Back from Beirut: Fear and Normal Courage

One reason that I haven’t let go of the connections with people in Beirut is because I felt fear and had to figure out how to manage it. My own little weirdnesses of coping put me on alert for observing what qualifies as normal courage, what decisions might be reckless, and which of my worries completely ridiculous? On the bus to Byblos the one Saturday we traveled for tourism, only one person responded when I mentioned having been afraid. “We all were,” she said, gesturing to a couple of other conference participants.

My suspicion is that none of the faculty members we met at Lebanese American University expected us to keep in touch. Some of us outsiders—who traveled from work or study in the US, Germany, Greece, Turkey, and Brazil—have certainly made the effort. It’s so hard though, isn’t it? We return to lives consumed with local preoccupations: everyone is just a bit too busy, how could we manage to do more than we already are?

Lamia Ziade's graphic novel of Lebanon's Civil War
Lamia Ziade's graphic novel of Lebanon's Civil War

One reason that I haven’t let the connections go is because I felt fear and had to figure out how to manage it.  My own little weirdnesses of coping put me on alert for observing what qualifies as normal courage, what decisions might be reckless, and which of my worries completely ridiculous? On the bus to Byblos the one Saturday we traveled for tourism, only one person responded when I mentioned having been afraid. “We all were,” she said, gesturing to a couple of other conference participants. She put it in the past tense, reflecting how relaxed we had become after three days of conferencing.  The alarmist US State Department advisory to Americans traveling to Lebanon is Don’t Go. That had rattled me a fair bit, and then there were my friends who kept saying I needed to tell people I was Canadian and “don’t show anyone your US passport!”

That sunny tourist Saturday, as we returned from a successful day of sightseeing, shopping, and eating – “something happened” on the northern border with Syria. It did not affect us. We all flew away, back home or on vacation . . . a few days later (May 21) a disturbing message popped up on Facebook: “Syrian Embassy calls on its nationals not to go to Lebanon because of security.” I had barely gotten over jet lag. Two days later: “A very “hot” night on twitter (and on the streets outside). Tires, gunshots, grenades, B7s, w Farrouj Mishwi with Kabees & Toom Extra la Hass Ghaddar special.” A blog entry announced:

“It would be nice to wake up in the morning and
not be worried that
today, we could be dragged into a war.
Yes, it would be nice.”

I checked in with The Ringleader (a nickname). She was holed up with her family, packed and ready to head to the mountains if necessary. A few days later, she was caught in town for some hours listening to nearby gunfire. In a Facebook chat I said:

“I started reading a book about the civil war last night, do you know it? Bye Bye Babylon http://randajarrar.com/2012/02/09/lamia-ziades-bye-bye-babylon/
I thought of you….
didn’t make it very far yet, the drawings are powerful”

“Yes,” she replied.
“I sell it at work to all the foreigners simply because it speaks the truth
never really finished it
t’was too heartbreaking”

Yet there she is, challenging and teasing her friends on Facebook, carrying on a more-or-less ‘normal’ life. gotoschool_GRINSAnother friend likewise posted a mix of her usual Facebook fare interspersed with information and commentary on the situation as it developed.  So, there you have it. In the face of fear, act normal. Stay calm. Model respect and poke fun at violators of peace. I suppose I did alright. I was anxious the 24 hours or so before leaving the US to fly there, and had a very rough emotional spell a day or two after returning unharmed: relief, I imagine. While there, I overtipped one of the hotel’s drivers because I was getting paranoid about him scowling at me – his grin was amazing! I also woke in the middle of the night once and unpublished all my previous Dialogue Under Occupation blogposts about Palestine and Israel (republishing them a few days later). I accepted rings spontaneously gifted from the person who wore them and was agreeable to living a bit over the top in order to enlarge the spirit of generosity and hope.

Now, if we could just keep growing it…

3 thoughts on “Back from Beirut: Fear and Normal Courage”

  1. Steph, I think you do get used to it after a while. I have been going to the ME for nearly 10 years, many of those in Lebanon. I know that the danger is real, but after a while you get used to it–like the burning road at Saida on my way back from Rashaya–it was a moment of fear. Then I returned to Beirut to find fighting in a nearby neighborhood, but I must admit that I slept ok that night. It’s not that I feel desensitized, but it’s just a choice you make if you are going to work there that you have to come to terms with the ever-present danger if you are to engage with the Lebanese realistically.

  2. In a sense, it is highly true, you always have someone in the car with you while you roadtrip, who at a roadblock tells you exactly what you should and should not do, in lebanon it is always about what you should NOT do; ” Don’t seem too happy they will think you are high”, ” don’t act bitchy they will stop you and act bitchy back”, ” don’t assume that they are just gonna let you pass, if they feel that you are overconfident about simply crossing the road-block they will think you are anxious and hiding something”. Things have settled in Beirut, unless there is some worm swirming around our infrastructures..
    Beautifully written my Friend. 🙂

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