November 13, 2006 in City

A life worth knowing

Virginia De Leon Staff writer
Photos by Holly Pickett photo

Najeeb Azar, 86, a longtime Spokane resident and businessman, just released his book, “Listening to Jesus,” his account of life as a Christian minister in the Middle East. Azar is the patriarch of one of the most well-known Middle Eastern families in the region.
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He is the patriarch of a modest family empire – a collection of small businesses that spun out of a 7-Eleven on the edge of Hillyard.

Najeeb Azar, a Christian minister from the Middle East, worked as a convenience store night clerk when he and his family moved here in 1973.

They had nothing, having just fled the violence that raged in the streets of Jordan. Yet within a few years, the Azars started their own business and eventually established a series of other mom-and-pops in Spokane.

Now 86, the balding man with the gentle gaze and quiet demeanor looks back at his life with gratitude and awe. Azar is a survivor – of war, religious persecution and the struggle to start anew. He shares his story in a recently published autobiography called, “Listening to Jesus,” which explores the conflicts in the Middle East while detailing his experience as a Seventh-day Adventist pastor.

“It’s about God’s miracles in my life,” said Azar, who spends most days in the cafeteria of Avista’s headquarters, where food services are operated by his two eldest children, Victor and Viola Azar.

The elder Azar writes in a neat, tight cursive, his prose quickly filling the pages of a legal pad. He drinks coffee at a table, reflecting on his life as the scent of spices and other delicacies – recipes that his late wife, Najda, cooked and passed down to their children – waft from the nearby kitchen.

“God’s love saved and protected us,” he said. “We lived through dangerous times.”

Najeeb Azar was one of nine children born to Katrina and Naser Azar, a naturopath and Christian preacher who raised his family on a farm in the town of Al-Husn in northern Jordan. When Najeeb was 11, he got sick with pneumonia. Nothing would cure him, he wrote.

After being ill for 90 days, many expected him to die. But he recovered after a group of pastors prayed over him.

Azar said he saw a vision of Jesus, slept for 25 hours, then suddenly rose from bed to play with friends. His recovery led him to dedicate his life to God and follow in his father’s footsteps. From then on, he was known as “Pastor Najeeb.”

As a minister who was later appointed president of the Seventh-day Adventist Jordan mission, Najeeb Azar lived and worked in Iraq, Lebanon, Syria and other parts of the Middle East, building churches, schools and an orphanage. While holding fast to his Christian beliefs, the pastor studied Islam and Judaism and befriended everyone, regardless of their faith.

“I was never against any religion,” he said. “Muslims, Jews, Christians … I loved them and they loved me.”

Still, Azar said, he was persecuted for his beliefs.

Seventh-day Adventists observe Sabbath on Saturday, the same day that Jews celebrated Shabbat. Some people who didn’t understand their practices assumed that Najeeb Azar was Jewish and a spy, he said.

According to his book, he once was arrested and accused of spying by the Iraqi secret police. He also was detained by Syrian authorities. On both occasions, he managed to convince people that he was not a Jew and his work as a pastor was no threat to the government.

“Additionally, our children’s lives were a continuous pain and struggle,” Azar wrote in “Listening to Jesus,” detailing how they were often picked on by other children who assumed they were Jewish because they didn’t go to school on Saturdays.

Because of Najeeb Azar’s work, he moved his family 27 times in 32 years. In Iraq, they witnessed three revolutions. In Jordan, they survived numerous conflicts, including the 1967 Six-Day War against Israel and Black September in 1970, when Jordan battled the Palestine Liberation Organization. During that conflict, the Azar family spent 12 days huddled in a shelter beneath their home in the Jordanian capital of Amman, fearing for their lives, waiting for the bombing and bloodshed to end.

Black September convinced the Azars it was time to leave. They came to Spokane with help from Najla’s sister, who was living in nearby Tekoa.

“My dad wanted a better life for us,” said Viola Azar, who was 15 when the family immigrated in 1973. “He wanted us to have freedom.”

But like many new immigrants to this country, Najeeb Azar discovered a new set of challenges: high unemployment, culture shock, loneliness – especially since they were among the first Middle Eastern families to move to the area.

Despite Najeeb Azar’s experience as a pastor and leader of a mission, the local conference of Seventh-day Adventists never offered him a job. It was frustrating for a man who was held in high regard by Christians in the Middle East, said his son Victor, but Najeeb Azar remained optimistic.

They needed to stay in this country for the sake of his children, said the elder Azar, even if it meant learning new skills and starting over at the age of 53. So he took a job as a 7-Eleven clerk, working the graveyard shift. His wife became a seamstress.

“I didn’t have any business experience,” recalled Najeeb Azar, “but we had no choice.”

Within five years, the Azars saved enough money for their own store. Since then, the family has embarked on a number of enterprises, including restaurants, gas station-convenience stores and rental properties.

Three of the Azar children continue to build on their parents’ legacy in Spokane: Katy Azar owns the Azar’s Restaurant on north Monroe, a place known for its gyros and falafel sandwiches; Victor and Viola now operate Azar’s Food Services, which has a catering division called D’Zaar and other ventures, including the corporate cafeterias of Avista and Triumph Composite Systems.

“Everything I know I learned from my parents,” said Viola Azar, 49. “They have inspired me to always try my best.”

Najeeb and Najla Azar retired eight years ago when Najla’s health began to fail. She died in November 2002 from cancer.

Over the years, Najeeb Azar – known as “jiddoh” or grandfather to his 12 grandchildren, one great-grandson and others who are close to him — has become a cultural ambassador of sorts. By sharing his expertise in Middle Eastern culture and cuisine, he wants to show others that friendship is always possible despite differences in faith, language or skin color.

Now, with his autobiography, Najeeb Azar wants to give others hope.

“I want everyone to live a life of love, peace and unity,” he said. “I want people to find meaning.”

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