What do you dress a six-month old in for a funeral?

funeral in Lebanon

wardrobe worries

What do you dress a six-month old in for a funeral? Sadly, several friends have lost family members in the time we have been here in Lebanon. Since we did not know the people personally we stayed away at first. In our culture mourning is something done in private with close family and we had no intention of imposing ourselves at such a difficult time. But in the Levant the custom is for those mourning to surround themselves with as many people as possible in the days directly after the death. The bigger the turnout, the more supported they feel.

So recently, when we learnt of more sad news, we immediately changed our plans to be able to pass by and pay our respects. I knew by now that head to toe black was de rigueur, and I was eager to take my blue coat off once in out of the rain.

The dilemma was the baby. Unlike some baby girls her wardrobe isn’t all pink, and she does have some more solemn bits and pieces. I briefly wondered if I should dress her in dark clothes, but then feared the opposite reaction: that people would say, Haram, a baby in black, that’s bad luck. Though superstition means nothing to me I did want to avoid making a faux pas at a delicate time. So instead I dressed her in neutral colours, replacing the red cardigan with a white one in the hope that would be the most suitable option.

Once we arrived we went, as is the custom, to express our condolences to the bereaved, who were seated all together. Before we reached them, more than one set of arms reached out for the baby. I gladly left her with a friend and returned to pick her up later. I did notice there were no children present, but I was expecting that. In the East like in the West, people do not always want to laden their children with sadness too early, and without them they can make themselves more available to support the family in mourning. And no doubt everybody but us had relatives nearby who could babysit.

But I remembered when an acquaintance dropped off a package at the home, but refused to come up to the flat. She said she wouldn’t because of the baby, as she was on her way back from funeral and was dressed in black. And I suppose that is why, although the family-friendly Lebanese always do offer to carry the baby, there was a note of duty in those arms that relieved me of her before I approached the bereaved family. A baby shouldn’t go that close to death, they seemed to say.

So what do you dress a six-month old in for a funeral? It’s a trick question. You leave her with someone else, and they’ll find another time to visit the family over the three days of public mourning.

When one prejudice hides another

Racism in Lebanon

Syrian labourer saying prayers on the job

Yet again Lebanon is split by pro-Syrian and anti-Syrian feeling. Which reminds me of a joke I was told here.

A Lebanese, a Syrian, and a black man are in a hospital waiting room. All of their wives are in labour. The men are talking anxiously to one another trying to stay calm. Then the doctor walks in and announces that all of their wives have given birth to healthy baby boys all within minutes of each other. The men start celebrating and congratulating each other, but then the doctor says, “But I have a bit of bad news”. The men fall silent. He continues, “The nurse got confused and we don’t know which boy belongs to whom”. At that the Lebanese man runs into the maternity ward and grabs the black baby, yelling, “This one is mine!” The doctor runs after him and objects, “But sir, both you and your wife are white.” The Lebanese man looks at him and replies, “Listen, one of the other two is Syrian, I am NOT taking any chances!”

Is this a racist joke or is it a joke on racism, a joke ridiculing the stupidity of racism? I tend to think people here use it as the latter.

I’d say it’s a joke on “next-door neighbour” prejudice, the type where the French poke fun at their Belgian neighbours, and the English try to put down the Scots. Most of those kind of jokes have more in common with sibling rivalry than racism.

It hints at the bitterness the Lebanese still feel against Syria which withdrew from Lebanon relatively recently (2005). And it highlights the lasting prejudice against the many Syrian labourers currently earning their living in the country.

Racism in Lebanon

domestic worker takes a rare break

But I have a feeling the punchline relies not just on the genetic impossibility of the black baby belonging to the white couple, but on the understanding that in Lebanon, associating with blacks is a much bigger deal than associating with Syrians. Jokes like this hang on that click of recognition, that ring of truth. These attitudes still ring true in Lebanese society today.

Ironically, the setting is unrealistic – the Lebanese, Syrian and black man all chatting in the same hospital waiting room, even under such stress.

My husband visited a Nigerian friend in hospital a while back. He’d just had an operation. At the reception, no-one could find his name. After having it spelt out, the receptionist realised she was not dealing with a Lebanese patient but rather an immigrant. This explained everything. Immigrant workers were not listed along with all the other patients. They were stashed away at the other end of the hospital on their own.

After the Ethiopian Airlines plane crash off the coast of Lebanon in January 2010, it was rumoured that those who died were put in separate morgues according to race – Lebanese and European in one, Ethiopian maids in another, so grieving families and friends need not mix. This wouldn’t even be surprising to people who know Lebanon, let alone shocking.

People are tickled by the “extremes” the Lebanese joke character is willing to go to because of his next-door neighbour prejudice. Is this because they view interracial association as “extreme” (and are therefore racist)? Or do they just recognise how rare it is in their own racist society (and are therefore alert to social issues)?

Although Lebanese may tell this joke to ridicule themselves and their own next-door neighbour prejudice, I feel that in telling it they overlook a deeper racism, a racism without which they wouldn’t find the joke funny.  I think it’s a joke on racism towards their neighbours of the same gene pool. But it’s a racist joke regarding blacks. It only works if you share the basic assumption that ending up with a black baby would be not just scientifically impossible, but also socially inconceivable.

Old town of Jounieh

Jounieh could be summarised as a collection of ill-assorted concrete shapes lining a motorway and littering a whole hillside. But in the old town of Jounieh, a lot of the lovely old buildings are being beautifully renovated.

old Jounieh still old

 

 

old Jounieh now new

And there’s a lot of work in progress.

renovation underway

Sky bar on a budget

I’m always fascinated by construction workers, up in these skyscrapers, miles above the rest of us.

taking a breather Beirut street photography

taking a breather

Their nonchalance is striking. We pay to climb monuments for a lesser view. When I see the shacks they live in at the foot of these megalomanic projects, I’m glad they get to have lunch up there.

Shapes

Not sure why I like this shot.

shapes in the street

Something to do with the messiness and the shapes.

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