Fifth graders who are now 60+ years old. Some of us are still in touch on Facebook.


I am a standup comedian who has performed comedy in the Middle East
in front of thousands. The Lebanese loved it when you would make fun of their
driving and how, in Lebanon, a red light is just a suggestion to stop.  ~ Maz Jobrani

Lebanon was at one time known as a nation that rose above sectarian hatred;
Beirut was known as the Paris of the Middle East.  ~ Roger Ebert


I had just turned 24 the week before I arrived in Beirut after an arduous journey that included some days of delay in Athens because several commercial airliners had been hijacked into the Jordanian desert. At least one of them stopped in Beirut so the airport had been closed. It was September 1970. We were awakened at about 2:00 am and told to be ready to go in an hour. Immediately after we and our luggage had been unloaded in Beirut, the plane took off again. So much drama and adventure!

As I came out of Lebanese customs at about 6:30 am, a short, young, smiling man called my name. He said, “My name is Moussa. I work at the school. I was asked to pick you up and take you there. I’m happy to meet you!” I wondered how he knew my arrival time when I didn’t even know. Would I trust that he was telling the truth? I had never heard of him and wasn’t aware that he would be at the airport to pick me up. I could have said no. There were plenty of people and public taxis around. Yet, I decided to trust him.

It was already hot. I was tired and feeling disoriented. Nonetheless, he decided this would be a good time to give me an off-the-beaten-path tour of some of his favorite parts the city. We left the Western familiarity of what I later came to know as Ras Beirut and drove in chaotic traffic for some time. Then we began winding through the back streets of a very modest neighborhood.  Finally, he stopped, parked the car, got out, and came around to my side of the car. He smiled, opened my door, and invited me out.

“Where are we?” I asked.

“I want you to meet my mother,” he said. “She is expecting us and has made breakfast for you.” Indeed, she had made a traditional Egyptian breakfast called Fool Mudammes. It is fava beans prepared as a porridge. I had never heard of fava beans before, let alone eaten them.

After a pleasant visit, we got back into Moussa’s car and he drove me to the school. I checked in, found my room in the dorm where I would be a counselor, and immediately fell asleep. My new home.The Mediterranean Sea was just a block away and we had a great view of it from our classroom which was less than a block away. What a bonanza!


That month of September 1970 would become even more memorable beyond the hijackings. Civil war erupted in Jordan following the hijackings and many Palestinians left Jordan and were arriving in Lebanon daily. The refugee camps grew. Toward the end of the month Gamal Nasser, President of Egypt, died and, for fears of violence, the school was put on lockdown for several days. We had the BBC on the PA in the teachers lounge 24/7 to follow the latest news. We were told to keep a bag packed in case we had to evacuate and were given instructions on the evacuation plans. I was to leave by ship.

Another significant event happened on a Saturday afternoon.  Three high school boys who lived in the dorm and one American university student were arrested for possessing hashish. Their parents, working for ARAMCO in Saudi Arabia, were given 24 hours to get them out of Lebanon. They did. But the university student went to prison. I was told that Lebanese prisons were very hard places for people to survive if they didn’t have family to bring them food.

I wondered whether this first month in my new home was special or whether every month would be fraught with multiple dramas like these. As far as I remember, that turned out to be the most tumultuous month I experienced in the two years I lived there. I settled in and circumstances around me settled down.

In any case, for me, all that had happened that month was just background noise. I was totally engaged in getting to know new people at and beyond the school. For example, another teacher introduced me to Johnny, the Armenian money changer. Walk through the door of his tiny shop and he would smile broadly, and say “Ahlan wa salan!” (welcome). “Please sit down.” Turkish coffee would appear: Small talk and coffee before doing any business. That was the way.

And I was enthralled with exploring this beautiful, accessible, exotic, cosmopolitan city. I had no idea! I had also been offered teaching positions in Tehran, Vienna, and Tierra del Fuego. Good information was hard to find in those days so choosing was rather like a crapshoot. In remote Tierra del Fuego I would have six students spread across a wide area and teach out of the back of a station wagon. Too remote. Vienna didn’t seem foreign enough. Tehran seemed too foreign. So I chose the geographic middle. I was very happy with having chosen Beirut. It was only after I got there that I learned it was known as “the Paris of The Middle East.” And, to be sure, it was that.

I took my cues from the people who lived there. If they could thrive, be relaxed, and have fun in spite of the tensions and conflicts that surrounded us, so could I. It was a time of wondrous adventure. Be it walking by the sea, eating gyro, baba ganoush, and hummus for the first time, getting into a communal taxi with complete strangers – as well as getting into Moussa’s car and having breakfast with his mother – or climbing the 144 stairs (12 stories straight up) from the school to get to the western part of the city, surprisingly to me today, I felt no fear. No fear at all.


Choosing flowers at a flower shop across the street from Johnny’s.