Monday, January 25, 2010

LibanOne* vs OneMalaysia

“Being in Lebanon taught me to understand that more often than not, it isn’t really the people who are at the heart of religious intolerance. It is often the state, religious leaders or political parties who are responsible for triggering and perpetuating such intolerance. Unfortunately, it’s often the people who suffer.”

Lebanon is unmistakably one of the most beautiful countries I’ve visited. At the same time, it is achingly painful when I look at the indiscriminate pockmarks on old buildings in downtown Beirut. They all bear the ugly 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 less than a year 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.

In Beirut, I didn’t feel such significant religious or cultural division. It was only in Tripoli, which is close to the northern border with Syria, that I felt the presence of a pre-dominantly Muslim region. To be honest, it was difficult to tell the difference between Christians and Muslims except for the tell-tale signs of headscarves worn by a number of Muslim women there.

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.

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 the Hezbollah. 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 warmth of the people, which I have often found similarly ironic in other post-conflict countries that I have been.

I also found that Lebanese people are chatty by nature. Many whom I met seemed eager to share conversations even if they don’t speak a word of English. Taxi drivers often broke into a cacophony of indecipherable 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 civil and international wars. I was rather taken by the waiters at the Blue Note, a jazz bar in Beirut. One look at their aged faces 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 from the way the women were dressed, although bearing in mind that some Christians women do wear the headscarves too.

Coming from a country where Christian gospel music CDs and tapes are compelled to bear a label clearly indicating that they are for non-Muslims only; and not forgetting the controversies over Muslims practising yoga and non-Muslims using the word Allah (this was way before the High Court ruled in favour of the Herald using the word), 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, but in general I sensed 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 scorching sun underneath a tree near the statue. She looked Muslim as she was wearing one of those long and loose black robe and headscarf.  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 for me to wait, presumably 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, dressed in long-sleeved top and pants, accompanied with a cute red with white polka-dot bareback dress, 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 that 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 pluralistic and harmonious 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.

A Muslim Lebanese man, who sat beside me on the plane back to Kuala Lumpur, was able to provide me with his views. 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 lives.”

Finally, when I asked him what he thinks about the substantial number of Jews living in Lebanon, whom 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.”

Being in Lebanon taught me to understand that more often than not, it isn’t really the people who are at the heart of religious intolerance. It is often the state, religious leaders or political parties who are responsible for triggering and perpetuating such intolerance. Unfortunately, it’s often the people who suffer.

*In French, Lebanon is known as Liban.

This article has been adapted and modified from a previous essay entitled “Conversations with the Lebanese” written in April 2009. It has been published in The Malaysian Insider on 20 January 2010.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Traffic jams and human rights in Malaysia

Traffic jams in Kuala Lumpur are something many would gladly live without. Surprisingly, I’m beginning to see the bright side of it. That is, if I’m in a taxi.

Traffic jams provide ample time for taxi drivers to start a calm conversation which usually ends up being a cathartic session. My own observations show that each driver has his own opinion and prejudice but they all share a common grouse and the height of their provocation is always the government, regardless of his race.

When I was asked to write about human rights in Malaysia for this article, my first thought was gee, where do I start? Truthfully, what makes it harder is the fact that I haven’t lived in Malaysia in the past couple of years to write about it authoritatively.

Thankfully, I have these taxi drivers to bring me up to speed, even if it’s only one aspect of what is wrong with our country today and in my opinion, they’re all interconnected. They also taught me that the prime minister’s ideal of 1 Malaysia fails miserably.

Most of us know that it would be fair to surmise that freedom of religion, expression and peaceful assembly, deaths in police custody, preventive detention, sexuality and indigenous rights are some of the top 10 human rights issues in Malaysia. With 1,000 words at my disposal, I’m going to cut to the chase. If you’re expecting this article to be an executive summary of the human rights condition in Malaysia, you’ll be sorely disappointed. SUARAM and SUHAKAM’s annual reports will serve that purpose.

My own conclusion is that human rights in Malaysia will only improve once corruption ends and respect for the rule of law begins.

Even taxi drivers know this and they gain this intelligence just by observing the traffic jams from the inside of their beat-up Protons. Just so you know, the short film “Meter” isn’t really a fair representation of all taxi drivers.

“Wow, the traffic is really bad!” I exclaimed from the back of a taxi I took from a shopping mall recently. It was close to eight as I rushed to do some last-minute Christmas shopping on a Thursday night.

“Hmmm… biasalah (it’s normal). You want to know why?”

I wanted to answer because there are too many cars in the city and shopping is after all Malaysians’ favourite hobby, only second to eating, but the Malay driver’s answers were more analytical.

“Thanks to our government, they allow these shopping malls to be built right in the middle of a busy intersection. Ah, you tengok (look at this). This is not new. They know how many cars are passing through here and why do they build only two lanes? Patutlah (of course), jam!”

“We are working-class people who work hard all day. Time is important-kan? Every minute wasted is every penny lost. Every construction built, is every penny earned for them. The more construction there is, the more money they make-lah!” He sighed.

As we crawled past behind the mall, a couple was seen snuggling in a dark corner.

“Eh! Apa,ni (what’s this)? Celebrating Christmas-kah?”

He shook his head and said disapprovingly, “Hmm… macam-macam you boleh tengok sekarang (you can see all sorts of things these days). Men looking more like women and women behaving like men. Ya, Allah. What is happening to this world?”

I found myself pulling the collar of my shirt tightly together for the rest of my ride home.

“You know what H1N1 is?” A talkative Chinese driver asked me a few days later and it was obvious that he wasn’t testing my knowledge of the disease. He waited impatiently for me to tell him I didn’t know the answer so that he could share his brilliant joke.

I shook my head.

He said gleefully: “Aiyah, you don’t know-meh?”

“It’s Hishammuddin1, Najib1. So if you get it, die-lor.” I smiled politely while he chuckled out loud, obviously pleased with his joke.

Before I could comment, he continued: “You know-ah. All this bird flu, swine flu, not as dangerous as H1N1, you know! What kills us are Hishammuddin and Najib!”

“Really? Why?” He finally sparked my interest.

“Errr… you Chinese, right?” Even if I’m not, I wasn’t going to admit it and spoil the fun.

“We, Chinese, will not live in peace as long as Hishammuddin and Najib rule this country. Everything is about the Malays.”

“But don’t you think it’s not just a Chinese problem?” I challenged.

“Yes, yes, you’re right. Every race has a problem. The Indians are so poor, they become gangsters. The Chinese feed corruption and Malays [they] feed off the government. What is our government doing about this? Nothing! Why should they? In the end, the Malays are the ones who untung-mah (benefit).”

At the end of my ride, I learned more about this new disease called H1N1 from the taxi driver than from the paper.

Perhaps the most intelligent conversation I had was the one with an Indian taxi driver. He blamed traffic jams on poor public transportation and bad traffic regulations. He said that if we improve on the LRT lines, provide better bus services and impose zoning laws where one-driver-vehicles are prohibited from entering the city at peak hours, the traffic would be better.

“But why would the government do that? They rather build flyovers without proper planning. The construction jams up the whole city and then, what do they do? They build more flyovers! That’s where they get all the money, what. Our government is so corrupt that nothing works in this country,” he said with genuine frustration.

“I’m telling you the truth because I know from experience. I was a police for seven years at the Thai border. I worked hard but earned peanuts. If you want to earn more, you makan suaplah (take bribes). Many people do it but I refuse. So now, I’m a taxi driver-lah!”

“Boss, I think it’s better if you keep to your left. It’s faster,” I offered my opinion as we arrived at a road I take regularly after work.

“Oohh… so now you know the roads better, huh?” he said sarcastically.

Moral of the conversations is that we can all talk about human rights abuses in Malaysia but until the problem of traffic jam is solved in this country, they will go nowhere. If our government is unable to solve a basic problem such as road infrastructure, do you honestly think it can with bigger problems like the ISA?

Happy New Year to all! Let’s hope traffic conditions will improve next year.

This article was first published at The Malaysian Insider on 2 January 2010 under the same title.