When the spin got too disconcerting, I muted the sound on the TV news and tried to focus on the scenery the reporter was blocking with his poofy, disaster-ready flak jacket. Beirut was on fire, columns of smoke rising in the majestic skyline where apartment buildings ought to be. I caught sight of something familiar — a European-style avenue I had often strolled, near the Centre-Ville, an attractive money magnet that had absorbed Saudi and Japanese investment capital on its way to becoming Beirut’s shining central flower, replete with nightclubs, cafés and restaurants, sites of cherished memories for me.
I’d gone to Beirut in March ’03 and December ’04 to see for myself whether the narrative of national reconciliation was true, the one in which cocktails, makeup, girls, boys, beach, sun and amnesiac fun erased the wounds of endless civil war. Now, I searched CNN for images of South Beirut’s Muslim neighborhoods, trying to discern which wrecked buildings were casualties of the old civil war and Israeli occupation and which had been freshly bombed. The pointless effort turned into a visual joke (on me) about the cycle of violence.
Back in ’03, on the eve of the Iraq war, when Christians and Muslims protested together at the UN building in downtown Beirut, I saw this reconciliation narrative materialize before my eyes. People were reluctant to talk about the past, and unanimously agreed to put old civil war polemics back in their holsters in favor of the famous and unifying Lebanese knack for celebration. The rest of the Arab world, perhaps jealous of Lebanon’s beauty, fertility and success, often makes the accusation that Lebanese only care to “party” — this stereotype nourished by the national channel LBC, which projects an endless stream of overdone Lebanese video hos dancing for no apparent reason (always a more popular broadcast than depressing news headlines). When I brought up this stereotype on the phone to Boston with my cousin Ahmed, a Sunni Muslim who grew up in a Christian area of Beirut, he sighed the same way I would if a New Yorker took a simplistic jab at Los Angeles: He explained that partying for the war-scarred Lebanese is a way of life, a defense mechanism that can generate love and agreement.
Seeing the destroyed ports on TV murdered another memory in my mind: the time I’d taken some newly befriended Palestinians from South Beirut out for a night on the town, American dollars opening doors normally closed in this still-segregated society. We’d passed the same ports, in a delirious drunken happiness, on our way to the Centre-Ville for a night of dancing and flirting. My friends were horny, soccer-fanatic teenagers delighted to enter posh clubs usually reserved for Saudis and upper-crust Lebanese, but that night every bouncer smiled and multicultural Lebanon seemed a feasible reality. Now, on the phone, Ahmed told me, “I’m scared of civil war” — referring to what might result from this current game of chicken being waged between Hezbollah and Israel — ripping me from my nostalgia.
When I saw a crushed Mercedes in an upper-class area, the sight affected me more than any Gaza bombardment, making me aware of my own strange material racism that marks a demolished First World neighborhood as more noteworthy than routine Third World destruction. Yet the inconsistency revealed something about the Arab diaspora and the way it feels about Beirut, the diamond of the Middle East, so often talked about in loving, feminine terms — feelings that verge on idolatry and pride. Beirut is the one great city “the Arabs” have going, the one that in elementary Arabic classes is qualified automatically as “beautiful,” the trendsetter that always will be the first to break any Arab stereotype of backwardness or conservatism, the city that we are always in danger of losing, which we love even more each time it dies and is resurrected. Many are worried that, for all its resilience, Beirut has run out of lives.
My old anger toward Israel, first stoked during the second intifada and then desensitized, suddenly took on new force and my mind raged with overly epic questions. Oh, Israel! You who understand the mystical longing for cities in collective memory, why do you destroy beautiful things? Why did you attack Beirut International Airport, the crowning symbol of a chapter turned, of freedom to communicate with the rest of the world, the great vector of the Lebanese diaspora and the engine of Lebanon’s tourist economy?
Despite the huge disproportion in tit-for-tat violence, despite the long-running precedent of successful hostage negotiation between Hezbollah and Israel that the Jewish state suddenly broke with last week, much anger has also been directed at the Party of God and Hassan Nasrallah, its secretary-general. Hezbollah had previously warned that if the thousands of Arab prisoners in legal limbo were not released, they would “have to” kidnap soldiers. Cousin Ahmed, with great emotion, said he was “so mad” at Nasrallah: mad that Lebanon would be the ultimate casualty in an exchange opposing other countries; mad that the fragile, miraculous Lebanese peace was now endangered; and, finally, mad when he heard that Nasrallah proclaimed he would foot the bill for the $500 million-plus in damages to the country’s infrastructure. Ahmed wanted to be in Beirut with his mother, underneath the bombs, rather than in the safe abode of his Boston apartment.
My family had thought our aunt Farida — cousin Ahmed’s mother — was safe outside the country. But then we found out that she had decided to stay put in her hillside house overlooking the bay of Beirut, in a Christian area near the town of Roumieh called Nahr-el-Mot, which, come to think of it, has a worrisome meaning (River of the Dead). She felt especially determined to stay after hearing about some acquaintances who attempted the trip out of the country and barely escaped death. Alone with her miniature dogs, she tearily watched the bloody aftermath of a destroyed convoy trying to make its way from Sidon to Beirut, made up of Lebanese fleeing the country. Her house has a stunning panoramic view, a prime vantage in the natural mountain amphitheater, which we ordinarily appreciate for its picturesque account of what is happening down in the city, but now was exposing the drama of war.
Aunt Farida had been through this before. “Just give it two or three days,” she told her son, “and it’ll blow over,” just like in the late ’90s when Israel attacked Beirut and the explosions crept dangerously near their house, which was spared during the civil war. An avid little boy back then, Ahmed had climbed to the roof to look at the burning power plant near their house; he remembers the maids screaming at him to please come down. Now, on the phone with his mother, she was getting tense and annoyed at all the calls from worried friends and relatives begging her to leave the country — she thought she had nothing to fear until she started receiving these foreboding pleas. For a time last week, she played it cool to calm the nerves of her three sons, and she kept up a weekly card game with her friend that she didn’t want to miss. In her neighborhood, spread out like the Hollywood Hills, there was a rooftop birthday party going strong as if nothing was happening. It was the “party defense” all over again.
But Monday morning, when Ahmed called his mom’s house, Asha, my aunt’s Sri Lankan housekeeper, answered the phone and revealed that Farida had managed to escape. We don’t know if she’ll end up in Syria, Saudi Arabia or Egypt, and hope she gets to her destination safely. We are all waiting for and possibly dreading the next phone call. Asha, meanwhile, was distraught and speaking in broken Arabic mixed with English.
“It’s just me here now,” she said. “I’ve been crying the whole day long. I couldn’t sleep last night.” Her visa wouldn’t let her travel to any country except her native Sri Lanka, now an impossibility since the Beirut airport was out of commission.
“Lebanon is gone!” she exclaimed. Asha then paused for a moment in the conversation. “Did you hear that?” she asked. “Did you hear the boom boom?” A friend of Aunt Farida’s was going to come housesit and keep Asha company, but the injustice of Asha’s trapped situation is worse than anything that might happen to Farida’s beloved house.