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Andrew Nemr’s tap dance to faith

A tap dance rhythm that started with his parents in Lebanon. Part 2 of series

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Andrew Nemr. Photo: Pauline Dolle/A Journey through NYC religions

 

We heard about this tap dancer, founder of Cats Paying Dues and disciple of the legendary Gregory Hines and Savion Glover, who had become a tap dancing preacher on the Lower East Side, so we went to check him out.

Sitting in a conference room at the TED space in downtown Manhattan where he is a creative fellow, Andrew Nemr appears relaxed. His legs are crossed. His right arm balances on the chair’s armrest and the other drapes across his knee. He leans slightly towards me as we talk, but most of his body weight rests against the back of the chair. He is attentive, keeping eye contact and sitting still as each question is asked. Before answering, Nemr tilts his head back and looks up slightly. He gives full answers that methodically address every angle of the question. When I interrupt, he stops on a dime, addresses my interjection, and picks up again where he left off. His hands gesture from the wrists as he describes growing up in a Lebanese family, his involvement in tap dance from a young age, his love of improvisation, and his increasing involvement in urban church life.

The 36-year-old Nemr has been pounding his feet since he was three years old, and step-by-step, the jackhammer-speed movements became second-nature to him. When he improvs tap dances, he feels in his innermost being that he is just being who he is. His feet intuitively respond to his desires, and he seems to not even be thinking as he dances. However, Andrew will admit that it has taken nearly 30 years to feel this comfortable inhabiting the space of improvisational tap.

Learning to improvise is a journey toward having the communication between one’s mind and body become almost instantaneous so that the two are working off the same switchboard instead of going through a third-party operator.

When mastered, improvisational dance leads to a reconciliation of time and space, mind and body, thought and action. Nemr even sees in his dancing a sort of picture of how a person receives and responds to a Higher Power. There is an interplay of time-costly effort toward some greater harmony that then becomes easy, unhesitating concord. The timeless flow of improvisation that a dancer makes is a vision of the sort of communication that can be made between man, woman, God, and the world.

A few days later, standing in the midtown studio space that he reserves on a monthly schedule, Nemr conveys the same patient, thoughtful mindfulness, giving the same patient thoughtful answers, but now with bursts of tapping in between each reply. Today, he seems to be in his natural habitat.

 

Conversation. Photos and gif by Pauline Dolle/A Journey through NYC religions

 

While I ask questions, he is dancing. He does not look at me; instead, he stares down at the shiny metal baseboard circling the floor of the dance studio. His upper body rocks stiffly as his feet swivel and scuff the floor in agitated bursts. When I’ve finished asking each question, he returns to a poised, still state and ponders his answer before speaking. He says that his dance, his talk, and his sitting all have a tap dance rhythm that started all the way back to his parents’ experiences in Lebanon.

 

Roots in Lebanon

Joseph and Marlene Nemr had met in an Arabic Christian youth group in Beirut, Lebanon. The group was action-oriented and emphasized “faith in terms of action first, then using that action as a context for defense.” Demonstrate the love of God through action, and then, the recipient of that love will be led to ask about the reason for it. They also felt that there shouldn’t be any border signs between themselves and their Muslim neighbors.

At the end of the 19th century, the Lebanese capital Beirut became “The Switzerland of the Middle East,” and was compared to Paris and Las Vegas. The city was very beautiful, reclining in the poetic, picturesque landscape between the mountains of central Lebanon and the Mediterranean Sea, a boom town centered on finance, trade, and tourism. By 1890, half of the cultivated land in Mount Lebanon was for mulberry tree cultivation, and half of the total value of Beirut’s exports was silk.

 

Sunset in Lebanon. Instagram photo: Andrew Nemr

 

Following World War I, the French took over Lebanon and promoted a strong European influence and a French style secularism, which was harshly opposed to a uncontrolled Muslim religious presence on the public square.

For a time, Lebanon remained a place of charm and relative ethnic peace floating on the eastern shore of the Mediterranean Sea. It was a kaleidoscope of colorful ethnic enclaves knit together with a cosmopolitan sensibility.  Maronite Christians, Roman Orthodox Christians, Druze, Sunni Muslims and Shia Muslims were the largest groups. In total, there were eighteen officially recognized religious sects (See Info Map at end of article). Beirut, which is the largest city in the country, sat right on the Mediterranean sandwiched between Israel to the south and Syria to the east.

 

 

Though students at Protestant schools, the Nemrs lived among the Maronite Christians, an ancient community of Catholic Christians. Up to the 1940s, the Maronites used to be the largest religious group in Lebanon and was favored by the French colonial government. However, demography and political developments unsettled their primacy. New ethnic and religious ideologies arose to challenge secularism and the religious status quo and eventually tore the country apart.

After independence in 1943, the government was secularist, though the positions were distributed by religion according to census figures. The Maronites tried to hold onto their advantage in the government by freezing the population figures from the 1932 census, which named them as a majority. But the Muslim population likely outnumbered the Maronites by the 1940s. Several catastrophes moved many more Muslims into the country.

After the state of Israel was created in 1948, more than 400,000 Palestinians established refugee camps in southern and eastern Lebanon. They made up more than 10% of the Lebanese population. The Lebanese government tried to structurally isolate the Palestinians from integration into Lebanese society. As a result, they became a cheap labor pool to be exploited by local businessmen and government officials. The poor Palestinians’ resentment grew.

Then, a drastic drop in the demand for silk and mulberry bushes displaced hundreds of thousands of Muslim Shiite farmers into a “Belt of Misery” of slums around Beirut.  In 1957, the Maronite president rigged the elections to extend his term in office. A civil war broke out among the elites. United States president Dwight D. Eisenhower sent in between 10,000 and 12,000 Marines to put a cap on the civil fighting.

The social tensions, strikes, labor unrest, and student protests opened the way for various political and religious movements to arise, creating a tinderbox of potential nationwide conflicts. Economic inequality was rising markedly.

A second wave of Palestinian refugees flowed into Lebanon in 1967 following the Six-Day War between Israel and the United Arab Republic (consisting of Egypt, Syria, and Jordan).  The 1969 Cairo Agreement undermined Lebanon’s formal unity by giving the Palestinian camps independence from Lebanese sovereignty and a Palestinian state within Lebanese borders.

The boiling politics compromised the faith of Lebanese Protestants also. Secularist policies in Lebanon wanted to create secularist public institutions that would exclude the religious element in Lebanese society. Of course, this strategy didn’t work very well with the believers. They rushed to build their own institutions. That was what the Muslims were doing.

In the late 1960s Nemr’s parents experienced this secularist trend in their own Lebanese Evangelical Schools in the Christian Beirut district of Achrafieh.  They were part of a high school Scout group sponsored by the Church of God (founded in 1912). By 1969, a new leadership pushed the Scouts to join the National Scout Organization, which was more secular. Some of the Scout’s local supporters then laid the groundwork for a more Christian-orientated youth group. This move was not popular with church leadership that was used to formal, official channels of control, which reflected Lebanon’s traditional communal structures.

However, the young Christian students like Joseph and Marlene were enthusiastic about the “all-in” approach of the new organization which was called Al-Muntaliqun, roughly meaning “The Front Runners.” The name avoided explicit Christian associations while embodying a spirit of “rushing forward” to help Lebanese society.

The students couldn’t be stopped. Each project that they championed had to make a meaningful impact on the community so that people would ask, why are these Christians so concerned about us? One their main projects involved the selling of local Lebanese handicrafts and furniture made by the Lebanese Evangelical School for the Blind.

The group of about forty youth then started venturing further out from their Christian community. These ventures had more social impact, but also brought them into the political fires that were spreading through Lebanon.

After a successful effort with the International Festival in Balbakk that created a cross-communal gathering, the youth group took on the task of starting a medical clinic in Houla, a place near the border with Israel.

One early morning, the group was hauling supplies to build the clinic when they were surrounded by men.

“You couldn’t tell which group it was,” Joseph recalls. “Or even how many groups were involved. You could just hear [their guns].”

The rushing-into-society youth pow-wowed about what to do. They told the men that the youth were their to help the local people.

The armed team decided to accept that the youth group was benign.

“Okay,” they said. “We understand that you want to do something good, but who are you?”

In the dark early morning hours, this was a scary question in the context of a society splintering apart along confessional lines. Someone else interjected, “You’re Christians, right?”

The youngster’s sponsor spoke up, “If we’re doing good, and the good is needed, what difference does it make?”

Everyone held their breath.

Finally, the gang told the young do-gooders, “Go ahead.” But tactfully, the Lebanese government later came and took all the credit for the clinic.

Joseph looks back on their leader, Tony Khalil, with great admiration. He was a layman, a businessman, who had an influence on people’s lives. “The way he talks, the way he walks, the way he does his business, had more affect on me than anything else for me to be solid in my Christian faith.”

However, there were some divisions in the group. Some of the Palestinians asked why they could help the villagers, but not the people next door in the refugee camps. Their question touched an electric fence in Lebanese society.

There was a distinct line drawn between Lebanese natives, whether Christian or Muslim, and the refugees, who were becoming more restless with their exclusion.

The youth group discussed the issue. Most argued, Joseph says, that if they went to a camp that they were going to be seen as taking sides. Finally, they pushed forward with a seemingly non-controversial project of replacing an open sewer in a refugee camp with a closed one. It was a sewer too far. The youth group was shaken up.  The following year all hell broke loose in Lebanon. A fierce civil war commenced. Everyone scattered back to their own groups.

 

Exploded ammunition dump of PLO, Beirut, Lebanon., 1982. From U.S. Marine Corps Library.

 

The match that lit the war that lasted from 1975 to 1980 was an incident of corruption. The government positions were not only parceled out to officially recognized religious communities, the corruption was also. A former president of Lebanon, a Maronite Christian, received the fishing rights on the coast of the city of Sidon. This left the poor Muslim fishermen beached. They vigorously protested, and the mayor of Sidon was assassinated. The killing, purportedly by a Lebanese Army sniper, turned the protests into politics and then into war.

On April 13, 1975, PLO gunmen corralled traffic after a ten-thirty morning mass at the Greek Orthodox Church of Notre Dame de la Delivrance and opened fire on the departing congregation, among whom was a Maronite leader Pierre Gemayel.  Gemayel escaped, but four other congregants were killed. In retaliation, later that day, a Maronite militia stopped a bus carrying Palestinian militants and their Lebanese sympathizer, and killed 27 of them.

The different factions claimed districts in the cities and country side as their own. They then set up roadblocks where they could check the government-issued identification cards of passing civilians. Because of the Lebanese Confessional System, these I.D. cards noted the religious orientation of their bearers. If the religion on the card matched that of the gang at the roadblock, the civilian could pass. If not, the civilian was beaten, tortured, abducted, or killed.

If the youth group had been on their nighttime excursion to build a medical clinic only a few months later, it is likely that they would have met hooded gunmen waiting to kill them.

The Beirut of the golden years was gone. The beautiful kaleidoscope of ethnic and religious diversity had become a jaggedly cracked ruin.

After trying to maintain their life in the midst of the fighting for several years, Joseph and Marlene Nemr, each in their mid-twenties, decided they could not stay in their home country. Bullets ricocheted outside their apartment building. The gangs who had taken over the country demanded that every individual take a side. In 1976, they left their jobs as a bank teller and a kindergarten teacher, left their home, and took a bus from Beirut to Paris. The Canadian consulate offered the couple amnesty and they flew to Edmonton, Canada, to live in the basement of a host house. There, almost half a decade later, their son Andrew was born.

 

Nemr's parents home in Lebanon with bullet holes 

###### Info Map on the religions of Lebanon ######

In the 4th Century A.D., a monk named Maroun grew tired of all the theological debates firing tempers in his city of Antioch, so he withdrew to the mountains. There, he taught an ascetic approach to Christianity to the existing pagan population. Following his death in 410 A.D., his followers established themselves as the “Maronites” at a monastery called Beth-Maroun in the town that is now known as Qalaat al-Madiq in northwest Syria. His disciples spread to teach Christianity to other inhabitants in the region. The city of Antioch, now in modern Turkey, was once one of the important spiritual centers of Christianity. Many important Christian debates took place there, leading to many of the divisions of the early church.

The Maronites faced persecution over one such division, the discussion of the humanity and divinity of the person of Jesus Christ: was he one nature divided into human attributes, or was he was both perfectly human and perfectly divine, two natures that were each united and whole? The Council of Chalcedonia in 451 decreed that Christ was both man and God, having two natures in one body, and the Maronites held fast to that decree. However, some opponents of the Chalcedonians attacked Beth-Maroun. To escape the attacks, the Maronites relocated to the Mount Lebanon area of central Lebanon.

 

 

As you can see in the map above, the religious populations of Lebanon are regionalized but also quite mixed together in some areas.

In the central, mountainous region of the Lebanon, Maronite Christians settled around the northern and central areas of Mount Lebanon.

The Druze settled on the southern part of Mount Lebanon. They are an esoteric, tight-knit sect. They began in Egypt in 1017 out of a branch of Shia Islam called Isma’ilism. However, they are not much appreciated by other Muslims.

The northern edge of Lebanon is mostly Sunni farmland, and historically a pro-Syrian outlook. The largest northern city is Tripoli.

To the northeast, the Becca Valley and its main city Baalbeck is Shia. The southern hill region of Jabil Amel is largely Shia Muslim, but the large southern coastal cities of Tyre and Sidon are majority Sunni. See detailed religion map of Lebanon.

 

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Tomorrow Part 3: Andrew Nemr, improvisational living in the United States

 

Previous Part 1: Andrew Nemr tap dancing New York City

 

 

 

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