Personal Thoughts From A Besieged Country

A bombed out building in the municipality of Ghobeiry. Throughout the night of Thursday July 13th Israeli missile struck heavily throughout Beirut’s southern suburbs of Dahyeh severely damaging multiple civilian infrastructure sites (Stefan Christoff and Mohammed Shublaq)

It is a little bit past 11:00 pm and I am sitting alone in front of my computer at the third floor of my hosts’ house in the village of Rejmeh in Mt. Lebanon. It is the fourth straight day now that Israel is pounding Lebanon and the country is almost under complete siege from land, sea and air. The electricity was on and off during the whole day in the village and now everyone in the house has gone to sleep turning off the generator that provided us with electricity for the last hour or so. I have a candle and the glow from my laptop screen as I am trying to gather my thoughts and impressions from these last days, chain-smoking. I am usually a night person and instead of struggling to sleep, now surrounded by myriad of disconnected thoughts, I feel that trying to write these personal notes would somehow alleviate my sense of confusion and bewilderment at the events I have been experiencing the last four days. I can not see my keyboard very well and I feel a sense of personal urgency to finish this before the battery of the laptop runs out.

Since I have started studying anthropology I have read numerous accounts in ethnographies of how anthropologists try to cope with the cultural shock and the sense of confusion and helplessness that usually accompanies the beginning of fieldwork in a different society and culture from one’s own. I came to Lebanon two weeks ago to start my own fieldwork, slightly optimistic that having being before in the region and country several times, feeling as a Greek more at home here with the way of life than in the US where I spent the last three years, possessing a knowledge of Arabic (admittedly poor as it is), and especially my girlfriend being Lebanese, I would not face such problems. Is it not true that so many people (including myself) reiterate how the Lebanese way of life is in numerous respects similar to the Greek one? However, I find myself now feeling helpless and questioning the purpose and the feasibility of my research here one day after the first Greek nationals have been evacuated from Lebanon via Damascus.

Of course these are not “normal” times. The country’s infrastructure is wrecked (airports, ports, roads, bridges, power plants, telecommunication systems etc.) but what leaves one feeling much more helpless and angry is that mainly civilians have to bear the onslaught of the Israeli army (many times with their own lives) as it ushers in its familiar tactic of collective punishment as a response to the capture of two of its soldiers by Hezbollah. But when was Lebanon a ‘normal’ country? And is it not this feature, namely that in a sense this tiny country seems to encapsulate all the wondrous and fascinating but at the same time absurd and tragic qualities of the Middle East that drew me here? So why am I complaining or questioning myself? Still, though, “war has come to Lebanon again” and I do not feel at all sure of how I, a Greek citizen who has just experienced the last thirty years of peace and prosperity in my country, can or should relate with the pain and suffering of the Lebanese people seeing their country being systematically destroyed once more. These are difficult questions to give definitive answers, especially as I hear now in the distance beneath the mountains the familiar by now sound of war planes and bombardment. What could be the target now? I have no way of knowing until the morning.

I came to Rejmeh, a small village about 25km east of Beirut, close to the main Beirut- Damascus highway, this morning to spend the weekend with my girlfriend and her family who have been up here since the attacks started. The village is predominantly Greek Orthodox and was completely destroyed during the Civil War but people in the last few years have started coming back and rebuilding their houses. I had been in Beirut since the start of the attacks and I felt I needed a break apart from wanting to see my girlfriend. The day passed very calmly and peacefully, a peace though that I felt was much more akin to the countryside setting than to the eerie silence that covered most of Beirut on Thursday and Friday with many people staying in their homes or leaving the city and most shops being closed.

As Israeli warships and planes intensified their attacks on Lebanon throughout Thursday and Friday, causing widespread anxiety with people queuing up for gas and stocking up on bread and other food supplies preparing for the worse, I had tried to brace myself not to be intimidated by the situation and continue my life in Beirut like everything was normal. On Thursday night I went to a friend’s house where mainly American and Lebanese journalists and students were gathered discussing the latest news sipping beer and wine. But when around 10:00 of us, all slightly tipsy by then, decided to go to the usually bustling Gemayzeh neighborhood to continue our conversation and drinking at around 11:00 pm we found only one place open there and empty streets. “Have Beirutis lost their edge?” asked one American student while another Lebanese in our company remarked that he has never seen Beirut so quiet. How this scene of eerie quietness contrasted with the noises of thousands of Lebanese taking to the streets of downtown Beirut honking in their cars and waving Italian (and Brazilian!) flags in celebration after the World Cup Final just a few days ago! “People here are frustrated. They need any excuse to cheer and celebrate”, remarked a Lebanese acquaintance when I expressed to her my bemusement at the wild scenes of jubilation. Could people have anticipated in a weird sense the difficult times ahead and felt that Italy’s victory would be their last chance to celebrate for a long time? Strange thoughts in strange circumstances …

Hearing the horrible sounds of warplanes bombarding Dahieh, a southern suburb of Beirut where the Hezbollah headquarters are situated, between 3 and 5:00 Friday morning from my apartment in Hamra near the American University of Beirut, was a great shock and an unprecedented experience for me. I was visibly shaken during the bombing and afterwards and could not sleep until late in the morning thinking also about the repeated pleas of my mother to leave Lebanon by any means and return home in Athens. What was I doing in Lebanon? Did I have a real purpose of staying amid these extraordinary circumstances?

Having barely slept a couple of hours, I ventured on Friday afternoon with two American friends around the city centre to get something to eat. As we went by place after place being closed and witnessed the empty streets, it seemed that our effort was more a sign of recklessness than any form of defiance. We finally left downtown and the nearby neighborhoods by taxi making our way to Raouche, the famous pigeon rocks of Beirut up from the Corniche where tourist restaurants are lined up gazing at the Mediterranean. On our way there we could see the smoke from the latest bombardment of the airport. We finally found a place in Raouche open and sat there to have lunch and smoke nargileh. The only other people in the restaurant were a couple of locals glued to the TV screen.

Throughout Friday we had only about two hours of electricity in the evening and listening to my girlfriends’ pleas to leave Beirut and come up to the mountain I made it to Rejmeh on Saturday morning. As I mentioned, the day seemed peaceful up there and the mood during lunchtime, when the whole family was gathered, was cheerful and playful. “Don’t worry”, my hosts said, “here in the mountain we are safe from any trouble”. It seemed, thus, that for a bit we could forget the terrible things happening in the country. Not for long, though! As my girlfriend and I were visiting in the afternoon the garden of her uncles’ house and playing with the five puppies of their dogs we heard in the distance the sound of planes and bombing once again. Watching the evening news was a completely depressing experience. Images of wrecked villages, roads and people fleeing from the south of the country were accompanied by news that the ports of Tripoli, Jounieh and Beirut were hit. The manara or lighthouse of Beirut in the Corniche was also hit. “Oh my God,” I exclaimed to the others watching besides me, “this is only a five to ten minute walk from where I live and I was walking past it yesterday afternoon as I was returning from Raouche to my house in Hamra.”

As I am writing these last lines its Sunday morning. I was never a fast writer and the battery of my laptop run out last night before I could finish my thoughts. Apparently the bombings I heard last night were coming again from Dahieh, which is severely damaged by now by the continuous attacks. I went to the Orthodox Mass in the church of the village this morning and I took the Holy Communion, a powerfully symbolic act in Orthodoxy, with the other people of the village. Could this have created a sort of communitas between us or are these just self-indulging thoughts? One of the things that have stuck most in my mind during these days was the image of the Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora last night making a desperate plea for help from the international community to stop this madness and the systematic destruction of his country. At the end of his speech, obviously shaken, his voice broken and overwhelmed by emotion Siniora repeated three times the phrase Sayabka Lubnan (“Lebanon will stay” or “Lebanon is here to stay”). Perhaps I should reflect more on why I was affected so much by these last words to understand more my purpose and determination to “stay” too in Lebanon under these circumstances.

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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