What follows is an excerpt from A Beirut Heart: One Woman’s War. In this scene I am still trying to get used to the horrors of war, the daily struggles of running a household, of sending my children to school in spite of nightly bombing and trying to maintain some form of normalcy, whatever that was.These are the daily struggle of too many people around the world, and particularly across the Middle East, who are subjected to the West’s senseless wars which wreck death and destruction and destroy whole countries.
During periods of heavy shelling I ran on adrenaline and so when things returned to normal I suffered a severe ‘crash.’ I had not yet learned to push a button in my mind that said, ‘Okay, Cathy, carry on.’ Gradually the familiarity of war crept up on me and I became more resolute. After a few months I began to feel more in control. My husband and children had long ago adopted me as the gauge of their well-being. Keen observers of my tiniest movements and expressions, they took comfort from my cool-headedness. I had grown accustomed to the sound of machine gun fire; I no longer jumped when a bomb exploded nearby; I hung my laundry out to dry in spite of knowing a sniper might have me in his sights; I shopped for non-perishable canned goods and large quantities of flour and sugar; I bought several canisters of cooking gas at a time, ignoring the possibility of a massive explosion should our apartment take a direct hit.
Little by little I acquired the coping skills necessary to resist and survive the absurd dysfunction of war. My world got smaller and smaller in reaction to the ever-increasing levels of violence. I desensitized myself to events around me. When bombing occurred elsewhere in the city my response was, ‘Thank God it isn’t us. Let it be someone else’s turn for a change.’
War turned a simple task like emptying the garbage into a major undertaking. Before the conflict began I only had to pull open a lever in the hallway and throw my garbage down the chute. After the hostilities started, trash collection across the city stopped. Badaro, my neighborhood, had designated trash sites as did every other neighborhood. When neighbors began using the vacant lot next to our building as they private garbage dump, my husband had to take action. In an effort to keep the area clean and control the ever-increasing rat population he burned the trash every afternoon.
Water shortage was a daily occurrence. When we heard the water flowing in the large storage tanks on the roof just above our apartment—usually late at night—my husband would get up and fill the large buckets which we used for flushing toilets. If I boiled water first I could also use it to wash dishes and cook. For drinking I purchased bottled water. If it flowed long enough Michel watered the plants on the balcony while I washed a load or two of laundry.
We were able to find most things we needed. This was mainly the result of the entrepreneurial skills of the Lebanese merchants who still attribute their acumen to their Phoenician ancestors, the first and possibly the finest traders in history. When their shops in the old souks (marketplaces) were destroyed, Lebanese businessmen, continuing a century-old tradition, simply relocated their stores to other parts of the city. In spite of daily obstacles, these traders supplied the city with vegetables, fruits, meats and poultry. When the Beirut port closed they opened new ones elsewhere to import gasoline and cooking gas. They supplied bakeries with flour, pharmacies and hospitals with drugs and surgical supplies, and they kept the cinemas open and the video shops stacked with the latest films. Even the clothiers continued to import the latest fashions.
I kept my sanity during the war in large part because I loved to cook. Meals brought our family and friends together for moments of shared joy. I invited guests to my table almost daily. The more people we had, the better for everyone’s morale.
Any normal person living outside Lebanon would have found my behavior ludicrous. Somewhere inside my head I did still remember what ‘normal’ meant, but since there were no normal people around me, it hardly mattered. The surreal world of war which was forcing me and everyone around me to think and act differently gave new meaning to the word ‘normal.’
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