Father John Donohue

Two memories from my early years in Lebanon


Saint Joseph University, Lebanon

Memorable personal stories about Lebanon? Strange and exciting stories occur frequently in Lebanon, so frequently that they become ordinary in a way and hardly stand out in one’s memory. At least that is my impression and the only stories I recall are those which occurred when I first came to Lebanon.

I came to stay in Lebanon in 1970. Saint Joseph University was interested in having Jesuit reinforcements from among the several expelled from Baghdad in 1969. I had heard much about Lebanese hospitality and had actually experienced it back in 1954 when I spent a summer in Ghazir.

In the Spring of 1970 just after my arrival at USJ, I was not very busy. I was leisurely trying to integrate myself into the Jesuit community, studying French and that sort of thing. Pere Allard suggested I attend the Gibran Festival organized by Suhail Bushrui, Professor at AUB. The Festival was an elaborate series of conferences, round tables and visits.Two incidents are still fresh in my memory.

The first was the trip to Basharri to visit the Gibran Museum. The bus ride along the coast northwards was a joy. The sea with its shades of blue and green, then the olive groves of the Kura. It seemed all nature. Getting away from civilization, snaking around the mountain, looking down on the terra cotta roofs of isolated villages, soaking in the sun and the clear air. It was a delight to be away from city noises and fumes. Back to nature.Then as we wound down one slope into the valley, I could see we were approaching a flat one story edifice and I anxiously tried to read the sign mounted on the roof as we approached: “The Mississippi Café”. What a let down. Gone was the image of pristine nature. Then I realized this is Lebanon. You are everywhere at once.

The second surprise of the festival was the session at La Sagesse which grouped several learned and renowned people to discuss the literary and artistic production of Gibran. The first to speak was Yusuf al-Khal, the poet. He said: “I will be very brief discussing the poetry of Gibran because Gibran never wrote anything I could call poetry.” A murmur went through the crowd. I doubt many accepted the critique. Idols are not easily smashed.

One night in 1970 when I was living in the old residence on University Street, just below Huvelin, I came back from an invitation at about 11 p.m. I had forgotten my key and could not get into the compound which walled in the Petit College, the Church, the Residence and the Imprimerie Catholique. The keys were so enormous that the memory lapse may have been defensive. Whatever, I was out in the street and there were no bells or knockers or any other means of arousing those inside. I had tried all entries. Then I recalled someone telling me that if you wait a bit no doubt some Jesuit with a car will come along and you can get in when he opens the garage door. So I waited, walking back and forth from Monot to Huvelin looking for a late arrival. No luck. I knew I could scale the wall at the Imprimerie gate, but after having loitered there for nearly an hour I feared some neighbour would have spotted me and would call the police if I scaled the wall. Just then along came a young fellow in a police uniform. I stopped him and told him my story. He said, No problem, I’ll help you over the wall and wait here till you are safe inside. And that he did.
Where else but Lebanon?


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