How 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. 04, 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 an adult.

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 (see mazenkerblog, beirtutupdate and beirutlive) and art house movie theaters shelter some of the 750,000 newly homeless.

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 megalomaniacs.

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,
Their faces?
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.