This story has a point. (Although it may take a while before I get to it).
Every morning, I walk my daughter to school. I enjoy the early Beirut, and my daughter entertains me with interesting stories and millions of questions about life and other things during the half-hour walk to school.
I live in a neighborhood with lots of schools. There are two universities, two international schools and a large number of local Lebanese schools, all within walking distance. And so, every morning, when I walk with my daughter, I cross the path of many other children, and parents with children, also on their way to school.
This morning, my daughter had no school, and so I walked alone.
First I was stopped at the girls’ school around the block by a group of teenagers whom I did not know.
“Wain el princessa, tante”? they asked (Where’s the princess, aunty?) , and I explained that she was at home because she had no school today. I continued my way.
Then, a few blocks later, I was stopped again by the husband of a colleague, out on his daily training run.
“I see you’re missing some of the troops,” he said jokingly, and so I explained that my daughter had no school today. I continued my way.
And finally, a little further, I was stopped by a father (quite a handsome one because I secretly ogle him every morning) with a young boy and a girl, who I meet every morning walking in the opposite direction. We’ve never talked or even said hello.
“Bintik mareed?” he asked (Is your daughter sick?). No, I replied, she just has no school today.
And I continued my way.
And I thought about a conversation a Dutch friend and I had some days ago about the changes in Dutch society. You may not have read it, but the senseless violence is on the rise in the otherwise so peaceful nation of Holland. People are getting beaten up for no reason on a daily basis, it seems. This conversation came up because we tried to understand the motifs of a man, who out of the blue sky, ran through a crowd of spectators in order to try and kill/harm the Dutch queen on Queens Day. Eight people died, the royal family in shock (and more popular than ever, it seems), celebrations cancelled, and a nation wondering why on earth a man would do something like that? What for? What was the point?
My friend contributed it to the growing harshness of Dutch society. I think it is our individualism. We hold our individualism very high. But in order to ensure that, we need to have lots of privacy. And to make sure you get your privacy, you need people not to mind your business. We in Holland are – in fact -trained so well not to mind anybody’s business that it has turned into carelessness, because we only care about our own business.
For instance, this gentleman (who attempted to harm the queen and killed 8 people, including himself while doing it) lived in a dormitory where he always ate on his own. He cooked in the communal kitchen, but then took his dish to his room and ate on his own. Can you imagine that in Lebanon? If you really want a quiet meal, do not show your face 3 hours before and 3 hours after dinner time. If you do however show up on someone’s doorsteps within that time period, chances are you are forced to sit down and made to eat. Together. With other people. There is no ‘alone time’ in this place.
Here in Lebanon people do not belief too much in privacy. I have had acquaintances, not family or friends, no, distant acquaintances ask me when I am planning on getting pregnant again, because “a woman of your age…”, tell me that they know an excellent Botox doctor for me because “it would really improve your looks,”, and whether I have contemplated lifting my neck line, because really, “you could be so pretty…”
A Dutch friend of mine once walked with her elderly (and rather wrinkled) mother past a pharmacy here in Beirut, when the owner came out of the story with a jar of anti-wrinkle cream. “Just what YOU need!” he said. You wouldn’t dare say that in Holland.
But because of the lack of privacy, there is not much room for individualism. And although I am sure this has its draw backs, it does have its advantages. We (in Lebanon) do not experience these random acts of violence. Like school shootings (US, Germany, Finland), men barging into day care centers slaughtering toddlers (Belgium), and sending people bomb letters. It never gets to that point because we stick our noses into everybody’s business, no matter how annoying this may be at times. And thus people are never left feeling alone. Abandoned. Because everybody cares, or at least give the impression that they care.
You’ll probably laugh by now. What? No violence in Lebanon? Yes, we do have our car bombs, and shootings. But they are organized by ‘powers high up’. By governments, or organizations, or movements. These are not random acts cooked up by a loner with the simple goal to make himself known before he steps out of this world. Our acts of violence have a political gain, are part of a political game. That doesn’t make it any less painful for the innocent people that succumb to the bombings. But at least we understand why.
These random acts of violence within the Dutch society are often without an explanation. And if there is an explanation, it is so trivial, so useless, so stupid.
Now what was my point, you wonder?
Lebanon is a society with an immense amount of troubles. Dutch problems probably pale in comparison. But what we do have in this place are the thousands Random Acts of Kindness you experience.
Like the strangers in the street, stopping me and asking me about my daughter. People here care.
And so this morning I was reminded again of why I live in Beirut.