Even though everyone told me that Beirut was the most unique and progressive city in the region and the “Paris of the Middle East” (and here I have even heard the “Prostitute of the Middle East”) I still could never have imagined that this would be one of the most oddly liberal cities I have ever visited.
While many people here distort what they think is “progressive” into an obsession with consumerism, in hopes of becoming something they are not (trying to become American/European), and thus disregarding all tradition and heritage, I am quite lucky (thanks to a dear friend of mine) to have seamlessly slid myself into a group of friends who have somehow managed to maintain a sense of respect for themselves and their culture while embracing the 21st century world we live in and everything that comes with our generation.
This unique group of friends, although all University graduates (mostly AUB), come from an array of backgrounds, sexual orientations and religions. Druze, Christian, Sunni, Shia. Although I realize it is not that common for a group of people with such different lifestyles to be such good friends (thus the group as an entity is not the norm) I have found it fascinating to see each individual’s opinion on social and spiritual issues molded by their family and their university environment.
First of all, while playing Truth-Or-Dare, I would never have guessed how open my Lebanese friends were in divulging details about their intimate lives. I learned things about these new friends that even my best friends in the U.S. would never speak of. What does this say about Lebanon and what does this say about the U.S.? Before, I had an American media-skewed mind that gave me a blanketed picture of Arab countries as being sanctuaries of modesty and sexual repression but, after playing Truth-or-Dare for hours I began to wonder if people in the U.S. are actually the ones being subconsciously brainwashed into some sort of Protestant ideal. Maybe the oxygen of our thoughts is being removed without us knowing it because we live under the (false?) pretext of residing in the freest country. Thus, since we really do believe in our socially superior position in the world we have become idle in questioning the status quo.
While the majority of my friends in the States and I have similar views on social topics, such as abortion, immigration policy and the death penalty, I have found it so wonderful that this group of friends in Lebanon have a wide range of ideas and opinions in regards to these often unspoken topics and are not afraid to share their thoughts. Last night, at an Iftar (breaking of the Ramadan fast) in the Bekaa Valley, we went around the room and voiced how we would change the world if we were a dictator. Gay rights, chocolate mountains and Shakira came up, as did the death penalty. And so the debate began. There were two main separations at the table: those that believe that there should be capital punishment and those that are against it. What was most fascinating was to see the reasoning behind each person’s stance. It was beautiful to see how even though people’s voices would rise, hands would fly and stark differences would be revealed, at the end of the day we were all the best of friends and it did not matter that we had just been at each other’s throats in talking about issues we really care about. I am embarrassed to say that I have never had a close friendship with someone that thought so differently than I on social issues. That this group of friends is so comfortable with each other to be themselves further increases my extremely high regard for them all.
When the topic of abortion came up the fire was lit again, but this time I would say there was more agreement in the group and I was the odd one out. The general opinion was that abortion should be legal and allowed in cases of rape and incest but that it was an over-used form of contraception. While abortion here is formally illegal it is widely practiced. I continued to staunchly support the right of choice and it was interesting how, as per usual, the men had a stronger opinion on abortion than the women (I am still confused about why, no matter which country, men seem to care SO much). One of the arguments against abortion was “Why kill babies when so many people who want children cannot have babies, i.e. gay couples.” My response: “Orphanages are spilling over with kids and the world is over-populated for God’s sake!” While others, who do not support the death penalty, stated that aborting a fetus is killing a life. Opinions on abortion also depended on religious upbringing and, according to their certain book and belief, the time at which the soul enters the body. For example, the Druze believe the soul enters the body upon birth.
Honestly, I have had the most interesting conversations in this country and it never ceases to amaze me how similar we all are.