martes, 29 de enero de 2013

Lebanese Nuances

Travelling is an excellent way of discovering our preconceived notions. And although after almost 3 years, it would be difficult to still assert that Beirut is "abroad" for me, I continue to be impressed by this city's ability to challenge me.

Here is the story.

Last week, the Muslim community celebrated a holiday that marks the birth of the Prophet Muhammad. I personally don't know much about this celebration other than it is a day off at work. So I enjoyed my free day, thinking that all my Muslim colleagues would be celebrating.

The next day, I overheard a conversation between an Egyptian and a Lebanese colleague, who both happen to be Muslim. My Egyptian friend said that she had witnessed the strangest thing in downtown Beirut. She then proceeded to describe a scene: she was walking on the street and a couple of people approached her to give her flowers and chocolates. She was taken aback by the gesture and asked them what this was for. The people looked at her wide-eyed and in disbelief and replied: "To celebrate the holiday of course".
She apologized, said she meant no disrespect and continued her way confused. She had never seen this done for this holiday before.

I then asked her how people celebrated this particular holiday in Egypt. She replied, "Well, there are many ways, but I just don't" and explained that this particular holiday poses disagreement among different currents in Islam, where some believe it should be celebrated and others don't. And then she made an intriguing remark: "I went to a Catholic school and noticed that Christians give each other gifts the day that Jesus was born. I wonder if Muslims in Lebanon don't have this tradition of giving chocolates during the Eid (holiday) as a practice mimicking the traditions of other groups in the country."

I don't know how true her statement is, but I thought this was an anecdote worth sharing as it highlighted two things that I often forget as a foreigner:
1) The diversity among and inside groups in Lebanon- and in the Arab world for that matter- are far more complex than the "neat" labels that us foreigners apply on people from various religious backgrounds
2) Religious practices are local and, as with any other religion, vary from one country to another.

I think this week helped me uncover yet another layer of stereotyping that was hidden in my head. I am thankful to be able to be here, see these things, draw some conclusions and share then with you dear readers, hoping that we all learn a bit more about this fascinating place that we call the Middle East.

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