On the Joys of Religious Life.

I went to buy a missing ingredient for lunch today, without suspecting that a surprise awaited me on the corner of Ashrafieh’s tiny streets. As I walked across the buildings, a sweet odor of butter and ghee lightly touched my nose. The delectable–instantly recognizable–smell of frankincense, powdered sugar, crushed almonds and nuts flowed from the kitchen windows… maamoul in the making. It’s been a while since I’ve lived the preparations for Easter in Lebanon… I had missed all that… You only learn to notice and appreciate the things you lose. But once you know about that, you could try to nurture your sense for them.

Palm Sunday, two days ago. I had forgotten how many people crowded the churches and the streets that day. In Paris, the churches were far from empty, it is true. Unusually, I admit, yet it’s once a year. Catholics with olive branches walking in the Quartier Latin and in the métro (more specifically, the line 10–yellow color). Only on Palm Sunday do the French Catholics feel this mysterious communal bond. Not even on Easter Sunday. Why? Because the olive branches give the signal and allow for a smile of complicity between strangers on the sidewalk, or in the métro car. On Easter, everybody’s too busy with his own loved ones to pay attention to a fellow parishioner.

An Alepine girl living in Beirut, amazed by the stream of families parading, told me there were no processions outside churches in Syria. Do not say this to a Lebanese, unless you want to further inflate his already inflated ego. “Yes, we’re lucky to have this in Lebanon!” (condescending tone because she’s Syrian (we act like such bastards sometimes! ;))).

Married ladies dressed to the nines, ostensibly flaunting their flesh in front of their husband’s eyes–perhaps with his consent, too–although the spectacle is meant for any man interested in seeing, beside its legitimate owner. The result is not as fresh as it used to be, yet the waisted dresses did not go to waste. The stretch marks and rolls of fat covered by an adjusted fit of a garment have their charm, too. (Like any piece of clothes: regardless of how fashionable or unfashionable it is, what matters is the way you wear it, and carry yourself while wearing it.)

Little girls dolled up like princesses sitting (or standing) on the shoulders of a big brother, or their Prince Charming of a father, proudly brandishing those typical Palm Sunday candles that we only find in Lebanon, I assume. Pink and white for them, natch. Their older sisters, standing timorously like all Lebanese teenage half-women-half-girls do, dressed up with the full facial cosmetics program on (goes without sayin’), casting fleeting glances here and there, insecure yet hopeful about their Prince Charming. In short, women dressed beyond decency, displaying a panoply of deluxe nails, fake Louboutins, showy tops,  skin-tight pants (if any) and slinky skirts. Little boys trying to impress each other with newly learned tricks, jokes, and lies; boasting of things they have at home, random adventures, imaginary acts of heroism… and of course: speaking very highly of their father, this great man. Teenagers rather silent–timorous as always–, huddled up in their frustration. And “the boys” (the men, I mean), fancy sunglasses on, with their expensive mobile phones and shiny car keys in hand to be shown off. The grooming is good too: well-trimmed beard when in their twenties and thirties, clean-shaven when older. À la mode shirts and jeans de marque. Perfume as well, toujours. Mmh.

Humans are funny. I think God, the Greatest Anthropologist up there, has a good laugh everyday watching our fragile worldly concerns.

Who said religion ought not be expressed in public? Processions and public manifestations of religious “effervescence” (as our beloved Durkheim would say) bind individuals together, providing them with a sense of beauty and security, a sense of belonging to a higher authority. Children, in particular, are those who need the most to dream and experience enchantment. Everything is social, communal life is important, so why should religion be confined in one’s private/domestic sphere?

Happy holidays.

Palm Sunday, 1986.

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2 Responses to On the Joys of Religious Life.

  1. bonjour André… Hier j’ai eu la visite de ma filleule elle a eu le gentillesse de me traduire ton billet d’humour. J’ai beaucoup aimé. Et surtout, nous t’avons bien reconnu ! Olivia te fait ses amitiés. Je te souhaite le meilleur. Denise

    • a.s. says:

      Merci Denise pour ton commentaire qui m’a beaucoup touché. C’est toujours un plaisir de te lire et j’espère avoir la possibilité d’aller à Lausanne bientôt. Bises et joyeuses Paques.

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