Leisurely Islam

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Leisurely Islam
Negotiating Geography and Morality in Shi’ite South Beirut
By Lara Deeb & Mona Harb
Princeton University Press –  £16.95

If nothing else, this book ought to be read, even if only to set a few misguided records straight. Admittedly, as the (rather good, yet quizzical) title Negotiating Geography and Morality in Shi’ite South Beirut might suggest, what’s written herein, may be considered by some to be nothing other than a mighty social juxtaposition – for all the wrong reasons.

Although as Jergen Baek Simonsen of the University of Copenhagen is quoted as saying on the back cover: ”This well-argued and well-organized book will greatly interest all those working on the subject of the contemporary Middle-East, in particular Beirut and Lebanon. The authors challenge the view that the southern suburb of Dahiya is closely linked to Hezbollah and they introduce a number of theories to better understand the new forms of leisure that have surfaced in Dahiya during the last decade.”

Said ”new forms of leisure” appear to be throughout, written with an anchored form of subliminal guilt. Reason being, there’s a wrought explanation of sorts, that admittedly goes some way in defending the need/pursuit for leisure; but regardless of some of the seemingly random interviews, one cannot help but register an undercurrent of silent, yet elongated paranoia.

For instance, in Chapter Four (‘Flexible Morality, Respectful Choices, Smaller Transgressions’), the two authors Lara Deeb and Mona Harb write about the presence and the influence of music in the South Beirut area: ”Music is not officially regulated in Lebanon (as it is in Iran, for example), and youths’ ideas about the acceptability of certain forms of music and singing vary widely. Most people in the vanguard generation, jurisprudents, and Hezbollah deem haram (prohibited) any music conducive to dancing, or ”that excites the sexual instincts.” And most pious young people understand this to be the dominant view. Beyond this limit, however, there is a great deal of variation and variability in the perspectives of moral authorities. Interpretations about music’s permissibility have fluctuated throughout the history of Islamic jurisprudence.”

Now there’s surprise (the last sentence that is).

I’m sure ”interpretations about music’s permissibility […] throughout the history of Islamic jurisprudence,” have indeed ”fluctuated.” Even if only to appease Islamic jurisprudence – and all its variations thereof – to such a disturbing degree that leisure (and, lest it be said, most forms of music), is no longer that which it purports to be: leisure (or music).

Were this not the case, then why feel the need to defend it as such?

A prime example being the following excerpt from the chapter ‘Producing Islamic Fun: Hizbullah, Fadallah, and the Enterprises’): ”Moral leisure is a sound business venture in south Beirut. Fady, a returnee from the United States who opened a successful cafe in the area, understood this well […]. Operating a cafe in Dahiya requires abiding by the basic tenets of not serving alcohol or playing songs – and failing to do that is simply a stupid business decision. Private Entrepreneurs recognised this quickly and established themselves as the main producers of moral fun in south Beirut. Hizbullah’s role in the leisure sector is less powerful, despite party efforts to dominate cultural production as well as control behaviour in and outside cafes. Religious leaders have also shaped leisure in the area.”

Quoted right at the beginning of said chapter, the authors quote the above Fady as having said: ”If you want to have good business, you need to follow the requirements.” As to whether or not readers of this rather cryptic book will become any more enlightened as to what those requirements actually are (and in turn, will ultimately remain), is not just anyone’s business – but rather, those who want things their way.

And their way only.

David Marx

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