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Defying Religious Conflict, Lebanon's 'Romeo And Juliet' Bet On Happy Ending

Kholoud, a Sunni, and Nidal, a Shiite, got married in a civil ceremony, a first for Lebanon where sectarianism warns against loving the "wrong" neighbor. Now they have a baby boy.

Being together in Beirut
Being together in Beirut
Luis Lem

BEIRUT — One thing is sure: They were born to be together. Kholoud and Nidal shared a common taste for the unconventional. They also shared similar difficulties when it came to finding their place in the madness of Beirut. As soon as they met, these two youths — who both arrived from the Beqaa Valley a few years apart, him first, then her — felt drawn to each other.

But an obstacle, at first glance insurmountable, soon made its appearance: the strict veil without which Kholoud never left the house. Imagine the scene: Nidal, a handsome and charming young man, taking his first steps into Beirut’s nightlife, accompanied by this girl from the countryside hiding behind her hijab. Imagine his friends’ and cocktail-serving waiters’ sarcastic remarks. The looks of disdain on the customers' faces, as shame and doubts began to seep in the young man’s mind.

So soon enough, Kholoud chose not to set foot in bars anymore. Not so much to avoid embarrassing his friend, but more out of respect for the meaning of the veil she continues to wear.

In Fakiha, her village, she started wearing a hijab at the age of nine. Long before she left for Beirut, when she turned 18, the young woman discussed it at length with her parents. Calmly but decisively, she claimed the right to leave the house bare-headed.

In her remote region of Beqaa, the response came as a first shock to them. “When you get married, your husband can decide that," her father concluded. "But until then, you will follow the tradition!”

A silent revolution

And so, out of respect for her parents and their beliefs, Kholoud abided by her father's command, and continued to wear her veil until the day of her marriage. She removed it the following day, with her new husband's touched and enthusiastic consent.

But until the wedding, they insist, the question of the veil was really quite a minor one. The young couple had begun a far more important “silent revolution” that was about to make them famous across the whole of Lebanon.

Far from the noisy bars, while walking along Beirut’s Corniche or buying ice cream, the two lovebirds kept on getting closer. Nidal told Kholoud about his job as a rescue worker for the Red Cross, which brought him to understand the importance of seeing humankind as a whole. She talked instead about her various activities as a volunteer in the Beqaa, the English lessons she gave there to the women of the village, and the debates with her parents on the necessary tolerance of religions.

She encouraged him to learn English. He taught her the meaning of the word “secularity.” They agreed: If Lebanon is so ill, if war is constantly around the corner, if some are lacking water and electricity while others live in luxury, it is above all because of the divisions caused by religion. They had to start there. They got engaged.

“For a year, only a small group of friends knew about it. We decided to keep it secret,” Kholoud explains.

The young rural couple from the Beqaa was about to do what no young hip person from the capital had ever dared until then. While hiding their true intention, they gathered the paperwork required for the wedding; thanks to an activist friend aware of their plan, they found — not without difficulty — a solicitor who accepted to play along; they convinced their parents to overcome their reluctances and deep concern.

Easier said than done

Kholoud is Sunni, Nidal is Shiite. But on Nov. 10, 2012, they announced that they would get married in a civil ceremony. An absolute first in this country, where, to escape confessionalism, the Lebanese had to remain single or get married in Cyprus if they came from different religions or the competing strains of Islam.

They kept their relation to God to themselves. Nidal dares a comparison: “No one asked the Prophet to state his religion when he got married, and yet, no one can question the fact that he was a perfect Muslim. Faith and marriage are two separate things. This is what we tried to show.”

Easier said than done in a country where everything is read through religious belief. The young woman adds: “My parents had to be there. It made the ceremony more respectable.” The date was then set in the village home, but nothing was leaked to the extended family.

Overcome by panic, the local mayor refused to register the wedding request. The two fiancés went up a step in the administration. Same refusal. The case eventually arrived on the Minister of Justice’s desk. His colleague of the Ministry of the Interior got involved. Even the Lebanese President made a stand — in favor, but he was not the one to make this decision. The debate became heated, and spread across the country.

Were they fully aware of what they were doing? The young couple put the finger right where it hurt. In Lebanon, try to find a job without belonging to a religion. Knock on the doors of the Christian, Sunni, Shiite neighborhoods and try to find an apartment. See how many daily traps you would have to avoid if you are missing on the benefits provided by clientelism!

The various religious leaders, the former warlords, the political leaders, the local potentates: Everyone was conspiring so that the two fiancés’ achievement would not be completed. “With this system, the leaders want to keep control of the people,” Nidal says.

But the solution was a little further down the road. The law on which the couple and their friends relied is no other that the one that prevailed under the French mandate, in 1936. In this country, where regulations have multiple layers, a new law never annuls the previous one. But in reality, no one worries about them, seeing as the laws here are only used to punish the fait accompli and strengthen one group’s advantage over another.

“You have compelled us to seriously look into the reality of the law in force,” a minister admitted to the two young people.

No religion, no rights

On Valentine’s Day, NGOs start handing out red roses in the center of Beirut in Kholoud and Nidal’s names. Youths, elderly, all accepted the flower held out to them by strangers.

It was a temporary triumph. While a wedding in the heart of the capital was on the agenda, rivalries between NGOs made the event impossible. The two fiancés suspected the associations themselves of being infiltrated by partisan interests. The wedding eventually took place, legally, in a big Beirut hotel, sponsored by a television network that had probably found a way to get on the gravy train.

If the Lebanese are talking about Kholoud and Nidal again today, it is because a major event occurred. Their son was born on Sept. 30, and became ipso facto the first Lebanese baby to have no religion. His parents called him Ghadi, which, in Arabic, means “free from want” or even better, “needs very little.”

For now, he will not be having too much: Right from the start, if the "silent revolution" launched by his parents were to fail, he would not be allowed to become president (a position that only Christians can access), prime minister (for Sunnis) or speaker of the parliament (Shiites), as well as dozens of other positions.

For the time being, the whole family has to make do with very little, despite the signs of support that arrived from everywhere. “We’ve often had to get by with just bread and strained yogurt,” Kholoud explains.

Like her husband, she is now 30 years old, and the couple settled down in Beirut’s southern suburb — stronghold of the Hezbollah’s Shiite militia — in the only neighborhood that was just about affordable. A Lebanese irony: The neighbors, janitor and local shopkeepers had tacitly agreed not to say anything about their presence, knowing they were in danger after the fatwa promulgated by the Mufti of the Republic, Sheikh Mohammed Rashid Qabbani (a Sunni), which announced that any civil marriage supporter was a “traitor and apostate to Islam.”

With Ghadi’s birth, the threats increased. Extremists use all available means, including Facebook, to lash out at this child, who, because he has no religion, “is not really a human being,” according to one post. The recent attacks that hit the Shiite neighborhoods eventually got the better of the parents’ nerves. They moved elsewhere, in an even smaller apartment, where Kholoud’s parents joined them.

Moving abroad? Asking for political asylum in Canada, France or Switzerland? The couple has been thinking about it. They know how much such a decision would be a public admission of defeat. But they have nightmares.

“Sometimes, I wake up in tears. I dream something terrible has happened to Ghadi,” his mother explains.

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A Closer Look At "The French Roe" And The State Of Abortion Rights In France

In 1972, Marie-Claire Chevalier's trial paved the way for the legalization of abortion in France, much like Roe v. Wade did in the U.S. soon after. But as the Supreme Court overturned this landmark decision on the other side of the Atlantic, where do abortion rights now stand in France?

Lawyer Gisèle Halimi accompanies Marie-Claire Chevalier at the Bobigny trial in 1972.

Lila Paulou

PARIS — When Marie-Claire Chevalier died in January, French newspapers described her role in the struggle for abortion rights as an important part of what’s become the rather distant past. Yet since the recent overturning of Roe v. Wade in the United States, Chevalier’s story has returned to the present tense.

A high school student in 1971, Chevalier was raped by a classmate, and faced an unwanted pregnancy. With the help of her mother and three other women, the 16-year-old obtained an abortion, which was illegal in France. With all five women facing arrest, Marie-Claire’s mother Michèle decided to contact French-Tunisian lawyer Gisèle Halimi who had defended an Algerian activist raped and tortured by French soldiers in a high-profile case.

Marie-Claire bravely agreed to turn her trial into a platform for all women prosecuted for seeking an abortion. Major social figures testified on her behalf, from feminist activist Simone de Beauvoir to acclaimed poet Aimé Césaire. The prominent Catholic doctor Paul Milliez, said, “I do not see why us, Catholics, should impose our moral to all French people.”

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