Lebanon figured in my life before I ever went to live there for five years, before I knew it was a country, or understood what or where the Eastern Mediterranean was. My father’s mother, sister, and brother-in-law lived in Lebanon, Pennsylvania. Going there for summer vacation and Thanksgiving was the highlight of my and my sisters’ young lives. In the fall of my sixth-grade year, our teacher asked the class what we were doing for Thanksgiving. I raised my hand and said happily, “We’re going to Lebanon!” Later that day, as all of the students were getting their coats from the cloak room, my teacher took me aside and said “My parents are from Lebanon! It’s a wonderful country! Will this be your first visit? It’s a long trip to be taking for a short vacation.” I was confused. Lebanon was a small town just east of Hershey, PA, where the warm and toasty smell of chocolate wafted into the car as we passed through on our way to grandmother’s house. It wasn’t a country! What was my teacher talking about? I said, “It only takes four hours to drive there.” She laughed, and said, “Oh, I thought you meant Lebanon—in the Middle East!”
We were living in Mt. Lebanon, PA, then, a well-to-do suburb south of Pittsburgh. Later in the school year, that same teacher explained that the name of our town originated from the gift of two cedars of Lebanon, planted in front of a church on one of the highest hills in the town in the early 20th century, and that the cedar tree was the symbol of Lebanon, depicted in the center of its flag, and also mentioned many times in the Bible. Up until then, I associated Lebanon only with visiting my grandmother, eating “Lebanon Bologna” (a garlicky specialty of eastern Pennsylvania), and lazing about reading Nancy Drew mystery novels under the big willow tree in my grandmother’s yard on summer afternoons. So, now I learned that Lebanon was an actual country, very far away, very old, and famous for gigantic trees.
I didn’t think much about Lebanon – the country – again until I was 15 and the nightly news began to feature harrowing stories about a war there. My parents subscribed to many magazines, some of which covered international news in depth, so I read about the checkpoints, the kidnappings, and the bloodbaths that were terrorizing this far away, tiny country full of huge trees. One night, these news stories crept into my dreams. I had a nightmare that armed men came to our front door, barged in, and shot my Dad and our Siamese cat dead. My visual impression of Lebanon back then was an aerial view of dark smoke rising from tall burning buildings on a promontory overlooking the sea.
Lebanon faded from my consciousness for a few years, despite its newsworthy suffering, until I was 20 and got a job as a waitress at a Middle Eastern restaurant in Pittsburgh to pay for my rent in a huge old house I was sharing with college friends. The owner of the restaurant was from Homs, Syria, and the cook was from South Lebanon. The other waitresses, kitchen help, and busboys were all Syrian, Lebanese, Egyptian, Palestinian, and Iraqi, many of them students of engineering or medicine at the University of Pittsburgh, working “under-the table” to save some money to send home to their families. Often, I was the only American working the dinner shift, frustrated that I could not understand my coworkers as they shouted, joked, and sang in Arabic in the kitchen. I pressed them into teaching me basic vocabulary, as well as how to swear. Without ever leaving my hometown, I got a good education on the political history and Arabic dialects of the modern Middle East.
Working at that restaurant piqued my interest and curiosity about the Middle East in general, and Arabic food, language, and art in particular. During my senior year of college, my academic advisor alerted me to a deficiency in my transcript: I had not yet taken a theology course, and Duquesne University, a Catholic institution of higher learning, required each student to take one theology class before graduating. Although I’d taken Medieval philosophy (the “handmaiden to theology”), and a course on the philosophy of God, I still needed to take one more class if I wanted that diploma. I looked at the summer session course offerings, and only one theology course interested me: Biblical Archaeology.
That four-week class was one of the best I took in college. The professor, Dr. Marilyn Schaub, an archaeologist and a former nun, was effervescent and kind. Coupled with my extracurricular knowledge of the Middle East from my waitressing job, a course examining the geography, ecology, economy, politics, geology, flora, fauna, languages, and histories of conquests and counter-conquests of the Eastern Mediterranean fascinated me. The following September, I began my first “real job” as an assistant to the literary manager and casting director at Pittsburgh Public Theatre, so I said goodbye to my waitressing job, though I often stopped by the restaurant to sit in the back chatting with the owner and his wife as they fed me delicious food.
The following Spring I ran into Dr. Schaub while I was waiting for a bus downtown after work. She told me that she and her husband (also an archaeologist, and a former priest—quite a love story there!) were leading an expedition to the southeast Dead Sea in Jordan from May to July, and asked if I’d be interested in going. My heart skipped a beat at the thought of traveling abroad (I’d only been to Canada at that point in my life), and I asked what it would involve. “$1000 for the plane fare, a bunch of inoculations, and a valid passport,” she responded. Within a week, I’d given notice at Pittsburgh Public Theatre, applied for a passport, and borrowed money from my uncle for the plane fare. At the end of that summer of excavating an early Bronze Age city, traveling to the West Bank, Jerusalem, and Damascus with friends after the dig had concluded, and hearing about Israel’s invasion of Lebanon happening just miles away from us as we carefully excavated the remains of a long-lost world, I wanted to know everything about Arab history, society, culture, and politics.
The following year I began graduate school, working towards a PhD in Anthropology and Middle East Studies, and eventually getting a Fulbright grant to conduct my doctoral field research on Palestinian citizens’ political identity and mobilization in Nazareth, the largest all-Arab city in Israel, from 1991-93. In the summer of 1991, I had just married a Lebanese man from Beirut, and after completing my field research in 1993, we packed up our house in the United States and relocated to Beirut to take jobs at Beirut University College (now the Lebanese American University), eager to partake in rebuilding the country after the cessation of a scarring 15-year civil war.
I’d already visited Beirut with my then-husband, arriving just before Christmas 1991, on a dark, raw day battered by a cold and driving rain. My brother-in-law picked us up from the airport, and we drove through crowded traffic on a rutted highway past collapsed and bullet-pocked buildings, the holes in the road filling with sloshing dark brown water, as billboards featuring the visage of Ayatollah Khomeini greeted us, then through the broken and desolated heart of Beirut along the Ring road, then passing billboards in French advertising expensive clothes, fine liquors, BMWs, and Italian designer furniture. We bumped and jolted along the highway, rain splashing in waves as the car pushed through noisy traffic past seafood restaurants and garbage dumps, car dealerships and overturned automobiles, colorful pop-up produce markets and even more pancaked apartment buildings, finally arriving at my mother-in-law’s war-damaged apartment in Aoukar above the heavily fortified U.S. Embassy complex. The electricity went out as soon as we walked in the door.
The back wall of the apartment building had cracked during the last phase of the civil war, when Maronites were shelling Maronites and Shi’a were killing Shi’a, so the damp December chill was impossible to keep out of the apartment. Despite this, my ex-in-laws welcomed me warmly, cooked up amazing meals, and during the following week of bright sunshine and mild weather, took me on tours of Byblos, the Kesrwan mountains (where they owned a palatial summer home), and West Beirut, into which they’d not ventured for over a decade themselves. Walking around the cratered moon-scape of Martyrs’ Square, the former bustling center of pre-war Beirut, I saw my ex-husband shed tears for the first time, cursing those who had destroyed the beautiful city he recalled from childhood. I asked my brother-in-law “What does ‘Beirut’ mean?” He had just finished telling me about Beirut’s repeated phoenix-like rise from fires, calamities, and even an earthquake that had destroyed a Roman law school here in the year 551. He smiled and said “Beirut means ‘takes a licking but keeps on ticking’!”
From 1993-1998, I lived in the Mount Lebanon district of Lebanon, amusing family and friends back home, who joked that it was “meant to be,” given my childhood in Mount Lebanon, PA and summers and Thanksgivings in Lebanon, PA. More often, though, family and friends were worried about the dangers of Beirut. For 15 years, it had been the by-word for snipers, invasions, bombardments, massacres, car bombs, and hostage-taking. It was hard to explain to them that the worst thing about living in post-war Lebanon was dealing with the corruption that tainted daily transactions with businesses, government offices, and even our university administration. The war had ended three years earlier, but Lebanon’s infrastructure was still in disarray. Roads remained pocked by bombardments as well as the wear and tear of nearly twenty years without repairs and upkeep, and at least once a week we got a flat tire. Electricity came on only 4 or 6 hours a day, sometimes in the middle of the night, sometimes in early afternoon. To obtain water, my neighbors and I rigged up a pump in a well behind our building, connected to six long garden hoses linked together, threaded up the four staircases in our damaged apartment building to the roof, so that whenever the government deigned to give us electricity, we would drop everything, turn on the pump, and fill the rooftop metal water containers for each apartment.
Worse, though, was the unending uncertainty and anxiety over the actual state of political and economic affairs, and the absence of any trusted, centralized governance system or consistent source of news. Planning one’s life while lacking clarity about what was happening or might happen was exhausting. Rather than information, we had conspiracy theory after conspiracy theory. I remember a queasy sense of never knowing if my feet were really on solid ground. Should I trust what this person told me? Was I getting ripped off paying what that person charged for a service? Is the rebuilding of the city every going to begin? Is it dangerous to be breathing in the exhaust of the gas-powered generator on my balcony? What about all that burning garbage? How will I ever drive in a country without traffic laws, stop lights, speed limits, street lights, or even lines separating highway lanes? Might the war start again? Are the administrators of the university where I was working really as corrupt as I was beginning to suspect?
The considerable counterweight to all of this uncertainty, frustration, and anxiety, though, was the people. And the food. And the breathtaking scenery. And the joie d’vivre. And most of all, the conviction that if anyone could rise from these ashes, garbage heaps, and collapsed buildings, it was the Lebanese. Resilience seemed to be the bonding element of Lebanon’s DNA. The Lebanese had a fire for life in their belly that nothing could put out, of that I was convinced, so despite repeated declarations that I was ready to call it quits and leave for good, we stayed, bought and furnished a house, met wonderful people, got involved in great endeavors to heal the shredded body politic, traveled from dinner party to dinner party, beach outing to beach outing, mountain hikes to picnics, and took car trips to Baalbek, Tyre, and the Akkar. Sunday would bring a relaxing and delectable lunch under grape vines in a village in the shadow of Mt. Sannine, while Monday would feature a flat tire while driving through a rainstorm to campus on roads still rutted five years after the war’s end.
By early 1996, though, things seemed to be looking up. Businesses were coming back, as were tourists. Investments in Lebanon were on the rise, we were getting electricity for 14 hours a day, and the massive reconstruction of Beirut under the aegis of Solideire, the controversial public-private venture of the late Prime Minister Rafic Al-Hariri, was clearing out the war debris and rubble, populating the city with hundreds of building cranes, and expanding the sea front with a landfill near the port out of the detritus of the war years. The city was becoming easier to navigate, and it really was looking better, too, but the Solideire project was never going to restore Beirut to its former glory or recreate beloved landmarks of yesteryear, nor was it going to address the needs of the impoverished, the war displaced, or owners of properties downtown desiring a fair price for their land.
In early April 1996, my ex-husband and I attended a dinner party hosted by friends from the Canadian embassy, and among the invitees was a man from the World Bank who expressed optimism that Lebanon was indeed on its way back and that Beirut would soon reemerge as a center for finance, tourism, shipping, culture, and education. A few days later, the Israeli Army launched its “Operation: Grapes of Wrath” military attack on Lebanon by air, sea, and land. By the end of April, nearly 200 Lebanese civilians were dead (more than half of them killed in one go by Israeli flechette shells at a UNIFIL base in Qana in south Lebanon), two electric power plants were badly damaged, the coastal highway was bombed, and investors, tourists, and businesses were no longer so eager to return to Beirut.
What little I saw of war in those two weeks in April 1996 left me angry rather than scared, depressed rather than nervous. Israel could do whatever it wanted to Lebanon with impunity, while Syria, the occupying power in Lebanon at the time, had a free hand to muzzle opposition, terrify Lebanese and Palestinians, and siphon off funds from the many projects rebuilding Beirut. But without Syria’s influence back then, the civil war might never have ended, and the parliamentarians and ministers might take off their expensive business suits and return to their previous incarnations as ruthless war lords.
This was the greatest danger to Lebanon, this was the undetonated bomb under the surface of everyday life: the entry of war criminals from every sectarian community into the post-war governance structure allowed the division of spoils, corruption, deal-making, and greed of self-interested war lords to eat away at the state and its infrastructure. Actually, there was no state, but rather, a complex network of patron-client ties between a plethora of mafias, often headed by war criminals and thieves and their family members. As one of my students described post-war Lebanon: “In this country, everything is permitted, but nothing is possible.”
By 1998, my ex-husband and I were fed up with the miasma of corruption and our growing awareness that Lebanon was never “coming back.” The unstinting efforts of good, hard-working, and brave people in hundreds of local NGOs across the country struggling to rebuild the country’s social fabric and institute better governance systems were no match for a ruthless elite of thieves and murderers. We, and many others like us who had returned to Lebanon in the immediate aftermath of the war’s end, finally left, returning only for summer vacations to enjoy the food, conviviality, beaches, mountains, and parties, but washing our hands of the ineradicable corruption and dysfunction of the country.
If not for Covid-19 and Lebanon’s economic collapse earlier this year, I would have been in Beirut for my birthday on August 4th. Instead, I was at home in Washington, DC, hunched over my computer designing my fall courses for online delivery and trying to forget that there are no birthday parties, happy gatherings, or fun outings during a global pandemic. A news alert flashed in the top corner of my computer screen: two explosions have occurred at the Beirut port. I opened Facebook and posted a quick query to my friends and family in Lebanon, asking what was going on before returning to my syllabi.
Soon, my friend Tony in Lebanon posted a video of a fire at the port, with a warning that viewers should prepare themselves for the second blast. I watched the video, thinking, “well, there’s a lot of smoke, and some warehouses are probably damaged, but this doesn’t look as awful as —- WHAT THE HELL WAS THAT?! A mushroom cloud!?” The video screen was consumed by a glaring and expanding white ball and a blast that threw whomever was filming across the room as ceilings and walls crashed down and glass shattered everywhere in a whirlwind of dust.
More news arrived: The blast destroyed walls and windows at the Beirut International Airport four miles away from the port. All of Gemmayzeh was destroyed. All the wheat stored at the port was ruined. The blast was heard and felt in Cyprus, 120 miles away.
My friend and housemate, Maia, a native of Beirut, came into my room, showing me more footage of the blast and its aftermath on her iPhone. We collapsed into sobs. After all that rebuilding, after an economic collapse, electricity cut-offs, and a pandemic, after all of the hopes and dreams of the post-civil war years, and the recent florescence of activism and political organizing last fall, after all of the money, blood, sweat, and tears that went into rebuilding Beirut in the 1990s, it’s been destroyed—again—in a millisecond by an explosion that looked like the result of a tactical nuclear strike.
My (and so many others’) first thought was “Israel has detonated some horrific new weapon in a city of three million people and destroyed a crucial component of its economy: the port. Fuck them! Will they never tire of destroying Lebanon?” A few weeks earlier, Hizbullah had bragged about having the capacity to hit the Israeli port of Haifa with missiles, so I assumed this was a pre-emptive strike and warning from Israel. But Maia soon reported what a journalist friend in Cyprus had just texted her: “It wasn’t an attack; tons of ammonium nitrate stored at the port caught fire and blew up.” The bombing in Oklahoma City in 1995 came immediately to mind. Timothy McVeigh, a white supremacist terrorist, had used several pounds of ammonium nitrate fertilizer to bring down an entire building. What had nearly three tons of the stuff done to Beirut? And why the hell was that much dangerous material sitting in the port for several years? Who put it there? Who knew it was there? Who decided it was just fine to leave this disaster-waiting-to-happen sit at the border between the city and the sea?
The answer to all of these questions? The Lebanese government, of course. That undetonated bomb of corruption, nepotism, greed, and complete disregard for human life had finally exploded. A week after the infernal blast, my belief in the resilience of Lebanon and the Lebanese is at a low ebb. There’s only so much that any people, even seasoned survivors like Beirutis, can take. Lebanon has again taken quite a licking—at the hands of its own government—yet I really fear that it will never start ticking again. This calamity is too much, this negligence is too obscene, this irresponsibility is too unforgivable, this damage is too deep. I fear that the Lebanese are too tired for anything now but revenge on the criminals who have destroyed their beautiful city. And those thieves and charlatans richly deserve a revenge that will finish their rotten system for good.