I am a Sunni. Yes, I said it. I am a Sunni from Beirut, the capital of Lebanon. I was born in a hospital that no longer exists, having been torn down to make way for a tower that houses, most probably, more Sunnis. After being born in that hospital that no longer exists, I was bundled up and sent home with my parents to Tariq al-Jadidah, a neighborhood that is known as the “Sunni bastion of Beirut". I grew up there, a blonde little thing with a working mother who spoke, at best, broken Arabic, a father who was a professor, and two older siblings. I roamed the streets (when there was a ceasefire) with a pack of cousins who all lived either in the same building or in another building less than fifty meters away. I lived on the ground floor of a structure that was composed of four floors of Mikdashis. We had a walled garden with a fountain in the middle where I learned to ride a tricycle. Every day my aunts and grandmother would send down plates of food, no doubt in fear that with an American mother, we were always in need of some meaty, rice based Lebanese style sustenance.
My home was very close to a Palestinian refugee camp, and I grew up during a civil war. All I knew then was that we were for the muqawameh!, and that in my building of family members I was safe. I would walk across the street to the little grocery store and drink a bottled, reusable Pepsi for one lira. Sometimes I would splurge on a ras al-`abed. Sated after a hard day of playing futbol, I would hand back that bottle to the store owner, who had sold my father jalloul when he was a child. Every Eid (the one that really matters, when the fluorescent fried desserts come out, eid al-fitr), we would trudge off to an aunt`s house and eat my least favorite dish, stuffed lamb, rice and cooked yogurt. One year my father brought home a baby goat and put it on our balcony. I was delighted that my father had been so thoughtful as to have gotten me my own baby goat!, and I believed him when he told me that he had taken Mary to a place where she could be with other goats. I hope she is happy.
Every Eid my brother and I would collect all of the money we had won by allowing our cheeks to be squeezed and kissed wetly by elders, and go buy firecrackers. We staged elaborate firecracker wars between our street and the next street over. We ate ice cream from `Aseer Ramadan, fortified ourselves with Tang and Tetra milk, and ate sandwiches at Abu Khudor (the real one, not the ras beirut chi-chi imposter). When I was growing up, Tariq al-Jadidah still had many trees, and many homes with gardens. The streets seemed wider, and mal`ab al-baladi, where we would go watch Ansar-Nijmeh futbol games, seemed grand. The sky was crisscrossed with electrical wires linking homes to generators, there was one apartment where everyone would go and make international phone calls, blue plastic gallons were always ready to be filled with water or gas, and wicker baskets would be lowered daily to the grocers. It was a solidly pro-Palestinian, anti-Israeli, and pro-Arab place. Tariq al-Jadidah was full of pictures of a smiling Jamal Abdul Nasser and other now-dead “Great Arab Leaders,” and pictures of Samir GeaGea with the word “butcher” printed in red underneath his face. Now, Samir GeaGea is a political ally of the most “credible” Sunni political party, the Hariri led Future Party. It is considered bad manners to publicly remember what Samir GeaGea meant to “us” then, living at the borders of Sabra, in the 1980s.
Everyone who has been to Tariq al-Jadidah recently would probably not recognize the place I have been describing. In fact, during the last parliamentary elections I took a friend with me as I went to vote with my “blank paper.” I had just been to Chiah (a southern Suburb of Beirut which is Majority Shiite, middle/working class, and pro-Hezbollah) with him, where he cast his own “blank paper”. Blank ballots in Lebanon are counted by election officials, and they symbolize a citizen`s desire to vote, but their dissatisfaction with the candidates. As we walked through the streets, we passed by a gaggle of young men chanting colorfully constructed songs that specifically swore at the leader of Hezbollah, Hassan Nasrallah and more broadly, swore at the entire Lebanese Shiite sect. My friend walked me to the school where only I was allowed in, after having had my ID card checked to make sure I was voting “in the right place” (in Lebanon a citizen must vote where he/she is registered as having “originated” from). After I entered the school, my friend walked around Tariq al-Jadidah, buying us juice and breakfast. When I met him afterwards, he told me that he had, for the first time, been afraid to be known as a Shiite in Beirut. For me, the realization that something had changed irrevocably came when I heard that `Aseer Ramadan, that colorful place full of yummy cocktail shakaf, a Shiite-owned business, had moved out of Tariq al-Jadidah because of sectarian agitation.
That election day, as my friend and I walked through the streets to get to where I have to vote, it seemed the neighborhood had been painted blue and covered with pictures of a smiling, rich, dead man and his smiling, rich, living son and political heir. That day, as I was pushed, pulled and stepped on by a crowd of women having a party while not forming a line in order to vote, I saw my cousin. I maneuvered my way around three sweaty and smiley hajjehs and stood behind her, giving her an extra white paper that I had in my pocket. I saw another cousin (Yes, I have a lot of first cousins, and I don`t even have a Lebanese mother. Let`s not even broach the subject of second cousins) and I shouted for her to join us. I held up another white paper and waved it like a flag at her. The cousin standing before me pushed my hand down and told me to be quiet, that we shouldn`t be revealing ourselves to be non-Hariri-ites in this crowd. Besides, she whispered conspiratorially, “I`m not sure our cousin is with us.” Suddenly I felt like I was doing something wrong, and I shuffled around like a bad guy in a movie selling contraband. I am sure there were others there, in that school hallway overflowing with women of all ages, who shared our political choice. Yet my cousin and I stood silently, and in that crowd of women bordered with men with guns who were “keeping the peace,” I felt very alone. I was sad that day, as I finally walked, or rather, was pushed by a swell of bodies, into the voting room. When I was done, I pushed my way through an even larger group of hyperventilating women, and outside to meet my friend.
When I say I am a “Sunni” this is what it means: it means that my father is a Sunni and that therefore, I am categorized as a “Sunni” Muslim by the Lebanese state. It means that if I have children with anyone other than a Sunni Lebanese man, those children will not be Lebanese Sunnis. It means that I can never be the Lebanese President, the Speaker of Parliament, or the Head of the Army. I suppose that my being a woman makes this point redundant. Being a Lebanese Sunni means that if I marry, I must (unless I marry a Christian abroad) receive my marriage certificate from the Sunni authorities. It means that I inherit according to the Hanafi code of personal status. It means I cannot (legally) adopt children, and that if I were to have political ambitions, I would be counted in the quota of “Sunni seats” for public office. The fact that I am a Sunni does not mean that I believe that `Uthman was the right man for the job, or that I pray without touching my head to a rock five times a day, or that I endorse, or gloat, over what happened in Karbala. It does not mean that I feel some sort of affinity with Sunnis in other parts of the world, or that when the Saudi King or Mufti speaks in my name I do anything other than laugh. It does not mean that I support the Bahraini regime`s brutal oppression of a democratic uprising, and it does not mean that I am “afraid” of those Iranians. It does not mean that I am anti-Hezbollah, or that I am part of a “culture of life.” Being a Lebanese Sunni doesn`t even require me to be a believer in, and practitioner of, Islam. I am a Lebanese Sunni only because my father, and his before him, is a Lebanese Sunni from Beirut. The fact that my mother is an American Christian from a quiet tree-lined suburb does not matter. My ID and my census registration records say so.
I have a running debate with my friend, another Lebanese Beiruti Sunni. Whenever anyone asks her where she is from, what she “is” or what her last name is, she either refuses to answer or gives a different last name. She feels that nobody has a right to ask these questions, and that refusing to answer is an act of shaming the questioner. I have a different approach. I answer all of these questions, honestly, because I believe it is more powerful to play the game yet subvert it. Therefore, I answer that I am from Tariq al-Jadidah, that my last name is Mikdashi, and that I am, and was, against the agenda of both Hariri the father and the son. I say this unequivocally, voicing my support for resistance movements (which is not always the same as supporting the sectarian political party that Hezbollah has revealed itself to be). If prodded, I always argue that one should never assume what “being a Sunni Lebanese” actually means, beyond being a registration number in the Lebanese census. But I know that I cannot control what others will read into my name or the neighborhood I grew up in. I have made my peace with the fact that I am not in charge of how people will impart meaning onto me, whether this meaning is being produced by reading my family name or by scrutinizing my short hair. Furthermore, it would be unethical for me to act as if this meaning does not carry with it a history of politics, violence, and shifting discourses of “us” and “them” that I am implicated in. This discourse reaches towards me even as I try to position myself differently, and in times of violence being recognized as a Sunni Lebanese can mean the difference between life and death, between being a potential ally or enemy, and between safety and vulnerability.
These days when I go to Tariq al-Jadidah to visit family, I feel nostalgic. Much has changed; tall buildings have replaced houses, the faces of different men are now plastered on walls, young men with guns have been replaced with young men smoking shisha on street corners trying to look menacing, the women are much more conservatively dressed, and Pepsi is now sold in cans for 750 liras. Even mal`ab al-baladi, that place that seemed so grand as a child, is soon to be razed and replaced with a parking lot. But some things remain. The man who used to grind “American coffee” for my mother twenty-five years ago still asks about her, my cousins still shout down at me in thick accents from balconies, and I am still fed by people who are sure that I have been starving since we moved out of the neighborhood. Tariq al-Jadidah is still majority Sunni, and majority middle class. It still borders a Palestinian refugee camp, and it is still the place where one can find the best atayef in Lebanon, period. But what all of this means has shifted, and will continue to shift, with the political and economic winds. And as I walk through the dense maze of today`s Tariq al-Jadidah, I feel estranged from my memories.