Lebanon – a country torn between past and present

I take my first step out of the plane. The change in temperature is overwhelming but expected. Warm nights and even warmer days. The air is heavy, the smells of plane fuel and coastal breeze mix together. I know the way out of the plane well, the airport hasn’t been renovated properly in more than twenty years. That same air gets heavier the more I meet peoples’ gazes, something seems to be slowly suffocating all of us. I smile to the border patrol officer as I hand him my passport, he dryly stamps it and hands it back. As I’m stepping outside, I expect taxi drivers to jump at the first opportunity to offer their services yelling “Taxi Madame?”, but even they lack their usual enthusiasm. Once, you were welcomed to the country with relaxed smiles, regardless of the time of day. The border patrol officers would usually start up conversations with you, radiating friendliness and ignoring the queue forming behind you. If you were a foreigner, you’d get asked “Do you like Lebanon?” or “Have you ever had tabouleh?”. If you were unlucky enough, you’d get hit with “Say marhaba![1]” and get teased for having a foreign accent when speaking Arabic; or on the contrary, complimented for being able to pronounce it correctly.

Instead, all I could feel was silence.

           In the car on the way home, enveloped by the darkness of the highway, that silence becomes even more crushing. It’s 4AM, state electricity is off. We rapidly got used to routine power cuts around 3 years ago but the lucky few have gas generators that provide them with 24/7 electricity. Ironically, as these thoughts slip into my mind, I enter the only well-lit tunnel in Lebanon. The tunnel is of no particular value, but it blinds all drivers that enter it. The electricity used to light it could have saved us students the trouble of charging portable lamps during the day so that we could study at night.

            The next day I took a walk, I was curious to see what changes could be perceived in the crowd since October 7th. I see tired faces, they’re drained, their movements are slow and their warm smiles worn out from trying to hide their exhaustion. The graceful tetas[2] of respectable Beirut families still sit at the balconies of their old buildings, which bear bullet holes of the Civil War, although they no longer wave at you and invite you in for coffee. They’ve given up fighting off their old age, no longer dyeing their grey hair monthly and wearing coral-coloured lipsticks. The jeddo[3] selling vegetables in his beat-up truck doesn’t give you a couple extra tomatoes and courgettes anymore. He doesn’t try and pick out the nicest ones for you and he doesn’t add in a free bunch of parsley to take to your mother to keep customers coming. The  aammo[4] at the little corner store no longer calls his customers “love of my heart”[5] or “my life”[6] – famous terms Arabic is loved for – instead he silently hands me back my change.

Now, more than ever, talks of the past are heard. Streets are filled with echoing voices remembering, or pretending to remember, a time when Mar Mikhael Street was still filled with laughter, when housewives would spend entire afternoons in hookah cafés emptily complaining and there was no queue for fuel at the gas station at 4AM. When they close their eyes, the people see The Paris Of The Middle East, they’re back in the 60s: Casino du Liban is hosting Miss Europe, tourism is bustling, “ski in the morning, beach in the afternoon” is the day-to-day motto. The Hotel St. George is still up and running, busy with customers, Brigitte Bardot might be in the lobby, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi could be having his dinner in the restaurant and perhaps a Cold War spy is sipping on a drink at the bar.

There is a poem by Nadia Tuéni that every Lebanese person knows by heart. In it, there is a specific verse I have heard more times than I can remember: “Beirut has died a thousand times and been reborn a thousand times”. This quote has sunk deep into everyday vocabulary, it’s a hope people cling to. A poem we casually studied at school has become a prayer recited by the nation every time today’s news becomes more ominous than yesterday’s. Every time one of the big men in politics (the kind with big beards) delivers a speech, when everyone is glued to their TV, hearts racing ahead of the decisions to be announced, the quote is remembered. Every time someone passes by the Beirut harbour, observing what’s left of it through their car window, reliving the explosion in their head, the quote is remembered. Every time social media is flooded with footage of conflicts happening throughout the country, showing mindless people dressed in black, proudly holding guns like children given gifts at Christmas, the quote is remembered.

As the sound of gunshots ricochets off the walls of churches and mosques, we sit, and we wait. Graffiti of phoenixes paint the walls of the city and Nadia Tuéni’s words are held up as a prophecy.

But how long will we have to wait this time?

Tuéni, Nadia. “Beirut” The Literary Review (Teaneck) 37.3 (1994): 527. Web.

[1] Hello

[2] Grannies

[3] Grandad

[4] Uncle

[5] “Habib albi” or “ حبيبة قلبي”

[6] “Hayati” or يا حياتي

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