Every other night, the shrapnel-scarred S.S. Victory leaves its port in Larnaca, Cyprus, and at a leisurely pace steams southeast for the port of Junieh just north of Beirut and about two kilometers from the famed Casino Lebanon. On this particular night, the captain, a leather-faced Greek who knows the eastern Mediterranean as if it were his own private pond, sets the engines at half-speed and sips from a mug of strong, black coffee.
“Don’t worry, my friend,” he laughs, sensing my uneasiness. “She is a strong ship.”
A few weeks before this voyage, a sister ship took a direct hit. Several crew members and passengers were injured, and one passenger died. Since then, the Victory has sailed to a spot in international waters just out of reach of artillery fire and transferred passengers and cargo to wood-hulled launches. Radar has a harder time reflecting off wooden boats.
A cabin boy—probably 16 years old—stops to chat. He is tall and thin, so I ask him if he plays basketball and then inwardly cringe at my cultural imperialism. “Larry Bird!” he exclaims, his eyes brightening. “He’s my favorite; but I hate Magic Johnson.” We chat for a few minutes about American basketball, and I am amazed that he already knew my very own Detroit Pistons were battling toward a second championship. For a moment, I have forgotten my fear, and we are two strangers in Chicago discussing the NBA.
Too soon, we drop basketball. He wants to know why an American would go to Beirut. I tell him I am a Christian and that I am interested in how Lebanese Christians practice their faith in conditions of war. In this part of the world, it is so much easier to talk about religious belief since ...1
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