Memories From Lebanese Christmases

The Christmas tree & Nativity Scene at my home
There’s a reason Christmas is the favorite time of the year of many people. I am one of those people.

No matter how hard life could be treating me – regardless of whether my problems can be considered grand or minute – I always find the Christmas spirit creeping up on me as soon as November turns its last page.

There’s just something about this holiday that transcends hardships, the division of religions… and there’s more to it than the glitter of Christmas decorations and gift purchases. To me, Christmas runs deeper than that.

My earliest Christmas memory is from back when I was three. I remember getting this present involving a “car” which ran on batteries that were recharged out of an electric socket. It was pretty high-tech back then. That same Christmas eve, it snowed in my hometown – the very first Christmas I remember was white.

But what’s probably the highlight of that Christmas for me was not the very awesome gift I got or the snow that piled up outside my room’s windows. It was sitting with my parents, grandparents, uncles, aunt and baby brother, next to a fireplace as my mother chanted Christmas hymns.

My mother has a terrific voice, which she inherited from her father whom I never knew and her singing Majida El Roumi’s “Bilayli Berdani” on that night will forever be ingrained in my memory: the way this simple song was able to keep the light in the room when it was dark.

However, as one grows up, the joy that is brought by Christmas starts to lessen. You get more excited about the vacation you’ll get from school and the gifts you’ll receive from various family members much more about the obvious meaning of the holiday.

The Pope called this in this year’s Christmas sermon “superficial glitter” – and he’s absolutely right. We stop at the superficial regarding Christmas without ever going a little deeper than that. Even the word Christmas has a contracted form now in the form of X-mas. How hard could it be for anyone to type five extra letters, I have no idea.

Whenever Christmas rolls around, shops start to get their prices ready for the huge influx of shoppers that are there to spend their paychecks. And we’ve all done it. But I, for one, don’t do it because I feel like getting gifts is something I have to do, although I admit when the shopping gets horrible I begin to wonder why I’ve gotten myself into that mess. Why I get gifts is because I feel happy when I see my grandmother smile as I hand her a sweater or my mother have a tear in her eye as I give her the perfume I bought her.

The joy that comes from Christmas is not one from the materialistic. It’s a joy that flows around the air, that transcends the mundane motions that going through life entails. It is the happiness you feel when you’re at a shopping mall and you find a father carrying his toddler son on his shoulders and dancing to the tunes of Christmas songs blasting through the speakers. It is the unconscious smile you have on your face when you see an impromptu Christmas parade around the streets in Achrafieh, knowing that no matter how grim the situation might be, this a time for everyone to be happy.

The joy from Christmas comes from the warmth of your family all huddled next to you, sharing a meal, hoping that these people will be present at this same meal the following year. The joy from Christmas arises from the distinct memories you have of every Christmas eve you’ve lived through – and how even through the darkest places your family has gone through, you can still find smiles on that day.

Merry Christmas to all. And on the day where God gave the world His Son, whether you believe that happened or not, it is fitting that you also give back to those who are less fortunate. Donate to a charity, or a cause or anything you might see fit. Give and let live. Forgive those who have trespassed against you for that is the true meaning of Christmas.

And on this Christmas, my heart goes out to all the people in the world who are suffering because of their beliefs, especially the Christians of Egypt and Iraq. May they find the peace they need with the smiles they have on Christmas day.

Christians, The Middle East and a Whole Lot of Hypocrisy

I am not a Christian who would like to think I am of a persecuted religion in the Middle East. In fact, I’d much rather think that the situation I’m in is a byproduct of the political situation of the region, more so than a simple manifestation of hate.

But simply put, that is not the case.

It’s very easy to look at the situation at hand and say: Oh, it’s not that bad. But it is.  Recently a Pew Poll (one of the most highly regarded research polls) showed that about half of the Egyptian population have negative views towards Christians. But no it can’t be the truth that in Egypt, where Arabism has sprung from, has sectarian problems and practices discriminatory policies. It just can’t be that sectarian hatred exists in a country with so called “revolutionary youth.” Or is it that we can’t accept that Arab youth can have discriminatory feelings and that discriminatory policies are carried out in their own backyards?

I am not an atheist. And even though I am definitely understanding and tolerant to all other religions, there comes a point where, upon seeing people getting killed for protesting against their church getting burned down, you start to boil inside.

And that’s what happened to me on Sunday evening as I watched Egyptian Copts get murdered on the banks of the Nile, after a peaceful protest against the governor of the Aswan province for issuing an order to tear down what they called a church.

Many people think their struggles extend only for a brief period in time, not knowing that the Coptic existence in modern day Egypt has become synonymous with persecution.

Do any of you know that Coptic schools were nationalized by Gamal Abdul Nasser and never given back to them? Imagine Armenians in Lebanon being forced to give up their schools and not being able to teach their language.  And for reference, the Coptic language is one of the oldest languages in the world.

Do any of you know that Copts are not allowed to build churches except by going through drawn out bureaucratic hoops, most of which end up failing? Contrast this with an Egyptian law that states having a Muslim house of prayer in your building exempts you from paying taxes on that building.

Do any of you know that Copts have witnessed many massacres at the hands of fundamentalists, most of which people outside their community have no idea about?

Do any of you know that in Egypt you must write your sect on your ID card, which can lead to discriminatory policies?

It’s very easy to look at the predicament of the Copts in Egypt and turn a blind eye. But turning a blind eye is no longer acceptable.

When the Copts were protesting on Sunday and they started getting killed for doing so, Arab news outlets portrayed them as terrorists. They were portrayed as low lives whose only cause of existence is to stir trouble, which is far from the case. As people who have been burned, killed, tortured… all for the sake of their religion, they sure have put up with a lot. But there’s just so much that a people can take.

And if you thought the portrayal of Al Arabiya and Al Jazeera was bad and thought it might be justified due to their overwhelming ignorance, why don’t we look at how those Copts were portrayed in their country’s state TV. The reporter compared them to the Israeli army and called upon Muslims to defend their country against “them.”

But who are “them”? Aren’t those Copts the reason those Muslims actually have a country to defend?

I don’t want to go into history. But there’s something that is quite simple and clear. Copts are the heart of Egypt. They are the founders of that nation. They are the people that gave Egypt its name and a direct link to its past. Copts are the Ancient Egyptians. That is a fact that cannot be debated.

Yasmine Rashidi, an Egyptian journalist, tweeted the following on Sunday: “Insulted for being Copt. I’m not, but with hair uncovered I’m a target. There is blatant persecution here. Never seen it in this way before.”

She may not have “seen it in this way before” but it was always there.

The problem, however, is not confined to Egypt.

Christians all around the region have been persecuted for a long time just because of their religion. And in the 21st century, is that really acceptable? Is it really also acceptable for everyone to act as if nothing was happening?

If we take a very quick glimpse at Iraq today, it’s very easy to see who is the greatest victim of the country’s current situation: the Christians.

Persecuted and decimated, only very few remain in their country today. The rest of them? Stranded in the land of nowhere, hoping to return to the country they cannot call home anymore.

It is also very easy to look at what many Syrian Christians consider as arguments to keep their political system the way it is and be “persuaded” into thinking it is really the best thing for Christians in the region.

But I respectfully, categorically, utterly and totally disagree.

 

It is strange though how so many people in the region are silent about such important issues like that of Christian persecution.  For many so called “leftists” and “activists” in the Arab world, and outside, the trend is to fight the big bad evil “West” which is seen as “Christian”, constantly stating it is they who oppress.  Yet many of them fail to bring up the Middle Eastern Christians’ plight because it is shows hypocrisy in their own cause: Arab society also carries out oppression.  “Leftists” and “activists” hold rallies in support of Palestinians, brandishing flags and slogans, yet when Iraqi Christians were driven from their homes “activists” remained silent.

When Copts watched their churches burned and their people massacred, why did they not cry out for them?  Why were there not huge rallies in support of these people demanding their equality?  Aren’t they suffering the same as Palestinians? Being driven from their homes and their places of worship being destroyed?

People cry and curse every time an Arab is treated poorly in the West, but when people in our own backyard have their houses destroyed or families killed we remain silent. In the West many shout in protest about their Arab identity, yet in the Arab world it is near blasphemy for Copts and other minorities to identify as the way they wish.  Western societies are not the only xenophobic or discriminatory societies in the world.

One thing, however, is clear. The ONLY source of protection for Christians in the Middle East – in any country of the Middle East – is political power. There is no way us sitting around waiting for some dictator to protect us, for some tyrant to give us mercy, is a good enough measure of self-preservation.

As a Lebanese Christian, I have seen what the Syrian regime has done to me. I have seen how its tanks ran over our men and women just because they defied it. I have seen how it killed everyone that spoke up against it. I remember how, with my most basic instincts I realized that having this foreign army in my land is wrong, and my parents telling me not to say so in front of anyone. I remember it as if it were yesterday.

And I also remember that it was us, Christians, who asked for their protection – not knowing that it would be the reason we are in our predicament today, not knowing that their greed in our land would take away of our political power and turn us into weaklings.

But the time to regain our political power is here. We cannot accept any politician who thinks that our best interest is with that of a tyrant just because that tyrant is of a minority. We, as Christians, cannot accept the status quo of things anymore because it is obviously not working.

The Copts in Egypt had their say on Sunday. It was bloody. But their word is out there. And it sure feels much better, I’m sure, than to bottle yet another burned church in like it’s nothing. The time to act is now.

Thoughts On Weinergate

Weinergate

The latest “scandal” to hit US politics has been named Weinergate, a play on the infamous Watergate scandal, involving president Nixon.

For those who don’t know what Weinergate is, here’s a brief description of the events.

Anthony Weiner (that’s his real last name, not a pun) is a democrat representative in the state of New York. A picture of a man in underwear got sent from his twitter account to some woman. Weiner said his account got hacked. A couple of weeks later, cropped pictures of a shirtless Anthony Weiner, which were meant for another woman to see, got leaked also. That afternoon, a press conference was held in which Anthony acknowledged that he had, in fact, sent out those pictures, as well to other more explicit ones. He added that he had been in six inappropriate relationships using social media, that he wasn’t going to resign his seat and that he had his wife’s full support. She’s “the good wife” isn’t she?

Well, soon enough, this whole thing exploded in the US news and media circuit. Everyone was bashing Anthony Weiner, up and down. Parodies about the situation were made and calls for his resignation started (the most recent of which is US president Barack Obama).

What started out as tabloid gossip has turned into an American cultural frenzy, up for discussion whenever by whomever.

But should this whole “scandal” be as big as it is?

I believe not. What Anthony Weiner did is, after all, something that everyone does. Granted, it is a representation of indiscretion and dishonesty, but don’t we all do that? Why the hypocrisy? Haven’t those people, who are bashing Weiner today, sent similar pictures before, except those pictures did not come back to haunt them yet?

With the current cultural atmosphere and political craze, Anthony Weiner was also portrayed as a harasser. I don’t understand that as well. Not only did he not have any power over the women he was sexting (they could have ignored/deleted him anytime) but I believe those women had the upper hand in their virtual relationship. If Weiner was a harasser, then what do you say about he millions who send dirty pictures and receive them?

So as Weinergate gained momentum and attention shifted to it, it also shifted away from things more important than a congressman’s nakedness. After all, how messed up does the American economy need to get before people focus on how badly the current administration is handling it? Or how long do the Americans want to go without a decent healthcare plan before they cry wolf? Or when will Americans notice more intently that their troops haven’t left Iraq?

Sometimes the most hip thing in a political scene is not the one you should be discussing. And weinergate needs to die already – enough overanalyzing a horny man’s behavior.

Buried – Movie Review

Buried - Movie Poster

Paul Conroy (Ryan Reynolds) is a U.S. contractor based in Iraq. He wakes up and finds himself buried six-feet-under in a wooden crate, with nothing to soothe him except a phone that is set in a language he doesn’t understand and a zippo lighter that’s consuming the very air he’s breathing.

To say this movie is every claustrophobic’s worst nightmare is an understatement. The movie runs for over 90 minutes and features nothing but Paul Conroy inside his coffin. The only hint of an outside world comes in the form of many phone calls that are made, to help move the movie forward, and provide Paul Conroy with a way to seek salvation.

You cannot but draw similarities between this movie and 127 Hours. After all, they both rely heavily on one lead, the rest of the actors/characters being only very secondary to the overall picture. And similarly to 127 Hours, Buried features a very strong performance by Reynolds. I had no idea he had it in him, to be honest, after the series of romantic comedies he was in. However, to say that he comes within a remote distance of Franco’s epic performance in 127 Hours is a gross overstatement. If anything, Buried further cements the idea that not every actor/actress can handle this type of movies, which makes Franco’s feat even more impressive.

Buried is a movie that drags its main character to the depths of fear and despair and drags you down with him as well. And although it doesn’t rely on taking the settings of the movie outside the box it’s set in, the movie wouldn’t have gone anywhere except for the interactions between Paul Conroy and the people he calls, similarly to 127 Hours’ use of flashbacks and imaginative sequences. It is, however, an out-of-the-box movie, for all matters and purposes.

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