A car bomb explodes in Beirut: And Why I spent several minutes hiding on the floor of my apartment…
A car bomb explodes in Beirut:
And Why I spent several minutes hiding on the floor of my apartment…
a journalist currently based in Beirut, posted this Sept. 23, 2013 “Why I spent several minutes hiding on the floor of my Beirut apartment….”
When the explosions shattered the June night, my first thought was that maybe I shouldn’t have come to Beirut.
My second thought was that my boyfriend needed to move away from the bedroom window.
Now. I screamed at him to get down, and he dropped to the ground like a brick.
Before I ever hid under a duvet cover in a Lebanese apartment building, I lived in Vancouver for several years during and after my MA, followed by a brief sojourn in Toronto. I studied democratic education and wanted to work in Afghanistan.
Instead, I worked in Vancouver and a good friend from my undergraduate days took a development job in Kabul. We both pretended that I’d made the better life choice.
I would brag about Vancouver’s ocean spray, he would complain about Kabul’s high concentration of airborne fecal matter particles.
The view from my apartment in Beirut earlier this summer
“Is Vancouver still glorious?” he’d ask wryly. “Why doesn’t the rest of the world just move there?”
A joke, but also a good question.
Vancouver has everything: sea, rainforest, mountains, organic granola. Still, my friend would never have lived there for the same reason that I’d eventually move away: it’s too far from where the things that matter happen.
After Vancouver, my first move was to Toronto, a city that at least pretends to be the centre of the universe. There, I reported on how to make digital photos look like they’re from the 1970s and on whether gift cards are awesome, or really awesome.
Canada has problems of its own, but the world probably won’t need to understand the core of them in 25 years.
That will not be true of the problems in the Middle East. To whom is that a compliment or an insult? Who knows.
Either way, with that thought in mind—and two suitcases full of long dresses that would soon look pitifully prudish in Beirut’s parade of designer minis—I finally boarded a plane to Lebanon.
When I arrived, the flames of Syria’s civil war were licking at the border; refugees were setting the country’s tolerance levels ablaze, rockets were being fired into Beirut’s suburbs in protest of Hezbollah’s support for Assad. For my family and friends, that was reason for me to turn around; for me, it was reason to stay.
Robert Fisk, the indomitable journalist who brought Lebanon to the world during the nation’s civil war, said that being a journalist is like peering into a smoking volcano without choking on ash or being swept away by lava.
Being an aid worker like my friend means that you have to crawl right in the crater: he’d been brought to Afghanistan, he said, to put out fires. “I’m endeavoring not to get terribly burned myself,” he’d added.
I’m not the type to play with fire, however. I’ve been called many things, but reckless isn’t one of them; neither is badass or tough. I wear floral-print cardigans, not combat boots. I weep with abandon at Tim Hortons commercials.
I’m afraid of spiders, heights, hot sauce that’s labeled three chili peppers or more, failure, men with aggression issues and—yes, YTV—the dark. Star Trek is the closest thing to violent television that I’ve ever liked, and even then, I prefer the holodeck episodes and any time that Data plays with his cat.
More to the point, I’ve made peace with my inner coward. I don’t want to be a reckless badass; I want to be alive. And yet, I’m living here. Not in spite of the fact that “something could happen,” but because it may.
For if you are one of the many of us—I suspect there are many of us—while friends and family hope that nothing will happen, and while the better, not-psychotic part of you hopes that nothing will happen, a secret but insistent part of you—a part that also doesn’t want anything to happen—very badly hopes that you’re around to bear witness to it if it does happen.
That part of you is exactly why you are where you are, if where you are is a conflict zone and why you are who you are, if who you are is a journalist.
Not because you like danger.
Not because you like thrills.
Not because you have something to prove. But because you have something important to understand and—once it’s understood well enough that you have graduated from extremely ignorant to moderately ignorant—something to tell.
Two years after my friend had moved to Afghanistan, I was still in Vancouver. I told him that raising chickens in your backyard was becoming all the rage.
“People raise chickens in their backyards here too,” he said. “Because of crushing poverty.” (My brother-in law is such a bother that he is raising 100 fowl in my backyard against my will, though I never saw him eating an egg or slaughtering a fowl for his family or mine).
But my friend’s greatest scorn was wisely reserved for many westerners in conflict zones. After two years of living in a war—or, more accurately, as he frequently reminded me in response my frightened emails, much like those my friends now send me, a compound—he was entitled to deride 24-year-old development workers who take selfies in front of tanks, who, he said, were in the Middle East “for the experience.”
I remember that warning often. If you’re a writer, you go everywhere for the experience. The trick is to look for the experiences that matter, and to share them in a way that honours their significance.
Usually, the only thing experienced in Lebanon is life. The greatest dangers that most expats face are Beiruti drivers’ collective aversion to traffic lights and Beiruti bartenders’ alarmingly generous shots of gin.
But once in a while, you catch a whiff of smoke. Sometimes, it doesn’t signal fire, but burning embers that can alight in a moment. When I visited Tripoli in July, gunshots were fired across the street. An aid worker politely ignored my mad dash for the door. “Don’t worry, it’s a bunch of middle school kids. They’re just celebrating the end of exams.”
Other times, the fire seems more serious. My boyfriend and I were travelling through Europe while the world talked about invading Syria, and Lebanon was talking about what that meant. The conversation was over by the time we returned to Beirut. Here, we ran into a talented journalist friend, also from Canada, who told us that it had been scary for a while. That things almost happened before they didn’t.
“We left at the wrong time,” I said.
She nodded, but paused before replying. “Or the right time.” We all shrugged.
In the moment of fear, every human being wants to feel safe. But for some, before the moment strikes and after it passes, the feelings are more complicated. Because if you’re not afraid, then you’re probably not standing on top of an active volcano. You’re just on a mountain, and you may as well be in Vancouver.
Maybe that’s why my boyfriend and I peeled ourselves off the hardwood floor while the sky exploded above our heads like a bag of burnt popcorn; why we remembered that we hadn’t come to Beirut to hide under the bed; and why our massive relief was tempered by more than just embarrassment when we finally caught sight of the threat: fireworks.