Welcome to Lebanon, they say when the power goes off in a small, fresh lemonade vendor shop.
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.
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.
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.
‘What’s the Arabic word for pomegranate?’ My uncle from Australia asks randomly.
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.
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.
‘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.
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.
‘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.