Sisterly Love

October 28th, 2009

girlsinging

In 1979, I was born in Peoria, Illinois and my father had a favorite song. The lyrics went like this, “Oh Mandy, you came and you gave without taking…” (you can hear it here: mandy). My father’s fondness for the song inspired the choice name of his firstborn. That is, until my parents realized then their firstborn would share her name with her uncle’s dog – another Mandy. Any sentimentality or romantic fervor for the name became inconsequential as long as that dog had what became my runner-up name. Deliberation became urgent, until another sentimentality occurred to my parents – why don’t they name their little girl after the person who set them up? My father’s sister, Sr. Rima.

At that time, nuns in Lebanon had the utmost respect of the community, for they were of the few trusted entities that served its members in times of serious need.  Although sternly and conservatively, they ran the “best” schools and held the convent doors open through every war or “event.” Now, even while clamping to the convent doors in their high heels, you hear people complain about how “pampered” and picky the nuns are. How mean they are in class. And how the nuns “only like the best food.” These words spoken by men and women who have at least one maid in the house serving them glasses of water and crystal dripping from their ceilings. However, I say if they are a little pampered with good food, cleanliness, or favors, I don’t see that as a huge payment for their sacrifices.  Anyway, this specific class of people claims, “at the nuns” it remains better than elsewhere.

stainedglassplantsNuns have a bad reputation. But, I have been a visitor to their home, the convent, on several occasions. You will not leave without a pleasant meal and peaceful surroundings. You will hear stories from wise faces and they will listen to your problems. And thoughtfully respond. They will give you their best because that is what is selfless. The small joys in life, they relish. They are each other’s family, and so is anyone who walks in. My Polish-American uncle stayed with his wife (my aunt) at the convent in Deir al Amaar during his first visit to Lebanon. They served him endless glasses of Almaza and arak while surrounded by the beauty of the Chouf. He vowed to retire there.

Though unlike the ruler-snapping nuns of Lebanon of the past, Sr. Marguerite and Sr. Bernarda and company held the podiums of my Holy Family grade school classrooms in Peoria, Illinois. I know their wrath, but I also know their kindness and their teaching skills, which though “old school,” are also indelible. As a teacher, I am personally on the other end of the spectrum of pedagogical practices; though, that doesn’t mean they are not doing something well. I am convinced that the nuns’ harshness was a result of their determination to instill discipline, values, and service — things they are always weighing and considering. Being in the company of my aunt in different contexts has been evidence of this dichotomy. While a few people who have been taught by her have admitted to me how mean she was in the classroom, outside of the classroom she is talking to my cousins and I about our love lives, asking sincere questions and keeping judgments aside. And small things – Most recently, while in the U.S., I helped her pick out a shopping cart of crayons, Elmer’s glue, and pencils for the students. They were all 10 cents each, (“Thank goodness the economy sucks sale”) and she was intent on piling them into her suitcase so that the parents could buy inexpensive supplies for their children.

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Sr. Rima knew since she was a sixteen-year-old in Tyre that she wanted nothing to do with marriage. Instead, she was sure about becoming a nun. One day her sister secretly informed her that a young man had asked her parents to see her. This is when she knew it was time to reveal the calling that she felt. Her family’s reaction was stingy. Her mother scolded while her father tried to dissuade her. Even her eldest brother cut off their weekly trips to the cinema, which was a luxury at the time. But that was no price to pay for her. It was disheartening that her parents were less than supportive of her wishes, but it was mainly because they thought they would never see her. She had heard the calling – and faithfully left for France where she entered the St. Joseph convent. Upon her return, her family accepted and stood proud.

In the seventies, the convent would attract around five women per year. Before that, around twenty, twenty-five. Today, she claims they are lucky to get two. We can speculate the reasons for this decline in interest – increased opportunity for women, multiplication of other distractions, declining trust in religion, and the list may go on. But what you would never guess is that, inexplicably, there are more and more women entering their studies at the convent and then realizing that they would rather be completely cloistered, in what they call a habbis (jail) or a cloister. In these places, one is completely committed to prayer and can only see her family once every few years, through a small barred window. The question this phenomenon begs is why are more and more of these God-seeking women preferring to commit to a solitary life? Nonetheless, it is the convent’s duty to help the young women discover their callings. If they notice that she is “sad” or uncomfortable in the atmosphere of the convent, they have a serious talk.

Sr. Rima has been an active nun in several areas of Lebanon, and even in Jordan for a short time. As she says, they are put “where they are needed.” At the beginning of the civil war, she was stationed in Tyre where she and the convent tirelessly distributed food aid, and where she witnessed such episodes as a mass of people throw milk “donated” from Israel into the sea. And in Beirut where people would come for shelter and then destroy the furniture inside. She served in Saida, after the war, when the convent represented the few Christians who remained. And now she is in charge in Deir el Amar, near the Chouf where most of the children get aid for matriculation, thanks to the convent’s determination and the occasional check that “comes from God.”

Despite her serving Lebanon for thirty years, without government aid (a religious NGO, if you want), she still could not receive the Lebanese passport, for her father was Palestinian and of course, her mother’s Lebanese passport was of no use to her under Lebanon’s archaic, unjust, and sexist government law. Ironically, two years ago the French granted her a passport in gratitude of the many years she had served St. Joseph. I see this as just another example of Lebanese politics’ purported fighting for the cause, doing what is right, and in the meantime punishing everything in its way – in essence, making everything WORSE. Perhaps our government officials (and the region’s) could learn a few things about service, righteousness, and fairness from the women behind these walls.

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There is a St. Joseph convent in Beirut. It stands at a corner, nondescript, between a gas station and Hariri’s new schools. The building’s visage is littered with menacing bullet holes from the war days of past. But when you enter off the noisy and impatient streets of Beirut, and ring the bell, you are buzzed in without question. No armed guard stands next to the heavy metal door that  shuts behind;  you only hear the high voices of children singing inside and feel a cool breeze touch your cheek, and a small promising feeling of peace and love.

st joseph

6 Responses to “Sisterly Love”

  1. Angie McQ says:

    Beautiful…

  2. Niz says:

    Lovely piece Rima!

    I have to say though my one and only interaction with a nun was here in Lebanon a ‘couple’ of years ago, during my first year in college. And it shattered the image I’ve had of nuns prior to meeting this one!

    I was at Azarieh looking for a place to stay in the dorms (I was told the rooms there are very affordable). When I walked in, the nun in charge looked me up and down, asked me what I wanted, and after hearing my case, told me that rooms were only available to students. This was followed by a (saintly?) smirk and her best impression of ignoring me until I left. If she bothered to ask, she would have been pleasantly surprised to find out that I am indeed a student. But I guess even women married to religion can have their prejudices :)

  3. Katie says:

    Do you think it’s our overcomplicated and overstimulating world that is causing more women to choose to be cloistered?
    I love that photo- what is the story behind it?

  4. Rida says:

    life is all about give and take…and this country only takes…and never ever gives!! Its sad to hear the story of someone who has served this piece of (majestic..yeah sure) land for nothing…it breaks my heart. Am never coming back, i have no reason to!

  5. Miro says:

    Wow Rima, that was beautiful. I learned something new, I’m embarrassed to admit though I did not know that aunt Rima does not hold a Lebanese passport, that’s sad!!! I cried while reading this especially when I read that France granted her one.
    You & sister Rima have only been gone a short while but I miss you both very much, you are both incredible listeners and you both don’t judge.
    Love you, keep the articles coming :-)

    PS your writing is amazing!!

  6. Rima says:

    Thanks for the comments everyone. Yes, this country breaks our hearts (and sometimes the nuns do too Niz :/)… Always – thanks for reading.

    Katie, I think that’s a good theory. I mean, coming out of Beirut’s noisy traffic sometimes makes me want to crawl under a large rock and never hear another sound again. I could see how a woman who seeks the convent, and a sort of cloistered life to begin with, would go all the way in today’s zippy world.

    I’m assuming you’re talking about the two young girls pic? I walked past the classroom and they were singing. So I snapped a pic of them. Afterward, they smiled curiously and we exchanged a “secret” moment. They’re super duper cute. And their uniforms remind me of my old grade school uniform :)

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