This is a critical time for Lebanon, but so was its fifteen year long civil war which began in 1975, six years after I had moved there. I had arrived in June 1969 with my Lebanese husband and two small children. My husband had been eager to begin his medical practice and I equally keen to become Lebanese and learn a new culture and its languages. I led the most perfect of lives. My husband had a successful medical practice and my children were growing up speaking English, French and Arabic. My life came crashing down on April 13, 1975 when my tranquil tree-lined street became a deadly territorial divide—the infamous Green Line that separated Muslim West from Christian East Beirut, a place that determined who lived and who died.
Overnight young men brandishing M-16’s took up positions behind make-shift barricades and started firing at one-time friends who had suddenly become rival militiamen. In order to run my errands, I had to dodge behind overturned shipping containers in order to avoid the lurking rooftop sniper and in spite of night-long battles in my street I had to have my children dressed and fed in time to catch the school bus at 6:45 A.M. And when the schools were closed because of war—sometimes for months at a time—I hired a tutor to keep my children’s minds usefully occupied.
When the war began I chose for practical reasons to stay and fight. When I say ‘fight’ I mean fight in the way a housewife does. As the keeper of the hearth you are the heartbeat of your family. You are the mother who comforts her children after abomb blast shatters part of their bedroom wall. You are the wife who consoles her husband after he has spent his mornings treating wounded civilians and sending mangled bodies to the morgue. Collectively, you are the pulse of a country on the verge of collapse.
The country’s leaders did not have your housewifely energy and focus. They could not keep the streets clean, deliver the mail or collect the garbage. They were charged with keeping their Lebanese family together in peace but when they saw the hostility increasing, they failed to dissuade the various political factions from turning into vicious militiamen. Either through personal greed, political inflexibility or sheer ineptitude, they failed to save a nation they were trusted to preserve.
As I look back on those turbulent days, I think how innocent we were to have put our faith in those leaders, hoping they would do whatever was necessary to save Lebanon. My husband and I did our part. After spending long days at the hospital, he stood guard every night behind a barricade, sawed-off shotgun in hand, to prevent infiltrators from coming into our neighborhood, while I became the English-language news anchor for The Voice of Lebanon.
More than thirty-five years later, these same leaders, or their sons and daughters, are still in power with a level of nepotism and cronyism that exceeds epidemic proportions. The immediate spark for the current protests was a government plan to impose a levy of $.20 on the first call a user makes every day on WhatsApp, the otherwise free-text-messaging and voice-calling app that had become an essential communication tool in a country where phone service was fraught with problems. But the new fee was really just the tipping point to months of public frustration over the government’s inability to navigate the country out of a looming debt crisis.
Lebanon has never been a very rich nation—save for the Sunni merchants and Christian bankers—the very same people who have helped make Lebanon second to Bangladesh as the largest debtor nation in the world with arrears in the neighborhood of $38 billion. But this time the unrest has been triggered by seemingly small pocketbook items and people fed up with an unjust system. The Lebanese pound has fallen. The price of food has sky-rocketed. The middle class is disappearing. People are hungry and are unable to make a high enough salary to feed their families. To show their frustration they have gone to the streets in massive numbers and for the first time, across sectarian lines, people are demanding the same things, marching in unison as friends, neighbors, fellow workers, and not on opposite poles in an otherwise divided country which has, for far too long, existed, and even fostered sectarian divisions which were imposed by a French Protectorate at the end of World War One when they and the Brits, in the Sykes-Picot Agreement, decided to divide the Middle East according to their own selfish interests in this oil-rich region of the world.
In Beirut I found my place to grow. My commitment to stay there through the war was a consequence of a deep love affair. I had married into a family which was for the most part loving and accepting, and it was exciting to wake up every day as a foreigner embraced by a Lebanese family. This is the kind of love which develops a loyal Beirut heart, one which never dissolves. May God protect Lebanon and all its people that together they may rebuilt their beautiful country on the pillars of fairness, truthfulness and love for one another.
The author is the author of five books on the Middle East. A Beirut Heart is a memoir of her life in Lebanon. Her books can be found here:Amazon