When I was offered this job here in Beirut (after the shit had hit the fan with moving back to Turkey and all that), I leapt at the chance to move to Lebanon for a while. If I couldn’t be in Istanbul, Beirut was closer than Oxford, right?
In my head, Lebanon was a place of snowy mountains and exotic beaches, cedar trees and sultry nightclubs, great falafel and shady politics. Yeah, I knew it’d had a rough past and still had a pretty sclerotic politics, but I don’t think I actually thought about it being all that dangerous.
Well, that is until I started telling other people where I was going. The raised-eyebrow-silent-nod was the commonest response received. I heard the phrase ‘a bit sketchy’ more times than I’d care to count. Maybe I am too trusting of my employer, but I’ve always assumed that they wouldn’t send a lackey like me to somewhere that was truly dangerous. After all, I’m not a water engineer or a paediatrician. Why would they bother risking all the security faff for someone whose skills can only be described as ‘soft’?
But then I got here, and realised that the ‘a bit sketchy’ description probably isn’t too far off the mark. About a month into my stay, the Iranian embassy in Beirut was hit by a double suicide bombing. I was on my way to the office at the time, and didn’t hear my phone ringing. My boss was in a state of near-panic by the time I strolled through the door.
I’ve never lived somewhere where bombings regularly happen just down the road. But the Iranian embassy is in a southern suburb of Beirut that I’d never even passed through. At the time, I was mostly worried about my parents worrying about me, so sent them an email saying everything was fine (naturally, this was the one day they hadn’t seen the news so panic ensued).
My Lebanese colleagues were upset by the violence, but also pretty fatalistic – so I followed suit. Of course, sometimes I’d be walking down the street and pass a car and suddenly be gripped by the thought: I’d definitely die if there was a bomb in that car. Or sometimes: what would I do if a bomb went off on that corner right now? But people live in much more insecure, much worse situations all their lives and don’t complain, so what right have I to moan about security?
Over the Christmas holidays, though, there were two more suicide bombings. One in another distant suburb and one in an area much closer to where I live. All caused numerous casualties. This is when people started telling me I was crazy to go back.
Now I am back here, I have to admit that those macabre thoughts plague me more often. With the US Embassy putting out oddly-worded travel advice to avoid Western-style areas of the city
(I mean, seriously, what does that even mean?) and rumours circulating daily that such and such building is apparently a target, sometimes I am tempted just to sit at home.
But life seems to continue as normal here – despite what some papers say. I haven’t noticed a dramatic change in atmosphere or anything like that. And you can’t just sit at home, can you? You’d go mad. And anyway, this city and it’s inhabitants seem to be too full of life to be cowed into staying at home. Lebanon is a country of snowy mountains and exotic beaches, cedar trees and sultry nightclubs, great falafel and shady politics. So I’ll just have to keep going out and hoping for the best.