Tuesday, September 5, 2017

So Your Character is From Lebanon ... Featuring Nadwa @ Painfully Fictional & Nicole @ A Dance Between the Pages

It's time for this week's So Your Character is ... Post! This is a weekly segment where I interview lovely volunteers from around the world to give you a firsthand account of being a citizen of their respective country or having a disability. I'm hoping to encourage international diversity, break stereotypes, and give writers a crash course on how to write a character from these different places on our planet. If you haven't checked out last week's  So Your Character is from Greece ... be sure to hop on over there and give it a read!

Disclaimer: The content below may be culturally shocking to some. Each of these posts are as uncensored as possible to preserve the authenticity of the cultures of each of the interviewees.

(None of the Images are Mine)

My name is Nadwa, I'm a seventeen year old girl living in Tyre (also called Sour, pronounced soor) which is a city in the South Governorate of Lebanon, a small country on the east coast of the Mediterranean. I'm a senior at high school. I started obsessing over collecting books a couple of years ago, but I've been reading since as long as I can remember. When I'm not reading, I'm usually learning to play my favorite songs on the piano or hanging out with my family and friends.

Hello! My name is Nicole. I’m a Lebanese citizen, who lives in the countryside. I’m 19 and a law student. In my spare time, I’ll be probably reading, drawing, painting, or watching TV shows. I like to review books and so I do, mainly on Goodreads, but also on my blog. I live near the borders with Syria, but no, our lives were never jeopardized. Hopefully, with this post, you’ll be able to see that Lebanon is more than just another oppressed country in the Middle East.

What do you feel is unique to your country? Landmarks? Celebrations?
Nadwa: Well, we do have a lot of landmarks.  We've got a lot of ancient ruins in different parts of the country:



Jeito Grotto

Tyre Fishing Harbor

I could literally go on forever.

The only local celebration I could possibly think of is Independence Day (November 22nd).

Nicole: What makes my country special is not the big festivals it hosts, but the religious celebrations.

Every weekend, especially during summer, a Saint’s holiday is celebrated in many areas of Lebanon. A feast is prepared. Music is set. You’ll find the whole village and people living near or far, gathered in the village’s square. Everyone would attend, Christians and Muslim alike. 

Not to mention, during Ramadan, families gather for Iftar almost every evening during the whole month. Even though it’s only for Muslims, Christians are always invited to share the festivities that accompanies this occasion.

Tell me about your country's environment. What are some of your favorite places?
Nadwa: Although there are a lot of beautiful places in Lebanon, I still believe that my hometown is still the most gorgeous city in the whole country. My favorite place is definitely the beach. The weather is always perfect, never too hot or too cold. 

Nicole: One of my favorite places in Lebanon is Baatara Gorge. The place is magical. The waterfall drops 255 meters into the Baatara Pothole, a cave located on the Lebanese Mountain Trail. In spring, the gorge turns into a waterfall due to the snowmelt. Then, during summer, the region becomes very popular for caving and daredevils who want to scale the inside of the gorge.

Another stunning, more popular tourist site – that you may have even heard of – is Jeita Grotto. Extraordinary caverns sculpted by time and water, few caves around the word can match the breathtaking views of those in Jeita. The cave is composed of two galleries, an upper one and a lower one. A ride in the boat in the lower level will leave you bewildered; this underworld was architected by nature over millions of years. 

The upper level is approached by a tunnel and can be visited on foot. It features a large concentration of crystalized forms, like mushrooms, columns, ponds, and so much more. It’s one of the sources of our pride in Lebanon, especially since it made it to the finalists of the New 7 Wonders of Nature competition. It’s a must-visit if you ever come to Lebanon.

Tell me about your country's food. What are some of your favorite dishes?
Nadwa: Our trademark dish is Tabbouleh (minced/chopped parsley salad with burghul (cracked wheat), tomatoes, onions, and mint) others are Koussa w Wara' Enab (basically stuffed zucchini and grape vines) Manaeesh, Falafel, Hummus.

My favorite is probably Manaeesh, (mini pizzas usually folded that are made in bakeries, traditionally garnished with cheese or Za'atar thyme). This is usually had for breakfast or dinner.

Nicole: Most of you probably know the Lebanese Meza; it can be simple with hummus or “baba ghanouj” – similar to hummus but from eggplants – or might be an entire feast, with fattoush, tabouleh, grape leave rolls, and so much more. So I’ll spare you the Meza talk, and skip right to the originals: my favorite foods, not as famous, but just as delicious. 

Manaeesh, even though mostly eaten at breakfast, are widely popular here. It’s a rolled out dough, similar to a pizza, but without the sauce and toppings; instead, it’s most commonly topped with thyme, and also various cheeses, ground meat, “labneh” (salty version of Greek yogurt), keshek (a dried and powder mix of wheat and fermented yogurt – you’ll have to try it to know how amazing it is)… basically, whatever your grandmother feels like throwing in on it – you’ll eat and love it.

 Not into savory breakfasts, and more of a sweet-tooth person? Get ready for a sugar overdose with “Knefe” – the heaviest, most delicious breakfast… or lunch, or dinner, cause it’s that good. To describe it in a nutshell, it’s a thick mix of semolina, cheese, and lots and lots of simple syrup, all wrapped in a delicious “kaake” or hard bun.

Tell me about any different speech patterns in your country. Slang? Idioms? Words for things such as “biscuits” instead of “cookies”?
Nadwa: We speak Arabic. "He is like a deaf man at a wedding procession." This is the literal translation of a proverb everyone uses on a daily basis. It basically means that the person isn't aware of what's happening around them and is totally clueless. 

Nicole: Over 20 countries in the world speak Arabic in the world, so naturally we have different accents. But it’s not just that. Standard Arabic is only used in the news, in written books, and in movie subtitles. It stops there. Since every country has its own dialect, it’s sometimes difficult for Arabs to understand each other. So if you only know standard, or formal Arabic, you’ll have a hard time understanding local dialects. 

However, the Lebanese dialect is said to be the easiest to listen to, according to foreigners. It’s mild, in comparison to others that sound rougher. Syrian and Jordanian dialects are possibly similar to ours, yet still different. Another special thing about our dialect is that you’d probably understand many words since most people here speak both English and French, and this has affected our daily dialect. We have borrowed endless French and English words and cooperated them into the Lebanese dialect “Hi. Kifak? (hru?) Ca va?” Needless to say, this dialect is my favorite.

Describe briefly a regular day in your country.
Nadwa: Well, on a school day, my dad usually gives me a ride to school (with my little sister and brother) and then picks us up at 2:20. The rest of the day is usually filled with a lot of homework-tackling and whatnot. On weekends, I usually go out with my family for dinner or hang out with my friends in Tyre. I know it's not much, but it's become a very comfortable routine over the years, and I wouldn't have it any other way.

Nicole: A regular day in Lebanon depends on where you live; a village or a city. Let’s take an average coastal example:

You wake up to the jara’s (female neighbor) voice in the living room, probably having coffee and a sobhiyyé (morning visit) with your mama. It’s only 7 a.m. You’ve got a few hours before class. You know you won’t be able to get back to sleep – with the ladies’ loud gossip and all – so you’ll just check Instagram, get dressed, read a bit, and then it’s time to go. Your mama will try to force a breakfast – or 2 – on you, but you’ll probably skip all that and get on the road ASAP because of traffic. Classes are as boring as ever. You’ll head out to some coffee shop afterward and hang out with friends. 

Then, you’ll maybe hit the gym or go for any plan your friends come up with for the night. It’s 11 p.m. in no time. You took a couple hours too long to get ready, but who cares – party really kicks off at 12 a.m. doesn’t it? Now, party time was awesome; after all, Beirut’s reputation precedes it. You don’t drink too much – just a couple of cocktails and a few rounds of shots. You stay awake till 4 a.m - at which point, your mom, naturally, wakes up eyeing you for staying up so late. Exhausted, you’ll put on your pajamas and sink into a deep sleep.

How does your country compare to others, especially the States since my audience is primarily American? Environmentally? Politically? Culturally?
Nadwa: Oh, my God. I've been to California, Nevada, and New York so I've seen how life in the States is. The thing is, I was born in Dearborn, Michigan, a place very populated with Lebanese people. I never got to live in the States, though. But after spending a month vacationing in said States, I totally fell in love. Especially California. But the thing is, one thing I missed was the homey feeling I get when I'm in Tyre, where everyone basically knows everyone. 

One minute you'd be walking on the street, the next, you'll find someone pulling you into a bear-hug claiming they're your fourth cousin or something. There isn't a single person you wouldn’t know there, literally. This isn't something you'd find in other cities in Lebanon, let alone the States or any another country for that matter. 

Politically, the country is basically filled with ludicrous tycoons stealing people's money (also referred to as politicians). Culturally, Lebanon was home to the Phoenicians and was subsequently conquered and occupied by the Assyrians, the Greeks, the Romans, The Persians, the Arabs, the Crusaders, the Ottoman Turks, and the French.

Nicole: They say the US is the land of freedom, and so is Lebanon; sometimes excessively so. Lebanon is, and we probably have too much of it. Crimes aside, people basically do whatever they want: they pass speed limit, they say whatever they want, they act however they want, and nobody says anything. Now, yes, there are some limits, but way more stretched than any normal country. Sadly, nature isn’t really respected here. Hopefully, the new generation will make a change, though. 

Politically, Lebanon is a parliamentary democratic republic. The president doesn’t have vast powers - the Prime Minister does. Also, our country is highly religious – religion even dictates political offices (President, Prime Minister, etc.) Still, while we differ from the West, Lebanon’s the most liberal and open-minded among the Middle Eastern countries. Foreigners easily blend in, have lots of fun, and, more often than you’d imagine, relocate here because everything surpasses their expectations, from the hospitality to the nightlife to the simple pleasures they can have.

Briefly describe three of your country’s historical events that you feel are important.
Nadwa: I hate history so much. 

  • 1926: The Lebanese Republic was declared.
  • 1941: Lebanon was occupied by Free French and British forces and the independence movement began.
  • 1943: France agreed to transfer power to the Lebanese government, although French troops did not leave until 1946.

Nicole: I won’t bore you with history, so I’ll briefly describe the 3 most historically relevant events:

  • 1) Achieving our independence. Lebanon has been occupied by more than a few counties and civilizations (from Romans to the Ottomans to the French). On November 22, 1943, Lebanon took its independence from the French, after a long struggle and more than enough sacrifices. But… that wasn’t the last country to occupy our lands…
  • 2) The civil war, which ruined us. It lasted 15 long years, from 1975 to 1990, and is considered one of the biggest, bloodiest wars in recent world history. Such a grand title for such a tiny country! Many genocides were committed, and 4 huge forces clashed inside this small country: the Lebanese, Palestinian, Syrian, and Israeli forces entered Beirut during the war, and were affected by larger foreign forces. Citizens fought each other, and fought foreigners at the same time. It was one huge mess that, to this day, politicians and historians can’t (or won’t) agree on the “truth” about this war, and so this is not taught as a part of the history in our schools.
  • 3) The 2 “unofficial” independences. Israeli forces finally left Lebanon in 2000, after some bloody battles that were won by the Lebanese fighters. The Syrian forces finally left Lebanon in 2005, making Lebanon a truly independent country.

What are some stereotypes about your country that irk you? What media portrays your country badly be it a movie, a book, or a TV show?
Nadwa: Let me just say, there is very little of my country that I like. Although that might not have been very clear given all the things I've previously said. It's just that, the leaders and politicians are basically hypocritical thieves. The Lebanese curriculum is a very awful version of the French curriculum. Did I mention that we have an electricity crisis (which is really not a crisis at all to Lebanese people) where the power only comes for, like, seven hours a day, tops. It's a good thing we have backup. I'm not sure if there are movies or TV shows that portray my country or even mention it…

Nicole: Well, in most Arab countries, religion dictates the state – and it is true, Islam is the predominant religion of state in other Arab countries. And I say other. Most times, my foreign friends are shocked when they find out that I’m Christian, or that there are any Christians in Lebanon. Here’s the thing: our “state religion” is Christianity, unlike the other Arab countries, and we have six Saints from our tiny land, so far.

Another thing is how propaganda has painted Lebanon as an unsafe warzone. We did go through a string of terrorist attacks in the past years, but so are major countries like France, UK, Germany, and Turkey, recently. So, here’s another thing: Lebanon’s actually safer than most, lately. We don’t live in a warzone – even if Syria, the neighboring country, is – and I know this for a fact; after all, I’m living next to the Syrian borders and I’m more than fine.

The news will have you think we’re a desert country, riding camels, and shooting at each other, day-in-day-out. But really, we’re just a bunch of over-educated people, who enjoy a good conversation over coffee, and some wild long-night parties.

What media portrays your country well be it a movie, a book, or a TV show?
Nadwa: Again, I don't think there are any that portray my country.

Nicole: George Khabbaz’s plays are my favorites. They always deliver a message, represent Lebanon as it truly is, with all the bad and the good. His work is always humorous and is so fun to watch. Many of his plays and movies are most likely either written, directed, or played by him, and sometimes all 3 at once! He’s one very talented artist. In my opinion, one of his best plays, the one that best portrays Lebanon, is Mish Mikhtelfin (We’re Not Different/Arguing).

Who are your top three favorite characters native to your country in books, movies, or shows?

Nadwa: Okay here's the ugly truth, I don't watch Lebanese movies or shows at all. I just think that they dreadfully portray Lebanese culture. Our most noteworthy Lebanese character though, is a very famous singer called Fairouz, whose songs are a literally a part of the Lebanese culture.

Nicole: I honestly haven’t read many Arabic books, especially Lebanese, in the last few years. I also don’t watch Lebanese movies and dramas, as I think they are much lacking.

However, there are many myths and legends tied to Lebanon. One of my absolute favorites is the Legend of Adonis from Greek Mythology. Adonis is said to have been born in Jbeil (Byblos) a city in Lebanon. Loved by 2 great goddesses, Aphrodite and Persephone, Adonis also attracted much jealousy. So the god Artemis sent a wild boar that attacked and killed Adonis next to a river, which then flowed red from his blood. Today, Adonis is the name of a town in Lebanon, through which this river passes.

For the other 2 characters, forgive me, but I’m going to cheat and choose 2 books instead, which faithfully represent 2 of Lebanon’s most difficult periods.
The first is Al Raghif (The Loaf) by Tawfiq Yusuf 'Awwad. It’s one of my favorite Arabic books. We had to read it for school and I just loved it. It’s about the famine Lebanon suffered during WWI and the “Al Sharif Hussein” revolution.

The other book is also by Tawfiq Yusuf 'Awwad. It’s called Death in Beirut, though literally translates to The Mills of Beirut. What’s special about it is that it predicted the events of the civil war, 6 years before they happened. Not only that, but the author wrote it while living abroad. I mean, he’s my favorite Arabic novelist for a reason.

Thank you, Nadwa and Nicole, for this very informative post! I hope everyone enjoyed reading it. Come back next week for So Your Character is from Turkey ...!

Are you interested in participating in this project? Check out the tips archive to see which countries have been filled and if you're from a different country, shoot me an email at howellvictoriagrace(a)gmail(dot)com. I'm especially looking for Spain, Denmark, Kenya, Argentina, Iraq, and Egypt.

Do you have any characters from Lebanon? Did this inspire you to write a Lebanese character or set a book in Lebanon? Are from this or been to this country and you have further input? Feel free to share! Do you have any questions for these ladies? Be sure to thank them!

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