Written by Unrealisdick
I was skeptical, to say the least. Then again, I’m always skeptical.
The ride to the hostel was, for the most part, quiet. It was the first time in a long time that I had had any reason to leave Beirut. As a creature of routine, you have to understand that I had my reservations about leaving home for two nights to venture to a part of Lebanon I had never before visited, with twelve total strangers, save for one or two of the organizers of the retreat.
We all arrived in separate cars at around nine o’clock in the evening. We were cold, tired, and hungry. When I first laid eyes on Auberge Beity, I was impressed by its humble beauty. I was told to pick a bedroom on the top floor and, naturally, I chose the very last bedroom on the right side of that narrow corridor. It was, at that point, the only bedroom that wasn’t occupied and the possibility of being on my own brought me some comfort; I was well out of my element.
Dinner was served. The spread consisted of a vast array of home-cooked delicacies -- spiced rice with meat, salad, and pizza -- filling all four corners of the long table. I took a seat and ate my food, observing from left to right with mild curiosity as smaller groups of three or four spoke and laughed with one another, while I was simply grateful for having an excuse not to say much.
Let me just tell you that I was in for a surprise. You see, there is no possible way to remain so aloof in closed quarters no matter how asocial you think you are. It just can’t be done. So when one of your hostel-mates walks up to you and says, “I hear you’re the one to go to for drinks,” you will be disarmed and, before you know it, you’ve made a new friend.
After watching a movie together, we all hurried off to our rooms and when I saw that someone else had set up camp in the room I had chosen, I found that I didn’t mind anymore.
The next day is when the real magic happened. Everyone stumbled tiredly into the conference room clutching their Sex & Society booklets and coffee cups. Before we got down to business, we went in turns introducing ourselves and offered suggestions as to how we could communicate more respectfully. Being the only transgender person there (that I knew of, of course), my suggestion for respecting correct pronoun use was met with warm welcome and I felt comfortable sharing a space with people who “get it” or would at least make the effort.
Some of the articles sparked debate on topical affairs within the MENA region: the invisibility of the lesbian, the ‘homosexual’ as a social construct, sexism as perpetuated by patriarchy, the obsessive focus on gender norms and stereotypes to uphold heterosexuality as a normative state, able-bodied privilege in sexual contexts, the disadvantage of queer people of color (POC), the introduction of the term ‘cisgender’ as a silent form of privilege…Really, there was little to be desired after nearly seven hours of thorough presentation and deliberation (some of which thankfully took place over the occasional coffee break in between). I would say I learned a great deal more about my hostel-mates from the angle of their discourse than I did when each one stated their favorite color during introductions.
After a scrumptious hot dinner, we sat in a circle on the common room floor to read and discuss the socio-political and economic plights of the Syrian and Palestinian refugees. I have to admit, I did not contribute very much to this particular discussion not because I was not interested, but rather I was not well-versed on these matters, for I did not have to be invested; my privilege afforded me the ability to remove myself from the realm of politics, yet hardly without consequence. Listening to the group trading ideas and arguments back and forth, I was reminded of something I had read not too long ago: “You may not think about politics, but politics thinks about you.”And in a well-timed effort to drive that point home, our organizers then separated us in groups of three and four and assigned us an exercise in privilege in which we were asked to rank person(s) according to their social and political privileges.
Finally after a long day of hard work, we settled in cozily with blankets and cushions and watched our second and last movie during that retreat: Boys Don’t Cry (1999). And I cried. I cried hard. I couldn’t see the faces in the dark all around me, but occasionally a gasp or an outraged string of swears would drift to my ears and, for the first time in a long time, I didn’t feel alone in a room full of people. I don’t think any one of us expected to have the wind so severely knocked out of us, even those of us who had already seen the movie. When the lights came on, some of us dazedly walked out of the common room and trudged downstairs to sit on the balcony just to breathe again. One by one, more joined us on the balcony and before we knew what was happening, the small space was lined with closely gathered bodies sharing blankets, chocolate, Jagermeister, and stories from our individual pasts. I will never forget that night we spent together out in that bitter cold, crying together, holding one another and laughing hysterically into the early hours of the morning.
What I initially thought would be a purely intellectual pursuit ended up being educational in more ways than I could have ever imagined. My cool reserve had completely melted away by the end of the second day and, in its place, sank a heavy sadness at knowing it was soon coming to an end. If you ever get the chance to do something like disappearing into the mountains for two days with twelve strangers, don’t be too opposed to the idea. You might end up meeting an Existentialist who reminds you that life’s absurdity can be every bit as beautiful as it is daunting, or maybe a Silent Observer who questions more than she is ready to admit. You’ll probably run into a Mediator who makes socializing look so easy only to teach you that appearances can truly be deceiving. I met an Artist who had a knack for transforming the undesirable into the compelling and an Empath who consistently managed to pick up on my feelings before I did.
And if I had the chance to do it all over again, I’d probably still be every bit as skeptical. But, hey, at least I know that being a Skeptic is not such a bad thing when you’re welcomed with open arms in a little society where being yourself is the only norm.