As I was discussing relationships in Lebanon with some friends yesterday, the issue of inter-religious marriage came up, along with the whole debate surrounding civil marriage. While I don’t really want to go into that discussion here, it reminded me of an article published in An Nahar last year. As I’m useless at reading Arabic and decipher it like an 8-year old child, I read it in French in the Courrier International. Below is my own translation from French (you can read the Courrier version here), and I hope it doesn’t vary too much from the original Arabic editorial by Samir Atallah, who happens to be my father and my own personal source of tolerance and inclusion.
Rose and Othman: An Eternal Story by Samir Atallah (An-Nahar)
About 60 years ago, Rose Nasr asked for her mother’s blessing to marry Othman al-Zein. She got her mother’s blessing, on one condition, that she leave the neighbourhood for a while. Rose’s exile lasted barely a week, as she succumbed to the desire to see her mother. When she showed up with her husband, her mother held her and chastised her, saying: « Didn’t I tell you to disappear for a while? We have to seem as though we aren’t on speaking terms for a couple of weeks, for the benefit of our neighbours! ». This couple constituted of a Christian woman and a Sunni Muslim man was amongst the first mixed couples at that time.
Rose was a beautiful Beiruti and Othman had the elegance of an Ottoman aristocrat, with an elaborate moustache as was quite common in Saida at the time. Rose was my cousin, and her wedding had brought Sunnis into my family. I could even claim, jokingly, that I now had Shiite cousins, since Othman had some on his side of the family.
In Lebanon’s golden age, at the eve of its independence, it was possible for a family to have the good sense to counter the futile prejudice brought on by confessionalism. The country’s leaders at the time, Bechara El-Khoury and Riyad Al-Solh, were both patriots opposed to sectarianism. Nonetheless, in the context of our extended family, a few muffled voices still questioned the wisdom of such a union, and ultimately its possible longevity. During the civil war of 1958, Rose stood by my aunt, siding with Camille Chamoun, whereas Othman enthusiastically and unreservedly supported the opposition and the Nasserite revolution.
But the conflict took place in the street, and never crossed the threshold into their conjugal home. As the years passed, so did any doubts as to the viability of the couple. People stopped wondering how Rose would be treated by a Muslim man and the Nasserites had no doubt about the Christian woman’s dedication to the Arab face of her country. All that was left was a picture of happiness, tied together by the presence of a gentle and beautiful wife and mother. As time went by, I had to leave the country and I rarely had updates. But I continued to see in this couple a model for Lebanon, and I saw in it a constant hope. One day, I learnt through Shiite cousins in London, that Othman had been bedridden and sick and that Rose remained at his side to accompany him till the end.
Rose grew up in Beirut, in the Zkak El-Blat neighbourhood. This corner of the city in the 1940s looked like a ferry boat that had gathered passengers from all over. You could find a French family, side-by-side with a Beiruti merchant and his three veiled wives, their generous make-up barely visible through their blue silk scarves. And there was Abou Afif’s house, the first Shiite in the neighbourhood, driven to Beirut by the exodus from the countryside. There was also the Haddad residence, whose daughter would one day become the iconic voice of Lebanon. One day she decided to cross the street and go into the offices of the radio station, and ask if they needed a choir member.
It was a strange place, this quarter of old Beirut where the rural, the urban and the foreign lived together. It welcomed Sunnis and Shiites in a neighbourhood where half the population was Christian. Thanks to these scenes of harmony, thanks to my aunt, I grew up with the idea that the limitations of religion and identity were slowly disappearing. But as I grew older, my optimism and my self-delusion disappeared.
Then, last week, as I was at Madrid airport waiting for a flight to Tangiers, my telephone rang. It was Bassel, Rose and Othman’s son, announcing the passing of his mother. I offered my condolences, and hung up. I was submerged in a wave of sadness, but also struck by a question that had been in the back of my mind for sixty years. I had always wondered, but never broached this now inevitable question. Where would the funeral take place? I called Bassel back to find out. He sounded almost irritated I felt the need to ask: « At the Saint-Elie church, obviously! What else would you expect from my family? »