Bride and prejudice

2nd June 2000 at 01:00
Picture by: Jay Ullal

Words by: Aleks Sierz

"Two households, both alike in dignity In fair Beirut, where we lay our scene, From ancient grudge break to new mutiny, Where civil blood makes civil hands unclean . . ." Okay, Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet was set in Verona, but this scene glimpsed in Beirut, Lebanon's devastated capital, in 1983 is a reminder that hope can exist amidst catastrophe. The groom is Muslim and the bride Christian, and the road is the "Green Line", which split the city into warring east and west sectors during the country's long civil war.

Marriage in the middle of a horrific conflict is an eloquent testament to the power of love, a triumph of hope over bigotry. It is a rich theme in literature, from Virgil's Omnia vincit amor (Love conquers all), which is echoed in Chaucer's Canterbury Tales; to the "ancient grudge" between the Montagues and the Capulets in the bard's play; and Tennyson's "Tis better to have loved and lostThan never to have loved at all".

The Beirut couple in their white clothes - a colour that symbolises innocence, purity and peace - look as if they're on the run. Inevitably, they recall fictional lovers, such as Malory's Launcelot and Guenevere, Dante's Paulo and Francesca, Wagner's Tristan and Isolde, and even the Bront s' Rochester and Jane Eyre or Heathcliffe and Cathy.

We are fascinated by the optimism of couples who fall in love and fight to hold on to it, despite the barriers put up by circumstance - and parents. In fact, Romeo and Juliet is such a universal play because it can be set in any context in which two communities are joined by mutual hatred - from Northern Ireland (Catholic ad Protestant) to the Middle East (Israeli and Palestinian). Love that flourishes despite such impediments attracts us because of its genuine passion and emotional truth.

In the case of 1980s Lebanon, the southern part of which, until last week, was occupied for 22 years by the Israeli army, the environment looked exceptionally hostile to love. A fierce civil war from 1975 to 1990 claimed 150,000 lives in a country divided between Maronite Christians, Sunni Muslims and Shi'ite Muslims.

The tensions between these groups were exacerbated by Lebanon's neighbours: Israel, which supported the mainly Christian South Lebanon Army, and Syria, which aims to control the Hizbullah Islamic militants.

In such circumstances, the idea of love flourishing like a flower in the rubble is life-affirming. But most tales of love crossing boundaries between feuding factions end, according to tradition, badly. In Romeo and Juliet, after all, the lovers die.

Perhaps this is the touch of realism that reminds us how fallible and vulnerable humans are: only fairy stories such as Cinderella or Sleeping Beauty have happy endings. In real life the phrase "happily ever after" is an aspiration rather than a fact.

Web links Articles on Lebanon in: welcome.htmlwww.odci.govciapublications factbookle.html www.middleeastnews.comLebanon.html For Romeo and Juliet, try: users.50megs.comzekscrab CummingsShakespeare romeoandjuliet.html www.gradesaver.comClassicNotesTitlesromeoandjuliet.html This picture appears in Time magazine's Great Images of the 20th Century: the photographs that define our times (Time Books) .

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