On my last morning in Damascus, I was preparing to be driven back to Beirut – a three-hour journey, according to my driver Ahmad. The staff at the charming hotel in the Christian quarter of the Old City, close to Straight Street, where Ananias baptised St Paul, were nervous. Had I heard, they asked, about the problems in Lebanon? I had not even been able to turn on the television during my visit, so I was clueless.
Apparently, widespread protests had broken out across Lebanon, uniting people of all faiths against the corruption and inefficiency that had plagued that country for so long. People were demanding the resignation of all politicians and there was a sense of revolution in the air.
Ahmad looked nervous, but promised we would try to get to my hotel in Beirut. The staff, however, said it was possible that I would need to stay in Syria. As very few people even knew I was in Damascus, and lovely as my visit to the suffering Christians of Syria had been, the option of a longer sojourn in Syria was not something I welcomed.
Going in the opposite direction of St Paul, on the road out of Damascus, the ubiquitous portraits of Bashar al-Assad faded into the background, with a last flurry of pictures at the border post.
After paying the necessary tax to get out of the country, we crossed into Lebanon. Immediately, in the very first town, the main road was blocked. Large crowds of young men – a mob, which is always dangerous because they are so unpredictable – had placed rocks and burning tyres in the road, making it impossible for vehicles to pass. The young men, masked partly because of the noxious black smoke from the burning tyres, were angry. Many had emerged from Friday prayers; I had failed to remember that travelling on a Friday afternoon might not be a good idea.
Using side streets, Ahmad managed to get us out of the town and back on to the main road. However, as we approached the next town, thick black smoke was visible in the distance. The same thing happened in each town or village we tried to navigate. My rosary came out, and I was hoping all those who had promised to pray for me during my trip were actually true to their word. As it became impossible to go through the towns, Ahmad did his best to use side roads, all without the benefit of satellite navigation. But it was clear he was beginning to get nervous, and he was not alone. All my fears had been about the dangers of Syria, and now, in Lebanon, a revolution seemed to be starting.
Eventually, after trying all the different routes, Ahmad admitted that he was lost.
I felt a little nauseous. Suddenly, from a driveway, a car pulled out, with a young man, woman and child inside. Ahmad asked for directions to Beirut, and the driver just said: “Follow me.”
Up a mountain, into the clouds, along narrow roads, with no crash barriers and huge drops, we followed the car. We continued down into the Bekaa Valley, through the famous vineyards of Lebanon, including Château Musar. I reflected, rather facetiously, that this would be a good moment to stop for a glass of the Château’s best, but that was not on Ahmad’s agenda.
Entering a small town, the leading car pulled into a garage and the driver got out. He had heard on the radio that all roads into Beirut were blocked with the same mobs and burning tyres; it was impossible to get through. What were we going to do? “Follow me,” he said.
We approached the outskirts of Beirut where, indeed, black smoke could be seen hovering over the city. Our guide took us into the hills, before pulling up before a large house. His young wife and child got out; she was heavily pregnant (due, I later found out, in two days). Despite her youth, she would be having her eighth child.
The family invited us in, sat us down and, in typical Middle Eastern style, brought coffee, water, nuts and fruit. More children emerged, including the oldest daughter, a 15-year-old who spoke excellent English. Other family members appeared, including the grandparents, as well as other friends.
I whispered to Ahmad that it seemed they were Muslims. They were, he replied, but we did not know if they were Sunni or Shia. As the evening wore on, the hookah pipes came out, with the women also enjoying a smoke. As the talk turned to the evils of Hezbollah, it was clear the family were Sunni. A large dinner was served, with the family encouraging me to eat. Despite their immense kindness, I was still wondering how we were going to get to Beirut.
That would be impossible, the father told me, and, after phoning the hotel, I was informed that all the roads were blocked around central Beirut. There was to be no discussion: both Ahmad and I, two people this family had never met before, would be their guests and stay the night. Indeed, two bedrooms had already been prepared.
The writer of the Letter to the Hebrews reminds his readers not to “forget to entertain strangers, for by doing so some have entertained angels unawares”. This Muslim family, who brought in an unknown Catholic priest and his Christian driver in a time of danger and unrest, fed them, welcomed them and gave them a bed for the night, were not entertaining angels. They were the angels entertaining us.
Fr Benedict Kiely is the founder of Nasarean.org, which helps the persecuted Christians of the Middle East