Even in a Single Family, a Beirut Christmas Can Be Complicated

A Sunni-Orthodox, Muslim-Christian reflects on his holidays in Lebanon

Even in a Single Family, a Beirut Christmas Can Be Complicated
Lebanon’s Sunni Muslim Mufti Mohammed Rashid Qabbani (R) embraces Syrian Greek Orthodox Bishop of Tartous, Basil Nassur, during a conference on Muslim-Christian Dialogue in Doha 27 May 2004 / Karim Jaafar/ AFP via Getty Images

My name is Faysal Itani and I celebrate Christmas. After all, I am a Christian — sort of. I am also Lebanese, compelled by law and by society to celebrate — or at least observe — everyone’s holidays as if they were my own. Taking my name from my father, which is the custom in many societies, as a Lebanese person I also took my sectarian identity from him at birth and by law — immediately rendering religion, like for others there, somehow both more salient and less meaningful. My father is a Sunni Muslim, as anyone who has spent even the briefest of time in Beirut might guess from my name. My mother, though, is an Orthodox Christian. (They did not choose their respective sects, either.) As I grew up in Lebanon, others perceived me as a Sunni Muslim, which was how I often saw myself — and a Beiruti Sunni, at that. But I was a Christian, too. At the very least, brushing aside the misplaced pity of friends who were more confused than I ever was, I saw myself as being privileged to be of one sect and allowed to “visit with” another sect: the Orthodox Christians, of both Lebanon and Syria.

Of course, being part Orthodox does not make me an authority on the community or its churches, history, faith or doctrines. Indeed, my parents deliberately raised me without a religious creed and thus ensured that I retained a certain degree of ignorance of Orthodoxy, which I never made the effort to correct. I more easily absorbed knowledge of Islam because, for all intents and purposes, I am a Muslim by birth, in society and under Lebanese law. But I was always curious about the Orthodox social and political experience, and since the various contests in Lebanon were not over religious practice, this was the type of knowledge that counted.

To complicate matters further, my mother is only half-Lebanese. While her Orthodox mother was from one of the community’s heartlands in Lebanon, her father was a Syrian who came from a poor village in a beautiful part of northwest Syria: the aptly named “Valley of Christians,” where Orthodox have been living for generations. While my grandparents’ intermarriage must have later seemed more peculiar, as each branch “Lebanized” or “Syrianized,” the Orthodox, for much of their history, have differed in their dispersal as compared to some other communities in Lebanon. Unlike the Maronites, who have called Mount Lebanon home for centuries, or the Druze, who did the same and now live mostly in the mountains and hills of the Levant, Orthodox Christians have been found across the entire Eastern Mediterranean and Middle East up through the later stages in their history. Even if they have become more like other minorities in some ways, they have long been and still are a community with a broader outlook rooted in this sociocultural context.

Like most Lebanese families mine took the religious holidays (though not necessarily religion itself) seriously. Just as I never missed Eid with my father’s extended family, I never missed Christmas or Easter with my mother’s clan. I never saw this as anything special. Family obligations are family obligations, even if one set took place in Beirut and the other set took place in the mountains just above it. We did not pat ourselves on the back for being “tolerant” or for embracing “diversity.” And the celebrations across communities were similar: dress up, chat and eat — always with large families and always in the same houses. My mother’s side would exchange gifts. My father’s side would give out hard cash to us younger ones to buy whatever we liked. (I confess to having a strong preference for the Muslim model here.) Naturally, we would discuss politics and society when done with the protocol and niceties. While I constantly gleaned insights on the Orthodox from my mother at home, these family gatherings were crash courses in Orthodox worldviews — especially views on Lebanese and regional affairs.

There is no one “Orthodox worldview.” But there are some recognizable trends among Orthodox in the Levant generally and in Lebanon specifically. One of the starkest ways the Orthodox in Lebanon defined themselves was in opposition to other Christian communities, especially Maronites, perhaps more than Muslims. In this, they have acquired a particularism within the wider Orthodox community, not all of whom live in a polity where members of another sociopolitically different and assertive group have shaped their environment. More broadly, they emphasized their own proud history linking back to the Byzantine Empire and role as an urban trading people of the Levant, as differentiating them from Maronites (who were seen as pastoral, agrarian and rural for much of their history).

I often detected some contempt by the former toward the latter. While some of the Orthodox in my family were engaging in a common and reciprocated form of urban-rural prejudice in the region, they also had some specific issues with the Maronites: their Catholicism, regardless of the esoteric debates on doctrine or authenticity; perceived parochialism or even isolationism, as well as their assertiveness, anger or angst when it came to feared Muslim encroachment and domination. At least some people in my Orthodox family adopted attitudes they believed were more complex and, perhaps, reflective of their broader role in the commercial and cultural history in the Arab world.

Then again, being Lebanese, my family was as divided within the house as they saw others being in the land. While some kept up a cosmopolitan or at least tolerant outlook, others became more reactionary toward the politics of the Lebanese Muslim community. While these folks were still a minority in the family, their views reflected some trends in the 1990s: for instance, reaction to perceived growth of Sunni power that decade. They joined this “Christian politics,” somehow broader in its constituent communities yet narrower in its outlook, in the Lebanon of our time. For the most part, though, I sensed a desire to transcend one’s identity as yet another Levantine minority and emphasize common bonds with their environment.

In that context, Orthodox Christians face another problem. They have no obvious group with whom to bond in the Levant, as it has existed for decades, and no clearly compelling narrative of their own — like the Lebanese nationalism of Maronites, or the mountain autonomism of the Druze or the different broader outlooks of Sunni and Shiite Muslims. So some have resorted to invented ideologies. One such ideology was Arab nationalism, which Orthodox intellectuals played an important role in defining. Indeed, there is a strain of Arabism that runs through many of my Orthodox relatives’ thinking. Perhaps more interesting is the concept of Syrian nationalism, today championed by the Syrian Social Nationalist Party (SSNP). This is the belief that the countries of the Levant and neighboring areas form a distinct civilizational space and ought to form one nation-state. My grandfather’s village is an SSNP stronghold today. Skeptics point to the relatively large concentration of Orthodox in the SSNP geography and dismiss it as a sectarian project. That may be a factor, though no one ever expressed it in front of me. I tend to believe the supporters of pan-Syrian nationalism in my family are mostly sincere, and that no one in Lebanon or Syria is completely devoid of sectarian sentiment anyway.

As it happens, people in my family shared sentiments with Sunni Muslims — with whom the Orthodox more generally have long shared the Levantine coast, trading and building across what is now a much smaller commercial and cultural space. They all transcend, or think they are transcending, the parochial; they have at times hoped to link up with something larger. Reacting to the creation of Lebanon a century ago, Sunnis yearned to escape its inward-looking, limiting political structures and dissolve themselves into the greater Syrian or Arab worlds. Many Orthodox did so as well. I am neither a pan-Syrian nor a pan-Arab nationalist, but I believe this shared sentiment between the Greek Orthodox and the Sunnis made growing up in a mixed family easier. Ultimately, I felt we were all speaking the same basic political language. I chose to pay less attention to minoritarian relatives who wanted less to do with their environment.

Of course, tolerance and universalism always have limits. Most recently, the Syrian civil war emerged as a test case for fiendishly complex attitudes to what was transpiring in Syria and the Levant. Much of my family was sympathetic toward the protesters in 2011. But as Syria became more complicated, attitudes began to shift. For some, the emerging Islamists presented a worse evil than President Bashar al-Assad, because they threatened Syria’s minorities including its Orthodox. Others, of the SSNP persuasion, told me this was a war fought by the West against an Arab leader who had dared defy them — and almost in the same breath dismissed the opposition as all Sunni Islamists out to kill minorities. I found this simultaneously universalist pride and sectarianism bewildering and, to this day, I have not figured out which was the more sincere sentiment.

Although the views of some changed, at least one of my relatives never wavered. My grandfather from the Syrian village despised the Assad regime to his dying day.

While some foreigners find it interesting when I mention that I’m from a Sunni Muslim and Orthodox Christian family, the Lebanese almost always react with pity. Most believe that I must be “confused” or that my extended families are mutually hostile — or at least more mutually hostile than they would have otherwise been as Lebanese families. It doesn’t help that I am an “Itani” — bearing the name of a family synonymous with Sunni Islam in Beirut. And perhaps it didn’t help that I grew up during and after the Lebanese Civil War — a time when tensions ran high, even if many people managed to coexist.

My parents sometimes had a rough time of it. That is just the truth. But I consider myself privileged to have been part of something bigger. I now find it absurd when others insist on a single viewpoint, as some monopoly on truth, in any social or political contest. For that, I have the Orthodox to thank.

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