Beirut… You Suddenly Breathe Life Into Me

Tuesday 29 October 201912:36 pm
إقرأ باللغة العربية

I first visited Beirut in the early 1990s after the end of the Lebanese Civil War; at the time I was not even ten years old. My family would visit from Damascus every summer, as my paternal aunt was married to a Lebanese man, and we used to stay in their house for a week every time we visited.

When I think of those years, some scenes inevitably come to my mind: the external walls of my aunt's home in Sin El Fil, riddled with bullet holes, opposite a building with a brick roof with a huge hole in it probably as a result of a shell; they told us this was the old presidential palace. It was strange for me that the roof of a presidential palace had such a big hole without anyone taking the initiative to fix it. Buildings in the area of Forn El Chebbak filled with small holes which my aunt's husband used to tell us were from bullets; I think this was the first time that I came that close to the idea of war.

On every visit, we would listen to the same conversations: my mother's memories in Beirut before the war, its elegant streets and beautiful markets, of my aunt's migration along with her husband, son and daughter to live in Damascus with the escalation of Lebanon’s civil war, and of my uncle’s adventure when he returned to Beirut to check on the house and was hijacked by an armed militia man at a checkpoint after they found out his religion, narrowly evading what was called "death based on your sect", of the migration of Lebanon's youth in search of a better place; of a huge destruction that reached places that I never saw.

I memorized Majida el Roumi's song "O Beirut, mother of the world", even though I never understood much why we would apologize to a city. Beirut appeared to me to be a dazzling city of unmatched beauty, so why apologize? It was much more beautiful than Damascus. I remember the beautiful shops, the large supermarkets that contained so many different varieties of foods and desserts that I never saw during my youth in Damascus in the 80s and 90s. They were the happiest moments when our family allowed us to buy whatever we liked, we used to boast to our friends on our return with what we had from clothes, biscuits and chocolate from Beirut. Beirut was the end goal that we aspired to spend every summer in, and our annual present following the end of the academic year; we continued with these traditions for many years.

Exorbitant wealth and elegant buildings paired with abject poverty and simple rural style homes. Beautiful Lebanese people practiced racism towards us, some refusing to talk to us because of our Syrian accent, and because we don't speak French or English
I feel Damascus alive in the streets of a revolting Beirut, Lebanon has put back the smile on my face, and many other faces. Many Syrians are experiencing a sudden love for Lebanon, or maybe a rekindling of an old extinguished passion
For a week now, I've been unable to sleep, in awe of what is happening in Lebanon. I fear missing a piece of news, joke, banner, sign or song, spending most of my time on Facebook and Twitter. Some videos are so beautiful, I watch them on repeat.
A Lebanese friend wrote a few days ago: "It's the first time in 30 years that I find us waking up in the morning but not angry." As for me, it is the first time in years that I wake up feeling happiness, love and some goofy hope. Thank you, Lebanon!

After I finished university and started working, I practically stopped visiting Lebanon – only resurrecting this tradition almost six years ago with the outbreak of the war in Syria, and the transfer of a large part of our work to Lebanon, again we became linked to Beirut in a new way: the small country becoming our gateway to the world.

I visited Beirut dozens of times over the past few years; I remember my first visit after the outbreak of the war here, in late 2013. I was astonished at the time; we lived in Damascus to the daily reality of explosions, shells and rockets, for long hours without electricity, and suddenly I found myself in a vibrant city buzzing with life, lights and filled with Syrians on its streets. Back in Damascus, we became accustomed to an 8pm curfew in a deserted city, and when my friends in Beirut told me that we would have a late night out I spontaneously said: "But that's too late to go home!" At that moment I understood that I had to build a new relationship with this city.

Nonetheless, I don't think that I have come to totally understand Beirut, for it is complex like the rest of the capital cities of our Middle Eastern nations. Exorbitant wealth and elegant buildings paired with abject poverty and simple rural style homes. Beautiful Lebanese people – as well as others who practiced much racism towards us, including some who refuse to talk to us because of our Syrian accent, and because we don't speak French or English fluently.

Loud parties, and endless late nights, cultural activities we can’t even dream of in Damascus which has been transformed into a closed city existing in a bubble outside the framework of our times. Constant fights with taxi drivers who could easily transform into racist monsters against young women and Syrians at the same time – while on the other hand we find beautiful signs placed by owners of shops or passers-by on the street, offering us any help on just hearing our Syrian dialects – which we sometimes tried to convert into Lebanese – unsuccessfully – to avoid any unpleasant situations.

In Lebanon I attended the weddings of my best friends, including those who were forced away from Syria, and those who were received in Lebanon with open arms. I built new friendships and lost others. I said goodbye to many and hello to others, for Beirut became my next stop after Damascus where I said goodbye to most of my friends there during the past few years, leaving only memories that I feel were a combination of sweetness and pain, beauty and ugliness at the same time.

Although I hated its congestion, climate, pollution, and behaviour, I never stopped being impressed by Beirut. Owing it much, I often said: "We have a long way to become like Lebanon. We need years." I was jealous of Beirut, and embarrassed to admit it.

With the end of battles in the Eastern Ghouta suburbs of Damascus – near the home I used to live in – a year and a half ago, I stopped following the news on a daily basis, and everything that took place in Syria became irrelevant to me in a strange way. I became saturated from the news of death and destruction which I was no longer able to dissect and understand, so my being away here became a comfort for my exhausted body and mind. I deleted Facebook from my phone, and now suffice with reading the news once at night before bed.

For a week now, I have been unable to sleep, struck by the awe of what is happening in Lebanon. I fear missing a piece of news, joke, banner, sign or song, spending most of my time on Facebook and Twitter. Some video clips are so beautiful that I watch on repeat again and again, dancing, singing and crying to them as if something suddenly returned to life inside me once again. I feel as if we are seeing Damascus in Beirut, its streets today like the streets of Damascus, its squares like those of Syria's capital. Lebanon returned the smile to my face, and to many other faces, and today occupies a large part of our conversation, daily discussions, opinions and analyses – regardless of our backgrounds, affiliations or age groups – and many of us have now experienced a sudden love for Lebanon, or the rekindling of an old extinguished passion.

A Lebanese friend wrote on her page a few days ago: "It is the first time in thirty years that I find the Lebanese awake in the morning but not angry." As for me, it is the first time in years that I wake up feeling happiness, love and some goofy hope. Thank you, Lebanon.

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