lebanon in layers

I don’t quite know what to say yet about visiting Lebanon. I’ve always had this tendency to see multiple sides of an issue (even when I’m on one of the sides) and I generally don’t believe in the notion of black and white. So, I wasn’t surprised that the reality that I saw in Lebanon was so starkly different from the one-dimensional sound bites on the news.

I’m also not so naive as to think that the reality I saw was the whole story. The soldiers who so warmly said “welcome to Lebanon!” and took my hand as we drove through checkpoints surrounded by barbed wire and tanks and sandbag walls weren’t just stationed there as welcoming committees. Everyone in the Hezbollah region was so happy we were there: the young guy who we bought fried bread and cheese from made us a another special dish from the region just to try; the tour guide who showed us the ruins offered us cigarettes. Hezbollah itself is even a tourist attraction, of sorts. You can buy Hezbollah flags and t-shirts to bring home as souvenirs (if you’re willing to risk Homeland Security on your way back to the US). But while the gunfire we kept hearing in the distance was likely just target practice, it wasn’t there to add ambiance for the tourists like the gondoliers in Venice.

Everywhere we went in Lebanon, everyone was eager to know if we liked it. “It’s not like they say on the news, right?” the guy asked who was helping me ship a package home. He told me he watches CNN. He knows how the world sees his country. “We love America,” everyone kept telling us. And they kept reminding me us how many more freedoms they enjoyed than other Arab countries. “Just like America!” they said.

If the Lebanese harbor any hostility towards westerners, we didn’t see it. Our driver brought us to the “best place for kebabs” in all of Lebanon. The waiter (and bartender and cook and possibly owner) of the little bar I had dinner in one night told me to come back later that week for poetry night. The security guard at the mall who inspected our purses proudly told us about how he had found a bomb once in a laptop (hidden in the battery compartment!) and gotten a reward.

The guy with the taxi service at the airport told me that Americans don’t come to Lebanon. “I think they’re scared,” he said. And I’m sure it’s not without reason. As I said, I’m not that naive. But it’s also not as terrifying as we’re led to believe. Yes, there are soldiers everywhere and security checkpoints on the roads. But the United States is at “terror level orange” and I often see soldiers with guns patrolling the airports there. The security checkpoints really are a lot like the TSA. Everyone is just used to them. In fact, every Lebanese soldier at the checkpoints was nicer than nearly every TSA person I’ve ever encountered. And I encounter them a lot.

London doesn’t have public trash cans because they’re too easy to hide bombs in. And we still visit there.
One soldier was doing a book of quizzes. It just struck me as being so normal.

You always hear that the Lebanese are fashion conscious and it’s true. Lebanese women could definitely compete with the Italians on their sense of style and the height of their heels.

People crowd the streets even at 2am. They’re eating dinner in outdoor cafes with their small children. And all the stores are still open. With all that we saw and did — the soldiers, the checkpoints, the barbed wire, the bombed buildings riddled with bullet holes, the Roman ruins tucked in between shiny new buildings, little kids playing with guns, the nomadic tent settlements, the most surreal experience may have been trying on clothes in upscale stores at 2am.

We went to a club one night. It was filled with groups of of six or eight couples, all be hanging out together and dancing. They were all so happy and carefree. It was amazing, really, to see so many guys dancing (and well!) with their friends. “Put your hands in the air!” the song said. They all put their hands in the air and laughed.

The whole region is complicated, of course. And the complications go back thousands of years. One of the tour guides was telling us about a Sunni and Shi’ite conflict… from 667 AD. And as I had every Bible story drilled into my head over and over as a child, it was fascinating to hear about all of the same regions from exactly the same period, but from an entirely different point of view. In the Bible stories, it’s as though everything I saw and heard about during this trip didn’t even exist. But again, I tend to see the facets. Each story is a perspective. A layer of life, not the entire onion.

I don’t pretend to understand any of it. And I know that I really saw nothing in the short time I was there. But I do know that Lebanon is full of friendly welcoming people. And it’s beautiful. With lots of delicious food and historical importance. And the news doesn’t report on any of those things so I’m glad to have gotten the additional layer, at least.

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