Tuesday, April 10, 2007

On that so-called "Shi'a Crescent"

Beirut Memories (I)


News reports from Iraq, Iran, and Lebanon harp on and on about the emerging "Shi`a Crescent," which now poses an allegedly mortal danger to the West (whatever that is!). In the last 60 years, we have seen the Red Scare, the Green Scare (politicized Sunni Islam), and of course, the Axis of Evil, which still gets a lot of air time. The political "flavour of the month" is clearly Iran, which, after the events of the last week or so, is increasingly in the cross-hairs of those who believe that traditions, societies, and histories can be collapsed into a catchy soundbyte or a caricature of the Evil Other.

The events, actions, assumptions and textures of everyday life in the Middle East rarely attract the attention of pundits and politicians. Unless, of course, they want to attribute some aspect of foreigners' propensity for evil to their "cultural traditions." If I had a dime for every time I've heard anthropology used to justify or facilitate the war on terror, I'd be able to retire 20 years early. (Perhaps opening an anthropological boot camp and requiring politicians and foreign affairs journalists to attend for six weeks would help bring the hysteria and b.s. level in the US down a few notches. But then, without a good "daily hate," the current administration would not last a week.)

[For anyone inclined to do further reading, I'd suggest Mahmood Mamdani's essay, "Good Muslim/Bad Muslim", in which he does a great job of demolishing "culture talk" and other misuses of anthropology by politicians, journalists, and military planners.]

In an effort to take a closer look at supposedly Very Scary People from a different angle, I'll be posting some memories of my five years in Lebanon for the next week. Here is the first installment:

For the better part of the 1990s, my Lebanese-born husband and I lived and worked in Beirut. In 1994, we organized and held an international conference entitled "Lessons from Lebanon" to explore alternative approaches to conflict resolution and post-war reconciliation. The conference brought together dozens of people from all walks of life and all faith communities who had lived through Lebanon's 16 years of internecine violence. Three days of presentations, workshops and discussions culminated in the formation of task forces to deal with post-war issues of particular concern to the conference participants: the fate of the 800,000 war displaced and their reintegration into the communities they had fled, the situation of the war handicapped, and children's attempts to come to grips with the war, as well as state attempts to educate a new generation to avoid war. A very earnest and kind gentleman of 50, Dr. Ahmad, was a key member of the latter task force. A Shi'i Muslim and a former Lebanese Army officer, Dr. Ahmad had taken his family to the UK for five years in the 1980s, where he received his Ph.D. in childhood education.

As the task forces met and worked, we got to know all the members quite well. Dr. Ahmad invited us to his home for dinner, and we immediately got along with his wife and children. His wife, Lubna, taught Shakespeare in a high school in South Lebanon. She had really enjoyed her time in London and loved English literature and theatre.

Dr. Ahmad's extended family had lost members and houses in the many years of the war, which affected South Lebanon disproportionately, but they expressed no bitterness at all. Although proud to be Shi'a, they were not demonstrably devout. Lubna dressed in blue jeans and kneelength tailored dresses and did not cover her shoulder length brown hair. She had blue-green eyes, as do I, and we joked that maybe we were distantly related. (Many people from Shi'i villages in Southern Lebanon have blue or green eyes.)

In March 1996, as regional political and military events were heating up and anxieties were rising, we learned from a member of the children of war task force that Dr. Ahmad had suffered a cerebral aneurysm while at work. He had had a very bad headache all day, decided to put his head down on his desk to rest, and never awoke again. We immediately went to see him in the hospital, where he was unconscious and breathing thanks to a respirator. Lubna, ashen-faced, was holding his hand and not taking her eyes from his face. I knew he was not going to make it, but asked her if they had given him cumiden and other anticoaglulants, trying to sound confident and sure that technology and modern pharmacology would pull him through.

Two weeks later, we learned that the hospital had turned off the respirator at the family's request and shortly thereafter, Dr. Ahmed had passed away with his wife and children and brothers at his side.

In Islam, one must be buried the same day one has died. But memorial services can take place at any time after the death and burial. There is usually a forty-day memorial service. About a week after his death, a memorial service was held for Dr. Ahmed in early April 1996, about a week before the outbreak of 'Operation: Grapes of Wrath', which was to bring more death and devastation to Lebanon's Shi'i community. George, my former husband, and I were invited to attend the service, held in the southern suburbs of Beirut, home to the city's Shi'a population, as well as some of the armed groups frequently mentioned in news reports, such as Hizbullah and the Amal militia.

We arrived to a large and modern mosque complex on a dismal rainy day. I was dressed in a black, grey, and copper striped blazer covering a black wool turtle neck shirt, a black knee-length skirt, black tights, and black pump shoes. George wore his best black suit and a white shirt with a royal blue tie. As we pulled up to the mosque, we realized that everyone but us was dressed in traditional attire. Some of the men wore turbans, none wore a western suit or tie, and all of the women, old and young, were wearing full black abayas, showing only their hands and eyes.

George and I attempted to enter the building together, but a man stopped us and firmly but politely indicated that I had to enter through the women's door at the other side of the hexagonal building. A crush of people surrounded us. I walked off feeling nervous, alone, and out of place, all the while trying to melt into the stream of women entering the mosque. I felt quite self-conscious about my outfit in this setting, but I was sure that once I entered the building, I'd see Lubna, and that she would be wearing a suit like mine.

But I was mistaken. Once I entered and found a seat I realized I was the only woman in the mosque who was not covered by an abaya. Across the large hexagonal space, I could see George, the only man present in a suit and tie.

My excruciating self-consciousness about being abaya-less soon diminished as speakers got up to recall the wonderful qualities of Dr. Ahmad and his contributions to his family, faith and society. All the women around me were crying, and young girls were coming through the crowd with decorative boxes of tissues and glasses of water. After an hour, the women around me and I became a small community of mourners, sharing tissues, handing one another water, and crying anew each time another speaker began eulogizing Dr. Ahmed and spoke of his young children.

After an hour and a half, some women in front of us got up and left. An older woman seated next to me said "shu!? felleen bakir!" ("What's this, they are leaving too early!") I agreed with her and she clasped my hand in hers until the mourning ceremony ended nearly an hour later.

Once we were all standing up and about to leave, she asked me who I was and how I came to be there. It turned out she was the eldest sister of Lubna, and she took me straight to her sister, the widow, who was wearing a black abaya. Lubna looked at me, her blue eyes red from crying and framed by her black headdress. She seemed happy to see me, abaya-less or not, and hugged me, kissing my face several times and thanking me for coming to the ceremony, and telling me she felt I was "like her sister." Her older sister, whom I'd been sitting next to for the last two hours, also began to hug and kiss me and thanked me for coming. We all started crying again.

I found George outside in the parking lot waiting for me near the car. "How come you didn't tell me that I was wearing the wrong thing?!"

He said "I had no idea; even though I grew up here in Lebanon, I was always in the Christian community. I have never been to a Muslim wedding or funeral until today."

We drove home through a grey and misty rain, listening to BBC reports that left little doubt that Lebanon would see more deaths, more mourning, more funerals, in the coming weeks. Thinking about Dr. Ahmed's memorial service, I realized it was not a "Muslim" or a "Shi'i" event, and that attire did not really matter. Though I'd walked into the mosque feeling so different and isolated, I came out feeling privileged that I had been able to participate with a community mourning the loss of one of its own. Being a Muslim and wearing an abaya had not really mattered; showing up and being there, open to the feelings of those present, did.

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