Stories from Lebanon

Nabila Chemaissem reflects on the hidden beauty of the ‘Paris of the Middle East’

In Lebanon there is a sadness, but it is not one that every Lebanese person feels. It lives in the cracks of pavement eroded by bombs and the feet of thousands of people who began running in 1975 and didn’t stop till 1990. It lives in the imprints left by a civil war that lie buried beneath fresher coats of paint on walls riddled with bullets. For Lebanese Australians who were not born in Lebanon, this sadness both lives in us, and in the fact that we cannot ever understand this sadness completely.

“I dislike the fact that such a naturally beautiful country – given its position, geographic importance and proximity to Europe and Asia – isn’t treated as well as it should be by its own population,” says Johnny Farhat, the President of the Youth Australian Lebanese Association.

My mother once told me a story about her neighbour, a woman whose apartment overlooked the fruit markets, who joked about how she was going to protect her male cousin who needed to go down to buy bread. They left, there were gunshots, and she did not return. I was fourteen when I was told this story, and to me, it spoke to the overwhelming compassion and heart of the Lebanese people, for decades gunned down by war and a government that couldn’t care less.

When I was last in Lebanon, walking the streets made me physically ill for the first two weeks. The congestion in the city meant that there would always be a visible haze on the skyline, and the smell of diesel down on the ground was enough to make even the hardiest person nauseous. But my mother loved it. She would revel in the sights and the smells and the people and the sheer life of it all, and couldn’t understand why I didn’t feel the same way about these things too.

She would wake up at 6am, make herself a pot of Lebanese coffee, and then go out onto the balcony to drink and watch the city slowly wake up. This was her childhood. This was, and still is, her home. And I would watch and envy her from afar, not feeling like it was quite my place to join her.

‘The Paris of the Middle-East’, she calls it.

And despite no longer looking the part, Lebanon still has so much history and culture that you needn’t look very far to find it. It lives in the warmth of the people, in the homes they carry with them in their eyes and that they share willingly with complete strangers. “The hospitality there was like no other,” says Kawsar Ali, a Lebanese student at Macquarie University. “Despite the locals of the village being considerably poor, they refused to let us pay for a fortnight’s rent.”

Their kindness belies the sadness that lives in the marketplaces, in the fresh meat hanging from hooks in butcheries, in the push and press of bodies, in the aswak that are so run down but would be as beautiful as any Turkish bazaar if only someone would look after them. We, the Lebanese that are not born or raised in our motherlands, look on at these things and find ourselves in limbo, where we are playfully referred to as “the Australians”’ and made to feel like outsiders: “ajaneb”.

“I mean, it’s a totally different society”, says Mariam Bazzi, an Australian-born 5th year student with Lebanese heritage. “In a sense it is kind of like a culture shock [when we visit], even though it’s the same culture. I guess it’s a bit ironic in that sense’.

For those of us neither born nor raised there, the sadness that permeates the unlit highways of our country is hidden behind a curtain of stories and wistful memories from our families. Shayma Taweel, another student, lives out her experiences through her mother’s stories of her grandfather.

“One story my mum often recounts is how, owning multiple properties, jido would take my mum and her siblings on trips to a flat in the mountains to get away from the summer heat. A few weeks prior to the war breaking out, he died from gangrene, and my grandmother and her ten children gradually lost these properties to tenants, and their savings were soon spent.”

My step-grandather was the same: wealthy beyond belief, but when the stock market crashed he crashed with it, and passed away soon after. The stories of our families to a great extent shape how Lebanese Australians like me and Shayma see our motherland.  However, in their sadness exists immense joy. That’s the hidden beauty of Lebanon: things we would consider binary opposites exist side by side, entwined so closely with one another that it becomes difficult to tell these opposites apart. There is an “energy” in Lebanon, says Johnny, “that I think is unique to Lebanon. It doesn’t exist in many other places”.

“One of my fondest memories was gazing out into the imperfect landscape of South Lebanon,’ says Mariam, “and sinking my teeth into the perfectly organic figs that were in season.” My mother tells me stories of how as a girl, her grandmother would make her own jams, would preserve her own fruits, was fiercely protective over her kitchen, and would make the most amazing mlookhiyeh. My father talks about how, as a child, he would eat pine nuts off the forest floor and climb the olive trees with his friends and how alive it all made him feel.

Those of us who were not born there find ourselves falling in love with our country through these stories. When I asked Shayma and Mariam to describe what Lebanon meant to them, they said “insane and wonderful” and “home”.

My mother sits on the balcony and watches her city rub its sleep eyes and prepare for another day. I gaze at her, at her hands that slowly lift the tiny cup of Lebanese coffee to her lips, and love her for the home that lives in her eyes and tongue.

In Lebanon there is a sadness, and I am privileged to have had that sadness shared with me.