Today was Lebanon’s first elections in 9 years. One of the reasons I learned Arabic as a teenager was because I grew up with a Lebanese friend, Jad. I’ve written about him before. He passed away too young.
I often feel his spirit here in Israel. When I was in high school, I would go over to his family’s house and eat their pistachio candies. Like a madman. When I started learning Arabic at the Jewish Community Center in high school, he and his mom would help teach me. I still remember her telling me the difference between jiddan and katheeran. And I remember him laughing his ass off when I first tried to say khalass. I say it better now, man 😉
Jad’s family is unique- half Syrian, half Lebanese. Half Muslim, half Christian. With many Jewish friends in the U.S. I even remember his mom telling me once that sometimes when she sees Israelis, she can’t tell them apart from Lebanese people. And she’s right, as I discovered when I hit on a guy here who looked like David Goldstein but turned out to be Muhammad Abbas.
At a time when the world seems increasingly polarized between religions and political parties, Jad’s example reminds me that for every depressing news story, there’s a complex and welcoming person not making the front pages. An example I strive to recall living in the beautiful, complicated pressure cooker I call home.
For those of you who don’t know, because I’m an Israeli citizen, I can’t go to Lebanon. Israeli and Lebanese law forbids it. Even though there is no other Arab city I’d rather visit than Beirut, I can’t right now. And may never be able to. Which is so, so sad.
The closest I can get is northern Israel. Where the food smells like Jad’s kitchen and the Arabic sounds like his parents’ friends chatting on the back veranda.
So I headed north.
You see Lebanese elections aren’t a trivial matter for us. While I can’t recall a single American who gave a shit about Mexico’s elections (though they should), Lebanese elections matter a lot for Israel. Because we’re teetering on the brink of a potential war between a Sunni-Israeli-American axis versus Iran, Syria, and Hezbollah. The latter an actual Lebanese political party determined to wipe Israel off the face of the planet.
So this is no suburban mayoral election in Kansas. This matters. In a way few Americans can understand. Right now, there’s a coalition government between Hezbollah and the more Sunni/Christian/western-oriented parties. If there are some strange surprises in the results, who knows what will happen in the region. All we need is a spark and…kaboom.
It’s hard to live with that over your head, yet Israelis- both Arab and Jewish- are amazing at it. While I see my American friends agonizing on Facebook over what color to paint their apartments or how to answer an email, my Israeli friends are traveling to Thailand, are partying, are holding Jewish-Arab dialogue groups, and strive to squeeze every last bit of juice out of life. Perhaps when you have a sense of your own fragility and our inability to control certain things (i.e. foreign elections or terrorists or the weather), you can choose to just let go and live. And stop worrying about inconsequential shit and start living in the reality that is not knowing what tomorrow will bring. To your benefit.
So I intended to head towards the Lebanese border- maybe Rosh Hanikra or the Christian village of Fassouta- but the weather was cloudy. So I figured, with a bit of Jad’s inspiration, that the view could wait. And instead, I was able to meet up with a friend for dinner at an Ethiopian Jewish restaurant in Haifa. Which was delightful- Hanevi’im 20 down the stairs, you won’t regret it.
Afterwards, we ate *the* most delicious knafeh I’ve had in my life. And I’ve been to dozens of Arab villages all over the country. It was personalized and freshly baked for us like a pizza. I’ve never eaten something so delicious.
I wanted to speak some Arabic today. In the back of my head, I wanted to hear what people thought about the Lebanese elections. But honestly I’m just as happy to speak the language with good people.
The guy behind the counter was more than happy to chat. He was excited to hear my Syrian accent and puzzled as to how I got it. Ahmed told me he’s from Nazareth. I told him about my visit there and asked if there were Christian and Muslim neighborhoods (it’s a mixed city). His answer was telling: “we’re not racist. We all live together, Muslims and Christians and I like Jews too. We all have one God.”
I joked “well except for Hindus, they have many.” He laughed 🙂
He told me: “some Muslims and Christians even marry each other.”
I was surprised. There’s very little marriage across religious lines in Israel- in any direction. And truth be told there are tensions in Nazareth. I wondered if it was accepted. He said not necessarily, but it happens. And he said it with a smile because he says he sees no problem with it.
I told him I’m gay, and was recently in a Druze village, and maybe I’d date a Druze guy. I paused for a second and added: “or I dunno, maybe a Christian or Muslim one. Do you know someone?”
He laughed and said he didn’t. And I added: “that you know of. Maybe they’re afraid to say it.” And, to my great delight, he nodded and said: “you might be right.”
And that he’d keep his eyes peeled for me.
I have no idea what’s going on in Lebanon right now. Looks like half the populace didn’t even vote because their politicians are just as dumb as ours or America’s or anywhere else.
What I do know is Jad’s spirit is not across the border, it’s not in the news, and it’s not at a ballot box.
It’s in the smile Ahmed and I shared. The love of humanity and the willingness to learn and to overcome the fear instilled in us by fanatics.
If you want to boil down my country- and our neighbors- into a bunch of statistics or boycotts or black-and-white thinking- go ahead. Live in a world full of judgment so far from reality and you will both suffer and create suffering.
I prefer to meet people like Ahmed. Just an American-Israeli gay Jew hanging out in Hebrew and Arabic with an open-minded Muslim guy from Nazareth. Over the best dessert I’ve ever eaten.
Some people say Jesus was a great guy from Nazareth. But the one I know is named Ahmed.
p.s.- my cover photo is of street art reminding us about the train that used to run from Beirut to Haifa. May I live to ride such a train again.