There is a state of elevator-feeling-in-the-pit-of-the-stomach-hyper-anxiety that immediately fills my insides when I get a message from someone asking me: if someone I love in some God forsaken place I call home (and I call many places home these days) is OK. It is so instant because my nervous system has practiced delivering this message to me a lot in the last three decades.
In thirty years the devastation and loss we have collectively endured between us has been so massive, so frequent, that we are all left in the tatters at the site of Beirut breaking this way. We are in tatters and soon there won’t be anything left of us to salvage. Like the tragic site of last evening’s explosions, our collective past, present and future are being burnt to the ground and all we have been doing is escape and evacuate; only for some to return and rebuilt before it all explodes and comes shattering down again.
Just place your finger anywhere on the map of our collective homes: as far west as Morocco, as south as Yemen, up North into Iraq and East into Bahrain….not to mention the whole area in the middle. That area that for me, and many others, is a culmination of memories, dreams, ideas and experiences we have the privilege to plaster together and call home. I have remnants of ancestry, members of family, many friends, pieces of my heart, years from my life, and even people buried in the grounds of Jordan, Syria, Palestine, Egypt, the UAE and of course, Lebanon. Many are like me.
There are hundreds of invisible strings attaching me to Lebanon. If I was to recite all the reasons I am so passionately devoted to that place it would run like a very long grief-struck teenage love letter and that is not what I want to do today.
Today I want to recite what so many of us non-Lebanese mourners are feeling as we sit far away in the comfort of our homes, in the silence of our safe spaces, phone in hand, feeling the aftershock of distant trauma we have become all too familiar with. The silence around us defending, the mere fact that we are somewhere void of screams and sirens filling us with guilt and gratitude that we have tasted with tears all too often en masse as Arabs.
Smoke is seen after an explosion in Beirut, Lebanon August 4, 2020. Gaby Maamary/via REUTERS
From the day I was born in 1980 up until 1995: Lebanon, like Palestine, was a place I heard about in the news, a place my grandmother (who lived in both) would tell me about, and a place my father grew up in and wouldn’t say very much about in fear of his voice breaking. The first time I visited Beirut was in 1996 with a friend and her mother.
On that first trip of many that I took since, I remember harrowing at the site of the single walls that remained of buildings, inundated with holes across their facades, like silent witnesses recounting to us the sum of ammunition exchanged and loss suffered before it was safe enough for the rest of us. For the rest of us to drive through for some beach-side tanning and late night street food after a day spent shopping and an evening dancing. After all, at worst, everyone has at least a happy memory or secret buried in broken Beirut.
Seeing the damage of that city back in 1996, I remember thinking that surely this must be the end of the worst things since Palestinian occupation that will ever happen to our part of the world. I remember realizing that unlike the Palestinians I had met everywhere but their hometowns; all the Lebanese I had come across in foreign lands, would now be headed back to start over and replant their roots in the soil from which their seed was sewn and that thought filled me with hope.
After that first trip, I went to Lebanon often – for a day, for a week, sometimes for a month. I went there for family, for friends and for work. I went there to visit and revisit its streets; the most city I have ever had the pleasure of walking through, where the smell of car fumes, home cooked food and overheated pavement filled me with the joy that endured the necessity to meander my way around uneven ground, busy bustle and the inevitable drops of water from the overused air-condioners trying to lift the humidity from people’s houses. In Beirut everything felt, smelled and tasted better, once you brush the daily hassle and hurdles off your shoulders and you would certainly have to be willing to do that first.
After all, Beirut is a city of curses and blessings. A city so cracked, there is no other place that illuminates with so much life and light.
Beirut is a city I was very nervous to take my children to. I was worried, foolishly, that they wouldn’t see it the way I did and wouldn’t experience it the way I do. It was naive of me to worry because without any effort at all, from the moment we left the airport, my daughters wouldn’t stop recounting all the things that are beautiful about Beirut. They pointed at the orange sky as the sun set, they complimented the intertwined exposed electricity wires across the skies, they basked in the way strangers and family spoke to them directly, with familiarity, like they are really there and really belong.
All I could feel was relief. Relief that something that is a part of me is now also a part of them. Because sadly for many of us, that simple birthright of visiting, let alone living in, the places where we grew up, has either become an absurdity or impossibility.
Something that is so simple is also insurmountable. The grief that comes with that is inconsolable no matter how well you live and how well you travel elsewhere. It is an emotional and psychological amputation that more of us are experiencing with each passing year.
And now, as millions scurry to pick up pieces of themselves and their lives out of the debris in the aftermath of a devastating catastrophe; a man-made tragedy so unforgivable the anger and the pain grow to the expansive equivalence of the plume that inhaled then exhaled the city with everyone and everything in it, I do wonder.
I wonder how many more have just experienced the trauma and will soon experience the open wound of being forever a foreigner far from familiar land. How many children just learned the bitter lesson their parents had tasted, swallowed and courageously spat out to to stay, to return, to try. How many parents will carry what’s left of their families and leave.
I can’t stop wondering how my great uncle and aunt, like so many elderly, must have felt when they were thrown across their rooms in Beirut yesterday, rooms already witness to their loss and mourning of decades of uncertainty. How my cousins who are mothers and fathers away from their children across town managed to get word or give word.
How my sister and my brother-in-law who have both considered Beirut their city must have really thought their life was being cut short right then and there. I wonder how the refugee in Shatila absorbed another act of violence, how the Nigerian domestic workers who’s photos were spread across social media as they slept dozens of bodies in a single room must have rolled over one another and kept each other intact, how the street vendor, the homeless, the beggar – how they are recovering their lives today. How they will ever recover. How their world will look after our short-term memory recovers…and somehow we forget. But – the trigger in our brain, that overused part of our nervous system that has become so efficient at delivering the message that trauma has befallen again – knows better than to forget. And so should we.
We should know better than to forget.
We should know better than to passively cry, sigh and reset. Every time we do that, a part of our home is extracted from us so excruciatingly that we find nothing of it left to share with our children.
I can write love letters to Amman, to Damascus and Cairo. I can recount hundreds of stories about Yafa and Baghdad that my grandmother would tell me many times over and over at my request, I can even share memories from Rabat, Ramallah, Sanaa, Muscat, Kuwait, Abu Dhabi and Riyadh. But I don’t want to. And I certainly don’t want to leave mere words behind.
The list of places I call home no longer viable for my children to visit, nor live in, cannot go on growing like this. Beirut cannot make the list of places perished. No more of the places any of us consider home should. We have to remember that and we have to reconsider our treatment of our collective trauma and our healing thus far.
We have been treating our traumas by escape or evacuation – whether literally or metaphorically. But we are not healing. We are barely rising from the rubble before we are pushed down again. As the gore that is Beirut is still fresh in our mind’s eye, let us think together and come together wherever we are about what we want for that city, for all the cities from which we came and to which we would like the choice to return.
Let us consider individually and collectively, what we are willing to sacrifice of our time and ourselves to invest little by little in that notion. Let us really stop and do the work.
I want to think about how the world will look like in another decade if I do nothing and what of that world will I, let alone my children, be equipped to handle. I want to imagine how the world will look like if I spend this decade utilising the things I’m already good at to make a little change in the areas I can.
Little by little, if we all dedicate ourselves to that, if we also open ourselves up to the realization that we are not just citizens or nationals, but communities that must come together and must have uncomfortable conversations and must form collectives in whatever capacity.
We have to start seeing each other, hearing each other and getting comfortable with each other.
We have to get comfortable with each other. Because as much as we have avoided rubbing shoulders or putting our hands together, the harsh reality is that we are likely to find ourselves falling, or worse, dying, in each other’s laps sooner or later at the rate things are going.
I am not sure what to do next, but I am certain that bearing the brunt of how hard and long the road that lies ahead is feels more sufferable than the notion that there is no road. And eventually, there won’t be.