Monday, September 6, 2010

The other day in Lebanon

The other day in Lebanon, I was invited to a wedding. The bride was Greek Orthodox, the groom Armenian. The bride's father, Nicolas, was an outcast throughout the entire evening, nobody talked to him. 20 years ago he had an affair with his neighbour, a Sunni mother of three. She became pregnant and her husband divorced her. In order for the unborn child not to be born illegitimate, Nicolas needed a quick solution. He converted from Greek Orthodox to Shia so he was allowed to have multiple wives at the same time and married his neighbour. The child was born a Shia boy. Eva, Nicolas' first wife, divorced him as soon as she could and her family never talked to him again. Neither did his mother. In Lebanon, it's better to cheat on your wife than to change your religion.

The other day in Lebanon, I heard of a Sunni man. He had three daughters. The man was old and he started to think about his will. According to Sunni law, most of his money would have gone to his brother with whom he had a bad relationship. His daughters would have ended up empty handed. So the man changed his religion and converted from Sunni to Shia to better favor his daughters in his will. His daughters were very happy and wished their father would enjoy a never ending life. In Lebanon, religion can be a curse, but you can also use the system to your advantage.

The other day in Lebanon, I went to see a dentist. She was a woman wearing a hijab, educated in France and speaking fluently English and French. Her father is one of the political leaders of al-Ahbash, a Sunni sect known for their anti-salafist views and their pro Syrian stance. While I was lying on the dentist's chair, all pale and all afraid of the things to come, the real teeth grinding happened someplace else. The same day al-Ahbash and Hezbollah forces clashed in Beirut, leaving four people dead. Even without consulting Stratfor or Robert Fisk, my man at the grocery store concluded that the clashes were meant to be a Syrian message to Hezbollah showing them who rules in Lebanon and who does not. In Lebanon, armed conflict is ever near and everybody is a political analyst, with a degree from the university of life.

The other day in Lebanon, I was driving from Beirut to Tripoli. The best view one can have in Lebanon is arguably the view down to Jounieh Bay from the hills and mountains above. But for how long? The construction that is going in Adma, Ghazir and other places is on a unprecedent scale. No lot too small for not being considered as a site for a new apartment building. The search for the indivually perfect outlook, for the unobstructed and unobstructable view leads to the destruction of the beauty as a whole. Who cares about politics? We have the good view! In Lebanon, an unrestricted individuality may lead to a destructed society. The other day in Lebanon, I was shopping for an apartment with a view down to Jounieh Bay myself. When I went to negotiate with a possible seller, I was warned: Be cautious, you will have to deal with perennial cheaters. Why, I thought, aren't all Lebanese nice people? Everybody here is bragging about the warmth of the people, their outgoing and at the same time caring and helpful manners. Not like in Europe where people are cold and treat each other badly. After three hours of negotiations, my nerves were rattled, my shirt was soaking wet and I had developped a new cultural theory: The trust within the family, the clan, is 200% in Lebanon, but outside the clan it's nearing 0%. In Europe the trust within the family is around 50%, but outside it is almost the same; sometimes even higher, because you don't have a history of betrayal and deceit. In Lebanon, the "circle of trust" - quoting Jack Byrnes here, Robert de Niro's character in "Meet the Parents" - has a different dimension and a different strength than elsewhere.

The other day in Lebanon, I was going to Beiruf, one of Beirut's roof top dance clubs. Fancy drinks, exciting music and beautiful people in love with themselves. What will be the future of Lebanon, I contemplated when I watched this scenery. Kids from upper class families, brought up by their housemaids while their parents were wasting their time in the lazy decadence of a beach club, barely capable of speaking one language properly, switching from Arabic with Asian-English accent to a broken French. What attachment do these young people have to the country of their father and their grandfather? How will they put their good education to use and contribute to the future of Lebanon? With what chance will their country present them to make an impact? Lebanon, it sometimes seemed to me, is a country with nowhere to go, with no strategy for development. Only Hezbollah looks like having a masterplan, looks like knowing what they want, what they aim for, but they are forever stuck in their rhetoric of resistance and offer no real project for the vast majority of Lebanese. In Lebanon, people are dancing on the volcano because they know that the party can be over at any time.

The other day in Lebanon, I decided to spent more time in this splendid country. I know, the infrastructure is wanting: the continual power cuts, the slow internet, the traffic jams. I know, it can be hot and humid. I know, you are camping on a powder keg. I know, people are always late, change plans in the last minute or don't show up at all. But this last point is perhaps the very essence of it all. In Lebanon, at least in the Lebanon I know, you can enjoy a personal freedom in the midst of a multi-layered chaos that has been long lost in other places I know.