Lebanon: A State of Identityphobia

Over the course of this past weekend, I thought I was living – at least for a fleeting moment – in Ireland. The weather was sunny, albeit chilly. It was very green outside, ironically fitting for the occasion to be celebrated, and everyone was excited about St. Patrick’s Day. But then I realized that, contrary to the input I was getting from my senses, I was in fact thousands of kilometers away from Ireland, in a Middle Eastern country called Lebanon.

But this drift in my sensory perception had happened once before. Back in November, many of the Lebanese I knew were excited about Thanksgiving. What do they know about Thanksgiving? Not much, obviously. It was featured in some Hollywood movie and that was sufficient to make it important enough to be imported into their celebratory calendar. “Come join us for our Thanksgiving dinner! We sure got a lot to be thankful for.” The pilgrims and the natives of Lebanon would be very proud, I bet.

If God forbid you asked someone about their plans for Drunk Thursday, you get ridiculed. “You still celebrate that day! Man, it’s so passé!” Or if you ask someone about their plans for “A7ad el Marfa3” [Mardi Gras applies], the same answer follows. The Lebanese “version” of Thanksgiving and St. Patrick’s day has become beneath us, apparently.

Of the many things I do not understand about Lebanese society perhaps the following is the most puzzling. Why is it that we disregard the customs and traditions of our own culture and are so vehemently adopting the traditions of others?

I heard there’s a tomato festival in Spain that happens every year. Why does Madrid get to have all the fun? Beirut could use some non-clubbing entertainment as well!

There’s also this awesome Samba festival in Rio. Why not bring it here? Lebanese women can definitely shake their hips.

It seems that our fascination with Lebanon being the crossroads of many cultures has reached the next level. Instead of embracing the fact that years of our country being a fusion of cultures has led to one that is inherently our own, we’ve started to go on a collection frenzy of anything “hip” that we may find in other cultures and importing it. We’ve got a reputation to keep, after all. What good is a Lebanese “identity” without many non-Lebanese toppings added to it?

We, as a country, suffer from a case of identityphobia. We are so afraid of who we are that we search for anything that could fleetingly satisfy our need for firmness. And then our feet lose ground again before we find something else to cling to. We’re so afraid of our identity that we can rationalize the destruction of ancient monuments that have created who we are as Lebanese.

We are so afraid of our own identity that we also feel the need to become part of a grander scheme: are you Arab or non-Arab? No I’m Phoenician. No I’m Roman. No I’m Canaanite. No, I’m everything but simply Lebanese.

Today is St. Patrick’s Day. Who knows what celebration from which country will become in soon.

There’s nothing wrong with going out for drinks on a Saturday. There’s nothing wrong with having dinner with your family on a Thursday.

What’s wrong is going for drinks on a Saturday because it is St. Patrick’s day. What’s wrong is having dinner with your family on a Thursday because it’s Thanksgiving day.

What’s wrong is us being Ireland one day, the US another, then France, followed by Italy, maybe even Egypt sometimes. Perhaps the sign welcoming tourists to Lebanon outside Beirut’s airport shouldn’t read: Welcome to Lebanon. Maybe the appropriate description should have been: Welcome to the Fragmented Colors of Lebanon – we can offer you anything you want because we have no clue who we are.

Or this can be simply considered a melodramatic rant and St. Patrick’s Day celebrations took place because the clover was mistaken for a cedar. It happens you know.

11 thoughts on “Lebanon: A State of Identityphobia

  1. Pingback: The Angelina Jolie in Lebanon Effect « A Separate State of Mind | A Lebanese Blog

  2. Not a melodramatic rant, no. A decent enough argument that, unfortunately, doesn’t want to admit its real implication to itself. I will say that you put your finger on the crux of the issue well enough: “Why is it that we disregard the customs and traditions of our own culture and are so vehemently adopting the traditions of others?” However, I disagree that it is entirely down to Autophobia (fear of being oneself) and once we get over that we’ll be well on the way to recovery. It’s not that the Lebanese are afraid of being themselves, it’s that they don’t know who they are.

    We aren’t so much a melting-pot of different cultures. We’re a squabbling stew with each flavour trying to overpower the rest. I would say the only thing we have in common is a strict adherence to tradition, and treating everyone who has a different set of beliefs as Brabantio does Othello: “By all means sit at my table, oh paragon of humanity, but try to mix with my family and will have your head you filthy moor” (note that that was not intended as a slight against any religious group whatsoever).

    Those Lebanese who want to transcend this look around and see nothing they can emulate, nothing they can be proud of. We have the Phoenician culture, yes, but the political implications of being proud of that are, quite frankly, dangerous. We have all the wisdom brought to us by everything from fledgeling, to well established, Islamic empires, that we can claim, but instead we focus on current Arab pride. I don’t know about anyone else, but when I look around now, I don’t think the Arab world is something to be proud of right now. We are known for having the greatest ports in the world and fantastic thinkers, Gibran Khalil Gibran for example, but no one particularly outspoken right now.

    Right now we have no true national heroes. No one we can look up to and say: “yes that’s something I feel is worth fighting for.” We have cash and political scheming and a people who feel they can do nothing about that, but complain superficially. We have no real reason to celebrate our nation, plenty of religious or political holidays, but no holiday of true Lebanese pride. Even independence day is more political than it is national. We don’t even have a modern history we can agree on, because no one is willing to accept that everyone can be in the wrong sometimes – see the First World War as a prime example.

    Right now we are naturally selfish. Still the very image of hospitality to whomever we encounter, but playing a game of cloak-and-dagger so vicious it would put off the Lannisters (from Game of Thrones) within our own subcultures – to say nothing of the nightmare of politics. Financial success is the name of the game and anyone who thinks otherwise, or behaves honourably, ends up in the lower-middle of the pile at best – which is a better place to be than the top. For the most part, those who want to be something other than an Engineer or Businessman can clear out. No one is allowed to dream, at least, not really. And when no one is allowed to dream, the vast quantities of imagination that I’m assured (and can see for myself that) every Lebanese has is left to rot.

    So the Lebanese who wants to be free-thinking without condemning him or herself, and the country he or she lives in, has to find a way to shut out what’s going on, no matter how ineffective it may be. To that end we have our borrowed holidays. Things we aren’t exactly proud of, but that give us an excuse to celebrate, and forget, for a time at least, the mess we are in.

    In order to be afraid of our own identity, we need to establish, or reestablish, what, exactly, our identity is. Until then we cannot be said to be afraid of our identity, afraid of what it would mean to establish one, yes, but right now we don’t have anything like that to be afraid of.



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