The Heat Is On In Beirut

Temperatures have been hovering in the nineties all summer in Beirut, and it doesn’t cool off much at night. But it’s not the high temps on the thermometer that have me (and everyone else in the world) worried, but the heat coming from Syria. Lebanese have been working hard to keep the fires at bay all summer, but temperatures have risen this week, with the reported killing of four Lebanese hostages in Syria.

Eleven Lebanese men were kidnapped in Syria in late May, Shi’ite Muslims, abducted by the rebel group Free Syria Army, the main opposition army group in the Syrian civil war. The kidnappings occurred just after my arrival to Lebanon, but my fledgling knowledge of Middle Eastern politics wasn’t enough to sort out the “whys” and the “what nows.” Politics are universally labyrinthine, and despite all I’ve read about Middle Eastern politics in the past three months, I’m still just at the beginning of the maze. Even this week’s news reports have been confusing, with ones in the end of week indicating that the hostages were not killed after all.

But before the deaths could be confirmed or refuted, protests had broken out in Beirut. Then a Shi’ite clan in Lebanon claimed to have kidnapped some 20 Syrians, in response to the kidnapping of one of their own within Syria. On Wednesday, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates, all wealthy countries whose elite summer in the relatively cooler and more liberal Lebanon, urged their citizens home. Turkey followed suit today, advising its nationals to postpone any non-essential travel to Lebanon. My understanding is that the Shi’ite clan holds Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey responsible for the kidnapping of their clansman due to those countries’ support of the rebels.

To understate it, Lebanon had a tough week.

Security recommendations are to stay at home. I’ve got experience in hunkering down. In Ecuador in 2005, when President Lucio Gutiérrez was removed from office after a week of massive public protests, I hardly moved from my neighborhood, although I did make the occasional run to the mall five minutes away at the edge of town. In Honduras in 2009, when President Manuel Zelaya was taken out of power and out of the country by the military, a curfew was imposed on the entire country that at times lasted through the day. We managed to eat several meals with our friends who lived right across the street, as they didn’t mind scurrying across in order to see a friendly face and break bread together. It’s a strange sort of limbo to be in, with some ordinary tasks like cooking and cleaning and taking care of children requiring their usual efforts. Tensions are high (to astronomical), but life goes on, although the only people you see might be the ones who live next door, or maybe just those who are within your four walls.

So I admit, I wasn’t daunted when tensions were elevated right after our arrival to Lebanon because of the kidnappings. Some people were staying home, and Lebanon’s largest English-language newspaper, The Daily Star, had recommendations on how to hunker. They included washing your delicates, and instructions on how to make your own Scrabble game (first spending the time to write up the tiles and cut them out, and then playing the game – you could while away hours). The suggestions seemed absurd to me, but perhaps no more so than the getting-together-with-friends-in-the-neighborhood-for-a-barbecue that we’d done during tough times in Tegucigalpa. Seeking normalcy under duress. Who am I to knock the ideas in the article? The Lebanese have got survival skills down to an art.

When I told people I was moving from Honduras to Lebanon, my friends and acquaintances wore out that old cliché about leaving the frying pan for the fire. Although Honduras is a beautiful country to visit, street crime is high in the big cities, and I lived in one of them. Until this week, Beirut was feeling a heck of a lot safer than Tegucigalpa. In Beirut, I can drive with my windows unrolled and worry about getting car-jacked. I can walk down the street and not fear that I will get mugged.

It’s been hot this week, and I’ve been feeling it. But, friends will be glad to know, not in Beirut. The heat I’ve been experiencing is from the sunshine in Sicily, where I’m visiting my in-laws and hanging out on the beach. Not a bad time to be away from the sparks of the fire.

It’s mid-August, and there are plenty of dog days of summer yet to be had along the Mediterranean, in spots like Sicily, Lebanon, and Syria. According to the Internet, the term “dog days of summer” came from observers in these places, in countries lining the Mediterranean, where the hottest days of the year coincide with the weeks before and after the conjunction of Sirius, the dog star, and the sun.

To me it looks like the heat in Syria will far outlast the dog days of summer. As much as I wish I could influence the matter otherwise, there’s not much I can do. But I can still join with the regular folk affected in Syria, in Lebanon, and region-wide in one thing. I can share the hope that the fire in Syria gets put out.

Locals in Beirut find ways to escape the summer heat.

Love and Marriage

Love and marriage, love and marriage
Go together like a horse and carriage
This I tell you brother
You can’t have one without the other

  • “Love and Marriage” by Frank Sinatra

I have yet to hear a Frank Sinatra song that I don’t like. But I have to take issue with this classic. As we all know in many (or even most?) places in the world, it’s without a doubt possible to have love, want to get married, and not be able to.

Case in point: Washington State. When I was in my hometown of Seattle last month, campaigning around Referendum 74 was — a bit like love itself — hot and heavy. To be voted on this November, Referendum 74 was created by those seeking to disallow same-sex marriages in Washington State (a right that was approved in February of this year). Those fighting to keep that right have wide-spread support in Seattle — including a $2.5 million dollar gift at the end of July from Seattle-native and founder Jeff Bezos, and his wife, MacKenzie. As one of the earlier states to repeal its laws against interracial marriage (in 1868 actually, prior to statehood, when it was pioneer territory), it seems fitting that Washington State be one of the pioneers in same-sex marriage as well. Come November we’ll see if love and marriage will go together like a horse and carriage for same-sex carriage drivers in Washington State.

Marriage is a hot topic in Lebanon as well.

Before I’d even left Honduras, I was in touch with a friend of a friend in Beirut who’d been writing me with great advice and tips. In one of her emails, she noted that another who had heard of my husband’s and my upcoming arrival to Lebanon had asked her: “How come a Catholic Italian is married to a Protestant American?!”

Huh? Our own families (and the pastor who married us) had supported our interfaith marriage. I don’t think anyone else had ever cared. Frankly, I didn´t see why anyone else should care.

The email continued: “I laughed and answered her saying, ‘Same like a Catholic Italian married to a Protestant Lebanese.'” (The case of this Lebanese friend.)

I was puzzled as to where the question came from. Anti-Catholic sentiment? Anti-Protestant sentiment? General ultra-religiousness? Guess I’d find out when I got to Lebanon.

When I arrived to Beirut, I picked up a copy of what I consider to be the inside guide to any city where it’s published, Time Out magazine. Right at the inside front cover was a two-page ad for “civil marriage in Cyprus,” US$1,900 per couple. Two days and one night in Cyprus, including airfare, one night in a five-star hotel, document translation, witnesses for the marriage, and flowers for the bride. A twenty-minute flight away from Beirut, apparently it’s even possible to do the whole thing in one day, for those who are tight on time or money.

Why Cyprus? It’s certainly close and has honeymoon-worthy beaches. But why did destination weddings merit such a big ad? And for civil marriage. (Guess like the “ultra-religious” explanation didn’t hold water.)

Apparently, for would-be brides and grooms who do not share the same religion, it’s Cyprus or bust.

It turns out that civil marriage does not exist in Lebanon. All marriages must be performed by a religious authority. With only a couple of exceptions*, conversion is required if the bride and groom do not come from the same one of Lebanon’s 18 religious communities. With your religion stamped on your passport, there’s no pulling a fast one on any wedding officiant. I understood the question ‘How come a Catholic Italian is married to a Protestant American?’ in a whole new light. More than “how come?”, it’s truly a question of “how?”

“I went to my church to see if we could get married here [in Lebanon],” my real estate agent told me. A Christian woman marrying a Christian, but foreign-born and raised, man. “They told me they needed a copy of his baptismal certificate. We decided it would be easier to get married abroad.”

Civil marriage doesn’t exist within Lebanon, but such marriages contracted abroad have been legally recognized since 1936. To boot, couples married in civil ceremonies abroad can then be divorced by a Lebanese civil court under the law of the country where they were married – a twist that can save tens of thousands of dollars, and provide more equitable results not only for the divorce proceedings, but also for child custody, as religious divorces in Lebanon typically heavily favor the father.

In the case of my real estate agent, she and her fiancé headed to Australia. Given its proximity and ease of paperwork, Cyprus is increasingly popular. According to the Cypriot Embassy in Beirut, some 800 Lebanese couples made the jaunt over to Cyprus in 2011 to tie the knot. Looks like there is a way for more Lebanese to hitch their horse to the carriage after all.

Marriage norms can vary widely from place to place, but the desire to capture the moment with a good photo is universal. The Roman Baths are one of the most popular spots in Beirut for the classic wedding shot.

*Muslim men can marry Christian or Jewish women, and Maronite Christian men can marry Muslim women.  In both cases, the children automatically become members of their fathers’ religion.

Quick Note

I landed back in Beirut night before last, after a visit to my hometown of Seattle. According to the pilot’s announcement, it was still 84 degrees Fahrenheit (29 Celsius), despite being nearly 11 pm at night. Hot and sticky air enveloped us as we exited the arrivals hall to the parking lot. A dramatic change from the 65-degree (18 C) highs we’d been having in Seattle.

When we got to the hotel, my husband commented that the parking lot (and hotel) had been packed over the weekend, with Syrians. It was Monday and he thought they had returned to Damascus, which is less than two hours away by car. It’s hard to get one´s head around the idea that while Beirutis are going to the beach for the weekend for a respite from the summer heat, Syrians are coming to Beirut for the weekend for a respite from the civil war.

If even Beirut and Damascus can feel worlds apart, imagine how far Beirut feels from Seattle. And yet, returning to our new home in Beirut (even if that new home is actually still a hotel apartment), felt like coming back to home, sweet home.