The Waiting Game

I’ve done this before. Hung out at home, laid low, kept my outings within my neighborhood. Of course, in the out-of-the-way residential neighborhood in Tegucigalpa, Honduras where I lived for the past five years, I never worried that something might happen to me as long as I just stayed in the house. Protests often passed just a few blocks from my street on a main boulevard, close enough that I could hear the music and chants, but I knew they wouldn’t turn into our quiet neighborhood. So while the car bombing in Beirut last Friday brings scary to a whole new level for me, I know how to lay low.

I’ve also stockpiled before. In Honduras, I wasn’t as worried about the day-to-day ramifications of political protests and uprisings (of which there were plenty), as I was about the effects of natural disasters. Although 1998’s Hurricane Mitch may be a distant memory for those of us who weren’t affected, over 7,000 lost their lives, and some 33,000 their homes in Honduras – with millions more affected by water shortages, power outages and the like. For weeks. Upon arriving to Honduras, my family was advised to keep a six-week stockpile of necessary items – boxed milk, bottled water, canned food, toilet paper, on the off-chance that a disaster of that magnitude could hit again. And although six weeks’ worth of supplies were more than we ever came to need, they was darn handy in 2009 when Mel Zelaya was removed from the presidency  and the country was subject to frequent curfews during the following weeks, where we were all confined to our homes.

So the routine of the past few days was not a new one for me – hanging out at home, going only to nearby shops and restaurants (because eating lunch out can seem like a “necessary movement” when you have two young kids trapped all day in an apartment). And as a firm believer of the philosophy “hope for the best, but prepare for the worst,” I headed to the grocery store yesterday to do some stockpiling, making sure we have a few days worth of food supplies, including things we could eat even if the water and electricity were cut. Boxed long-life milk, an extra box of corn flakes, canned tuna and vegetables, and a few five-gallon bottles of water.

Stockpiling was common in Honduras year-round, for the simple reason that you couldn’t count on your favorite item being at the store the next time you went. But with apartment living in Beirut, I don’t think it’s commonplace. My cart got a few double-takes. Was it obvious to other shoppers that I was stockpiling? How could they even tell? There were only four cans of tuna, and two cans of peas, and who would know that the corn flakes were going into a bedroom closet rather than the kitchen? My stockpile was only intended to carry the family for a couple of days. Did I look crazy?

Oh, wait a second. I also had two enormous, twenty-five pound pumpkins in my cart.

Pumpkin is a local crop in Lebanon, normally cooked in syrup and eaten as a dessert.

As you might guess, I’d picked up one for each of my kids to carve for Halloween. Those supermarket ladies doing double-takes? They weren’t thinking I was crazy for stockpiling. They were probably thinking that I had a crazy amount of canning ahead of me.

The kids are back at school today, and my corner of Beirut has been quiet for the past few days. Along with every single person with whom I’ve spoken in Lebanon, I’m hoping and praying that events don’t get worse. But should we need to stay home another few days, I’m ready now. We’ll be busy eating corn flakes and carving pumpkins.

Tragedy in Beirut


The kids and I were at home today at 2:50 pm, having a playdate with another mom and her two small ones, when there was a reverberating boom. I leapt to my feet and ran towards the kids’ room, my friend close on my heels, although even in those seconds I thought “what could the children possibly have done to make such a loud noise?”

Indeed, the kids were playing in their own world, the noise hadn’t come from them. When I thought about it, the boom seemed to have come from the other side of the apartment. My friend and I peered out my front and back windows, but couldn’t see anything. The construction workers in the building facing mine were all looking past my building to the right. I returned to a back window and got as close to the corner as possible to look out at an angle. There was an enormous cloud of black smoke coming from a few blocks away.

People gathered on my street said that a gas canister must have exploded somewhere. My friend and I settled down. Awfully loud though for a gas canister, perhaps it set off something else? We flipped on the TV. Neither of us could understand the Arabic, from the images of twisted metal and injured passersby, it was clear this was serious. I turned on the computer. News slowly trickled in. A car bomb. One dead. No, two. No, at least eight.

From what we could tell from the images on TV, the explosion had occurred roughly between my apartment and hers – and she lives just 10 minutes away by foot. She waited at my house until 5pm, when her husband could get home. I then walked my friend and her children home. The usually bustling streets of our neighborhood were eerily empty (apparently the streets to our neighborhood had been closed, and just reopened as we were out).

We passed a street leading to the destruction, where the streets were busy with people and police. Glass was blown out of windows as far as three blocks away (although my friend was fortunate to find all her windows intact).

While my friend and I had been hunkering down in the afternoon, I’d told her about being in New York City during the September 11 attacks. As I walked past the shattered glass, I thought that as far as I can tell, terrorism doesn’t bend the will of those who it is meant to intimidate. I got home and googled my thought that “terrorism does not work,” with the idea that I might find a nice peace-loving, standing-strong quote to put into this blog post. Instead what popped up was a link to an article written by Harvard-based researcher Max Abrahms, published in 2006, “the first article to analyze a large sample of terrorist groups in terms of their policy effectiveness.” His conclusion?

“Groups whose attacks on civilian targets outnumbered attacks on military targets systematically failed to achieve their policy objectives, regardless of their nature. These findings suggest that (1) terrorist groups rarely achieve their policy objectives, and (2) the poor success rate is inherent to the tactic of terrorism itself.”

If you keep googling, you can find divergent opinions, but certainly from an academic perspective, terrorism is not a clear-cut winning strategy. I remember from New York the overwhelming spirit of people, there and across the US, to pull themselves up by the bootstraps and keep on going. I took this shot on my way back from walking my friend home, just two hours after the bombing – of a crane already working on the repair of a blown-out window. Like New Yorkers, the Lebanese pull themselves up and keep on going.

On Identity

Identity can be a touchy issue in the Middle East. Upon arriving to Lebanon, I wondered about passing myself off as one of my beloved neighbors to the north, the Canadians. I’m from Seattle, three hours from the border, I very nearly am Canadian, right? Never mind that I can count on my fingers the number of times that I’ve actually been to Vancouver, B.C., and I’ve never been to any of Canada’s eastern cities like Montreal, Ottawa or Toronto. Nor, frankly, can I remember the name of the Canadian president (or do they have a prime minister?). Nah, I probably couldn’t fake being Canadian.

So when asked where I’m from, I’ve tried to put on my most lovable face as I answer, “from the U.S.” I just wasn’t sure how well-received my American-ness would be in the Middle East nowadays. However, the conversation usually continues on like this:

“Oh, my aunt/cousin/nephew/brother lives in America!” (Often in Texas – one Lebanese explained to me that it’s because they like the hot weather.) We then chitchat for a few minutes about the U.S., and I go on my way feeling like I just got a dose of the famed Middle Eastern hospitality.

Last week, however, I did get this response, delivered in a stage whisper:

“I am half-American as well, but we should probably not say that too loudly right now.”

In fact, since the most recent anti-American protests, including the killing of Ambassador Chris Stevens in Libya, and the burning of a KFC/Hardee’s in northern Lebanon, my husband and I have been letting him answer the nationality question when we’re together. He was born in Sicily, and raised in Rome. Everybody loves Italians. There’s gushing. There’s poetic waxing.

“I spent my honeymoon in Venice. It’s the most romantic city.”

“It is my dream to visit Italy one day!”

“Rome is so beautiful. We walked everywhere.”

“I love Italian food/wine/art!”

With daily three-hour flights to Rome from Beirut, many Lebanese have visited Italy, and a surprising number speak Italian as well. We revel in their enthusiasm.

For the Lebanese, identity can be complicated. I have one Lebanese friend who spent many years overseas, in Venezuela and in Nigeria. She recently commented to me, “When we are overseas, we are all Lebanese. As soon as we return, we are no longer Lebanese, but Christian or Muslim, Maronite, Orthodox or Armenian Apostolic [Christian sects], Sunni, Shi’a or Druze [Muslim sects].” Not to mention Twelvers, Ismailis and Alawites (branches of Shi’a Islam), or Greek Melkite Catholic, Latin Rite Roman Catholic, Coptic, Assyrian, Syriac Orthodox, and Anglican (branches of Christianity). (Her proposed solution to more harmonious living, by the way, was to legalize interreligious marriages in Lebanon – see my earlier post on that topic.)

Upon arrival to Beirut, I also might have thought that being Arab could be a unifier for the Lebanese. But then I saw the puzzling divisions of airport immigration lines into “Lebanese” and “Arabs and Foreigners.” So the Lebanese do not consider themselves Arab? Who are the Arabs for the Lebanese then? Visitors from the Gulf states like Saudi Arabia and Oman? Egyptians and Moroccans and other North Africans too? An Egyptian friend I’ve made here commented that “the Arabs” had not come to Beirut this summer for their usual vacations due to the regional instability. So I guess he does not consider himself Arab either. I still haven’t quite got it figured out.

So when one Lebanese person I met referred to “the Arabs,” I asked him what he considered himself.

“We are Phoenicians,” he answered with pride.

In addition to being ignorant of Canadian politics, I’ll admit that I’m not well-versed in Phoenician history either. I probably should have looked it up when I first moved here and was staying two blocks from the famed Phoenicia Hotel. But better late than never is a cliché I like to put to good use, and I looked it up this morning. According to Wikipedia, ” ‘Phoenicia’ is a Classical Greek term used to refer to the region of the major Canaanite port towns, and does not correspond exactly to a cultural identity that would have been recognized by the Phoenicians themselves.” So the Phoenicians were the Canaanites, belonging to a region that Biblical scholars will easily identify, encompassing the city-states of Byblos, Sidon, Tyre, and Berytus (Beirut), cities that live on in modern-day Lebanon. It’s also an identification most frequently used by Christians in Lebanon, often controversially, as a way to set themselves apart from their Muslim compatriots. (That said, you will also find many Lebanese who are Christian, but do identify themselves as Arab. It may be possible to find as many answers to the identity question as there are people in Lebanon.)

Genetics, however, may have a different story to tell. Geneticists have identified the J2 haplogroup marker as belonging to the ancient Phoenicians – and Lebanese geneticist Pierre Zalloua found that many Christians and Muslims alike in Lebanon carry the marker. And that not all Lebanese who might have considered themselves “Phoenicians” do carry the J2 marker, but instead may have genetic markers identifying ancestors from Arabia, from India and Iran (perhaps from ancient traders), and from France and Spain (perhaps from Crusaders). Or all of the above.

A haplogroup is like a huge branch of the human family tree. Haplogroup J2 is found in the Middle East, North Africa and Southern Europe, with especially high distribution among present-day Jewish populations (30%), Southern Italians (20%), and lower frequencies in Southern Spain (10%). Another that is shared by much of the male populations of Lebanon, Syria, Malta, Sicily, Spain, and Israel, is haplogroup G. As my Sicilian husband has frequently pointed out to me, everyone from the Vandals and Goths and Normans from the north, the Arabs from the south, the Spaniards from the west, and the Greeks and Phoenicians from the east, came to Sicily and left their mark. It’s no wonder that my husband is so warmly-welcomed here in Lebanon. With those Arab and Phoenician branches intertwined in my husband’s Sicilian blood, he’s like a long-lost cousin coming home.