An Emotional Rollercoaster

A mother with her young daughter, being evacuated by a US war vessel from Beirut’s port, 19 July 2006. (Haitham Moussawi/IRIN)

Tonight I feel apprehensive. It has been almost two days now that I have not heard the alarming sounds of bombardment. Paradoxically, after an initial relief, this ‘absence’ has made me even more nervous as I (and many Lebanese) consider their imminent return. “From Sunday, when the Americans are gone, they are going to bomb us hard”, remarked a relative of a Lebanese friend of mine yesterday as we were watching from my friend’s apartment the US navy ships anchored near the port of Jounieh. All day long on Friday military helicopters were evacuating US citizens from the troubled Lebanese shores to the safety of the ships. Needless to say, the relentless pounding by the Israeli army, now in its eleventh straight day, has not abated in the rest of the country (especially in the South and in the Bekaa Valley in the east), but Beirut and the nearby areas have been largely spared from further shelling in the presence of the US ships. “The Israelis do not want to disturb their friends”, was the often-made cynical comment for this, alluding to the explicit US approval for Israel’s military campaign on Lebanon.

Throughout this past week, the attacks have intensified, claiming up to now more than 300 Lebanese civilian lives and displacing up to 500,000 while 34 Israelis, including 15 civilians, have been killed. The range of emotional states I have been experiencing during this tragedy unfolding has been truly remarkable and at many times very hard to handle. It seems to me that my constant switching between feelings of hope - witnessing the acts of solidarity by numerous Lebanese citizens and organizations towards the displaced people cramming parks and public schools among other places - and moments of anger and despair seeing so much pain inflicted in this country, follows closely, in a sense, my continuous back and forth (or should I say up and down) between Beirut and the village of Rejmeh in Mt. Lebanon, where I am doing research on intercommunal relations.

Late last week, after listening to my mother on the phone calling me irresponsible, as she was at that time angry with me and my decision to stay in Lebanon, I had an emotional discussion with my girlfriend at her house in Rejmeh. Should I better leave the country for my own safety and to relieve the ones I love in Greece from their constant agony over my well being? But then again, if I really believed that I had a purpose to stay in Lebanon and do my research, should I change my plans to follow other people’s needs and desires, even if it were my own family’s? And if I left Lebanon, who knows when I would meet again with my girlfriend, after spending a difficult six months apart while I was in the US? “Now you are experiencing in a way the frustration of the Lebanese people”, my girlfriend told me, after we had calmed down a bit, adding that “being Lebanese, your decisions about your future are many times not in your own hands”.

Thankfully, such moments of frustration have often been followed by a determination to stay my course here and not be intimidated by the attacks. In one such moment I visited the Greek embassy in Beirut earlier this week. The building was overflowing with people and their suitcases waiting to be evacuated by the Greek ship “Psara” that was coming to Beirut later in the day, while TV crews were taking images and interviews for the Greek evening news. When I approached the counter with the two employees of the embassy registering people for evacuation and I explained to them that I did not wish to be evacuated but just wanted the embassy to have my address and telephone information here, they looked at me puzzlingly and one of them exclaimed laughing “here is a Greek that wants to stay in Lebanon!”.

Watching the increasing attention of Western media towards the evacuation procedure of their citizens has left me with a mixture of shame and guilt. Shame, because this attention is many times at the expense of showing the suffering of the Lebanese people or is coupled with the usual, but still enraging, bias of the majority of Western media that could be crudely summarized as ‘the Israeli victims of the crazy fanatics or terrorists’. Guilt, because after receiving attention in the middle of the week from my University (that generously offered to help me evacuate if I wanted to) and from local newspapers in the US that were covering the evacuation procedure, I felt that somehow I was unwittingly participating in this focus that is misguided at times. The point I would like to make is not that I am safe here, or even less so, that the evacuees’ experiences and narratives are not worthwhile reporting. It is that this reporting is usually made in expense of the stories and experiences of the real victims of this tragedy. This process of ‘Othering’ — namely, denying in a sense the humanity of some people, which is largely brought about by the refusal of the Western media to ‘narrate’ the experiences of the mainly Shia civilians who have lost family members or have become internal refugees, is what I find highly problematic and ethically unacceptable. And perhaps I should try with my research here to do what I can to bridge this gap.

I have found some moments of hope these last days visiting the relief and support centers in Beirut for the displaced people and offering my help. Watching some of these people living in deplorable conditions in the Sanayeh Park of Beirut or sheltered in the Public School of Aley, but still finding the courage to be cheerful and hopeful, organizing makeshift football games or singing and clapping in a circle, was also an uplifting experience. However, caution is always around the corner in such circumstances. Walking in Sanayeh Park watching the people lying on their mattresses or pieces of carton under the sun, some playing cards, I noticed two or three children with two teenagers kicking a soccer ball. One of the teenagers was wearing a T-shirt that read “Fuck Fear” (a skull standing for the “u”).

During such extraordinary circumstances as the ones we have been living in Lebanon for the last eleven days, there are always moments of laughter and absurdity, many times a coping mechanism to handle the burden of the situation. I remember on Monday when I was returning to my apartment in Beirut from Rejmeh, hearing the sound of bombing while approaching my house. As I entered the house, I saw my French and Lebanese flatmates going out to do some shopping and we exchanged news, referring casually to the bombs laughing. We all found it amazing and weird that these same sounds that scared us and shook us so much last week had somehow become familiar by now and were not even disrupting any plans for shopping! Or I remember having lunch in Rejmeh with my girlfriend, her sister, brother, and some friends of the latter, and then drinking coffee and trying to kill time. One of the friends in our company played more than ten times a voice clip with the actor Eddie Murphy stored in his cell phone, making us all laugh each time. “Good morning my neighbors”, shouted Eddie Murphy. The reply, “Fuck you!”. And then finally the punch by Eddie, “Yes! Yes! Fuck you too!”. At the tenth time of hearing this clip I was convinced for a moment that the insanity of the war we were experiencing could be condensed in this simple and profane joke.

I am once again finishing these thoughts in the visitor’s room of my hosts’ house in Rejmeh. I had been out this afternoon to the two major centers of the region, Bhamdoun and Aley. I walked, observed, listened, conversed, took notes and tried to understand … One would think that I would mostly be in need of a bit of rest and silence after a long day. But as soon as I got to the room I put the TV on and started writing. The sound of the Arabic talk show in the background keeps me company to some extent. I feel somehow that tonight the silence of the mountain is not comforting. On the contrary, it seems a sign of the impending resumption of bombardment in Beirut or even of a possible ground invasion by Israel into Lebanon. Of course, according to Israel, these are ‘measured’ responses aimed at defeating a ‘terrorist’ militia (enjoying massive support among the Shiite constituency of Lebanon, we might add) that poses a grave threat to the security of Israeli citizens. It seems to me now that not even the staunchest opponents of Hezbollah and its actions in this country (and there are many among the Lebanese Sunni and Christians) find any credibility in this discourse.

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Efstratios Sourlagas is a third year graduate student in the Anthropology Department at Princeton University, starting his fieldwork on Greek Orthodox identity and intercommunal relations in Lebanon