Why I’m not leaving Beirut

Beirut during better times, photographed May 2006 (Steve Jones)


From my balcony this afternoon, I watched as French, British, and American evacuees boarded chartered cruise ships in Beirut’s port about a half-mile west of my apartment.

And over the last few days, while bombs and artillery pummeled the southern part of the city, I made the decision not to leave Lebanon. Explosions rock my building even as I write this, but I’m staying put.

I’m not crazy, and I harbor no death wish. This is simply the rational decision of someone who has built a life in Lebanon, who believes in this place and its ability to bounce back. I choose to bet on Beirut.

After five visits to Lebanon over as many years, I moved to Beirut from California this February. I’m a 24-year-old American with friends but no family here. But Lebanese hospitality makes it easy to feel at home; it’s a warm society that exudes and embodies a sense of interpersonal responsibility. Live here for two weeks and then go out of town, and you’ll get a dozen offers to pick you up at the airport upon your return.

So although I’m not Lebanese by blood, I have become Beiruti. There are plenty of us who fit that description, foreigners who fell in love with the place and its people. One friend, an American college student interning for the summer with a member of the Lebanese parliament, called in tears en route to the northern border to tell me her parents had forced her to leave.

“I’m going to stay in Syria as long as I can,” she vowed. “In case things settle down and I can come back.”

Until the war broke out last week, this was to be Lebanon’s golden summer — last year’s tourist season having been dampened by the brutal car bomb that killed former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in February 2005.

This summer started off strong, with concerts by major Western artists that allowed the Lebanese to hope their country was returning to the prewar days when everyone who was anyone — icons like Ella Fitzgerald, Marlon Brando, and Brigitte Bardot — made regular stops in the country. Ricky Martin and 50 Cent performed in May and June, respectively, Sean Paul was on deck for July, and negotiations were under way to bring Snoop Dogg later in the summer. But the most anticipated concert was set for late July: the three-night return of legendary Lebanese diva Fairouz to the Baalbeck festival, where she first earned her fame in the 1950s and ’60s.

The after-party for 50 Cent was typical over-the-top Beiruti, held at the city’s most decadent nightclub, Crystal. Lamborghinis and Ferraris crowded the parking lot; plasticated Lebanese girls in short skirts and spike heels danced on tables as waiters navigated the dance floor balancing trays laden with sparklers and magnums of champagne for high-rolling Saudi tourists, while Fiddy free-styled and openly smoked a joint.

Tourists from the Arab world, Europe, and North America flooded the streets of cities and villages throughout the country. Gulf Arabs in particular have been drawn to Lebanon, especially in a post-9/11 era when they felt unwelcome in the West (and often had trouble obtaining visas). Lebanon offered many of the same attractions as Europe, but in an Arab setting: temperate climate, good shopping, plenty of tourist activities, and most important, heady nightlife and a liberal social atmosphere. Tourists partied till dawn, stormed the sales at Beirut’s designer boutiques, and visited sites like Lebanon’s ancient cedar groves and the Roman temples at Baalbeck.

Now those magnificent ruins are surrounded by newer ones: The city of Baalbeck, long a Shiite stronghold, has received a heavy share of the Israeli bombardment.

Falling bombs erase entire villages, fire and smoke cover the horizon, and visions of that promised summer have, in just over a week, evaporated. On the beaches of Damour and Jiyeh, the foreign visitors aren’t European sun junkies but Israeli missiles. And the cruise ships docked in the port aren’t bringing tourists to Lebanon, they’re taking them away.

The contrast between Beirut today and Beirut two weeks ago is so stark, it would be unbearable if it weren’t so surreal. This isn’t my Beirut. This isn’t anyone’s Beirut.

The contrast between Beirut today and Beirut two weeks ago is so stark, it would be unbearable if it weren’t so surreal. This isn’t my Beirut. This isn’t anyone’s Beirut. The frantic, vibrant city has shrunk into a sleepy town, with empty streets and only a handful of restaurants, bars, and shops open for business.

It’s amazing how quickly you can get used to living under siege. We’ve taped our windows, stocked up on supplies, and settled into a perversion of normal life. Electric generators succeed where embattled power stations fail. I’ve learned what times the electricity, water, and Internet connection usually cut out, and I plan my days accordingly — an old Lebanese ritual from the days of the civil wars.

Candles we bought as decoration are scattered throughout the apartment, half-burned down from long nights without electricity. An Israeli propaganda flier dropped on a university soccer field sticks out of my roommate’s copy of the now-obsolete July issue of Time Out Beirut, marking a page listing exhibitions at art galleries that have since boarded up their doors. The magazine only launched this spring, and it was easy to see it as yet another symbol that Beirut was finally being recognized as one of the world’s great cities. Travel and Leisure magazine listed Beirut as the ninth-best city in the world for 2006. In this part of the world, fortunes shift very quickly.

Smaller explosions and the rushing of Israeli fighter jets overhead don’t startle or frighten me anymore. We are exhausted and have to save our emotional energy for the moments where panic is needed. Still, when larger blasts rattle my windowpanes and make the apartment shudder, I rush to the balcony to figure out which part of my city is being hit. Sometimes, it’s an easy game: Three days ago, my roommate and I watched as Israeli warships struck Beirut’s port.

I know I’m reasonably safe in my corner of Beirut, and I have a place to go in the mountains if that ceases to be true. Unlike people in many other industries, I still have a job: The magazine where I work decided to publish an August issue — although it will lose money — as a sign of resistance and resilience.

There is painfully little we, the ordinary people of Lebanon, can do to help the situation. So, instead, we do what we can to help each other by donating food and supplies, opening our doors to friends and strangers, and trying to maintain some semblance of normalcy. We aren’t giving up.

After the foreigners are gone, local wisdom predicts that the fighting will only get worse. At the very least, there will be less protective padding — a fear of foreign casualties that may have restrained Israel to some degree. Evacuating Beirut would feel a lot like abandoning it. I know that my staying won’t keep the Israelis from intensifying their attacks, but at least I won’t be complicit, seeing events unfold on a TV screen from the comfort of Cyprus.

So, I’ll watch those ships pull away without regret. Lebanon has given me more than I ever could’ve asked: a home, a sense of belonging, an almost indecent number of happy memories. But aside from any debt to Lebanon, I won’t leave because I know how miserable I would be watching the war ravage my country from the outside. As long as my feet are firmly planted on Lebanese soil, I somehow know the country will survive.

People ask me if I’m scared, and I am — but for Lebanon more than for myself. This place and its people deserve far better than what they’re getting.

There’s a sad, unstated “what will become of us?” question floating around the Lebanese who are left behind. I need to stay here, if only to learn the answer.

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Faerlie Wilson is a former intern at Arab Media Watch, where this was originally published.