>>Vivian Yee and Hwaida Saad, The New York Times
Published: 2018-12-25 09:28:18 BdST
To the left of Ayatollah Khomeini stood a twinkling Christmas tree, a gold star gilding its tip. Angel ornaments and miniature Santa hats nestled among its branches. Fake snow dusted fake pine needles.
“Today, we’re celebrating the birth of Christ,” the cultural attaché, Mohamed Mehdi Shari’tamdar, announced into the microphone, “and also the 40th anniversary of the Islamic Revolution.”
“Hallelujah!” boomed another speaker, Elias Hachem, reciting a poem he had written for the event. “Jesus the saviour is born. The king of peace, the son of Mary. He frees the slaves. He heals. The angels protect him. The Bible and the Quran embrace.”
The mufti, Ahmed Kabalan, went on to engage in some novel religious and political thinking: Christians and Muslims, he said, “are one family, against corruption, with social justice, against authority, against Israel, with the Lebanese army and with the resistance.”
The proclamations from the stage were applause lines — perhaps against the odds, given that the audience at the Iranian-sponsored event Saturday consisted mostly of observant Shiites from the Hezbollah-dominated southern suburbs of Beirut. Occasionally, the crowd chanted praise for the Prophet Muhammad.
When a pair of Iranian bands flown in for the occasion began playing Assyrian and Persian Christmas carols, the audience clapped along.
From its founding as an independent republic, Lebanon has walked a tightrope, not always successfully, with its Muslim and Christian populations just two of 18 officially recognised sects.
Nearly 30 years after the end of a civil war in which Beirut was cloven into Muslim and Christian halves connected only by a gutted buffer zone, Lebanese from all different sects now commonly mingle every day at home, at work and in public.
That Christmas is important in Lebanon, whose population is more than 40 percent Christian, is no surprise. But the holiday here — perhaps helped by the presents, the feasting and the twinkly lights — also has a much more universal appeal.
Half the women snapping selfies with the colossal Christmas tree that stands across a downtown street from Beirut’s even more colossal blue mosque wear hijabs.
Children with veiled and unveiled mothers wait in line at the City Centre mall to whisper wish lists to the mall’s Santa, and schoolchildren of all sects exchange Secret Santa gifts in class.
Even Hezbollah, the Shiite political movement and militia that the United States has branded a terrorist organisation, has helped ring in the season.
In previous years, it imported a Santa to Beirut’s southern suburbs to distribute gifts. On Saturday, Hezbollah representatives were on hand for the Iranian Christmas concert, an event that also featured handicrafts by Iranian artists, but the organisation skipped Santa this year because of financial constraints.
These demonstrations of Christmas spirit seem intended, analysts said, to demonstrate Hezbollah’s inclusivity as a major political and military force in Lebanese society and to highlight its political alliances with Christian parties.
But just as it has for many secular Americans, the commercial appeal of Christmas has proved strong for many non-Christians here.
Zay’our had decorated a small Christmas tree at home, which, to her frustration, was losing a branch a day at the curious hands of her toddler son. Her oldest son, in ninth grade, was celebrating by asking his Secret Santa at school for a PlayStation 4 game.
Nada Suweidan, an accountant shopping at the mall, wasn’t certain how much of her son’s wish list Santa would fulfil this year.
But Suweidan was certain of the religious propriety of her family’s Christmas celebration, which involved the whole family getting together and her brother dressing up as Santa for the children. After all, Jesus is considered a prophet in Islam.
“Jesus isn’t only for the Christians,” she said.
Much as the holiday lights flashing around Beirut seemed to defy the exasperating reality of Lebanon’s electrical grid, which is so overwhelmed that daily blackouts are scheduled across the city, the Lebanese embrace of Christmas can be read as a temporary reprieve from the economic and political gloom.
“We need a real Santa Claus to come and take all the Lebanese away,” said Mohamed Ibrahim, a young electrician who was taking a selfie with his new wife, Taghrid Ibrahim, in front of the mall’s Nativity scene.
“Wherever he wants — anything’s better than here,” Taghrid Ibrahim, a teacher, joked.
“Everyone is celebrating,” Mohamed Ibrahim said. “You feel like everyone is alike.”
Christmas is by no means a universal part of the holiday calendar of observant Muslims, especially conservative ones, some of whom consider Christmas decorations and other rituals forbidden.
In previous years, Lebanese Muslims have occasionally received mass text messages or pamphlets urging them not to participate in Christmas. In 2015, according to one television news report, some Christmas trees in Tripoli, in the conservative, Sunni-majority north, were burned down.
But such instances have never happened in the Shiite south, even during Lebanon’s civil war, which lasted from 1975 to 1990.
“We follow Imam Ali, who told us to respect other cultures,” said Ahmad Tarjoman, 48, a Beirut-based correspondent for Iranian state television who attended Saturday’s Christmas concert with his wife and his daughter, Tasnim, 5, who wore a pair of small reindeer antlers.
The family has a small Christmas tree at home, and Tasnim’s parents have brought her to see Santa — often called Papa Noël in Lebanon — at one of the local malls every year. Tasnim’s investment in Christmas, as a result, was somewhat less philosophical than her father’s.
“She adores Santa,” Ahmad Tarjoman said. “This year she wants a Barbie. Even though she already has 50 Barbies.”
@2018 New York Times News Service