Peace Stories - Frances Keenan

Teacher in Lebanon

 
Frances Keenan helping a Lebanese student

Frances Keenan helping a
Lebanese student

Frances Keenan is a member of Kettering Quaker meeting. A Scot born and bred, she has lived, worked and studied most of her adult life in England, notwithstanding six years in Australia in the 1970s. Her spiritual journey, likewise, has traversed sectarianism and crossed borders to find Ecumenism wearing a Quaker hat!

PEACE STORY

Reflection: Peace means the same in any language

I feel blessed and privileged to have had the opportunity to work as a volunteer teacher and Friend in Residence (in my early 60s) at Brummana High School (BHS) in the Lebanon for the 2008-09 academic year. I can honestly say it has been both a spiritually enlightening and culturally edifying experience for me, for which I am profoundly grateful.

That said, my first and last impression and feeling was of a profound and lasting sadness that permeates this war-torn country even though the friendliness and joie de vivre of the Lebanese in general, and multi-national students at BHS in particular, was often quite overwhelming. However, digging deeper at the personal level revealed the awful scars of years of conflict: the fears, stress, suffering, loss and anger amidst an incredible determination that Lebanon was not going to be occupied again and that their culture, heritage, religions, cuisine and way of life were theirs to celebrate and protect by whatever means. The loyalty of students to their school and friends within it was clearly genuine and very important to their lives. These students included Lebanese day pupils along with the boarders from across the Middle East, with some from Europe, Asia and America: both Christians and Muslims of many sects. I think it would be incorrect to say that BHS today is a Quaker School, but it certainly is one based on Quaker values, ethics and practice despite all the upheavals and traumas of years of wars that has damaged people’s lives, well-being, trust and hope, as well as the infrastructure, economy, security, and institutions of Lebanon. The school motto ‒ “I serve” ‒ is respected, understood, valued and practised. Sunday Meeting for Worship is held within the school campus and kept alive by the relatives of the original founder (Theophilus Waldmeier [1832-1915] a convinced Quaker) and by Quaker visitors to Lebanon. Whilst students are noticeable by their absence at Meeting, it is wonderful to witness the population of multi-race, multi-faith students ‒ rich and poor alike ‒ all studying, playing, and socialising together during the week. That alone seems a valuable lesson for life: living peaceably and fruitfully with others and with difference. It was good to see several minutes of silent reflection practised before commencement at the weekly students’ assemblies.

Enlightenment came from many unexpected discussions and quarters during my time in Lebanon. One was during a class discussion of 14-15 year olds when I was asked “Why had I come to Lebanon?” My response: “A golden opportunity at my age and also to be at the heart of where all the three great monotheistic religions started.” The question that followed was not expected. “What ‒ Christianity too, Miss?!” a Muslim student asked in amazement. I paused a minute before replying: “Well ‒ yes, where do you think Jesus came from?” I continued “He came from Palestine and was a Jew” (I paused) “but I realise why you might think that Christianity came from the West given the history of the Crusades in this part of the world.” I knew that Muslims acknowledged Jesus as a prophet and holy man.

Moments of edification related to a poster I sent for, posted from Friend’s House in London to BHS. The poster has a strong blue background emblazoned on top in white large letters with three words. First in Arabic “SALAAM”; in the middle in Hebrew: “SHALOM”; and underneath in English: “PEACE”. Diagonally in small block capitals in pale blue are written in many other languages their words for peace. At the very bottom was a strip that said “Quaker Peace and Social Witness”.

During the second term I took this poster to my Advisory class of Lebanese pupils (16-17 year olds) and asked them if they would like to put this on their empty wallboard, explaining that to achieve a lasting peace there was only one way and that was communication with all parties and this poster reflected that message. Then to my astonishment one of the female students shouted out ‒ “What's that middle language?” (pause) “It's Hebrew we can't have that!” And then there was a general and very noisy hubbub. So, raising my voice, I said, “If you want peace in this country then you are going to have to dialogue with the enemy. If you can't even look at the Hebrew word for peace ‘Shalom’, what hope have you got for the future? One of you, or maybe two in this class, could be a future Lebanese Government official. Think about this message, think about what war has done to your country and lives, there is only one way forward and that is talking in whatever language that it takes to achieve a future for you and following generations. And remember the words ‘Salaam’ and ‘Shalom’ come from the same root ‒ they are both Semitic languages.” I started to roll up the poster but the girl who had said “no” said, “We’ll put it up as long as we can cross out the Hebrew word.” I was pleased with the result, though shaken at what I had stirred and witnessed. The poster was up.

Then I was deported! The School Bursar worked with Securite Generale HQ and the Clerk of Meeting worked with the Lebanese Government's Minister of Interior to get me back. No-one apparently knew why I was deported, but my Embassy link was sure it was my family name, Keenan, and the apparent link to Brian Keenan of hostage history who had visited Lebanon for first time just before I arrived. The week before my deportation, a film of his life and times as a Lebanese hostage had been shown in West Beirut (Muslim area) which had upset a lot of officials. The combination of that, and also using short-term visitor visa to work as a volunteer at BHS (even though that visa system had worked for others), left me vulnerable.

Back at school with full clearance and bona fide visa ‒ five weeks later ‒ I took my other copy of the Quaker peace poster to Sunday Meeting. Afterwards, when the Clerk, a couple of local Quakers and an American Quaker lady visitor remained, I invited their thoughts about the poster. The reaction from the Clerk was so angry that I was literally dumbstruck with what he said. “How did I get this poster into the country ‒ did I want to be deported again? Had I any idea what I was doing? This sort of thing might be alright in Ramallah but not in Lebanon.” And so on. The American lady said that she would give it to her son to use. The clerk said: “Under no circumstances ‒ it identifies Quakers (QPSW) and we can't have Quakers allied to such a poster in this country.” I realised then that he didn't know about the poster in my Advisory Class!

The next day I went to my class to take that peace poster off their wall board ‒ much to their surprise. They said they were okay with it up as long as I did not mind the crossing out that they had done. I told them that was not the problem. I was in trouble about the poster from elsewhere which I could not discuss and I could not get them in trouble, or put myself in any more, so it had to come down ‒ though I asked them to remember the message: Peace means the same in any language; dialogue is a key weapon.

 

Fierce Feathers: a play with a Quaker theme produced by Frances Keenan at Brummana High School.

Fierce Feathers: a play with a Quaker theme produced by Frances Keenan at Brummana High School.

Postscript

Subsequently I have learned that the Brummana Clerk had in past had a direct hit by an Israeli bomber on his home in Beirut. I had not meant to cause friction or upset ‒ certainly not with the Lebanese Quakers or more importantly with the Clerk who had played a large part in getting clearance for me to return to Lebanon. I have, though, learned a lot from that fallout. The long term damage to peaceful negotiations between Lebanese, Palestinians and Israelis seems almost incalculable.

In my final weeks in Lebanon I twice visited Shatila “Refugee” Camp in Beirut. The stench of an open, festering wound will not leave me and I do wonder if this is an area where QPSW could, or maybe should have an active ‘volunteer’ presence?