Saturday, April 18, 2009

Conversations with the Lebanese

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Lebanon is an unmistakably beautiful country and at the same time, painfully aching as you look at the scattered pockmarks on old buildings in downtown Beirut which still bears the historical scars of persistently long civil war and international conflict with Israel. Although it has enjoyed relative peace in the last few years, security remains a visible concern as seen in the many military checkpoints all over the country.

Before I went to Lebanon a week ago, I was given the impression that the country is divided into two religious factions; Christians in the north and Muslims in the south. Beirut, which is situated in the middle, carries a mixture of both. However, when I was there, I didn’t feel such significant division although I only managed to travel to the north due to time constraint. In fact, while in Tripoli, which is close to the north bordering with Syria, I felt that it was a pre-dominantly Muslim region. To be honest, it was difficult to tell the differences between the Christians and Muslims except for the tell-tale headscarves worn by a number of Muslim women there.

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While I was completely astounded by the breathtaking beauty of Byblos, the rustic charm of Tripoli and the humbling experience of being in the ancient Roman temple ruins of Baalbek, it was the Lebanese people who have intrigued me the most and will definitely leave a lasting impression on me. The Lonely Planet guidebook was a major disappointment in terms of providing practical advices and directions in Beirut; it failed to warn that the chances of being killed in Lebanon by reckless taxi drivers are higher than being bombed or kidnapped by religious fundamentalists. Going about in Beirut was frustrating  as the locals didn’t seem familiar with the roads or places recommended by the book. Nevertheless, the Lonely Planet gave a true account of the hospitality and warmness of the people, which I have often found similarly ironical in other post-conflict countries that I have been.

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I also found that Lebanese people are chatty by nature as many whom I have met seemed eager to share conversations even when they don’t speak English at all. Taxi drivers often rumbled on in Arabic much to my amusement. I particularly like the faces of elderly Lebanese men which seemed to carry well-defined lines of wisdom, kind eyes and sparkling smiles which are all symbols of the Lebanese spirit, unhampered by the years of  wars. I was rather taken by the waiters at the Blue Note, a jazz bar in Beirut. One look at them made me wonder about the stories of their lives.

I was privileged to be in Harissa, situated high above the Jounieh Bay, on Easter Sunday. As one of the biggest celebrations in Lebanon, many Lebanese flocked to the infamous white-painted bronze statue of the Virgin of Lebanon. What was most interesting as I stood waiting in a long queue to get on the cable car was the number of Muslim Lebanese partaking in the celebration. How did I know they were Muslims? Well, I asked some of them although it was obvious by the way the women were dressed, bearing in mind that some Christians women do wear the headscarves too.

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Coming from a country where Muslims are not allowed to enter churches, Christian gospel music CDs and tapes are compelled to bear a label clearly indicating that they are for non-Muslims only; and of course with the latest controversies over Muslims practising yoga and non-Muslims using the word Allah, I felt the urge to talk to some of the Lebanese in Harissa. So instead of visiting the churches, I went around to talk to some random people I met. My questions that ranged from “Are you a Muslim or Christian? Why do you come to participate in the Easter celebration? Are the Christians happy to see you here (to Muslims)? What do you call God in your language? (to Christians)” raised some eyebrows as many were probably surprised by my “interrogation”.

It was definitely not an easy task due to the language barrier which was a pity, but in general I got the sense that they didn’t see this as such a big deal at all. I managed to talk to a Christian man from Beirut briefly before proceeding to find a Muslim for a different perspective. I stumbled across an elderly woman seeking refuge from the sun underneath a tree near the statue alone. She looked Muslim as she was wearing one of those loose black robe and head scarf.  I tried to strike up a conversation with her but she didn’t speak English nor French. However, she appeared friendly and eager to talk and she gestured me to wait for someone to come along to help with the translation. After waiting for about 10 minutes, a young couple approached the woman and the man was none other than the Christian man from Beirut.

He looked at me and said, “It’s you again. I see that you’re still going around interviewing people.” I grinned and told him that I was interested to speak with the kind and warm looking woman sitting by my side. He revealed that the elderly woman is his mother-in-law and the pretty and charming young woman by his side is his Muslim wife. I felt as if I had hit the jackpot in my quest to understand the religious dynamics in Lebanon.

He told me that his wife and him didn’t have to convert their religions when they got married. His mother-in-law explained that she took her daughter to live in Harissa with the nuns for 6 months when the latter was a baby. Although I couldn’t get any further explanation as to what prompted her to do that, she said that she doesn’t feel her faith being threatened at all by celebrating Easter with the other Lebanese Christians. In fact, she believes that there is only one God; whether it is Jesus or Allah. The man had earlier on told me that although in general, the Christians refer to God as Jesus, Allah is an acceptable term for it means God in Arabic. In fact, he looked appalled when I asked whether the Muslims are offended by the Christian’s usage of the name Allah.

After I thanked them for taking the time to talk to me, the man said to me, “My mother-in-law would like to invite you to our house in Beirut.” It would have been a lovely experience but since my friend and I had a tight itinerary planned for our short stay in Lebanon, I turned down the invitation politely.

In Harissa, I also asked two Muslim youths who came with a large group of highly excited and energetic friends about their own experiences for Easter. In my limited French, I managed to gather that they come to visit Harissa during Easter every two years. The girl told me that she likes to come and see the crowd of people in the beautiful church which overlooks the Jounieh Bay. It was more of the atmosphere which she enjoys but I suspect that it was the steep cable car ride that excites them more than anything else!

I have to admit that it was a highly refreshing and mind opening experience in Harissa. It made me wonder whether such seemingly harmonious and “un-hegemonious” cultural exchanges between the two main religious groups in Lebanon are felt only on the surface since the country has been seized by civil wars often triggered by religious quest for power and dominance. I sort of found the answer in my conversations with two Lebanese on my way back to Malaysia on the MAS EK157 flight.

The conversations were completely unintentional since I don’t normally like to talk to strangers on the plane but it turned out to be a blessing in disguise as I managed to understand more about the politics in Lebanon. As the flight was about to take off, sitting across the aisle on my right was a man sitting alone on a two-passenger seat. With his palms clasped together in front of his face, he whispered a silent prayer which ended with a sign of the cross. When I turned to my left, separating us by two vacant seats, a man was performing salah by making prostrating movements on his seat and turning his head to the right and then left. During all my frequent travel, it was the first time that I have witnessed anyone performing their prayers so earnestly before a journey. The strange thing was how my trip to Lebanon has ended in such a “symbolic” manner as I was often haunted, if not obsessed by the complexity of the Arab world, particularly those with a vibrant mixture of religious faiths.

As I took out my Lonely Planet book to read more about the historical background of Lebanon, the man across the aisle turned to me and asked, “Are you a journalist?”, much to my surprise. I said no but quickly asked, “Are you Lebanese?” As soon as he said yes, I asked him whether I could talk to him about the political situation in Lebanon since the country is holding a general election on 7 June 2009. His eyes sparkled immediately and he said, “Of course. You can ask me anything. Please come and sit over here and we can talk all the way to Dubai.”

He introduced himself as Sami S and he is part of the millions of Lebanese diaspora who fled the country during the 15 years of civil war from 1975-1990.  He has been working in Dubai for the past 10 years but visits his family in Beirut regularly. Although he confessed that he misses Lebanon, he is not ready to return home yet. While talking to Sami, I feel a sense of hopelessness in him in terms of the political situation and government in Lebanon, something which I completely understand as Malaysian.

I have learned that the election in Lebanon this year is particularly interesting with some new changes to the electoral law, in its attempt to be more transparent. For instance, for the first time in Lebanon, the election will be held for only one day and the indelible ink will be used. However, it will still practise a confessionalism system of government which means parliamentary seats are distributed proportionally among religious communities. Lebanon is a country which boasts 18 different religious sects with the Christian Maronites, Muslim Sunni and Muslim Shia as the three major religions.  The absence of a uniform ballot paper has caused a major controversy among those who really want to see a political change in the country.

When I asked Sami whether he will vote during the election, he said that remote voting is not allowed but some political parties have offered to pay for the travel expenses of those who are living abroad to vote on election day. This led me to ask him whether he thought the election will be democratic. His answer was, “No, it will not be 100% democratic. Politics in Lebanon is about having allies. Whoever has the most support from countries like Syria, Iran will win the election.”

When asked how he views the politicians in Lebanon (even at the mention of former Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri who was assassinated in 2005), he reflectively said, “Imagine a man who gives everything to a woman and then expects and treats her as a slave. That’s how our politicians are.” While doing a quick background check on Hariri on wikipedia, it states that Hariri is responsible for rebuilding much of Lebanon after the civil war but also the widespread corruption that caused a sizable damage to the country’s economy.

Unfortunately the conversation had to end when we reached Dubai but not without Sami, in true Lebanese hospitality offered to take me around Dubai when I visit next.

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As I continued my next leg of journey, I went back to my seat and unorthodoxly stroke up a conversation with Azzam S from Tripoli. I was delighted to talk to him as I had the opportunity to visit his charming hometown just a day ago. Surprisingly, Tripoli seemed to be the only area that provided an atmosphere of an election frenzy in the places I had been in Lebanon. Large posters of electoral candidates were dominating the whole town. I showed Azzam the countless number of photos I took of the posters and asked him  about the bespectacled bald man whose face was by far more visible than the rest. He told me he is Najib Mikati, a Muslim Sunni, who is running for a parliamentary seat for Tripoli and when I told him that this candidate is obviously very rich and most likely going to win the election since money equals power, he laughed and said, “You got that from just being in Tripoli for one day? If you stay longer, you can run for the election too!”

When I asked Azzam whether people tend to vote along the line of religion, he said no. I remain sceptical with his answer especially when he informed me that the new electoral law now ensure that the parliamentary ratio stands at 3:3:3 for Christians, Muslim Sunni and Muslim Shia. In the words of a Lebanese journalist, “The Shias have Hassan Nasrallah (who is the head of Hezbollah), the Sunni Saad Hariri and the Druze Walid Junblatt. The Christians however, have many prominent figures fighting for the Lebanese’ attention”, it’s difficult to think that religious blindness will be in order at the ballot box.

“They destroy and we build.”  He sounded bizarrely confident – as if the country Israel was destroying and the country we were rebuilding were two different places. Other such examples are plentiful, all showing that the real failure lies not in an inability to express oneself clearly, but in the underlying logic which years of hardship and horror have made us intimately familiar.

Hassan Daoud, They Destroy and We Build from the book Lebanon, Lebanon

Unlike Sami, Azzam owns his own business in Tripoli and will never dream of leaving his country. He said that the sense of community and family living is too strong for him and he will miss that a lot if he were to emigrate somewhere else. While he was as unoptimistic as Sami about the future of Lebanon, he has resorted to living each day as it is. As he shrugged and said, “Who knows? Tomorrow there may be violence in Lebanon but that’s how we have lived for a long time. We’re used to it,” I feel a sense of sadness but at the same time admiration towards those who have steadfastly pursued their own lives in the midst of great uncertainty.


I suppose Azzam is able to count his blessings when compared to the hundreds of thousands of stateless Palestinians stuck in Lebanon after the creation of an Israeli state in 1948. These Palestinians are not given citizenship, not allowed to own properties and leave the country. For Azzam, this is totally ridiculous. According to him, “If these Palestinians are allowed to live as any other normal Lebanese, they will help to boost the economy as many of them are actually hardworking and rich.”

Azzam ultimately revealed a wisdom already known by some but unfortunately not shared by the majority of people. When I told him how pleasantly surprised I was to see Muslims and Christians celebrating Easter together, he shrugged and said, “That’s how we have been living together for years and why not? We all have the same God. Lebanese people don’t really care what religion we are. It’s the people in power and politics that divide us. Otherwise, we just want to get on with our life.”

Finally, when I asked him what he thinks about the substantial number of Jews living in Lebanon, who, according to the Lonely Planet, try to keep a low profile, he said, “It’s not the Jews we are against, it’s Zionism. Nothing to do with Judaism.  We welcome them like any other people.”


p/s: Since the politics in Lebanon is extremely complex, I’m not able to articulate them here. If you’re interested to know more, please check out this blog at which provides regular updates on the election in Lebanon.


  1. A very interesting article indeed. As to inter faith marriages, we don't have to look very far. In Indonesia, a non Muslim and a Muslim can marry without the former having to convert. If Malaysia had such a practice, I am sure the unity of the various races in Malaysia would have been achieved long ago.

  2. Thanks, Whatmeworry.

    I didn't know Indonesia is liberal in that sense and it's ironic when you see they are the biggest Muslim country in terms of population.

    Isn't there an unprecedented ruling in Malaysia recently where a woman who converted to Islam and then after divorcing her Muslim husband was allowed to convert back into Buddhism?

  3. Ka Ea,

    Yes, it's true that this Chinese woman managed to get the Shariah Court to allow her to re-convert to Buddhism. I strongly suspect there's a hidden agenda as her husband wasn't a local but an Iranian. The court wanted the general public (non Muslims esp) to see that they can act fairly. However, there have been many cases where one spouse converted to Islam and didn't inform the other half and upon his or her death, the Majlis Agama chaps would come knocking on the deceased's family door to claim the body for burial. The civil courts won't make a ruling and say in matters relating to Islam, the shariah court has the final say.

    As I mentioned earlier, I do think there's a hidden agenda as over here they don't take apostasy lightly. I think one can be jailed for it.

  4. It does smell fishy. The thing is, religion has been so politicized everywhere.

    The fact that the man is Iranian, means he's not able to vote during our election, right? So, it doesn't really matter whether he's able to influence his wife to vote for the BN.

    I've heard that a lot of Philippino Muslims were allowed to settle in Sabah and Sarawak during the Mahathir era. Although they were not given citizenship, they were allowed to vote.

  5. The Lebanese parliament has approved a bill on 17 August 2010, granting Palestinian refugees certain social rights (work permit and severance pay) for the 1st time after 60 years.

    This Bill was proposed by Walid Jumblatt, the Druze leader.