By Arwa Mahmoud
My first visit to the southern district of Beirut was an organized field trip by the conference I was there to attend.
The conference was an assembly of activists and professionals who came from different parts of the world to show their solidarity with the Lebanese resistance and to discuss future civil resistance strategies to carry out back at home. The mosaic of cultures and backgrounds was wonderful. Many of them had never been to Lebanon or the Middle East, yet they had done so much in support of the rights of civilians who suffered directly from the ramifications of war. Many came with so much emotion and conviction, and many were stirring examples of kindness and commitment to people they share nothing with except the fact that they were human, not subjects.
(Click here for a photo gallery of Beirut’s southern district after 2006)
As we boarded the buses to southern Beirut, I sat next to a Lebanese woman, Karima, who welcomed me with a warm smile. I told her that this was my first visit to Lebanon after the war and that I couldn’t imagine what seeing the destruction with my own eyes would feel like. She responded with the same smile: “When we reach the district, I will show you where the building I lived in used to be.”
This was my first lesson in speechlessness. It’s very hard to think of anything to say to someone who’s experienced grave loss. That’s what you normally go through whenever you visit a war-torn place and talk to its people. Nothing on a personal level can even remotely relate to their experience. You can either console them with words of comfort and feel stupid, or go on asking questions and be rude.
She reached for her bag and took out her mobile phone. She showed me the picture she’d chosen for a background; a picture of a part of her then brand new living room that was taken after the first few air strikes on the district. All I saw was a crumbled room with shattered glass all over. But she saw something else: “See the colors of the sofa and the wall? I chose those myself.”
On the time the picture was taken her apartment had been only partially destroyed. One day after that picture was taken, the entire building was leveled to the ground.
As the bus continued through Beirut I began to spot the first signs of the Dahyeh, Beirut’s southern district as preferably referred to by its people. This area was one of Israel’s primary targets. For those who continue to view Hizbullah as a physical entity that can be destroyed, the Dahyeh is believed to be its “headquarters,” just as Bint Jbeil in the south is considered the headquarters of Hizbullah’s military wing, or the “capital” of the resistance. Yet the Dahyeh wasn’t really a military barrack. It was the area in which much of the Shiite exodus from the conflict-torn south and Bekaa began to settle roughly during the 1960s. There are no gates that separate it and you don’t need permission to enter, but once you’re inside, it’s another Beirut you seldom get to see.
Not much of it was left when I saw it in 2006.
An Exhibition of Savagery
I gasped as I saw my first spot of rubble. Karima stood next to me and spoke with unconcealed pride, “That’s nothing! This used to be mountains of rubble! We’ve cleared so much of it already!”
The magnitude of the destruction was beyond description. And yes, the creepy feeling of standing under a half-destroyed 15-story building surpasses any experience a person could have by just looking at its picture. Walking in those streets was like walking in an exhibition of hi-tech savagery. From corner to corner, I could see massive holes stretching so many meters underground—traces of missiles that failed their targets, scattered clothes, books, toys, etc.
I slowly began to make my way through the alleys. I stopped by an American colleague frantically taking pictures of what seemed to be hundreds of books buried in the rubble. When I walked up to where he stood I could see there were tears in his eyes. “They told me this was a library,” he spoke with a quivering voice, “My tax money builds libraries at home and destroys them here!”
Because I had followed the war minute by minute, suddenly being there brought the trauma back to life to me. It had already been three months since the cease-fire started, and even then many of the district residents were back already, going about their lives in the midst of the destruction. They had build small shelters on top of what used to be their homes. They would make it a point to go there daily and dig under the rubble to reclaim what they could of their belongings, or simply sit right there and drink tea, just to make a statement of ownership and survival.
I could not imagine what the place must have looked like when it was still a ghost town, haunted by terrifying sounds of jets roaming around it all night, each time choosing a different prey.
During the war I used to go to bed in Cairo after midnight and think, “Air strikes must have started again. I wonder how many children are crying right now, I wonder how many mothers are singing them lullabies to soothe them, silently praying that the strikes would end without taking more lives.”
And each morning I would wake up to a new statistic.
I walked from street to street, looking at scattered children’s books and stuffed toys in the midst of the rubble. It was as if the lullabies they inspired were still in the air of the Daheyh, memories of childhood left behind to a refugee tent, a hospital, or death.
But to the Lebanese children who survived, the nightmare was over. They were running around the streets of the district playing, laughing, waving their hands at the visitors and welcoming them.
“On to Change! On to Reform!”
From the minute I arrived in Beirut, I’d been fascinated by how quickly this nation was recovering and picking up the pieces. Their grief turned almost immediately into positive energy.
Hizbullah’s broadcasting station Al Manar created a live studio in a tent it built in the midst of the rubble, hosting guests that spoke about the ramifications of the war all day and most of the night, celebrating the mere fact that they still stood there, documenting the war by filming everything around them.
On more than one spot of the rubble in the Dahyeh there were mocking signs that read “Made in USA” or signs that showed alternative addresses to offices where they used to stand. No time wasted; they were simply moving on with their business.
Almost everywhere I walked there were teams of workers who were clearing the rubble, or builders who were reconstructing sites. As I got closer to one of the workers I heard him sing, “On to change! On to reform! Together, we build our country.”
Lebanon is a nation that takes so much pride in its ability to endure. Many of the poems and speeches speak of life being born with each fighter who falls and with each mother or child who dies. It is as if the physical losses are the key signs of triumph, because they were endured for the protection of one’s land, heritage, and most importantly, one’s dignity. For that reason, the Lebanese believe that they won this war.