Beirut, December 15th, 2015.
Winter, in places where Winter is cold, must have been a miserable time of buckling down and survival before the advent of central heating, supermarkets, primaloft and double glazed windows. Up in the Bekaa valley, there are a million and a half people for whom Winter is exactly that. I imagine them huddling around a primitive diesel burner (if they’re lucky) wrapped in the discarded, sweat-shop-produced rags of the better off, insulated from the wind by some UN-provided plastic sheeting and from the ground by planks of rough, cast off consturction timber, persistent coughs, persistent hunger and persistent fear their reliable companions.
While those mental images, fruit of facts and my imagination, occupy one part of my brain, another is filled with the longing for the modern winter that Western tradition and ingenuity has created. Starting with the Christmas feast, the full stockings, the piles of colorful gifts under the twinkling, ornamented trees and, for me at least, continuing to the snowy mountains, the toasty apartment heated miraculously by warm water flowing through the stone floors, the fire crackling and alive casting an orange glow of vitality and welcome around the living room. I look forward to the first storms, to the meter-tall snow dumps that make the mountains into a playground for me, wrapped in Gore-Tex and merino wool, using mountain conquering alpine tools to test myself against the steep, icy, cold, windy, potentially fatal edges of civilization that are by no means wilderness, but exist just on the wrong side of places that have been made safe for human amusement.
I cannot blind myself to this massive internal conflict. I recall the first year of the refugee crisis, catching myself cursing the warm weather (we had no skiing that year) and then berating myself for wishing snow on the heads of those from whom everything had already been taken so that I could have some fun on the pistes. I was never able to square the emotions or the thoughts that those two opposite situations stoked in me.
I cannot blind myself to the children who stand, sit, exist on sidewalks near traffic lights, wearing sandals and ragged sweaters against the rain and cold every day and every night while I sit inside my warmed vehicle, on my way to my warmed house, my full fridges, my hot shower, and my fluffy down-filled comforter. I cannot blind myself but I can also not do anything. I keep a big box of chocolate bars in my car and I give the kids chocolate when they ask for money. Knowing that the money will be taken from them if I hand that over, that I would be a consumer and financier of their sidewalk misery, whereas the chocolate at least might bring them a moment of what I imagine is sorely needed pleasure. But I am under no illusion that I am doing anything more substantial than salving my emotional need to give, to help these people in their brutal existence.
On a cold, clear night I drove past the freezing children towards the American University of Beirut to watch my daughter’s Christmas Choral Concert. AUB represents the best of so any things. Founded by Protestant Missionaries who, having failed to convert any of the local Pope-following Christians, decided to at least educate them; it is the best side of faith-inspired generosity. Later, supported and grown and led by various American institutions and individuals it showed the best side of America when America was her best. It became a place of liberal thought, academic excellence and freedom in a rapidly developing Middle East and fed off the huge desire of the Lebanese to be educated, the best of Lebanese ambition, welcome and open-mindedness, but also the seedbed of Arab modernizers. And today it is a haven amid the chaos of Beirut. It has no skyscrapers, no place for speculation at the cost of ideals.
We took our places in the old chapel, amidst a campus that looked almost as if it had been plucked out of Wisconsin and placed carefully on the Mediterranean seaside, almost, and settled in to listen to a bunch of mostly Lebanese kids, of at least four or five religions, educated by French, Lebanese, American and who knows what other kinds of teachers, singing Christmas songs in four languages, written, for the most part in Europe, about an event that happened a couple of hundred kilometers to the south in a place that, despite it’s geographical proximity, few or none of us had ever been to or could do more than dream of going to. I settled in and started wishing I had a book to read. Not all the carols qualified as entertainment.
There is a Lebanese drum and dance tradition called the Dabké (not to be confused with the candy bar of the same name), which has a fantastic ability to instantly draw in spectators and make them stamp their feet, clap or even get up and dance. When the singers got to ‘Deck the Halls’, a tune I personally like, somewhere in the middle of it, the music morphed into Dabké, with the drums and everything, before sliding gracefully back to the traditional song. It was an incredible moment for me.
In the US, there has been for the last twenty or twenty-five years, an increasingly intolerant form of tolerance. An archetypal rule resulting from that movement was one we had at Bear, Stearns, a now defunct former employer of mine called Elevator Eyes. The rule basically stated that a male employee could not cause discomfort to a female employee by looking at her in the elevator. This led to everyone, especially just before bonus time, studiously studying the stone floor of the elevator car at all times. Even thinking about this rule makes me furious. Women dress to be noticed by men. It’s a simple fact. Men notice them and look at them, another fact. I can understand that some men may gaze in a way that makes a woman uncomfortable. But making normal behavior illicit just drags us all further from the truth. Elevator Eyes as a rule is a hairs-breadth away from a burka. It’s a virtual Burka. Do not look at these women, look at the floor. Do not ascribe to women the ability to ask someone making them uncomfortable the maturity or strength to deal with the problem, assume, instead, that they are the weaker sex, unable to care for themselves.
Another thing that has flowed from the ‘tolerance’ offensive in US mores these days is the whole ‘Happy Holidays’ greeting. As if saying Merry Christmas to a Jew would somehow be the cause of great offence. In Lebanon we have 18 religions, countless different holidays and religious festivals each specific to one or the other religion, bar May Day and Independence Day. I make an effort to know which of my friends belongs to which religion and what they celebrate, that way I can be sensitive enough as a human being to wish them an Eid-Mubarak (Happy Eid) and not accidentally wish a Shia a Happy Ashoura (Ashoura is the commemoration of the slaughter of Hussein and wishing a happy one would be like wishing a Happy Good Friday to a Christian…not cool). And, for the vast number of acquaintances whose religion is unknown to me I don’t pretend to know or care. Wishing a Muslim Happy Holidays at Christmas has as little place as wishing him Merry Christmas, in fact less since many Muslims here celebrate Christmas in its pagan ritual, trees, turkey and the like and all of them recognize Jesus as a prophet.
By the same token, when I see a beautiful woman, I notice her, I don’t hide my noticing of her and I also try not to make her feel that my noticing her is some kind of prelude to rape. And if I know her, I might tell her that she looks beautiful, and she, having attempted to look beautiful, might appreciate the comment and smile. And none of that would be considered a prelude to rape either. Although both of us would be aware of some level from non-existent to very apparent of sexual frisson between us, because that is how Humans are made. That’s the truth, or the closest approximation to it I have been able to find.
Coming back to the Choral, to Deck the Halls, It was the seamless melding of a Lebanese tradition of uncertain religious origins, into a European Christmas song, the integration into the program of Arabic songs, French Christmas songs and American Carols, the unsurprising-ness of the mix, the total normality to the singers and the audience of the concoction, the appreciation for all the traditions and languages and the total lack of rules related to it all that triggered in me the deep love for this country. Here are Muslim, Christian, Druze, possibly Jewish, probably atheist kids all singing carols mixed in all these languages with all these musical stitchings together and all of it was natural, right and who we are as Lebanese.
What else are the Lebanese? We are the people who have accepted a million and a half refugees from a horrible war next door. One third of the country is foreigners, most of them destitute. We have had no incidences of violence against them, despite the fact that our infrastructure cannot handle them, our garbage dumps cannot handle their waste, our finances can not feed them. Of course we want them to go home. They want to go home. But we will not force them back to the misery they have fled.
And I watch the country of Elevator-eyes, I watch the country of droits de l’homme and all I see is places full of fear, hypocrisy, and stinginess, hate. The very places that stoke the war these people have fled refusing to help them. America, a country built on refugees, where half the population wants to send the Mexicans home. France, a country I have great affection for, dancing with Marine Le Pens ‘gentle’ fascism. And I want no part of it.
Strangely in this place, struggling, hard-scrabble, I feel the truth is close at hand. And somehow that truth in its allowance of the ugly and the bad, also allows love and not tolerance but something nobler, acceptance and appreciation of the other.