Go Back to Where my Grandparents Came From

Welcome to Lebanon, they say when the power goes off in a small, fresh lemonade vendor shop.

Welcome to Lebanon, when you pass the fifth checkpoint for the day.
Welcome to Lebanon, when Syrian refugees beg you for money.
Welcome to Lebanon, says the gentleman friend driving without a seat belt, doing 180km, talking on the phone with one hand, holding my hand with the other and half drunk on whiskey.

I don’t know how to describe this world to you. I know I’ve dreamed of it forever and so it’s hard to distinguish between my dreams and reality.

lebanon

From the moment the plane landed, my mouth remained agape at the sights before me. The plane dived down across the Mediterranean Sea, on a tarmac lined with rocks. A hazy fog sat across the country in the distance, derelict buildings scattered and heaped among each other, breezy coastal towns leading up and around a tangle of looming mountains.

One lone fisherman’s boat floats across the sea in the distance.

My cousin, who I’ve only just met, drives us from the airport to the village, although ‘drive’ is a generous verb to describe what he’s actually doing, which is death defying anarchy with a mechanical vehicle. The luggage doesn’t fit in the boot. No worries, he keeps the boot open and ties the luggage down with rope. We don’t put seat belts on (no need!) and there are no traffic lights or lanes on the road. It’s sheer madness. I almost can’t take it. Everyone is speeding, swerving, taking over at random. There are multiple near collisions and yet somehow they all manage to avoid fatally crashing. Horns are constantly beeping like mad. They throw rubbish out the windows for good measure, to really remind you that you’ve traveled back to 1983. Some number plates are scrawled in pen. They’ll park wherever they feel like it. Most cars are missing their rear view mirrors.

Anything goes here in Lebanon.

As we drive towards the mountains, they point out the devastated buildings from all the wars, which sit in stark contrast next to sleek, modern renovated buildings.

‘Beirut is ugly now. We wish you could have seen it when it was nicer. Before the war.’ They add, in case I didn’t know about the decades of civil war that ravished the city.

My cousin, who doesn’t speak English, turns to me and says ‘budeek cheeseburger?’ Do you want a cheeseburger?

‘Don’t be scared’, they say as I squeal yet again when a car narrowly misses us while making a sharp turn around a cliff’s edge, wide enough for just one car.

This place, this place, this place.

‘What’s the Arabic word for pomegranate?’ My uncle from Australia asks randomly.

‘Ramen’ I say automatically, unsure where that came from.

You feel the pollution in your eyeballs.

Every home here in the village has statues of the holy mother Mary. How they love Mary, la Adra. Both simple and elaborate shrines of her can be found along the road on the way up, with the locals constantly putting fresh flowers around her.

The local boys speak about me in Arabic, thinking I don’t understand, but I do and yes I guess I am a tasty babe.
I scream at a table in Ehden as I hear loud bangs like gunshots directly behind me. It’s just firecrackers being let off. The boy who has taken me there laughs at me and tells me to stop making a scene. But I am jumpy here. I’ve seen the news. I know what’s up.

You can say you’re not hungry here but you may as well be running naked around the field speaking in tongues, for all the power that statement holds. You will eat and you will eat everything. Five of us Australians were eating a light meal and declared that we were full and couldn’t possibly eat another bite. My Lebanese cousin looked at us incredulously.

‘This is normally a meal for one person!’
It’s quiet here in the mountains, but it’s also buzzing with life.
You’re awoken by the sound of the cockatoos howling in the morning, sometimes even the donkeys too. People’s voices carry loudly as they argue and chatter. There are always fireworks and loud Arabic music from the many local weddings, which most of the village attends.
‘Hawal’ – everyone says from their balconies as you walk past, even if they don’t know you. It means come over and stay. It’s a custom here because you’re always welcome. They don’t expect you to take them up on it but some of them really want you to. One day I want to do a ‘hawal crawl’ and go into everyone’s house, just for kicks. I laugh when old men on the side of the road say it.
I’m a stranger here, different to them, but I’m also just like them in a lot of ways. It feels like coming home after a long time on holiday. I feel the familiarity of the place, seeping through my pores. I recognise the fig and apricot trees, not from dreams but from memories as a child.
I remember those trees my grandfather planted in the hopes of recreating a small piece of his life back here, and the adventures we had as kids, traipsing through the bright green foliage, trying to find the great, big mulberry tree. I can still remember staining our faces with the crimson dark red as we ate all the berries we could find.

‘There’s a big fat one there!’ My brother would yell out, lunging forward to grab it, unafraid of falling. We would put them in a bucket and eat them on the porch swing outside during summer. I see the same porch swing on my cousin’s rooftop in a small village called Bane, where my mother’s family comes from.

‘Do you sleep on the swing sometimes?’ I ask my cousin. He laughs.
‘Not really but some people do’.

I told him how my Geda used to sleep on a similar swing back in Australia because it was too hot inside, but he smiled and said he already knew that.

My grandfather dreamed of nothing else but going back to Bane, his tiny little hillside village in the mountains, on the way to the cedar trees. He had to leave due to economic problems and no job opportunities. The idea was to make enough money in Australia and eventually return. But years of war and conflict made it impossible, not to mention that his now Australian born children wanted to stay in Australia, their new home. Instead he died in a hospital bed in Sydney. He told us how he could see Jesus and Mary speaking to him at the end. My religious grandfather; the compassionate, fiery, political, socialist with a giant heart of gold. His voice was booming and he always sounded angry, even when he was over the moon with joy. You couldn’t even begin to imagine how much he loved his grandchildren.
I can’t help but wonder what he would say now if he were here? If he could see the Syrian refugees living in tents on the side of the road? If he saw some locals teasing the children, desperately trying to sell things to survive? I know it would break his heart and he would get angry at the local boys, threatening to beat them with his belt (but he was all talk and would never hurt a fly). Then he’d buy the trinkets from the little kids. I know today he would be one of the few here who would feel sorry for the fleeing Syrians; well me and him together.

I wish more than anything that he was here so I could nestle my head on his cushion-y shoulder, rub my face up to his white bristled beard until my cheeks go red (something that once used to scare me away, with my sensitive porcelain white skin). I would smile and tell him how much I love his country and he would yell back saying he loves me more than any country. I miss him here more than anything else. I see his face in every tiny begging child.

***
the below is unedited and taken straight from my notebook…

It’s been one week now and I’ve gone backwards and forwards in time. I’ve adored walking through the village and being invited into everyone’s home, waking up to drink ahwa/coffee on the rooftop, watching the clouds below, getting burnt easily by the powerful sun, watching the same sun as it slips away from the mountains after 8pm, hearing the church bells ringing, being woken by donkeys and cockatoos, homemade manouche zaatar after Sunday mass, little kids in the village saying bonsoir as they walk past, the same kids stopping to teach you how to play backgammon, the men yelling over card games, the power turning off whenever it wants, drinking way too much arak than is socially acceptable for a woman here, meeting cousins I didn’t know I had, being the first from the family to meet the most beautiful little baby cousin, crying when I saw the place where my grandparents were born, crying when I saw my geda Gedas’ house and leaving a little message for him for wherever he is now, meeting my grandmother’s brother who, despite being sick, can clearly remember the train line he used to take back in Sydney, lazy soldiers at checkpoints waving us through, riding a donkey, driving in expensive cars with fancy boys, a boy turning up constantly to my uncle’s house wanting to simultaneously take me out and marry me, speaking Arabic, English and French all at once, watching a man turn people away because they were Syrian refugees, crying after meeting the sweet French speaking nuns, breathtaking views of sheer cliff drops, winding roads along the mountains, driving through the village where my great great great great great Irish grandfather fled to. Finally understanding where it all began, wondering where it will all end up.

There’s so much life here. How has so much happened in such a short time? It truly feels like I’ve been here forever now, like they never really left.

Time moves slowly here, a whole day stretches into eternity, filled with endless, tiny gold-lined cups of coffee. Walking up one of the higher mountains to find a tiny cave church made from rock, candles lit, I take some incense and hold it in my hand, understanding finally how and why our communities back home are so religious. Coming from a place like this, how can you not be? You see God here in everything.

‘You are a strong person, hat allah (I swear to god) you are’, one of the local boys says to me before dropping me off to be on my own in Beirut. ‘You’re not afraid of anything’.

But this country has me weak at the knees; it has stolen my heart from out under me in the dead of night. I’m afraid of never coming back.

My friend said back home that coming here would help me to better understand who I am and why I am the way that I am. I have always wondered about this part of my identity, coming from two distinct places. Seeing the quiet, complacent, sweet and humble nature of my mother’s village, knowing that she has those qualities and passed them onto me, versus the loud, boisterous, slightly crazy nature of my dad’s village and knowing that he passed those qualities onto me as well. Laughing because the people in each place are so different, despite their villages literally existing only a few metres away from each other. All of this brings me a kind of comfort and security I didn’t know I could feel. I feel changed, blessed, safe. To know thyself. What a wonderful thing.
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bright city morbid lights

‘Set in what looks like an old bomb shelter, albeit one that has an incredible retractable roof which gives a night-time view of the stars and city lights…. Well-dressed party goers sit on leather chairs, sipping well-made drinks at tables that are made of coffins, entertained by DJs and bands including a host of international names. When you sip one of their martinis it’s hard to believe this used to be a war zone. If you don’t mind drinking on a coffin in an old refugee camp, B-018 is one of the coolest clubs in the world.’

4 DAYS TO GO.

girls in the city

My two best girl friends are about to be reunited on the other side of the world, blinded by the big fat lights of New York and I’m so happy, even though I miss them every day. But before you know it, they’ll come home to their little house, and there they’ll be living with my other two best girl pals (Lena D, eat your heart out).

Soon, summer again; we’ll wear cotton dresses and ride bicycles over to their house after spending the whole day at the beach, and collapse onto stolen furniture, drinking gin and tonics in iced jars. Fall onto the grass under a makeshift tent leftover from a themed house party and all things will be wonderful – you’ll see.

(but before that, advice of the year: ‘come back safe you. I mean it. Whole pieces. No bits’ – Georgie)

the crazy ones

People from here keep telling me to change my flights to somewhere that isn’t a constant and never ending war zone. And yet upon asking locals from Beirut for advice about that whole neighbouring civil war unrest thing, they each said:

‘Bring summer clothes’ ‘turn the media off’ ‘attend this list of rooftop parties’.

Consensus: zero fucks given.

8 days.