The Descent into Hell Is Optional

Beirut’s Corniche, 24 July 2006 (Patrick McGreevy)

The day after most of our American colleagues escaped the war zone of Lebanon, we wondered if the descent into hell many of them had imagined would materialize. In these days of precision terror, it seems that hell can be localized. In central Beirut, it feels like limbo, the first ring of Dante’s Inferno — where punishment is minimal because while its inhabitants have not recognized the true god, neither have they defied the authority of his representatives on earth. Going south, one precedes progressively into the inner rings of torment, and of defiance. There is trouble in hell.

On the first ring of hell, we had several friends stop by for coffee on our balcony as we watched the parade of ships carrying refugees for Cyprus and Turkey. Later, I called my friend Nancy in Sidon (several rings deeper into hell); she had been awakened Sunday morning by the first bomb that targeted the center of the city, destroying a Hezbollah complex that provided medical, dental, educational and religious services to Sidon’s poorest residents. The city is now overflowing with 50,000 refugees who have been streaming in from farther south (the inner rings of hell). Nancy described how the pattern of life in Sidon has become more nocturnal, with people talking late into the night on their balconies and even in the cafes of the city’s souk. Farther south, in the inner circle of hell, the life of Lebanon was interrupted, but here, in the outer circle, it went on, defiantly.

Tonight, a remarkable American woman who has lived in Beirut for over 30 years, Jean-Marie Cook, invited us to have cocktails on her balcony with some of her old friends who were seasoned journalists. One had been touring the southern suburbs, a landscape the likes of which no one has seen since Dresden in 1945. We discussed the various scenarios that might get us out of hell altogether, and the others that would send us back to its epicenter

On the way to Jean-Marie’s flat, we had walked along the Corniche, a paved boardwalk that fronts the Mediterranean. It was surprising to see that people already were returning to public spaces. A few weeks earlier, the Internal Security Forces had begun to prevent small-scale venders from pushing carts along the Corniche, but now, in the space opened by the chaos of the war, they were back. The Lebanese, after decades of intermittent disruption, have evolved into the most flexible of survivors. They were out again, defiantly. As I walked home from Jean-Marie’s with two western women, the Cornish was dark — electrical outages are part of life here, even in peacetime — we never had a thought for our safety. We don’t know the future, but for now, who dares to say that this is hell? The choice belongs to Lebanon.

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Patrick McGreevy heads up the American Studies Program at the American University of Beirut