40 Years Later…

Today is the day we remember our war (1975-1990), the one we swore not to forget so that it would never happen again (تنذكر وما تنعاد). But just like everything else in Lebanon, the more things change the more they stay the same. Whatever we said about the war, the lessons learned and chances of it happening again, still stand today, as they stood yesterday and will stand for the decade to come. I read through what I wrote last year – April 13: How can we not forget?  – (which you are welcome to read today too) and I would not change a single word of it now. We are a country – not a nation – that doesn’t learn nor wants to, and we shall remain like we always have, a schizophrenic republic and country on the brink of a never-ending abyss, only until we break the viciousness of popular indifference, sectarianism, corruption, nepotism, brutal capitalism and murderous unaccountable oligarchies that will always stand in the way of building a genuine nation called Lebanon.

Just as it is tiring to read the same thing again and again, it is genuinely painful to write the same thing over and over again. So I won’t. There will be an exception later this year, however, as I was privileged to have been asked to write a piece for an upcoming book (by Editions Noir Blanc Etc…) in commemoration of the 40th anniversary of the Lebanese Civil War. I will post about it in due time, and although it carries the same message, it is a bit different from my previous writings and I would be delighted if you read it.

Martyrs Square BeirutThat leaves me without much to say about the war today, except for looking back at the dusty pile of personal memories I keep of the war. Memories that are certainly not only mine, but shared with many. Memories of the simple things, whom those that didn’t live the war will understand, but may not fully appreciate. Memories, experiences and emotions that have left scars in us all, no matter how small, and have taught if only a few, that the war shouldn’t happen again between us…

We all have close friends and family killed during the war. For me that was my father’s cousin who died as early as 1975, who wasn’t only killed defending his hometown of Zahle, but tied to the back of a car, a lifeless corpse, driven around the entire town for everyone to see.

My parents met and got married during the war. I am fascinated by their stories, of how their courtship defied the bombs and roads blocked by local and foreign militias. How commutes, the ultimate goal of which was to build a future together, could be unexpectedly interrupted within Beirut or across country to the Bekaa, where my father often was, strategizing as part of a grassroots movement to protect his hometown.

I was born far away from the land I now call home. But Lebanon couldn’t have been any closer to my heart, wherever in the world I happened to be. I had barely learned how to walk when I participated in my first ever demonstration, calling the world to acknowledge that the city of Zahle was besieged, its inhabitants targeted by Syrian snipers from the vantage point of a church.

I have a clear recollection of coming to Lebanon in the 1980s. My uncle picked my family and I from the Damascus airport, as coming through Beirut’s airport was too dangerous and often impossible. We crossed into Lebanon by land. During the two years in which we stayed here, our daily lives were filled with breaking news after breaking news, hoping the car bombs didn’t happen to explode close to someone we loved.  Beirut wasn’t a unified capital city, it was West Beirut and East Beirut instead. It was unified in the site of sandbags that adorned civilian neighborhoods and destroyed buildings yearning for the life they once had. Traffic was to be escaped from at all costs, for fear of being stuck with no way to escape if a car bomb exploded nearby.

Checkpoints were a terrifying sight for anyone, an involuntary stop that sometimes translated into a matter of life or death. Lebanese army checkpoints were looked at with pity and sympathy, Syrian checkpoints were feared and despised. My parents often forced me to sleep horizontally across the backseat, to prevent hitchhiking Syrian soldiers from hoping on board with us. Of course I didn’t know it at the time, but in other parts of the country, Israeli troops were spreading the same hatred and fear through their presence and checkpoints as the Syrians did in my part of town. But how can I be blamed for not knowing, it was a divided country, whereby each part was trying to save itself the best way it knew how.

The time came for my family and I to leave and I didn’t visit again until after the war had ended. Leaving at that time meant an almost complete disconnect from the homeland, in the absence of reliable telephone lines, Lebanese satellite television and minimal interest from the international media to cover Lebanon’s misery. We learned about the Taef Agreement, which would put an end to the war, through a phone call by someone we knew who was part of the negotiations. Saudi money flooded into every single pocket of those in attendance (with very few exceptions), peace among the Lebanese was never going to be cheap. And as for the overall merits of the agreement for either warring parties, “whatever it took to stop the killing,” it was said.

It would take years, if not decades, to fully clean up Beirut’s reputation as an eternal war zone. It would take even more to heal the physical and psychological scars the senseless conflict had left in the Lebanese and everybody else. A case in point: as I neared the end of my high school years, also quite far away from Lebanon, this time in Tokyo, I could be best described as a friendly student, on very good terms with everybody. There was someone who never talked to me, however, and whose stares I would describe as hostile. I later discovered she was the daughter of one of many Western journalists (Terry Anderson) taken hostage in Lebanon during the war. I couldn’t blame her for hating me simply because of where I came from, but neither could I be blamed for a war that affected me, my family and loved ones as much as it had affected hers.

These are just a few snapshots of how I remember the war today. This is just a small part of what it means to remember, to put aside our hatreds and differences, learn from our past so that it doesn’t all happen again in the future. Otherwise, who would we blame but ourselves?

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