Sunday, July 16, 2006

Some observations on life here

It’s not that the Lebanese are good at war, but rather, that the Lebanese (and the Palestinians, etc. that live here) are good at dealing with life under war. Everything just continues. Not as nicely as before, and large events are of necessity cancelled, but the daily routines proceed. It’s of course disturbing that so many people are so accustomed to living under these absurd and dangerous conditions. But it’s also comforting.

I woke up today to the smell of garlic and green beans being cooked – loubia bi zeit – one of my favorite Lebanese dishes. “That’s a wartime dish,” I’m told. Loubia bi zeit is, apparently, the ideal war dish, as once cooked the vegetables can last for a long time without refrigeration, the dish improves with age, and can be eaten hot or cold, with or without bread or rice. A quick walk around the neighborhood revealed at least two other households were also cooking loubia bi zeit.
All the little stores near my apartment are fully stocked with candles, batteries and water (unlike the giant chain stores, which ran out of water and candles on the first day of Israeli bombings). Recently I witnessed a well-coiffured older Lebanese woman trying to buy pine nuts. “Don’t tell me,” she said, “that you’ve stopped bringing in pine nuts for water…” “No,” she was told, “but you’ll have to move 50 cartons of water to get at them.” Meanwhile, the one store carrying alcohol has been very busy as of late, abounding with running jokes about what you can drink warm: “No ice: no Arak and whiskey. No refrigerators: no beer. Khallas, we’ll drink wine.” “And when the wine runs out?” “We’ll drink our whiskey warm.”

My neighborhood, near the American University of Beirut and therefore traditionally a safe place during times of crisis, is filling up with refugees. First they came from the Dahieh, Beirut’s southern suburbs and one of Israel’s main targets. They came with their TVs and spare mattresses, moving in with friends or family, and into the spare apartments lent out by absent owners. The parking situation here, typically a source of much drama, has luckily eased because so many residents here have left for their villages. “It’s always like this,” a neighbor tells me, a suitcase in each hand. “Israel bombs. We move out, they move in…” When Israel’s initial barrage began on the Dahieh, our new neighbors called out to each other from the balconies, detailing which streets were hit, which buildings were still standing. Not all of their old neighbors got out in time.

A second wave of refugees recently arrived, from the South. They came with cars filled to bursting, with large, extended families. I tried to buy small-sized bread from the local bakery, but they’ve stopped baking it. “No one’s going to buy it,” I was told. A friend recently told me about his family in South Lebanon. Before the bombing had intensified, five households nominally related had gathered together. “There’s easily 50 children under one roof,” he said, “all under 10 years old.” “Don’t worry,” another friend said, “this is how the next generation of resistance fighters gets trained.”

Not everyone in my building, however, is here to stay. Opening my door this morning, I saw my newly-moved in neighbor carrying three suitcases. “Hamd’allah bi salameh” I said, welcoming him back safely. “Thanks,” he said, “but we’re leaving for the Gulf.”

Saturday afternoon we visited some Lebanese friends in Hamra, in West Beirut. They all grew up during the civil war, and over a three-course meal of various meat dishes (“best eat it now, while it’s still fresh”) they joked about how things have changed. “Cell phones, how nice… at least until we lose electricity and we can’t charge them anymore.” And “I’ve spent the past 10 years saying ‘that was just fireworks, right?’ so yesterday, of course, what does my niece say to me?”

Someone else related a story about his elderly mother, who’s living alone, in the same house for 50 years. “I called her up expecting she’d be all scared. ‘I’m so glad you called,’ she says, ‘I was worried for you. I realized that you might not have enough battery-operated lamps, and luckily I still have three from the war…’”

-- Sonya Knox

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