It’s been a heavy week. No matter how much I tried to distract myself, my heart kept being pulled back to my wounded, aching Lebanon. The morning after the explosion in Beirut, I went for a run to clear my mind, and when I reached the lake, I looked at the blue waves and I started to cry. The same blue lake that I see every day, was not Lake Ontario. That morning, I was looking at the Mediterranean Sea. The sea where we spent many summers along its vibrant coast in beautiful, beloved Beirut. The sea that was rocked violently. A Beirut that was shattered by an undeserving tragedy. A Beirut that I so deeply wanted to hug.
I was working on our budget spreadsheet in the living room when I heard my fiancé exclaim “Holy shit!” from the den. I didn’t think much of it since he usually reacts this way with work, or the occasional Space X launches that he gets excited about. I carried on with my spreadsheet when he said “Babe…there was a huge explosion in Beirut”.
Till this day, I regret my reaction. Without even blinking, I sighed and thought to myself, “Oh great…another bombing“. I typed Beirut in the News section of Google, and clicked on the top video.
My heart sank.
My family for sure must have seen that. My family for sure must have heard that. My family for sure must have felt that. Oh my God, my family.
I grabbed my phone and texted my cousins, aunts and uncles who live in Beirut, work in Beirut, or may have just happened to be in Beirut that day. “I just saw the news. Are you guys okay?“
Sadly, this isn’t the first time I send my family in Lebanon a text message like this. Over the years, this has been a common interaction, especially lately with everything that’s been happening: the currency crisis, the shortage of food, COVID and continuous political corruption. This devastation was literally the last thing Lebanon needed.
Luckily, although shaken by the explosion and their house being damaged, my family was okay. As in, they didn’t get physically hurt even though all their windows were shattered to pieces, their furniture was broken and their ceilings had fallen. As I saw photos of their beautiful home in total ruins, the same beautiful home where we are all gathered together multiple times before, I was astounded at how miraculously none of them got hurt.
Once my own family has been accounted for, I reached out to every Lebanese friend and colleague that I could think of. And throughout the day and the following days, an outpour of caring messages started coming in from my own concerned friends and colleagues, some who live abroad and some whom I haven’t spoken to in years. It was clear that the entire world was watching in horror.
After responding “Yes, my family is okay, thank you for checking in”, I had to stop and ask myself how passive and untrue “They’re okay” really was. I mean yeah, they’re okay as in they didn’t die or break a limb. But they’re actually not okay. They just went through a horribly traumatic explosion. Their home got ruined. Some of their friends died. They are scared, they’re angry, they’re frustrated….they’re in despair. But above all, they are tired. They are exhausted. They’ve had enough. Physically they are fine, but mentally and emotionally, they are severely hurt.
Yet despite this hardship, they are also resilient. They’re fuelled for change. They helped out their neighbours, they volunteered to clean up the streets, they helped locate missing people, all the while mourning the loss of their own friends. We take pride in calling that “the Lebanese resilience”. But how much trauma and destruction and near-death experiences can a person take in their lifetime? Why do we have to keep being resilient to this? When an entire group of people have been accustomed to violence, bombings and explosions…so much so that they just sweep up the broken pieces and move on with their life….isn’t that a glaring problem that needs to be fixed, and not just a quality to praise?
After spending the rest of the day watching the numerous videos, reading the breaking news updates, seeing the photos of newborn babies being saved in a broken hospital, and knowing very well that not all babies were saved, it all came crashing down. My heart was shattered, just like the pieces of broken glass that plagued everyone’s home in Beirut that day. I spent a good ten minutes sobbing into my fiance’s chest that evening, and all I could say to sum up how I felt was, “This isn’t fair”. He squeezed me, and all he could say to comfort me was, “I know”.
January 17, 1989. That was the date my parents packed up our lives, and left Beirut to start a new life in Toronto. When I was a kid, this photo of us on an MEA flight from Beirut > London > Toronto represented us going on an exciting adventure.
But to my parents, they probably felt different emotions. Behind their humble smiles, they were undoubtedly worried and anxious, wondering if they’re making the right decision. They probably felt a mixture of uncertainty to leave their family, their home and their whole life behind for a new, unknown life awaiting us thousands of miles away in a big, cold, strange country. But big, cold and strange sure seemed better than war-torn and unstable. They had two young children to think about, and they latched on the opportunity to bring them somewhere safer.
I grew up listening to two sides of Beirut. My parents lived in the era of the prosperous, bustling, progressive Beirut, the “Paris of the Middle East” of the 60s and 70s. Stories soaked with nostalgia was shared around the dinner table many times, my parents and family members recounting their youth in Beirut. I imagined beautiful Lebanese women perfumed in the latest Parisian fragrance, dressed à la mode with a cigarette in hand and cat-eyed kohl eyeliners, catching the smiles of tourists and local Lebanese men strutting in their best 007 and Steve McQueen stride. We heard about the discos, the beach, the cafés trottoir, and the progressive university campuses. Although these stories were told with that nostalgic tone that one would have when reminiscing on their long-gone youth, in my parents’ case, I always caught a sense of deep sadness. I’ve realized recently that that sadness was in fact grief.
Because the other side of Beirut, the Beirut I was born into, was stark in contrast. The war, the destruction, the tension, the divide, the blood. The stories of when we’d flee our apartment in Beirut to scurry underneath the building’s staircase with our neighbours, seeking refuge from the bombings. Luckily, I was too young to remember that. My brother wasn’t though. He was six, and he remembers. The Beirut my parents knew in their youth was long gone.
I have been to Beirut seven times, and I’ve come to terms that I’ll never get to know that iconic Beirut that everyone always talks about. The heartbreaking part is, I see traces of it every time I go back. The French architecture, the cobblestone streets, the palace-like balconies and the terrazzo marble, peeking underneath bullet holes and torn walls. The most saddest part is that not even decades of war brought down these houses the way Tuesday’s explosion did.
Being a Lebanese living outside of Lebanon is a weird feeling. You feel patriotic and nostalgic when it comes to its beauty, its nature, its food, its culture, it’s music, its history, its charm, its coolness, its strength and its progress. You feel a love like no other when you’re welcomed in the warm, open arms of your family and an even wider open door to their kitchen. You jump to its defence whenever a non-Lebanese says a false assumption about Lebanon, and you get so darn proud when a famous Lebanese makes it in the world.
But deep down, you’re also grateful you don’t live there. When it comes to Lebanon’s deep-rooted scars, you guiltily feel relieved that its troubles are not part of your every day life. The Canadian subzero winter that you hated so much suddenly doesn’t seem so bad. Sometimes, you feel ashamed, embarrassed, and hopeless when it comes to the problems Lebanon has rotting underneath. It’s a really shitty, complicated feeling to be a proud Lebanese living safely outside of Lebanon.
When we got on that plane 31 years ago, that was undoubtably the best, and the bravest, decision my parents ever made in their lives. I’m forever grateful for them taking a chance, and for starting a new life here. But they also made sure to bring us back to Lebanon, and they did so seven times. They showed us the importance of family, they showed and taught us about our culture and heritage, how hospitable our community is and how important it is to be proud of who we are, and where we come from. For that, I am equally eternally grateful for.
I don’t have a magic solution to this tragedy, or a profound conclusion to all these thoughts. I’ve just been deeply missing Lebanon this week and missing the times I spent with my family there, and felt like writing about it. In my longing to reminisce on those good memories, I flipped through photos of our last vacation there. I came across this photo that I took in Beirut, in July 2010.
We were heading home after spending an entire day with our family friends who prepared us a feast in their summer home. I know that we all look at the same sun, but the sun in Lebanon always seemed to have an extra magic to it. Maybe because it rises over the mountains and sets on the Mediterranean Sea, or maybe because it’s geographically positioned a certain way. Or maybe because the sun in Beirut is the only beautiful certainty it has for now, and maybe that’s where the resilience comes from. That despite the dark, smokey rubbles, the sun always comes out.
If you wish to help victims impacted by the explosion or to help rebuild Beirut, you can donate to the following trusted charities: