Friday, November 8, 2013

Lara Deeb and Mona Harb's "Leisurely Islam"

Lara Deeb is associate professor of anthropology at Scripps College and the author of An Enchanted Modern. Mona Harb is associate professor of urban studies and politics at the American University of Beirut and the author of Le Hezbollah à Beyrouth.

They applied the “Page 99 Test” to their new book, Leisurely Islam: Negotiating Geography and Morality in Shiite South Beirut, and reported the following:
We were pleasantly surprised to find that page 99 of our book captures many of its key themes. Leisurely Islam is about many things: how and why cafes and restaurants boomed in south Beirut in the twenty-first century; the entrepreneurs who opened these businesses; the usually unsuccessful efforts of the Islamic political party Hizbullah to control this new leisure sector; the views of religious leaders on common cafe practices; the aesthetics of cafe interiors; and, as you might guess from the book title, the ways that pious youth navigate both ideas about morality and the complex sectarian geography of Beirut as they piece together ways to have fun with a clear conscience.

Page 99 conveys a sense of the tensions among the three key agents involved in producing and controlling leisure places in south Beirut and their clientele: Hizbullah, Shi‘ite jurisprudents, and cafe owners. The page highlights the late popular religious leader Sayyid Fadlallah’s view that “seeking a rapprochement between jurisprudence and the contemporary world can also be understood to suggest that jurisprudence should adapt to the social world, and thereby facilitate the needs and desires of contemporary youths.” This is an accurate summation of his opinions that are so important in this community. Page 99 also notes that cafe owners try to “act as self-proclaimed paternalistic authorities, monitoring and regulating” youths’ behavior. But perhaps the most important sentence on the page is: “But youths are not passive recipients and can be quite vocal in contesting authorities that interfere with their lifestyle choices.” This sentence encapsulates one of our key arguments in the book - that pious young Muslims are working out their own ways of living a good and moral life which includes both abiding by (their own interpretations of) religious and social values and tenets and having fun with their friends. This really isn’t an earth-shattering idea, but unfortunately in the U.S. today (and beyond), pious Muslims are often described in one-dimensional terms, so that readers and listeners are left with the impression that religion is the only important thing in their lives. One of the reasons we wanted to write this book was to counter with that assumption.

What is missing from page 99 is our argument about how new practices of leisure are affecting the geography of Beirut as a whole. The page gives the reader a glimpse of that idea when it says “Cafes and restaurants in Dahiya are providing youths with many social and spatial opportunities close to home,” but that barely begins to scratch the surface of how urban space is being negotiated and imagined by pious young people as they seek out different places to have fun.
Learn more about Leisurely Islam at the Princeton University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue