Maroun Atallah: The Monk Who Hired Ziad Rahbani
By: Maha Zaraket
Published Sunday, May 6, 2012
Celebrating the 55th anniversary of his ordination to priesthood, Father Maroun never changed his habit of going against the flow.
Friends of father Maroun Atallah believed they were quietly preparing an event to honor him. They thought he had no idea about their meetings and what they were up to, until they could no longer keep it from Atallah and had to tell him what he had suspected all along.
They visited Atallah at St. Joseph Monastery in Bhersaf and told him, “We can’t hide it from you anymore, we want to set a date.”
Atallah agreed, on the condition they make the event, which had been planned in his honor, a gathering to honor every one of them. Atallah also wanted to wait six months so he could finish a book that entails his life’s work so he could pay tribute to everyone who worked with him in the different places he’d been in, from his birthplace el-Lailaki to Baabda, al-Hadath, Zahle, France, and Antelias.
Atallah was not given the time he wanted to finish the book so he prepared a pamphlet entitled If It Weren’t For Them, There Would Be Nothing Of What Was in which he summarized his activities over five decades paying tribute in name to everyone who worked with him all these years.
His colleagues for their part honored him in their own way by preparing a book entitled The Citizen Monk which included their testimonies in preparation for the event honoring him, which was held on April 20 in St. Elias Monastery in Antelias.
In St. Elias Monastery, where Al-Akhbar conducted its interview with Atallah, he said, “The credit goes to none of us. The credit goes to this monastery. It’s like a shrine.”
He doesn’t know why. That’s how it is, even though there are tens of monasteries named St. Elias in Lebanon. “But, is it a coincidence that this monastery was the place chosen to witness the Antelias communes [in the 1800’s]?” he asks.
This monastery also witnessed the birth of the cultural organization al-Shiraa Club in 1964 he adds, as he takes us to the hall where the meetings of this club were held.
He also mentions the Cultural Movement, the Lebanese Book Festival, the religious theater, and the Conference to Renew Coexistence which was the basis of the Youth Expectations organization founded in the mid 1990s.
All this is an introduction to what he is doing currently and that is preparing to launch the organization “Together We Rebuild,” which aims to spread the heritage of the east.
He speaks about this organization with enthusiasm and explains the meaning of eastern heritage and the importance of the religious diversity of this region by saying, “Religions are paths, each of us chooses his path to go to God through his religion.” Quoting the Quran he adds, “If God had willed, he would have made you one nation.”
Whoever knows Atallah does not find his words strange. But the question remains about the ability of a clergyman to reach this kind of conviction. Is it easy?
He admits that it is not easy but it is the result of “personal traits and social influences.” He explains, “Living in a mixed community is different from living in a monolithic society. I was born in el-Lailaki. Across from our house lies the Lazarist Monastery. I remember that during the first week of every month, they would put up the sacramental bread and pray. My mother would tell us, ‘children, keep your voices down, they put up the sacramental bread in the monastery.’ And when the muezzin would call to prayer, she would say, ‘children, keep your voices down, the sheikh is praying.’”
That is how Umm Wadih, by showing the same kind of respect, taught her children to recognize the other’s space. “So this is our upbringing, the credit is not mine. That’s how we lived,” he says.
With the same spontaneity Atallah answers the question of why he joined a monastic order at 12 years of age. “It’s silliness, you think it’s inspiration?” he says laughing.
Simply put, “we lived in el-Lailaki and we could see St. Antonios Monastery in Baabda. I would look at it and say I want to go there especially since I had relatives there. All I thought was, I want to join them. Nothing more.”
That was in 1940. The boy named Abdou Elias Atallah, who will be known later as Father Maroun, did not feel any reluctance after joining the monastic order “perhaps because the atmosphere in the village was like the atmosphere in the monastery. There wasn’t much difference between the two. We used to get together every evening and pray at the altar of the Virgin at home. People’s life style then was a monastic one.”
Atallah gives a lot of importance to the fact that he joined the Antonian Monastic Order because this order distinguishes itself from other Maronite monastic orders by its openness.
Its founder, Patriarch Gabriel al-Baluzani, assigned it to mixed communities with Druze and Shias, unlike Maronite monastic orders that were concentrated in strictly Christian areas, especially in the Qadisha Valley.
From el-Lailaki to the Antonian Monastic Order, Atallah grew up respecting the other and appreciative of the fact that he exists in one society with them. Not only that, he worked to benefit from this diversity.
On the trips that he still takes to different Lebanese areas and other countries, he shares with members of other sects their stories and jokes.
He tells us for example that on Sunday during mass he offers the sacramental bread to non-Christians before communion.
One time he asked one woman who took bread, “How did you find the blessed bread?”
She answered, “Blessed bread but where is the wine?”
He then said, “You know better, the wine is forbidden.”
She replied laughing, “Once it is blessed it is no longer forbidden.”
Many have asked, why don’t we see Atallah in Islamic-Christian dialogue committees?
Atallah says that he prefers “the dialogue of life.” He adds, “We’ve always lived together. When there is a problem, it’s the exception.”
But a problem emerged and lasted for many years. He interrupts, “At the height of the war, the Cultural Movement was established in Antelias and the Book Festival was organized and we were able to attract in the early 1980s more than 150 publishing houses with the help of the Arab Cultural Club.”
These activities were seen as going against the flow at the time but they provided the basis for activities that followed after the war such as the Youth Expectations conference that for decades brought together Lebanese youth to engage in discussions and get to know each other and exchange experiences.
Today, Atallah shows similar enthusiasm about the launching of the organization “Together We Rebuild.” His enthusiasm was visible despite the 84 years that Atallah spent doing what he loves.
In his opinion, “he retired a long time ago since a retiree gets to do what he loves after having paid his dues.”
St. Elias Monastery was looking for a musician that would lead the youth mass when father Maroun Atallah was invited to Beqnaya to watch Ziad Rahbani’s play Sahriye in 1970.
A Belgian priest that had accompanied him said “Why are you searching for a musician when you have this man?”
That night, Rahbani was given the hymn “We Are Watchful.” He brought it back the next day having put it to music and became in charge of the youth mass and went on to include the hymn in his album Kyrie Eleison.
This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.