Monday, January 21, 2008

Weekend ponderings

I must say that I passed a rather tranquil and pleasant weekend. I deliberately switched off my laptop, TV, radio, got as far away from any form of media communication that would bring to me news from the Middle East.

This weekend was to be a No Middle East weekend to enable me to maintain a smile for at least 48 hours straight.

However, all said and done, that didn't absolve me from engaging in private discussions with friends (my Lebanese friends anyway) on the issues that consistently plague our minds. Well there is only one issue that has such an effect, a doctor might render it a form of a disease, it's called the Lebanon syndrome.

I did happen to share an interesting conversation with two Lebanese female friends of mine on the topic of Lebanese hospitality and post-war trauma.

My friends and I do have one thing in common ... our ages. We stem from the post-war generation, the generation that inherited all the stories, hurt and anger our parents faced when they were trapped in the 15 year long civil war. The three of us come from different sects in Lebanon, different regions in Lebanon, and different political backgrounds. Yet, we happily converse and proceed with a cohesive friendship, perhaps because our Australian upbringing has hosed down the tension most Lebanese in Lebanon feel.

It's quite incredible that for "different" Lebanese to meet requires a voyage to the other side of the world, where the social, sectarian and political barriers that prevent the Lebanese within Lebanon to do exactly the same have been removed. Nonetheless, we do it, not without our tense moments, I can assure you, but we do always manage to discuss in a fruitful manner.

Nevertheless, back to the subject of post-war trauma. We were all quite intrigued of the war experiences of our parents and their generation. I've indeed heard all the gruesome and sad stories from my mother, likewise for my friends. So we asked ourselves, how are our parents not traumatised? How have they seen what they've seen, and been able to move on?

Grotesque murders and slaughters were witnessed daily by our parents. They lost loved ones, friends, family, they spent days hiding under tables to avoid the bombs. Day and night, bombs and fire, death and destruction. Yet, today, on the other side of the world, my mother goes about her daily routine as if the war never existed. She never had any therapy. We're Lebanese, seeing a shrink and seeking "professional" psychological assistance is more of a Western remedy. Our question the other night was, how? How have they done it? What goes on through their head?

It isn't easy to survive a war, yet die at the same time. I always viewed my mother as living her second life in Australia. The woman from Lebanon who was to become my mother, probably doesn't exist anymore. Friends, family, her life was taken a way within an instant. My friends concurred in regards to their own parents and family.

What about the Lebanese that remained in Lebanon and didn't have the chance to leave? They weren't given a chance to begin a "second" life, like my parents and the parents of my peers. The anger still festers, the hurt still lingers, the memory still vivid. They can't walk away from it. Lebanon is still suffering from a war we tried so fervently to turn our backs on, but deep down the pain remains.

Amongst ourselves the other night, we tried to explain why the Lebanese have become so materialistic and superficial so as to forget their own great customs that have made them renowned in the world. Our parents, stories from the 60s and 70s, always spoke to us of a Lebanese hospitality and generosity that met no comparison. The villages with people full of trust and warmth that they would welcome foreigners from the ends of the earth, shelter them, and celebrate their coming.

Today, Lebanon is seething in mistrust, in doubt, and in fear. An attempted smile is generally made, but their eyes question your presence. And then there's the brands. Lebanese who would prefer to live in a room a size of a bathroom, just so they can indulge in their material possessions of Gucci sunglasses and BMW cars. Lebanese don't care any more, they spent 15 years living in the dark, now they live every day as if it is their last, as if a war will come and destroy all their possession and condemn them back to the darkness. Take it while you can, that's the Lebanese motto du jour.

Then we spoke of Syria. My friends are supporters of the anti-Syrian March 14, but they relayed to me their astonishment of the Syrian hospitality. One of my friends recounted a story of how she got lost in Damascus and a lady invited her into her home and threw a feast for her, just like that. No questions, no doubt, no lies, it was indeed genuine hospitality, genuine warmth. We said to ourselves this was the Lebanon our parents told us about, their Lebanon before the war, a Lebanon that is now lost. Where has our warmth, our generosity, our hospitality gone?

Syria's 40-year dictatorship has prevented the country from developing economically, but has maintained stability as well as a deeply rooted culture that Lebanon is rapidly losing. Although each country has the right to advance, Syria's "regression" has ironically rendered its society warm and open.

I lament when I watch what art our country is producing nowadays. How we have gone from leading artists and musicians such as Fairuz and Assi Rahbani only 30 - 40 years ago, to the regurgitated plastic pop of Haifa and Nancy. I tend to use art as an expression of one's culture.

Our music was once rich in the manner it was composed, in the poetic lyrics it chanted. The songs relayed a culture of warmth, generosity, and of core, sacred values. Today, our Saudi-funded songs generally feature half naked plastic women (and the men are following), with lyrics to rival the likes of Britney Spears. Coincidentally, plastic surgery is so widespread in Lebanon that publicities now decorate the country's freeway billboards.

So we asked ourselves the other night ... what has happened to Lebanon?

The war destroyed more than just buildings and architecture. Buildings can be rebuilt, and much of it has, but the core of our nation, the days where we would embrace strangers as well as brothers, has yet to return. It perhaps explains our current state of ambiguity. Fear, mistrust and anger still fester in Lebanon, in place of the kind hospitality that we've heard so much about, but see so little of.

Far from the Borders

If there's one bookstore that's worth criticising, it's the global giant retailer, Borders.

The US company, which is one of Australia's major book retailers, received a visitor on the weekend ... me.

As I was buying time before my movie started, I decided to wonder into the quite spacious Borders with an extensive range crossing two floors.

Although I had banned myself from everything Middle East that weekend, I couldn't resist taking a peak at the "Middle East" history section. Indeed, such a section does exist.

On the right hand side, a section had been devoted to "Israeli history", and contrastingly on the left hand side the section was labelled "Middle East history". So far it seemed fair, one side for the Arabs, one for Israel, trying to keep the balance in the world's greatest polemic.

Then I began to read the titles of the books, which started to sway my positive opinion of Borders. The focus of the topics of the vast majority of books displayed in the "Israeli" section was on the drags of war, with such titles as "The Munich Massacre" and "Never-ending War".

These were the kind of stories that attempted to draw pity and sympathy for the Israelis who have to endure so much, and yet all they're seeking is a tiny peace of desert, why can't the big bad Arabs leave them in peace etc. I suspected as much from the "Israeli" section, very rarely do you see criticism of Israel in the "Israeli" section in any bookstore in Australia.

So I turned to the Middle East (or Arab) section to see if the same genre of "feel sorry for me" books were to be found. Not entirely. Instead one large slice of the section was devoted to books with fully veiled women
from Iran on their covers, with blurs that convey to you the harsh treatment of females in the Persian (non-Arab) country. Another large section was devoted to pretty much the same topic, but of females in Saudi Arabia.

Essentially, the first impression any ignorant Westerner receives - who'd like to educate him/herself on the Middle East dilemma - upon passing by the Middle East/Israel history section is as follows: Israel is the victim of countless wars and aggression, while the Arabs beat their women and keep them mummified in black burqas.

I'm not going to deny that Iran and Saudi Arabia have abhorrent policies when it comes to women, but I'm definitely not going to deny that Israel doesn't have abhorrent policies when it comes to Palestinians. Either show both sides of the coin, or don't show any.

Another great victory to the Jewish lobby.

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