Beirut lost and found

Thursday, 19 March 2009

My mother and I were here to re-connect with the country of her grandparents, who had died in Lebanon or left for America about a century ago. Disease, war, and starvation had scattered our family. The Diaspora is the national narrative for a majority of Lebanese who live outside their own country while a minority remain. Like so many U.S. immigrants, my mother's grandparents had children who met and married American Lebanese. In all likelihood we were the first of our family to visit in more than three decades. Did we have any relatives remaining?

I fell in love with Beirut at the international airport, in the baggage claim. It was a hard fall, immediate and absolute. The welcome party was unexpected and frenzied. "The energy of this place is addictive," I was wisely warned by a savy, chic Beiruti.

Lebanese are a people to whom blood is sacrosanct no matter how distant. The son of his uncle, the daughter of her auntie. That is how strangers are introduced, always according to mother and father. We are embraced, deep smiles are exchanged, tears are shed and food is shared.


"You welcome a stranger into your home, care for him, and after three days you ask his name," my grandmother often told my mother of the legendary hospitality.

This country has survived millenia of trouble. Its beautiful and productive coastline crowned with high mountains is a prized possession of kings. Flanked by the eastern Mediteranean and snow-capped mountains, it has been invaded from every direction and by every empire.

Although re-built, Beirut still bears scars from the fifteen year civil war ending in 1991 and the recent bombing by Israel in 2006. A Palestinian leader is assasinated in Sidon a day before we visit. The Lebanese Army keeps the peace. Twenty-eight religions, side by side. But we never, as a rule, speak of the political trouble to one another. We read it in the newspapers. < next >