The great Lebanese exile: Chronicles of a perpetual return

Is it time to leave Lebanon? The question, posed with renewed urgency after Beirut’s port explosion, is as old as the country itself, writes Dr. Sara Mourad, who returned in 2016 after seven years abroad.

A friend texted me on the morning of August 15th, eleven days after the Beirut explosion, to tell me she had had a dream about me. I was contemplating a vacation in the United States, where she had lived before moving back to Lebanon a few years ago. In the dream, I was traveling with an American woman who told her she was waiting for me to propose. We were clearly a bad match, my dreaming friend thought to herself. She desperately needed to warn me I should not go through with it. In the dream, “we were all walking barefoot on broken glass.”

I asked her if she was thinking of leaving Lebanon; she told me a friend had asked her that same question the night before.

More than a month has now passed since the explosion at the Beirut port, which claimed the lives of at least 190 people and injured more than 6,000 others. We haven’t been sleeping properly, for more than a month, if at all. Some have been having nightmares; others have had no dreams whatsoever. Many have already left, and many are now thinking of leaving. Their nights are spent wondering whether their time to go has come, now that they have stared death in the face; now that they see no horizon to the endless human suffering that has become life here. “How many times can one escape death?” asks another friend, who escaped the deadly shockwave by the mere chance of being in the building stairway when the explosion happened. 

 

 

To escape death in Lebanon today, many are now contemplating leaving the country before it is too late. A new wave of emigration caused by the economic collapse has already started. In the wake of an explosion deemed one of the largest non-nuclear blasts in history; amid warnings that the Central Bank may soon lift bread and fuel subsidies; and with half the population living under the poverty line; the atmosphere in Lebanon is apocalyptic. Entire neighborhoods near the port have been destroyed; more than 300,000 residents have been displaced or lost their homes; people can’t access their money because of strict capital controls imposed by banks since October; and a second wave of COVID-19 has forced the country, yet again, into lockdown. In the meantime, a state of emergency has been declared in Beirut, granting exceptional powers to the military, in a move decried by legal experts as unconstitutional.

Many are heeding the warning signs all around, and trying to secure a way out. But we are trapped: by the banks that have swallowed our money, and a global pandemic that has made travel practically impossible. We are trapped, but we are also trapping others with us. For months, since the beginning of the economic meltdown, migrant workers living in Lebanon have been trying to leave. Unpaid by their employers, evicted by their landlords, and abandoned by their governments and consulates, they are desperate to be repatriated, having lost all possibilities of life here. The country is on the verge of a mass exodus.

After the Syrians, it is now our turn. Like them, we are leaving a devastated land, a place that is no longer inhabitable, looking for the possibility of survival elsewhere. Our regime, unlike theirs, is not killing us with barrel bombs and chemical weapons; it is not exterminating those who dissent; it is not brokering its survival on the backs of millions of refugees and hundreds of thousands of dead. Yet for us, it is those who did kill hundreds of thousands—in the civil war that ravaged our country for fifteen years—that have engineered and are now overseeing our economic and financial demise. At present, we are hostages to a political and financial system that is bent on extracting the very little we still have to sustain itself. Syria is our past; maybe it is our future. But as of August 4th, we feel trapped inside a ticking bomb.

Is it time to leave? This is the perennial question. It is a question we inherit, one we pass on, one that is transmitted across generations, who, while facing different realities, nevertheless find themselves bound by the same existential dilemma. Leaving, whether it ultimately happens or not, is part of our national identity. Exile is as much a part of our existence as life and death. It is as regular, as cyclical. It is not a question of if, only one of when. And it comes in waves, clustered around particular events—wars, political upheavals, and economic crises. For the post-war generations, those born during and after the civil war that started in 1975 and ended with a general amnesty in 1991, leaving—for those who could—was a rite of passage, something you naturally did when the opportunity presented itself. But for those of us who do leave, the question of return becomes no less haunting. As for those we leave behind, the desire to be close to them grows with each crisis we watch them endure from afar.

 

Explosion

 

I left in August 2009, a year after graduating college. I went to the US to pursue my doctoral studies. But it was not really the degree that drove me out; it was the life that it promised: A free education, affordable living, and a degree of personal freedom. A generous scholarship made this possible. For the next six years, I would have a stable income, health insurance, and enough money to buy my tickets back home over the holidays. Now that I have returned, a decade later, I try to trace back the origins of my desire to leave, looking for the moment the seed began to flower.  

In 2005, I was in class in Beirut when then-Prime Minister Rafiq al-Hariri was killed in a massive explosion. Along with my classmates, I was writing an essay responding to an exam prompt: “Does existence have a meaning?” It was our last year of high school, and we were preparing for the official Baccalaureate examinations. On February 14th, we were in the middle of our philosophy exam when we heard the blast. We were all visibly stunned, as were our teachers. They didn’t know what to do, so they told us to keep writing. “Maybe it was a gas explosion,” one of them said, clearly not believing the words coming out of his mouth.

I don’t remember if we stayed there long afterwards. I recall finding myself in the schoolyard, asking my friends what happened. News started reaching us through SMS messages that someone’s convoy had been targeted. In Lebanon, politicians move around in convoys with armed bodyguards. They stop traffic; they force people’s cars out of their way. The convoy is a sign of their wealth and might, put on display for everyone to see. A few months earlier, the convoy of one MP was targeted by a roadside bomb near our school. It was a failed assassination attempt, one that left many of my classmates in a state of shock, crying and screaming in the hallways.

Anxious to know what had happened, I left school and started making my way back home. On the TV screen at a bakery nearby, I saw the first footage of the site of the explosion. I didn’t stop. I don’t remember asking anyone what happened; I kept walking towards our house in the Hamra district. By the time I reached the vicinity of the American University Hospital, the magnitude of what happened had become clear to me. It was on people’s faces, in their expressions, in their strange movements up and down the road, which leads from the hospital’s emergency room all the way to our building. There were people screaming, others crying, others walking around with empty stares. I don’t know how long the daily walk from school to my house took that day, but when I finally arrived to the building entrance, I found my dad, standing there outside the gate. “Hariri died,” he told me as he looked at me, with an expression I can hardly recall now, but one I was seeing for the first time on his face. I burst into tears. Of all the convoys, Hariri’s was the mightiest. He was, in many people’s eyes; in my eyes; invincible. And now he was dead. He is no longer. This was probably the moment I became truly conscious of my own mortality.

For a generation whose coming of age coincided with the bloodiest assassination in Lebanon’s history, the explosion and its aftermath would become memories of a time when our lives were touched by History. Everything that came after, everything we lived through, bore the trace of that fateful afternoon on February 14th, when our search for life’s meaning was interrupted by a fugitive encounter with death. The Hariri explosion, as it came to be called, was also ours.

We were the peace generation, the ones who were born towards the end of the civil war, who heard about it from our parents through their endless recounting of the same stories of ordinary and accidental survival. The war was the backdrop of their memories of everything, and so too it became a backdrop of our imagination of the past. This is what it means to be a post-war generation: to have your consciousness forged in the aftermath of an event you didn’t witness but whose evidence you could see all around, and whose traces you could feel in your parents’ unspoken sorrow. Hariri’s explosion signaled the end of that fragile post-war peace, heralding a long period of instability and unrest, which included an Israeli war, further political assassinations, and recurrent armed clashes across the country. For our parents who stayed; for those who lived through the endless cycles of violence only to find themselves driven, again and again, to the edge of despair; our departure became a fate they prepared for, one they hoped for and even planned on our behalves. 

Today, fifteen years later, most of my classmates live abroad, dispersed across Gulf countries, Europe, and the US. They moved through the pipeline of elite education, which promised global mobility to the children of those who could afford the exorbitant fees of private schools and universities. Elite education, which like many I was afforded through family debt, manufactures future diasporas. Most of my classmates left as soon as they graduated university. Some have married and started families, some have made careers, some visit often, and some never come back. I was among those who left, and among those who decided to return.

 

Augusts

 

My desire to come back in August 2016 had manifested itself a year earlier. I was living in Philadelphia, completing my studies, when protests erupted in Beirut in August 2015.

In July of that year, Lebanon’s main garbage landfill was shut down under popular pressure, with locals blocking access to the dumping site in protest at ecological damage and health hazards. Trash collection services ceased in consequence, and garbage began piling up in the capital and all over the country. Thousands of people took to the streets in downtown Beirut, seat of the government and parliament, to demand a solution. Within weeks, what started as a protest against the state’s failure to deal with the garbage crisis metamorphosed into a protest movement against the entire post-war sectarian power-sharing regime. Footage showing scenes of police brutality against peaceful protestors went viral, inciting people to join demonstrations in much larger numbers. As discontent grew, so did state violence. As violence increased, so did the meaning and significance of this revolt, etching out a new horizon of dissent and political confrontation. For those of us following the news from abroad, this was a moment of hope that things had finally started to change.

We couldn’t stop watching. We couldn’t go about our daily lives. We were glued to the screens, following the events, chatting with friends on the ground, suspended somewhere between Beirut and the cities we had come to call home, unable to function and unable to look away. We lived on Facebook, our mobile phones becoming extensions of our bodies, objects endowed with the magical quality of connecting us, in real time, to the streets where we longed to be, to a world of possibility that was suddenly opening before our eyes. It was through this longing that I started to make my way back to Beirut, to contemplate life there as something beyond a dead-end, beyond impossibility. I didn’t know what I wanted to do there, nor did I have any fantasies of revolution, but I was pulled by a desire to see it for myself and a guilt for not trying. When a job opportunity opened up, I took it as a sign.

The following August, I was packing my bags, ending a life that I loved, but one in which I always found myself estranged by a deep-seated sense of irrelevance, one made clear by the August 2015 events. By the time I came back, however, the mood had changed drastically: from hope to disillusionment; from resolve to defeat. Nonetheless, having missed that summer, having felt that deep longing for an experience I didn’t have, I knew I wanted to be there when something happened again.

 

October

 

When protests erupted on the night of October 17th, 2019, I was sitting in a theater, one that would eventually be destroyed by the port explosion. I was watching a one-woman play when news started coming in that people were gathering in downtown Beirut. One by one, people started leaving. The American actress playing Emilie Dickinson, all alone on stage, was visibly bothered and understandably offended. I didn’t blame her. She didn’t know anything. But we knew that something big was happening, and when the play ended, I started to make my way downtown.

I went there with friends that I met up with midway, all huddled in a car, trying to understand what was happening. Did people just storm the streets? Since the last parliamentary elections in 2018, the country had been at a complete political standstill, even as economic and living conditions were quickly deteriorating. People were numbed, and dissent was largely circumscribed to the virtual sphere, which is why the period saw a sharp increase in arrests and interrogations of bloggers and journalists. The idea that popular protests would organically erupt was both shocking and deeply anticipated. We parked the car and started following the crowds, walking along without really knowing where we were headed.

Young men on scooters were everywhere, gathering around fires they had started using whatever objects they could find: garbage containers, tires, billboards, and wood from nearby construction sites. By the time we reached Riad al-Solh square, facing the Grand Serail—the prime minister’s office—we were completely overtaken by the sights and sounds of what felt like a long-awaited rebellion. The metal, the fire, the smoke, the sound of motorcycles, the smell of burning rubber, and the chants; everything about the atmosphere that night conveyed a collective desire to break shit down, and it was euphoric. This time, I was the one on the ground, video-calling my friend in the UK for her to see us marching. In this long moment of revolutionary joy, which ended with the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic months later, I found meaning for my return. In the streets now bursting with life, a new horizon appeared; we could almost touch it. Thousands and thousands of bodies, amassed in squares for weeks on end. We called it revolution.

For weeks, this became our new reality: daily protests; weekly demonstrations; monthly commemorations of the revolution. Between October 2019 and January 2020, reality had entirely shifted. Politicians disappeared from the television broadcasts they had once dominated. Now, protestors were in the limelight: Why were they here? What did they want? they were repeatedly asked by TV reporters during their live dispatches from the streets. Screens were saturated with protest images, and videos and public spaces were occupied by people who refused to leave them. Politicians and political leaders were cursed, shunned from public life, stalked and humiliated by the rebels who chased them out of restaurants and concert halls, disseminating the footage for everyone to see. Grassroots groups and collectives emerged from North to South, in towns and cities across the country. A loose network of local and regional mobilization started taking shape, and a shared vocabulary of dissent was consolidated: “killon ya’ni killon” (“all of them means all of them,” in reference to leaders across the sectarian and political spectrum).

We believed that the collective effervescence of those early months of the uprising would last us a lifetime. Now, amid an economic collapse and a global pandemic, we feel a cosmic isolation. Exiled in our homes, exiled from each other, exiled from the world, we live each day with an impending sense of catastrophe and an overwhelming feeling of abandonment. We know the task ahead is immense. We know we live under a regime—a mafia of well-connected, globally-backed oligarchs—that is bent on killing us in the name of “national unity” and “civil peace.” What is to be done? Leaving is now increasingly a luxury afforded to the few. Besides, immigration doors have already been shut, and the Lebanese passport ranks among the lowest in the world.

The night before the explosion, we gathered at my friend’s house to bid farewell to another friend and colleague, who was leaving along with her two children to Norway. She had only moved back to Beirut a few years ago, hoping to start her life again here. She didn’t want to leave, but she couldn’t stay either. Among the things she was leaving behind was an apartment that overlooked the sea. Another friend reminded us of its glorious view: “I could sit on your balcony for hours watching the ships go by, coming and going, endlessly.” “Yes,” my soon-to-be-departing friend answered, “they carry our food.” Soon we would learn that they carry much more.

 

Explosion

 

By the time the explosion happened on August 4th, our world had already imploded. But when the ground shook beneath our feet, seconds before the blast, we knew that even worse was coming. In Beirut, we all felt that whatever happened must have happened in our neighborhood, in our building, in our apartment. It wasn’t until news started coming in that we realized the epicenter was in fact the port, and that the sea—which absorbed most of the impact—had saved us.

Was it an earthquake? An Israeli airstrike? A bomb? Those few seconds between the first and second blasts allowed many to recall past survival scenarios and to take shelter: in corridors, in closets, behind walls. I saw the glass of the windowpanes expand and felt the air move through my body. The whole building shook as I fell to the ground. When I looked up there was dust all around. The building was collapsing, I thought to myself, grabbing my keys and running down eight flights of stairs. I heard the sounds of a screaming child below, then his mother appeared carrying him. I yelled out to her, “What was that?” Then I found myself on the pavement outside and looked up at the smoke behind the buildings; a pink smoke I had never seen before.

Seven years earlier, 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate had arrived to Beirut port aboard a ship, and had remained there in a warehouse ever since. Minutes after six o’clock on August 4th, the explosion of an unknown quantity of this ammonium nitrate decimated the adjacent, densely-populated neighborhoods. Homes were damaged as far away as 10 km from the site of the blast. The pressure wave was felt across the country, as well as in Turkey and Syria. The sound was heard in Cyprus, more than 250 km away. For those in the immediate vicinity, those who were wounded, and those who survived, the trauma of August 4th is still manifesting in their bodies today. They are still making sense of what happened, of what they saw after the explosion in streets, pharmacies, and hospitals overcrowded with people covered in blood.

Footage of the explosion and the destruction it caused, playing on repeat on television and news feeds, brought back memories from our pasts. Within seconds, we were catapulted back in time, to the civil war, to Israeli wars, to the 2005 bombing. The emotional numbness, the sense that things would never be the same again, and the fear of something else exploding at any minute; all these were new but also familiar feelings.

Our bodies know that we are not safe, that we were never safe, in a country ruled by lords of war who serve foreign masters. Is it, then, time to leave? Is life here still possible, imaginable? By living perpetually in the aftermath of catastrophe, we have developed a whole mythology to make sense of our survival. Like the phoenix, we tell ourselves, we rise from our own ashes. But when we do survive, the question returns to haunt us: death here, or life elsewhere?

 

“One must imagine Sisyphus happy”

 

With these words, Albert Camus concludes his retelling of the myth of Sisyphus, condemned by the gods to the eternal toil of rolling a boulder up a mountain, only to find it rolling down to earth again.

Like Sisyphus, we too are condemned to start over again and again. We are condemned to rebuild our worlds, in the wake of each destruction, toiling so close to stones that we forget we are not stone ourselves. After each calamity, we try to make meaning out of senselessness; we look for order in chaos. But every once in a while, we allow ourselves to be confronted with the absurdity of our existence. Only then do we really face the meaninglessness of life and the certainty of death. This momentary and fleeting consciousness of our fate makes our absurd lives tragic. We become aware, conscious, of the futility of it all. Yet it is precisely out of the painful recognition of this truth, not through its negation, that we decide to go on.

There is no point denying this truth, Camus tells us, writing as he was bearing witness to the atrocities of the Second World War. But there is everything to be gained, for us entangled in endless wars, from acknowledging that while the cards are decidedly stacked against us, we can still—we must—go on regardless. This, to Camus, is Sisyphus walking down the mountain, knowing full well that he will begin again. And we must imagine him happy. We must imagine ourselves happy. We don’t need to be moved by a hope for a better future. We don’t need to believe that things will get better. Instead, we can break the rules that confine and circumscribe our mortal existence, in the present. We can revolt against a fate that awaits us, and over which we seem to have no control.

For some, exile is the ultimate revolt. They refuse to keep serving a system they know will suck them dry. For others, it is their only recourse. They may have families to support, people who depend on them, and they must fend, elsewhere, for themselves and those in their care. It is precisely because they cling to the world, because they don’t want to abandon it, that some leave their country. Many of those who died on August 4th were migrant workers who came to find life amidst our wreck. They found themselves in a hostile land, laboring night and day to send remittances to their families back home: to Syria; Bangladesh; Pakistan; India; Kenya; the Philippines. They died in exile, making their daily ascent up the mountain.

When, a month after the port explosion, a dog belonging to a Chilean rescue team detected signs of life under a collapsed building, we held our breath. Can someone survive under the rubble? For two consecutive days we watched live streamed videos of the search operation. The machines detected a pulse, so we waited for a living body. Ultimately, nothing was found. Even though we kept reminding ourselves throughout that the odds of life there, now, were very low, we waited to be proven wrong. Perhaps we are often misled by an irrational optimism; perhaps we battle our collective cynicism by holding on to any and all signs of possibility that things could be otherwise. And so, we try to imagine a dark chamber buried under the rubble. Beneath the stones, in a dark pit, we see a body, barely alive, breathing in the stench of another, long dead. We imagine—because we can, because we must—how one may survive in the wreckage. As for those who leave, we imagine their survival elsewhere; we judge it, envy it, long for it. We imagine them happy, going about their daily lives, making plans they can keep, and, with each season, we wait for their return.