Martin Hodson reviews “Postcards from the Middle East. How our family fell in love with the Arab world” (Chris Naylor)

Chris Naylor is now Executive Director A Rocha International, and is based back in the United Kingdom, but for the twenty years between 1989 and 2009, he and his family were resident for much of the time in the Middle East, mostly in Lebanon. When I set out to review this book I knew that it would be an interesting one for me. Not only am I interested in A Rocha, and the way Christians have become increasingly involved in environmental concerns, but I also have experience of living in the Middle East. My experience was rather different as I lived in Israel where I had a research fellowship at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem in 1985/86, and for a long time I had research links there which took me back. I had both Jewish and Arab Christian friends and visited East Jerusalem and the West Bank (now the Palestinian Authority) many times. But sadly all I saw of the Lebanon was from the other side of the border.

The book is largely chronological and begins with Chris and his wife Susanna going to teach in Kuwait. They were fortunate to be out of the country when Iraq invaded in August 1990, but lost all of their possessions In Kuwait. They then had to regroup before going first to Jordan for language training, and then on to Lebanon. At first teaching was their primary call, but increasingly Chris felt the pull of the wild places in Lebanon, and eventually this led to the setting up of A Rocha Lebanon.

But this is more than an autobiography. It gives a real insight into the Arab world. So we learn about the language (some words are surprisingly similar to the Hebrew that I learnt in Israel), the history of the region, about the role of women, the different types of visits to neighbours, the food, and the customs. From this angle alone I suspect that the book could become essential reading for Christian workers who want to work in Arab lands.

Running as the background to the whole story we have the political upheavals of the Middle East. There has been so much conflict over the last 25 years, and involving so many different players. We have seen Western forces deployed, battles between different Arab factions and, of course, the involvement of Israel. The key pivotal event did not happen in the Middle East, but was the attack on the Twin Towers of the World Trade Centre in New York on 11 September 2001. Looking back we can now see that was when things really began to spiral downwards in the region. Wisely, Chris Naylor does not attempt to take sides in any of these conflicts and largely reports the conflicts from a neutral perspective.

The book also documents the founding of A Rocha Lebanon. It started with a few bird watching expeditions, and gradually expanded to the time when Naylor was running a large team. They were particularly involved in the conservation of the Aamiq wetland in Southern Lebanon, but gradually expanded their work elsewhere in the country and ran many educational programmes. Sadly, after Chris and Susanna left in 2009 the work of A Rocha Lebanon has decreased. A small national committee are still active in keeping the work alive.

On page 83 Naylor points out that in Aamiq he was 120 miles from Jerusalem and 70 miles from the Sea of Galilee, but that the political realities meant that he could never go to either. But a migrating stork could! When we last visited the Hula Valley in Northern Israel I had a similar thought. I could never go to Lebanon, but the massive flocks of cranes that we were watching did not need passports. The sad thing is that on both sides of the border there are people who are absolutely committed to nature conservation, but they can never meet. Amidst all of the human suffering in the Middle East we often find that the environment is suffering as well. Let us pray for the hard pressed conservationists in Lebanon and their neighbours in Israel, that one day there will be peace, and that they will be able to work together.

In conclusion, this is a wonderful book from so many angles. Highly recommended- do read it!

“Postcards from the Middle East. How our family fell in love with the Arab world” by Chris Naylor is available from Lion Hudson and many other suppliers.

Dr Martin J Hodson JRI Operations Manager