One day, while taking a taxi in Beirut, we drive past some men who are shouting out to the cars, trying to hail a taxi back to a place called ‘Shem’.
I ask the driver where that is.
‘Syria’ he says.
He nods and shrugs.
I’m trying to work out how much the taxi fare would cost, but my mind keeps harping back to their grief-stricken faces.
There are more than half a million Syrian refugees currently in Lebanon. The figure is always changing depending on who you talk to, most of the time an exaggeration numbering in the millions, although they’re not far off. For a country of only 5 million and with about 400,000 Palestinian refugees already living in limbo here, this feels like an epic burden for Lebanon. Almost one fifth of the population are refugees.
It’s a hard fact to grasp given how Australia cries foul over the almost nothing number of a few thousand refugees annually (who they mostly imprison anyway). In my mind we are suddenly a pathetic blip on the map of the world. We are an insignificant nothingness of selfishness. We do not possess a shred of compassion. I feel the shame spread through me and see red.
My experience of Lebanon to date has largely been a Christian one. There are two reasons for this. One is that this is the part of the country where my family is from. And the other reason is that it’s the area deemed safest for me to travel to at this particular time. It has already been decided that I am bat shit crazy to have come to Lebanon at all, given the numerous travel warnings advising me not to, so I don’t risk it with trips down south or to Baal’bek and Tripoli.
For most of the trip, I feel an inexplicable sadness about not being able to see all sides of Lebanon. I know deep down that something is missing.
‘They’re different to us’, shrugs the Christian local about their Muslim counterparts.
Are they really though? I question this notion constantly.
I remember my cousin could identify a Syrian refugee almost immediately. I asked him how he can tell.
‘You look in their eyes and you know’, he shrugs.
(Side note: this is also the method used for determining when to overtake a car – I quote, ‘You just look into their eyes and you know which way they’re going to go’, so I think we can all agree that the ‘eye glance’ is not an entirely reliable method either way).
And yet, I still try to catch a glimpse of their eyes. I see darkness, not from an inherent ethnic difference but the product of their tragic hopelessness. They see indifference reflected back from most people. They stop at me and linger a little bit, because maybe they see something different for the first time in a long time. Someone who cares, who gives a shit about what happens to them.
I remember seeing one family huddled in an abandoned building in Jounieh, the only light coming from a single candle. They’re watching a broken TV. I can’t stop looking at them or thinking about how they’re squatting next to an extremely expensive mansion and how that mansion belongs to friends of my friends.
One of the boys sees me looking, and I turn away quickly in shame.
We are all of us the same.
By the port in Beirut we are walking along the promenade searching for a restaurant. The call to prayer wafts out from a nearby mosque. It’s the first time I’ve heard it in the two and a half weeks that I’ve been there. My face lights up.
‘You like Islamic culture’, the Christian boy says, clearly bemused, as though I’ve been waving Muslim-themed pom poms in my hand.
‘Can we stay and listen?’ I ask.
So we sit on a bench, watching the sea and listening to the deep song of prayer. I watch the men as they approach the mosque. When it’s almost over I look over expectantly, hoping to hear more, but it has stopped now and I feel a slight panic, wishing it would come back.
We resume our walk to the restaurant. It’s a hardly noticeable Italian seafood restaurant by the water in one of the oldest buildings in the city. When we walk in, we’re immediately offered the Ramadan special. This is the feast the Muslims eat after fasting for an entire day. If you can imagine a normal Lebanese feast comprising of almost everything available in the kitchen and then some, you would probably struggle to understand just how epic the Ramadan feast can be.
They bring us generous plates of hommous, baba ghanoush, fattouche salad, bowls of chips and potatoes, small manouches and mini pizzas, a soup course, plates of pasta, an entire fish, roast chicken and roast lamb respectively, cups of apricot juice, bread, fruit, baklava desserts, coffee. It seems like this meal will never end and I am almost crying on the floor from a food overdose comatose. The waiters are wonderful, doting on our every demand, bringing refills of apricot juice; fearing we’re not happy with something and bringing us more of it (‘no please, really, no more food’).
They were friendly, hospitable and wonderful and I am moved to tears at the end of it, wanting to savour the smallest Muslim experience I can find in the country. My friend laughs and says I’m always crying. Another time we’re sitting in a seafood restaurant overlooking the seaside town of Jounieh and the Mediterranean sea as the sun calmly sets over it. I am half drunk on Arak and try to pick up a piece of watermelon with my fork and miss. I finally stab it with my fork, bring it to my mouth and it falls onto my lap. I burst into laughter and out of the corner of my eye I catch a glimpse of the sunset. Suddenly and unexpectedly I burst into tears once more.
The boy looks at me, utterly perplexed.
‘Why are you crying?’
‘I don’t know. I’ve never seen anything so beautiful before in my whole life’.
It’s my second last night in Lebanon and I don’t want to leave. I am overwhelmed by the kindness and generosity of the place. The abundance of love in every place. The way it looks to be constantly blessed with miracles from a deity and cursed by humanity all at once.
Most of all I’m afraid of never returning.
I still think back to that time when we got lost driving to the airport and drove through south Beirut. Trying to ask for directions, my friend leans over and pulls my dress down over my thighs for modesty, as it’s slipped up from putting my feet up like a lounging heiress.
‘This is Hezbollah territory here…don’t ever come here on your own’, he warns, seeing my face light up with curiosity.
He winds the window down and asks the first few men he can find how to get out of here (because we were slightly panicking about being there). The standard procedure in Beirut is to be told to ‘go down this street and then ask someone else’, prompting you to ask about five more people before you find it (if you find it).
The name of the area is Dahieh. In French it’s ‘la Banlieue Sud de Beyrouth’ meaning ‘the southern suburb’. It’s a predominately Shia-Muslim suburb south of Beirut on the way to the airport. Prior to the 2006 bombing by Israel, it was a residential area as well as a commercial area with malls and stores and home to many souks. Now it appears to be a run down version of its former self, with barely there shops, broken buildings and rubble, temporarily propped up with sheets of corrugated iron and messy markets. There are people everywhere, bustling along, selling things, smeared with black dirt from working. They speak differently here and look at us like we’re foreigners.
‘This is where the car bomb went off last month’, my friend says casually while driving through.
I tried to take a photo but he brushed my hand down.
‘No, not here, you can’t take photos’, he warns and he hardly seems phased by anything, so I know not to argue (but I sneak one photo in anyway).
I was scared while driving through here and I had reason to be. Only a week ago, three weeks after coming home, another car bomb killed 22 innocent people. I read lines in an article and feel numb. The words will haunt me, I know it:
‘I heard a huge explosion. It threw me several metres,’ said a woman in her 50s who said she had been talking to her brother in his shop.
‘I don’t know what happened to my brother. I can’t find him’, she said, bleeding from wounds to hands and face.
I picture the men who gave us directions, the lines in their faces and the kindness of strangers. I was there. But I was there, I think, over and over again.
I was there and now I’m here and nothing makes sense anymore.
Later when we’re out of the dangerous suburbs, he gives me permission to bring my camera out to take a photo of something he spots coming our way.
‘What is it?’
Two grown men wearing hats with umbrella propellers attached are trying to sell the hats and other knick knacks to people in the cars, walking through the sweltering, murderous heat of Beirut and facing constant rejection. By now I have recognised them as Syrians, although I can’t look them in the eyes to verify this. My friend finds it funny but I am crying, forcing him to wind the window down and hand them all the spare change I could find. They thanked me profusely, trying to give me the umbrella hats, but I didn’t want the damn umbrella hats.
‘Lat tibke’ my friend says, serious again.
‘Hak, hedde Libnan’
Don’t cry. Just like that, this is Lebanon.
But it’s useless for I am inconsolable.
I know my great-grandparents walked from Sydney to Lithgow selling random knick-knacks and it’s how they survived. I know they had no idea what they were selling; that they would sell contraptions to Australians like can openers, and then later they would struggle to open cans of their own. I know they survived because they were strong and they were lucky to be accepted here.
The Syrians are not lucky but I hope they are strong.
There is no way to extricate yourself from the problems faced by the country where your family is from. It should live and flow freely through us, a souvenir of the hardship faced by all of humanity but especially our own. I always imagined that the compassion I grew up with towards Muslims and Palestinians was something unique to our family. Maybe it is but I don’t think it needs to be.
We should all care. We should all cry. I’m not sure why we don’t.
I couldn’t shake the feeling of nostalgia and sadness throughout the trip. I remember sleeping during the day in my uncle’s house, on a thin single mattress. I could feel the sun on my face. I’d get up every so often, walk around and then go back to sleep again, thinking about all the things I had never stopped to consider. Why don’t I see my family more often? Why don’t I visit them every week? Why did I spend weekends doing nothing, sitting by myself and staring at nothing, when I could have been with them? The idea of spending the day doing nothing but sitting with people, who, up until a few weeks prior to that moment, were complete strangers to me, but are now my family, filled me with such happiness and contentment now. I didn’t need anything else.
‘But aren’t you bored just sitting around in the village?’ they’d ask me.
But it’s not just sitting. In the words of a lovely friend currently going through a bad patch, it’s about ‘practising mindfulness’, being aware of every second in that moment. The brief moment saying goodbye to my younger cousin, as she tries to feed me a rolled up bread sandwich of laban (a local sheep’s cheese), tomatoes and cucumber.
‘Eat!’ she laughs, forcing it in my hand.
These people are part of me now, even if I can’t always see them.
I remember just crying to myself in my room, thinking about my grandparents and what they must have felt having to leave this place. All of a sudden I’d hear the church bells ringing and the distinct sound of chatter and happy shouting. These sounds would comfort me; remind me that I’m not alone.
There are so many Lebanons and they live inside every single person in every single place. We are all connected. It’s a wonder to me that we don’t see that almost intrinsically, that we don’t look to the Egyptians, the Iraqis, the Syrians, the Iranians, and most of all, the Palestinians and feel that same pulsating heart beat run through us all. I’ve always said that if they could just figure this out, if they could just hold hands, they would be stronger than anything else. That keeping them divided has been the Western Imperial Key Strategy for decades now. This is the only way there will be peace – to not give in to that strategy, to rise above the differences and come together.
I must have seen so many things emblazoned in my memory. I cried so many tears and laughed hysterically. I felt that happiness was something I had a never ending access pass to. I danced with a manic fervour and stood still with quiet contemplation. I wondered and remembered and imagined what it was once like, letting every emotion course through me freely. Physically I felt marked by the scorching sun and cooled down with the reprieve of the great sea. I held snow in my hands and felt the chilling cold air in the highest point of the mountains. I prayed and climbed to great statues and sat in cave-like churches at the highest point of the mountains. I threw a coin in the Jeita Grotto, asking for it to keep me alive and bring me back here, hoping we could be given more than one wish, but if we didn’t, still opting for the wish of returning over surviving. I lit a candle asking the Virgin Mary to keep me safe. I climbed to the top of the Harissa and I kissed our Lady’s feet. I savoured every morsel of food offered to me. I watched as the lights flickered on and off and sat in the darkness, thinking, wondering, breathing with life, untainted by negative thoughts, appreciative of only that moment. I spoke multiple languages, words foreign even to me, emerging from places I didn’t know existed. I drank the thick, mud-rich, dark liquid of their coffee and smoked the argileh at midnight on a busy street that ran slightly diagonal on a steep incline, while a boy asked the waiter if he would look the other way as I stole a tiny cup of coffee as a souvenir, and the man smiled and indulged my adorable thief-ish ways.
I fell in love with the place and in return some of its people fell in love with me. I found another home in a place I never imagined could take me in like that. A place that could love, love, love me unconditionally.
There, I came home to a place and left a fragment of my soul. The return to this one home has been especially painful but I feel better knowing that at one point, I was whole.