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How I married a Lebanese-Palestinian

How I married a Lebanese-Palestinian: Experiments in sectarianism and US passport proliferation


By Belén Fernández

One unforeseen consequence of my visit to Lebanon this summer is that I am now married to a Lebanese-Palestinian named Hassan.

I met Hassan in the fall of 2006, when my friend Amelia and I were hitchhiking through south Lebanon in search of Hezbollah guerrillas. Hassan and his friend Muhammad did not meet the qualifications but did possess a Range Rover, thus persuading us to temporarily shelve sectarian discrimination.

Amelia and I had been en route from Tyre to the south Lebanese town of Bint Jbeil, site of a key battle between Hezbollah and the Israel Defense Forces during the July war. Hassan and Muhammad promptly hijacked our itinerary, however, and we ended up in the Christian area of Gemmayze in Beirut, with the justification that there were no unexploded cluster munitions inside the Gemmayze nightclubs.

Throughout the course of the evening, Hassan and Muhammad came to be jointly referred to as the Palestinian-Israeli Conflict, such that Amelia and I might distinguish them from the other Hassans and Muhammads that had picked us up hitchhiking. The designation was a result of the fact that Hassan was half-Palestinian and Muhammad was an ex-conscript of the South Lebanon Army, proxy force of the Israeli occupation. In the spirit of national reconciliation, the Palestinian-Israeli Conflict now operated a car rental business together in Tyre, possibly as a cover for less straightforward lines of work which required the Conflict to regularly exchange small packages with assorted nightclub patrons.

Hassan’s father was born in the Palestinian village of ‘Illut near Nazareth and fled alone to Lebanon in 1948 at the age of 12. He was taken in by a south Lebanese family and later married a Lebanese woman; other highlights of his life included discovering a sister in a refugee camp in Tyre several decades later and having his liquor shop bombed during the Lebanese civil war by opponents of alcohol sales. He died in 1990, leaving Hassan with rights to a substantial amount of land in ‘Illut – indefinitely in the care of family members who remained in the village after 1948 – and a house in the south Lebanese town of Chehabieh. As a testament to his father’s trajectory, Hassan held a Palestinian passport issued to refugees in Lebanon.

Between the death of his father and the Israeli withdrawal from south Lebanon in 2000, Hassan was active in the Shia Amal militia. At one of the Gemmayze nightclubs, Muhammad alerted us to potential discrepancies in his counterpart’s wartime affiliations:

MUHAMMAD: Amal tried to eradicate the Palestinians, ya’ni.

This allegation of betrayal prompted a heated exchange within the Palestinian-Israeli Conflict, in which:

  1. Hassan accused Muhammad of betraying not only the Palestinians but also the Lebanese, and boasted that at least his own transgressions had not resulted in several months of Lebanese jail time.

  2. Muhammad accused Hassan of participating in the absorption of Lebanese resources by refugee populations.

  3. Hassan reminded Muhammad that the Palestinians were not the ones seeking to divert major regional waterways.

At this point Amelia and I intervened with a roadmap to peace, the first provision of which was that the Palestinian-Israeli Conflict be replaced with a Sunni-Shia conflict. Hassan and Muhammad proved to be invalid negotiating partners, however, when they called for national unity and resumed buying each other drinks.

Amelia and I departed Lebanon at the end of 2006, around the time Hezbollah erected its tents in downtown Beirut. When I announced my intention to return in May of 2008 following an extended stay in Turkey, Lebanese national unity had still not been achieved, and Hassan volunteered to come retrieve me from the Syrian-Turkish border.

I arrived to the border at Bab al-Hawa to learn that:

  1. the Israeli half of the Palestinian-Israeli Conflict had relocated to Germany, where he was attempting to involve himself in banking scandals,

  2. the Palestinian half of the Palestinian-Israeli Conflict had abandoned the car rental business in favor of trafficking Iraqis to Europe, and

  3. Damascus still required seven hours to verify that I was not a Zionist agent, while the Syrian border officials supplied me with tea, cigarettes, and philosophical discussion:

SYRIAN OFFICIALS: Assad good?
ME: Assad good.

Hassan expressed his deep understanding of the obstacles faced during international travel:

HASSAN: I am sorry you have to talk to Syrians.

Beyond sister Syria, Hassan’s international travel experience consisted of floating for several hours – Palestinian passport in hand – in the Aegean Sea off the coast of Izmir, during a bungled attempt to travel to Greece with the Turkish mafia. When I thus questioned Hassan’s qualifications in the field of Iraqi-trafficking, he assured me that he had learned to circumvent international obstacles by routing the Iraqis through Latin America. Elaboration of the arrangement was prevented by the Syrian border officials’ desire to discuss more pressing matters:

SYRIAN OFFICIALS: Bush no good?
ME: Bush no good.

It was not until that night in Beirut that Hassan and I arrived at the decision to marry. Hassan had marked our exodus from Syria with the purchase of four bottles of Bekaa Valley wine, which we consumed on the roof of his house in Chehabieh while Hassan responded to phone inquiries from Iraqis. He could not fathom why the Syrians had not used frequent visits to the Bekaa to hone their winemaking skills, but conceded that perhaps Syrian wine was merely a victim of history and of the amputation of the fertile Golan Heights from Greater Syria.

Moving on to other amputated portions of Greater Syria, Hassan declared his intention to return to ‘Illut in order to reclaim his land from his father’s relatives, who were presently constructing their own empire and could seldom be prevailed upon to share the proceeds by traveling on their Israeli passports to a Western Union in Jordan. Direct transactions between Israeli and Lebanese Western Unions were not permitted; telephone communications were often complicated, as well:

HASSAN: I go to Western Union in Hezbollah neighborhood, I tell man I want to call my family in Israel. Man he look to me, he say, ‘Israel?!’ I say, ‘Oh sorry, I mean Palestine,’ he say, ‘Okay go to phone number four.’

Hassan had met his relatives once before, when they journeyed to the Israeli-Lebanese border following the IDF withdrawal from Lebanon. Subsequent meetings were thwarted when the Israeli side of the fence was rendered off-limits, and when Hassan was denied a Jordanian tourist visa.

Pouring us each another half liter of wine, Hassan outlined the repatriation options available to him, which consisted of:

  1. traveling illegally to Germany and marrying an arbitrary German in order to eventually obtain a German passport and travel to Israel.

  2. traveling illegally to Italy and marrying an arbitrary Italian in order to eventually obtain an Italian passport and travel to Israel.

  3. retroactively declaring sympathy for the South Lebanon Army and seeking asylum in Israel.

The pouring of successive half liters produced a fourth option, which was to simply marry me in order to eventually obtain a US passport and travel to Israel. Our engagement was interrupted by a phone call from Iraq, followed by a version of pre-marital cold feet in which Hassan entertained the idea of marrying me off to an Iraqi, instead, for 20,000 USD; in the end it was decided that Iraqis were undependable spouses:

HASSAN: Ya’ni one minute he say he want go to Holland next minute he want to go to Spain.

According to Hassan, my own daily life would be eased with the acquisition of a Palestinian passport, the benefits of which included reduced wait times on the Syrian border and the option to enroll in UNRWA elementary schools. As for the suggestion that the Palestinian passport did not at the moment correspond to a coherent geographical entity, Hassan countered that the Iraqi passport might soon be in the same boat.

When I asked Hassan how long of a marriage process he envisioned, he reminded me that guerrilla warfare required the erosion of enemy forces over time, and that it had taken 22 years to drive Israel out of Lebanon. He hoped for a more personally edifying outcome to the latest struggle, however, and one that did not entail:

  1. the incineration of his jeep by departing IDF contingents.

  2. a refusal by Amal to reimburse him for the incinerated jeep, despite the fact that it had been used to transport arms for the resistance and despite the fact that Hassan had spent 10 years hiding in bushes lobbing said arms at the Israeli occupation.

  3. a friendly reminder from Amal that Hassan was Palestinian.

The Iraqi occupation also refused to be expelled from Lebanon in an orderly fashion, and the phone rang from an occupier wanting to change his destination from Spain back to Holland. He changed his destination to Baghdad a few days later, when the Lebanese labor strike of 7 May gave way to street battles:

HASSAN: Maybe it make him nostalgic.

Having postponed our marriage so as not to overlap with the hostilities, Hassan and I drove from south Lebanon to Beirut on the first night of the conflict. The aim of the visit was to assure the Iraqi of the soundness of his European aspirations despite the closure of Rafik Hariri International Airport, which Hassan maintained would reopen shortly as just that and not as Condoleezza Rice or Mahmoud Ahmadinejad International Airport.

In Beirut Hassan proposed that Siniora may have merely been trying to curb automobile emissions via sectarian crisis, and we took advantage of the empty streets to engage in a high-speed tour of roadblocks – each with a different political affiliation, set of weapons, and opinion on how to reach the Hamra neighborhood in west Beirut. In order to avoid suspicion, Hassan referred to all of the factions as habibi while sipping wine from a bottle, at least meriting laughs from the Lebanese army. His exchange with representatives of Saad Hariri’s pro-government Future Movement was translated for me as follows:

HASSAN: I make joke with him, I ask him, ‘What’s going on in this fucking cityanyway?’ He look to me, he think I’m serious, he say, ‘Where you come from, moon?’ I say, ‘No, I come from south Lebanon,’ he say, ‘Oh, I understand.’”

Hezbollah, on the other hand, refrained from investigating Hassan’s origins – or from commenting on the wine bottle – thus calling into question its commitment to sectarianism.

Hassan and I served as the token guests of a hotel in Hamra that night and visited the would-be Baghdad-bound Iraqi the following day. Once Hassan had placated him with cases of beer and promises of female Russian companionship to ease his wartime woes, we attempted to return to south Lebanon, avoiding the roadblocks by driving down the wrong side of the highway. The wrong side of the highway eventually ended in a roadblock, as well, and we reversed our trajectory to await the opening of the proper side.

The opening occurred after dark and consisted of a bottleneck of cars, burning tires, and Druze. The pro-government adherents of Walid Jumblatt’s Progressive Socialist Party descended upon individual vehicles demanding to know if the human cargo within was Sunni or Shia, the latter being the inadvisable orientation. After experiencing sympathy flashbacks to identity card-based killings on Lebanese motorways in 1975 – the Lebanese ID card indicates the religious denomination of its holder – I decided the setting was ripe to test the battle prowess of the travel document Hassan would soon be applying for:

ME: (waving US passport in the air)

I had been under the impression that a simple show of resoluteness on the part of the global policeman would deter any deviation from the principles of international humanitarian law. Despite strong historical evidence in favor of this conviction – such as the US request that Israel exercise restraint in its 2006 war against Lebanon, which it did by firing only one large projectile onto Hassan’s front patio – the debut of my passport met with Druze indifference and the following weapons analysis from Hassan:

HASSAN: If Apache helicopter he don’t work when US attack the Panama, Israel she don’t buy.

In the end Hassan’s own passport scored a surprising coup, based on the fact that all Palestinians were presumed to be full-blooded Sunnis, and Hassan was able to claim residence in Ein el-Helweh refugee camp in Saida rather than the Shia Crescent of south Lebanon.

The Druze permitted us to proceed down the highway, which was strewn with large rocks and more devotees of Saad Hariri, who also approved all Palestinian documents. By the time we reached the Litani River, Hassan had begun to debate his personal role in the Sunni-Shia divide:

HASSAN: My mother she is Shia.

The divide eventually relocated to Doha, Qatar, to resolve the Lebanese political impasse, leaving Hassan and me to our marital endeavors. After careful consideration Hassan had opted to go ahead with the acquisition of the agreed-upon equipment – despite the passport’s suboptimal performance vis-à-vis the Progressive Socialist Party – so as not to cause the arms industry any undue suffering; over the next several weeks I thus became quite familiar with three particular buildings, translated from the Arabic by Hassan as:

  1. “Sheikh Office,” located in the town of Tibnine,

  2. “Document Office,” located in Beirut, and

  3. “Office of Stupid People,” located in Nabatiyeh.

The third entity was unfortunately the link between the first two.

The marriage process began at the Tibnine office of a certain Shia Sheikh Mugniyah, where I temporarily acquired phrases in matrimonial Arabic while Hassan tried to convince me that we were required to conduct a virginity test on a white sheet in the adjacent room. He was overruled by Sheikh Mugniyah, who found the idea amusing but infeasible:

SHEIKH: There is too many file cabinet in that room!

The next step consisted of driving one of the sheikh’s assistants around south Lebanon while he collected various signatures on our marriage documents, after which we ended up at the house of Sheikh Mugniyah for some final stamping. The sheikh dragged me into his library, where I was subjected to numerous volumes of Islamic jurisprudence before Hassan succeeded in refocusing attention on the stamp.

The daily Tibnine-Nabatiyeh-Beirut circuit was then inaugurated, and at each office we were directed back to one or both of the other two, usually by someone eating a sandwich. Hassan lamented the practice of awarding job contracts based on things other than personal merit, and considered renaming Nabatiyeh’s Office of Stupid People “Office of Halliburton;” he became more optimistic when Beirut’s Document Office actually accepted the documents, and when Michel Sleiman was elected president of Lebanon.

One of the Beirut employees instructed us to return to his office after three days to retrieve the finalized papers. We did so to find him with a new sandwich and new evidence against Hassan, this being that Palestinian males could not be married by Shia sheikhs. Leaving the papers in the care of Document Office, we proceeded to “Palestine Office” – also in Beirut – to determine if there was any way to become a Shia Palestinian.

There was, but it required advertisement of the conversion on certain forms of identification, thus potentially inhibiting Hassan’s future ability to extricate himself from hostile factions on the highway. Other options articulated by the Palestinians included remarrying with a Sunni sheikh, or trying our hand at civil marriage in Cyprus.
Hassan appealed to Palestine Office to exercise a veto over Document Office decrees; the Palestinians asked if he was confusing them with Hezbollah, who had recently attained veto power in the Lebanese cabinet.

Hassan dealt with the latest impasse by:

  1. cursing the French for creating the state of Lebanon.

  2. resurrecting the initiative to sell me to one of his Iraqis, but noting that the Sunni-Shia matter would still apply.

  3. pleading atheism, to no avail.

In the end Hassan elected to circumvent the authority of Document Office and take our marriage papers directly to the US embassy. We returned to Document Office to find that the papers had been lost.

I left Lebanon shortly after this incident to travel to Italy to meet my parents, who offered a nuanced approach to matrimony:

PARENTS: Why can’t your friend go to Israel with a Palestinian passport?

Hassan meanwhile pursued his own nuanced approach in my absence, and phoned me during my second week in Italy to inform me that our marriage had gained system-wide recognition in Lebanon thanks to a certain Suzanne at Document Office:

HASSAN: I cry and I tell Suzanne, ‘One man with sandwich he lose my marriage papers and now my wife she leave me, she tell me this country make her crazy and she must find another man from another country to marry.’ Suzanne she say to me, ‘I am so sorry, Hassan, this is very terrible story.’ And I tell her, ‘Yes, Suzanne, and now I want to drive to south Lebanon and cross the Israel border and let them to shoot me, and this way I will die in my land but without my heart.’ Suzanne she cry when she hear this and she say, ‘No Hassan, you cannot die when there is girl who want to give you green card!'

Suzanne dispatched Hassan on a final pilgrimage to Tibnine and Nabatiyeh, after which she intercepted the new papers from the man with the sandwich, with no mention of Sheikh Mugniyah’s spiritual incompatibilities with Palestinians. Hassan has promised that I can choose the location of our honeymoon, as long as it falls within the boundaries of Lebanon or Syria.

*************

Belén Fernández is currently completing a book entitled Coffee with Hezbollah, which chronicles the 2-month hitchhiking journey through Lebanon that she and Amelia Opalińska conducted in the aftermath of the July 2006 war.

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