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.

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