So... Are You Muslim or Christian?
As I’m having my coffee peacefully on the supposedly public sidewalk currently appropriated by one of the cafés I frequent, a concrete mixing truck passes by slowly, blocking two lanes temporarily as it reaches a construction site, where a nice old building once stood and an unnecessary new one is being erected. A couple of minutes later, a water truck does the same on its way to replenish the probably dried out water supply of some building. In the opposite direction, a woman with an impeccably beautiful voice drags herself on the sidewalk singing a cyclic God-centric anthem, begging for money. Boys that sold umbrellas during last week’s storm, and generally shine shoes as their main source of income, are selling people today torch lighters with a marketing tagline, “Chalamon!”
It’s a normal day in Hamra.
While migrant “Chalamon!” sellers are mockingly shunned by pedestrians, they’re actually using the word much more suitably than most. Chalamon, Chalimon or a more coquette Chalimoné is an Arabicized pronunciation of the French word Chalumeau, wrongly used in Lebanon to mean a drinking straw. Between one “Chalamon!” and another, Hamra is a seamless theater of the absurd. On the table in front of me, two men, seemingly in their sixties, each donning a sleeveless wool sweater in a different shade of burgundy, over a lined shirt under a grey vest, talk about politics. They discuss Syria. They nod. They talk about Lebanon. They don’t seem to agree with each other, but eventually they nod.
Between their nods, another man in similar attire walks towards them, passing through a line of brick-colored plastic pots with small shrubs delineating a part of the sidewalk that has been colonized, or more sweetly put, mandated by the café. “Hello,” he says to both before addressing one of them, “I really love your ideas.” They are obviously meeting for the first time. The man on the table looks both surprised and flattered, and I enjoyed watching his intrigue grow with mine as I sip my coffee — making their business my business.
“I see you on television and really respect your ideas and the way you discuss them,” the man continued. Now the man sitting on the table is more at ease, and took the compliment graciously, but was quickly interrupted by his fan’s following question, “I know it’s none of my business, but I can’t help but ask,” he said: “are you Muslim or Christian?”
The table went silent. My mind went crazy. When I think about it, I’m not sure why I was that surprised. This must be what people feel when watching a football match: the excited agony, the adrenalin rush, the anxious wait, and then “GOOOAL!”
The man who asked the question was embarrassed enough to apologize and the man being interrogated sat smiling. I bit the paper rims of my coffee cup to restrain myself, but I would have loved to hear a lesson in ethics, an impromptu secular sermon on citizenship from one man to another. But that didn’t happen. The conversation broke off where it started — nowhere. The fan left and the two men continued having their conversation, their voices now shadowed by a higher angrier voice of a man over the phone, talking about someone who was beaten up, “because of who he is.”
Here, “who he is” is either a religious or a political token of identity, and it definitely deserves a beating. As the man spoke on the phone, he tried to light his cigarette, but failing to do so as the wind blew out the flame every time. If he had bought a lighter from the migrant “Chalamon!” sellers, he would have lit his cigarette quite easily, as “Chalamon!” — a mispronunciation of the French “Chalumeau” that means blowtorch — is a lighter whose flame isn’t killed by a shy breath of fresh air.
Hamra is a crazy place. Its wounds are entertaining and crippling at the same time.
Hamra is a crazy, surreal place, but it is not a microcosm of the Lebanese dynamic. One cannot expand what happens in Hamra to project an image of the country, so I can’t generalize. Hamra is much more inclusive and tolerant than most neighborhoods in Lebanon, so if the situation here is this frenzied, what could be happening elsewhere? If you’re asked about your god in Hamra, and refuse to dignify the question with an answer, it’s possible that you’ll win. But what would have happened elsewhere?
The hyper-centralized nature of Lebanon created a pseudo-cosmopolitan capital city and everywhere else is crippled. Sipping coffee from my paper cup, with its nervous bitemarks, I thought of what would have happened if I were in Tripoli for example? Would the man in front of me in a café be free enough to refuse to answer? Would the question there have a right and a wrong answer? If so, what if he had provided the wrong answer? Actually, let’s be more specific: what if he was having his coffee at al-Nour Square in Tripoli a week ago when MP Khaled Daher, the Muslim Scholars Committee and some of the city’s religious leaders, flocked to complain about the removal of religious banners in Tripoli?
What if he walked to Khaled al-Daher during his ceremonial declaration of protection of the “Allah Statue” in Tripoli — which is actually a pagan move, as artifacts are not considered holy in Islam — and told him that he owns the city much more than he does, and that the city is neither Muslim nor Christian, would he threaten to burn him with a “Chalamon!”? Would anyone condemn the act or would we look the other way? How many other ways are there, and how many rotations will our heads have to make before we are tired of looking away, and finally stare our issues in the eye?
Raafat Majzoub is an architect, author and artist living in Beirut
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