My mother once told me that I was conceived in a hotel room in Beirut. “I still remember. It was off of Hamra,” she said, light-heartedly and unsolicited after we had enjoyed dinner and some wine. This conversation unfolded several years ago, also in Beirut, not too far from the place of conception that Mom was recalling.
It was relatively good days for both the Lebanese people and for us Syrians, our countries not yet burning from the ruinous dysfunctions that scorched and sweltered beneath the surface.
Indeed, the year 2010 had offered a glimpse of a multi-generational vision for the Levant. The Syrian-Lebanese border was relaxed, and people from both sides crossed daily for work and leisure, unencumbered by the tense politics of the 2000s or the Cold War divide before that.
In the early 1970s, after my father was exiled from Syria for political and economic reasons—like so many continue to be—we cherished Beirut as our home. My French-educated father had the option to settle us in France, but he and Mom chose Beirut above all else because, they reasoned, why become an immigrant in a strange land when we could stay home and help build a nation? Sure we couldn’t live in Damascus, but Beirut came as close as anything would.
We moved into an apartment near Hamra and nestled into a confident middle-classdom. On weekends we drove our car and meandered through the mountains on the road to Damascus, resting along the way at Chtura, the popular stop before the border crossing. We loaded up on bread and bananas and anything else that our loved ones lacked in their lives behind the Iron Curtain, which had extended to Soviet-allied Damascus.
In Beirut, I was enrolled in kindergarten, which put me on track for Lebanon’s excellent schools and universities. My future would be better, brighter and more stable than my parents’, a sentiment shared by other Arab exiles who—like us—had found a safe haven in Beirut.
Then the Lebanese civil war ignited, and we left our apartment and fled in a hurry under a barrage of bullets. We did not yet know that we would never return to the life we had been building in Beirut, or that up ahead there would be more exile and war and the far-flung emigration that my parents had sought to avoid.
Over a century ago, my great-grandfather Kamel must have faced a similar dilemma. In 1899, as Ottoman Syria was suffering the final years of a disintegrating empire, he descended by mule from his village in the Golan Heights through the mountains of Lebanon, then down the hills to the port of Beirut—the site of the August 4 explosion. He embarked on a ship to France and onward to New York, becoming the first American on Mom’s side of the family.
As immigrants are prone to do, Kamel followed news about the motherland closely. When the Great War ended and the Ottoman Empire dissolved, he became gripped by the desire to return and rebuild the nation. In the fall of 1919, he and his young American family arrived at the port of Beirut. Lebanon and Syria were not yet separated by a border, and there used to be a train that ran regularly, which brought them all back to Damascus for good.
In the ensuing decades the cycle of hope continued, despite some terrible setbacks. Kamel joined an armed rebellion against the French Mandate and fought for an independent Syria, but died before he saw it come to fruition. A younger relative, Uncle Fathi, came of age as the French Mandate over Syria and Lebanon was dissolving, and the two countries were becoming modern nation-states separated for the first time by a border. An agriculturalist, Uncle Fathi was determined to develop the advanced farming techniques that he had learned at his alma mater, the American University of Beirut, and at the kibbutzes in Palestine where he had interned. “But the corruption and ineptitude” of the political class were too much to overcome even back then, in the 1940s, as my now-late-uncle recalled to me not long ago from his adopted home in Bethesda, where he had settled after emigrating.
Ground zero of the explosion that ripped through Beirut earlier this month, devastating thousands of lives and livelihoods, was a short walk from where I once lived when I needed sanctuary. Until 2014, it was there, in my rented apartment near the now-leveled Gemayzeh, that I recouped and rested from my monthly reporting trips inside wartime Damascus.
One time, during one of my R&R sojourns in Beirut, I fell into a pothole that had for months lain unfilled in my street. The electricity was out, as usual, and the pit had blended into the darkness of the night, so I did not see it even though I knew it was there. My injury was mild—a sprained ankle and some bruises—but that did not stop my Lebanese friends from lamenting the irony of my condition: That I risked life and limb every time I went into Syria to report on the violence there, yet my one “wartime injury” should be endured in Beirut, in a pothole that the municipality should have fixed, on a street that the city should have ensured was properly lit.
It is indeed our collective condition in the Levant that we find solace in irony and humor. Mom did so when she recalled that special hotel, which was later destroyed by Lebanon’s civil war. So too will the rest of us, in the aftermath of this month’s calamity, for Beirut remains implanted in the heart, no matter how distant and broken.
Header Image Caption: Beirut port at the turn of the 20th century
Image Credit: Beirut Heritage Facebook Page