Books and Bombs

By many critical accounts, The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt was the book of the year for 2013. I read glowing reviews in Time Magazine and in O magazine by Oprah, and it topped the list of Amazon’s Editor’s Top 20 Books of 2013, but somehow the plot didn’t appeal to me –something about a boy who steals a painting, the art underworld. But when the Kindle version was offered as a daily deal for just $2.99, I decided to give it a chance. I started reading it last week, and in the wake of two terrifying bombs in Beirut, words in the novel’s opening chapter boomed in my mind.

“…there was a black flash, with debris sweeping and twisting around me, and a roar of hot wind slammed into me and threw me across the room.”

A friend of a friend works in an office just where a bomb exploded on December 27th in Beirut. The sonic boom sent waves strong enough to knock the friend to the floor. Luckily – well, it’s not luck really, but tragic foresight – the office windows have a layer of film to make them shatterproof, or else our friend and his colleagues would have been coated in fragments of glass.

(1) Window film in the U.S. is advertised to protect against break-ins and storms. (2) Ads for window film are now popping up around Beirut, but for different reasons…

“…I ached all over, my ribs were sore and my head felt like someone had hit me with a lead pipe. I was working my jaw back and forth… when it came over me abruptly that I had no clue where I was. Stiffly I lay there, in the growing consciousness that something was badly out of joint. The light was all wrong, and so was the air: acrid and sharp, a chemical fog that burned my throat. The gum in my mouth was gritty, and when – head pounding – I rolled over to spit it out, I found myself blinking through layers of smoke at something so foreign I stared for moments.”

Not my friend’s recounting of the experience, but Tartt’s vivid imagery. Reading it I imagined how the passersby – those who survived the December 27th and subsequent January 2nd attacks – might have felt after the explosions.

I’ll admit, I’m an introvert by nature (hence a writer, not an actress). Books are an important way for me to gain understanding of other people’s experiences, emotions and thoughts, and help put perspective on my own. Books transport us, and the best of them can even transform us. So naturally, I turned to books to help me better understand my new home when I moved to Beirut. In a few days I’ll post my Beirut Reading List – some of the regionally-focused books I’ve read over the past 18 months.

My passion for books made it that much more painful when I read that an important library in Tripoli (in northern Lebanon, near the border with Syria) was attacked on January 3rd. Owned by a Greek Orthodox priest, the library was torched in response to unfounded rumors that the priest had written an article published online insulting Islam and the Prophet Mohammad. (According to Lebanon’s Internal Security Forces, “Father Sarrouj has nothing to do with the article and the source of the website is from Denmark and was published on Jan. 7, 2010.”) Nearly two-thirds of the library’s 80,000 volumes were destroyed.

Lebanese of all stripes have banded together in indignation, rallying to replace the library’s volumes and restore the building.

Those in Lebanon (or, for that matter in Michigan or Florida, where there are also drop-off points!) can contribute near or near-new books. (In Lebanon books are accepted at all Virgin stores, as well as at other sites listed on the drive’s Facebook page.) If cash is more convenient, there is an online drive to raise $35,000 to help repair the library and make an attempt at replacing some of the rare texts that were torched (and to dutifully install a new security system).

The Goldfinch won’t appear on my Beirut Reading List because the bombing scene is the only one that has resonated with my life here, at least so far. I’m just one-third of the way through the book, but I already would highly recommend it. The writing is silky and vivid, and emotions are so skillfully portrayed on the page that I found that it doesn’t really matter what the plot is – Tartt could write about something as mundane as a visit to the grocery store and render it compelling. How the plot twists will resolve, and what kind of resolution will be made at the end of its 755 pages, I don’t yet know.

Much like the story of Beirut.

I’m still here, unable to tear my eyes away as the story of Beirut unfolds. Hoping that for Beirut’s story we don’t have to wait the equivalent of 755 pages before we reach a resolution. Wondering desperately what form that resolution might take.

The Never Ending Holidays

Christmas, Epiphany, then Christmas again, then Christmas #3(!), next the Prophet’s Birthday. The holidays never end here in Lebanon.

I like it that way – I love how festive the city feels during the holiday season, whether the streets are hung with lanterns and silver moons for Ramadan or fairy lights for Christmas. Myself I love celebrating Christmas starting at the first Sunday in Advent (four Sundays before Christmas) all the way through the famed 12th day of Christmas (January 6). Also known as Epiphany. few people observe the last day of Christmas in the US, but in Latin America (where we lived for 8 years), it is the day the Three Kings arrived bearing gifts for baby Jesus – children set out their shoes or stockings the night of the 5th for those final Christmas gifts and treats. In Italy (where my husband’s from), Epifania is when La Befana arrives. The Befana is a crotchety old witch who declined joining the Three Kings’ procession when they passed her house on their way to Bethlehem, and in regret, piled her basket high with treats and presents for baby Jesus, and flies on her broom during the night of January 5th each year, leaving gifts for children around Italy (and in Italian homes around the world) in the hopes that one of them might be the special baby.

Today is the 8th, and it seemed time to take the tree down.

I felt sad to see the festive season end. Christmas decorations are still up around the city of Beirut however – because the Armenians (which ethnically make a large number of Lebanese) just celebrated their Christmas on January 6th (and who knew, but apparently that was the date Christmas was celebrated for the first four centuries A.D.) .

“Oh that’s right,” I said to my husband, “It’s the Orthodox Christmas.”

“Well, Eastern Orthodox,” he corrected me. “Greek Orthodox celebrate their Christmas the same time as Catholics and Protestants.”

Ah no, it turns out: Greek Orthodox do celebrate Christmas on December 25th, but Eastern Orthodox celebrate on January 7th. If that weren’t confusing enough, I found out that Ethiopians (of which there are a huge number in Lebanon, working primarily as household helpers, and are a mix of Orthodox and Protestant) also celebrate Christmas on January 7th. I wondered if I should give the day off to the lady who works for our family, so that she could celebrate.

“It’s okay, we are going to celebrate on Sunday [the 12th] since everyone else has to work,” she informed me.

So Christmas celebrations in Lebanon will wind up on the 12th, just in time to get ready for the first Muslim holiday of the year, the Prophet’s Birthday, which falls on January 13. (My kids are really loving all the school holidays!)

I came across this map yesterday, which didn’t really help clear anything up for me, but did make me feel like it was excusable to be a little confused about religion in Lebanon once in a while.

Just look how colorful Lebanon is!

This map is titled “The Levant: Ethnic Composition”. (The Levant is the region encompassing Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Palestine and Israel.) As explained in the column of dense text to the right of the map, they use ethnicity to refer to group identity, which includes religion as a factor, and the biggest divisions are identified on this map. The used here divisions are debatable (are the Druze not Arabs? are all Christians in the Levant non-Arabs? the answer to these questions depends on who you ask – for what geneticists have to say about it, see my earlier post here). But this map nonetheless gives an idea of the religious diversity of the region. Think how colorful it would be if it were further broken down from “Levantine (Christian)” to “Eastern Orthodox” and “Western Orthodox”, “Catholic” and “Protestant”.

This map was number 32 in Max Fisher’s collection for the Washington Post of “40 Maps That Explain the World.” Looking at the jumble of color and diversity that this map illustrates, I suppose it comes as no surprise that a battle drawn along religious lines has no end in sight.