Anti-revolutionary Love in Revolutionary Times

December 10th, 2009

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This is a small tribute to a one-year anniversary. The one-year anniversary of my first-ever engagement to be married. Scratch that. This is not a tribute to that. Yes, it’s true that one year ago, I and a ______ (I cannot decide how to describe him) man decided in a casual conversation that we should spend the rest of our lives together. Three days after Christmas and three days before the New Year, we bound our fingers with pretty rings. Three days after the New Year, it was over…

I want you to respect me, he said.

That man has been looking at you all night.

And you’ve been giving him the eye.

To be sure, “spend the rest of our lives together” was a fuzzy reverie, a stanza of its own, born of a heavy presumption: “this is the one.”  Each, independently, having announced to our separate worlds, definitively and by virtue of serendipity – we met in a taxi at the border of Lebanon and Syria. How does that happen and then not happen? Just like a movie, I’d say.  The taxi, the “chance” meeting, being that point in the love story when the action begins, cupid’s arrow set assail, fate’s lasso flung.  The story plays out with all its thrilling twists and turns and conflict and subsequent triumphs, then the movie ends.

You’re my best ever love, he said.

This was a mistake!

Don’t ever call me again. It’s over.

I never want to see your face again.

What was real? Desire and poise to be loved, safe, stable. Timing. A long-distance beginning, anticipation. Fantasy-making. Family approval. Trips into nature. Holding hands. Naivete. Foreigness. Obscurity. Jealousy. Blame. Rings and dates and commitments to life, to conventional things that make us feel we’re on track, normal, good in others’ unrelenting eyes. Proverbial culture clash. Judgment: He said, “I could not ‘accept’ you.” I say, you could never know me. We could never reach each other – there were too many years and oceans and cities and convictions between our lives.

It’s all your fault.

We are not only humans, we are dancer. We are products of separate geographies and choreographies. I will not call it East versus West, as this dichotomy oversimplifies our identities and pardons our small individual actions by virtue of our membership within a mammoth expanse of culture and space. Will we ever be responsible for how we treat each other? For how we see the world? Has being human become less relevant?

Love in Lebanon today is cross-eyed. In fact, my conviction of this is so strong that it inspired the title of this here blog as a result.  We are all mixed up between the images of the sweet young pure woman-in-waiting for the suave gentleman to pull up in his BMW and enter her home in humble request of her company and soon after her hand; and today’s opportunities to date and experience what, in the past, was meant for only married couples to experience. The major shift: women have new roles in the workforce, and therefore, new freedoms. And so today, love’s choreography is classic, but with a contemporary twist. But, who is making the compromises?

Recovering from this breakup often took me out into nature, for therapy. One day I was taking a walk along the corniche when I spotted a sad looking girl about my age, who was staring out into the sea. I took a seat next to her on the bench. A young man stood just across from us, leaning against the railing, holding the leashes of his two German Shepherds. With his other hand, he chucked an empty plastic water bottle into the sea. I expressed my disgust, “What, is the sea yours?” And he “apologized,” smiled and posed, shifting from leg to leg, apparently interpreting the disgusted comment as flirting. The girl sitting next to me said, “You cannot say anything. They won’t leave you alone. I came here to be alone.” I asked her if someone had made her sad, as it was obvious in her eyes and demeanor. She had a ring on her engagement finger.

“He goes with other girls and does things with them because he can’t do them with me,” she reasoned. “But, how much more can I take? I put the hijab on for him. I forgive him. I don’t see my friends anymore. I gave everything up for him.” She said it was the first time that she came to sit by the sea in months. I remember feeling aggravated and determined to push a thought into her head, words that were told to me, that gave me a push out of my own recent misery and self-deprecation over a self-righteous person: You deserve better, I told her.

She nodded and hardened her eyes, but I could still see the soft, tattered outline that indicated she needed a whole lot of strength training to believe this.

My own tattered feathers molted only with the strength and love of my family, friends, and strangers who, I found, knew me better than I knew myself in one way or another. And also knew the kind of person who I had dealt with – one who shames and blames, only after getting his way – far better than I had. They surprised me. Everyone from my 77-year-old grandfather to the stranger on the plane who I recounted the whole story to, told me the same thing: You deserve better. Why hadn’t I come up with that on my own?

This new view reminds you that, particularly in matters of the heart, your interpretations are at the mercy of your insecurities, ignorance, and mostly – your desires – not your good sense. Example: Whenever my and this person’s proverbial “cultures clashed,” which bespoke our roles as man and woman, what is respect, and who decides propriety, I interpreted that being in the role of a minority member – a Lebanese-American in Lebanon – I had done wrong.

This conclusion disregarded my personal convictions about what a relationship should be, and persons’ rights therein. For example, I knew it was wrong that I was being blamed for someone “looking” at me or for going out with my friends to the pubs or having male friends or having a past. His conclusions were unfair and misogynistic – and due to his interpretations of who I would/should be as a wife. But I could not accept that he couldn’t “accept me” as I was! Culture clashes could be fixed!

So I shunned my convictions, in that confused and devastated state of mind, believing instead that I could have done a better job of showing him that I loved him – I should have been more sensitive to him as a person, and also as a Lebanese man. I should have asked more questions. Ignored less. I lost him and it was my fault, and I believed that.  I could be better. And perhaps my liberal ways, which America had taught me, needed to be put in check.

It’s funny and true: “When in Rome…” In this case, “When in Lebanon…”

As a Lebanese-American, I always shunned the decision to marry someone after a short period, in this case just 3 months, which is usually the time it takes to move past being polite! But this is normal in the Arab world. The implications are that you should know in a short time if someone fits the bill – and if you’re good on paper and you can stand the way he smells, why not! I was willing to turn myself over to a foreign life, in this foreign way, even though many of my 30-something Lebanese counterparts were past this, having fought the endless taboos our culture had drilled into us since we said Hello World. Today, revolutionaries march through Beirut, to the beats of their determined drums to be who they are and demand what they believe. Yet, despite all of the growing, traveling, learning, and experiencing, I somehow felt secure following this traditional, easy, “safe” route, which manipulatively whispered, this is your best bet. I was charmed by the comfortable duo of all that is Lebanese in the Lebanese man and at the same time all that he adopted from the outside. I was seduced by this person’s desire to sweep me up as quickly as possible and “take care of me.” I had never thought I would accept to be in this position, nor had I ever felt the inclination to. I figured it was love.

It’s a year later. And as in war, in love there are always wins and losses that must be accounted for. What did I lose?  Tolerance, respect, patience for that which only serves itself. I lost a portion of my naivete. Trust. I lost myself for a while. Eventually, I lost the fear of being who I am.

I won. A deeper insight into the differences between here and there. A life-changing look into the true people my family members are, and embrace of their unconditional love. The wise words of my friends. I gained the friendship of a few strong Arab women with whom I feel solidarity. I gained a fire in my heart that promises to burn that which resembles the flimsy convictions that only serve particular groups of people at the demise of others, and a fire that keeps me believing that we all deserve better.

So, no, this is not a tribute to an anniversary, a repetition, a re-run. No, this is a tribute to change that develops from all that hasn’t changed.

To be continued…

My post-break reading list – chosen for their titles

Astonishing Splashes of Colour, Clare Morrall

Old School, Tobias Wolf

Country of Men, Hisham Matar

Yellow, Janni Visman

The Human Stain, Philip Roth

4 Responses to “Anti-revolutionary Love in Revolutionary Times”

  1. lens says:

    This is so, so beautiful.
    And I am so, so proud of you.

  2. Jennie says:

    Gorgeously expressed. I loved how univeral these ideas read even when you’re focussing on a specific place and culture. Who can’t identify with these feelings? I’m glad that there’s a big, international group who can support each other in these refusals to settle or compromise. Soemthing that seems like a loss can actually be such a victory.

  3. Tim says:

    you are amazing. this is perfect. x

  4. George says:

    Great piece. Your experience yields good lessons (for both genders);
    and you delivered them with such an engaging and enjoyable way. Respect,
    Love and Trust are the key. If one is missing, then you know “You
    Deserve Better”!
    Keep on writing.

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