Beirut Barracks Bombing – October 23, 1983

This morning I headed to the US Embassy for my first visit since arriving in Lebanon more than two years ago. Passport renewal time.

I had a 9am appointment, but arrived plenty early. In Lebanon you never know what kind of traffic you might face, and at any American embassy you never know what kind of line might be waiting. I was lucky that I didn’t meet either.

While waiting for my turn, a voice over the loudspeaker announced that there would be a minute of silence observed at 9am, in memory of those who died at the attack on the US Marines Barracks on this date in 1983.

Marine Barracks, Beirut 1982. Photo Credit: James Case from Philadelphia, Mississippi, U.S.A.

According to Wikipedia, “At around 06:22, a 19-ton yellow Mercedes-Benz stake-bed truck drove to the Beirut International Airport (BIA), where the U.S. 24th Marine Amphibious Unit (MAU) was deployed. The 1st Battalion 8th Marines (BLT), commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Larry Gerlach, was a subordinate element of the 24th MAU. The truck was not the water truck they had been expecting. Instead, it was a hijacked truck carrying explosives. The driver turned his truck onto an access road leading to the compound. He drove into and circled the parking lot, and then he accelerated to crash through a 5-foot-high barrier of concertina wire separating the parking lot from the building. The wire popped “like somebody walking on twigs.” The truck then passed between two sentry posts and through an open vehicle gate in the perimeter chain-link fence, crashed through a guard shack in front of the building and smashed into the lobby of the building serving as the barracks for the 1st Battalion 8th Marines (BLT). The sentries at the gate were operating under rules of engagement which made it very difficult to respond quickly to the truck. Sentries were ordered to keep their weapons at condition four (no magazine inserted and no rounds in the chamber). Only one sentry, LCpl Eddie DiFranco, was able to load and chamber a round. However, by that time the truck was already crashing into the building’s entryway.”

Debris marks the site of the Marine Battalion Landing Team headquarters and barracks building that was destroyed in a terrorist bomb attack. Photo Credit: Gunnery Sgt. Lucas

An aerial view of the remains of the Marine battalion Landing Team headquarters and barracks at Beirut International Airport. Photo Credit: Gunnery Sgt. Lucas

241 servicemen were killed – 220 Marines, 18 sailors, and three soldiers – making the incident the deadliest single attack on Americans overseas since World War II.

An elderly Lebanese man nearby was killed by the explosion as well.

The attack was followed by one the French barracks ten minutes later, killing 58 French paratroopers.

No need to wait for Memorial Day to come around again in order to remember those who lost their lives on this day 31 years ago.

At 9am sharp, a few servicemen were lined up in formation before the embassy flags, flying at half-mast. The entire embassy compound fell silent.

Marines, sailors and soldiers, I remembered you today.

Biking in Beirut

Over a recent coffee with two Lebanese friends, I discovered that neither of their daughters, ages 8 and 9, know how to ride a bike.

It seemed surprising, until you think about the lack of public spaces in this concrete jungle. Narrow sidewalks are overtaken by parked cars when they aren’t full of people, and streets are equally narrow and clogged with traffic. There isn’t much place to take a bike ride in Beirut.

The exception is the waterfront. At the famed Corniche, bikes are best ridden at off-peak times, when you don’t risk running down any of the hundreds of men, women and children that love to take a morning/afternoon/evening stroll along the boardwalk that lines the seafront. A better choice for an easy bike ride in Beirut is at the bland but uncrowded waterfront at BIEL. The company Beirut by Bike noticed that too, and have set up shop with hundreds of bikes for rent.

But what about those girls who haven’t learned how to ride a bike? Do they have to miss out on the fun?

Cleverly, Beirut by Bike’s stock of rentals isn’t limited to two-wheelers. Tricycles are as popular with adults as they are with kids, and BbB stocks the trikes in a variety of sizes.

While there a couple of other bike rental shops around town, BbB is single-handedly managing to change the conception of biking in Beirut. They sponsor night bikes on Friday evenings. Hosted a 13km bike-a-thon on October 5 with 1,650 participants. This Saturday (the 18th), BbB is the sponsor of a fundraiser for the National Organization for Organ & Tissue Donation & Transplantation (NOD), where L.L. 10,000 (US$7) gets you a bike & helmet rental, plus water and a t-shirt from NOD, with all proceeds going to the charity. Sunday (the 19th) BbB will be back on the roads, this time in Dbayeh, co-sponsoring with the sporting goods store Decathlon a fun ride with professional cyclists. They even offer free lessons to teach you how to ride a bike (by appointment and weekdays only). Beirut by Bike is doing an admirable job of making biking a sport accessible to all.

Other noteworthy efforts include the company Outdoor Generation, which offers cycling classes and tours for children and adults; a feasibility study by the Beirut municipality to develop a bike route through the city, and another study for a bike route along the northern coastal road; Deghri, the Arab world’s first bicycle courier service; and Cycling Circle, a club that organizes events such as the upcoming costumed Halloween ride on October 31st (event details available here).

The Lebanese are a determined bunch. Despite pollution, traffic, and general lawlessness on the roads, they are managing to develop a vibrant biking culture. I’m impressed.

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