One week before I left for Beirut, my family had dinner with my uncle who was visiting from Beersheva, Israel. Halfway through the evening, he turned to look at me. He put down his fork.
By the time I left in late January, I had concluded that, while Lebanon was inherently unstable, the likelihood of conflict in the near future was low, particularly since Syria had withdrawn from the country. The precarious security situation in Beirut, was, as the President of my Lebanese university explained to me, “a nasty game being played out by politicians” far above my head.


The first night I was in Beirut, I was on the verge of sleep when my new suitemate walked out of her room in sheer, black patterned stockings and a loose-fitting, deep-plunging green blouse that I immediately wished I owned.

“I’m so sorry I’m not dressed,” she apologized in flawless English. “I’m Sara. It’s wonderful to meet you.”

Sara proceeded to offer me all of the food in her refrigerator and invite me to join her bar-hopping in Monot. I had no idea what Monot was, but it was clearly a posh place: Sara had put on a short skirt that flared out, huge earrings, and high heels.

When we exited the cab in Monot – a hub of Beirut’s legendary nightlife – I felt like I was in a movie. Palm trees lined the sidewalks, every light seemed like it was a different colour, and music emanated from all of the open doorways around me. Hundreds of talking and smoking people promenaded by me, dressed to the nines. I had never been somewhere so glamorous.

A uniformed soldier passed by us with a huge rifle slung over his shoulder. I asked Sara why they were there.

“You know, the security situation,” she answered, referring to the spate of bombings and assassinations throughout 2005 that began with the killing the former Prime Minister, Rafiq al-Hariri.

“Has anything happened here?” I asked nervously.

“Yeah, about 100 metres that way.” She indicated the direction we had just come from. “But it was nothing big, really.”

Lying in bed that night, I half-expected to hear an explosion. There was one within the week, but I did not hear it. In fact, I did not even know it happened. There was minimal damage and there were no casualties, so people either did not know it happened or ignored it if they did. It was exactly the mentality that a Lebanese friend of mine spoke of when I asked him how people respond after a bombing.

“You look around and then you keep driving to a different place. There’s no bomb at the other place.”


A month later, I went to see Lebanon play Kuwait in soccer. Waiting for the gates to open, I heard a group of people to my left begin chanting. I asked someone from my school what they were saying.

“They are singing, ‘Allah, Nasrallah, and…’ They are talking about the suburbs of Beirut where Hezbullah is very strong.”

I asked him why they sing.

“They love Hezbullah. They do it everywhere, I don’t know.”

A moment later, a group of people to my right echoed the same melody, but with different words. They were chanting for Hezbullah’s political foe, the Future Bloc, which holds a majority in Lebanon’s Parliament. The two groups began going back and forth, their volume escalating with each successive round. Eventually, riot police and soldiers quelled the impromptu political show of strength. I was uneasy.

In the stadium, I found myself directly next to roughly 500 Hezbullah supporters. At some point during the match, the man sitting closest to me took out his wallet and turned it over to reveal a taped-on photo of Hasan Nasrallah, Hezbullah’s leader.

“What do you think of this man?” he asked my American friend. Not knowing who the man in the picture was and not wanting to offend anyone, my friend said he thought that the man pictured was fantastic. The Lebanese man’s face lit up.

“My brother! Welcome to Lebanon! Where are you from?”

“We’re from America.”

“Oh! America is a very good country!” And then, astonishingly, he began chanting, “U.S.A.! U.S.A.!” Picking up on the call, his friends joined in. Five hundred supporters of Hezbullah were chanting for the United States of America. A friend of mine from the US told me how relieved he was that there was not a video of that and that it had not fallen into the hands of the Republican Party.

I never would have guessed that Hezbullah would be erecting banners saying “Made in the U.S.A.” over newly created mounds of rubble not six months later.


Around the time of the soccer game, I discovered Lebanese hospitality.

Nizar, a Lebanese friend of mine from McGill, gave me the names and phone numbers of his closest friends in Beirut before I left. One evening, I received a call from Joelle, his friend, inviting me to cook dinner with her and her neighbor, Tamara.

Dinner and the post-meal conversation continued until 1:30 a.m. Tamara subsequently suggested that I sleep at her family’s apartment rather than returning to the university. I felt uncomfortable; I had met her only five hours earlier. She assured me that I would not be imposing, that she wanted me to stay. I consented and she lent me pajamas that she had just purchased as well as a new toothbrush.

I stayed at the apartment the next day, as well. Concerned that I had not been eating sufficiently, Tamara’s mother cooked all day and sent me home with a large container of lentil noodle soup. Before bringing me back to the university in the evening, she gave me her phone number.

“It’s so that in case you need anything or want to be with a family, you can call. Please come again soon, I would like to see you. Welcome to Lebanon, Ariana.”

I had experiences like these continually throughout my time in Lebanon. A girl I met in a shared taxi, Zahya, gave me her phone number in case I needed something. The middle-aged couple with whom I shared a bench on the waterfront one night invited me to their house in the mountains, telling me that, from the moment we met, I was their sister. Fruit vendors regularly sent me home with more than what I paid for.

For me, being a foreigner in Lebanon was an asset. The Lebanese are both very proud and acutely conscious of their country’s standing outside the Middle East. As a result, they exert themselves considerably for foreigners in hopes that their actions will counter any negative conceptions of Lebanon.

I remember watching the news with a friend. Following a segment about Iraq, she clicked her tongue in disapproval. A moment later, she turned to me anxiously.

“When you go back to America, you will tell them we’re not like that, right? I think many Americans believe we are all the same.”

The country’s growing tourism, which came to an abrupt halt on July 12, was an indicator that post-civil war reconstruction had been successful and that people were regaining their confidence in Lebanon in general and in Beirut in particular. The summer was projected to bring 1.5 million visitors to a country of only 3.8 million people.


Successful does not mean complete, however, and even within Beirut, there are glaring instances of inequality.

After Lebanon’s devastating Civil War (1975-90), the downtown area was literally rebuilt from the ground up by the late Prime Minister Hariri, a multi-millionaire owner of a Saudi-based construction company. City planning from nothing with nearly unlimited resources can yield dazzling results, and downtown now looks as if it were constructed of gold. It is a city within a city, with its own generators, security, and cleaning and maintenance services.

Directly south are Beirut’s southern suburbs. The suburbs are far more dilapidated than downtown. The buildings – which are close together and mostly monochrome – that sustained damage during the Civil War were often just refurbished rather than rebuilt, and sometimes not in their entirety. Driving on the overpass separating downtown from its suburbs, I occasionally saw downtown in its golden splendor to my right, while on my left the suburbs sat shrouded in the darkness of a power outage.

A friend of mine lived in an apartment in Hamra, an area famous for its shopping and high level of noise and activity. Sitting on his expansive balcony, I saw the Crowne Plaza Hotel where foreign and national dignitaries often stayed when they came to Beirut. Across the street were several buildings that were bombed out during the Civil War and have yet to be demolished and rebuilt. In the meantime, they play host to squatters.

But Lebanon’s biggest problem, as the recent conflict clearly illuminated, is that the Lebanese government has yet to extend its sovereignty over all of Lebanon’s territory.

This chronic weakness is the result of a number of factors. The country suffers from an ever-changing demography due to mass migration and fluctuating birthrates. The political system has not kept up with these changes and has thus led to the comparative disenfranchisement of major sectors of the population and the institutionalized dominance of other groups. Unable to accommodate all of this, the government is in a near-constant state of paralysis. Because of this, along with the massive debt following the Civil War and the cost of reconstruction, the government’s reach is limited and resources do not flow to every part of the country. Exacerbating everything is that other countries and groups have continually exploited Lebanon’s weakness and liberalism, hijacking Lebanese territory for use as a base for their activities.

Despite all of this, the Beirut I left in late June was raucous and celebratory, teeming with life and aware that it was finally regaining the status of a sophisticated metropolis. There were spontaneous fireworks shows on the beach nearly every night, two major music festivals were slated for July and August, and a rowdy parade on my street in honor of a Brazilian victory in the World Cup lasted for hours. I was crushed when I left.


A few weeks later, thousands of people were hastening to leave or relocate. I saw two of my American friends interviewed on CNN as they were being evacuated. Other friends were traveling when hostilities began and found themselves stranded on holiday since all of their belongings remained in Beirut. In a Civil War-style modus operandi, many of my Lebanese friends retreated from Beirut to their villages of origin. Others moved elsewhere in Beirut and those with dual citizenship left the country.

Basic goods like bread, rice, and milk became scarce. The price of gas increased six-fold. A taxi from Beirut to Damascus went from $50 to well over $500.

One week into the war, I received an e-mail from the international students coordinator at my university there.

“The Beirut you came to know,” she told me, “no longer exists.”

The Beirut lighthouse, where I always began my walks along the beach, is now only half there. Beirut’s port sustained heavy damage, as did the airport. The southern city of Tyre, where I went for a day at the beach my last weekend in Lebanon, was bombarded for weeks, and the road I took to get there is impassable. Oil has washed up on the beaches in the entire northern half of the country because of the bombing of a power plant in Jiyyeh, a bit south of Beirut.

At the very end of July, Ilham, my roommate in Beirut, wrote me a letter. She lives in Sidon, the regional capital of South Lebanon, and was, therefore, the person about whom I worried most throughout the war. She and her boyfriend, Mazen, recently became engaged, but they did not have a party to celebrate it.

“Mom feels shy for ordering cake,” she told me. “People are dying and it’s not nice to hold the usual parties for engagement. Maybe we will have one when the situation is settled.”

“I’m proud of being Lebanese, of being an Arab, and I love my country,” said Nizar, the friend from McGill who connected me to Joelle and Tamara. “Yet I can’t but think this every minute: Screw being born in the Middle East. You can’t live one second without knowing that everything is just transient, temporary. You can’t even make plans for the future because you know that nothing is guaranteed in this region of the world, not even staying alive.”

Since the implementation of the ceasefire on August 14, the Lebanese have attempted to steer their lives towards normality again. Those in South Lebanon, the southern suburbs of Beirut, and parts of the Bekaa Valley will find the task of reconstruction far more arduous than elsewhere in the country. Besides that, people in these areas tend to be poorer than those in North Lebanon and central Beirut, the conflict destroyed thousands upon thousands of their residences. Some villages in the South essentially no longer exist.

As for Beirut, the city I knew “is almost back, but not quite,” according to my friend, Reem. “There are no lights in the streets at night, so it’s very dark. I’m almost afraid of walking back home in the evening. But apart from this, people are back to going out, you know the Lebanese.”

Indeed, The New York Times reported that within hours of the ceasefire coming into effect, thousands of internal Lebanese refugees began to stream back to their homes. The massive return was indicative of the national resilience. As a Lebanese blogger wrote, “Nothing has exploded in a few hours, so I plan to be in my house by dinner.”

Ilham and Mazen are currently looking for a house, but “Mazen is worried, like most of the Lebanese people, that there will be another war,” Ilham told me. “Hopefully things will be much better so that we can see you again in our country.”