Lebanon: whenever you hear this word, it is usually in some American film, most probably linked to a terrorist group, a war, or something similar. Not the land of Cedars - which are almost gone anyways - not the bridge between east and west, not the land of the best wines, not the country with the most colourful religious patterns… NO: LEBANON, THE LAND OF TERROR!
By Hiba Kilany
Yes, I am of that generation who lived all the wars on our territory from A to Z: the civil war, the 2006 war, and lately, the economic war, the Corona pandemic…
I was three years old when it all started in 1975. Honestly, what I remember most of those long years half spent in an invented bunker made of bags and boxes filled with sand, is our French teacher tenant and her family, who used to ask whenever we heard an explosion: “Départ ou arrivée?” [Departure or arrival?], she used to wet her index, raise it in the air, and wait to sense the wind motion… it was silly, but she used to ensure that if the wind came from the east, it would be departure and we were safe, if, on the other hand, the feeling came from the west, then we were screwed… She used to come down in her long satin nightgowns.
I remember that we slept on mattresses placed directly on the floor: a dirty cement floor; we stayed up on candle lights… we used to recycle the remaining wax, we sometimes ate green bread [with mould and the likes], we used to wake up to the sound of falling bombs, we gave names to the war tanks hiding in the pine forests around us: the closer one was called Antar: he was from our side, the Lebanese army side… yet, hearing it launching the bombs only meant that, in just a few minutes, the reply is coming, and it would most probably mean that the broken window glasses of the house we had kept on replacing week after week will break again, no matter how smart we thought keeping them open: day and night, freezing winters or windy springs…
I remember filling our nights in the fake bunker [the one I now know couldn’t have saved us] with the intermittent music of Live Flash news, Feyrouz singing Bhebbak ya Lebnan, and the familiar sounds of explosions and firearms.
Were we scared? Sad? Depressed? I honestly don’t remember any of the emotions we had lived. We lived to celebrate each day at a time… the fresh bread smell, mixed with the fumes of dad’s cigarettes and freshly filled fuel in the tank -when we could drive to the bakery- at the rhythm of news reports and control points.
We had enough to eat and cope with the truce and war periods. Going to school, studying, dad going to work like it was life as usual when the war decided to rest and then going back to the bunker with “départ ou arrivée” when it was that time of the cycle…
Twenty years, twenty God damn years.
We were raised in a house where you could never “ever” ask a person what religion they were: it was heretic! We were all LEBANESE, and that is what and who we belonged to in Lebanon.
To survive, we received help from different NGOs that arrived with the arrival of my grandma and uncle’s family from the south of Lebanon: they had been threatened to leave their Christian villages or die there. They came in with furniture, mattresses, and defeat. They came in a box from the UN with chickpeas, rice, powdered milk and oil. I remember opening those boxes like it was Christmas: even though nothing was useful to us kids. Yet, it was a gift. It was a sign someone cared enough for us: they used to call it I3eche: subsistence, ration. For us, it meant existence!
And I always thought highly of those people ready to risk their lives, crossing checkpoints, driving under bombs, to get people some dignity wrapped in a box.
Fast forward to today, Lebanon 2020: the Lebanon I saw prosper after the war was a land of opportunities, where men were determined to excel and compete…
I left Lebanon in 2018, the financial situation was starting to feel less secure, but nothing prepared us for what the Lebanese are living today… I am not going to blame anyone here, not the political class that has been sucking all of our resources forever, not going to blame the people who elected those same bastards over and over, not going to blame the revolution that put the final nail to the coffin of a man long dead before it came…
Dr Bashir Ismat, a professor of development studies and an expert at the Social Affairs Ministry, told Arab News: “The rate of people living in poverty in Lebanon has increased to 40 per cent and might even reach 50 or 70 per cent if the state and Lebanese banks file for bankruptcy.”
The Ministry of Social Affairs in Lebanon estimates that 20% of people suffering from extreme poverty live below 4 dollars a day, compared to 8% in 2019.
Amid all this tragedy? A bunch of good-hearted people, filled with empathy and compassion, go down every day to warehouses, fill in bags with chickpeas, beans, rice, milk and oil and go to under-privileged areas, despite the Covid-19, despite the closed streets and ongoing manifestations and maybe because of all these… One of those angels I came across is the DAFA campaign people: “Dafa”’s initial goal was to help -during winter- all those in need with winter clothes, toys, electronics, food, etc., through donations distributed to needy organisations and families throughout Lebanon, but due to the exceptional events happening in Lebanon which started with the wildfires in October 2019, followed by the economic collapse, and not ending with the Covid-19 pandemic, the “Dafa” campaign has been restless, trying to provide -to an exponentially increasing amount of needy families- the necessities to survive this crucial period.
Dr Esmat talked about a “phenomenon that the Ministry of Social Affairs began to witness recently, which was not seen before, as it was monitored that young students arrived at public schools in the Bekaa region, who had not eaten for two days due to lack of food in their homes.”
The war might not be imminent, the bunkers might never re-open, and the missiles might never fall over our heads again, but hunger is here; it is more coming and real than most of us could ever imagine. Yes, NGOs are doing a great job, and the little few people who can still help with a plus in their income are becoming fewer by the day, and one day not so far from today, the Christmas boxes they distribute will be as empty as the tummies of those kids going to public schools.
God bless all those angels who remind us that Christmas doesn’t come only in winter, and Santa Claus is not a fat guy in a silly red suit: Christmas is the charity and love any human can project onto another human, comes summer or winter.
And along with Feyrouz, I will keep on singing: بفقرك بحبك و بعزك بحبك
I love you in your poverty;
I love you in your glory;
I love you, Lebanon.