It was one of those things you think but don’t want to say. In the horror of the carnage in Paris and the world’s reaction, it struck me how very little had been said about the terrorist attack in Beirut the day before…or the attack on a funeral in Baghdad…or so much of the other violence that shakes the world. And I felt like I couldn’t say it for fear of looking like I was somehow diminishing the horror or pain of Paris, afraid it could been seen as a lack of respect and understanding. But I wondered. And now so many people are indeed raising such questions, and others are also reacting to such questions, calling them an appalling lack of sympathy…and things have at times spiraled down to a repulsive debate of numbers and geography, rather than of lives and humanity.
When I was young, it was the last hurrah of Lebanon’s golden era when people still referred to it as the “Switzerland of the East” and the wealthy went there to bask on the beach in the morning and ski on its snow-capped mountains in the afternoon. It was the land of poets and artists, and welcomed refugees and visitors equally.
I remember all the Lebanese women with my mother at fundraisers for the Palestinian refugees. We were all kinds of Christians, Muslims, Druze and even a lone family of Lebanese-Jews who ran a shop in our neighborhood. We were just “us”, the Lebanese diaspora, the children of the Phoenicians. And if you were Syrian or Egyptian, that didn’t matter, then we simply enlarged our self-definition to being Middle Easterners. And if you were anything else, then we were “the melting pot” and loved to learn from you.
But so much interference in the internal workings of the country, so much pushing and shoving, dangling of carrots by different powers and religious groups, and finally civil war exploded in Lebanon. What we had known suddenly disappeared. There were a myriad of political parties I couldn’t keep up with, weekly fundraisers for dozens of necessary causes, a flood of refugees, some legal, some not. It should have brought us together, made us one in the struggle for peace and justice. But it didn’t.
I remember vividly the look of joy on the face of complete strangers if they heard my family speak a bit of Arabic. There would be warm introductions and everyone wanted to know everyone. Suddenly it was different. I would say something in Arabic, and the other person would immediately ask “Muslim?” I remember once in my old neighborhood I went into an Arabic music store and was taken by the album playing. Great music, but the dialect threw me a bit. I cheerfully greeted the young man behind the counter with a wish for a morning filled with goodness. He gave me an annoyed look and pointed to the veiled young woman. When he walked away the woman leaned over and whispered in Arabic, “Don’t mind my brother. It’s clear from the way you greeted him that you’re not Muslim.”
I remember in Algeria when I used the traditional Muslim greeting of peace in the market place and the stall-keeper rudely told me I had no right to say such a thing because he knew I wasn’t Muslim. To my delight, an elderly gentleman in traditional dress got angry and shouted at him, “And what should he do, wish you war and trouble instead?” He went on to greet me with great poetry and many warm blessings. Touched, I kissed him the way one kisses his favorite uncle and a few of the women, all wrapped in the white haiks of western Algeria, applauded and blessed God. This, I thought, is what family is, this is how we will conquer the darkness.
We have become our own worst enemy. Whenever we separate the world into “them” and “us”, whenever we accept blind generalizations and cease to see a unique individual before us, whenever we forget we are all victims of carefully orchestrated deceit and deception for wealth and power, the force of darkness wins. Bullets will never win this struggle, only the heart and mind will. I know political scientists and analysts can tear my thoughts to shreds. I do not claim an intellectual understanding…I am only sharing a broken heart that grieves.
A young Melchite priest once told me a story from his village in Lebanon during the war. There was intense shelling and sniper fire for almost three days. After it stopped, people went out to gather up the dead. An old man went to the church and asked the priest to offer two masses. The priest took his pen and book and asked the man to continue. The first mass, he said, was for his son whom they found shot to death in the orchard by their house. And the second mass was for the person who shot him. Startled, the young priest looked at the old man with amazement. The old man explained the obvious saying “What have we done that people can pick up weapons and kill strangers without? What have we done that some poor fellow can kill my son without feeling it? We must pray for him, and ask God’s forgiveness.” When I remember that story, after all these years, I still cry.
– Daniel S. Sormani, C.S.Sp.
© 2015, essay and family photograph, Daniel S. Sormani C.S. Sp., All rights reserved