May Chidiac was one of Lebanon's star TV anchors and one of the most outspoken journalists in her country. One day, as she was getting in her car, a bomb exploded underneath her. Against all odds, she survived.
She said to call her once I was in the taxi. So I called. Voicemail. And called again and again. Still voicemail. Until finally we were driving into her gated community of sleek tower blocks. Her maid, though, when she answered the door, ushered me through the immense apartment as if she'd been expecting me and invited me to be seated in a room with an enormous black television screen.
It was very quiet.
Five minutes later I heard the buzz of an electric wheelchair and there was May Chidiac, rolling down the ramp into the room. Very blond in a flowing black creation from which emerged from time to time the stump where she once had a left hand. I hadn't really expected her to be in a wheelchair. She looks like she's standing on her Facebook photo. And I'd heard since the terrorists tried to kill her that she'd spent a year in Paris studying and getting an artificial leg fitted - her "thesis and prosthesis year" she called it.
But that evening she was not only too tired for any prosthetic prowess, she was, she said, too tired for an interview. In English as well! "Aie, aie, aie!" she protested in French. Sleeping at night is a problem, she explained. She is - after 35 operations - still in a lot of pain. She'd been asleep when I called. She was exhausted. She sounded it. I got up to leave. But she said to wait till I'd drunk the tea the maid was making for me.
And then, of course, talking about not talking turned into talking proper. Because talking is something Chidiac does when other people have long shut up. Talking was what she was put on this Earth to do. Eight years ago, it almost cost her her life.
'Like roast chicken'
She tells me the story of that day that was supposed to have been her last. "They put explosives under the seat of my car. It was a Sunday," she recalls. She must have told this story many, many times but there's a tremor in her voice. She hesitates. She's there again. That moment is with her like the pain in her bed at night.
"I used to have a political talk show every Sunday morning and on that day I called a friend of mine, asked if he wanted to go to Saint Charbel to pray with me and we went praying."
Chidiac, like many of Lebanon's Maronite Christians, not only practice their religion, they are not embarrassed to mention it.
At the shrine to this Lebanese Catholic saint, north of Beirut, many of the people who recognized her gave her candles and flasks of holy water. Chidiac was - still is - a well-loved public figure. When she got back to her car her arms were full of these gifts. There was no space for them on the passenger seat, which was full of newspapers and other work stuff from that morning so, at the moment her would-be assassin thought she was sitting straight in the driving seat, she was leaning over to put her holy water and candles on the back-seat. That is what saved her life.
"At that moment he pressed the button and provoked the explosion. It was an awful moment that I still remember. I felt burning turning around myself like a roast chicken. I lost consciousness for some time, and then I found myself on the back seat trying to pull myself out of the car; I didn't want to be burnt alive."
She can still remember seeing her severed hand with its rings on its fingers before she managed to struggle free from the burning wreckage of her car.
It was, Chidiac believes, a miracle that she survived that attempt to kill her. She was saved by Saint Charbel and the Virgin Mary, she says. Christianity is, she explains, her core. As it is, she says, the core of her country.
"Christ was born near here and he came to Lebanon. Lebanon is mentioned 72 times in the Bible!" That this is a land where Jesus walked, where Christians were living long before Mohammed brought Islam into the world and long before Christianity had reached most of Europe, Chidiac is as acutely aware as any Lebanese Christian. Acutely aware and proud.
"Lebanon would never have been what it is if it had not been for the Christians who are on this little piece of land," she says.
Christians only make up a third of the Lebanese population today, but this country has been profoundly marked by its Christian heritage, she says.
Lebanon is, it is true, an exceptionally free Arab country. Newspapers can say what they like. People are allowed to practice the religion they wish to practice. The economy is free of the Soviet-style state intervention that has marked much of the Arab world. People can drink, dance and dress as they want. In Beirut, you see Muslim women with no head cover and 15-centimeter heels. And others with the hijab and 15-centimeter heels. Many Lebanese people are attached to these freedoms - Muslims as well as Christians.
And in this little country there is, says Chidiac, a freedom still rarer in the Arab world: the freedom to cross the religious demarcation line.
"We are the only [Arab] country where, not only do we put up Christmas trees, but you have people going to attend recitals in churches for Christmas." People of all faiths. "And after somebody dies or for a marriage or something you see Muslims going to church to attend religious ceremonies. This is something you don't witness in any other Arab country and this is what makes Lebanon different. This is why Pope John Paul II called it a message - this country is a message for the whole world - where all religious communities can live with respect to each other."
One law for all
Chidiac, heroically, returned to her job as a TV anchor after losing the left side of her body.
But in 2009, to general shock and dismay, she resigned from the post, complaining of attempts to muzzle her, to tone her down.
Through a journalism school she founded, she remains as much a defender of free speech as ever. And she has lost nothing of her combativeness.
Like many Christians in the Middle East, Chidiac is worried about the rise of Muslim extremism. Especially in neighboring Syria, but also in Lebanon itself.
In a long-lost past, Lebanese Christians would have looked to France, "the tender mother," for protection. Today, they look to a French idea. Chidiac is that strange Lebanese paradox, a passionate Christian and a passionate believer in the French idea of laicité - freedom from as well as freedom of religion.
Before, she campaigned to free Lebanon from Syrian oppression, today, to bring equality before the law to Lebanese citizens - women in particular - by replacing courts and laws for each religious community with one court and one law for all.
Chidiac may be tired and may be in pain, but she has still got a lot of talking to do.
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