25 Aug 2010

A Christian journalist walks into a bar during Ramadan...

A hot summer evening in Beirut, the traffic is dwindling as people head home for the Iftar. The sun is about to set behind the beautiful Mediterranean horizon, the crimson glow gently caresses the rooftops of Beirut's downtown area. The air is gently perfumed with oriental spices as the evening meal is being prepared. Nearby, an argument over a parking spot kicks off, people are anxious to get home to break their fast. The youth involved decide not to bother with the preliminary fistfights and the automatic rifles make an appearance. A few rocket-propelled grenades are fired in haste, three people die then everyone goes home. Just another typical summer evening in the Paris of the Middle East.

Meanwhile, in another part of town, A Christian journalist walks into a bar during Ramadan... wait for the punchline. In fact, it's just a stone's throw away from the parking altercation, although people don't bother throwing stones anymore what with the ready availability of RPGs, 'solely to be used against the enemies of Lebanon' of course. And in fact, it's not a bar but a restaurant in a fancy hotel. The story doesn't mention which hotel it is, but I suspect it's a hotel I've had something to do with. A waiter insists on recommending a certain type of wine, only to come back and apologise that the hotel cannot serve wine during Ramadan. The tease. As we say in Arabic: "the bite nearly reached the mouth". (I know, it doesn't make much sense in Arabic either.) Nevertheless, this is a sensible decision by the hotel management, as people were breaking their fast in the restaurant and they would have been offended by people drinking wine on neighbouring tables.

I would like to imagine the journalist and her companions complaining about the sound of bullets and RPGs as they sat down for dinner, but as it happened the journalist had a more pressing grievance. "We are Christians, you have to respect us, we're in a country called Lebanon, not an Islamic country". (This would have been news for the youth involved in the parking incident as they belonged to two different Muslim theological schools and their fight took place outside a mosque. The theological differences probably didn't have much bearing on the parking incident.) I feel that the journalist telling the waiter the name of the country he's in was a bit rhetorical, but this little detail is important for the story as it turns out.

The journalist seemed to have thrown a fit and left the restaurant without having dinner, then headed straight to her desk and wrote a piece entitled Religious Police in Downtown Beirut!!!! (She had one exclamation mark, but I think the gist of her argument needed a few more.) There's an Arabic word for religious police that is unfortunately untranslatable into English. Google suggests plasticity, which it most definitely is not. In fact it is the precise opposite, but I digress. The journalist's argument seems to boil down to this: "We were born and lived in a country in which the Christians built the foundations of coexistence based on respect for 'the other'. We don't want to see our rights being eroded on flimsy commercial grounds, masked with a thin religious veil and a fig leaf". (Once again, I am really sorry, it doesn't make much sense in Arabic either, particularly the veil-fig leaf combination which is rare in literary sources.)

The journalist ends her article with a sinister warning about the religious police having arrived at Beirut's downtown, Lebanon's Civilised Showpiece. (As opposed to the rest of the country which is uncivilised). Also, something about the religious police wearing western suits and neckties. I thought there's a metaphor somewhere in there, but I am struggling to find it. I really want to make a serious point, especially as someone who really likes wine although I normally drink it from cardboard boxes not at expensive hotels, but I fail to see how being denied wine in a restaurant has suddenly become an existential threat to Lebanese Christians. Under the circumstances, I would have been more worried about two of the officially recognised patriotic parties tearing each other to pieces a few hundred meters away, and they are on the same side! (Otherwise referred to as 'the line of resistance and objection', it attracts a large fanbase of people who like to say 'No'. Ian Paisley would be an iinstant hit among them.)

It is true that religious sensitivities are becoming way over-protected in Lebanon, but this is happening across the board. Just recently, Christian pressure led to a ban of a Television series about the life of Jesus Christ from the Muslim perspective. (I thought you could have summed it up in one line, but someone decided to give it a shot as a long TV series, it's probably high concept). And there have been several incidents before where this or that side decided that a book or a film is a bit too unflattering to be allowed to be screened or sold, and the state was quick to appease them with a convenient ban. Want to take part in the fight for freedom? Let's not turn it into a Christian or Muslim issue then and argue for liberty across the board, including the right to offend the 'most sacredly held beliefs' of everyone, and their divinely-inspired inflexible attitude to parking. There are far more detrimental things for liberty than being denied a glass of wine at a posh hotel.


  1. Nice Post.

    One point though. A possible translation into English for the religious police "motawe3een" is"coercers".

  2. Thanks, actually coercers makes sense.


Karl reMarks is a blog about Middle East politics and culture with a healthy dose of satire.

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