Strolling down avenue de Palavas on a lazy Sunday afternoon, my husband and I, and our two boys, the air was brisk but the sun shone through softening the crispiness of the famous South wind. We kept to the wide concrete sidewalk to avoid the wet sand from the beach. We were discussing some random subject, speaking all at once of course. Our hands were all covered with the cinnamon sugar that stout lady just dropped the hot churros in, and now we were munching on. The smell of crepes and gauffres mixed with sea salt and sand in the air. A little side street appears to our right. At the far end of it, sat a small church a few meters wide, with a beautiful glass medallion in its center. It was in the midst of a tiny roundabout, surrounded by one story houses-turned shops for the summer tourists. The place was empty, summer is far today.
My little boy, 6 years old, asks to go in, he has some business to do, he lets me know. I follow him, amused. Intrigued, with a hint of worry if I am honest. We go up to the altar, he points to a seat way up front, and asks me to sit there and time him exactly 2 mins. I comply. He puts his tiny, sticky fingers together and prays, for 2 mins. We leave the church. As soon as we step back into the white outside, I ask him the question, “Do you believe in God?” “Well, mom,” he says, “I thought since we’re here, you never know.” I restrain myself painfully from laughing, I think I managed it, and even mustered a follow-up question “What did you pray for, honey?” “I prayed to no longer have nightmares, nor dreams. I don’t want dreams even, I just want peace.” My heart, my soul, my beautiful son. I let him have his 2 pious minutes, if it comforts him. As long as he knows its bullshit.
Let me warn you, the reader. I will be saying the R word shortly, don’t let it scare you away. I do not intend to preach neither for nor against. I will attempt to explain my relationship with R through my experience. R is for Religion. Stay, please.
I have a complicated relationship with religion, specifically monotheistic ones, because they are the ones I am exposed to the most. But really, any belief in some deity or sacred abstract thing just, well, repulses me. It may be a knee-jerk reaction to what I witnessed growing up in Beirut and Lebanon but with time it has grown deeper and taken root, it puts me in a state I call, rationally enraged. I don’t dislike the idea of religion in and of itself, I see the point of it. I can understand why people need a god in their life. Let me demonstrate my goodwill: when a beautiful new born baby died in my family for genetic-related defects, I was devastated. I cried so long and so profoudly, that when a few months later my dear grandpa died, I could not cry. I could not let myself drown in that sadness again. My cousin, who is a deep believer in God, looked at me bawling over the baby’s death and told me: “Don’t be sad, that life was all that was written for him. He is a bird in heaven now.”
He was just as sad for the baby’s death, but he had accepted it. I wanted to scream at him: “No you stupid bird brained simpleton bastard fuck, he is just worm food now! He never got to know his parents, nor will his parents ever know him. And he had to suffer before dying. How do you explain that? What is the wisdom God wanted to bestow upon us with this baby’s suffering? WHY?” But I didn’t, what would be the point? I let it eat at me and kept it, the thought, nice and cozy inside me.
In Lebanon, we have 18 different religious sects, I think. You cannot avoid being in a religion. You are born into it, you simply inherit that on your paternal side, cos your mom only counts as half a man — but that’s another story. Exceptions happen, of course, but usually because inheritance laws are more favorable for a particular composition of family. And the system is such that you cannot eschew it. Marriage, divorce, inheritance, all personal matters must be dictated by your religion. There is no common, civil, court in Lebanon to treat all Lebanese equally in those matters. You are obligated to pass by your sect’s court. No not religious court, that would be too easy, it’s more granular, by sect. If you and your husband or wife to be are of different sects, you must choose one and outright reject the other — which, you can imagine, may be difficult for some people like my religious cousin here. So, many people stick to marrying people from their sects. It’s just easier administratively, goes the adage. Your religion and sect are right there on your national ID card — whether you adhere or not.
Very recently, people have been striking it out choosing to keep it private. I bow to these people. Perhaps you’re thinking we’re a backward bunch, still believing in ridiculous god stories. Or perhaps you think good for them, religion is important for society. Either way, let me tell you why we’re so attached to our sects. Gerrymandering. It’s our version for securing elections. That’s right. That’s the real reason. Yea, you thought your politicians were a nasty bunch, chez nous, the nastiness emanating from politicians has seeped into the ordinary citizen and the educated intellectual alike. This is what feeds my rational rage, people know this, it’s an open secret. Yet, rare are those that revolt against this system. Rare are those who strike out their sect from their IDs. Even rarer are those that go through the hassle of getting married in a civil court in Lebanon, because the law actually permits it. Its just hell on earth administratively. There are 3 couples, I believe who’ve done it in a Lebanese civil court. Of course, there are thousands who’ve married in civil courts outside Lebanon, like Cyprus or Turkey.
Most people adhere to the system, and downright defend it. They feel safe within their sect. There is a very mistaken sense of control. Since, sect leaders are there for life, it “suffices” to know them personally (six degrees of separation in tiny Lebanon works wonders) to get your issues advanced. If a government was to take hold of all that, you would need to wait your turn like everyone else. People think it’s a kind of power they have. Where in fact, it’s a fear tactic used to scare people from the “other” which is really, them! And so the status quo perpetuates. Everyone knows this, no one is duped. Still, it persists.
And yet, when I’m asked what religion I am — they are really asking what religion I was born into — I feel I want to say all of them, specifically a Lebanese version of all of them. I could not care less for the sanctity of religion, but I find it of primordial importance in historical context. It is fascinating to me to understand how religion came about, how it transformed the political field and the culture it flourished in. But also how it decimated the belief system before it. Today, it is a set of customs and traditions that add texture reassuringly repeating itself across society. In a cultural context, religion makes sense. It is part of your identity, your culture, I do not see it as excluding the “other” in any way, I see it as richness — the spices to food. As long as you don’t shove those dry spices down my throat.
But how to go about this subject with my kids? I grew up rebelling against the dogmatic way we were taught religion, so I do not want to go ahead and do the same to my kids, neither for nor against. I think, as adults, they should see for themselves and decide what would be good for them, but I will insist they know where they came from, their history. History, should be on a par with math and science. It’s a shame it’s relegated to a tenth of your overall average at school.
My older son, who strikes me as a deep thinker … he can say the most absurd thing a 9 year old can muster, then turn around and say the deepest most insightful comment. He figured the subject of religion is no simple matter to me, and challenges my ideas regularly … I think he hasn’t made up his mind yet as to which religion he wants to adhere to, if any. He has time, me thinks. Currently, he is into Greek mythology and just lately, ancient Egyptian mythology. He believes it’s absurd to think one God has all the powers, that isn’t ‘just’ — I think he is confounding deity with superheroes. He will probably evolve into comprehending why one God is maybe better than a collection of them, or maybe not! It will exciting to witness.
My younger son, 6, is a different story. He isn’t one to fret about what others think. He has his own elaborate agenda, one that I feel is as self centered as a smart 6 year old can be. He needs help in ridding himself of bad dreams, of dreams altogether, and someone told him there is this God concept. He will use it, we never know, it may just work! Right?