Worried Lebanese

thought crumbs on lebanese and middle eastern politics

The receding masquerade اي أمل واي مستقبل لعيد البربارة؟

Posted by worriedlebanese on 03/12/2009

Tonight, some children in Lebanon will be putting on their costumes or masks, painting their faces and going around their neighbourhood knocking on people’s door, singing and dancing to them and eating something sweet or receiving a bit of money. It’s not Halloween they are celebrating, but an old and local custom, St Barbara Day.

The similarities between the two feasts is quite striking. This explains why many uninformed people in Lebanon call it “halloween”. But there are some differences between the two, even if they are gradually disappearing. Adults used to partake in it (before its banning during the civil war for security reasons). It envolves local songs telling the story of St Barbara (that most children do not know anymore) and the sweets that are offered are local sweets (uwaymat, mshabak, maakron) and one desert specific to the feast (a kind of porridge). Costumes used to be specific too. The most common one was charcoal painted faces because one legends claims that this is how the actual saint disguised herself.

Last october, I was surprised to see how much Halloween has moved in our cultural landscape. Friends were organising halloween parties (one party had a “scottish theme” and all the men were wearing quilts), and my cousins were preparing pumpkin heads for their children and they had bought for them many disguises (mostly superheroes or other cartoon characters). So seeing Ste Barbara’s feast being less celebrated seemed a rather obvious outcome. It looked like a poor repeat with very little significance.

What is the significance of Saint Barabara day?
Ste Barbara is a feast that has been celebrated in Lebanon from time immemorial. It is particularly interesting because it has very little religious significance. Saint Barbara is by no means an important saint in the Catholic or Orthodox Canon. She is a martyr among many. And her name doesn’t seem to have ever been very popular (which is sometimes an indication of the relevance of a Saint to a pious community). Moreover, the commemoration of her martyrdom has a very slim religious side to it; there are no visits to shrines or special masses, no priest accompanying the people in disguise…

So the only meaning it has is communal. It is a communal feast that brings together people in a common cultural celebration, one that has a common meaning to them, one that gives a common meaning to their existence as a group. Such feasts are very important in the life communities. These communities are “cultural groups”, i.e. groups bound by culture (in scientific terminology, they are identified as ethnic group, but this terminology spurs useless debates outside academia, so I’ll stick to a another label while referring to the same thing). Culture is here understood as a web of meaning that enables individuals to make sens of their existence and their ties to others. It implies shared meanings and converging froms of identification (the way people situate their collective identity in space and time). You can see how important a feast such as “St Barbara day” is. It alludes to a shared history, it perpetuates the life and death of a person that is considered relevant to the group. When you look a little closer at that person’s story, the picture becomes even clearer. St Barbara is a martyr. She died because of her faith. She tried to flee persecution by hiding under another identity, but the political power caught up to her and killed her.

So basically, St Barbara’s story reflects the way Christian communities perceive their own history in the Middle East. A religious group dominated by another religious group (i.e. Muslims), assuming another identity to try to preserve itself. Such a story was particularly relevant before the establishment of Lebanon as an independent state. But even after that, it stayed relevant because it alludes to a particular perspective of history, one in which Lebanon incarnates a haven for religious minorities, an alternative story to the fate of Barbara.

How can we interpret the demise of Ste Barbara’s day?
First of all, this local feast is suffering from a very tough competition. The prevalence of american culture and the huge marketing behind halloween (with films, tv series, cartoons, products…) is impossible to overbid. So the first signs of this prevalence is a sort of contamination. The two feasts are increasingly celebrated in the same way and have the same significance to children who call them by the same name when speaking English or French.
On a national level, Ste Barbara is a christian feast while Halloween is perceived as a secular feast (even if its origins are religious). So Halloween become much more politically correct with regards to intercommunal relations.
On a communal level, there is no strong cultural production to support Ste Barbara (in contrast to the intense cultural production behind the Shiites commemoration of Ashoura that is slightly more than a century old yet extremely vibrant).

3 Responses to “The receding masquerade اي أمل واي مستقبل لعيد البربارة؟”

  1. For some odd reason, this post didn’t appear on the blog when I meant to publish it. So here it is, posted on its original date.

    I’d like to add that there is a more sustained reflection behind this posting. What I tried to present are the different elements that make a “Lebanese community”. People usually stop at the legal definition. In this post I try to show its socio-cultural significance. Lebanese communities are often referred to as social and political actors, which they not. They lack the deliberative institutions and the elite structure for that. They cannot “act”, they cannot express a will. On the other hand, they are “cultural groups” (i.e. ethnic groups) held together by a common understanding of who they are, what they are and who/what they are not.

  2. PN said

    Hey WL,

    Thanks for this post & belated wishes for Ste Barbara’s day.

    Hope you had a good one🙂

  3. Hey PN
    welcome back, it’s been a while
    Does one extend wishes on Ste Barbara’s day? بربارة مباركة؟؟؟؟؟؟؟
    I didn’t know that.

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