I spent five days in Beirut in late March and I wonder if I’ll ever feel the same about the Middle East. I went to Beirut after researching its past, its government, its city-by-the-sea status, but going there I realized there’s a lot for which I was unprepared.
I wasn’t prepared for the armed checkpoints, which seemed scary at first, but I came to realize were Beirutis trying to protect their neighborhoods from the worst. They’ve seen the worst many, many times.
But probably what I was least prepared for was the people: Intelligent, thoughtful and articulate in at least three languages.
"It’s one of the most complicated regions in the world. And this is something Texans might understand—one of the keys of this crisis is oil," said artist, teacher and author Gregory Buchakjian.
"Oil is the key to understand all the wars of the Middle East," he said.
Beirutis seemed to dart back and forth between these kind of deep ruminations and a delightfully dark humor. Arie Amaya-Akkermans told me a story of how a relative from the Netherlands was visiting, and after a televised speech by a Hezbollah leader, supporters were out in his neighborhood firing gunshots in the air. The friend was terrified, but Arie didn’t even notice.
“You actually learn to live with things such as weapons, and gunshots as if it was, you know, a rainbow,” Amaya-Akkermans said.
I tried to wrap my mind around Beirut’s many paradoxes, but when I asked Arie what people in the U.S. need to know about Lebanon, his answer probably summed it up best.
“Ooof, my God, that is such a tough question! Okay, once you’re in Lebanon you realize that this works -- in its very dysfunctional, ill way, but this works," Amaya-Akkermans said. "And despite all the war and conflict it’s actually a very dynamic society. It’s a place where people can learn many lessons about, I would say humanity and survival, because the existential issues for the Lebanese are actually very real."
Those existential issues aren’t theoretical, Beirutis have lived them; often, and at great cost.
The symposium at which I spoke had two interpreters at all times. As I spoke English, my words were interpreted into French and Arabic. When someone spoke Arabic it was interpreted into English and French.
I watched as one young Lebanese reporter spoke rapidly in Arabic. Admission: to me it sounded like gibberish. Then I put on my headsets and found that she was making very complex points, and in a very articulate way.
We in the West may be too quick to judge the Middle East in ways that aren’t fair, and don’t even serve us well. The intelligent people in Beirut, most of whom who have known suffering we never will, deserve more consideration.
As I said to Artist Hannibal Srouji "You mentioned hope, still have it?"
"Of course! Otherwise I won’t continue," he said. "Who could live with no hope?"
Annie Kurkdjian talks about turning her war experiences into something better.
"I have the freedom to change it, to recycle it to something more beautiful," she said. "And that’s what I’m doing with art."
Nadine Begdache summed it up this way: "Beirut is still Beirut."
Now, there was one place in particular where the Lebanese somehow come together. It’s called the Corniche.
The Corniche is a wide walkway that hugs where Beirut ends and the Mediterranean begins. Waves crash over green-mossed rocks and towering palms and mosaic-tiled benches dot the 3 miles of walkway.
Beirutis of all types show up here: From conservatively-dressed hijab-wearing ladies to fitness folks of both sexes running and wearing very little.
Young families with laughing children stroll this place where they go to chill, to socialize, to grapple with their life’s mysteries.
The Corniche is where the city’s many cultural differences just don’t matter. I can’t imagine a better metaphor for the possibilities of this wonderful place.