Beirut. City of mystery. Land of turmoil and warfare. Never can an emotional being enter Lebanon and go away with an idle experience. The country personifies itself as an elegant past that has slipped off the silken gloves of aristocracy – of royal palaces along the Cornish, overlooking the welcoming Mediterranean that beckons visitors to stand in awe near Roche with a view of snow-capped mountains. The peaks stand majestically in their protective military-like guard, waiting for the enemy to clandestinely crawl along the shores again. Beirut. Beyrouth. An echo of days alive with thundering excitement and European finery. Lebanese breads winding their way between passers-by permeate the otherwise seaside air and tease one’s forbidden appetite. It’s Beirut. And it is a moment in time. Today is wonder. Tomorrow is crying blood. Tomorrows are uncertain in Beirut; however, something emerges from the soul of those who live there. The stories that are hidden deep inside of women, men, merchants, students, and other land-loving Lebanese keep tapping on their hearts as though to say “Let me out! Let me out!” Many only shed the empty tears while the stories stay untold.
Five or six years ago I recall one of those moments that we are often left pondering as though it were frozen in time. The warmth of the morning sun slowly crawled through the open window and crept across the bed, teasing my eyelids until I submitted to its command to rise. I hate ambiguous situations like this. The freshly scented sheets and comfort of my pillow were too inviting, yet the Beirut life coming alive outside seemed to collaborate with the unseasonably warm February weather to beckon me outdoors. Besides, hotel bedrooms in the Middle East are not too generous as far as space and now I’ve been awake long enough to know it is time to embark on a new journey.
One only needs to experience one trip to this war-damaged city to feel the determination of its people to rebuild their bombed out shelters along with their hopes to rise out of its religious and political venom to take its seat again at the top of the cultural and intellectual hierarchy of Arab states. Beirut, the name which evokes distaste and fear from the Western world and reminders of the Islamic extremist group, Hezbollah’s attack on the marine barracks back in 1982, is the same city that is spoken of in prestigious circles as the Paris of the Middle East. Now, Beirut has called me back an eighth time – to reinforce the spirit of love and friendship that I have come to understand and failed to disregard even after the events of September 11th. Each trip back to Beirut has provided me with additional friends and reinforcement in my belief that people are basically good here in Lebanon. Yes, there is the Iranian and Syrian-backed Hezbollah whose fame is now in its success of retaliatory attacks on Israeli strongholds in Southern Lebanon that eventually caused it to withdraw its troops in April, 2000. And, of course, I, like most Americans, never heard of Beirut until that horrific massacre of 260 marines by the suicide truck bomb at the barracks near today’s Beirut airport. Add to this, the 17 years of civil war between the Muslims and Christians that was ignited in the center of Beirut by Christians and Muslims and unfortunately the ears and eyes of Westerners turned away in disgust, planting a permanent memory chip in their mind’s computer hardware that may never be willing to be rebooted again. Finally, Beirut has become the battlefield again in Summer 2006, raped by Hezbollah and Israel both.
Someone once told me that I was courageous to travel to Lebanon. Additionally on all travel documents, the warning “US citizens are urged to travel with caution in Lebanon,” is enough ammunition for many to shy away from the country that propaganda continues to fuel with fear and distrust in the country. However, I can illustrate with absolute confidence that I feel safe and secure in Beirut. Ambiguous as it may be in its history, Beirut on this day as I sit down on the Mediterranean on the Muslim feast of Eid Al Adha, I am witnessing a spirit of happiness, friendship, peace, and even love. I just met Mohammed Safi. He was strolling along the Cornish, a five-mile long, 30 foot wide walkway along the Mediterranean Sea that tempts all ethnicities to step outside the boundaries of despair and hate to walk together in fellowship, happiness, and with a fresh air of liberation of the constraints that choke our politicians. Mohammed’s two-year old son had almost run over my foot on his bright red tricycle, which woke me from my trance as I flipped through the pages of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, a story of man’s trip from the civilization of Europe to the primitive interior of the uncivilized Congo in Africa. Ironically, the very spot in which I sit, just 10 years ago had been surrounded by continuous bombing and shelling, in a most uncivilized fashion that brought this city of ambiguity to its knees. Although this moment preceded the recent hostilities in 2006, the sense of civilization continues to permeate the atmosphere. Little Ahmed, Mohammed’s son, intruded on my solitude and yet I welcomed the interruption of the isolation I was feeling in the reading of my novel and little did they realize that they would end up on the pages of an American professor’s journal, one who was desperately trying to patch the holes of discord and misunderstanding. Then there was a young covered Kuwaiti woman, and her family. On the Cornish were Canadians and Americans. Some, here for business. Some, tourists. Within hours, the Mediterranean had drawn in thousands of walkers as the sun continued to light the paths of young and old alike. Except for the slaughtered sheep for sacrificial offerings on the side streets of the Cornish, one would never expect that this peaceful city was once under turmoil or that a woman from Johnsonburg, Pennsylvania was sitting above the waves of ambiguity in a sea of experiences, on the outskirts of Beirut, a city that is finally coming back to reclaim itself as perhaps I am. Pondering, I am like Beirut. I knew it. Something draws me here several times a year. I’m not quite sure what it is. Maybe it is the soul of Khalil Gibran, author of The Prophet. His spirit in some way brought Roula and I together as friends – a special friend from the rolling seaside city of Byblos. Or possibly it is the contrasting scenery from the benches on the Mediterranean as one looks up to the white peaks painting the skyscape. Possibly it is the breathless climb to the hills toward Tripoli. But, somehow, the mystery of Lebanon stretches into my veins and energizes me in a way I can’t explain. I have reclaimed myself too. Just five years ago I was facing the most crucial time of my life and asking questions that couldn’t be answered. Today I am sitting in a Middle Eastern city, alone, but alive in spirit. Vendors roll past me. Lebanese breads. Steaming corn. Toothless smiles. Unshaven cheeks surrounded by hopeful eyes. Before long, I’ll be joining friends. But for now, I am relishing in the moment of ambiguities. It all started when the sun invited me out of the sheets of inactivity to a world alive with music, love, happiness, family, friends. It is the world today in Beirut, Lebanon. And, it is the world in my heart.