Sanctioned Pleasures

Youth, Piety and Leisure in Beirut

by Mona Harb , Lara Deeb
published in MER245

Beirut is known internationally for a youthful jet set that likes to be identified with the world clubbing circuit, including such stops as B018, an underground nocturnal haunt reminiscent of a coffin built by Lebanese architect Bernard Khoury upon the remains of a war crime.

These cosmopolitan young people -- particularly the women among them -- have been highlighted in media coverage of Lebanese political protests since 2005, waving the Lebanese flag or, unexpectedly, accessorizing with the bandannas of Shi‘i Hizballah and its sometime Christian ally Gen. Michel Aoun. Such images of Lebanese youth fit the “Paris of the Middle East” stereotype that comforts Westerners and also comports with the desires of many in Lebanon. Beirut -- or rather, a certain part of Beirut -- is also known internationally as the home of Hizballah, the party once described by a US official as the “A-team of terrorists.” Residents of this Beirut are pictured as somber, bearded young men toting Kalashnikovs and alternately timid and fiercely outspoken young women dressed uniformly in black.

This pair of polar opposite images leaves out many -- perhaps most strikingly, the thousands of pious young people who want to have fun, and who strive to follow religiously sanctioned norms in their recreation. Just as Christian youth groups in the United States organize dances along with devotional study groups and ski trips along with evangelical work, young people in the pious Shi‘i community in the southern suburbs of Beirut seek out spaces for social interaction that accord with the norms of morality and appropriate behavior defined by their religious tenets. Yet in those spaces, young people often redefine those tenets as well, interpreting injunctions in ways that may open moral codes to broader definition or limit them more stringently. In the process, pious Shi‘i youth are contributing to the production and construction of an Islamic milieu in the city that also extends to other regions of the country.

Leisure in the Islamic Milieu

What is the Islamic milieu? One of the phrases sometimes used to convey the concept is “hala islamiyya.” Hala literally means “state of being” or “condition,” and together with the adjective islamiyya, translates as “Islamic state of being,” or in relation to this part of Lebanon, “Shi‘i state of being.” Often, islamiyya is not appended, indicating internalized assumptions about the hala’s nature. But the phrase hala islamiyya has no fixed, a priori meaning. For, in addition, hala connotes both the physical spaces where pious Shi‘a live out the “state of being” and the public sphere where its norms and values are discussed. Pious Shi‘a, including youth, are thus always participating in defining what the hala is, as are those around them. Synonyms frequently used for hala include the Arabic terms for “environment” and “ambience.”

The Shi‘i hala islamiyya has no geographic boundaries, but it is possible to imagine it as centered in the dahiya -- the southern suburbs of Beirut, known in Western media by the misnomer “Hizballah stronghold.” This mainly Shi‘i Muslim area of the capital includes dense urban neighborhoods where a particular sort of pious lifestyle has progressively become hegemonic; certain religious understandings and practices have become a part of common-sense knowledge and desires, as well as a social norm to which people are expected to conform. While Hizballah has been the most popular political party in the dahiya since the late 1980s, it is only one, albeit a powerful, player in the emergence of the hala islamiyya. The Islamic milieu includes the daily practices and spaces that are part of life within the “resistance society,” as Hizballah often refers to its constituency, and is in part organized around formal service-providing institutions, informal support organizations and the party’s vast media network, including television, radio, magazines and iconography.

Since the late 1990s, the hala islamiyya has begun incorporating leisure sites -- directed at and desired by the resistance society, other dahiya residents and conservative tourists -- as well as debates about leisure activities and dating. Predominantly established by the private sector, leisure sites include exhibitions, amusement parks, beaches, Internet cafés, libraries, public gardens, fitness clubs and summer youth camps. Eateries have also proliferated in the southern suburbs and attracted thousands of visitors, mainly youth. They range in scale from small streetside snack bars to neighborhood cafés to restaurant complexes that cater to both a local and a national -- and sometimes an international -- clientele. In addition to entrepreneurs, religiously based charitable organizations have also chosen to invest in this market niche. One such institution, al-Mabarrat, uses the profits it makes from its restaurant and hotel complex, al-Saha Traditional Village, to fund its many facilities that serve the poor and orphans. Hizballah-affiliated institutions also have a piece of the pie, though they have mainly created what might be called political entertainment, such as summer camps and exhibitions celebrating the feats of the party’s militia, the Islamic Resistance.

The range of sites ensures that consumers with different understandings of piety and politics can visit different places. While some young people choose to attend Hizballah political exhibitions, for example, others encounter them as part of school field trips, and still others avoid them altogether. Similarly, personal preference and taste play a role in which cafés and restaurants are frequented, as do the same rapidly shifting ideas about trendiness that help to fuel downtown Beirut’s notoriously high rate of restaurant turnover. (It is crucial to emphasize that many people in the dahiya do not feel that they are part of this pious community and have no desire to frequent its spaces. If they can afford to do so, they may instead go out and shop in other Beirut neighborhoods.) Al Saha has probably been the most successful of all these sites in attracting a diverse clientele -- in terms of both generation and lifestyle. It is not unusual to see turbaned sheikhs dining there near women in tank tops.

Most of the new leisure sites in the dahiya are intent on providing their predominantly young customers with modern stylized décor, high-quality food, coffee, hookahs and wireless Internet access. In spatial design and level of services, the dahiya hangouts compare to their counterparts in other parts of Beirut. For instance, one café in a prime dahiya location, Café. Yet, serves the famous Illy coffee as well as providing hookah and Internet services. The café is colorfully designed, with chairs and tables fitting into each other to form red, black and white cubes, and with shiny reflective floors and walls that produce a sleek, polished effect. At the eastern edge of the dahiya, the newly opened Beirut Mall, a Saudi investment encouraged by the Hizballah mayor of the municipality where it is located, houses brand-name clothing shops and a food court including Dunkin’ Donuts and McDonald’s -- trademarks that make one resident proud to “finally have access to such stores within the southern suburbs.”

Private and institutional entrepreneurs catering to the pious Shi‘i community around the country have also developed multi-purpose entertainment compounds reminiscent of all-inclusive family vacation destinations in the US. In the dahiya, al-Saha Traditional Village, one of the earliest such places, off ers customers a diverse menu along with wireless Internet access, gift shops, prayer rooms, hotel rooms, a private garden, a crafts museum and a library. In the wake of al-Saha’s success, demonstrated by its continuing expansion, other entrepreneurs raced to catch up. Al-Inma’ Group, establishers of the first amusement park in the dahiya, Fantasy World, upgraded its café, incorporating more sophisticated design elements, and added new restaurants. The group’s aim is to supply “family entertainment,” and it has extended this concept to other neighborhoods in Beirut and towns in the south, constructing large complexes that include pools, fitness centers, campgrounds, terraces and gardens, in addition to amusement park rides and restaurants.

Entre-Soi

Pious youth appreciate the high-end services and aesthetic provided by these new spaces of leisure, which they used to have to leave the dahiya to experience. In describing these places, young men and women highlight how the recreational sites on offer in the southern suburbs previously were not up to “quality standards,” while those available in Beirut proper were (and are) not respectful enough of the religious norms to which they strive to conform. Indeed, what distinguishes the new dahiya leisure sites from others in Beirut, and marks them as “pious leisure” spaces in particular, is their facilitation or accommodation of a conservative Muslim lifestyle. To be considered “pious” or “conservative” -- or simply “appropriate,” as the patrons often say -- cafés and restaurants must not serve alcohol or non-halal meat, and must not play music that features singing that could be construed as “seductive” or that is conducive to dancing. The definition of “inappropriate” music varies depending on whom you talk to. Some people rule out Arabic and Western pop music entirely; others emphasize context and conduct over type of music; and still others publicly shun pop music but listen to it secretly through headphones. Similarly, some pious individuals find it acceptable to go to the movies as long as they look away from scenes deemed immoral. Others claim to “disengage” from the soundtrack.

In addition, social interactions in these sites generally abide by a moral expectation of conservative behavior that emerges through a combination of self-discipline and external enforcement. Unrelated men and women do not touch or sit too closely to one another in restaurants, and beaches are strictly sex-segregated, with women’s beaches inaccessible to outside view from shore, sea or air. It is difficult to overemphasize the importance of this social component in establishing whether a site or a behavior is “appropriate” or not. A mall, for instance, does not necessarily reflect a pious approach to leisure, and in fact some would argue that consumerism and piety are at odds with one another. One older woman who prides herself on being one of the vanguard of the Shi‘I Islamic movement in Lebanon complained, “Our society looks like there has been a development in values, but then I don’t know. Sometimes I think this is all on the surface. You know, now people compete over headscarves -- this one Gucci, that one I don’t know what.” Yet because of its location and customer base, in addition to the unavailability of alcohol on its grounds, many pious youth consider the new Beirut Mall up to their moral standards.

Put bluntly, “the kind of people who go there,” especially their comportment, is the primary criterion by which young people judge places. In this regard, the hala islamiyya can be said to also incorporate a sense of entre-soi -- the security, comfort and validation that come from being among one’s peers and community. It also points to the ways that sectarian divisions have continued to be spatially entrenched in Beirut, as ideas about “the kind of people who go there” may also reflect au courant sectarian discourses. Though the owners of Fantasy World are keen to emphasize how “the place attracts different sectarian groups,” they acknowledge that the majority of customers are from the immediate surroundings and note that “diversity decreased in recent months given the polarized atmosphere in the city.” Upon visiting Fantasy World for the first time, non-Shi‘i youth living in Beirut reported feeling “othered”: “If they wanted to be inclusive, they should have opened these sites in Beirut, not in the dahiya.”

Yet pious leisure sites can also work in other ways. For instance, Café. Yet includes private booths where people can sit and chat online out of sight of their peers. This privacy -- unusual in Beirut Internet cafés -- is an example of how the spatial organization of pious leisure sites may simultaneously facilitate conformation to and transgression of the moral boundaries they intend to establish. On the one hand, private booths may allow pious young women to feel more comfortable in mixed-sex spaces, as this café, unlike others in the dahiya, does not have a separate space for women. Women may also want to remove their headscarves when conversing with headsets via the Internet, or may feel that it is inappropriate. On the other hand, the privacy provided by the booths opens a space within which users may have conversations in cyberspace that violate the boundaries for male-female interaction maintained by the presence of their peers and the staff within the main room of the café. Other studies have shown how cyberspace in pious environments facilitates young people’s sexual interactions, enabling them to safely and anonymously engage in cybersex, “meeting, mating and cheating online,” or simply producing and exchanging information. [1]

At the Beach

This flexibility of meaning and activity can be seen more explicitly in the debates among young Shi‘i Muslims about the “proper” ways to interact and have fun.

In Lebanon, as in many other Arab and Muslim countries, there are several women-only beaches, as well as fitness clubs and swimming pools. In the late 1990s, pious young women in the dahiya did not hesitate to frequent women-only beaches, though some were quite specific about which beaches were appropriate. At that time, the conversation revolved around whether or not a beach (or sports club, or pool) was indeed shar‘i (permitted by Islamic law). For some, this was determined by whether it had been established as such by their marja‘ al-taqlid, the scholar to whom practicing Shi‘i Muslims may look for guidance on religious matters. Costa Brava and Bellevue were beaches that were marked as shar‘i by prominent Lebanese marja‘ Sayyid Muhammad Husayn Fadlallah, though that designation was later removed at least from the former. A beach’s shar‘i status depended on a number of things, the most critical of which was assurance that women would not be visible to men from any vantage point, which, given beaches’ openness to sky and sea, led some maraji‘ (plural of marja‘) to disqualify them all (Sayyid Ali Khamenei of Iran, the official marja‘ of Hizballah, falls into this category). Also important are general rules of comportment, meaning no alcohol or loud music, no dancing and no topless sunbathing. When Sayyid Fadlallah’s office certifies a particular beach as shar‘i, women who are official representatives of his office check to ensure that the beaches maintain those standards.

Yet for many young women, a stamp of approval from a marja‘ was not enough, and they judged the shar‘i quality of a beach based on their own personal sense of the appropriateness of its atmosphere, often leading to far stricter interpretations than those of Fadlallah, for example. In this regard, one young woman said that Costa Brava, even when it was in Fadlallah’s good graces, was not a respectable beach, and that she had not felt comfortable with the sorts of bathing suits that women there were wearing. Others will swim only at fully enclosed pools, in order to eliminate the possibility of their being seen from the sky or sea.

In recent years, a new line of debate has emerged around women-only beaches that extends to these fully enclosed pools as well as to fitness clubs. No longer about the visibility of women to men, or limits on women’s bathing suit styles, a new hesitancy to attend women-only facilities is being expressed in homophobic terms by some young pious women. This argument is sometimes taken to the extent of insisting that going to a single-sex beach may in fact be as “dangerous” as going to a mixed-sex one, and expressing fears or expectations that single-sex beaches contribute to the incitement of illicit sexual desire in women for other women. “These days, it is everywhere,” one young woman said. “You can get hit on [by a woman] in a sports club, at a beach, anywhere.” Others note their view (usually not substantiated in these cases by reference to their marja‘) that being in a bikini in front of other women is haram (religiously forbidden). In both sets of debates about beaches and pools, disagreement among pious young women is common. Young women are not only referring to the teachings and opinions of their maraji‘ on these matters, but also making their own judgments about the relationship of certain sites to moral boundaries and understandings of pious behavior. As is evident, such personal judgments do not necessarily lead to more “liberating” views, but may in fact prove more restrictive. Furthermore, young women are not making decisions about whether or not to frequent single-sex beaches in isolation from one another or from the broader social environment. In fact, the homophobic fears they express stand in contradiction to complex histories of homosocial spaces in Lebanon while also echoing a particularly modernist form of heteronormativity. The obvious question that arises is what has prompted these explicit expressions of homophobia among young women. One possibility is the international prominence of gay rights movements in the Middle East and media attention to human rights abuses like those in the Queen Boat case in Egypt in 2001. Closer to home, the Lebanese LGBT activist group Helem has had a growing presence in Beirut since 2004 and was also an active participant in the relief efforts following the 2006 war, which may have raised its profile in the dahiya significantly.

Dating

The second topic of debate involving moral limits in relation to sexuality, and specifically forms of dating, is that of temporary marriage, or zawaj mu’aqqat. This is also sometimes termed zawaj mut‘a, but that phrasing is frowned upon by most pious youth because of its emphasis on pleasure and desire as the descriptive element distinguishing it from other forms of marriage, as opposed to the difference of timeframe that is highlighted in the term mu’aqqat. Temporary marriage is not a new practice among Lebanese Shi‘a, and has long been stigmatized and associated with widows, divorcées and less “ethical” women who accept such relationships for either financial reasons or in order to satisfy their sexual desires. According to most interpretations within Shi‘ism, a temporary marriage is a contracted relationship between a man and a woman, without any witnesses, limited to a specified period of time and in accordance with a specified dowry provided for the woman at the end of the contract. This “dowry” can be symbolic (a Qur’an or a piece of fruit) or substantial (a sum of money or an apartment). In theory, the contract can be renewed as many times as one wants, and one can contract as many temporary marriages in one’s life as one wants. Children born as a result of sexual relations contracted via temporary marriage are considered legitimate by Shi‘i courts. This means that they are eligible for child support and inheritance privileges, though in practice, because these are contracts with no witnesses, implementation of these rights is often difficult.

What seems to be novel about temporary marriage in Lebanon is that it is becoming more normal among pious Shi‘i youth. Indeed, interviews and focus groups with Shi‘I college students in Beirut indicate that such marriages are not restricted to a certain category of women, and are increasingly practiced among educated, middle-class youth as a means of fulfilling desires for sex and/or intimacy while abiding by religious norms and rules of conduct. Temporary marriage contracts provide exactly this legitimation.

This is especially true for pious young men. ‘Ali, for example, represents a typical pious young man’s perspective: He is 30 and single, and does not hesitate to speak out about his year-old relationship with a young woman he is married to following the rules of zawaj mu’aqqat. Why are they not regularly married? ‘Ali replies that he is still unsure about wanting to commit, that he is not yet financially secure and needs more time to feel comfortable about his professional status. He adds that he will renew his temporary marriage contract with his partner for another year. Many young men explain the current rise in popularity of temporary marriage as related to the economic recession and the inability of many men to afford to get married and provide for a family until well into their thirties. They also cite a new open-mindedness among both young men and women, often attributed to exposure to the Internet, satellite television and other media.

Yet if temporary marriage allows pious young men to have sexual relationships while feeling at ease with their religious beliefs, the issue is far less straightforward for pious young women, who are expected to preserve their virginity for their “official” wedding day. While some young women have the confidence to engage in temporary marriages and inform their future husbands of their pasts, others depend on hymen reconstruction surgeries to avoid having to justify or reveal their prior sexual relationships. For this reason, young women are far more reluctant to discuss temporary marriages than are young men, and often keep such relationships a secret from even their closest friends. As one young woman in her early twenties put it, “It used to be ‘ayb (shameful), and it isn’t anymore, but you still don’t talk about it.” ‘Aziza, about ten years older, was horrified when it was suggested to her that temporary marriage was no longer shameful, saying, “Yeah, young people do it, but that does not mean that it is correct. The maraji‘ disagree on this, and anyway, it is impossible in our society, especially for a girl. You’ll find that young men are just saying it is OK so they can do what they want.”

Much of the debate around temporary marriage that exists among pious youth does not question its shar‘i status in principle, but instead concerns the legitimacy and morality of the specific ways in which it is practiced in Lebanon today. Some feel that young men are abusing the principle in pursuit of short-term sexual relationships with no strings attached. “It’s just a way for a guy to do whatever he wants,” said Hasan, echoing ‘Aziza’s observation above. “And young people are not doing it within the boundaries of the shari‘a, but are using it however they want. I am against this.” Hasan felt strongly that temporary marriage was only religiously permitted for divorced or widowed women. Another young man noted, “Young men and young women are using this as a way to play each other. The girl might not know the rules, so the guy will tell her, ‘We have this in our religion,’ and fools her so that she might agree to something, so it is being used in this way as well.” Again, these objections are not to temporary marriage in principle, something generally left to the marja‘, but about perceptions about its abuses, especially by young men, in society.

Rabi‘ concurred with Hasan, but extended the argument a bit, saying that “it is OK if it is a way to get to know a girl but with the intent of marrying her, if you are engaged or something like that.” But when Rabi‘ was then asked whether he would contract a regular marriage with a girl with whom he had had a temporary marriage, he immediately replied, “No, I wouldn’t do that.” This contradiction was a common view among the young men interviewed, and once again points to the gendered constraints on the reshaping of moral norms in a patriarchal society. “Personally, I don’t want to be with a girl who has done [a temporary marriage],” agreed Firas, continuing, “because I will have a bad impression about her. Even if it is done in a halal way, of course it affects engagements. It is not acceptable for girls in our society.” Others acknowledged this perspective, but labeled it a problem of “the traditions of society” or of “how this society thinks.”

Those who expressed this latter view believed that temporary marriage could be shar‘i for a previously unmarried girl as well, according to certain interpretations. And indeed, the views of maraji‘ on this seem to differ, not only from marja‘ to marja‘, but potentially from audience to audience as well. Zaynab, for example, was very upset with a sheikh who had stated on a television program that “zawaj mut‘a was not permitted for virgins,” because she had heard him say otherwise in private. While Zaynab’s decision to contract a temporary marriage may be seen as her calling into question this sheikh’s authority in determining her own sexual practices, at the same time it is critical not to underestimate the health risks and the potential for punishment or sanction.

Despite differences in the extent to which challenges to moral norms of leisure and dating may be implemented in practice, this generation of young Shi‘i Muslims in the dahiya is both highly aware of and attributes great importance to debates and understandings about the legitimacy and practice of both temporary marriage and women-only beaches and clubs. Through their conversations, they are striving to formulate norms of behavior that are commensurate with their values and acceptable to God within their belief structures. The question remains: Why now, and why youth?

Piety and the Market

For the first time, there is a generation of young people in the dahiya who were raised within an established system of piety, hegemonic norms that reflect the success of the Lebanese Shi‘i Islamist movements’ project (including, but not only, Hizballah). Their experiences contrast sharply with those of many of their parents, who often had to fight against an older generation’s notions of morality -- cast by the rebelling Islamic vanguard as “traditional” -- in order to be able to enact their understandings of religiosity. Hajja Umm Ja‘far described this difference: “When I became committed [to Islam] there was a lot of talk about us. Even within my family there was talk. You know, ‘What is this commitment?’ While today, it is normal. A girl can put on the headscarf and she doesn’t have a problem.” Another consequence of the success of the Islamist movements, and especially Hizballah as both political party and Islamic Resistance, is the growth of their constituency. Hizballah representatives often point to debates around appropriate moral norms in the dahiya as a “natural consequence” of their greater popularity: As the circle grows, “naturally” there will be some people who are less committed or improperly committed on its outskirts.

The combination of a generation of pious youth and the expansion of the party’s constituencies has contributed to a new market for pious leisure and entertainment activities that are also appealing to a young, educated, media-savvy generation. Such consumer desire is also linked to the recently emergent and continually growing middle class in the southern suburbs. This pious middle class has begun to demand the same access to leisure that other neighborhoods of Beirut have long enjoyed, but with the caveat that the leisure activities remain consistent with their lifestyle. The market is responding rapidly.

The new market demand for sites of pious entertainment demonstrates the socio-economic and political transformation of the Lebanese Shi‘i community over the past 30 years. Indeed, the 1990s saw the consolidation of an urban Shi‘i middle class in Lebanon, the result of greater educational and sectarian institutional support in the community, as well as remittances and high rates of return emigration. In addition, the rampant neo-liberal economy that characterized the late Rafiq al-Hariri’s reign during the 1990s encouraged global capital circulation across sectarian groups. It also affected the development of exuberant consumerism within urban centers in Lebanon -- epitomized by the fantasy-like downtown, reconstructed by the real estate company Solidere. The southern suburbs were no exception: Effective municipal governments participated directly in the improvement of the built environment, collecting taxes, improving infrastructure, beautifying neighborhoods and encouraging private investment. An increasing number of high-end apartments were built, catering to a pious middle class with specific lifestyle demands. This shift was embodied by one man who, ten years ago, was a low-profile, selfless individual working behind the scenes. In 2007, he receives visitors proudly in his trendy office, wearing Diesel jeans and smoking a Cohiba, regaling them with stories of his latest trip to Paris.

The dates 1998 and 2000 are significant ones in the development of the pious recreational sector. The first year was the nadir of a real estate depression in the country, during which investors and institutions began diversifying their sources of income. The founders of the first amusement park in the dahiya, Fantasy World, testify to how its initial success helped them deal with the dropoff in real estate business at that time. Other entrepreneurs looked to this model as a possible economic alternative as they moved into the entertainment sector. The second date, 2000, marked the end of the Israeli occupation of most of south Lebanon, a moment when, in the words of one woman, “We could breathe again.” She continued, “People wanted to go out again, especially the youth. People wanted to be out and about. It’s natural, because we could breathe. The war wasn’t with us all the time anymore.” The cultural aspects of the Shi‘i Islamic sphere in Lebanon underwent particularly striking growth between 1998–2000 and the summer 2006 war. During this period, the relative calm along the Lebanese-Israeli border led Hizballah to prioritize cultural production, encouraged investment in the dahiya and fueled a growing desire among the party’s constituents -- especially youth -- to embrace the leisurely aspects of life after a period of chronic warfare.

In addition, Hizballah itself is involved both in promoting the development of the pious recreational sector and in defining the relationship between leisure and morality. Party-run municipalities provide support to specific entrepreneurs, and indirect censorship takes place via unofficial boycotts of cafés or restaurants in the dahiya that do not fit within the party’s notions of moral standards, led by committees resembling “neighborhood watch” groups. Demonstrating this entanglement, al-Inma’ Group’s manager -- who is not officially affiliated with Hizballah, but whose business includes party members among its shareholders -- underscores the importance of building spaces that can provide “trust and security” for their clientele. Those qualities are not only material but also symbolic; he mentions “spaces where children would not be off ended or hit and where wives would not be harassed or made to feel uncomfortable.” However direct or indirect these relationships are, it is clear that the party does exert a certain control over the opening of recreational spaces and the defining of “appropriate” sites, at least in certain neighborhoods in the dahiya. This enmeshment was highlighted by a woman who is a prominent party member, as she responded to a question about the recent increases in pious leisure sites in the dahiya. She answered that it was “natural” for society and the party to be working together, saying, “Our society is helping a great deal with this. So today, you see that there are shar‘i swimming pools, for example, and you find, as you mentioned, cafés, and these things are increasing a lot. And it is under our control, I mean, it’s not outside our control. Even many of the owners of these projects make sure that we are in support of the project, because we have our organizations and centers, and people ask us, ‘Can we go to this place? Is there a problem with going to so-and-so’s place?’ It’s not Hizballah that’s doing it. I’m saying that the society, people are demanding these projects, and are also asking our opinion of these projects.” How one feels about Hizballah’s involvement in this process depends in large part on the extent to which one identifies with and supports not only the party itself, but also the hegemonic understandings of piety and morality that it promotes. Some people feel stifled by the hala islamiyya and view the party’s enmeshment with it as an unwelcome form of moral regulation or policing. While, for the most part, dissenters seek their recreation elsewhere, there are attempts to provide alternate spaces within the dahiya as well, such as UMAM Hangar in Harat Hurayk. Established by the son of a bourgeois family originally from the neighborhood and his German wife, the Hangar seeks to establish a space of cultural debate contesting Hizballah’s domination and reclaiming the right to position oneself against the pious milieu. As such, it also attracts visitors from outside the dahiya.

Another area of contention has to do with the establishment of restaurants and cafés catering to a middle-class clientele. For example, despite the popularity of al-Saha and Fantasy World, where prices are low compared to similar locales elsewhere in Beirut, there are people who think that the prices are too expensive for the dahiya and who either cannot afford to eat there or choose to take their business elsewhere. Others note that, given the levels of poverty that persist despite the emergence of the middle class in the area, those who have money to spare should be giving it to those in need rather than spending it on recreation. As one woman put it: “Recently, there has been a lot of living for appearances, you know, the ‘high life’ and I don’t know what. And these are the rich among us, but we have a lot of poverty too, especially after the last war. There are people who lost everything, people who lost their homes. So a person has to be moderate in these things…. And if you see a person in need, it’s better if we think of each other and take care of each other.”

Located among these various interests and perspectives, young people in the dahiya who consider themselves to be pious Shi‘i Muslims are playing a crucial role in defining and demanding these sites. As Hawra’ put it, “You go to places that fit with your values. You can tell immediately, from the place, the setting, if there is alcohol, you can just tell. And when you are living somewhere, you know about the places.” This zone of comfort -- or space of entre-soi -- is relative to each person’s history and experiences: Some youth who consider themselves pious do not mind going to cafés in Beirut which serve alcohol and play dance music, though they themselves may choose not to drink or dance, while others refuse to sit at tables where alcohol is being consumed or even to enter the establishment. Time of year is also relevant here, and during Ramadan, for instance, people who might frequent restaurants with alcohol on the menu during other months cease to do so temporarily. For some, it is about how blatant a violation of moral standards appears to be. “It is one thing if there is a table with a few people drinking beer sitting there, but it is another thing when it is a bar, and all it is are people drinking and dressed like that and dancing.”

Another crucial factor here is a general sense among many within the pious Shi‘i community in the dahiya of the importance of individual moral responsibility and intention in choosing one’s leisure activities and sites. Faith and religious commitment are understood to exist in varying degrees, and to change over one’s lifetime and even from month to month. Piety is meant to be something that one strives for, but is understood as something that is difficult to attain. It was common for youth in the dahiya to express a hope or desire to “someday be that committed” so as not to go to certain restaurants, or dress in certain ways or want to go out as often, but this was usually cast as an admirable but unnecessary goal for the moment. This belief facilitates a certain amount of leniency on the part of many young people with regard to their own choices as well as those of their friends and families. Yet it also opens new spaces for moral censure and sanction, especially regarding practices related to sexuality, such as zawaj mu’aqqat. Casting contracting a temporary marriage -- or even choosing to have coffee in a café that has beer on the menu -- as a decision subject to individual moral intention, in fact, makes it more possible to place blame squarely on the shoulders of the person who makes that decision. This deflects attention from the broader social context. Belief in the mutability of faith and religious commitment should not be mistaken for moral relativism, as such belief works in relation to the interpretations of dominant maraji‘, one’s personal trajectory, shifting community norms and patriarchal social structures.

It remains to be seen what the long-term ramifications of these intersections of party controls with market demands and investor goals related to leisure will be, and more so, how these dynamics may both influence and be influenced by the debates and desires of the new generation of educated pious Shi‘i youth. This is clearly a generation that is bringing its own interpretations, tastes and desires, including a desire for piety itself (variously interpreted), to the hala islamiyya, thus contributing to shifts in the norms and practices of daily life. In this regard, pious Shi‘i youth are like youth in other communities and neighborhoods of Beirut and elsewhere, negotiating self and community, voicing claims and contesting boundaries, hoping and desiring invented futures.

Endnote

[1] See, for example, Pardis Mahdavi, “Meeting, Mating and Cheating Online in Iran,” ISIM Review 19 (Spring 2007).

Filed under: