Saturday, December 25, 2010

Christmas in Beirut

My Christmas Eve started around, well, about five o’clock when I went out to snap some photos around Hamra in dusk beneath the flutter of the bats of Beirut. The capitalist presence of Christmas is alive and well in Beirut. The spiritual Christmas? Not so much.

I ventured to downtown around 8pm, walking the half hour from Hamra so I could look at the Christmas lights along the way. There weren’t too many to see. I was a sight myself, for I was walking. No one walks anywhere in Beirut. They complain for hours on end about the traffic but heaven forbid anyone gets out of his car and walks anywhere. I took the long way, cutting down to St. George’s Marina where Prime Minister Hariri was killed five years ago in a car bomb. The “Stop Solidare” sign was back up on the bombed out St. George’s Hotel. (Solidare is Hariri's company that rebuilt downtown after the war. The protest is a result of the destruction of many old buildings and the development of the coast, which is cutting the people off from the sea, among other reasons.) The sea was darker than the night; it was as if I walked along the edge of the world. Even the Christmas lights the city had strung up along the road weren’t enough to escape the feeling of darkness.

Downtown was bright, though. It was bright thanks to Beirut Souks, the shopping center that seemingly is the only thing in existence downtown, the thing rebuilt by Solidare. Someone had made the bombed out building at the westernmost edge of the souks beautiful with lights and Christmas trees in every window. A thinking person couldn’t escape the bullet holes, however. They had tried to mask the destruction with Christmas but the bullet holes were still there, turning green and purple and blue and red while the people beneath them drank coffee and smoked and talked about trivial things.

The lights were plenty but there was no Christmas spirit, not the kind of magic you feel when there is snow on the ground and you're gathering in warm houses with fireplaces and stuffing yourself full of food and eggnog. There's something about palm trees and sixty degrees that makes a fat guy in a thick red coat a little out of place. I walked around the corner by ancient mosques and the Roman archaeological site beneath the souks and the glitter of stores selling nothing necessary and the people that made Christmas seem like a carnival.

Before I reached the church, I wandered passed Martyr’s Square that had once been a beautiful space full of trees and people and now it is just a parking lot and rubble. Some of the rubble is Roman, uncovered by bombs during the war after everything on top was destroyed. The stones had sat for a thousand years but now they seem as uninteresting as cinder blocks. A Christmas tree stood on the square, surrounded by hijab clad women and jabbering men fresh out of the Hariri mosque, wielding cameras and arousing a clamor as if they were participating in some sort of pagan ceremony around the pagan tree. The traffic was thick and even more unruly than usual. Car horns and Arabic music blasted into the night beneath random displays of fireworks. A parade with three floats full of Santas blocked up traffic. It felt more like Mardi Gras than Christmas.

St. George’s – the largest of the Maronite churches in Beirut – didn’t open its doors until 10pm. I had an hour to kill so I stopped in for an apple pie latte at Costa. (It was disgusting.) St. George’s is building a massive bell tower – presumably because the massive Hariri mosque next door makes the church look like a chapel in comparison and the Maronites feel insecure about it. (Maronite insecurity about their minority status is the source of a heckuva lot of political tension and conflict in Lebanon.)

When the church doors opened I went inside expecting to see something beautiful like the Lebanese version of the Vatican or something, but I was forgetting that the church had been on the front line of a 15 year war. If you really looked you could see patch marks from bullet holes, but the restoration folks did a pretty good job of hiding the war, though the stainglass windows looked like they had been made in haste, as they lack the adornment and color characteristic of older churches. The inside of the church is something resembling a European palace – French, Italian, I couldn’t say – but it didn’t look like Western churches. It was all rather square aside from the nave, which is divided into three rounded sections like Orthodox churches. On the left side was a painting of Mary and on the right was Jesus, while in the middle were four saints holding scrolls – I can only assume they were the gospel “writers.” Then in the very center of the church was a painting of St. George slaying the dragon just like in the Orthodox churches. Silly Christians, there’s no such thing as dragons. St. George must have been reading too much Harry Potter.

But the mass itself followed Catholic liturgy to a T. It didn’t matter that it was all in Arabic – I understood everything that was going on. It was fun to hear the Apostle’s Creed and Our Father and even though I didn’t know the words, I knew exactly what they were saying. Amen is pronounced “all meen” and peace be with you is salam alakum and when the priest in his red and gold priestly robes and his pointed hat said peace be with you, I smiled when the response was “wa maka idhen” because I knew that was what the response would be. That’s the cool thing about Catholicism – it doesn’t matter where on earth you go – the mass is exactly the same and you don’t even need to understand all of the words to understand what is going on.

But the people in the church…well, I have never seen such disrespect in a church. I arrived two hours before mass began because I 1) wanted to get a seat and in the US midnight mass is always full, 2) wanted to have time to look around the church since I’d never been in, and 3) wanted to watch the people. The first people to arrive were many Filipinos who sat in the last three rows. I thought how sad it was that they felt the need to sit in the back. After about a half hour, they all disappeared. They didn’t even stay for the mass, and I wondered if their Lebanese employers dictated that they had to be home at a certain hour.

At 11pm people began to trickle in, and at 11:30 the choir started for real, but they didn’t sing any Christmas songs I knew. In fact some of the songs they sang were rather scary and sounded like they were meant for a funeral rather than the birth of someone who is supposed to save them from their own destruction. (Maybe it’s because they haven’t been saved from their own destruction…)

It was like musical chairs as the people came in. Everyone kept changing their seats, and it never really stopped throughout the mass. Many of them had never been in the church before, for they looked around and snapped pictures even though the sign said it was not allowed. Then a group of four Muslim women and a man walked in, snapping photos and laughing and generally being disrespectful. I guess it didn’t matter much because no one in the church was praying or reflecting. All we needed was some coffee and we could have been in a café with all the talking and socializing. Throughout the entire mass people got up and moved around and a quarter of them didn’t even stay until communion, and only half got up to take communion.

This is a country with 18 official religions, but just one mass said a lot to me. Religion to the Lebanese has nothing to do with a soul or spirituality. It is an identity, a tribe, something you are born with and have no responsibility to think about. Then again, that’s true with most religious people anywhere. People just say the creed because they were told to say it when they were children. They “believe” something because they are told to believe it. They are Catholic or Protestant or Sunni or Shia because they were born in a place and to a family that is Catholic or Protestant or Sunni or Shia.

I walked back from the church downtown and went to Amigo’s. After he closed we went to another place where the people were dancing debka, and I felt jealous because they were young people who were dancing a cultural dance and in America what people call dancing is just jumping up and down. About the only people in America that have anything like that are the bluegrass folks and square dancing. There’s also country line dancing but that feels mechanical and lacks life. The people in the bar were singing the songs like you would find happening in an Irish pub or a Greek Taverna or an Italian whatever it’s called in Italian, but the only time people sing songs in a bar in America is when drunk college kids sing Don’t Stop Believing or Living on a Prayer.

The spirituality that is lacking in Lebanese religious life can certainly be found in the debka and the old Arabic songs and the appreciation for music and culture. It was a pretty great Christmas.

(The only Christmas music I have on my computer are the U2-related ones in the video. I never ripped the Christmas music because when I'm listening to music on shuffle in July, I don't want to hear Mitch Miller and the Gang singing Jingle Bells.) By the way, internet in Lebanon is so slow that it took me AN HOUR to load this video!!!!!!!!!


  1. Hi Cathie. I enjoyed Christmas in Beruit and your message HI Grandma!
    only wish you were with us here tonight. Call me. Love you,

  2. You sound like a fucking idiot who has never been to the Middle East before let alone outside the U.S. Who are you to say off one stupid little trip to Beirut that the Lebanese have no spirituality? Uh, maybe live somewhere for at least a year before you start in with your stupid, American-centric generalizations?

  3. Enjoyed the little video , but this is nowhere to the good old days of Beirut before the war . Those days have gone for ever .

    But why did you have to add this stupid music that has nothing to do with Christmas in Beirut , you could have added local Christmas songs from the various rites present in Lebanon .

    You made a reference to the Marthyr square , you should have seen it when it was called al Bourj or Canon square ( Place des Canons) , so much lively , today it's a symbol of the Beirut we lost .

  4. "Snow only in the mountains"?
    What did you expect? This is a mediterranean country...