Thursday, July 20, 2006

Out of Beirut: Exit Stamp July 17 2006

My Lebanese exit stamp reads July 17th; it was supposed to read August 4th. It wasn’t till the next day, Tuesday July 18th that I arrived with the second flight of the Dutch evacuation convoy via Aleppo at the military airbase in Eindhoven. My friends and family were relieved to see me “out of Beirut”, and escaping the violence. The flurry of smses with these 3 simple words “are you out?” keep coming in till today, July 20th. It is strange how an exit can take on different connotations, what is deemed a lucky escape in one context, is an artistic export product in another: “Out of Beirut” is the name of an exhibition recently held at the museum of Modern Art in Oxford. I had made a mental note to ask my artist friends in Beirut to borrow the catalogue from them. There was no time. Nor was there time to say goodbye to friends; it all happened so quickly.

I had only registered with the Dutch embassy on Friday July 14th; noone was picking up the phone so J. and I decided to go there. Very few people there, just one obviously distressed Dutchman of Lebanese origin. “I haven’t been back since 26 years, and now this”, he tells me. The lady at the counter copies my passport and asks me for phone numbers. She reassures me that now we have only reached “Phase I”, and that no evacuation plans are being made. She advises me to stay in Beirut, and not attempt to go to Syria by myself, since the embassy cannot vouch for my safety. Fine, I wasn’t thinking of leaving to Syria, despite the many phone calls of Swiss friends urging me to join them just across the border in Tartus.

In the meanwhile the situation keeps escalating, and bombs keep pounding infrastructure, the South, and the Dahiyeh; the casualties mount. We move from Qasqas to a friend’s place in Achrafieh. By now electricity is on and off. We see the first refugees wandering around bewildered in the streets of well-to do Achrafieh. Whenever electricity is on, we are glued to the TV. I joke that the only new Arabic word I learned this time around is “khabar ajil” (breaking news). One wonders when news stops being news, how long it will take the world this time to turn its head away with bored media saturation; how many more atrocities have to be committed before something can be viewed as “news”. There’s a paralysing silence on the part of the international community, especially the EU: no official or strong condemnation of the disproportionate use of force, absolutely nothing.

I am in the middle of an interview with Belgian national radio Sunday night, fulminating at how biased the media coverage is, when an sms of the Dutch embassy shows up on my phone: “Evacuation at 5.30 am at the Dutch embassy; bring money, passport, food, one piece of luggage.” I panic: to stay/to go; how can I say goodbye to my friends? I only have hours. In the middle of my panic someone from Foreign Affairs in The Hague calls me. His voice is so calm and friendly, as if he rehearsed the words and tone to perfection. He inquires whether I had received the sms, whether I was fine and had any additional questions. “Is the crossing to Syria safe”, I ask him. It takes him a few – obviously very composed moments of silence to answer me. “ Well, we cannot guarantee that.” “So the only thing safeguarding us, are a few flags attached to the buses?” “Well, yes, but don’t worry. Do you have any further questions, Ma’am?”

July 17th, 5.30am. J. and I make it to the Dutch embassy. The scene is surprisingly orderly. This has certainly changed over the past few days, as more and more foreign nationals are trying get out of the country. While queuing up to register I meet my friend Raed, an artist and musician, but now free-lancing as a cameraman for foreign TV stations. I break down in sobs; he tries to calm me down…to no avail. “We will meet again soon, Nat, in Amsterdam or in Beirut, inshallah.” I wish I could believe him. Later on, I chide myself for crying: I don’t have a right to tears, with people’s lives being torn apart, their houses and businesses destroyed, their loved ones gone. Where on earth do I get the arrogance to weep? My goodbye to J. is very short. “See you soon”, he says as he kisses me. I feel a pang; time has become suspended. Who knows when “soon” will be. We were supposed to leave together on August 4th for a holiday in Holland, now my travel companions are about 250 other Dutch nationals, many of them carrying dual citizenship.

We only manage to leave around 7.45 a.m. The coordinators had decided last minute that probably it would be a better idea to attach the Dutch flags on the roofs of the busses, rather than have them in front. Well yes, the roof is definitely a better idea for aerial vision than the windscreen. The whole flag operation takes about an hour. The irony of it all: only a week before had we smiled upon the Lebanese passion for football during the World Cup, and the exuberant flag parade in the city of favourite teams (Italy, Brazil, Germany, you name it). We had joked how easy and playful the bearing of a flag was: if your team loses, then you just pick another. How exclusive and devoid of choice the bearing of a flag has become now: it can mean your ticket out, and your only guarantee of safety, or it means you cannot get out and are fully exposed to the spoils of war.

We slowly make our way out of Beirut, passing familiar places. Many people weep; it’s heart-breaking. Once in the bus, I start hearing stories. One Dutch woman, fluent in Arabic, had come to the embassy with absolutely nothing…just the clothes she was wearing. She had fled her house in Dahiyeh with her kids, not knowing whether it was still standing. Another family had been living in Lebanon for over 5 years; doing relief work in the Palestinian camps. The decision to leave was extremely hard, but they just didn’t want their kids to go through the trauma. And then of course the Lebanese-Dutch, who leave family and friends behind. But there are also a bunch of back-packers and tourists who are pragmatically sober and unaffected about it: they aren’t leaving anyone behind. My neighbour turns out to be something of a distant colleague; he’s an art professor teaching at the art academy in Enschede where I did a few guest lectures. He just left his Lebanese girlfriend behind; they only managed to have one day together before she moved out of the Southern suburbs, to the safety of mountains. The trip takes ages, in Tripoli we see the bombed out police station or army HQ, I cannot remember. At the border we hear Tripoli was bombed again, moments after we passed it. We get held up 5 hours at the border, which seems nothing in comparison with the 9 hours of the Italians, the previous day. I see refugees pushing wheelbarrows filled with suitcases over the border; people just clutching flimsy plastic bags, with no possessions whatsoever. The line of busses and cars keeps getting longer and longer, the Lebanese as the Syrian officials have no way of coping with this. How can bureaucracy matter in times like these? At the Dutch embassy in Beirut they had distributed copies of the exit forms to us. The Lebanese officials didn't accept the copies; they wanted us to fill in the proper forms. More delay and agitation in the heat of the midday sun. Then the Syrians make a fuss about the transit visa…I become exasperated: it was better in Beirut. We finally make it to Aleppo around 8.30pm. More bureaucracy, this time Dutch. They flew in an evacuation team. The boys of the Dutch “Koninklijke Marechaussee” (the Royal Constabulary) look fresh and cleanly-shaven. We on the other hand, are exhausted, hungry and dirty. At 3.30am, I am finally allowed to board the second plane to the military base of Eindhoven. The first plane took the elderly, families with small children and pregnant women. The Dutch have chartered a Turkish charter with a Turkish crew, since it was impossible to get a Dutch carrier on such sort notice due to the holiday season. The hostesses are made up and dressed impeccably; they smell of expensive French perfume. It seems so absurd to me. They beam benevolent smiles upon us as we scramble for seats. 4,5 hours later we land in Eindhoven. “Ladies and gentlemen. Welcome to Eindhoven. Thank you for flying Freebird Airlines; we wish you a pleasant stay.” The protocols of decorum seem absolutely grotesque when thinking about what’s happening in Lebanon. Everything seems trivial and meaningless, and even words have become reduced to rubble.

Nat Muller


Blogger Edward Ott said...

I pray for all the people of Lebanon. i have a lot of friends who have family in beirut who can not get out. it is just madness.

7:51 PM  
Blogger mike_tv said...

ben blij dat je veilig terug bent

12:57 PM  
Blogger Rajiv Iyer said...

Israel's actions are a ludicrous over-reaction to a relatively small incident of abduction/capture of 2 Israeli soldiers by Hezbollah. Israel has managed to turn a minor thorn of an issue into a full-blown war now. Its sad and demoralizing to see the entire world being mute spectators at the carnage in Lebanon. If the same carnage had been spelt out in say London or NY, the West would immediately brand it as "terrorism" and relentlessly pursue the perpetrators. This entire mess of a war clearly indicates that the West is blindly and stupidly biased towards Israel. Its true that militias like Hezbollah must be disarmed, but in doing so, if it results in such madness, then its not justified. I feel for the Lebanese people and hope that the world wakes up to the recklessness of Israel and their absolute arrogance in this matter.

Here's wishing peace in the region and I hope and prey that someday, Israelis, Palestinians and Lebanese stand side-by-side in peace and prosperity (although the prospects of such peace looks bleak now)

End this sickening war!

8:06 PM  
Anonymous Magali said...

Hi Nat !
I also had to leave Beyrouth and took a bus to Aleppo and then the plane to Eindhoven. I even think we were in the same bus. Were you in the bus with Najat from the Embassy and Robert ? I was sitting in the front on the right with my mother. Were you sitting on the third row on the left wearing black and with a bold guy next to you ? Anyway, when I read your story, I read mine and the one of all the other people leaving with us that day. I'm so sad and angry at the same time about all this mess. We left friends and family behind and even if they are safe, we cannot stop thinking about them and all the other Lebanese left there. Even if we didn't talk together, we also smiled about flags during World Cup and I totally share your feelings about flags taking another meaning when you have to leave the country. My mother and I are not Dutch but from Luxembourg and as there is no Luxembourg Embassy in Lebanon, we are really thankful to the Dutch for all they have done for us.
Life has changed since then. I'm not the same person anymore and I will never forget bombs I heard and smoke I saw during some days. Then we had to leave to the mountains and go back to Beirut again when the Embassy send us the message to come the next day at 5.30. I love Lebanon and cannot believe what I'm watching on TV or reading in the newspapers. I wish all this disaster stops as soon as possible. Enough innocent people have been killed and Lebanon is completely destroyed. Moreover, there is now an oil slick !
My mother has Lebanese origins and even if I'm a Luxembourg citizen, I feel half Lebanese.
Finally, I would like to quote a Lebanese poet, Khalil Gibran, as these words, even if written long time before what is happening today sound appropriate to the circumstances : "The knolls of my country are submerged by tears and blood, for my people and my beloved are gone, and I am here leaving as I did when my people and my beloved were enjoying life and the bounty of life, and when the hills of my country were blessed and engulfed by the light of the sun."

12:30 AM  

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