Lebanon then and now: Lament for an orphaned land

Now that the ghosts of war have returned – not that they ever really left – I wonder what happened to those children I worked with almost three decades ago.

MEN PLAY chess in downtown Beirut in front of a crumbling Ottoman villa, September 1992 (photo credit: HADANI DITMARS)
MEN PLAY chess in downtown Beirut in front of a crumbling Ottoman villa, September 1992
(photo credit: HADANI DITMARS)
The apocalyptic scenes of Beirut today look eerily familiar.
The twisted rebar hanging in spiderwebs from blown-up buildings; the blackened Ottoman villas; cavernous holes where homes used to be in sharp relief against the cerulean sea, its color the very blue of childhood; the former Paris of the Middle East once again the realm of the displaced and the dispossessed as dazed residents emerge from the ruins.
I’ve seen this movie before. It reminds me of the last time I was in Lebanon almost 30 years ago, when Beirut was still reeling from 15 years of civil war.
In 1992, armed with a Hi8 camera and an arts council grant to do a documentary employing Augusto Boal’s “theater of the oppressed” work with “children of war” in Beirut, I returned to a land my ancestors had fled for Canada in 1906.
Instead of Turkish gunboats following me, as my Greek Orthodox great-grandparents had to contend with when they left their homeland for strange new shores, I was followed by Syrian agents from the Mukhabarat (Military Intelligence Directorate).
Suspicious of my videographic forays into the flattened downtown, they threatened the distant cousins I was staying with in Achrafieh, who – already chagrined at my collaboration with a young Shi’ite filmmaker – kicked me out unceremoniously after a few days.
I was 25 years old and this was my first time in the Middle East. I had spent most of my grant on my camera and was now homeless in a ruined city. As I interviewed Muslim and Christian children on either side of the old Green Line – kids whose families were too poor to leave their war-torn land – and wove their stories into psychodrama, I lived my own.
The writer in her ancestral village of Karound in the Bekaa Valley, April 1993 (Credit: Ouday Raad)
The writer in her ancestral village of Karound in the Bekaa Valley, April 1993 (Credit: Ouday Raad)
I SPENT a few nights at the home of a Palestinian cameraman who lived with his parents and four brothers in a two-room house downtown. There was sporadic electricity, no potable water, and at night we all slept on the living room floor. I made my bed at the far end next to his mother, who slept next to his father and the brothers.
I moved on to a cheap hotel in Hamra, and began to work with children in the Sabra and Shatila camps who had survived the 1982 massacre, when hundreds of mostly Palestinians and Lebanese Shi’ites were killed by the predominantly Christian Lebanese Phalange members – with the Israeli army nearby. We discussed their dreams and turned them into theatricalized moments. One boy told us of a recurring dream where he transformed into Superman – with a keffiyeh for a cape – and flew home to Jerusalem to reclaim his grandfather’s house, clutching the keys in his hand. The children reenacted the dream on the same spot where many had been orphaned in 1982.
One evening when I walked back to my hotel room, I was followed by a man in an unmarked car, who seemed to think we were both in a John le Carré novel. I turned to lose him and he turned to follow. I ran back to my little hotel/sanctuary, heart pounding. How disappointed he would have been if he had ransacked my room and found no evidence of espionage, but only old family photos and earnest poetry about returning to my roots.
 I moved on to an abandoned villa in the old Jewish quarter, a brief moment of luxury until the water and electricity were cut off, and spent afternoons interviewing Khadijah, a 12-year-old girl whose family – displaced from the south after the Israeli invasion – slept in a bombed-out school on the Green Line, just West of the “Muslim” boundary in Chiyah. The dream she recounted was a recurring nightmare about a wedding party interrupted by gun-toting militiamen who started shooting. In our Augusto Boal-inspired reenactment, she stopped the men from entering and everyone just kept on dancing.
The youngest of six children, Khadijah – in spite of living in the ruins of one – did not actually attend school, as her family couldn’t afford the fees. During a filming session in her neighborhood, where I recorded some boys playing war games (complete with pretend bazookas), I asked Khadijah why she didn’t play with them. She replied that she didn’t like the boys’ games because they reminded her of the war. She told me that she had seen her mother die in front of her when their building was shelled in the late 1980s. She recounted how her father had been kidnapped by a militia around that time during the Amal/Hezbollah conflicts, and almost buried alive in a graveyard.
Since Khadijah and her family had been displaced by the Israeli invasion of their southern Lebanese village, they’d been constantly on the move. At night she slept with a small amulet inscribed with Koranic verses – a gift from her grandmother – on her pillow, a kind of talisman she’d kept with her all through the troubles. When I asked her what her idea of peace was, she said, “having a home that no one would ever chase you from.”
Khadijah lived across the street from Ayoub, a 14-year-old boy who resided on the “Christian” or east side of the Green Line boundary in Ain al-Remmaneh, the civil war’s ground zero. Although their respective homes were 100 yards apart, Ayoub and Khadijah had never met until I introduced them.
Even though the war was ostensibly over, neither child had ever dared venture to the “other side.” Khadijah imagined it was dirty and full of garbage, while Ayoub was afraid to cross over because he thought the area was haunted by ghosts.
Ayoub and his family literally lived with the militias for several years of the war, as their apartment building was a barricade for the Forces Libanaises. Ayoub gave me a tour of his neighborhood, which still bore the marks of its frontline location. Makeshift sandbag barriers with crosses painted on them stood like relics of war. Ruined houses of friends and neighbors betrayed their original domesticity with old empty soup cans and half-melted stoves.
Ayoub’s war stories ranged from the sublime tragedy of family and friends being killed to the absurdist horror of an Iranian aid worker accidentally urinating on a land mine. Ayoub couldn’t afford to attend school and instead helped contribute to the family income by collecting and selling old mineral water bottles. His name is the Arabic version of Job.
When my Shi’ite filmmaker friend Ouday and I brought Ayoub and Khadidjah together in the “neutral” space of the Russian Cultural Center in Verdun for more Boal-inspired drama therapy, the two became fast friends.
 Ouday Raad and the writer with the village goatherd, who lost half his herd when one stepped on a landmine in 1982, Karoun, April 1993 (Credit: Hadani Ditmars)
Ouday Raad and the writer with the village goatherd, who lost half his herd when one stepped on a landmine in 1982, Karoun, April 1993 (Credit: Hadani Ditmars)
I FINALLY found a refuge of sorts in the unheated Hamra apartment of an American journalist on leave. Unfortunately, on a trip to my ancestral village of Karoun in the Bekaa Valley on Lebanese Independence Day in November, a sleep-deprived Syrian midwife had scalded my foot with the piping hot coffee she was serving me in her home. I ended up with a third-degree burn and the village doctor – who had “acquired” his “degree” from a “Bulgarian medical school” during the war – did not treat it properly.
 I survived only because a friend of Ouday – a young Shi’ite man named Ali involved in a Romeo-and-Juliet story with a Maronite girl – insisted on driving along the treacherous snowy roads back to Beirut with no snow tires and past Lebanese army checkpoints blocking our path. Once back at my freezing Hamra flat, Ouday arranged a visit to the local fire chief – the resident burn expert. As he brought out a gruesome photo album of burn victims he had treated during the war, his wife rather unnervingly served the requisite dark coffee with cardamom and then casually ripped off my makeshift bandages, declaring that gangrene had set in.
After a month alone in the flat unable to walk, and a few weeks of penicillin, I returned to my theater-of-the-oppressed duties.
Someone had stolen the telephone line, but I had managed to survive on boiled water and canned goods from the journalist’s pantry. When the downstairs neighbors were repairing their apartment, I crawled down the stairs to retrieve discarded pieces of timber to use as firewood. Once back on my feet, to support myself after the arts council funds had dried up, I got a gig at a French restaurant singing gypsy songs and Leonard Cohen dirges. Stories of the Street (written in Franco-era Spain but well-suited to postwar Beirut) seemed like the obvious song to keep the darkness at bay:
“The stories of the street are mine, the Spanish voices laugh.
The Cadillacs go creeping now through the night and the poison gas.
And where do all these highways go, now that we are free?
Why are the armies marching still that were coming home to me?”
One night, as I sang “Ochi Chernye” (“Dark Eyes”), Druze leader and car-bomb survivor Walid Jumblatt walked in and began to sing along. I had entered into some kind of weird Lebanese gestalt and there was no turning back.
Full of childhood horror stories and hoping to somehow help the kids I worked with, I met with foreign-aid workers and wives of arms dealers running charitable foundations, in vain. One day I was given a contact with a prominent Christian MP and arranged an appointment. When I asked if he could help fund my project and showed him some video footage, he remarked, “What are you doing with these dirty, displaced children? There are plenty of cleaner and better-educated Lebanese children to talk to.” Then he asked me for a date the next weekend, when his wife was away.
Nonetheless, I persevered, tilting at windmills. I got a gig singing Arabized flamenco at a joint on Makhoul Street just down from the Blue Note in Hamra with the legendary engagé oud player Sami Hawat, who used to play with Marcel Khalife, composer of “Beirut Our Star” – inspired by the poetry of Mahmoud Darwish. I can still hear the song in my dreams:
In secret we sing:
Beirut is our shelter
Beirut is our star
Beirut, shape of shade
She tempts us with a thousand overtures
And with new alphabets
Beirut our only shelter
Beirut our only star
When the American journalist returned to claim her flat, I decamped to the home of Ouday’s cousin in the Southern suburbs, where larger-than-life cut-outs of Hezbollah leaders made for a surreal Shiah Disneyland effect. After nine months, I finally left, my heart full of stories and dashed hopes, and a large scar on my right ankle where Lebanese hospitality had almost killed me. Like my ancestors who fled the Turks, I never went back.
IN THE Karoun home of the village haji, who claimed to have fought in the Ottoman army, April 1993.  (Credit: Ouday Raad)
IN THE Karoun home of the village haji, who claimed to have fought in the Ottoman army, April 1993. (Credit: Ouday Raad)
I NEVER knew the in-between Beirut of gleaming shopping malls and Starbucks spots and returning expats and Instagram photos. My Beirut was the one of coffee at Wimpy’s amid buildings pockmarked by bullet holes and street kids selling chewing gum in Place des Martyrs; of mid-century ruins on top of archaeological ones, before the downtown was bulldozed by the Solidere development company, erasing memories with shiny new towers.
Now that the ghosts of war have returned – not that they ever really left – I wonder what happened to those children I worked with almost three decades ago.
As UNICEF declares that 80,000 children have been made homeless by Beirut’s latest disaster, I wonder what has become of Khadijah and Ayoub?
Of the children of Sabra and Shatila? Of the displaced of the downtown? Where are the boys I once visited who lived amid the ruins of the St. George Hotel, damaged during the civil war and then blown up again by the bomb that killed prime minister Rafic Hariri and 21 others in 2005? Have the street kids I used to photograph at Place des Martyrs been replaced by young Syrian refugees? Or have they joined the ranks of angry protesters hoping for decent state services, for a life, for a future; legions of the dispossessed trying to take back the dream and change the ending, locked in a slow-motion nightmare of repetition.
My old Hi8 cassettes full of the children’s songs and stories are in a closet somewhere, gathering dust; my would-be documentary foiled by inertia, lack of funding and the ennui of potential broadcasters overwhelmed by other war stories in other places. But now as I watch CNN, I’m sure I spot a familiar face in the crowds of wounded, reeling citizens, amid specters of past explosions and phantom invasions, resilient kleptocracies and perennial proxy wars.
As carnivorous nations once again gather to divide your spoils, the trauma of memory rises up from the ashes, over the sea and out from the screen. I remember you, Lebanon. I see you. And I sing a lament for an orphaned land.
The writer is the author of Dancing in the No-Fly Zone: A Woman’s Journey through Iraq, a past editor at New Internationalist, and has been reporting from the Middle East on culture, society and politics for two decades. Her work has been published in The New York Times, The Guardian and Vogue. She lived in Jerusalem in 1994, writing for the joint Israeli-Palestinian magazine, The New Middle East.