Hello there. It’s been over a week since I got back from Beirut. It’s been hard to find any time at all to write down a few of my thoughts. Here goes.
Before I went to Beirut I had only some vague impressions of it…destroyed by civil war was one haunting impression, there is nothing left to see. Another sense I had was one of cultural complexity and refinement, after all it’s the publishing capital of the Arabic speaking world. For a country so small it also produces a large number of Arab music’s best singers, from the emblematic Fayrouz and Abdel Halim Hafez to today’s flashy pop stars. I didn’t attempt to learn much more than these vague notions, preferring to be completely surprised. (Just like I don’t read anything about movies I’m planning to watch either).
Truth is nothing could have prepared me for the intensity of the city. There was so much to take in from the minute I landed at Rafik Hariri Airport, looked out of the plane, and saw the sea, the Mediterranean, right there across the tarmac. The taxi ride from the airport took me through busy, crowded streets, older and dirtier than even Marrakesh. It was dizzying to take it all in and realize with tingling excitement that I was in the Middle East again
In the beginning I was just overwhelmed by the visual of the city itself. I’ve never been in a city that had suffered a war, and here is what I saw. I saw a good 10% of the buildings standing there, gutted, abandoned, bullet marks all up and down them. And that is something really heavy to witness. As I was walking by an old wall I saw holes and when I looked closer there were actual bullets still in the holes, rusted over. There was a giant skyscraper downtown that just stood there, damaged and empty. They can’t live in it and they can’t tear it down, it’s just too big. I saw the old Lebanese style of villas, with beautiful balconies and the typical three arches. Some have been restored, most are abandoned. Then there is just junk everywhere too, shells of cars, building scraps that I’m not sure were just torn down or waiting to go up. It reminded me of a trailer park. And then there were all these ultra-modern,glassy, painfully boring buildings going up everywhere, promising to be “exclusive” and grant you a very privileged lifestyle. A city trying to regenerate itself fast enough to overtake the decay. It was like looking at several archeological layers at once, each one from a drastically different time period. Add to that the fact that Beirut is built on a series of hills, so at any given point, not only were you walking through different eras, but you were also continuously ascending and descending.
The only conversations I had with any Lebanese were the taxi drivers, straining to comprehend the dialect of Arabic, and replying in very formal classical, since Middle Easterners do not comprehend our Moroccan dialect. The taxi drivers’ replies were my crash course in Lebanese cultural (pun…intended). I asked about the civil war and found out that it lasted from 1975 to 1992 (google says 1990). The man said: Yatla3 jeel mesh m3ellem. A whole generation emerges uneducated.
Beirut is truly a striking city, nestled between snowcapped mountains and the great, calm expanse of the Mediterranean. It was only my second time in the Middle East and I have to say there is something very special about it. It’s haunting and it makes my heart ache. There’s a deep strength, a tenaciousness, in the people and the place itself. It’s ancient, to say it’s a spiritual place doesn’t even come close to describing it.
I came away from this particular trip a bit jealous of Middle Easterners, feeling that they share a deep bond. It’s apparent in the similar dialects, Jordanians, Lebanese, Saudis, Syrians etc. can comprehend each other fairly well, despite some variation in dialects. When I tried to speak Moroccan darija they literally did not understand one word. The countries are all close together so it’s not hard to imagine living in Jordan and visiting Lebanon, an hour away by plane. They even share similar long distance calling codes and cell phone operators give coverage over the whole Middle East region. This left me feeling kind of lonely, we Moroccans are way, way over there, the outliers, geographically, linguistically and to some extent ethnically. We cannot even bond with our Algerian neighbors, since those borders are closed for who knows how long. And although I feel Moroccan I do not feel Arab at all. Hello identity issues, you don’t leave me for long do you.
I witnessed one rather disturbing scene that left me unsettled. My Danish friend and I were walking back to the hotel from Gemmeyzeh to Ashrafieh. As we approached downtown we started to notice soldiers, truckloads of them. They were lining the street on both sides and it made crossing rather awkward. I asked a passerby what was happening and he said that parliament was in session and this was security. Hmm. It was quite unnerving to see rows and rows of soldiers with machine guns and riot shields. Then we heard loud Arab music and several trucks rolled by, full of black-clad youth waving flags. We cautiously approached to see what all the excitement was about. I figured out it was the Syrian flag and I told my friend, oh it’s something in solidarity with Syrians. After all Lebanon and Syria share a border (and a whole lot of history) that is only about an hour away from Beirut. Then I looked closer and saw that the young men were carrying pictures of the Syrian pres. Bashar al Assad. I listened more closely to the songs…and the realization hit me, these were actually pro-Bashar guys. I did not know they existed and here they were, just came out of nowhere in front of our very eyes, singing and dancing. The riot soldiers formed a tight circle around them, presumably for their own protection. At that point my friend and looked at each other and we were like, this is surreal and disturbing. Yeah let’s get out of here But that was that and we got back to the hotel with no further incidents, only a rather sick feeling.
Now for the highlight of my trip. The absolute shining moment that, as it was happening, I knew, this is why I’m here. On Friday I went to the stunning, blue-domed Hariri mosque in downtown Beirut. I had gone in the morning to photograph it and was eager to attend the Friday prayer there. It’s a beautiful mosque, with gold calligraphy on the vaulted ceilings, giant chandeliers, even an elevator going to the upper level.
The mosque was full (but nothing like we see in Morocco, where Friday prayers mean people overflowing from the doors onto the sidewalks and streets). Still I felt like I was home. During the prayer, the imam started the most soulful prayer of supplication to God, it started, in a clear, beautiful, melodic voice…dear Lord, our brethren in Syria are being killed…we appeal to your mercy, your compassion, envelop them in your protection… It was powerful, knowing that Syria is so close, and this prayer opened my heart and allowed me to feel some of the pain of it all, allowed me to sob from the depth of my being. I was not the only one, many were moved to tears including the imam. It seemed so right¸ to be in a place of worship together, acknowledging in complete sincerity our weakness, humility and dependence on Allah, beseeching Him for his mercy. It seemed the best thing we could possibly do for the Syrian people…there is the physical plane where things manifest, but the spiritual plane is where things truly originate. I had not experienced many prayers of that intensity in Morocco, except for some of the night prayers in Ramadan. I felt as if I had come all the way to Lebanon to receive this treasure.
I missed my family, it’s strange for me to be away from my kids overnight, let alone for five days. My husband was, as always, amazingly supportive of my going, taking on the full force of parenting while I was away.
Beirut sort of got under my skin, it haunted me for a good while after I got home. I feel that the words and photos don’t encompass it but they’re all I have as the experience begins to fade from memory. So, here are the photos, click on any one of them to view in slideshow form. Sorry, no time to write captions. It’s taken me probably 10 (nocturnal) hours to edit photos, upload them and write this post.