Weekend escapes are a somewhat of a vacation oddity. You don’t really feel like you’ve taken time off anything, because it’s the weekend anyway, yet you feel invigorated by the feeling of discovering a city in two short days.
There’s something ephemeral and almost hypnotic about it. You don’t even realize you’re in a new city; your mind doesn’t process your short trip to somewhere new. The sights and sounds seem oddly familiar and alien at the same time. They feel mundane because you were sitting at home just hours ago, but in truth they are anything but. You’re in a trance, being pushed along by throngs of tourists in a similar state. And you start tp go through the motions of visiting the city.
By the time it sinks in that you’re somewhere new and wonderful, it’s Sunday afternoon and it’s time to head home. It happens just as you’re getting your bearings in the city. You’ve figured out the Metro map. You’ve chosen a favorite restaurant, a favorite bar. You’ve picked up a couple of unpronounceable words that can make a local cringe or laugh with you. But it’s time to check out of the hotel, and drag yourself to the airport.
You get that sinking feeling as you approach your gate. Just as landing in a foreign airport for the first time is the closest we can get to rekindling our childlike wonder in our adult lives, the departure gate on your back is probably the starkest reminder available of your adult responsibilities and constraints.
That’s more or less the feeling I’ve always gotten coming back from a weekend, wherever I’m based. Heading back to Beirut, there’s an added level of frustration. Dozens of people who’ve been acting in a perfectly civil manner for the last few days, suddenly revert to their basest instincts. As if to satisfy every cliché, they start trying to queue-jump, they want preferential treatment from staff. “Who’s flying the plane today, is it Zouzou? Tell him it’s Fadi, he loves me. I want to sit in First Class and harass the stewardess for whisky for the next 2 hours. Don’t you know who I am?”
As I flew back from Istanbul on Sunday, after one of the most eye-opening, interesting and fun weekends I’ve had for a while, I had a bemused look on my face as I observed everyone’s slow relapse into a Lebanese state of mind. Once on the plane, things got a little nastier. About 20% of the passengers decided they didn’t like their seats and caused a commotion. Typical situation on a Middle East Airlines flight, right? 300 people want an exit seat and everyone feels entitled to sit next to their 20 friends. But then one man’s request to change seats caught my attention.
It was my girlfriend who pointed him out. There was something odd about the way he stormed away from his seat in disgust. I couldn’t quite figure out what was wrong. Then my girlfriend pointed it out to me: “I’m sure he’s asking to be moved because he’s sitting next to a black man”. I told her that was ridiculous and that can’t possibly be the case. It’s 2011. We’re on a plane on the European continent. Surely no one can possibly be so vile.
Then, to our amazement and shock, the stewardesses asked the black man to move. That’s right, they didn’t reprimand the repugnant Lebanese man for his shocking behavior, they acquiesced to it. They moved a man from his seat to satisfy someone’s bigotry. At first we decided not to say anything, we didn’t want to cause a scene in what is essentially a metal tube hurtling through the air at 600 miles an hour.
But our blood was boiling. I ended up asking the stewardess what had happened exactly, because if it was what we thought it was, it was unacceptable. She dismissed the question, and said the man who’d been asked to move wanted to sit next to his friend. We knew full well this was utter bullshit, since we’d been watching the scene unfold, and he’d asked for nothing.
A few more stewards and a co-pilot showed up asking what the problem was, and we voiced our concern. They said they couldn’t do anything and it was time to take off. Shrugging their shoulders at us, they seemed to say “C’est la vie”.
Twenty minutes later, we were still sitting in a state of stunned disbelief when a stewardess came to tell my girlfriend that the pilot wanted to have a chat in the cockpit, to discuss what had happened. He told her that the disgraceful behavior we’d just witnessed was nothing compared to what happens on Lebanese flights from Dubai or Africa. With a sense of grudging resignation he said that if he wanted to kick every racist off a plane, he’d never take off. She told him this was unacceptable and that someone had to talk about this. He urged us to write something about it. So here I am, writing about it.
It’s hard to express how disgusted I was by this man. How disgusted I was by how justified he felt he was. How disgusted I am that we share the same passport. How disgusted I am that this behavior is tolerated because it is so pervasive.
Lebanese attitudes to race are evident everywhere in Lebanon on a daily basis. In our behavior towards the citizens of Syria, Egypt, the Philippines, Sri Lanka, Ethiopia and beyond who are treated like second class citizens in our country. How can we be proud of a country that abuses the very people that help it function on a daily basis?
We have heard the stories about the abuse of household staff from these countries. Foreign television stations have even dedicated entire documentaries to our institutionalized modern-day slavery. We’ve heard stories of black tourists being denied entry to nightclubs based purely on the color of their skin. We’ve also heard the stories of non-Lebanese people being refused access to swimming pools. It’s hard to believe it’s 2011 sometimes in this city.
Instead of embracing a sort of multiculturalism, instead of learning some new languages, customs and cuisines, we marginalize the very people that could enrich our social fabric and move us away from the navel-gazing self-delusional chauvinistic and sectarian pseudo-patriotism we bandy about.
We are nothing. We are a country of 4 million people that doesn’t have electricity, running water or functioning Internet in 2011. How dare we look down upon others? It’s time for some soul-searching, as a nation. The world is passing us by; we are decades behind most of the region in a million ways.
Sunday night I was ashamed to be Lebanese. But I didn’t want to create a scene. But my girlfriend forced us to, and she was right. Edmund Burke said that the only thing needed for evil to triumph is that good men do nothing. I’m not pompous or self-interested enough to claim I’m a good man. But I will never stay silent when I see that kind of behavior again. And maybe, one day, I won’t be ashamed on the flight back to Beirut.