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Two weddings and a war
Life in Lebanon and the rites of passage take on a new meaning because of war, not in spite of it, as a younger generation that has never lived in peace ponders the future.
By TAMARA EL-KHOURY, Times Staff Writer
Published August 19, 2007
War postponed my friend's wedding.
Last summer, three weeks before the date, fighting broke out between Israel and Hezbollah, a militant Islamic group in Lebanon. My friend, the embarrassed bride-to-be, put off the wedding, I canceled my trip, and panic spread in the American Lebanese community as we tried to evacuate our loved ones.
She eventually got married, and this year another friend decided to take the risk and schedule a wedding in Lebanon in late July. I was excited but cautious. I had visited my motherland nearly every year for the past 15 years, so I knew the warm Mediterranean and massive amounts of food might not be the only things waiting for me. But I was adamant about going despite new fighting, this time between the Lebanese army and Fatah al-Islam, an al-Qaida-linked group hiding in a Palestinian refuge camp in Lebanon.
The country is on the brink of civil war, the world's journalists were writing. But I swore only the airport's closure would keep me out of the country. My mother and I took vacation time, bought tickets and followed the news.
We knew four other families taking the risk. We all left around the same time to attend the wedding. The bride and groom live in Cleveland but planned a Lebanon wedding because, "It's the closest we could get to heaven," they said on the save the dates.
My mother and I arrived in Lebanon on a Friday night. A cousin picked us up from the airport. Beirut's air was as I remembered it, hot, dirty and foul. Traffic barely moved as people inched toward the mountains for a weekend respite from the heat.
As we took the hour drive to Ebrine, a Christian village in the mountains where my mother is from, our cousin raised his voice the way Lebanese do when they're passionate about something. It sounds like yelling to anyone else, but to Lebanese ears it's just talking.
He doesn't know why we keep coming back to this country, he said. This country is finished. There is nothing here, he said, thrusting his hand toward the land.
Last summer, he and his family evacuated to Canada where his oldest son lives. This month, his youngest son left Lebanon to attend college in Canada.
Still, as I stared out the window at the mass of traffic, at the dilapidated buildings, I felt joy. I'm 25 years old. I was born in Washington, D.C., and have never lived in Lebanon, but my Lebanese parents raised me to know Lebanese traditions, food, culture and the country itself. I felt like I was home.
But the conversation from the airport to Ebrine kept popping up in my head through the duration of my two-week trip. Why do we keep coming back?
The next day was the wedding. The reception was outdoors. The moon was full. Women were dressed in elaborate gowns, men in colorful ties. Dancers in traditional clothes swarmed the dance floor. The bride entered at the top of a stone staircase on a hill and the groom rushed up to greet her. Fireworks on the ground lit their way down the stairs.
It doesn't take long for a dance floor with Lebanese guests to fill. Even my mom left her seat to dance.
As dancers lifted the bride, the groom and their mothers on their shoulders, I walked to the ladies room. I heard an explosion and braced myself. "Bombs," I thought. "They're bombing the wedding."
I heard several more booms and ran outside to a fireworks show. I laughed at myself and joined the celebration of love and unity in a country struggling to find both.
The rest of the trip brought more examples of contradictions in Lebanon. The country's economy has tanked yet people still take three hours to eat at tables filled with food. Lebanon is teetering on the brink of political chaos, people are leaving the country to find opportunity, yet the Lebanese are partying hard.
Sky Bar, a swanky nightspot overlooking the Mediterranean, was packed with beautiful people and bottles of vodka. I asked some Saudi Arabian men sitting with a three-foot bottle of Grey Goose why they come to Lebanon even during war.
"Lebanon is free," one said.
Unlike much of the Arab world, Lebanon is not an Islamic state. In Lebanon, these Saudis could legally drink, smoke and watch bare-legged women dance.
There were signs of war, though not at Sky Bar. I found myself tensing up while driving through army checkpoints till a friend told me to relax; these weren't the Syrian guards I was used to. On this trip, the soldiers were Lebanese.
Then there was the distant thundering heard from Ebrine. Real bombs, not fireworks, echoing from the Palestinian refugee camp in Tripoli.
The biggest sign of war was the fact that I couldn't visit my three aunts. The road to my father's village went through Tripoli and it was too dangerous. An aunt and uncle braved the road to visit me in the safe beach chalet owned by a family friend. They left early to attend the funeral of a young soldier from their village who had been killed in Tripoli.
A few days before I left, an election took place to replace two assassinated anti-Syrian members of Parliament. The army was dispatched to prevent outbreaks of violence. The election ended peacefully.
However, the election solidified my fears that the people-power uprising that unified the country in 2005 was dead. The "Cedar Revolution," as it was dubbed, stemmed from the assassination of Lebanon's prime minister, Rafik Hariri. The result was an end of nearly 30 years of Syrian occupation and a unity of Lebanese Christians, Muslims and Druze.
During that exciting time I had written about the hope of a reborn Lebanon, but the people have fallen back into the pull of the country's feudal system. The same families who have influenced the country's politics then are the same families that do so now. The Lebanese don't give up power easily even for the sake of the country.
The distant booms I heard from Ebrine of the army fighting an al-Qaida-linked group made it obvious why a stabilized Lebanon is in the best interest of Mideast peace.
There were other things I saw during my trip which disappointed me. I found laziness and an obsession with material things, particularly in the younger generation. Kids who don't work are demanding cell phones, designer clothes and nice cars. Their parents want to give them everything and are hiring live-in maids from other Third World countries.
Maybe their focus on the superficial keeps their mind off the darker issues. Maybe their experience that death isn't just for the old makes them want to revel in the now.
I do know that those same people always have their home open, always have coffee ready and a joke to tell.
By the end of my trip I realized that perhaps why the Lebanese celebrate so much, why they break into dance to the beat of an out-of-tune drum in the middle of a lazy Sunday lunch, why they take so long to eat, why they laugh even when political tensions are highest, why they pray so hard is because of war.
The Lebanese were born during violence, educated in violence. They got married and raised children in war. It's a tradition unwillingly passed on through generations.
Because the Lebanese are not strangers to death, they truly know how to live.
That's why I keep going back.
Tamara El-Khoury is a Times staff writer based in Clearwater.