A Diamond’s Eye View of the World

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Archive for the ‘church’ Category

cousin months: Nisan

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on April 9, 2009

I don’t remember really learning the names of the months in Arabic classes. I remember learning the days of the week, and certainly learning how to count; and I also remember learning seasons. So I must have been taught the names of the months. But they didn’t stick. I only began keeping the names of the months in my head in spring 2002, when my Arabic teacher began requiring us to read the front-page news in Arabic before each class. I learned “Ayloul” – as in, “11 Ayloul” – and with that as my base, began learning the others.

But the names of the months that I learned bore no resemblance to the months referenced in history books, or carved in inscriptions on old buildings, which were generally the months of the Islamic calendar: Muharram, Safar, Rabi3 al-Awwal, and so on. It was a mystery, but then again I found many things about Arabic mysterious, so I didn’t think all that much of it. And when I did, people gave me different answers: the months I had learned were the Christian months; or they were the secular months; or the Arab nationalist months; or they were months created to fit the Western calendar. All of these made some sense: after all, “Aghostos” looked too much like “August” (named for Caesar Augustus) to be mere coincidence.

But then I moved abroad and learned that no one I knew used “Aghostos” in Syria or Lebanon. They used “Ab”. Fine: another mystery, but again, not a particularly gripping one.

But when I was looking up “Fasah”, “Pesach”, and “Paschal” earlier this week, I learned a bit more about the months, or at least about one month: Nisan, the month of April. And, I am embarrassed to admit, one of the places I went to learn this was Wikipedia.

(I cross-referenced Wikipedia’s wisdom with more scholarly sources, but since its piece on months has the advantage of being 1) all in one quote and 2) readable, I am quoting from it.)

Wikipedia’s entry on Arabic-language months notes that the Levantine calendar uses month names

“likely derived from the Aramaic names of the old Semitic lunisolar calendar, and the names Šubāṭ, ‘Ādār, Nīsān, ‘Ayyār, Tammūz, ‘Āb, Aylūl, and Tišrīn are cognate with the names of the approximately equivalent months of the Hebrew calendar: Shevat, Adar, Nisan, Iyar, Tammuz, Av, Elul, and Tishrei.”

Nisan is described elsewhere as a name originating in Mesopotamia and possibly Babylon specifically, and being positively associated with spring. Nisan 15 is considered the night of the Jewish exodus, and is commemmorated as the first night of Passover.

Today is the commemoration of the Last Supper (at least, for Western Christians), which some Christian traditions hold was also the first night of Passover.  It is my favorite day of the Christian calendar, because it ends with Christ’s Passion in the Garden – the moment when Jesus is at his most human, and afraid of the pain of dying. He asks God to take the “cup of suffering” away, if possible; but in the end he accepts God’s will. Its a very sad moment, but also a very sweet one.


Posted in Arabic, church, religion, time, words | Leave a Comment »

becoming a bab

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on March 2, 2009

Yesterday morning I found myself in another animated online discussion with my friend H, about assorted religious issues. We often disagree, but we are usually able to do so – as negotiators suggest – without being disagreeable. Yesterday we covered a wide range of topics, most swirling around the tension between ecumenicalism (which accepts other faiths as they are) and conversion (which does not).

We had been chatting for at least half an hour, and our conversation  while friendly – after all, we have several years invested in one another, not to mention assorted family connections – had grown fairly heated. It – and we – needed a little leavening.

So when H Arabicized a Christian sacrament, I couldn’t help but laugh.

You’ve been babtised, diamond, haven’t you? H wrote.

I mean babtized, he wrote in the next line, changing his spelling from British to American.

As many of you know, Arabic does not use the letter “p”. And as many of you also know, the word “bab” in Arabic means “door”, in both the literal and metaphoric senses.

And, of course, in the US, people jokingly ask someone to move out of the way by saying: “You make a better door than a window”.

I don’t like to think of myself as an obstructing force, so I’ll focus on the other aspect of the word bab: that like all doors, it opens onto something else – a home, an adventure, a new thought.

In that sense, I would like to think that yes, I have been babtized. I would like to be a door for others 🙂 .

Posted in Americans, Arabic, church, friends, Islam, Qur'an, religion, words | Leave a Comment »

unsafe at any speed: a US driving simulator at AUB

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on February 17, 2009

In May 2005, two days before the elections, M and I went from Damascus to Beirut for a weekend getaway. A was having a joint birthday party in Beirut that Saturday night, and we thought that an excursion “abroad” would be a fun change from our usual Damascene weekend pursuits.

We had a hoot of a time – not only at the party, but in general. And we caused most of our own hilarity – particularly during the share-taxi rides to and from Beirut.

Oh, look at that beautiful mosque, I said as we passed one especially lovely mountain town heading from Masnaa toward Beirut.

Oh yes, M said, frowning and then nodding sagely. She had spent the previous three years in Damascus, so her sense of sectarian architecture was much finer than mine. That’s a beautiful Christian mosque, diamond.

As our return taxi wheezed its banana-boat way up towards Aley, M told me an “urban legend” story that she had heard from equally science-minded friends.

Someone at the American University of Beirut got a grant, she said, to study traffic patterns in Beirut and to suggest ways to improve congestion. (The conversation was sparked, of course, by the many mini-traffic jams we encountered on our way toward the border.) He or she also got access to an incredible new software program, designed to model traffic patterns and analyze them – a program that U.S. municipalities use when trying to improve their own traffic issues.

What did the program say about Beirut? I asked, in between bouts of car sickness induced by our stop-and-go drive.

Well, M said, the team plugged in all the numbers: the maps of the city’s streets, the number of cars on the road, the traffic signals, the parking lots – all the data they would input for any city. And when they ran the software program, the program said: impossible. This many cars cannot possible operate on the streets of Beirut.

What do you mean? I asked. M is the scientist, not me.

The program insisted that there was an error in the data, M explained. It wouldn’t analyze Beirut’s traffic, because it insisted that the number of cars that drive the city each day is impossibly high.

And, by American standards, I am sure that the software program was right. It probably assumed things like lanes, parking spots, and obedience to traffic signals – all of which would no doubt decrease the number of cars that could feasibly fit on Beirut’s streets. But this is reality – and it does work.

I thought of M’s story yesterday, when I came across this press release, about another new AUB research project:

The Transport Research Unit (TRU) within the Department of Civil Engineering of the American University of Beirut (AUB) has just received the region’s most advanced automobile driving simulator, DriveSafety’s DS-600. It will allow researchers to investigate a wide range of topics spanning the domains of traffic engineering, road safety, as well as driver behavior and cognition.

“This is a significant new addition to the Department of Civil Engineering’s research infrastructure,” Salah Sadek, department chairman noted as he observed the final tests being conducted on the simulator. “This simulator will enable the relationship between the driver and the vehicle to be thoroughly investigated, and opens up the possibility for investigating a wide range of research topics as well as providing opportunities for numerous inter-departmental final year projects.”

(You can read the rest of the DriveSafety press release here.)

I’m sure that the simulator will be a great help in the University’s research projects – but I’m not sure that those research projects will have any applicability in Lebanon. I’m guessing that the “DriveSafety” simulator simulates American driving experiences, not Lebanese ones – and probably leaves out some of those, like the joys of encountering black ice on a “rural route” in Iowa, or running into a felled tree on the highway between Seattle and Portland.

How will the civil engineers of AUB compensate for the simulator’s tendency to insist on lane discipline?

How will they compensate for the simulator’s insistence that one should not drive on the shoulder of a mountain road?

How will they account for the driver’s desire to put on his/her hazard lights in foggy weather?

I’d love to be a fly on the wall during the first simulations, and I would love to see how the DriveSafety employees like their experiences on the roads of real-life Beirut!

Posted in academia, advertising, Americans, Arab world, Beirut, Canadians, church, education, Lebanon, research | 4 Comments »

the Jesuit of Gaza

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on January 17, 2009

Argh. Metaphors always break down at some point, but this article from Ha’aretz online is misleading from the get-go. Its the report of a Saudi militant who was killed in Gaza recently. I agree that the presence of a Saudi national fighting in Gaza with Hamas is less-than-good news. But “fighter-priest” is not only a bad translation – it is wildly inaccurate:

The unusual report of a Saudi jihadist, who was killed while fighting Israel alongside Hamas militants in the Gaza Strip, appears to indicate that Hamas may be gaining greater acceptance among even more fundamentalist Muslim groups.

As a rule, Hamas does not release details about its casualties – neither in number nor identity. But a Web site identified with a radical Islamic organization that preaches jihad and features the logo of Hamas’ military wing, reported that Abu Muhammed Mari, a Saudi sheikh mujahid (“fighter-priest”), who previously fought in Afghanistan, Bosnia and Chechnya, was killed in the fighting in Gaza.

Fighter isn’t the worst translation for “mujahid”, and unlike “jihadi”, which isn’t used in Arabic, “mujahid” is actually a word. But a “sheikh” is not a priest, and a priest is not a sheikh. Islam does not have priests, just like Judaism does not.

Ha’aretz knows better. Its not bad to be ignorant, but it is bad to spread ignorance when you know better.

Posted in Arabic, church, Islam, Israel, words | 2 Comments »

learning to brunch

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on November 16, 2008

Last week I received a charming news update from AME Info, titled: “Dubai hotels issue guidelines on brunch etiquette”.

Interesting, I thought to myself, wondering what exactly this entailed. In the US, brunch seems to be either a wholesome post-church family activity or a sluggish friends & lovers post-Saturday night-drinking gathering. Happily, the two groups usually brunch at different times (the churchers are up-and-at-’em a bit earlier than the partiers) and different venues – but both seem to do fine without guidelines.

What could these guidelines be? I wondered. A step-by-step guide to following either of the US models seemed excessive; and more basic hints like “napkin in your lap” seemed both condescending and also, if truly necessary, important for all meals – not only brunch.
Several hotels in Dubai have begun to inform guests of the etiquette expected of them at Friday brunches, Gulf News has reported. Al Qasr Hotel, part of the Jumeirah Hotel Group, has started leaving cards on dining tables that list the do’s and don’ts of brunch behaviour. The move comes as a British couple was found guilty of having sex on a Dubai beach after consuming a large amount of alcohol at one of the city’s brunches.

I typed in “Dubai brunch guide” and happily this article, from Australia’s Daily Telegraph, soon set me straight: brunch was the occasion for distributing the guides – not their focus.

Guests at one of Dubai’s most popular hotels are being handed ‘etiqutte guides’ at brunch to avoid being arrested for showing too much public affection after two British tourists were convicted for having sex on the beach nearby.

The Madinat Jumeirah hotel advised that guests should “employ discretion” and “anything more than a peck on the cheek” could result in police involvement, reports the UK’s Daily Mail.

The guides suggest the hotels guests could be arrested for inappropriate public displays, are left on tables at the hotel’s weekly brunch event.

Not quite as much fun as imagining a guide that instructed people following model one in the fine art of determining whether orders of sugar-spike items like cinnamon rolls and pancakes are really the best choice for one’s children. Or instructed people following model two in how much grease will soothe one’s alcohol-ravaged tummy, and how much will further irritate it.

But a very interesting testimony to Dubai’s ongoing efforts to navigate between its heavily promoted overseas image as a place of fun and magic, and its need to remain accountable to Emiratis who appear to feel concerned that their culture and mores are slipping away.

Posted in advertising, Arab world, church, Dubai, family, food, nightlife, parenting, tourism, words | 1 Comment »

holidays, Lebanese style

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on October 3, 2008

This week has been filled with holidays: with Rosh Hashanah, for Jews; and with Eid al-Fitr, for Muslims. Both religions follow a lunar calendar, which means that their holidays do not always align – but I love it whenever they do.

I also love that these holidays are increasingly recognized in the United States, both by schools and businesses. Jewish and Muslim students and workers are more able today to request time off from work or school without prejudice than they were fifteen or twenty years ago. And in some communities, particularly those with long-standing multi-faith populations, these holidays may be publicly commemorated: with a menorah in a town square, for Hanukkah; or a mayoral iftar, for Ramadan.

I love these changes, but I also want more. And holidays are an area in which I think we could learn something from Lebanon.

Here is one list of all Lebanon’s 2008 public holidays:

1 Jan New Year’s Day.
6 Jan Orthodox Armenian Christmas.
10 Jan Islamic New Year.
19 Jan Ashoura.
9 Feb Feast of St Maroun.
20 Mar Mawlid al-Nabi (Prophet’s Birthday).
21 Mar Good Friday.
23 Mar Easter Sunday.
25 Apr Orthodox Good Friday.
Apr Orthodox Easter.
1 May Labor Day.
6 May Martyrs’ Day.
13 May Resistance and Liberation Day.
15 Aug Assumption of the Virgin.
2 Oct Eid al-Fitr (End of Ramadan).
1 Nov All Saints’ Day.
22 Nov Independence Day.
9 Dec Eid al-Adha (Feast of the Sacrifice).
25 Dec Christmas Day.
29 Dec Islamic New Year.

There are a lot of holidays in Lebanon, you might be thinking. And you are right – but they aren’t all celebrated in the same way. There are two categories of holidays: holidays that apply to everyone, and holidays that apply to people of a particular religious background.

Let me address this second category first. These “members-only” observances are used for the holidays of Lebanon’s minority communities. For example, the entire country does not celebrate Armenian Christmas. But Armenians are expected to be given the day off, with no negative repercussions from teachers or employers.

This is somewhat like what I see happening with Jews and Muslims in the US (or Hindus who want to celebrate Diwali), although with two key differences. First, it is not mandated by the national or state government; and second, it is not universal. In Lebanon, my understanding (which may be wrong – so please correct me if so!) is that employers are required to give members of the celebrating faith the day off, and the government can take legal action against them if they do not. This aspect of holiday’ing makes me a bit uncomfortable – as a product of the separation of church (or synagogue, or mosque) and state, I dislike the idea that people should be automatically defined by their religious affiliation.

Also, in the case of the particular example I gave above, it can get a bit confusing. All Armenians do not celebrate Christmas on January 6 – there are different denominations within the Armenian community. Yet all Armenians are, at least officially, granted the day off. (I would argue that this is one of many indications of Lebanon’s Ottoman heritage. In the Ottoman Empire, “Armenian” was a catch-all millet category that mashed together religious identity and ethnicity – just like “Greek” did. Hence “Armenians” included all ethnic Armenians, who are both Orthodox and Eastern Catholic, and Maronites.)

So: I am not advocating the Lebanese system of insisting that people of a particular religion must celebrate its holidays – after all, we as a country are officially religion-blind.

But I am interested in thinking seriously about the first category of holidays: those that everyone celebrates, at least in the sense of having the day off from work or school. In Lebanon, as here in the US, everyone celebrates national days, like Independence Day and Labor Day.

And in Lebanon, as in the US, everyone celebrates certain religious holidays, like Christmas and New Year’s Day. In the US, these holidays follow the Western Christian calendar. But in Lebanon, they follow the Western and Eastern Christian calendars, and they include the Muslim calendars as well. So everyone celebrates Orthodox Easter as well as Western Easter; and everyone celebrates Eid al-Fitr, Eid al-Adha, and the Prophet’s birthday.

The exact list of holidays seems to shift from year to year – in 2009, for example, Armenian Christmas does appear to be an official holiday. And for the past two years, the Lebanese government has been considering removing Good Friday from the holiday list – inspiring copious amounts of over-heated rhetoric as well as public protests.

I’m not advocating that we adopt the Lebanese system. As nice as 16 holidays might be, what we need to focus on now is increasing our national productivity, not reducing it.

But I think that as we mature into a country that that not only recognizes but embraces the multiple faiths that our citizens follow, we ought also to spend some time thinking seriously about our national holidays.

Erecting a public menorah and holding a city-wide iftar are important symbols. But adding a day to commemorate Yom Kippur or celebrate Eid al-Adha might be gestures of greater substance.

Posted in academia, advertising, Americans, Arab world, Arabic, Beirut, church, citizenship, family, holidays, Iowa, Lebanon, mosque, neighbors, religion, unity, words | 1 Comment »

Tower of … Babylon?

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on August 18, 2008

Hizbullah is having a busy week in Lebanon, it seems. In between calling for Lebanese prisoners in Syrian jails to be repatriated and signing a MoU with “the Salafists” (which I never realized was a discrete organization. I thought it was a tendency, or an orientation – not a club.), it has been pushing to expand the upcoming national dialogue to include issues beyond national defense.

That’s all fine with me – I mean, I personally don’t support two of those activities, but I’m all in favor of hard work and a busy schedule. What intrigues me is a small aspect of the English-language media coverage of March 14 reactions’ to Hizbullah’s desire to broaden the dialogue.

According to Now Lebanon, Prime Minister Siniora said that he was against broadening the dialogue because it would create a “Tower of Babel”-like situation:

“If the participants would like to expand the dialogue, we could add some terms, but then we would be cancelling the constitutional institutions and the parliament’s role, which would lead to a situation similar to Tower of Babel,” he commented.

Now Lebanon’s command of English is nothing to write home about, at least when it comes to its news updates and “Today in Lebanon” section, but I would agree that “Tower of Babel” is the correct translation for “burj Babil”.

Naharnet, on the other hand, seems to have gone utterly off the linguistic deep end. Here’s the title of its article on the same subject:

Hizbullah Weapons into the Babylon Tower Dialogue

Oh yes – clear as mud, as they say. The article opens with back-to-back present participles and more passion than reportage:

Hizbullah appeared heading to flooding the proposed national dialogue with an expanded agenda and an expanded list of participants as Premier Fouad Saniora warned that such a trend would only end up in a “Babylon tower” disarray.

“Babylon Tower”? Does anyone know anything about this? My memory of the Tower of Babel chapter in Genesis is that both it and the city of Babylon were in the same kingdom, but were not at all the same. But “Babil” in Arabic is translated both as “Babel” and “Babylon”, so maybe the translation was an honest mistake.

Or it may be that Babylon grew over time and absorbed the old Tower site – just like Beirut grew and absorbed the formerly rural areas of Achrafiye, Zarif, and Ras Beirut.

I’m eager to know more, if anyone has information (or an opinion!) to share :).

Posted in Arab world, Arabic, Beirut, church, Iraq, Lebanon, politics, research, time, words | 5 Comments »

odds and ends

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on April 30, 2008

Its 8:30 am by the airport clock and not quite that hour by my body clock, so I’m killing time on my laptop until my next flight home to Beirut. Oh, and watching a self-important Indian man try to unplug the mobile phone I am charging in one of the available outlets. He reminds me of the Lebanese men who change the channel on the televisions at the gym without first asking whether I am watching (usually, yes). In a way its heartening to see that sexist, arrogant men are not exclusive to Lebanon.

I’m editing the photos I took this weekend, which led to the unhappy realization that I abandoned our Beiteddine jaunt without talking about the mosaics – especially this one:

See diamond? H said when we passed this mosaic. I told you Lebanon had lions and tigers back in ancient times

He did indeed, although to me this looks like a leopard. Still, I wouldn’t have been any more pleased to encounter a leopard on our Metn walk than a lion or tiger.

And this mosaic (in the same room as the houses of Lebanon and the lovely gunshot door) does look more tiger’y:

The scary beast mosaics were part of a massive collection of mosaics of all sizes, which filled the stables of the palace. Many were of animals – including a surprising number of chickens and roosters. Perhaps the Romans saw more in them than we do today?

Others were stunning geometric designs that to my eye looked incredibly modern, like this one:

According to a tri-lingual, rather outdated Xerox-behind-plastic wall text, the mosaics are all from a late antique Roman church excavated in 1987 from the sands of Jiyyeh:

On the one hand, its refreshing to know that Jiyyeh’s sands have been good for something more than beach clubs. On the other hand – why not build a museum around the mosaics in situ, as Jordan did with Madaba?

There must be more to this story – and there must be more to the story of the church, as well. There were a lot of mosaics in the Beiteddine stables. Not one, not two – upwards of 20 full floor pieces, and at least as many more smaller ones.

This church must have been the largest thing for miles around ancient Jiyyeh – and its trustees must have controlled a huge chunk of wealth, if they were able to afford the cost of commissioning so many stunning mosaics. I knew the late antique period was one of great richness, metaphorical and literal, but seeing its evidence at Beiteddine was eye-opening.

Posted in Arab world, art, church, Druze, Lebanon, photography, religion | 1 Comment »

skiing while Phoenician

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on January 28, 2008

After “graduating” from Faraya’s baby slope (I’m requesting a diploma), H and I slowly made our way through Faraya’s more challenging offerings, arriving after long last at Mzaar, the mountain’s peak.

The way down began with a gentle slope – a deceptively gentle slope, as I realized only when I found myself at the edge of a nearly vertical drop.

Well, it wasn’t really vertical, but by the time I realized that it was merely a very blue blue, I had spooked myself back into chasse-neige (snow-plow) land.

I trundled my slow, deeply inelegant see-saw way down, grateful not to have fallen and irked with myself for being such a … well … flat-land Midwestern weenie. So when H proposed another trip to the peak, I agreed.

But when we arrived at the top the second time, we decided to stop for a little touristing.

In the charmingly Age of Discovery (if sectarianism is your thing) way that Lebanon’s Maronites have of claiming land for Christ, Mzaar is emphatically Christian. Its peak carries not one, not two, but three crosses – each one bigger than the next. (Imagine the Three Bears with a black-robed priest in lieu of Goldilocks, and you will get the idea.) So perhaps it was no surprise that Mzaar also has its own chapel.

[I’m skipping the part where I 1) could not figure out how to get out of my skis 2) had to enlist help 3) fell and 4) nearly toppled over again because I am so clumsy in ski boots.]

The chapel was quite beautiful: small and spare, but well-lit and contemplative.


The pews were covered in sheepskin to keep the chill from soaking into visitors’ bones.


On the way out, I noticed this plaque – and it made me curious to know more.


The inscription states that the chapel was established in 2005 under the patronage of a parliament member, and that it sits on the ruin (? I’m missing something here, and dictionary-less until tomorrow, hint hint Arabic speakers) of the Phoenician shrine. “Mzaar” means tour, but it also means site of a visit, and more specifically, the site of a religious visit – i.e., a shrine.

I understand that there is an old Phoenician temple near Faraya – in Faqra. But I didn’t realize that there was one on Mzaar, although with a name like Mzaar I suppose I should have been less surprised. Does anyone know the full story?
As for me, I was so overwhelmed by both the chapel itself and its Phoenician connection that I ended our little tourist jaunt by collapsing in a stick-over-pole catastrophe. Not while going down the slope, of course, but from the effort of getting my skis back on.

Posted in Americans, church, Lebanon, research, skiing | Leave a Comment »

the devil is in the details: Bliss Street

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on December 5, 2007

What a horrible name for a street, the young woman with whom I was speaking said, shocked.

What? I asked, confused.

Iblis means “devil” in Arabic, she explained.

Oh, I said, the light dawning. Its not “Bleees” – its “Bliss”.

I was speaking with a group of young women from the Gulf, who were curious to hear more about my life in Beirut. AUB was the one place they all recognized, so our conversation revolved largely around Hamra. The problem began when one asked: Isn’t AUB on Hamra?

No, another answered, its on shari3a blees.

Of course, in Lebanon no one pronounces Bliss as blees – although Arabizing the name probably makes more sense. “Bliss” doesn’t sound like “iblis”, which is pronounced “iblees” – but “blees” sure does.

Bliss Street is named after Reverend Daniel Bliss, the man who founded AUB. He was a graduate of Amherst (rival to my sweet alma mater), and, as his title might suggest, he came to the Levant as a missionary.

A family biography page summarizes Bliss’ life as follows:

On Nov. 7, 1848, he arrived at Amherst College, Mass., in the middle of the fall term and was admitted upon examination to the freshman class. He was strong-minded, robust in physique, and a liberal in religion–testifying, however, years afterward that he “never opposed what he believed to be true Christianity.” What modest debts he accumulated in making his way through Amherst he cleared from the proceeds of a private school which he conducted in Shrewsbury, Mass., during the summer of 1852. He graduated from Amherst in the latter year and during 1852-55 attended Andover Seminary in preparation for the ministry and foreign missions.

On Oct. 17, he was ordained at Amherst, and in November was married to Abby Maria Wood, of Westminster, Mass. Receiving appointment by the American Board and being assigned to Syria, Mr. and Mrs. Bliss sailed from Boston on Dec. 12, 1855, for Malta, Smyrna, and Beirut. After a short stay in Beirut they left on Apr. 15 for Abeih, a Lebanon village 2,500 ft. above the sea, where they worked for two and one-half years among the few hundred Christian and Druse villagers.

This was Bliss’s apprenticeship, and under his hand the school which Dr. Van Dyck had opened in 1843 grew rapidly into an academy of importance. The Syrian work at the time was almost exclusively amongst non-Moslems, for while Turkey was tolerant of Christian missionaries, she did not guarantee immunity to Moslem converts to Christianity.

For four years from Oct. 16, 1858, the Blisses were in charge of the Girls’ Boarding School in Suq al-Gharb, five miles above Abeih. It was there he preached his first Arabic sermon on Dec. 12, 1858, and displayed further his fitness for educational work. When the Syrian Mission voted on Jan. 27, 1862, to recommend the founding of a “Literary Institution,” Bliss was assigned the task and privilege of organizing and presiding over it. He and Mrs. Bliss came at once to America, where he took the first steps in the new assignment. Syrian Protestant College was chartered in 1864 by New York State, and began an independent career under its own trustees with Bliss as president.

Enough endowment was raised to enable the institution to open in Beirut on Dec. 3, 1866, the aim being to serve “all conditions and classes of men without regard to colour, nationality, race, or religion.” Arabic was the medium of instruction for the first seventeen years; thereafter, English. After existence in various quarters until 1873 the present site was occupied, where the cornerstone of the main building had been laid on Dec. 7, 1871.

Bliss acted also as professor of Bible and ethics, and as treasurer. He was the active head of the College for thirty-six years and saw its enrolment grow from sixteen to over six hundred students. In 1902 he resigned, being succeeded by his second son, Dr. Howard Bliss, but after his retirement he still continued his daily classes, attended faculty meetings, and preached an occasional sermon. A hall of the Beirut institution bears his name, and his memory is preserved by Arabic textbooks of his own composition in moral and in natural philosophy.

In 1920, the Syrian Protestant College became the American University of Beirut, and sometime around then lost its religious affiliation. But the missionaries of Reverend Bliss’ generation saw education as merely the first step to their ultimate goal: conversion. And converting Eastern Christians was no less important than converting Muslims – American Protestants wrote in horror of the “smells and bells” of Orthodox, Catholic and Maronite services – not to mention their reverence for saints and the Virgin Mary.

I’m sure my acquaintance was not the first to make the “Bliss” – “iblis” connection. I imagine that there were a number of Lebanese in the late 1800s who considered this energetic missionary something of a devil!

Posted in academia, Americans, Arabic, church, Lebanon, religion, time | 3 Comments »