Adonis Diaries

Posts Tagged ‘“Girls Customs in the Levant”

“Girls: Customs in the Levant” by Mai Ghoussoub

Note: As a series on customs in the Levant I decided to publish an article by late Mai Ghoussoub  titled
“Missed Opportunities”.

“It took me a long time to understand why my mother loved to tell the story of the doctor who delivered me. Whenever there was a willing audience, she would tell it. I must have heard it a thousand times.For her story to make sense, you need to know that I am the second female born to my parents and that my sister and I are their only progeny.’When Dr Razook left the delivery room, his face was tense and he walked past your father without looking at him. Your father was waiting anxiously for the baby to be delivered so that he could join me. (In those days, husbands were never allowed to witness the birth of their child). The attitude of the doctor terrified your father, who thought that something terrible must have happened to me and to our baby. When he knew that I had given birth to a healthy baby girl, he was delighted. Dr Razook did not like to deliver girls, especially if the parents were his friends, and he felt his reputation as a gynaecologist was perturbed by every female he brought into the world. As for your dad and me, we did not care one way or the other, boy or girl’.The story of my birth as told by my mother is a perfect metaphor for my country of origin. It is the story of juxtaposed values and contradictions. Yes, it is OK to be born a girl but the story never ends here. There is a ‘but’, a Mediterranean ‘but’ and a westernized OK that have to coexist, and modernized citizens somehow have to juggle and survive within the spaces of this coexistence. And they have to do it with grace and honour, My parents are from the generation of Middle Easterners who lived at the time of transition from the traditional values of large families to the westernized nuclear family with a maximum of two children, raised and educated in the best schools you could afford. They dreamt of bringing up free, responsible individuals – individuals who were nonetheless constantly reminded that they were the custodians of their family’s honour, especially if they stood on the female side of the gender border; individuals who had to watch constantly for ‘what the neighbours say’ about them and their parents, their uncles, cousins and other relatives.

My story, the way I tried to live my life, is a desperate, not always unhappy, effort to reconcile at least two epochs, two modes of behaviour, two value systems that prevailed simultaneously and very concretely in pre-war Lebanon.

Let me come back to my mother. A clever woman, she was considered very marriageable thanks to her good looks and was consequently withdrawn from school, in the late 1940s, by her parents at the age of sixteen. She had loved her school and treasured the knowledge she had acquired there, mainly in the sciences. She had no say about her parents’ decision and anyway she had fallen in love with my father. My father, a modern young man, cared very little about the difference in their religious confessions and courted her openly because he had ‘good intentions’. They felt madly in love and married when she was seventeen and he twenty years old. They despised marriages of convenience or calculation, believed in true love and had the Hollywood movies, already triumphant over the screens of Beirut, to confirm the rightness of their romantic choice. There were a few couples like them in Lebanon in those days, but they were not the rule. Nine months after their wedding, they brought my older sister into this world. They were delighted; they adored her. One only has to look at the infinite number of pictures they took of her, and at the journal my mother kept, in which are recorded every smile, every tooth that appeared on the baby girl’s face. It occurred to me once that the same Dr Razook had delivered my sister, and that he may have been as disappointed by his deed as he was when it was my turn to show up. But, for some unexplained reason, it was only my appearance that seemed to be a worthy story for my mother to narrate. The reason should have been obvious to me. It may not matter to the parents if the newborn is male or female, but in the wider society there is nothing to boast about when you bring only girls into this Middle Eastern world. You have to be very keen on bringing up a small, well-cared-for family to stop after the second child and not try for the special one that will perpetuate your name and speak for the virility of the father and the blessing of the mother.

Garçon manqué was the term I kept having about me. Tomboy. The French expression is more revealing. A boy missed. An opportunity missed. But the values, which the post-industrial societies had introduced in our Levant reality, were tangible enough and no third child was to be expected. So my story meets that of my society. I am female, accepted as such but unconsciously or very silently wished different. The context in which I was born, the Lebanon of the 1950s, was a paradigm of this dichotomy. Some named the two poles in this combination modern and traditional, others used the labels east and west, now the term post-modern is frequently used.

I can think of a perfect metaphor: un garçon manqué, a missed boy, and “une opportunité manquee”, a missed opportunity. A country that has missed its democratic and tolerant potentialities. A happy alternative. But …

To go back to my gender and its implications: like any child who finds him/herself at the centre of attention, I started to play the role that made me successful among the members of my family and their friends. I started to behave as a tomboy. I wrote to Father Christmas asking him for a cowboy outfit. When I played with my dolls I did so discreetly, for the pleasure of mothering or dressing them was hampered by a sharp feeling of guilt and the fear of disappointing the grown-ups. I joined the boys in the courtyard after school to play football and all was free and fun until Sit Zalfa, an imposing old neighbour, saw me fighting physically over the score with one of the boys. She used to terrify us with her severe chignon and her Turkish and Italian vocabulary. ‘Pronto,’ she screamed, pointing her stick at me and then in the direction of my home. She visited my parents and told them that it was not ‘right’ for a nine year-old girl m mix with the boys of the neighbourhood. That was the end of my street life. What the neighbours said proved more powerful than the cute image of a garçon manqué. The neighbours’ opinion had a decisive influence on my parents, who still insisted that it did not matter to them if I were a girl or a boy. We were already in the early 1960s, and Lebanon enjoyed the rule of a functioning parliament; a coop d’état had been defeated and my mother as well as my aunts dressed in the latest Parisian fashion. My mixed school was preparing to separate the girls from the boys: yes, even the French Lycée adapted its rules to the Arab Mediterranean reality of Lebanese society. Religion and religious teaching were not allowed inside the secular institution, but girls who were approaching puberty had to be separated from boys. A garçon manqué in a girls’ school did not make much sense. A segregated secular Lycée would have been an anomaly in France, but we were not in France, even though we spoke French and believed, in the values of the Enlightenment.

I had heard my parents calling me a tomboy, and now I started hearing my mother asserting that I was very good in the sciences, the objective ones. Accordingly I became good at mathematics and physics. My grades in French literature, a subject I adored, did not impress my mother, whereas her face would beam with joy whenever she saw me resolving some geometry or calculus problem. This was a safer way of replacing the boy who was never to be born; safer than playing and fighting with the boys over a football kick. For sciences do not jeopardize virtue or reputation. At school, when I was not yet fourteen years old, I read The Mandarins by Simone de Beauvoir and heard of free love, but a concert by Johnny Halliday, the French pop star, was cancelled by the Minister of interior, the ‘progressive’ Kamal Jumblatt, who believed that ‘western degenerate images’ did not suit our moral values and might be harmful to our youth. Along with all the citizens of the Lebanon in the 1960s, I learned to live with these conflicting attitudes and values. jugglers we became: with more or less graciousness, sometimes over some broken eggs, we wove our way through mini skirts and scarves, chanting anti-imperialist slogans as well as the Beatles. The kitsch singer Taroub sang for an Arab public, while her sister Mayada set Arabic words to western pop songs. When a dance called the Hully Gully invaded the night-clubs of Lebanon, the famous Diva Sabah sang Hully Dabke Yaba Of:

Hully Gully est connu chez tous les occidentaux,
Hully Dabke Yaba Off est connu chez les Orientaux, presque le même et tout le monde l’aime.

Neither we nor Sabbath could have guessed that the Occident and the Orient were going to sing to totally different tunes. From Radio Cairo the mesmerizing voice of Umm Kulsum was asking for a rifle – A’tini Bunduqiya’ – a rifle to liberate Arab land. We were reading Jean-Paul Sartre and starting to demonstrate for the liberation of Palestine.

By the early 1970s l was studying mathematics and French literature. Male and female subjects. Feminism was on the agenda: George Tarabishi translated Sheila Rowbotham, Germaine Greer’s The Female Eunuch was available in the bookshops and Sonia Beiruti, a TV broadcaster, invited a few of us to her TV show to debate women’s emancipation. Two scenes from that period keep recurring in my memory. First scene: on this Tv show, I said I wanted to be a free woman and to be independent, to work so that I would not live off my father’ or a future husband’s money. My father, who was watching the programme, felt deeply humiliated. He took the words as an insult to his honour. Second scene: during a student demonstration, a few women jumped on the shoulders of their colleagues to lead and chant revolutionary slogans. Everybody in this demonstration had seen the pictures of May 1968 in France and the dynamic images of the women lifted above the crowds by their co-objectors. ‘Scandalous,’ screamed some passers-by, as well as a few demonstrators. The women were put down very quickly. We may have been influenced by May 1968 but we were not in the Latin Quarter of Paris; we were still on the shores of the Mediterranean.

We were a parliamentary democracy we had no kings and no army generals ruling over us, but many of our politicians were the sons of landowners or sons of other politicians. They all spoke of democracy and we called for our right to independence as women while armed militias were being formed and operations to restore women’s virginity were easily available. Somehow, I see a parallel between my studying mathematics at the American University and French literature at the Lebanese National University, between my gender that held me responsible for the family’s reputation on one hand and my county’s coexisting contradictions on the other.

Feminism was an obvious route to follow for somebody like me – a woman who had believed that men’s spaces were not totally impermeable, not mysterious or difficult to handle. You play with boys, enter their classrooms, obtain better grade than many of them and then you are asked to obey them or accept an inequality that places them above you? This was very difficult to swallow, especially if Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex has been widely read among your French educated friends and her assertion that ‘on ne naît pas une femme, on la devient’ (one is not born a woman, one becomes one) is a cool slogan to raise. Old feminism, that of the pioneers such as Hoda Shatrawi or the active lawyer Laure Meghayzel, felt inadequate to our youthful impatience We did not want only equality, the right to be professional while ensuring that we were first and foremost ‘good mothers’: we wanted to claim loudly and shamelessly that nothing could stop us from realizing our wishes and that our bodies belonged to us.

Engels, Reich and Alexandra Kollontai’s teachings gave a social dimension to our belief that ‘all is possible’. The country itself believed that its rise as the financial-tourism heaven of the Middle East and its enriched Gulf region was unstoppable, that the Palestinian resistance fighters were the local expression of the Vietnamese freedom fighters. We spoke out loudly against the hypocrisy of our society. We were getting more radicalized in our beliefs, and so were the contradictions and the conflicts in Lebanon.

A time came when, in the middle of the bloody and cruel sequences of the civil war, I started to miss the so-called hypocrisy of pre-war times. The feeling that ‘I want everything and I want it now’ dissipated. I looked with different eyes on the liberalism of my parents who had to bite on their Mediterranean wound and let me be. They tolerated my freedom of movement, even though my tomboy image was long dead and buried under the powerful influence of Sitt Zalfa and her ilk.

I moved to the other side of the Green Line, where I thought people would be free from the prejudices of my own milieu. There I found a reversed mirror detonating with the same kind of intolerance. What we called hypocrisy before the war was the best form of compromise people had found for living together. The taboo preventing one from spelling out one’s dislike for the other had been a good discipline. Look around you and see how ugly it all becomes when people feel no inhibition in their intolerance. I am not calling for censorship, far from it. People have the right to express their feelings, however despicable we may think them, but this should not discourage us from doing all we can to relate hatred for the other’s colour, race or sexual choice to the notion of bad, uncivilized and immoral and to link the violent expression of this hatred to legal judgment and action.

Yes, it took me a long time to realize why my mother loved to tell the story of Dr Razook and my birth. It took me longer to realize that the contradictions my parents had to live through opened great new spaces for me. And if they had not hoped for me to jump over the limiting fences my gender imposed on me, I may have been confined to living, all my life, on one side of the border(s) and I would have never learnt that we were all as human or as bad as ‘the other’ during the ugly years of our civil war. If my mother had not told this story, would I have had the confidence, some eighteen years ago, to face the London bank manager who was reluctant to deal with me as one of the directors of Saqi Books and ‘would rather see my male boss’? Would I have had the courage to bend the long aluminium rod that holds my sculptures, would I have been capable to be ‘the other’, to integrate among the others without pain and often with plenty of fun? I may have been a missed opportunity for Dr Razook and others like him; I still believe that I am better off missing the narrowness of the choice that would have been my secure lot and instead taking the risk of following my individual routes.

 

Mai Ghoussoub
Writer and artist who has written widely on culture and Middle Easter issues. Her latest publications include Leaving Beirut and Imagined Masculinities (co-edited with Emma Sinclair Webb).

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