Thursday, March 31, 2011

REJECTING RELIGIOUS DIVISION

I was a senior in high school when I participated in my first Model Arab League conference.  Of the countries available, my sister, then a college freshman, and I chose to represent Lebanon.  We took our work very seriously and very personally.  A participant of Arab descent struck a conversation with us one day.  After brief niceties, it was clear that her real intent was to find out whether we were Muslims or Christians.  This was during one of Lebanon's darkest moments, and only five years after we fled Lebanon's civil war, so memories of fear, destruction, and all the ugliness of the civil war were fresh in our minds.  We refused to answer the question about our religious background but she insisted.  We told her we were Lebanese and it simply didn't matter whether we were Christians, Muslims or any other sect.  Our response shocked her. 

You see my sister and I were Lebanese (not yet American citizens) who had witnessed the devastation of our country in large part due to religious strife.  We were slowly becoming disciples of the American way of separating religion from government and politics and realizing with each passing day that we were members of one big human family--not just our Maronite Catholic heritage.  But, it wasn't always this way--not in my family, neighborhood or native city and country. 

The Lebanese civil war started when our younger brother was just short of 2 years old.  His words on that “Black Saturday” sum it up.  He said, “Don’t be afraid HamoLaura,” using the hybrid name he made up for the two of us, “God willing, all the Fedayeen will die.”  (The Fedayeen were militant Palestinian Muslims who played a role in igniting the civil war.)  How sad that something like this would come out of toddler’s mouth, but anyone who has lived in the Middle East would understand how deeply ingrained, visceral and accepted the hatred was.  Nothing about my brother’s words was disturbing to us or our parents. 

In those days, religious affiliation meant everything.  Every Lebanese (regardless of which of the 17 religious sects he/she belonged to) identified with religion first and country second.  Just about every sect hated the others.  I don’t use this word lightly.  HATE was very real.  It meant we didn’t see the “others” as equal, which made it easy to commit all sorts of offenses against them.  For my more genteel American readers, I’m not referring to workplace discrimination, unequal pay, harassment or the like.  I’m referring to murder, and more often than not, massacres.  And, let me be clear:  Every religious sect in Lebanon was guilty of these crimes. 

Fast forward to 1984, the year our family immigrated to the United States.  As we worked hard to learn English, find work and adjust to a new culture, we noticed that Americans who helped us (and many did) did not ask what religion we were.  They were incredibly generous, kind and welcoming.

In school, we devoured everything we could learn about this country.  We fell in love with American history, and with each passing year, we realized how much we identified with the struggles and sacrifices of Americans.  We made friends at school and work with people from all walks of life—rich, poor, black, white, Catholics, Protestants, Jews and yes, eventually Muslims and many others.

Religious affiliation, ethnic background and skin color (although that’s a topic for another day) became irrelevant.  So, not surprisingly, the answer to “what are you?” five years after we arrived in this country was simply “Lebanese”.  Proudly and thankfully, the answer today is “Lebanese-American”. 

Thousands left Lebanon under similar circumstances and I suspect many of them had similar experiences.  I can’t fully explain my family’s transformation, but I know my siblings and I are grateful for every act of kindness we’ve encountered in nearly 27 years in this country.  Perhaps that’s all it takes:  Kindness.  Could it be that simple?

While I explore our reasons and influences, I want to know your stories.  Please write to me about your transformation.  Where did you start and where are you now?  Tell me about the people and instances that made a difference.  What hopes and dreams do you have for your family and your country and in this regard?  Either comment after this post or send me your story in an e-mail to laura.boustani@gmail.com.  And, please tell me if I have your permission to use your story in future posts.  I promise not to use names.  I look forward to responses.

(Thanks go out to both my sister and brother for their help with these posts, especially this one!)


4 comments:

  1. Your words are very true Laura, I can understand you and your family's bitterness because we're going through the same thing in Bahrain.
    Such division weakens the whole country and it's just heartbreaking.
    I don't think the Arab world understands the meaning of democracy & tolerance. The people keep talking about these things without really comprehending the meanings they imply. I won't say all of them are like that but the majority are.
    Anyway, thanks for sharing your story with us. I will share it with everybody I know.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Thanks for your comment. It is heartbreaking and it's not easy from whichever side you're on if you're born and raised into that type of environment. How the younger generations view religious affiliation v. country and how they raise their children will be critical. Thanks again!
    Laura

    ReplyDelete
  3. Thank you very much Laura , I agree with every word you say and I believe such division not good by any meaning for any one.best regard.لك محبتي

    ReplyDelete
  4. I LOVVVVVVVVVVE WHAT U WRITE ,
    It’s capturing very great meanings …. That’s humanity
    I’m so proud of u


    Sooooooo touching and true. Thanks ya Laura for sharing with us those beautiful words.

    I think I will be addicted to ur words ….
    I hope everyone think ur way inthis issue ,

    I can be flexible with others in every issue , but this really bothers me …
    We should respect others for what they are not what their religion is …
    Why is this anyone's business? It’s between us and God at the end ..

    I am writing in my religious view : Do u really need to know ?

    Finally , I wanna say one more word
    The Lebanese did not really understand they were in the middle of a civil war except after months after it was already too deep .

    ReplyDelete