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Lost Lebanon

By
August 11, 2006

On July 10, 2006, I departed from Lebanon’s Rafic Hariri International Airport for the long trip back to Los Angeles. I had been in Lebanon for the wedding of my boyfriend’s cousin. During our six days there, we visited the Jeita Grotto, pure limestone caves filled with stalactites and stalagmites, and took the Teleferique, a steep ride up the side of a mountain in the town of Jounieh, to a breathtaking view of the coast and the Mediterranean Sea. We lay in the sun at beach resorts and sipped local wine poolside.

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Because my boyfriend Usama’s cousin was getting married, we enjoyed several celebratory dinners with his extended family, many of whom had flown in from various cities in the United States, as well as from London and Moscow. While many of his family members remained in Lebanon throughout the long civil war that plagued the country from 1975–1990, plenty of them had fled the violence. Like scores of Lebanese, they were now dispersed in cities around the world.

He commented on the sound of fireworks echoing from the surrounding mountains. "Imagine how loud it would be if those were bombs."

The wedding ceremony was held in a Syrian Orthodox church, with the service conducted by a wizened church patriarch in Syriac, a dialect of Aramaic. The reception was held in Beit Meri, a popular resort town in mountains above Beirut, and was fuelled by excellent food and nonstop dancing.

The following Sunday night, immediately after the World Cup final, exuberant fans paraded down the waterfront corniche, waving Italian flags and lighting fireworks in the sky. Usama, who left Beirut when he was six years old, commented on how the crack of the exploding fireworks created a loud, thundering echo amplified by the surrounding mountains and the nearby Mediterranean. He said, “Imagine how loud it would be if those were bombs.”

Lebanon has survived decades of war and occupation, perpetuated by a complex web of warring factions. On my two visits to the country, first in December 2004, and again this past July, it seemed that everywhere I went was filled with history; there were countless stories of suffering, oppression, and battle. Yet while the Lebanese did not seem interested in forgetting their nation’s troubled recent history, they seemed very interested in overcoming it.

Perhaps Beirut-based architect Bernard Khoury epitomizes this paradox. He has designed several buildings in the city’s downtown, including the much-publicized BO18, a nightclub on the site of a devastating 1976 massacre. Khoury’s underground open-air club, which resembles a bunker, has been called a “metaphorical” attempt to acknowledge the site’s historical importance—while also serving three hundred dollar bottles of Champagne. Over the past few years, Lebanon had become a tour stop for popular music acts; rap artist 50 Cent performed there in June, and Liza Minnelli was scheduled to give a performance in late July.

The Lebanon I witnessed was filled with buoyant people, proud of their country and proud of their ability to rebuild and resurrect from a bloody history. To me, Lebanon was united in its dedication to managing its own political affairs.

Up until July 12, Lebanon was a country on the rebound.

The Lebanon I enjoyed vanished two days after I left. Many of my boyfriend’s relatives who I had spent time with during my visit to Lebanon chose to evacuate shortly after the attacks began. They paid hundreds of dollars for taxi rides through backroads in order to escape to Syria on their way to their homes in the U.S. and Russia.

The U.S. evacuation effort finally got underway after eight days of near-constant attacks by Israel, and the U.S. government dropped the steep fees for evacuation of U.S. citizens only after widespread criticism. For the time being, Usama’s parents have decided to remain at their home in Beirut.

"I pray that the situation improves ASAP since the number of dead, injured and displaced is increasing and the area of destruction is also increasing fast."

After raising their children in New York they returned to Lebanon several years ago, convinced that the country’s history of violence was over. Usama’s father works at the hospital at the American University of Beirut (AUB), which is amongst the most technologically advanced hospitals in the country and has been fully functional throughout this ordeal. However, the hospital has been unable to help many of those injured in the attacks because of the widespread bombing of the major roads that connect the country. Furthermore, without explicit Israeli permission, trucks are not allowed on any of Lebanon’s remaining roads, making it nearly impossible to transport the wounded to better facilities.

Usama’s mother has been sending emails to her children, giving them updates on the situation. On July 19 she wrote,

“We slept well last night although the attacks have not stopped. I think the double glazed windows on the second floor are blocking well the noise. In any case, the news is worse today since it seems Israeli forces entered the South by land. The number of the displaced is increasing as well as the number of those leaving the country.”

On July 21, she wrote,

“Thank God, Daddy and I are OK. I pray that the situation improves ASAP since the number of dead, injured and displaced is increasing and the area of destruction is also increasing fast. I want to thank . . . John for the heartwarming photos from the good old days. I pray that those days return sooner than later and I am confident that they could if Lebanon is allowed a peaceful time . . . There is a lot of activity on the sea. I watch war ships and other commercial ships and helicopters flying over the sea evacuating foreigners.”

Usama’s relatives are the fortunate ones. They have dual citizenship, which allows them the possibility of traveling to safer places once they navigate the difficult, expensive, and potentially dangerous exit from Lebanon. The majority of people living in Lebanon, however, must remain there, under continued attack.

The international pressure on Israel is growing, but thus far Israel shows no inclination towards halting or even slowing down their attacks. Recently, Israel called up three thousand of their army reserves in order to aid in a possible ground offensive.

The bombardment continues, making little—if any—sustained impact on Hezbollah itself.

For up-to-date information on crisis in Lebanon, click here.

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To comment on this piece: editors@guernicamag.com


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