Upending Expectations in Lebanon

The Christmas season is upon us – here in Beirut as much as in the Americas or Europe. If you don’t live in Beirut, you might be surprised to find out how big of a celebration Christmas is here. (I was.)

Just as Lebanon doesn’t neatly fit into Middle Eastern preconceptions of desert sands or uniformly conservative clothing and culture, its religious diversity is far greater than what I expected upon moving here. According to good old Wikipedia, Lebanon has “the most religiously diverse society in the Middle East,” with 18 officially recognized sects: 4 Muslim groups, 12 Christian groups, the Druze, and Judaism. Freedom of religion and the freedom to practice all religious rites are protected by the Lebanese constitution – freedoms that are backed up by the Lebanese Army. Soldiers are stationed outside places of worship to protect that right.

Soldiers stationed outside a Beirut church on a Sunday morning.

The dance between politics and religion is delicate and complicated and flawed in Lebanon, and the soldiers in front of the church I attend made me… well, more nervous than comforted the first time I went. But they did also make me also much more appreciative of Lebanon’s commitment to religious freedom – something I hadn’t thought much about prior to living here.

While religious conflict abounds in Lebanon, they are not as clear-cut as international headlines might lead you to believe. At a national level, political parties (which are largely based on religion) make cross-religious alliances. On a personal level, there is a cross-religious acknowledgment of holidays that I didn’t expect. Although Christians make up just over 40% of the population (according to Statistics Lebanon), Christmas cheer in Lebanon isn’t limited to Christians. I was surprised to see a photo of a Muslim acquaintance of mine on Facebook wearing her headscarf and hugging her children in front of a Christmas tree. But then I suppose it fits hand-in-hand with the Ramadan dinner that Muslim friends invited me to earlier in the year – a spirit of respectfully acknowledging one another’s traditions and wanting to share them.

As part of the holiday celebrations, Beirut Chants, a local non-profit organization, organizes an annual series of concerts in churches in and around the city during the month of December. (If you click through to the website for Beirut Chants you will see a picture from the press conference announcing this season’s offerings. In the center is a woman in a headscarf – Bahia Hariri, a Sunni Muslim woman representing the Hariri Foundation, who was the main sponsor for the month-long festival.)

My husband and I attended this season’s inaugural concert this past Sunday: Handel’s Messiah, performed by the Beirut Chants Orchestra and Antonine University Choir in the Saint Maroun Church, a Maronite Catholic church in the Gemmayze neighborhood of Beirut.

Beirut Chants opening concert, Dec 1, 2013

That lady in the red? She’s Beirut-born Joanna Nachef, the first female conductor from the Middle East. Her accomplishments aren’t limited to leading orchestras in Beirut either – her conducting debut was at New York’s famed Carnegie Hall.

Female conductors are few and far between in the U.S. – Marin Alsop made headline news when she became the first female conductor of a major U.S. orchestra, and that was less than a year ago. I’d never seen a female conductor lead an orchestra before, and would never have expected that this first would occur for me in Lebanon.

By writing about Christmas and conductors I don’t mean to diminish the grave importance of other things happening here in Beirut – from rain-flooded roads to a militarized Tripoli, from another car bomb to the assassination of a Hezbollah leader. But those things are thoroughly covered elsewhere, in the newspapers, and by other bloggers. Given the reputation that Beirut has in the United States thanks to its painful history of civil war and current instability, the strife, tragic as it is, is not the surprise. But Christmas cheer and female conductors and heart-warming hospitality – those are the things that continue to upend my expectations.

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