Society

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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Preparing a COVID-19 vaccine booster in Huzhou, China.

Hannah Steinkopf-Frank, Anne-Sophie Goninet, Jane Herbelin and Bertrand Hauger

👋 Ciao!*

Welcome to Wednesday, where Brazil's senate backs "crimes against humanity" charges against Jair Bolsonaro, the UN has a grim new climate report and Dune gets a sequel. Meanwhile, German daily Die Welt explores "Xi Jinping Thought," which is now being made part of Chinese schools' curriculum.

[*Italian]

🌎  7 THINGS TO KNOW RIGHT NOW

• Senators back Bolsonaro criminal charges: A Brazilian Senate panel has backed a report that supports charging President Jair Bolsonaro with crimes against humanity, for his alleged responsibility in the country's 600,000-plus COVID-19 deaths.

• Gas crisis in Moldova following Russian retaliation: Moldova, one of Europe's poorest countries, has for the first time challenged Russia's Gazprom following a price increase and failed contract negotiations, purchasing instead from Poland. In response, Russia has threatened to halt sales to the Eastern European country, which has previously acquired all of its gas from Gazprom.

• New UN climate report finds planned emission cuts fall short: The Emissions Gap Report 2021 concludes that country pledges to reduce greenhouse gas emissions aren't large enough to keep the global temperature rise below 1.5 °C degrees this century. The UN Environment Program predicts a 2.7 °C increase, with significant environmental impacts, but there is still hope that longer term net-zero goals will curtail some temperature rise.

• COVID update: As part of its long-awaited reopening, Australia will officially allow its citizens to travel abroad without a government waiver for the first time in more than 18 months. Bulgaria, meanwhile, hits record daily high COVID-19 cases as the Eastern European's hotel and restaurant association is planning protests over the implementation of the vaccination "green pass." In the U.S., a panel of government medical advisors backed the use of Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine for five to 11-year-olds.

• U.S. appeals decision to block Julian Assange extradition: The United States said it was "extremely disappointed" in a UK judge's ruling that Assange, the founder of Wikileaks, would be a suicide risk of he traveled across the Atlantic. In the U.S., he faces 18 charges related to the 2010 release of 500,000 secret files related to U.S. military activity.

• Deposed Sudan prime minister released: Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok has been released from custody, though remains under heavy guard after Sudan's military coup. Protests against the coup have continued in the capital Khartoum, as Hamdok has called for the release of other detained governmental officials.

Dune Part 2 confirmed: The world will get to see Timothée Chalamet ride a sandworm: The second installment of the sci-fi epic and global box office hit has officially been greenlit, set to hit the screens in 2023.

🗞️  FRONT PAGE

Front page of the National Post's October 27 front page

Canadian daily National Post reports on the nomination of Steven Guilbeault, a former Greenpeace activist, as the country's new Environment minister. He had been arrested in 2001 for scaling Toronto's CN Tower to unfurl a banner for Greenpeace, which he left in 2008.

📰  STORY OF THE DAY

Chinese students now required to learn to think like Xi Jinping

"Xi Jinping Thought" ideas on socialism have been spreading across the country since 2017. But now, Beijing is going one step further by making them part of the curriculum, from the elementary level all the way up to university, reports Maximilian Kalkhof in German daily Die Welt.

🇨🇳 It's important to strengthen the "determination to listen to and follow the party." Also, teaching materials should "cultivate patriotic feelings." So say the new guidelines issued by the Chinese Ministry of Education. The goal is to help Chinese students develop more "Marxist beliefs," and for that, the government wants its national curriculum to include "Xi Jinping Thought," the ideas, namely, of China's current leader. Behind this word jam is a plan to consolidate the power of the nation, the party and Xi himself.

📚 Starting in September, the country's 300 million students have had to study the doctrine, from elementary school into university. And in some cities, even that doesn't seem to be enough. Shanghai announced that its students from third to fifth grade would only take final exams in mathematics and Chinese, de facto deleting English as an examination subject. Beijing, in the meantime, announced that it would ban the use of unauthorized foreign textbooks in elementary and middle schools.

⚠️ But how does a country that enchants its youth with socialist ideology and personality cults rise to become a world power? Isn't giving up English as a global language the quickest way into isolation? The educational reform comes at a time when Beijing is brutally disciplining many areas of public life, from tech giants to the entertainment industry. It has made it difficult for Chinese technology companies to go public abroad, and some media have reported that a blanket ban on IPOs in the United States is on the cards in the next few years.

➡️ Read more on Worldcrunch.com

📣 VERBATIM

"I'm a footballer and I'm gay."

— Australian soccer player Josh Cavallo said in a video accompanying a tweet in which he revealed his homosexuality, becoming the first top-flight male professional player in the world to do so. The 21-year-old said he was tired of living "this double life" and hoped his decision to come out would help other "players living in silence."

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Why this Sudan coup d'état is different

Three days since the military coup was set in motion in Sudan, the situation on the ground continues to be fluid. Reuters reports this morning that workers at the state petroleum company Sudapet are joining a nationwide civil disobedience movement called by trade unions in response to the generals' overthrow of the government. Doctors have also announced a strike.

Generals in suits At the same time, the military appears firmly in control, with deposed Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok allowed to return home today after being held by the coup leaders. How did we get here? That's the question that David E. Kiwuwa, a professor of international relations at the University of Nottingham, takes on in The Conversation:

"Since the revolution that deposed Omar el-Bashir in 2019, the military have fancied themselves as generals in suits. They have continued to wield enough power to almost run a parallel government in tension with the prime minister. This was evident when the military continued to have the say on security and foreign affairs.

Economy as alibi For their part, civilian officials concentrated on rejuvenating the economy and mobilizing international support for the transitional council. This didn't stop the military from accusing the civilian leadership of failing to resuscitate the country's ailing economy.

True, the economy has continued to struggle from high inflation, low industrial output and dwindling foreign direct investment. As in all economies, conditions have been exacerbated by the effects of COVID-19. Sudan's weakened economy is, however, not sufficient reason for the military intervention. Clearly this is merely an excuse."

➡️ Read more on Worldcrunch.com

#️⃣  BY THE NUMBERS

471 million euros

Rome's Casino di Villa Boncompagni Ludovisi, better known as Villa Aurora, will be put up for auction in January for 471 million euros ($547 million). The over-the-top price tag is thanks to the villa having the only known ceiling painting by Renaissance master Caravaggio.

✍️ Newsletter by Hannah Steinkopf-Frank, Anne-Sophie Goninet, Jane Herbelin and Bertrand Hauger

Who wants to start the bidding on the Caravaggio villa? Otherwise, let us know what the news looks like from your corner of the world! info@worldcrunch.com!

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