When my Dad asked me to write a blog post about my impressions of Beirut, I was initially apprehensive. Writing something to be put on the Internet? Something more substantive than just a comment on my friend’s Facebook photo? This sounded serious….intimidating even. Part of my trepidation came from feeling uncomfortable making what felt like judgments about a place in which I had spent such little time. But, I got over my discomfort after I started writing, realizing that it allowed for some good reflection on my travels. Plus, I love my dad, and want to make him happy.
One of the first things I noticed when I arrived in Beirut was how shockingly familiar it felt- not to the United States but to Latin and South American countries in which I have traveled, most noticeably Mexico where I lived for a year and a half. The Beirut airport could have been the airport in Oaxaca, with the lit billboards, mixture of fancy SUVs and old clunkers, warm, crisp air. Several times I found myself telling my mom, as she would comment on life in Beirut, “yeah, I know what that’s like”. For instance, when the woman in the store ran across the street to make change for us. Or when we one of us would inevitably trip on the jagged sidewalk and mom would complain about the state of the sidewalks I’d remind her, “yup, just like Mexico”. Or eating delicious street food. And when I’d grasp the seat of the car as the taxi driver passed into what would be the opposite side of traffic (if there were traffic lanes), I’d (try to) smile and think, “ahh, just like Mexico.” One thing that Lebanon lacked in comparison to Mexico however, were catcalls. Maybe it was that I just didn’t understand what Lebanese men were saying whereas I did in Mexico, but I’m pretty sure that even if I had, I wouldn’t have heard nearly as many. One point for Lebanon.
Which brings me to my next impression: the people in Lebanon. I found the people in Beirut to be extremely kind and generous, the most remarkable example being a store clerk who offered to give me the olive oil from his kitchen at home after we asked him if he knew of a place to buy high-quality olive oil. I was continually surprised by how many people spoke English. Certainly made my travels easier, but my guilty conscience kicked in several times as my familiarity with Arabic is limited to 5 words…one of which is the word for ‘left’ and I only remember that because it sounds like “smell”.
I was reminded while in Lebanon of how misguided and distorted American impressions of different places and people can be. Take Hezbollah for instance. Before going to Lebanon I didn’t know much about the political group, apart from knowing that it was tied to the Arab and Muslim world and that it was a “dangerous” organization. After reading more about its history and recognizing how popular it is with the Lebanese, I began to broaden my limited understanding of the organization and what it has provided for the people of Lebanon.
No longer do I hold the negative associations I had formed as a passive in-taker of American news. Additionally, I felt completely safe and comfortable at all times while in Lebanon (well, maybe minus one cab ride), despite hearing news stories before I left about instability and potential violence which tend to instill fear in the minds of American listeners. Yes, it is a country still recovering from a civil war; there certainly is still a lot of hurt there. Walking down almost any street in Beirut will remind you of that, be it by gunshot holes in exterior walls or yet just another abandoned building. But Lebanon is surely not a place to fear. That is my impression.
I think what I appreciate most about my trip is the deeper (although admittedly still very limited) understanding I have now of the Palestinian issue. I remember learning about it in school and of course, hearing about it on NPR but I never followed the topic with much fidelity because it just seemed to always be the same message: there was still conflict. But now, I’ve been introduced to the complexity of the issue. Palestinians were only recently granted the right to hold jobs in Lebanon, but are still not allowed to rent apartments. Instead they live on camps. When we asked our driver why this was the case, he essentially said that it was to keep the people separate, to prevent mixing. I am still struck by the racism or xenophobia apparent in the Palestinian reality in Lebanon. I incorrectly assumed that because Lebanon was anti-Israel, that that meant they were pro-Palestinian. Not the case.
What are these people to do?
Overall, I had a wonderful time in Lebanon, due both to the two people I spent every day with, and to the intrigue of the country. Beirut is a great city for Mikey and Sharon to call home and I am so grateful to have gotten the chance to visit!