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you can’t live in it, but you can’t live without it

February 2, 2010

I’ve learned a thing or two about stereotypes to write here that Lebanese are a certain way or act in a certain manner. So I’m here, once again, regurgitating thoughts and observations based on the conversations I had and heard while in Lebanon.

I should mention that I was hosted by a lovely and caring Christian Maronite family, one of the eighteen religions present in the country. I can only imagine that if I were staying in another environment these observations would be different.

What I remember thinking and feeling is that it is a country very dissimilar from its neighbors. It’s like an oasis. It’s complex, intense, green, alive and rooted. Words escape me. Its neighboring countries have vast deserts, while it has green hills, the cedar – the country’s symbol, present on the flag. It has snow capped mountains and the sea.

I heard one night in Beirut that some Lebanese define themselves as resilient.

I also remember thinking that the political situation is close to incomprehensible or simply lacks a solution. At the same time it’s quite an achievement to maintain eighteen religions conducting the country simultaneously (does it really happen that way?).

I was told that there is a law that the country’s President must be a Christian Maronite, the Prime Minister a Sunni Muslim and the head of Parliament a Xia Muslim. The head of ministries are divided into members of other religions, with quotas, in an attempt to represent all of them (utopia?).

After the war that ended on 1991 (to speak about “the war” in Lebanese history can be vague and redundant), which lasted around fifteen years, all militias (there were many, of different religions) were extinct, in other words, they became political parties, without arms, with the exception of the Xia Muslim militia called Hezbollah, created in response to the Israeli invasion in 1982. I was told Hezbollah is beloved by the Xia because they are responsible for various social services like the construction of hospitals and schools. However, it is seen as a terrorist group by the US.

Political opinion in Lebanon is divided basically in two groups, favoring two different movements: the 8th of March and the 14th of March. It all began with the assassination of Prime Minister Hariri in 2005, and those movements were sort of a response to the event. In sum (I’m not a fan of politics) one is in favor of Hezbollah, while the other completely loathes it. As a consequence, one is with the US and Europe, while the other is with Syria. (Really simplifying it, or so I try…)

Apparently there is no human way to disarm Hezbollah. The Lebanese army keeps its distance; after all, it is a militia. So they kind of watch the scene more like spectators, less like actors.

With all this religious “diversity” in a country where religion is deeply rooted in its culture, of course there’s conflict. An example of the rooted religion in Lebanon is that there is no such thing as civil marriage. If you don’t want a religious ceremony for your wedding and you are Lebanese, you better go to Cyprus. Every marriage in Lebanon is a religious ceremony and status.

The interesting thing is that with all the conflict, I saw plenty of Lebanese living life with intensity and vivacity. Beirut’s nightlife is quite famous, compared to New York, London and Paris. Minimalistic and modern looking restaurants, pubs and lounges are packed every day of the week. Women work, dress up, look sharp, have kids, go out at night and truly juggle it all. (It’s true though, that like in Brazil, they have housekeepers, maids and nannies to help out, but still…)


“If we don’t live that way, we can’t live” one of the cousins said as she sipped her drink.

Her cousin quickly replied “The ability to live happily in the midst of conflict is good in a way, but it can also be a negative thing – we quickly forget what’s happening around us.”

I completely understood her point. I sometimes feel that in Brazil we also get numb to social problems that surround us, but while we have cold beer, a TV to watch soccer games and a beach to relax at, we keep going and hardly ever speak out.

Later that night I heard “you can’t live in it, but you can’t live without it” (about Lebanon). I could relate to that once again. That’s how I feel sometimes about my own country, except facing different fears – in Lebanon they fear bombs in Brazil we fear mugging, assault, robbery.

I kept thinking about that phrase and how I once thought I would not go back to Brazil or at least for a while, until I realized I needed some time in it.

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