Delhi’s Lebanon

I was still not ready then, strapped in the seat of the plane plunged through light clouds on approach to Delhi airport. The plane landed and passenger’s seat belt clutched open. A soft music began to flow, it never stopped to bring shudders piercing right through memories of the last few days I had spent in Mumbai, and those days waiting impatiently in Paris. It was the latest of Kailash Kher’s sufi song, Teri Diwani (Yours crazily).  At that point I was no one’s crazily. I did not comprehend any of the words or meanings of the song, nor did I bother looking it up as it might have evoked a different feeling.

“preet ki lath mohe aaisi laagi…ho gayi main matwaali…bal bal jaaun apane piya ko…ke main jaaun vaari vaari”

On arrival, the density of the air overwhelmed me. I moved further in the humid corridors and there it was, the scent of India, or more like the scent of Delhi, spiced up heat style. At the border check, the Indian does not bother to look at me as he does the necessary passport check. Every move and attitude is identical to his counterpart. Surely, a country of 1.2 billion can’t afford to feel sorry for the downtrodden or to see oneself muchly as the centre of attention, unless you make it to med school or any of the IITs.

I DID wonder if I would be able to handle the environment. First, Lebanon is a country of 4.5 million people who are pretty much interested in the same things, not as diverse culturally but very rigid with its traditions.

The taxi ride came along with my host from Kolkata. At first meeting, we met with formal greetings and I was at my most uncomfortable state over thinking my posture, my words, every question with the most intensely embellished, intellectually analysed response.
What’s Lebanon like, is it based on agriculture? Well with Lebanon’s constant political turmoil, none of the nouveau rich or educated pupils know what it is based on, and neither did I, but I had a diverting answer:

” Lebanon is more based on the patron- clientalist system, You have the patrons known as the ‘Zaims’ of a specific group of people known as his clients. It is composed of what we call, a confessional system with the distribution of three main sects from the Lebanese community, the Maronites, Muslims of both Shiaa and Sunni sects,  to represent the government, an allegedly successful power sharing technique to catalyse Lebanon’s divided society.”

I recommended some books to complete the picture of Lebanon being not only a new state but also a fragile one. Its history contested. So I continued to polish the specificity of such a small country which has topped the New York Times number 1 tourist destinations for 2009.

” Lebanon’s vision of itself is false, a mask to deceive oneself of being something one is not.”

So I advised my host that if she is to come visit Lebanon she should not swallow the whole, ‘ We are descendants of Phoenicians and therefore ‘ non Arab’ definition of being Lebanese . For one any person who reads history, especially history specific to the creation of  “Lebanon” would be logical enough to realise that this highly famous claim does not hold any substance in historical perspective.  For Phoenicians were coastal maritime people who dominated the region from Coastal Syria, Palestine to Lebanon and therefore cannot be specific to the Lebanese.

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Recollections on Sexuality and Marriage

The first time that I understood the social condition of being Arab and Muslim,  was when I was 15, sitting at a dinner table with a close friend of mine. Her older sister asked her father if there was anything that could deter their relationship and he answered confidently:

‘ I can take anything but you marrying a non Muslim.’

The daughter did not debate with her father. In fact it was self evident that a Muslim practicing woman with a traditional religious family is not to marry a non Muslim man. There is no debating unless he converts.

So I went back home and I asked my father out of curiosity what his position was on the matter. Of course any talk on boys was taboo so we lived in silence as though the opposite sex was non existent . That is not to say that all Arabs are like this, but at least the relationship I had with my father was ‘ lets not talk about the serious things, they are too serious and I would not be able to handle that level of responsibility if the consequences led to serious matters.’ I did seem to forget that my case was specific, I had lost my mother before I had reached puberty and learnt that fathers were not quite good at these things, at least my Oriental father wasn’t.

‘Baba, I don’t want you to think I am asking you this because I am interested in someone but I am just wondering what your position is on marriage.’

His eyes were glued to the television, he murmured to himself.. tsk tsk tsk another assault fee Ghazat (In Gaza), maybe that wasn’t the appropriate time but then again waiting for that appropriate time was impossible, everyday something new sparked in the Middle East, it kept everyone busy, rather than having to divert awkward silence to weather talks, we would debate endlessly about  a revolution here, a hunger strike there, an assault here, a random bomb there. He looked at me confused, I wasn’t sure if he was sarcastic, but his tone was definitely serious:

‘ Even if you marry a Jew, I am fine with it as long as he is a good man and gives you a proper dowry.’

I would not expect such a response from my father who not to mention had just been enraged by Israel’s assault on Gaza, who a couple of days ago could not comprehend my interest in South Asia, specifically India, who throughout my teenage years could not stand my friendships with the opposite sex, not to mention  having any relations towards the opposite sex.

A couple of days back, I was with a close friend of mine from Egypt. We went to the same IB school. It was the first time we had left home, by the end of our formative years.  We met again and he admitted  that he is gay. This was a friend that use to pray and fast with me throughout our two IB years. Having left Egypt, he was not comfortable with sharing such a private and ‘taboo’ aspect of his life. Somehow, I asked him about his childhood and when he had found out that he was gay.

His first recollection was his father always warning him against girls. Any touch, or communication was wrong and discouraged. It was made to be feared to the extent of being sinful. He told me with hesitation and shame that he became afraid of women and unable to speak to them.

‘ When I was around 6, I hit a girl at school and my dad punished me very fiercely. He pointed out that I should never touch a girl, not that it was wrong to hit her but he stressed on the touch that was sinful. He gave no explanation.’

‘ During those years I use to have a best friend, she was a girl. I can say I was always in love with her. I use to go to her house and her mother use to give us private tutoring. By the age of 13, I wasn’t allowed to be friends with her anymore. My mother told me that it was wrong. I was in love with her still.

His second recollection was of his closest male friend who he spent most of his time with throughout his adolescence.

‘We use to play around and you know at that age when you’ve reached puberty and you start exploring things, thats how it happened between us.’

I am no psychoanalyst but I became fixated on his first recollection that could have nurtured his sexuality. Even now when we spend time, he expresses his desire to try being with a woman but that he is afraid of them somehow.

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Observations in India – shade(s) of pride

The journey was long, too long. I caught the Eurostar to London and from London to Mumbai…  This is simply due to the fact that tickets from London to India and back are quiet cheap, especially if you’re a student and can benefit from STA travel

I never expected the airport to be the first lesson on India’s post Mumbai 2008 attacks experience. At the border control, I was interrogated unnecessarily about my trip:

‘ What was  my address? With whom was I staying? Males, females? how many persons per room?’ Having answered all the questions, the border controller seemed still unsatisfied, he stared at me with suspicion, it made me think of what stereotypical Muslim / Arab men with long beards have to go through: ‘ Please write down the number of your friend. Call them now.’

This purely reminded me of relation dynamics of the victim victimiser cycle that I observed in Paris even though it is quite different in India. Indeed the British raj left not long back (1947) and since, India has tremendously managed to form an integrating Federal state with the diversity of over 1.6 billion people with 179 languages and 544 dialects successfully merging. Bouts of social tension due to the colonial legacy  cannot be directly observed but the diverging attitudes of foreigners and Indians reflects a stratified space that subconsciously lays a defence mechanism towards the other. Of course, Orientalism is a two way process, the West did not solely construct India and neither were Indians passive recipients.

I am white and throughout my journey, it was evident that despite the lack of bad intentions and being opposed to white supremacy, the white folks did display an air of ascendancy in the way they would carry themselves on the streets –  even though they were not necessarily aware of it themselves.

For a Westerner, dress code is not necessarily a sign of ascendancy. Thinking in Western terms, it isn’t. But thinking of the West in relation to India, looking at the living standards, looking at people’s values, the kind of social atmosphere one encompasses, to me at least, it seemed strange to walk around with a hat, glasses, and mini skirts.

I picked up my shades on the first or second day, not having observed my surroundings. In fact as I got use to leading a Western lifestyle, I stopped thinking of small details that traveling back home in the Middle East or around South Asia, could be noticed and judged as inconsiderate.

‘ You’re not going to seriously wear those shades are you?’

My friend laughed and pointed out that only Westerners wear shades and hats-

‘You can spot them kilometers away in an auto…’

When we got out, I couldn’t believe that most foreigners were confirming that stereotype. They were either wearing shades, hats, holding a water bottle, or looking completely baffled…

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India on my mind…

‘ Vous Voyager en Inde?’ the question sounded more like an interrogation.

This does not come only from my landlady owning what the French call ‘ Un Hotel particulier’ in one of the most luxurious parts of Paris, but also from my family back in the Arab land. When  India comes, so does a set of generalisations and extreme stereotypes…

On the phone with dad:

” Dad, Im going to India, I got accepted and will be flying over to New Delhi with a group of students…” He interrupted thinking he proably misheard: ” Shoo India?

“Yes dad el Hind, India…”

“You gone crazy? What’s in India? People are flying out of India, what would a girl with your opportunities do in India?”

This reaction is the norm. No one in my family could understand why I would go to India. In fact, most indians work in the UAE as taxi drivers and despite any efforts to drive rhetoric to reality, in implementation we tend to fail, and in words (only),to excel. In fact, the Middle Eastern perspective of Indians is far from the high- tech enterpreneurs driven, knowledge intensive based manufacturing… Indians, Pakistanis, or Sri-lankans, South Asian countries all come packed working for us.

Visiting Docteur Jean-Jaques Russeaux – Paris:

Donc, vous voyager en Inde?” I could not comprehend the famed response to a statement confirming my trip to India.


” I will have to give you tablets for Malaria, many patients are falling ill, you cannot eat any vegetables, always make sure you open your bottles, take nothing that’s been opened for you, make sure everything has been cooked properly…”

My landlady – One day before departure:

” So you’re going to India?”

” Yes, tomorrow morning.”

” Did you buy Ercefuryl? make sure you take two tablets a day, night and morning, it will prevent any infections. You never know what you might catch from food out there. Their culture is very bizarre, 5o years ago when i went for a visit with my mother, we stayed with ‘Les Brahmanes’ they would not eat anything we touched – (the french have a habit of strictly smiling and throwing their arms in the air, articulating every word like the whole would not suffice without stressing every letter and leaving out the rest… )- they claimed they couldnt eat anything that we touched, being non Brahman we were ‘unpure’… Humph.”

For three days, I was having horrible pains in my abdomen and so I bought all those recommended pills… Of course after everything I heard, I could not help but dread my first impression. People would throw comments like ‘ Everyone has either been changed, shocked, or disillusioned in India..’ ‘ You will get shocked from the dirt…’ ‘ You will see the extreme poverty, people walking around dead babies…’

I did get to India but I could not agree with any pre-departure comments…. what I did find, is the pluralism of people and merging experiences, the multi dynamics of a developing country, that, with its complex history, has harmonised despite the hindrances of its social structure… a success in merging such different communities,
What I did find, is the invisible scent of belonging in food and heat… The dialectics of a strenuous past clashing with the rapid demands for modernisation … it is indeed a land of contradictions –

There is something in the air… and I wont be able to put that down… yet

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