December 30, 2010

Who Says Christians and Muslims Can't Live Together?

In the rural Lebanon of my childhood, people of both faiths dwelt side by side and helped each other in times of conflict.

Yvette Khoury
December 30, 2010
The Guardian

I worship Allah and I am not a Muslim. I celebrate eid, and it is not a Muslim festival. I attended al-madrasa, but it was not a Muslim school. How might one explain what some perceive as contradictory terms? Allah, eid and madrasa are the Arabic words for God, festival and school, respectively. Therefore as an Arabic-speaking Christian these terms were part of my childhood vocabulary and so should have retained their apparent meanings. However, Allah, eid and madrasa have in recent times become associated with Islam and Muslims; they continue to be exploited and at times misused by the media.

Consequently, I have begun to feel alienated from the Arabic that was connected to my cultural upbringing. It is not unusual for a language to change and for its words to acquire different meanings over time. Nor am I the only person to feel alienated from her childhood linguistic and cultural associations. What is significant about the development of the above-mentioned terms is that their evolution seems to correlate with the decline of cross-cultural communication, religious tolerance and multi-faith communal co-habitation, ie people of different faiths living in the same community.

I grew up in a Lebanese farming village called Yarun, which was (and still is) inhabited by both Christians and Muslims. Yarun has a church and a mosque. Its patron saint is Saint George and, although I cannot tell you the name of its mosque, I can clarify that the Muslims in Yarun belong to the Shia sect. Furthermore, words such as burqa or hijab were unknown to me as a child – I only became acquainted with them in London. When Muslim Yaruni women went to al-hajj, they would wear scarves upon their return. As a child, I knew therefore that a hajji was a Muslim woman who covered her head because she had made the pilgrimage to Mecca. A Yaruni hajji was respected for what she believed and she did not show non-Muslims any hostility for not covering their heads. It was in London that I first encountered reproachful and contemptuous glances from the so-called pious Muslim women who seem to object to my uncovered and often unbound hair. Moreover, although hajj and hajji are the Arabic titles of masculine and feminine Muslim pilgrims, they are also used by Christians – some of the most devoted Christian couples in Yarun are affectionately known as hajj and hajji.

Yarun is a small village of no particular significance. It is situated on the Lebanese-Israeli border. Although Yarun dates from Phoenician times, that distant history must remain buried in its ancient rocks. In my living memory, Yarun was only mentioned once in the western media: when the village fell victim to the first systematic area bombardment by Israeli forces in July 2006. But the village's claim to fame, in my opinion, should not be Israeli bombardments: after all, these are not at all unique, since they occur on a regular basis (and often did when I lived there).

Yarun prides itself on the fact that Christians and Muslims still live side by side – even after 15 years of bloody fighting during the Lebanese civil war (1975-1990). Remarkably, the Yaruni community remained steadfast during the war; no blood was shed between Muslims and Christians and the only victims of the war were either shot by Israelis or were killed outside the village. What might this suggest? It suggests that the basis of cohabitation has more to do with cultural heritage than religious beliefs or political convictions.

Under attack

Indeed, to return to the incident that placed Yarun on the "global media map" in 2006, the villagers (Christians and Muslims alike) fled Israeli missiles and took shelter in a nearby village called Rmaish. (Compared with Yarun, Rmaish is a town, but for our purpose it is a village.) Israel targeted Yarun because of the strong connection between some of its Muslim inhabitants and Hezbollah (God's party). The unlawfully armed group, based in south Lebanon, had kidnapped two Israeli soldiers, and this led to Israel's disproportionate and heavy-handed retaliation against the entire country. The Muslim Yarunis who were not connected to al-hizb followed their Christian neighbours and fled to Rmaish hoping that they would be safer among its all-Christian congregation.

As the Israeli bombardment continued, more people from the surrounding villages flocked to Rmaish for safety. Despite their own anxieties, the people of Rmaish accepted the fleeing refugees and shared with them what little resources they had. With no running rivers in the village, water was obviously the most precious commodity in the dry and hot Lebanese summer. Cut off from the rest of the country and with no outside aid for 21 days, Rmaishi resources were fast diminishing. But the people of Rmaish did not discriminate between Muslim and Christian refugees: they housed and fed them all, as much they were able to. Faced with a common enemy and in times of adversity, these communities pull together on bases that have little to do with religious beliefs or political affiliations.

I personally have fond memories of growing up in a mixed-faith community. My parents hired Muslims who worked the fields side by side with Christians of the village. Growing up, I never felt or was made to feel that I should behave differently towards the Muslims in my community. Muslim friends came to celebrate Christian festivals with us. For instance, each Yaruni Christian family has an appointed eid of the Roman Catholic calendar, such as eid al-milad (Christmas) and al-eid al-qiyama (Easter), which it celebrates annually.

My family's appointed day is eid al-ghitas, the day of the Epiphany. After the Epiphany mass, Muslims and Christians came to my parents' open house to celebrate with us and drink a toast to al-'id. I expect my parents returned the obligations to their Muslim friends when they celebrated their religious festivals, but I never accompanied them: I was much too young and far too boisterous for adult company. I do, however, recall a strong day-to-day sense of community life. For instance, Muslims could buy fresh produce from the Christian shops (or I should say the shop, we only had one on the Christian side) that opened on Fridays, except for Good Friday, while Christians would do likewise on Sundays in the Muslim quarter. Both sides shared the enormous communal cauldron, approximately 2.5m in diameter and over 1m deep. The copper-interior-and-iron-exterior cauldron was used to boil wheat which would supply Yaruni families with cracked wheat, a staple ingredient of the Lebanese diet. This massive shared property would make its rounds in both Muslim and Christian quarters until every family had managed to cook its wheat and stock it for the long and cold winter months.

Life was not always work, worship and obligations. There was, for instance, a social element attached to the cooking of the wheat. Considering that this task coincided with the end of the harvest and that cooking the contents of the gigantic cauldron lasted all night, we used to pass the time dancing, singing and telling stories under the stars. In the morning we would breakfast on the freshly-cooked wheat before taking the strained remainder to dry on the flat roofs; once dried in the sun, the grain would be taken to the mill to be ground into cracked wheat.

On other social occasions, young men and women would take their places side by side, locking hands and standing shoulder-to-shoulder in dabki, a stumping-like, traditional dance. Young adults would spend what little recreation time they had together, walking, playing chess or hunting. Although inter-faith marriages were rare, many romances blossomed under these conditions. This well-balanced community life was a legacy that my generation had inherited, but sadly have since managed to lose: this way of life is not only threatened but seems so fragile now that it has all but disappeared.

Growing segregation

Multi-faith communities are on the verge of extinction, not only in Lebanon but also across the globe. In this globalised era, which suggests connectivity, we are becoming more divided: instead of social integration and multi-faith tolerance, we are promoting segregation and isolation. It is pitiful that my generation has not preserved the harmonious inter-faith co-existence they inherited. I feel embarrassed, indeed ashamed, that I belong to a generation that will be remembered for causing fundamentalism rather than promoting peace and harmony among religious groups.

I hardly recognised the village when I visited Yarun in 2008. Driving south from Bint-Jbeil, I was struck by the villas that had sprouted in recent years. The simple one- or two-storey houses were overshadowed by four- and five-storey villas. As we made our way through the Muslim quarter, which we had to cross before reaching the Christian side, we encountered the outward display of the extraordinary wealth that has poured into Yarun since the bombardment of July 2006. The villa owners have tried to outdo one another in extravagant expenditure on the exteriors, yet there were no signs of interior decorations: there were no curtains or blinds inside the mansions. Indeed, I was told on good authority that most of the inhabitants use the ground floor only; some live permanently in the hallways, sleeping on flat mattresses under the stairs as if to uphold the memory of their past humble existence. At night, the villas would shine like beacons in the dark: their owners had installed generators to ensure that these villas remain lit during the regular blackouts in southern Lebanon.

This obscene and vulgar display of wealth seems utterly out of place in the surrounding landscape. Who, I began to wonder, were Muslim Yarunis trying to impress, Israel or the Christians in the village? The Christian houses had also changed. Although some still wore the scars of the 2006 attacks, many had acquired fortress-like fences as if to keep out unwanted intruders or an aggressive enemy. Who, we need to ask, is the enemy that is being kept out? Surely not Israel for, as we have established, Israel can and does strike from the air. Do the Christians in Yarun feel threatened by their Muslim neighbours? Or are they keeping other Christians at bay? The sense of community has disappeared; consequently we might describe life in Yarun now as segregated co-existence rather than as a multi-faith cordial community. Yarunis had managed to rebuild their homes out of the rubble, but had failed to restore the ethos which made their community so special in the past.

Israel's strategic bombardment in July 2006 widened the rift between Christians and Muslims in Lebanon. Israeli forces targeted Muslim areas in the 35-day bombardment, claiming that they were harbouring the militants who were firing rockets into their country. Hence Muslim areas were hard hit while some Christian quarters escaped virtually untouched. Consequently, Muslim conspiracy theorists began to argue that the Lebanese Christians had struck a secret deal with Israel to avoid being hit. Yarun's Christian quarter, however, was one of the exceptions: it was bombed, Israel claimed, because Hezbollah's fighters set off their rockets from the Christian side to which Israel retaliated by returning fire.

Consequently, most of the properties in the Christian quarter, including the church, were severely damaged by Israeli missiles. Yet we cannot put the entire blame for the rift between the two faiths on Israel. Some areas of the country have not recovered from the 15-year civil war. Nowhere is this more obvious than in the capital Beirut: the green line has long gone but the invisible divide between the Christian east and Muslim west of the city is stronger than ever.

The intention to live in dignity

Much money is being spent on promoting intra-cultural harmony and inter-faith tolerance, if not co-existence. Some international aid agencies have been working very hard on educating communities in some developing countries to appreciate their own cultures. It seems to me that such organisations are trying to reinstate the kind of life in which I grew up but which is now fast disappearing. Although I am a strong believer in education as a form of development – I have relentlessly pursued education throughout my life – I doubt if further education would re-build Yarun's harmonious co-existence. Looking back on my parents' generation, they were not armed with university degrees, nor did they obtain special diplomas in social sciences to live in multi-faith communities. Previous generations were not as well-educated as we have become. They simply decided to live side by side and tolerate each others' differences. Their primary asset, it seems, was the intention to live in dignity.

Thanks to positive intentions, open dialogue and hard work, Christians and Muslims in Yarun managed to share the same language and the same space without infringing on each others' boundaries or abusing their respective faiths. They managed to uphold this way of life for centuries, perhaps for over a millennium. Although, like their ancestors, Christian and Muslim Yarunis still live in the same village, the ratios are now grossly disproportionate: the Muslims far outweigh the Christians in numbers and wealth.

I cannot claim that Yarun's past can provide us with a model for religious tolerance. Whilst not wanting to belittle the monumental achievements of some international aid organisations and their efforts to educate developing countries, I do want to highlight that what is needed is more inducement than aid. People in developing countries do not need academic qualifications, but rather the incentive to take charge of their own development programmes.

Thus, instead of giving aid freely, charitable organisations should demand that local people build their own programmes for development and request (and be awarded) funds reflecting the strength of their applications. This would instigate dialogue between community members and it would give locals ownership of their own projects. If we continue simply to give, we risk creating a culture that expects constant handouts, which in turn leads to disgruntled and unsatisfied communities. We should, for example, look at projects such as Katine, which was launched by the Guardian and the Observer in indigenous Africa, and build on what they have learned.