lebanese, a Christian one, drove us to yet another restaurant. We were met and served by open and friendly Lebanese and Druse and Arabs. As a blood red sun sank into the Mediterranean, we had another delicious meal to celebrate Scott's 29th birthday before we were driven home by yet another good natured and bluff and humourous Arab.

Friday, 9 July 2010

Middle East, Day 3: Beirut

It was a 3 hour flight from Dubai to Beirut on a Fly Dubai 737, the contemporary equivalent, I guess of the common transport of earlier decades: the Bedford truck with people on the roof and the chickens. The seats were dirt cheap, but check in luggage was charged at an exhorbitant rate, so folks piled on board with the allowed maximum in hand luggage: one cabin bag and a laptop. You wouldn't believe the size of a cabin bag these days. And it's amazing what you can fit in a laptop bag if it's sufficiently large and you don't clutter it up with unnecessary extras like laptops. And it's surprising how every member of a family of 6 still needs the requisite two bags. The seats were filled with bearded men, and women in burkas, and tiny children, and Lebanese women looking energetic and colourful, and Lebanese men with dark eyes and moustaches and giggling, skylarking young people. Once the plane was airborne people left their seats to go and do a bit of socialising, but us uptight Westerners slept or read or both. In Beirut the customs formalities were, as usual, laid back and we were met by a taxi: an ancient Buick which took us here: the Hayete guest house in the heart of Christian East Beirut.

In Doha it was 34 degrees when the plane left at 3 am. Everytime I ventured outside my glasses fogged up the way they do when you open the oven door and for the same reason. Here, it has been in the high 20s all day, and I'm amazed that already that feels refreshingly cool.

Only 30 years ago people were killing each other in these streets. There are still houses riddled with bullet holes and the occasional building site completely empty except for a shattered wall or two, but mostly the damage of war has been replaced by new apartment blocks or, at least, new plasterwork. The streets are cluttered and the road rules seem fairly arbitrary. Shiny Porsches and Range Rovers jostle for space with the most clapped out old jalopies I have seen on the road anywhere since New Zealand in the 1960s. Lovely old mansions from the French mandate period sit beside bland apartment blocks. There are tiny shops jammed between buildings or into garages. There are immense modern shopping malls. Telegraph and power wires are draped everywhere in a way which might conceivably be purposeful. People drive and converse and sit in sidewalk cafes and smoke and converse some more. Drivers, in the absence of agreed protocols, communicate by sounding their horns and shouting. It is a wild, energetic, lovely, lively place that looks like the back streets of some ancient Spanish city with a heavy Arabic overlay and an infusion of Orleans, the French one not the New one, but then again, maybe the New one as well. People have lived here since the Roman days, and even before, and tomorrow we'll go and look at some of that stuff. For today it's enough to be here in this place that is DEFINITELY not Dunedin

Thursday, 8 July 2010

Middle East: Day 2: Dubai and Doha

I’m not really a business class sort of person. The thought of paying the price of a pretty reasonable second hand car for a couple of glasses of champagne, a meal or two and the rental on a chair for 12 hours sticks in my craw a bit. But here we were, for reasons I won’t bore you with, taking the right hand gangplank and heading uphill to the top story of the world’s largest airliner. And here we were being shown to our seats, and by seats I mean cubicles, by an astonishingly pretty young woman in that particularly elegant uniform worn by Emirates cabin staff. There was a sort of bedside cabinet thing containing a minibar, yes really, and spaces to stash your stuff. There was a TV screen not much smaller than the one we have at home, and if the effort of reaching across to work it was too much, two, yes two different remote controls to fiddle with. There was an armchair with lots of Homer Simpson seat goes up seat goes down doohickery going on. If you got bored with more TV channels than there are grains of sand on the Earth and you couldn’t think of anything else for the cabin staff to fetch for you it was always possible to retire to the back of the plane to a bar with a continuous stream of whatever you wanted to dope yourself with and lots of convoluted little things to eat. When the ridiculously beautiful women in the headscarves thought it was time for lights out they came around dishing out little mattresses and showing you how to make your seat lie completely flat and turn into a bed.It was all fun, but it was still hard to sleep, what with that dry, fluffy airliner stuff that they put through the airconditioning system in lieu of air and the fact that lie flat or not, sleeping in an aircraft seat is still sleeping in an aircraft seat.

I watched Sherlock Holmes, and even from the middle of the Indian Ocean could hear poor old Conan Doyle spinning in his grave. I watched two entire BBC series on gifted children. Using the cameras mounted on the nose and tail of the plane I watched as we flew over Dubai and the pilot performed that bit of everyday magic, dotting down 500 tons of aluminium travelling at 320 kph, without causing so much as a ripple in anyone’s champagne. We had three hours in Dubai in a lounge that was, quite seriously, bigger than the entire Dunedin International airport. Then we flew in a very much smaller but only slightly less luxurious plane to Doha.

The customs people were all women, all speaking rudimentary English and all wearing a full abaya with the total black head covering and the full nine yards. One of them stamped our passports then we walked through the doors to the terminal where Scott and Bridget were waiting and outside into air that felt like a sauna. And outside into this baffling city.There is an old Doha, all dust and grit and low buildings the same colour as the grit. There is an endless coastline where once the population eked out a meager existence as pearl divers. And there is a new Doha, built with the money, oodles of it, they have got in the last few years from flogging off the oil which lies under their feet. We drove past a large area of reclaimed land on which stood huge postmodern buildings : tower blocks of offices and apartments forming a new downtown which has arisen from nothing – literally – in the last six years. We drove to The Pearl, the district where Scott and Bridget live, which is a tourist and residential resort with cafes, a marina, upmarket shops and all that goes with them. It has arisen from nothing – literally –in the last three years.

Everything is in a process of being made. Cranes are everywhere, as are armies of blue uniformed immigrant workers. All is being done quickly but well. The new bits are tastefully designed, well laid out, sturdily built, well provided with services. A major modern city is rising out of the desert, and, in places, the sea bed and there is only one thing missing: people.There are large malls with shops for Ferrari, Bulgari, Yves St. Laurent and Rolls Royce with nary a shopper in sight. There are apartment towers with apartments and lifts and swimming pools but precious few tenants.

We went to Scott and Bridget’s place. We looked around the tower block which housed it, taking in the lavishly equipped gym and the half Olympic sized pool and the two spa pools bubbling incongruously in the Qatar heat and the staff of Filipinos continually polishing the empty marble floors. Later we caught the water taxi across to an excellent but empty restaurant for lunch, past a marina with only a dozen or so super yachts moored at its capacious jetties. Doha is the opposite of a ghost town – the population haven’t mysteriously left, they mysteriously haven’t arrived yet. And I’m not sure anyone knows when they will arrive or quite where they will arrive from.

Tuesday, 6 July 2010

Middle East. Day 1: Auckland

It was pouring with rain in Napier this morning and cold with it. I slept well in the guest flat beneath the Bishop's house where I was ensconced because my lack of a sleeping bag precluded my staying in the more spartan boarders' quarters at Napier Boys' High. It was good to sit up into the evening comparing episcopal experiences with David Rice, and then, this morning, to attend a workshop at the National Youth Forum

The workshop I opted for was run by Justin Duckworth of Urban Vision. Justin delivered one of those addresses where you have an uneasy feeling that no matter what process of selection and choosing I may have thought I went through to be there, the real reason was that the Holy Spirit had grabbed me by the scruff of the neck, dumped me into the little plastic seat and said to me "Now my lad, just keep your trap shut, and your eyes and ears open. This is for you. Understand?" He talked about the non negotiables of Christianity: obedience to Jesus, authentic community and 'giving your best for the least". That is, that the right place for the church to be is with the marginalised and overlooked. I don't know quite what the diocese paid to get me to Napier this morning, but this hour and a half was worth every cent.

There were a few anxious moments later, looking out of the window at the rain lashing down on the runway of the Hawkes Bay airport, and at the visibility taking leave of absence, but Air new Zealand are champions. The little plane landed and took off undaunted with me aboard, and here I am in the Emirates lounge with coffee and wifi and a range of Middle Eastern type lunch dishes spread out for my perusal, and an enormous airliner with lie flat seats waiting 100 metres away. Which is all about as far from what Justin was speaking about this morning as it's possible to be.

Sunday, 4 July 2010

Tomorrow I am flying to Napier to attend the national Youth Forum. I will be there for only a day, and on Tuesday will fly to Auckland to join Clemency on a flight to Doha to visit Bridget and Scott. We'll be away about a fortnight. My bag is nearly packed and I have got everything I need except for the folder containing all my Youth Forum papers, which is sitting in the back room of the Cathedral. Never mind. I'll wing it.

The last 24 hours has been quite inspiring. On Saturday evening I was at St. Mary's Mornington for a midwinter dinner. Of the 50 or so people present, the overwhelming majority were young families with children. There were games and an amazing magician with an even more amazing patter. His best trick was to mark a $20 note, then pull it out of the middle of a fresh walnut, which he pulled out of the middle of a fresh, unbroken egg, which he extracted from the middle of a lemon. It was astonishing; almost as astonishing as the sense of vitality and new life to be seen in this parish which has had its share of disappointments and challenges over the years. Whatever John Sherlock, the vicar is doing there, it certainly seems to be working.

This morning I went to the cathedral to confirm 13 young people. They were a bit bleary eyed, having spent the previous night sleeping in the cathedral and I use the word sleeping in the broadest sense of the word which includes tossing, turning, lying awake and clowning about. The service managed a nice balance of homeliness and stateliness, and we finished with a lunch in the soon to be developed crypt. Once more, I was left with the sense of a community with a great deal of vigour and hope. The core Cathedral congregation is comparatively small, but it contains many people of depth and commitment, who know how to get things done.

Then this evening, only a few hours ago, I was back at St. Matthews to speak at their Breakthrough service. As happens every Sunday night at St. Matt's, the big old stone church was stripped of its usual seating and the nave was filled with cafe tables. There was soft, mood lighting, and trestles at the back serving good coffee and a range of muffins and slices and cakes. A band led a few songs, I spoke, there was a reading or two and the band played one more song. It was calm, measured and relaxed. There were more than 100 people present. For the third time in 24 hours I left with a strong sense of a lively, cohesive, interesting community doing lively, cohesive and interesting things.

The strategic plan is developing nicely. I'll post it on here about the same time it is released to the synod. In the meantime, after today, I am even more reassured that there is energy and imagination enough to put it into practise when the time comes. So, with a great deal of satisfaction I leave for Doha and Petra and the River Jordan. I'll be in touch.