Lebanese lovers escape sectarian strait-jacket
Lebanon’s beaches, ski slopes and nightclubs exude glitzy modernity. Its educated elite appears cosmopolitan and sophisticated. But beneath the gloss lie deeply traditional aspects of a society reluctant to shake off a sectarian power-sharing system in which loyalty to one of Lebanon’s 17 religious communities takes precedence over citizenship.
Nothing illustrates this better than star-crossed lovers.
Take Laure and Ali, who began dating six years ago after a chance encounter at university in Beirut when they were both 21. She studied political science and now works for an international aid organization. He is a computer and communications engineer.
Long ago they decided to wed, but there was a snag. Laure is Christian, Ali a Shi’ite Muslim, though they say these identities are just “on paper”. Their families opposed the match across the religious divide, just as they were against the romance from the start.
“My parents had different arguments, none of them convincing,” recalls Laure. “They said the two families would never get along. They worried what people would say. They said: ‘He’s going to force you to wear a veil, maybe now he’s tolerant, but later he will get more and more into religion’. And then it was the kids, what would the kids be?”
The objections of Ali’s parents also revolved on social fears, not religious convictions. “If they were very religious, I would understand their point of view. But they are not, so I couldn’t understand their opposition,” he says.
Laure and Ali could have eloped, as many Lebanese couples in their plight do. Instead they chose a long, uncertain but ultimately successful quest to win over their families.
“There was such a struggle in my mind,” says Laure, smiling at her fiancé. “I didn’t want to have to choose between someone I love and my parents, whom I love too. After six years of struggle, I’m one of the lucky ones who convinced the parents to agree to the marriage. They like Ali now and they are even asking when we are getting married.”
Ali admits that the long years of rejection by Laure’s parents, who refused to meet him, had hurt. He thought: “How can they judge me if they don’t know me?”
The couple’s problems don’t end there. Unless one of them converts, they cannot wed in Lebanon. Civil marriage is not recognized here – unless it is performed abroad. Personal status laws are governed by each religious community, which jealously guard this prerogative as a source of power. So inequalities and anomalies abound.
“For example, Lebanese law says no one can inherit from someone of a different religion,” Laure explains. “So if Ali dies, I wouldn’t inherit. And if my children are registered as Muslims, they wouldn’t inherit from me.”
Former Lebanese President Elias Hrawi tried to introduce the option of civil marriage in 1998 over the hostility of Christian and Muslim religious leaders. The bill won cabinet approval but not that of former Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri, who held Saudi and Lebanese passports. Saudi clerics ruled that the proposal contravened Islamic Sharia law.
So next summer Laure and Ali will fly to nearby Cyprus for a civil marriage, probably without friends or family due to the costs. The procedure is so common that travel agents offer wedding packages ($1,680 for a one-day trip to Nicosia to sign the papers plus day use of a Larnaca hotel afterwards and a free bottle of local champagne thrown in).
“Personally it kind of insults me that I cannot marry the way I want to in my country,” says Ali. “But then again, so many things in this country work in a way they are not supposed to. If we didn’t accept that, we’d all be in depression.”