To this day, I am not sure what I expected to see the first time I flew into Lebanon. My Mother always said
“Lebanon, my Lebanon. The Mediterranean waters are blue, blue (with an emphasis on a long drawn out blu-u-ue). The countryside beautiful; the city of Beirut, like something from a dream.” It always gave me the image of a Disney production, and at the very least, I expected to see Tinkerbell flying around the city waving her magic wand. But that is not what happened, nor is it what I saw,
My mother saw it as a magical, fairy kingdom. She left there when she was fifteen, after she was married to my father. She remembers Lebanon this way because it was where she was the happiest. She told me wonderful stories of how, as a child, she roamed the hills behind her house, She would ride a donkey through the orchards filled with lemon, and tangerine trees. From her hillside, she could see the Mediterranean, and she would sit there for long hours staring. When I visited her home, I went up the hill behind her family home. Yes, there was an old Roman ruin there. When I sat upon it, I could see the Mediterranean off in the distance, and it was a beautiful blue.
When I arrived in Beirut it was not the beauty I expected. The first place my guide took me was to the Green Line in the center of town. This is where different factions fought with each other. One side was on one side of the road, the other, on the other side and, they shot at each other. This was during the civil war in Lebanon that took place from 1975 to 1990. I visited in 1995. Very little had been done to repair the damage. The Green Line road was criss-crossed with electrical wires, like a giant, ill formed spider’s web made by a very drunk spider. Everyone had electricity but no one paid for it.
The buildings were largely bombed out shells. People lived in them. Two or three stories of buildings with gaping holes, and minimal plumbing were seen. What must it have been like for these people who had lived together in peace for so many years. Lebanon was a land where Moslems, Orthodox, and Eastern Rite Catholics lived in peace for many years. Together, with the help of the French, a land rich in heritage and architecture was built. But beneath the surface simmered tribal hatreds breaking out in 1975 in a civil war basically destroying the country.
Lebanon is a land approximately 120 miles long and 60 miles wide. It is known for its beautiful mountains and incredible location on the Mediterranean. At the height of the Civil War, there were approximately 47 different factions. My mother did not think it amusing when I said, this would give each faction less than a square mile to control. Hyperbole, yes, but pretty much true.
Brother turned against brother. My cousin had her house bombed by another cousin, who had joined another faction. My friend tells the story of a man who had two sons. Each night they left the family home, and went to fight – each for a different party. One night the father took a gun, and killed them both. He could not endure the thought they might meet in battle and one forced to kill the other. It was a gruesome and bloody time, and here I was staring at the remains.
I was raised to be very proud of my heritage. In many ways, I considered myself more Lebanese than American. I was soon to find out this was not reciprocated.
Lebanon, my dear Lebanon. Land of my mother, and my father. I had heard so many stories growing up, it sometimes felt that is where I lived, in Lebanon. I was raised bi-culturally. We had one culture at home, and one outside the house. At home my parents spoke Arabic to each other and English to us. When my sister was small, the school would not allow her to stay because she could not speak English, and the teacher could not understand her. She could not return to school until she was able to speak English. Not wanting the same thing to happen to me, I was raised able to really understand Arabic but speaking was limited. I never felt part of the culture at school. My friends were limited. I was not accepted. I was often asked why I looked “different.” “You don’t look like the rest of us.” What was that supposed to mean. Once I was told, by a boy I had “bedroom eyes.” I had no clue what he was talking about. Now, I wonder if he knew. We were in the seventh grade, at the time.
All this to say I was really looking forward to being in Lebanon. At last, I had come home. This is the land where I belonged.
I looked around at bombed out buildings with people still living in them. I saw children playing in the middle of the streets, and in between buildings in dirty, muddy water. I wondered about their sanitation system, or lack of it. My friend’s fiancé was driving me, and he took a perverse pleasure in showing me all of the damage done during the civil war. Whenever I asked questions, or was surprised by what I saw, he responded by saying, “What can you expect after seventeen years of civil war?” This was the excuse for everything. There were no garbage pickups, and there had not been for many years. As far as the eye could see until the line on the horizon, was garbage. When I took pictures, I had to raise my camera in order to obtain a picture without garbage.
As we left the city, and started the ride up the mountain to the village where my mother was raised, we suddenly were engulfed with overwhelming traffic. The three lane highway suddenly accommodated five lanes of cars – all beeping and hollering at each other. Khaled, my friend’s fiancé, rolled down the window, and started screaming at another driver across the way. Unfortunately, I understood what he said. It always amazes me the first thing we learn in a foreign language is how to swear. I could not speak Arabic fluently, but I could swear like a trooper. I understood it all, and it was embarrassing.
After we left the city limits and started into the villages, we were confronted with road blocks. I was told not to speak, not to let them know I was American. This happened about every five kilometers. There were conversations, and I, fortunately, was hardly noticed in the back.