Christmas in Beirut: A time of bombs and books
I was in Beirut, Lebanon, early one Christmas Eve when car bombs were a way of life after the Israeli invasion.
I was to catch a late-afternoon flight on a U.S. Air Force C-130 back to Naples, Italy, where I was based. In the morning, I drove the old, rented Mercedes out to a beach and walked along it. It was sharply cold, a wind blowing off the Mediterranean.
I hunkered down by a sand dune and thought about all the bombs I had written about recently as the religious factions fought. It was a sad time for me and the Lebanese, but at least I was getting out.
I felt something in the sand and uncovered an old silver coin with an eagle on one side and a male figure on the other. The lettering was worn, but it appeared to be a Roman coin from the days when Rome ruled the world.
I stuck the coin in my pocket and thought it would be a nice Christmas gift for my son, Marc, back in Naples. That cheered me up for some reason, and I started to walk back to the old Mercedes. I went along a collection of tightly shuttered hovels and stopped at one with an open door and a man sitting on the floor.
In front of him was a stack of books: a Bible, a Koran, a Zen Buddhism text, something in Chinese and another with strange script. He looked up at me and said hello in tones that said “Brooklyn.”
I said hello and asked what he was doing with all those religious books in front of him.
“I’m celebrating them all,” he said. “Confucius, Buddha, Christ, Allah, Jehovah, the Old Testament, Hindu’s gods … I’m celebrating them all.” He made a vague, blessing-like gesture over the stack of books.
“Why?” I asked.
“Well, back in the United States they’re making a big thing out of Christmas, and I figure the other gods might be getting their noses out of joint. So pax vobiscum to ’em all.”
“Sure, they can figure it out.” He waved a cigarette over the books.
I nodded at that. Seemed reasonable, as reasonable as running into someone from Brooklyn in a hut along the Lebanon littoral.
“Any god you want celebrated?” he asked.
I thought for a moment then shook my head. “Just keep up what you’re doing.”
He nodded and began humming.
I walked on and got to the old car. It had a Becker radio in it, and as I drove back to Beirut, I turned it on to a U.S. military station in Germany.
“O, Come, All You Angels” rolled out. I recalled my youth in Ohio and singing in a chorus and with satisfaction I joined in the song: “Joyful and triumphant …”
I later gave the coin to Marc and tried to tell him about the celebrating man, but he wasn’t a year old yet and was more interested in his toys.