Spiritual Light Shines in the Middle East
AS TOLD BY NAJIB SALEM
In the first century C.E., the light of God’s Word shone from the Middle East and reached the far corners of the earth. During the 20th century, that light returned to illuminate that part of the world once again. Let me tell you how that occurred.
I WAS born in 1913 in the town of Amioun, in northern Lebanon. That was the last year of relative stability and calm in the world, for World War I broke out the following year. When the war ended in 1918, Lebanon, then known as the pearl of the Middle East, was deeply exhausted both economically and politically.
In 1920, when postal services again began to operate in Lebanon, mail was received from Lebanese people who lived abroad. Among them were my uncles Abdullah and George Ghantous. They wrote to their father, Habib Ghantous, my grandfather, telling him about God’s Kingdom. (Matthew 24:14) Merely relating to his fellow townsmen the contents of his sons’ letters brought my grandfather ridicule. The townspeople spread the rumor that Habib’s sons were encouraging their father to sell his land, buy a donkey, and go preaching.
Early Spread of Light
The following year, 1921, Michel Aboud, who had been living in Brooklyn, New York, U.S.A., returned to Tripoli, Lebanon. He had become a Bible Student, as Jehovah’s Witnesses were then called. Although the majority of Brother Aboud’s friends and relatives did not respond to the Bible message, two well-known persons did, a professor, Ibrahim Atiyeh, and a dentist, Hanna Shammas. Dr. Shammas, in fact, made his house and clinic available for Christian meetings.
I was still a young boy when Brother Aboud and Brother Shammas visited Amioun, where I lived. Their visit affected me deeply, and I began to accompany Brother Aboud in the preaching work. For 40 years the two of us were regular companions in the ministry, until Brother Aboud’s death in 1963.
Between 1922 and 1925, the light of Bible truth spread widely in many villages in northern Lebanon. Some 20 to 30 persons met to discuss the Bible in private homes, such as ours in Amioun. The clergy sent children to hammer on tin cans and shout and scream in an effort to disrupt our meetings, so we sometimes met in the pine forest.
When I was young, my zeal for the ministry—and for attending every Christian meeting—earned me the appellation Timothy. The school director ordered me to stop attending what he termed “those meetings.” When I refused, I was expelled from school.
Witnessing in Bible Lands
Soon after my baptism in 1933, I started in the pioneer service, as the full-time ministry is called by Jehovah’s Witnesses. Although we were few in number then, not only did we preach to most villages in the northern part of Lebanon but we also reached Beirut and its suburbs and all the way to the south of Lebanon. In those early years, we usually traveled on foot or rode a donkey, as did Jesus Christ and his first-century followers.
In 1936, Yousef Rahhal, a Lebanese Witness who had lived in the United States for many years, returned to Lebanon for a visit. He brought with him sound equipment and a couple of phonographs. We mounted the equipment on a 1931 Ford automobile and traveled throughout Lebanon and Syria, carrying the Kingdom message to remote areas. The amplifier could be heard at a distance of over six miles [10 km]. People went up to the roofs of their houses to hear what they described as voices coming from heaven. Those in the fields left their work and came closer to listen.
One of my last journeys with Yousef Rahhal was to Aleppo, Syria, in the winter of 1937. Before he returned to the United States, we also traveled to Palestine. There we visited the cities of Haifa and Jerusalem, as well as villages in the country. One of our contacts was with Ibrahim Shehadi, with whom I had earlier become acquainted through correspondence. Ibrahim had progressed in Bible knowledge to the point that during our visit, he began sharing with us in the house-to-house ministry.—Acts 20:20.
I was also eager to meet Professor Khalil Kobrossi, a staunch Catholic who had been studying the Bible with Jehovah’s Witnesses through correspondence. How had he obtained the address of the Witnesses in Lebanon? Well, at a store in Haifa, the shopkeeper had wrapped some of Khalil’s groceries in paper torn from one of the publications of Jehovah’s Witnesses. That paper had our address on it. We had a fine visit together, and later, in 1939, he came to Tripoli to be baptized.
In 1937, Petros Lagakos and his wife arrived in Tripoli. During the next few years, the three of us covered most of Lebanon and Syria, calling on people at their homes with the Kingdom message. By the time Brother Lagakos died in 1943, the Witnesses had carried spiritual light to most of the cities and villages of Lebanon, Syria, and Palestine. At times, about 30 of us started out by car or bus as early as 3:00 a.m. in order to reach remote areas.
In the 1940’s, Ibrahim Atiyeh translated The Watchtower into Arabic. Afterward, I would make four handwritten copies of the magazine and send them to Witnesses in Palestine, Syria, and Egypt. In those days during World War II, opposition to our preaching was great, but we kept in contact with all lovers of Bible truth in the Middle East. I personally drew up maps of cities and surrounding villages, and we made a point of reaching them with the good news.
In 1944, while World War II was still raging, I married Evelyn, the daughter of my pioneer companion Michel Aboud. We eventually had three children, a daughter and two sons.
Working With the Missionaries
Soon after the war ended, the first graduates of Gilead School for missionaries arrived in Lebanon. As a result, the first congregation in Lebanon was formed, and I was appointed company servant. Then, in 1947, Nathan H. Knorr and his secretary, Milton G. Henschel, visited Lebanon and provided much encouragement to the brothers. Soon more missionaries arrived, and they were a big help to us in organizing our ministry and in conducting congregation meetings.
On one of our trips to a remote area in Syria, we met opposition from a local bishop. He accused us of distributing what he called Zionistic publications. Ironically, prior to 1948 the clergy often labeled us “Communists.” On this occasion, we were arrested and interrogated for two hours, during which time an excellent witness was given.
In the end, the judge who listened to the case declared: “Although I curse the beard [a figure of speech referring to the bishop] that has made charges against you, I have to thank it for having given me this opportunity to meet you and learn about your teachings.” He then apologized for the inconvenience to us.
While en route to Beirut on a bus ten years later, I began talking with a man seated next to me, an agricultural engineer. After a few minutes of listening to our beliefs, he said that he had heard similar talk from a friend in Syria. Who was the friend? The judge who had listened to our case ten years earlier!
During the 1950’s, I visited Witnesses in Iraq and shared in witnessing from door to door with them. I also made many journeys to Jordan and the West Bank. In 1951, I was one of a group of four Witnesses who went to Bethlehem. We observed the Lord’s Evening Meal there. Early that day all those present for the occasion had gone by bus to the Jordan River, where 22 were baptized in symbol of their dedication to Jehovah. Whenever we faced opposition in that area, we would say: “We have come to tell you that one of your own native sons will become King over the entire earth! Why are you upset? You should be joyful!”
Preaching Amid Difficulties
People in the Middle East are generally goodhearted, humble, and hospitable. Many listen to the message of God’s Kingdom with interest. Really, nothing could be more refreshing than knowing that soon this Bible promise will be fulfilled: “God himself will be with [his people]. And he will wipe out every tear from their eyes, and death will be no more, neither will mourning nor outcry nor pain be anymore.”—Revelation 21:3, 4.
I have found that most people who oppose our activity really do not understand our work and the message that we bear. The clergymen of Christendom have done so much to misrepresent us! Hence, during the civil war that started in Lebanon in 1975 and lasted for more than 15 years, the Witnesses faced many difficulties.
At one time, I was conducting a Bible study with a family who had been zealous churchgoers. Their good progress in learning Bible truths irritated the clergymen. As a result, one night a local religious group incited its members to storm the family’s shop, and they burned merchandise worth at least $10,000, U.S. That same night, they came and abducted me. However, I was able to reason with their leader, explaining that if they were really Christians, they would not behave in a barbaric manner. At that, he commanded the car to stop and ordered me to step out.
On another occasion, I was kidnapped by four militiamen. After many threats, their leader, who had said he was going to shoot me, suddenly changed his mind, and I was released. Two of these men are now in prison for murder and robbery, and the other two have been executed.
Other Opportunities to Witness
I have often had opportunity to fly from one country to another. Once during a flight from Beirut to the United States, I sat next to Charles Malek, a former Lebanese minister of foreign affairs. He listened carefully, appreciating every verse I read to him from the Bible. Finally, he said that he had gone to a school in Tripoli where his teacher was Ibrahim Atiyeh, the man to whom my father-in-law had introduced Bible truth! Mr. Malek said that Ibrahim had taught him to respect the Bible.
During another flight, I sat next to a Palestinian representative to the United Nations. I had the opportunity to tell him the good news of God’s Kingdom. He eventually introduced me to his brother’s family in New York, and I often visited them there. I also had a relative who worked in the United Nations building in New York. My visit to his office one day lasted three hours, during which time I was able to give him a witness regarding God’s Kingdom.
I am 88 years old now, and I am still able to have an active share in caring for congregation responsibilities. My wife, Evelyn, is still serving Jehovah by my side. Our daughter married a traveling overseer of Jehovah’s Witnesses, who now serves as an elder in a congregation in Beirut. Their daughter is a Witness too. Our youngest son and his wife are Witnesses, and their daughter is also in the truth. As for our oldest son, the Christian faith was inculcated in his heart, and I hope that in time, he will come to embrace it.
In 1933, I was appointed to serve as a pioneer—the first one in the Middle East. I could not have found anything better to do with my life than to serve Jehovah as a pioneer all of these past 68 years. And I am determined to go on walking in the spiritual light he provides.
[Picture on page 23]
Najib in 1935
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With a sound car in the Lebanon Mountains, 1940
[Pictures on page 25]
Above clockwise from top left: Najib, Evelyn, their daughter, Brother Aboud and Najib’s oldest son, 1952
Below (front row): Brothers Shammas, Knorr, Aboud, and Henschel at Najib’s home, Tripoli, 1952
[Picture on page 26]
Najib and his wife, Evelyn