This is the second part in a series of two. The first part, Who are you calling an Arab?, can be found here
As a nation, we couldn’t get enough of Richard Quest’s five-minute exposé on Lebanese nightlife for CNN. The Lebanese, Quest summed up — despite their country’s tumultuous past and unstable present — continue to live life to the fullest, thrusting themselves into today because they never know what disaster tomorrow might bring.
Leave it to the Lebanese to hold up a cliché with pride. So many of us exploit the memory (or lack thereof) of a painful civil war — whose crimes we never fully addressed and repercussions we continue to live — to sensationalise ourselves, to sell for the sake of shock, awe and tourism an image of a people playing hot potato with falling bombs, raising shot glasses to warplanes, and braving land mines to party it up in makeshift bomb shelter clubs.
This, it seems, is how so many of us privileged enough to have the time and money to waste starring in, watching and sharing these trivial videos, understand progress. Progress is cleavage, progress is nightclubs with a cover charge equivalent to an average month’s salary, progress is sex — on billboards, on television, on the dance floor, on the radio — progress is dropping acid and ecstasy and snorting cocaine in chalets in Faqra and Faraya in order to “expand the mind” and “free the soul” because nothing develops the faculties of consciousness long term like simulated schizophrenia.
The camera doesn’t travel beyond the borders of Skybar and White: to the shisha cafes and alcohol-free restaurants of the Dahiyya, where veiled women and bearded men sit at a comfortable distance from one another conversing and laughing, enjoying their own version of leisure. The camera doesn’t shine its lens on the barefoot beggar-child wearing a layer of dirt, weaving through traffic as she knocks on car windows trying to sell gum for a penny; a child who doesn’t have the luxury of living for today while forgetting about tomorrow. It doesn’t pull its microphone away from collagen-inflated lips for a few seconds to hear the rant of one of Bliss Street’s resident homeless who, urban legend has it, was once a physics professor at AUB, driven mad by a war that robbed him of his entire family, left to roam the streets trapped in the prison of his own chaotic, broken language, hoping to come across an ear that’ll be able to decode it. Nobody wants to see that. Like some kind of deformed relative locked in the basement when guests come over, this “off-putting” aspect of Lebanese society is kept out of sight lest it taint the precious image the Lebanese government and upper classes are trying to feed to the world, lest it call into doubt Lebanon’s place at the elite table of modern and progressive nations and cultures.
Progress is cleavage, progress is nightclubs with a cover charge equivalent to an average month’s salary.
But are the Lebanese people, as many of them claim, truly a liberal people? What does it mean to be progressive, to be the so-called “Paris of the Middle East”? It would appear that for many in Lebanon, liberalism is understood as a lifestyle. You earn this precious label by dressing a certain way, consuming particular substances and flaunting your sexuality. Performing liberalism becomes a task, a right of passage, a test one must pass to enter the elite, exclusive club of the urban, middle class, Western-educated youth.
I’ve heard many Lebanese of this privileged class of ‘liberals’ preach non-conformity and deride the oppressive nature of religion as they write out a new Bible or Quran — the holy book of hedonism, to which all would-be progressives must strictly adhere. Covering one’s head is forbidden. Sobriety is forbidden. Post-marital virginity loss is forbidden. They speak of the primitiveness of the Lebanese political mind, with its tendency towards discriminatory sectarianism, sheepish loyalties to corrupt chieftains, and blind patriotism to a twisted understanding of national identity, as they carve turkeys on thanksgiving in their Beirut homes, salute Guy Fawkes on Facebook and parade around the streets in Che Guevara t-shirts. Once every few months they’ll march through a middle-class neighbourhood of Beirut in the name of a pre-packaged, imported understanding of secularism shipped straight from France or some other idolised country, without even trying to trim the edges to make it fit the contours of Lebanon. Then after about an hour they’ll return to a life of nonchalant disengagement from the nasty politics of the ignorant classes, convinced that this brief interlude in the daily happenings of the country will gradually help these poor souls wake up and smell the West that these awakened few long ago allowed into the tunnels of their nostrils and the crevices of their minds, welcoming enlightenment.
Such characters fail to make any sort of effort towards scrutinising the roots that lie beneath the various political subjectivities pervading Lebanon or entertaining the notion that the religious may be happy in their faith, may put a great deal of effort and heart into being pious, may not be brainwashed after all, and might know the alternatives and prefer their own way of being. No. They can’t have that. They’re married to the belief that their lifestyle — a Frankenstein’s monster constructed of the haphazardly sown together limbs of Western movies, television shows, songs, magazines and brief images preserved and misremembered by the brain from trips to Europe and America — is the only way forward. In this sense, they’ve birthed into sordid life a new Lebanese sect: the sect of liberalism. Members of this sect must conform to its tenets and principles, which cannot be questioned. Anyone outside this sect must be mocked, judged, looked down upon and simultaneously encouraged to convert to its superior ways.
It’s this approach to liberalism as a superior lifestyle that one must be educated into adopting that, I believe, has inspired a disturbing number of Lebanese to defend the hijab ban in France under the pretext that veiling is always an oppressive act; to declare the communitarian decisions not to sell alcohol in certain neighbourhoods of Lebanon outrageous; to support wholeheartedly the Internal Security Forces prohibition on the wearing of “religious insignia” by its employees, ignoring the fact that it was confusing political sectarianism with religious practice, believing that the solution to the deep-seated hatred and prejudice that blackens the hearts of so many Lebanese is best solved by hiding our religions from one another so as to prevent the provocation of some kind of primordial beast lurking beneath our relatively homogenous skin.
In this sense, Lebanon is indeed the Paris of the Middle East, beginning more and more to resemble its beloved colonial forefather as bigger chunks of its young population adopt an exclusive and almost violent understanding of freedom as something that must be shoved down the throats of those whose lifestyles are labelled illiberal and who are seen as a danger to the country’s international image; as a threat dancing before the fragile eyes of the easily-frightened tourist; as that last bit of old skin dangling from the national tail, desperate to wag its way into the global heart.
A change of attitude
Liberalism is not a lifestyle. It’s an attitude. It’s a way of engaging with people whose ways of being in the world are dramatically different than our own, whose practices might fill us with repugnance, might seem nonsensical, masochistic even, but who we approach with respect, and who we invite to partake in a conversation to unravel one another’s peculiar habits and customs. We can argue, gesture — even yell — but as liberals we must work on cultivating humility: an awareness that our way of life is not necessarily superior, that what we consider universal and natural norms of behaviour are in fact practices we’ve been conditioned into perceiving as such; that what we understand as common sense is the product of the specific subjectivity we’ve sprouted over the years on the landscape of our body, through an immersion in a particular cocktail of fertiliser made up of family and school, country and class, educational system and cultural network.
It would appear that for many in Lebanon, liberalism is understood as a lifestyle.
A pluralistic society, a society worth celebrating, is one that makes room for all of its residents; that allows them to build spaces where they can practice their ways of life comfortably without infringing on the rights, desires and preferences of their fellow citizens. Radical sheikhs are not the only threats to Lebanese liberalism. Anyone, bearded or beardless, tattooed with skinny jeans or hidden beneath a veil, reciting Quran or gurgling vodka, who thinks his or her way of life should be made mandatory, who calls for the homogenisation of society either by its secularisation or islamicisation, is a fundamentally illiberal individual.
This isn’t an argument for cultural relativism, but for an understanding of open-mindedness that isn’t grounded in how people treat their own bodies and lives but in how they treat those of others. Beirut is already a liberal city. Mosques and Churches stand back-to-back, face to face and side to side — an architectural defense against the ebb and flow of the sectarian tide. A sober square sits fifteen minutes from a drunken street. Chador-clad teens walk through malls alongside cousins in hot pants. Veiled women campaign for gay rights. These are the things that make Lebanon unique, that give it character, and that make it worth featuring on CNN.