Lebanon rescued me - I fled America for Beirut's cultural
freedom. Now I watch as bombs destroy my refuge -- and the best
hope for a viable Middle East democracy - By Alia Malek
Aug. 4, 2006
| In March 2003, I fled to Beirut, Lebanon, wanting to escape the
made-for-TV war on Iraq, the monotony of Washington, and the man
who had become my boss, John Ashcroft.
Naturally, in this era of pretexts, the convergence of those events
was itself also just an excuse. Even if my job as a trial attorney
in the Civil Rights Division at the Justice Department had not been
increasingly meaningless under the Bush administration, I would
have been fantasizing about returning to Beirut, as I had ever since
it seduced me in the summer of 2000, when I first visited it as
So it was with irony, sadness, disbelief and anger that I watched
thousands flee last month from Lebanon.
Of course, this is where we -- in the collective American consciousness
-- had last left off in Beirut: a steady stream of wailing mothers
clutching children under the watchful eyes of soldiers, menacing
helicopters and merciful warships, as if Lebanon has been in perpetual
evacuation since the 1970s.
The intermediary post-civil-war years were only occasionally memorialized
and then often in publications and by writers desiring to be so
hip as to discover what everyone else in the Middle East already
knew: The former war zone was one movable party.
These writers, usually white men, were in constant awe that Lebanon's
women were beautiful and wore bikinis, that the liquor always flowed,
and that the nightlife rivaled -- according to the usual comparisons
-- that of South Beach or New York City. The bullet-pockmarked façades
of several buildings lent gravitas to their writing and reporting
on, essentially, hedonism.
Admittedly, Beirut's famed partying had in part beckoned me to Lebanon;
it provided a comfortable buffer to living in a part of the world
incredibly fragile and scarred while affording me the chance to
probe the nagging questions of what my life might have been had
my parents stayed in the Middle East and whether its chaos was better
for me than the United States' contradictory offerings of comfortable
assimilation and interminable alienation.
But I was also drawn by the intoxicating blend of antiquity, modernity,
freedom and struggle with a history and culture that I could partly
claim as my own. Though my parents are Syrian, my father's roots
were in Lebanon's Bekaa Valley, and I had, coincidentally, been
conceived in Beirut. While my parents had swallowed their regrets
when they gave up family, friends and lives to try to make it in
America, their nostalgia and longing were evident everywhere, from
the Arabic names they gave their children to the Arabic cassette
tapes they listened to, over and over, for years. And their cravings
became my own.
So when straight from the airport I arrived outside the apartment
building I would eventually call home, to find a crowd surrounding
a minibus that had crashed into a popular snack shack -- its tail
end emerging almost organically from the concrete wall -- there
was no place else I wanted to be.
The driver had lost control of his vehicle, and it slid down the
hill, gaining speed and smashing into the unmovable edifice, in
much the same way that history slams into Lebanon, the way the sea
has been pummeling its coastline for millennia, forming its geographic
character, and the way I hoped that, in Beirut, my missing destiny
would crash into me.
The room that I had come to see, perched on the eighth floor of
a seven-story building, had clearly been an afterthought, one the
elevator did not even reach. But it was nevertheless a profound
postscript, a room that contemplated with a wall of windows Lebanon's
majestic geography, from the snow-capped tips of its mountains to
the breaking waves of the Mediterranean to the sensual coastline
that seemed to curve its way to infinity. The view also bore witness
to the humanity that had saddled but not tamed Lebanon with an erratic
pattern of buildings -- urban planning was a casualty of war --
echoed in the flickering lights of the surrounding hills.
The Lebanese woman who lived in the apartment's other room and who
would become one of my closest friends -- a psychologist I could
open up to in French, English and Arabic -- won me over with her
unruly golden curls that reminded me of Sarah Jessica Parker. When
I asked her if she knew of the actress, she grinned, saying that
"Sex and the City" was her favorite show.
The only thing I failed to notice at that dark hour was the minaret
directly across the narrow street with its speakers pointed precisely
in the direction of my windows and the mosque's adjoining school,
silent and barren of children at night. I would learn of both --
the former at 4 a.m., when an off-tune imam called the faithful
to prayer, and the latter just three hours later, when a school
bell summoned its squawking flock.
My neighbor, a director of music videos who had a closetful of loose
white-collared shirts he wore untucked over his jeans to complement
his carefully cultivated tousle of hair, doled out history to me
from his balcony, in between his flirtations. Overlooking the Green
Line that had separated "Muslim" west Beirut from "Christian"
east Beirut during the civil war, he explained to me that growing
up, on some level, he had liked the war. It was what he saw in American
TV shows and movies come to life. Though war had become his generation's
normalcy, school closings were still a happy occurrence, leaving
them free to play, even if they were underground in dark bunkers.
Then one day, after a lifetime in war, he suddenly decided he wanted
it to stop. He was sick of it. And almost as suddenly, the war was
over. Others of our generation (now in their 30s) told me similar
stories. Violence, terror, insecurity -- from years of proxy wars,
civil war and foreign invasion -- are things the Lebanese can surmount.
They're just sick of having to do so.
Below our adjoining balconies, a quick twisting navigation of sloping
one-way streets and dead ends gave way to Rue Monot, which lends
its name to the area of nightlife so often celebrated by Western
writers, perhaps because it is so much more accessible than the
neighborhoods of abject and unsexy poverty. I frequently descended
on Monot myself, stopping to tuck behind my ear a jasmine bloom
from the abundant trellises cradling branches that would graze my
head, even my shoulders, as I walked the narrow sidewalks, dodging
parked scooters, cars and sun-ripened fruit so heavy it had marked
the pavement with a splat.
Those articles often captured the thumping music, the oozing sexuality
and the girls dancing on tabletops. But as I partook of Beirut's
nightlife, I realized the partying was not just like the atmosphere
in South Beach or New York City. In that frantic pace were hints
of trauma. There was something hysterical about it, an infectious
hysteria, to be "out, out!" as if the time lost in bomb
shelters must be matched by time spent going through the motions
of having fun.
There were those who made their way to Monot every night of the
week to act out, on some level, against those who would define them.
Instead of devoting their lives to God and piety, or to solidarity
and struggle, as many of their counterparts in other Lebanese social
classes or Arab countries do, they chose to raise a bottle of Almaza,
the Lebanese beer, in a middle-finger toast to their countrymen,
their shared gods, and anyone else who demanded their submission
to and participation in some imaginary pan-Arab nation or pan-Muslim
umma (world or community).
Of course the nightspots are always packed because for the most
part, 20- and 30-somethings, unlike their counterparts elsewhere,
live in their parents' homes and rarely have the opportunity to
express themselves in spaces they can call their own, the way Americans
try to find themselves in Pottery Barn or Crate and Barrel. The
clubs and bars have become the unmarried generation's collective
space. But there is one happy consequence of not having to pay rent,
and that has meant that so many Lebanese of the bourgeoisie can
indulge their artistic and creative impulses, fueling a vibrant
and pulsing cultural scene. Now with performances, exhibits and
festivals canceled, this class is engaging its new reality; artists
blog and art house movie theaters shelter some of the 750,000 newly
During my days in Lebanon, I headed in a different direction from
Monot, taking the bus that runs to the southern suburbs, the ones
that lie destroyed today, getting off well before them at the Lebanese
American University, where I had been recruited to teach undergraduates
Introduction to Human Rights. Of course, my students had already
learned and lived lessons about human rights much more salient than
anything I could teach, from the dispossession of Palestine to the
oppressive collusion of Syrian dictators and their Lebanese co-conspirators,
to the barbarism of the civil war's militias and warlords, to the
invasions and incursions of Israel, to the apathy of the West --
all of which had played out in some way in Lebanon.
Around the same time, the then editor of the Daily Star, the Middle
East's English-language daily newspaper, himself a journalist who
been interpreting the East and West for each other, recruited me
to do the same on his pages. And so I began to write.
On days off, friends and family would whisk me to different corners
of Lebanon's environmental treasures, like the dense cedar forests
of the Shouf, protected by the Druze during the civil war, and the
Bekaa Valley, cultivated to produce wines that no doubt delight
Bacchus in his nearby 1,856-year-old temple in Baalbek, where Israeli
troops landed this week. Communing with Lebanon's nature is a national
pastime, enjoyed by all, regardless of class or religion.
The Lebanese understand that God has given them this bounty as a
sweet bribe for living in a small land whose destiny and fortune
are forever tied to the whims, aspirations and bullying of its neighbors
And so adults in all sorts of bathing attire -- from Speedos to
veils -- frolic in the water, whether at public or private beaches,
or at restaurants like my favorite, Jamal's, in the north, where
tables are placed in alcoves near the sea so that adults can dine
with the Mediterranean lapping their ankles.
And thankfully, there are more than just the beaches, a third of
which today lay smothered under 15,000 tons of spilled oil after
Israel bombed an energy plant. The forests and the mountains also
cradle Lebanon's rich and poor alike, who go there to ski, snowboard
and picnic, or to take a drag from a water pipe in the company of
trees and stars. But there are reminders even there that beauty
and peace have their limits, parables told in both the thinned-out
forests and the tree line where the mountains suddenly become bald,
the cost for reaching so high, beyond where vegetation can exist.
It seems ambitions -- even if just for self-determination -- must
know limits as well.
There, in the refuge and caresses of Lebanon's hysteria and triumph,
pain and mad joy, in the infinity of the sea, in the fragility of
Lebanese life, and in the ability of the Lebanese to appreciate
and perpetuate beauty, I found the courage to forgo a legal career
for one in writing. In D.C., it would have seemed a crazy gamble,
but in Lebanon it made perfect sense. Yet my epiphany of sorts was
quickly sobered by the realization that living those dreams would
mean leaving Lebanon and returning home to Baltimore, where I knew
I could lean on the strong shoulders of my family, as the Lebanese
do in their country.
When I flew away, watching the airport and city streets recede below
clouds, I comforted myself with promises that I could come back;
tethering me to the airport was an invisible thread, which only
recently snapped when that gateway was sealed shut by Israeli missiles.
Only when the season of car bombs returned to Lebanon in 2005, heralded
by the loud boom of Rafik Hariri's assassination, did I understand
the complete and frantic abandon of the Lebanese to living life.
I finally saw that they were trying to outrun the potential truth
in what poet Mahmoud Darwish expressed in "Memory for Forgetfulness"
(a tour de force on Israel's 1982 siege of Beirut, eerily relevant
today) and restated in an interview a few years ago: "Beirut
was an island of freedom, destined to drown."
I was not the first to seek refuge in Lebanon's freedom; the country's
history is rife with the stories of others who have come before
me: from the religious minorities -- particularly the Maronites
and the Druze -- who had taken to different mountains to escape
the persecution they faced within Christianity and Islam, respectively;
to the Armenian victims of Turkish genocide; to the Palestinians,
dispossessed by the founding of Israel; to the Syrian, Egyptian,
Iraqi, Jordanian, Palestinian intellectuals and artists of the 1960s
and '70s, repressed by Arab regimes; to the southern Lebanese escaping
Israel's 1982 invasion, which birthed Hezbollah; to the returning
Lebanese expatriates and Arab-Americans flocking to find their roots
after the civil war ended; to the refugees from Sudan, Iraq, Somalia
and Sierra Leone who work in Lebanon's black labor market while
the United Nations decides on the worthiness of their suffering;
to today, as another generation of displaced, homeless, villageless
southerners have filled Beirut's churches and schools, including
the noisy one underneath my old window.
But this freedom has historically also had its limits; Lebanon could
not protect the mountain minorities from famine, and in 1860 they
began pouring from their villages to ships that carried them to
the Americas, flinging them from Birmingham, Ala., to São
Paulo, Brazil. Lebanon could not protect its residents, citizens
or refugees from Israeli invasions, Syrian repression, Phalangist
murders, or even from each other, so now more Lebanese live outside
Lebanon than in their tiny country.
Today, who threatens Lebanon's freedom -- Israel, Iran, Syria, Hezbollah
or some toxic blend -- is debated endlessly. But who has betrayed
Lebanon's freedom and its civilians is clearly the United States,
which has failed to understand that what was born of the birth pangs
of the 15-year Lebanese civil war, the 18-year Israeli occupation
of its south, the 14-year presence of Syria, and the ongoing domestic
reconciliation process since Hariri's death, was a fragile yet functional
coexistence that could have proved to be the viable model in the
Middle East that Iraq will never be.
The perpetual exodus of Lebanon's people was echoed in the song,
"Waynoun?" ("Where Are They?"), by the chanteuse
Fairuz, the voice of Lebanon and at times of the entire Levant.
Though written about an ancient time and penned in 1972, on the
eve of the wars in Lebanon, it would soon become relevant again.
She sings without accusation but only sadness:
Where are they?
Where are their voices,
Now there's a valley between us!
They fled in the arms of oblivion,
They left their children's laughter
Abandoned on the walls.
Lovers in the streets went separate ways,
No words, no promises.
I'm the only voice in the streets;
I'm the only lantern of sorrow.
Where are they?
Today Fairuz is perhaps singing to those dual and foreign nationals
who fled Lebanon, leaving the Lebanese to face alone a fate Europe
and the United States would not tolerate for its own citizens, evacuated
on warships within view of the Lebanese left behind. Perhaps she
is singing to those whose conscience has yet to be riveted out of
slumber. Her inquiry plays on a loop in my mind, and I, again, want
to flee to Lebanon.
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