“The car bomb rocked the main Christian area of Lebanon’s capital, a populous stretch replete with shops, churches and office buildings. The massive blast killed eight people and wounded more than 90 others, leaving a huge crater of rubble near Sassine Square in East Beirut’s Ashrafiyeh district. While it’s still too early to determine who was behind the attack, it unearthed fears that Lebanon’s bad old days are back again ...”
— The New York Times, Oct. 19, 2012 Within minutes of when a car bomb killed eight people in Beirut on Oct. 19, my husband’s cousin posted on Facebook an eerie photo he had taken of smoke from the explosion billowing up toward Broumana, Lebanon, the mountain town where he and my husband, Costi, grew up.
The Facebook posting had a very personal meaning for me since Costi and I stayed in both Beirut and Broumana in late June while visiting relatives in his homeland. It was the first time had been back to Lebanon since his mother, sister and he emigrated to the United States 49 years ago after his father died.
Fortunately, while we were there, the Syrian conflict had not yet spilled over into Beirut, an exotic, cosmopolitan city often described as the “Paris of the Middle East.”
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Without fear or concern for our safety, we rode with Costi’s cousins to visit relatives and tourist destinations such as Byblos, an ancient city dating back to the Phoenician and Byzantine empires; Barouk, the government reserve protecting the 4,000-year-old “cedars of Lebanon”; Roman ruins in Ber El Alaa; and the magnificent mountain caves in the Jeita grotto.
Lebanon is a country of contrasts. In Beirut, for example, sleek, glass and steel buildings with modern contours rose beside magnificent stone structures constructed hundreds of years ago by craftsmen renowned since biblical times for their masonry skills. Fashion-conscious Lebanese women walk along the streets beside Muslim women in black whose eyes are visible only through the slits in their burkas.
Political turmoil is dramatically affecting tourism, a mainstay of the Lebanese economy. Taxi drivers and hotel and restaurant staff acknowledged the number of tourists visiting the area had dropped dramatically in the summer of 2012.
It was disheartening to observe the hospitality staff at popular hotels and restaurants standing around, waiting to serve customers from around the world who never came.
We became aware of a general uneasiness that the sectarian violence between extremist Muslims and Christians could unleash another civil war like the one that had engulfed the former French territory from 1974 to 1991.
The war years had impacted Costi’s Christian family in a very personal way: The Broumana apartment occupied by various members of his family for more than 70 years – and where Costi stayed with his grandmother as a child – was damaged twice by exploding grenades.
At one point, two cousins living in the apartment spent three days huddled in corner protected by sandbags inside while artillery shelling battered the neighborhood outside. One cousin was forced into fighting with a Christian militia until he escaped to Jordan.
But, like the Lebanese population in general, Costi’s cousins and their families are resilient. As one cousin said, “When we face adversity, we just keep the ball rolling.” That means carrying on “life as usual” even though there may be skirmishes in a nearby neighborhood.
To maintain normalcy in their daily lives, the Lebanese maintain close ties to each other by hosting family gatherings on a regular basis. At one such feast, we enjoyed traditional Lebanese fare including hummus and pita bread; stuffed grape leaves; skewers of roasted lamb, beef and chicken; fresh fruit; and flaky, honey-sweet baklawa stuffed with pistachios.
The Lebanese also communicate often via the Internet with those who have emigrated to other parts of the world where many have become successful entrepreneurs, following the Lebanese tradition established by Phoenician traders.
Traveling to Lebanon was a direct route to my awareness that I live in a global community. Now I read the news and Facebook posts about Lebanon with a new understanding of a culture that is, truly, a world away from the one I experienced growing up in Normal, Ill.
Judith K. Mahshi of Tacoma has written articles for The News Tribune during her 47-year career as a freelance writer and communications professional.