During my 10 days in Beirut I heard some extraordinary stories. Sometimes it was said in passing, other times it happened during a formal interview. One woman told me how when growing up during the 1975-1990 Lebanese civil war, she overheard her parents arguing about whether to kill her and her younger sister. “They wanted to save us from being captured. You don’t forget words like that.”
Invisible (to me) lines still carve up Beirut. Although I crisscrossed the city many times, I never could discern the border between West Beirut and East Beirut. The city stands united now, but I still heard people say they avoid “that part of Beirut.” During an interview with a peacebuilder who brings together the leaders of all the political parties’ youth movements, I heard how these men in their 20s from Hezbollah, Shi’ite, Sunni, Druze and Christian backgrounds spend regular time being with each other. “They learn that their enemy is human.”
You have to love a country that has a tree as its national symbol. The Cedars of Lebanon provided the wood for King Solomon to build the Temple in Jerusalem. Some of the trees (now protected in a national forest) are over a thousand years old. I come from the Redwood country of California. Redwoods grow tall and are only a few hundred years old. Cedars grow thick. Their branches stretch out like angel wings, all-embracing, a constant comfort.
If Lebanon works, it provides hope for the entire Middle East: a homegrown democracy with strong economy and multicultural tolerance. The Lebanese people can be found all over the world. They come from Phoenician stock, a business people who sailed the seas, not unlike the Dutch.
There is a longing for Lebanon which those who left during the wars (let’s not forget the summer-long one in 2006) exported. This poem, when read and translated into Arabic on the last day of the writers workshop I taught in Beirut, brought tears to some of the eyes of Sunni, Shi’ite and Christian participants. They represent those who stayed behind, and are the envy of their emigrated cousins. Yet their tortured souls manifest in death-wish driving as they careen across the city. Brain drain, a phrase I first heard in Ireland in the early eighties, is on everyone’s lips in Lebanon. Do I go, or do I stay? Who am I really? What does it mean to be . . . Lebanese?
Letters from Home (To My Father)
Every time you weep, I feel the surface of a river somewhere on Earth is breaking. You wipe your eyes as you read aloud a letter from the old country. From the floor, I watch the curls of the words through the sheer pages. Your brother and sisters have gathered around you. I don’t understand the language but feel a single breath of grief holding this room.
Your mother writes of her weakening body. She walks to church but cannot leave the village. When you sat with her, You wanted her forgiveness for your absence but did not ask. She took you to her closet to show you the linens she had gathered which have already yellowed. Her hands seemed small through the lace. You kissed her palms, smelling your own fragrance on her skin.
She tells you of the refuge people have found in the village. Others have gone to Paris. You have a niece who is a doctor, a nephew, an architect. They sit in scattered apartments where you can’t see your three daughters gazing from their windows or your three sons pacing the old wood of their rooms. Yet you write to your mother, they still pray.
You visit your mother now when you can. Each summer you cross the Mediterranean; each summer you stand behind her house looking into the sea hoping she will not die, this time. And when these letters come, I run my finger across the pages. I hope I can learn the languages you have come to know.–Elmaz Abi-Nader