Tea with Hezbollah: Sitting at the Enemies Table Our Journey Through the Middle East

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9780307588272: Tea with Hezbollah: Sitting at the Enemies Table Our Journey Through the Middle East

Is it really possible to love one’s enemies?

That’s the question that sparked a fascinating and, at times, terrifying journey into the heart of the Middle East during the summer of 2008. It was a trip that began in Egypt, passed beneath the steel and glass high rises of Saudi Arabia, then wound through the bullet- pocked alleyways of Beirut and dusty streets of Damascus, before ending at the cradle of the world’s three major religions: Jerusalem.

Tea with Hezbollah
combines nail-biting narrative with the texture of rich historical background, as readers join novelist Ted Dekker and his co-author and Middle East expert, Carl Medearis, on a hair-raising journey. They are with them in every rocky cab ride, late-night border crossing, and back-room conversation as they sit down one-on-one with some of the most notorious leaders of the Arab world. These candid discussions with leaders of Hezbollah and Hamas, with muftis, sheikhs, and ayatollahs, with Osama bin Laden’s brothers, reveal these men to be real people with emotions, fears, and hopes of their own. Along the way, Dekker and Medearis discover surprising answers and even more surprising questions that they could not have anticipated—questions that lead straight to the heart of Middle Eastern conflict.

Through powerful narrative Tea With Hezbollah will draw the West into a completely fresh understanding of those we call our enemies and the teaching that dares us to love them. A must read for all who see the looming threat rising in the Middle East.

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About the Author:

Ted Dekker is the author of many nationally best-selling novels, including Bone Man’s Daughters, The Circle Series, Thr3e, and House. His unique style of storytelling has captured the attention of millions worldwide. Visit him at TedDekker.com and Facebook.com/TedDekker.

Carl Medearis is an international expert in the field of Arab-American and Muslim-Christian relations. He acts as a catalyst for a number of current movements in the Middle East to promote peace-making and to promote cultural, political and religious dialog leading toward reconciliation. He is the author of the acclaimed book on these issues Muslims, Christians and Jesus. Visit him at www.carlmedearis.com.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

 
Chapter 1: Into the Lion’s Den
A JOURNEY INTO MADNESS
 
 
THE FIRST CLUE that I had thrown myself into the mouth of madness should have been clear before the Middle East Airlines 767 took off from Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, with hardly a soul aboard besides me, the lowly writer, and Carl Medearis, the fearless trailblazer who sat beside me, trying to look at ease.
Correction. The first clue should have come five days earlier when I received the call that the Hezbollah had just stormed the parliament buildings in Beirut, had declared their own form of martial law, and were killing dissenting party members who’d taken up arms. A full-scale war had broken out in the very city Carl had talked me into visiting on this quest of ours.
Tanks and military vehicles, hundreds of them, were rolling down the streets. Citizens were fleeing. Hezbollah had seized control of the airport and stopped all flights. The American State Department had just issued a travel advisory, essentially prohibiting travel into the region.
I remember the call vividly. I was standing in a small luggage shop in my hometown of Austin, Texas, trying to decide whether the exorbitant price they were suggesting I pay for Tumi bags was worth the extra coin. I could buy a good Samsonite suitcase for a third the price.
It was then my cell phone chirped and I stepped out of the shop, glad for the distraction.
“Have you heard the news?” Carl asked in his ever-nonchalant voice.
“What news?”
“Lebanon’s at war.”
“Huh. Really?”
“The airport is shut down.”
“Wow. Really?”
“Many are reported killed.”
“Seriously?”
You see, my own use of those words, really and wow and seriously, should have sealed the deal for me. Going to Beirut at a time like this was ill-advised. And going to Beirut to have tea with the top leaders of the Hezbollah, of all people, was now just plain absurd.
“What about Saudi Arabia?” I asked with as much bravado as I could muster. I was the apprentice here, playing the role of adventurer-in-training, and it was important that I didn’t start squealing like a frightened child.
“Well, this is the Middle East,” Carl came back casually. “Samir just evacuated his children on a private plane. He’s adamant that we cancel the entire trip.”
Samir. One of Carl’s many friends in the Middle East, but unique in that Samir knows and is trusted by everyone. A linchpin for this trip, he was responsible for many of our appointments. If he said cancel, clearly we canceled.
My partner wasn’t panicking, so I followed his most admirable example. I glanced back through the window where my wife, Lee Ann, was talking to the clerk about the Tumi bags. Naturally we wouldn’t be needing either Tumi or Samsonite—the world was coming to an end.
“What about Syria?” I asked.
“Yeah, well, the road from Lebanon into Syria is blockaded with burning tires.”
“Seriously?” Again that word. “So our meeting with Assad’s government—”
“Is now probably out of the question.”
“What about the West Bank? The Hamas?”
 “Yeah, crazy, huh? Same with the bin Laden brothers in Saudi Arabia. The whole region could erupt. This is big news.”
“What does Chris think?” Chris is Carl’s Greek goddess, his marriage
partner who has given him three children and traveled the world at his side with superhuman grace. That’s my take.
“Yeah, she thinks the trip is dangerous.”
Now that I think about it, I did take notice of those early clues that traveling through the Middle East to ask “never before asked questions” of Islam’s most influential ideologues and America’s “enemies” was a misguided mission. In fact, I distinctly remember feeling buckets of sweet, cool relief washing over my body as Carl broke the news.
The trip was off. I felt jovial! I was liberated from the fear that had nagged at me for many months as Carl slowly but surely put together this unprecedented trip.
Honestly, I never really thought he’d pull it off. Without fail, my mention of the trip to publishers or people of influence would garner the same coy smile. “Yeah, good luck with that.” Who’d ever heard of such a thing? I mean, it’s one thing to sit in a coffee shop in downtown Denver and dream about the ultimate trip to the most dangerous parts of the world, but the list of people whom Carl wanted to meet amounted to a delusional dream. Or a nightmare, depending on your perspective.
Did I say delusional? Add impossible to that. No one from the State Department could get the meetings Carl was going after. In fact, no one but Carl Medearis could land them, but more on that later.
As the months stretched into a year and the appointments began falling into place, I tried to back out a dozen times. Finally, two days before we were scheduled to leave, God Himself had reached down and mercifully rescued me from almost certain death. Not to mention an overpriced luggage purchase. Being the puppy in tow of the great mastiff, I put on a brave face.
“So, what do we do?” I asked.
“Well, we wait and see.”
“Wait for what?”
“For things on the ground to change. Could all be fine tomorrow.”
I’m here to tell you that nothing was fine tomorrow. I’m still not sure what—besides foolishness—put me on a flight from Denver to Cairo two days later.
And I’m even less sure of what absurd notions could possibly have persuaded me to board the first flight into Beirut four days later, following a week’s upheaval that had sent souls far braver than me either running for cover or to their graves.
Yet here I was, cranking open the vent over my head to dry the ribbons of sweat seeping from my forehead, never mind that the cabin was already freezing. Samir Kreidie, the wealthy Muslim businessman in Saudi Arabia who’d helped to set up the trip, was returning to Beirut with us. Indeed, without his help, the trip would have been impossible—many of the muftis and clerics we would meet agreed to do so only because of his unshakable reputation as a powerhouse of reconciliation.
But Samir himself, only days earlier, had insisted the trip was now far too dangerous.
Such is the Middle Eastern mind-set. I suppose when you spend your whole life dodging bullets, the threat of a sniper on the corner doesn’t keep you housebound for long. Better to run rather than walk, naturally, but you can’t let dissenters with machine guns make you a prisoner in your own house.
On the bright side, Carl, Samir, and I had virtually the whole jet to ourselves. It turns out that the owners of Middle East Airlines know Samir well. We’d canceled our flights from Saudi Arabia to Beirut a few days earlier on my urging, during a time when all three of us possessed our full share of good sense. Rebooking would normally have been impossible at a time like this, but a single call from Samir and we were on. Such is the power of a man who spends the day talking to heads of state on his flip phone.
And business class to boot. Wonderful. The staff was excellent, as was the food. It was certainly better than any service I’d experienced in the United States. The stewardesses all knew Samir—no surprise there.
But the essential facts remained: One, Beirut was a city besieged by the Hezbollah. Two, we were on the first flight in after a week’s closure. Three, according to reports, anywhere from dozens to hundreds had been killed in fighting around the city, and the Lebanese army controlled the streets only by lining them with tanks and machine-gun placements.
Four . . . I mean, please. Anything could happen. Anything.
Sometimes I feel like hugging Carl and slapping him on the back. The kind of guy who would befriend a starving grizzly bear, he is loved by all, and I do mean all. Other times I feel more like locking him in the bathroom and making a run for it. Both his love and his bravery are greater than mine.
Sweating bullets at thirty thousand feet and headed into the lion’s den better known as Beirut, I was feeling the bathroom might be a good idea. But I had nowhere to run. I was committed.
No longer interested in stewing in my own fears, I turned to Carl. Thankfully, the seats in business class are large, because Carl—a good Nebraska boy with blue eyes and a smile that won’t quit— stands six foot two and is built like the grizzly bears he befriends.
“So you really think this is a good idea, huh?”
“Teddy, Teddy, you worry too much.” His standard answer. I don’t find it remotely comforting and I don’t even try to smile.
“Seriously, Carl.” There’s that word again. “I got a bad feeling about this.”
“Samir wouldn’t have agreed if it wasn’t safe,” he said.
I looked over at the wealthy Lebanese businessman who made his home in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. He grins and winks. Honestly, this is a man who could make the most hostile enemy lower his gun and settle down for a cup of tea. Being with him coaxes a perpetual smile from all in his presence. I’d just spent two days smiling.
But that was before this flight.
I politely forced a smile and remembered that Samir went to extraordinary lengths to get his family out of Beirut just days ago. I’d lain awake each night since then with visions roiling inside my head of gunmen bursting into my hotel room.
We’d already been to Egypt and met with perhaps the most powerful ideologue in the Muslim world. We’d spent three days in Saudi Arabia meeting with those who shaped Saudi thought, and we’d sat down with Osama bin Laden’s brothers.
I’d heard countless nerve-wracking accounts that testified to the frailty of human life in this part of the world: the time when the CIA had kicked Carl and his family out of Lebanon for their own safety; the time when he was kidnapped at gunpoint in Iraq and very nearly assassinated; the time when Bonnie, one of his coworkers from the United States, was shot in the face and killed, south of Beirut. And this was just Carl—everyone we met had a dozen similar cautionary tales of death or near death.
This was only the beginning of our trip. Ahead lay the gravest dangers, the West’s greatest perceived enemies, the making and unmaking of war: Beirut, Baalbek, southern Lebanon, Syria, the West Bank.
I’ve had my encounters with danger, naturally. I was born in the jungles of Indonesia, where my parents spent their lives as missionaries among headhunters. The father of one of my best friends was killed and consumed by the cannibals in the valley next to ours. He was one of two missionaries who were eaten by the locals when I was a child. I saw war and destruction, and I’ve had more than my share of close encounters with death.
But that was my life before I turned twenty. Since I’ve been living as an adult in America, the danger I’ve faced has been of my own making—the dark antagonists who populate my novels.
Now I was facing real danger again, and it made my blood run cold. Honestly, I was having difficulty remembering exactly why we were subjecting ourselves to this madness.
“Carl, remind me again exactly what we hope to accomplish with all of this,” I said, turning back to my friend of fifteen years.
“Well . . .” For the hundredth time we rehearsed our ambitions.
It all started nearly two years earlier when Carl Medearis, the man with a thousand stories and ten thousand friends, had lunch with one of those friends, Ted Dekker, the man who has befriended his computer keyboard. It was a pleasant day in July and we sat in an
outdoor patio at a Hard Rock Cafe on the Sixteenth Street Mall, downtown Denver. Our wives, Chris and Lee Ann, were deep in a discussion about traveling abroad; Carl and I had each other’s ear.
“Tell me, Ted,” said my good friend, “what is one thing Martin Luther King, Gandhi, and Jesus have in common?”
I thought for a moment. “They were all murdered?”
“Actually, that’s right. And they all died for the same message, at least in large part. So, what was that message?”
 “Tell me.”
“To love your neighbor. Even if they’re the enemy.”
I nodded. “They make us all look like hypocrites. Is it really possibleto love your enemy?”
We both fell into a few moments of introspection. Then Carl looked up with bright eyes.
“Why don’t we find out?”
“Okay.”
“Seriously.” That word. “Why don’t we go to this country’s greatest so-called enemies and ask them what they think about this scandalous teaching.”
“The Middle East?”
“Not just the Middle East. The Hamas, the Hezbollah. The greatest minds and influencers in Islam.”
“And ask them what they think of Martin Luther King, Gandhi, and Jesus?”
“Well, it’s a thought. The parable of the Samaritan is probably the most famous teaching on loving your neighbors. Muslims revere Jesus, who gave the teaching. We could start with that.”
He actually was serious.
“So we go together, sit at the table of our greatest enemies.” I paused. “We’re talking about one of the most complicated regions of the world, brimming with violence. Huge divides between Muslims, Jews, and Christians. Bus bombs, terrorism, massive loss of life . . . You honestly think anything we hoped to accomplish with a trip to the Middle East would really do anyone any good?”
“It would do me good,” Carl said. “And it would do the people we talked to good. Talking is always good.”
“You’re talking about the people who blew up the Twin Towers! Thousands of our soldiers and citizens have lost their lives at the hands of Muslims. They want to push Israel into the sea, for heaven’s sake. Talking would do no good.”
He shrugged. “Maybe not. But it would be one heck of trip. Imagine it.”
“I am, that’s the problem. My imagination is pretty good and I’m imagining nothing but trouble.” Pause. “You really think you could set it up?”
“It will be difficult, but yeah, I think I can.”
“We sit with these so-called enemies, ask them what their favorite joke is, and what they think of the parable of the Samaritan, which teaches us to love our neighbors even if they are our enemies. And we do it all to discover if anyone really can love his enemy. That about it?”
“Pretty much, yes. And in writing about it all for an American audience, we would be sitting Americans at the table with their enemies. We’ll let them decide what to do with this radical teaching that got Martin Luther King, Gandhi, and Jesus killed. I would be willing to go out on a limb for that.”
He stared at me and his lips slowly curled into a daring smile. When Carl talks about going out on a limb, it brings to my mind the time he went out on a limb in Iraq and was kidnapped at gunpoint. I have no desire to follow Carl out on his limbs.
“Sounds dangerous.” But man, imagine the book. “You could really pull off meetings like that?”
“If I could . . . Interested?”
I let my mind go. The idea suddenly sounded irresistible, in part because it seemed so impossible. A protected fantasy.
“Maybe. If you could, maybe I could. Maybe. If you could.”
As it turned out, he could. And he did.
It took Carl a year to talk me from a maybe to a yes. It took another year to line it up. And a third to write the book. Though Carl and I are about as similar as the mastiff and the puppy, we do share some basic points of connection. We both used to live in Colorado, where we first met eighteen years ago. We’ve both lived in predominantly Muslim communities (Carl in Lebanon, ...

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