Syrians Assist Lebanese Refugees: A Counter-Narrative

You’d be forgiven if you thought my headline should read “Lebanese Assist Syrian Refugees.” I mean, who are Lebanese refugees? Who ever heard of them?

They aren’t anyone you hear about in the news. In fact, the people I met aren’t technically refugees. But there are hundreds of Lebanese families that were living in Syria prior to the war, many of them for generations, who joined their neighbors in fleeing their homes and the surrounding violence for what was hoped to be a safe haven in Lebanon. This is what they got:

Although the story I have to tell took place in May, I don’t want to leave it untold. It’s a counter-narrative – a story that stands in juxtaposition to the mainstream narrative, the kind of story that can get drowned out by the louder headlines about Syrian refugees in Lebanon who need help, take jobs or incite violence.

A couple of friends have been inspiring me lately to think more about counter-narratives. Friend and filmmaker Gregory Berger creates satires that examine issues from the H1N1 virus to fracking, and is currently working on a film that skewers the media coverage of Central American migrants in Mexico. Journalist Sharmine Narwani specializes in counter-narratives about politics in the Middle East, and while she and I are often not on the same page, I appreciate hearing her perspective. She inspires me to ask more questions and think more deeply about my own point of view.

Whether generated by news outlets or pop culture, counter-narratives can be powerful in broadening our perspectives. The recent movie Maleficent retells the classic story of Sleeping Beauty from the point of view of the evil fairy who cursed Princess Aurora with a deep sleep. I appreciated that the movie gave viewers the chance to understand the complexity of Maleficent’s motives, and to find a fresh definition of “true love.” A traditional narrative is upended, and a parallel story revealed.

Counter-narratives also have the power to jar us from our comfort zones. The heartbreaking photo of Fabienne Cherisma, a Haitian girl killed by a stray bullet post-earthquake, stays in my mind because of its counter-narrative – a side-story image capturing the photographers who swarmed a few feet from the dead girl – that I cannot forget.

Stories behind, or beneath, or beside the main story. Overlapping, intersecting, or the other side of the same coin. The story I have to share is similar in its unexpectedness.

At the beginning of May I attended a distribution of food aid in the town of Arsal, in northeast Lebanon, close to the border with Syria. I was proud to have helped in the food collection and packaging, thanks to the Boston University Global Day of Service and to the many friends and family members in Beirut and around the world who donated to provide supplies. Together with the local non-profit foodblessed, we put together 130 boxes, each of which had supplies for 100 meals plus a few basic hygiene items. Through foodblessed’s partnership with Lebanese 4 Syrian Refugees, who in turn works with the organization Shabaab il Oumma (Youth for the People), they had identified a special subset of families in need: Lebanese refugees.

Like the Syrians, these families were forced by the violence to leave their homes, possessions and livelihoods behind in Syria. But because the Lebanese had fled to their home country, not away from it, they do not qualify for assistance from the United Nations High Commission for Refugees. As Lebanese, these families were instructed to contact the Higher Relief Council, an office of the Lebanese government that has been plagued by a corruption scandal. There was no response. And so, Shabaab il Oumma decided to reach out to them.

The representatives of Shabaab il Oumma had organized the aid recipients, inviting families to register ahead of time for assistance. Each registered family was given a small card, which would be collected back in exchange for the food aid. Two young men with SiO – one quiet and serene, the other gregarious and smiling – did the heavy lifting of the food boxes. The rest of the SiO volunteers were young women, girls really, aged 15-18. All of the youth were Syrian refugees themselves.

The young women took turns at the head of the line of Lebanese “refugees,” carefully collecting the cards, checking the numbers against their registration list, then giving the go-ahead for each distribution. The recipients were patient as they quietly waited their turn in line. When the occasional Syrian stopped by to find out what was being distributed, the girls politely explained that this distribution was only for Lebanese, and those turned away left without rancor.

Many of the beneficiaries had been in Lebanon for two years already. They told us this was the first assistance of any kind that they had received.

Each of the young women had her own story to tell, of educations that had been halted, of fathers working back-breaking jobs in the nearby granite quarries for a meager 10,000 lira ($6) per day. They told of local teachers that asked for bribes in order to allow the Syrians to go to school – bribes that the girls cannot afford.

“My dreams are broken,” one girl told me.

Yet they didn’t display bitterness or anger, but resolve. One of the young women has stayed in touch with me, and says that the girls have organized a school to provide an education for the younger ones. She says that they have been frightened by the wave of bombing that took place in Arsal during August, but are hanging in there.

These Syrians have lost everything, live in dire circumstances and fear, yet turn around and lend a helping hand to others. It is certainly true that Syrians in Lebanon are straining resources, and sadly there are those who are linked to further violence.  But it is equally true that there are Syrians who are dedicating themselves to those around them who are in need, without discrimination.

Syrian refugees aid Lebanese in need.

What I most appreciate about counter-narratives is that they remind us that no one has the monopoly on the truth. It was a story that couldn’t go untold.

 

Lebanon, A House Divided (Talking Sports This Time, not Politics)

Flags hanging from balconies. Flags attached to car windows and flapping in the wind. The grocery store sells tissue boxes with your favorite team. And plastic plates and cups in team colors. Even potato chips flavored with your favorite country (Eww. And South African potato chips? I kid you not. Did the supermarket just pull them out of storage after four years?)

Who are you rooting for? My kids’ school organized a recess World Cup mini-tournament. My son played for Spain, but they were knocked out in the second round. Germany was the winner, trouncing Brazil in a stunning 8-0 game. EA Sports, the maker of the FIFA 2014 video game, ran a simulation on their game. Germany again, edging out Brazil in a 2-1 final.

Judging from the number of German flags blowing around town these days, many Lebanese would be happy with a German win.

Given that Lebanese are huge soccer fans, it’s surprising that you never hear anything about Lebanon’s team. I started to wonder if there even was one. There is a 48,000-seat multi-purpose stadium along the airport highway in Beirut, but I’ve never heard of any game of any sport being played there. Good old Wikipedia filled me in: “The Cedars” as the Lebanese team is affectionately known, does indeed exist.

And the last time I could find an online record of them playing a game in the stadium was June 2012, which was just days after I moved here. It was a World Cup qualifying game against Qatar. The stadium sold out, but to no avail – Lebanon lost 0-1 (ending up last in their group, under Iran, South Korea, Uzbekistan and Qatar).

The Cedars are currently ranked 114 in the world, up from a dreary 154 in 2010, near the end of its 5-year ban on fans in the stadiums.

If Lebanon’s national team has a lackluster history, its national league is worse. During the extended ban on attendance at the stadium, ticket sales evaporated (unsurprisingly), advertising revenue subsequently plummeted, and the teams were going broke. Politics (and by extension, religion) stepped up to fill the vacuum, and now each team in the national league is affiliated with a political party, which in turn are affiliated with religious sects.

So given the weakness of the national team and league, everyone gets behind someone else.

We saw it when we arrived and the European Championship League finals took place. Young Lebanese men more excited for an Italy win than my soccer-loving Italian husband. Maybe it’s no surprise, given how sectarian the country is, that there’s no single team that enjoys support from the majority of Lebanese soccer fans.

Or maybe the spreading of the love is because the Lebanese are some of the world’s top globetrotters. There are an estimated 6 to 7 million Brazilians of Lebanese descent. Between Brazil hosting, Brazil being one of the best teams in the world, and Brazil having more Lebanese than Lebanon itself, you can imagine that Brazil is another favorite for Lebanese soccer fans (as well as for The Economist, bookies in London, statisticians at Deutsche Bank, and many other forecasters).

Our family could be a microcosm of the Lebanese society. Support split amongst parties, loyalties challenged and ever-shifting. My husband and I are nationalistic in our support, respectively rooting for Italy (who is said to have a 1.7% chance of winning) and USA (who had such a small chance of winning that it didn’t even make the charts). Our daughter is rooting for Ecuador (where she was born) our son for Brazil (admittedly predictable, but it was his favorite team in 2010 also). We all cheer for Honduras as well, simply because that’s where we lived last (we’re dreading the Honduras-Ecuador game though… who to support?).

From the cars around town, it’s clear we’re not the only house divided.

And yet the flags hang in peace next to each other. And for now, peace reigns in our house as well.

Let’s see how long it lasts….

 

 

A New Normal

This week our family celebrated our second anniversary of life in Lebanon. We returned to the waterfront restaurant La Plage, the same restaurant we ate the very night we arrived to Beirut.

In French (which many Lebanese speak), the word anniversaire means both anniversary and birthday. Either occasion can nudge us to stop and take stock, and this week’s anniversary was no exception for me.

Some things haven’t changed.

Families stroll the Corniche (waterfront walkway) day and night, enjoying the fresh sea air.

The weather and the food are always wonderful.

Local politics continue to baffle me.

Other things are different. Two years in, and I’m far from conversational in Arabic, which is not what I was anticipating when I arrived. (This list made me realize (1) I’m not alone – see #36; and (2) not understanding the Bedouin desert guide in Jordan wasn’t a reflection on my Arabic skills – see #17). But, this time when the waiter at La Plage asked, in Arabic, if we wanted our wine by the glass or the bottle, we understood. And could even answer. None of us are conversational yet, but we’re getting the important stuff down.

I have some new favorite foods. Many of the dishes that we ordered on that first visit to La Plage have become our favorites of Lebanese cuisine: eggplant raheb, cheese rolls, fried fish. (The French fries were the kids’ pick, and hardly a new favorite.) I now refuse to go a week without a good fattoush (green salad with fresh thyme, mint, sumac and toasted pita chips).

When we arrived to Lebanon, there were almost no beggars and few street vendors. Two years later, with more than a million refugees from Syria, there are some neighborhoods where women sell packs of tissue paper at every stoplight and boys hound to shine your shoes on every block. Tens of thousands of refugees in Beirut alone, just a small fraction of them visible on street corners to remind us of their difficult plight. Hundreds of thousands more hidden away in villages and informal settlements across the country, struggling to survive.

Security has changed too. Concrete barriers have been placed around town to discourage parking and therefore the possibility of car bombs. No bombs in recent months, but many of the barriers are becoming permanent nevertheless, like these exceptionally tall ones that were recently painted with the Lebanese flag.

Perhaps the rise of the concrete barriers is due in part to the discrediting of the bomb detector “wands” that security guards use at the entrances of mall and grocery store parking around the city. At my last visit to City Centre shopping mall in Beirut, I found that they had abandoned the wand in favor of an explosives detector similar to the kind I have seen at airports – the guard first swiped my car door with what looked like a small piece of paper, then put the paper into a handheld reader that can apparently register explosives. So City Centre, at least, is taking its precautions more seriously. On the other hand, the grocery store near my house has simply given up altogether, and gone back to allowing cars into its garage without any kind of check. Somehow both scenarios seem perfectly normal to me now.

I had coffee with three Lebanese friends yesterday. When the waiter came to our table, two ordered in Arabic, one in a mix of Arabic and French (we were in the Francophile coffee shop Paul, after all), and I ordered in English. The waiter didn’t bat an eye, but easily switched between languages as he spoke with each of us. Trilingual waiters and conversations don’t surprise me anymore either.

When we left Honduras two years ago, I found it hard to let go of what I knew before, and to see things here in Lebanon for what they are, rather than constantly comparing and evaluating things for what they are not. But I think I can finally say that I’ve adjusted here, and for better or for worse, the fattoush and fried fish, the refugees and the car bombs, the sunshine and the sea air all come together to make up my new normal. Beirut is like a family member now and I love her, warts and all.

Where a Wanderer Calls Home

Our family just came back from a spring break vacation in Jordan. Floating in the Dead Sea, wandering the ruins of Petra (remember the temple in Indiana Jones and the Last Cruisade?), and a night in the desert at a Bedouin camp were the highlights of our trip.

visitors bob in the Dead Sea, buoyed by the water’s high salinity

our Bedouin guide, in the Wadi Rum desert

Petra, an ancient Nabatean tomb

Whenever we got asked where we are from, my 11-year-old son would pipe up “Lebanon.”

It is a much easier answer, of course, than “My mom is from Seattle, my dad is from Rome, I was born in New York and my sister in Ecuador.” (Not to mention that although the kids haven’t spent longer than a vacation in either the US or Italy, they are citizens of both.)

But given our mediocre Arabic skills, the Jordanians were never quite convinced by “I’m from Lebanon.”

When my son was a toddler and my husband and I were embarking on this itinerant lifestyle, a colleague gave us some sage advice. “You will always feel that Italy and the US are ‘home,’ but your kids won’t feel that way. For them, wherever you are will be home. So make it home for them. Settle in. Ship the important things from place to place. Don’t always talk about your home country as if it is home for the kids as well. Let your country of residence be home.”

I realized that my son’s response showed just how settled in he feels in Lebanon. At home.

And I thought about the desert Bedouins, making their home in a tent under the stars, moving it as needed to keep their goats or sheep near food and water. Our children are like the Bedouins – with souls prepared to wander and travel, but making each stop home.

Near the end of the trip a Lebanese friend sent me a Facebook message: “I wish you a safe journey home. (Lebanon, I hope you call Lebanon home.)”

It’s clear my son does. And I realized that I do too.

Jordan was an amazing trip. But returning to Lebanon, it felt good to come home.

Count Your Blessings (instead of Sheep)

When I’m worried and I can’t sleep

 I count my blessings instead of sheep

 And I fall asleep

Counting my blessings

     — Irving Berlin (sung by Bing Crosby)

Car bombs in eastern Lebanon, street-fighting in Tripoli, one million refugees in a county of four million. With all that is happening here in Lebanon and the surrounding region, counting one’s blessings suddenly becomes really easy.

An intact family? Check. A roof over my head? Check. A good school for my children? Check. Adequate medical care? Check. Enough food for everyone? An abundance really.

I am family/shelter/education/health/food-blessed.

Fitting then, to share some of that abundance with the hunger-relief initiative foodblessed.

I first heard of foodblessed when my kids’ school organized a food drive for their benefit last spring. Foodblessed works in a number of ways to support hungry families and individuals:

  • soup kitchens in Beirut that provide hot meals
  • home delivery of meals to AIDS patients
  • delivery of food boxes to Syrian refugees and vulnerable Lebanese

The organization is entirely volunteer-operated, and when they put out a call for volunteers at the beginning of this year, I decided to join them at one of the soup kitchens not far from my home. Every Thursday I serve up rice and stew (or spaghetti with meat sauce, or traditional Lebanese dishes such as kibbeh) to somewhere between 25 and 40 hungry folks. Another volunteer hands out salad, another dessert, and one of the nuns from the church that lends the space for lunch hands out silverware and bread.



I’m happy to give an hour and a half of my time each week. As is typical when volunteering, I get much more than I give. I get the chance to practice my Arabic, to get to know lots of people (both clients and fellow volunteers) that I wouldn’t otherwise meet, and I get to feel like I am doing something, no matter how small, in the face of the ever-growing crisis for those in need in Lebanon.

April 12 is Global Day of Service, and my alma mater, Boston University, encourages its alumni to participate in a service event in some way during the month of April. There haven’t been service events anywhere I’ve lived in the past decade, so this year I decided to take matters into my own hands, and offered to be the volunteer event leader in Lebanon. I am now in the throes of a food drive, and on April 5, I will join with other BU alumni, our friends and families, to pack up food boxes for hungry families and individuals.

You may have already seen one of my appeals – via email, Facebook or Twitter. Forgive me if I’m being redundant. But I wanted to share a little more about what I’m doing and why. And if this post makes you think of your own blessings, take a minute to count them.

If you find that you have enough to go around, maybe you can consider sharing one:

http://www.volunteerforever.com/volunteer_profile/amy-robertson




foodblessed recently delivered 50 boxes of food to Syrian refugees outside of Arsal in northeast Lebanon, in a no-man’s land beyond where international agencies can safely travel.

Photo credits: Ruth Moucharafieh

Beirut Essential Reading (Part II)

Here is Part II of the reading list I’ve compiled over the past two years in my effort to get to know my new home in Beirut a bit better. My previous post covered culture, memoirs and other non-fiction (including a graphic novel), while this post will point you to literary fiction, guidebooks and books for children that have helped me to familiarize myself (and my family) with our home in the Middle East. As in my previous post, the gems are marked with an asterisk.

Literary Fiction

* Beirut Blues by Hanan Al-Shaykh (1996)

Sidestepping the traditional story-telling format, Beirut Blues is composed of a series of ten letters from its protagonist Asmahan to the people and places she loves – including her grandmother, her lover, her city (Beirut). The book is not a straight-forward account of Lebanon’s civil war, but its stories paint a picture of the war’s effect on the people (both collectively and individually), the land, and the city of Beirut. Currently resident in London, Al-Shaykh is one of Lebanon’s best-known modern-day writers.


Hikayat: Short Stories by Lebanese Women edited by Roseanne Saad Khalaf (2007)

Some of these stories are by previously-published authors while others introduced newer writers onto the scene – and the stories are, as one might imagine, a bit disparate and uneven. However, it is the dissimilarity itself that adds value to this book, as it defies stereotypes of the modern Lebanese woman by offering a variety of perspectives. The editor is assistant professor of English and creative writing at the highly-regarded American University of Beirut.


De Niro’s Game by Rawi Hage (2006)

Two childhood friends, Bassim and George, come into adulthood during the Lebanese civil war. One ends up joining a militia, while the other dreams of escaping abroad. De Niro’s Game earned critical acclaim in Canada and Ireland, but I found myself agreeing with reviewers who found that the final section of the book, which takes place outside of Lebanon, loses steam.


Ports of Call by Amin Maalouf (1999)

Described as “a powerful allegory for the struggles and anarchy that have beset [Lebanon] for the last half-century,” Ports of Call tells the story of Ossyane, a Turkish-Lebanese nobleman, including his marriage to a Jewish woman named Clara, from whom he is separated for many years because of their respective cultures, a world war, and the later (1948) Arab-Israeli War. The narrator of the story is a third person to whom Ossyane recounts his life, and it is perhaps this choice by Maalouf that keeps the story from fully drawing in the reader. Maalouf is another of Lebanon’s foremost modern writers, and as Ports of Call is the first of his novels to be set in twentieth-century Lebanon, it is well worth reading.

* Mornings in Jenin by Susan Abulhawa (2010)

Elegant and moving multi-generational story of a Palestinian family that is displaced from their home at the creation of Israel in 1948, and moved to the Jenin refugee camp. Narrated by Amal, the granddaughter of the old village patriarch, the story stretches from the village where her grandfather grew up to Jenin, the refugee camp where she was born, to Jerusalem, where she was housed when orphaned, Beirut, where she became a newlywed, to Philadelphia, where she studied and worked, back to Jenin, when she brings her own daughter for a visit.

Guides


* Bet You Didn’t Know This About Beirut! By Warren Singh-Bartlett (2010)

Always entertaining, and sometimes laugh-out-loud funny, this compilation of factoids about Lebanese life and culture is a must-have for anyone newly arriving to the country.

* Living Lebanon by Saskia Nout (2013)

The most recent guide to Lebanon on bookshelves, and with the kind of information that a resident needs as opposed to just a tourist – like driving directions, and a deft explanation of the convoluted political system. Nout is a Dutch expatriate. While the guide is not easily available outside of Lebanon, it can be easily found in a bookshop upon arrival.

For Children

Sitt Sobhiyeh and the Quest for the White Horse  * Sitt Sobhiye and the Quest for the White Horse, by Karim Al-Dahdah (2013)

The charming tale of Farida, a young girl that travels the world in search of a white horse whose appearance will mean that all the village girls will have a happy marriage. What Farida learns on her search for the horse, and what the village girls learn in Farida’s absence, is a tale of discovery and self-empowerment. The book is bilingual Arabic/English, and the illustrations are lovely. (This book added to post on March 24, 2014.)

* Oranges in No Man’s Land by Elizabeth Laird (2008)

This novel tells the story of 10-year-old Ayesha during the civil war. Her grandmother desperately needs medicine that is available only from her doctor on the other side of Beirut’s infamous “Green Line”, and Ayesha dares to get it for her. The death of Ayesha’s mother at the beginning of the story may be upsetting for younger/more sensitive children, but it is not dwelt upon, and ultimately, it is a story of the triumph of human spirit and what a spunky young girl can achieve. Laird lived with her husband and infant son close to Beirut’s notorious “Green Line” during 1977.


Golden Domes and Silver Lanterns: A Muslim Book of Colors by Hena Khan (2012)

This beautifully illustrated book introduces colors through a Muslim lens, from the blue hijab (head covering) to the silver coins for the zakat (alms) box. Suitable for families of any faith that wish to introduce cultural awareness to their younger children.


Sami and the Time of the Troubles by Florence Parry Heide and Judith Heide Gilliland (1992)

Ten-year-old Sami has grown up during Lebanon’s civil war, going to school and helping his mother with chores when he can, and living in his uncle’s basement when the fighting flares up. One day, the children march for peace, and Sami knows that when another chance comes, he will march again. Well-written, and good for sparking discussion between children and their parents or teachers. For children living in Beirut today, however, with the war in neighboring Syria, the story probably will hit a bit too close to home.

On My Bookshelf

No reading list should ever be complete, because there are always more good books out there to read. Here is the next one on my list. While I can’t tell you yet what I think of it, renowned author Amy Tan has written an absolutely glowing review of it on Amazon.com, and you don’t need me to top that – take her word for it and go out and get this book.

* The Hakawati by Rabih Alameddine (2008)

Hakawati means storyteller, and Osama’s dying grandfather is one. When Osama returns to Beirut in 2003, after many years in America, to sit vigil at his grandfather’s deathbed, stories begin to unfold. According to the back cover, “an Arabian Nights for this century,” and described by an Amazon reviewer as full of tales of “love, sex, murder, heroism, magic, loss, triumph, skullduggery, noblesse, repentance, lies, redemption, loyalty, curses, and just about everything else.”

After a gloriously sunny Saturday, the rain returned to Beirut yesterday. No problem. I’ve still got plenty on my shelf to read.

Beirut Essential Reading (Part I)

When my husband first proposed Lebanon as a possible destination for our family, I embarrassed myself by momentarily confusing it with Libya. (Cringe.) A little internet research cleared up that confusion, and also let me know that Lebanon is also not the tragic and war-torn place that it had been during its 15-year civil war. (It’s been nearly a quarter-century since that ended – and for now the Lebanese people are holding out against the forces trying to destabilize the country once again.)

Once we made the decision to move here, I upgraded my reading from internet to books, to familiarize myself with the region, its history and culture. I’ve kept on reading about Beirut and the region in the 20-odd months I’ve been here, in everything from children’s books to graphic novels, light fiction to academic treatises. Most helped me better understand the region, its culture and its history, and a few were real gems. (Look for those marked with an asterisk below.*) If you have a suggestion to add or a comment on any of the books, please add your voice, I’d love to hear your opinion!

Today’s list focuses on culture, memoirs, and other non-fiction; my next post will include books for children, literary fiction and guidebooks. Peruse, and you’ll surely find a book or two to pique your own interest — residency in the Middle East not required.

Culture

* One Thousand and One Nights: A Retelling by Hanan Al-Shaykh (2013)

A ribald retelling of what is perhaps the Arab world’s most famed piece of fiction, the centuries-old One Thousand and One Nights. In order to keep herself and the women of the kingdom alive, Shahrazad tells the king a new story each evening. Some tales date as far back as 850 AD, and Arabian, Persian and Indian tales were added over the centuries. Al-Shaykh has selected 19 of them. Modern language makes them accessible and entertaining, but Al-Shaykh did not edit out the eroticism, so this classic is adults-only. (Here is a version that for the most part looks more family-friendly, and also contains more stories.)

* The Prophet by Kahlil Gibran (2010)

Kahlil Gibran is Lebanon’s most famous writer, and The Prophet is his masterpiece, with some 100 million copies sold since its original publication in 1923. A compilation of poetic essays, The Prophet recounts the advice of the prophet, Almustafa to the people of the city of Orphalese as he is about to depart for home. He holds forth on topics such from love to laws, passion to pain. While some of Almustafa’s recommendations felt ordinary or even trite, others are inspiring and given its premiere place in Lebanese literature, it should not be missed. This version in particular is worth seeking out, as it is accompanied by beautiful Persian artwork. (Published by Arcturus and available on Amazon and in the Antoine chain of bookstores in Beirut. Note, while his name is usually spelled “Khalil“, this edition puts the “h” after the “a,” and so I have done so here.)


The Dream Palace of the Arabs: A Generational Odyssey by Fouad Ajami (1999)

Fouad Ajami is a professor of Middle Eastern studies at Johns Hopkins University, and is widely regarded within Lebanon as one of the region’s foremost scholars. The book is an “amalgamation of literary criticism, history and political commentary” that starts with a recounting of the life of Lebanese poet and Arab nationalist Khalil Hawi. It then moves on to discuss Khomeini’s revolution, modern Egypt and more, but I have to admit that I abandoned the book after the second chapter, when the focus on Lebanon ended. Not a light read, but a good fit for those interested in Middle Eastern studies.

Graphic novel

*Bye Bye Babylon: Beirut 1975-1979 by Lamia Ziadé (2011)

Well-executed graphic novel about the early years of Lebanon’s civil war, told through images from the author’s own childhood memories. Pictures are both simple and vivid, making it a great and easy-to-grasp introduction to the complexities of Lebanon’s civil war. This is a fantastic book.

Memoir

Beirut I Love You by Zena El Khalil (2008)

After growing up in Lagos and New York, El Khalil moved back to Lebanon post 9/11, and was in Beirut at the time of the 31-day war with Israel in 2006. Anecdotes such as her friend Maya trying to escape the city for a day at the beach in the midst of the war, each time turned back at a military or militia check-point, highlight the struggle to lead a “normal” life in a decidedly abnormal situation. Her writing felt tinged by self-pity, but given that she was writing about living through a bombardment, it’s hard to blame her for that.


War Diary: Lebanon 2006 by Rami Zurayk (2011)

This slim book is the diary of a Lebanese university professor from the 33-day war in 2006 (known both as the Israel-Lebanon war, and as the Israel-Hezbollah war). According to his diary, Zurayk is “a veteran activist from the Lebanese left,” and not affiliated with a particular religion or political party. Among the elements of the book, Zurayk writes about how he came to support Hezbollah. Life during either this war or the civil war is not something that is easy to bring up and chat about over a cup of coffee with Lebanese friends, and I found it helpful for understanding a perspective that I might not otherwise have a chance to hear about first-hand.


Jasmine and Fire: A Bittersweet Year in Beirut by Salma Abdelnour (2012)

A light read about a Lebanese-American woman’s return to Beirut. As a food and travel writer, Abdelnour is adept at bringing the sights and sounds and smells of the streets of Beirut to life. She struggles to find her place amongst expats and Lebanese, and to start a life in a new place. Although I found it a bit hard to sympathize with her struggles (you speak the language! you already have an apartment in Beirut before you arrive! you have aunts and cousins and childhood friends here!), I enjoyed seeing Beirut through her eyes, and those about to embark on a life as an expat might find some insight about what to expect.

Non-fiction


From Beirut to Jerusalem by Thomas Friedman (1989)

It’s impossible to understand Lebanon today without understanding its past. This engagingly-written account of Lebanon’s 15-year civil war, by renowned correspondent Thomas Friedman, is one popular place to start. It was one of the first books I picked up on Lebanon, and by reading it I came to understand that the civil war was not a simple Christian versus Muslim divide as I had thought, but that one of shifting, complex, and unpredictable alliances between multiple sects and factions.

That said, I have Lebanese friends who urged me to read Lebanese writers on Lebanon, feeling that the Lebanese, well, understood themselves better. (See this article on Al Jazeera written on the occasion of the 2010 re-release of Friedman’s book, which echoes some of the criticisms.) They suggested renowned Lebanese scholar Fouad Ajami (see Culture, above), but it wasn’t the comprehensive modern history I was seeking. Other friends cut some slack for Robert Fisk, author of Pity the Nation: The Abduction of Lebanon (2002), as “the only Westerner who understands Lebanon.” That book is now on my shelf, but first I want to read my husband’s new book by Lebanese author Samir Kassir…


Beirut by Samir Kassir (2010)

Much more than modern history, Beirut tells the story of this city from its ancient roots to modern day (or at least up until 2005 when the book’s author was assassinated).  Kassir was a professor of history at Beirut’s Saint-Joseph University, a journalist, and a vocal critic of the Syrian presence in Lebanon. He was killed by a car bomb on June 2, 2005, shortly after the Syrian withdrawal from Lebanon. My husband is reading this right now and says the writing is beautiful; I’m looking forward to picking it up when he has finished.


Hezbollah: The Global Footprint of Lebanon’s Party of God Hardcover by Matthew Levitt (2013)

I think it’s going to become uncomfortably obvious that I prefer the personalized perspective of memoirs over other types of non-fiction, because this is yet another book on my shelf that I want to read, but haven’t actually cracked open yet. (Well, it’s on my Kindle, so the shelf is figurative, but you get what I mean.)

Living in Honduras (one of the pit stops on the drug route from South to North America) I became aware of how groups in distant countries have their tentacles into the drug trade, and was intrigued by the book’s description as the “first thorough examination of Hezbollah’s covert activities beyond Lebanon’s borders, including its financial and logistical support networks and its criminal and terrorist operations worldwide.” There are often allegations against Hezbollah for money laundering and drug trafficking networks that stretch to South America, and I’m curious to see what Levitt might have to say on the matter. I’ll get back to you when I’ve read it.

It’s a rainy day in Beirut today. Just the right kind of day for curling up on the couch with a good book.