Beirut, beautiful, sophisticated, artsy, dirty, confused, decadent, mismanaged and always pulls on my every hidden emotion.
I left my native Lebanon to New York City back in 1987. The war was still raging and the political and economic situations were highly unstable if not volatile. Today, almost 27 years later, the Lebanese struggle with rationed electricity, unstable economic and political situations, living on the brink of another war, receiving a flood of refugees from another neighbor and the only difference from then to now is how much thicker the pockets of our political leaders are getting. Corruption is their religion and money their God. How will the web of greed be ever dismantled?
When I started this project I wrongly assumed that a story such as mine with my Lebanon could be told with 29 photographs and 29 small writings. With every passing day I could see that life does not work like that. The stories that came to my mind and married with my photographs each day barely scratched the surface of the immensity that life in Lebanon was to me. Life engraves lines in us, each experience life changing, each event leaving its unique signature on our aging skin. No aging face is designed like any other, in the same way that no life is like another and no fingerprint is the same.
I met this lady in the street while in Beirut, her name is Aida, she could not tell me for sure how old she was and she sold cigarettes for a living. Her lines are evidence to a life that would take ages to tell. Nothing is more humbling than looking at a face like Aida’s.
Beirut, one of the oldest cities known to man, destroyed by earthquakes at least 7 times, has been known by names such as Colonia, Julia, Augusta, Felix and Berythus, and was home to the world’s first law school. The teachers of Beirut School of Law helped draft the famous Justinian Code. Beirut was then named ‘Mother of Legislation’.
Despite the various total destructions and the later occupations of Beirut by Arabs, Crusaders, Romans, Ottomans, French mandate, and most recently Israeli and Syrian presences, the beautiful and buzzing cosmopolitan city was and still is referred to as ‘Paris of the middle east’. I still remember being in total awe of how many different languages are spoken on the city streets and the impressively rich culture and panorama of arts adorning its galleries and museums.
To be in Beirut is to experience all that the past as well as the future has to offer and it is about finding yourself living the moment to the extreme with people who choose to love life as a first priority. Yes the Beirut feeling is contagious and it can leave you longing to go back with every single part of your being.
I don’t think I can remember a single meal at our home in Lebanon that did not include Lebanese bread. There is a saying in Lebanon “between us is bread and salt” which means that we are friends, we are close, we are on ‘sharing life’ terms. And as a child I remember that neighbors’ doors were always open and we children were able to just walk in and out throughout the neighborhood without any type of formality. We had a neighbor living right across the little road from us and she used to have a special old fashioned oven called saj outside her home where she made fresh bread. I still remember smelling the firewood burning signaling the start of the bread making process and running up to her home with wide eyes as she happily made us her special bread called “mtabbkah”. This was a flat loaf sprinkled with sugar and then folded to let the sugar melt inside and it was mouthwatering.
With the modernism of Lebanon, these types of ovens are becoming a rarity. I was so thrilled to see the special traditional market in the center of Beirut (souk el tayyeb) that celebrates old traditions and the best of homemade delicacies that Lebanon has to offer.
“The deeper that sorrow carves into your being, the more joy you can contain.” Khalil Gibran
Designed by the Italian sculptor Renato Marino Mazzacurati and placed in downtown Beirut in 1960, this statue stands witness to the horrors of the civil war in Lebanon with its many bullet holes that are left as a reminder of what has been. On this very square a revolt against the occupying Turks resulted in the hanging of some of Lebanon’s best intelectual figures in 1916.
War, pain and struggle have had a permanent home in Lebanon throughout history and when you hear that you would expect to meet sad and broken people. But somehow Lebanese people come out on the other side of the spectrum, the joyful side. Love of life rules the day and happiness bubbles in their hearts and explodes in their faces transforming them into smiling phoenixes that rise again and again from the ashes of disaster.
There is a magical way about Lebanese people that can simply make you addicted to them, to the country, to the land, and to their bright faces.
I once met a 90 year old artist during a conference I attended in Colorado, a beautiful lady in every way. I remember looking at her after speaking for a while about her art, passion and love of life, and I asked : “how does it feel being so old?”
I never forget the surprise in her eyes when she answered: “old? I am not old!!”
She explained that every day when she looks in the mirror she is shocked again and again at the body looking back at her and that she finds her young spirit inhabiting. She said inside she is just the same person who fell in love for the first time, who learned how to swim, ride the bicycle, who enjoyed eating ice cream, reading books, painting, running…
And she was so right… Don’t we all feel that same thing in the moments when we don’t let ourselves surrender to the gloom and fear of getting old? Inside each one of us is a child who still wants to live, love and marvel at the world around us if we let it.
I love it so much when people make a strong enough impression on us to make us remember them for the rest of our lives.
Thank you beautiful 90 young lady, who would be 115 now, roaming around the universe smiling, living, loving and giggling…
Part of working on a current project about Lebanon, I was caused to rediscover my home country. So during a period of 4 weeks, I travelled the small country from North to South and East to West and I managed to fall passionately in love with it all over again.
Passion lives in Lebanon, it lives in its people, in its rich history, in its food, its music, its villages, its cities and even in its politics.
I call Lebanon an enigma because it absolutely makes no sense. Why would you love a country that is always on the verge of war, where the politicians are mostly corrupt, where electricity is still a part time luxury, where the citizens litter on a daily basis, where people think me first, me last, me, me, me…
I love it because there is something else there that is much deeper than all of the shortcomings that plague Lebanon.
Lebanon is breathtaking landscape. Lebanon is passionate people. Lebanon is deep religious beliefs. Lebanon is unparalleled generosity and hospitality. Lebanon is strong family values despite the recent breakdowns in family structure. Lebanon is so special that I know no one who visited it and did not fall in love with it and dream of going back.
I was sometimes standing in random places, on a shop counter, a fishing boat, a street at night, with an old man selling gardenias, with a child in an alley; and I felt this strong sense of bliss and was surprised to feel a very wide smile on my face that spread happiness down to my very core. And then to look over to the person in front of me each time and see that same smile on their face right there, for no special reason, just the peace that comes with existing, with living, with feeling passion.
I will be dedicating my blog to Lebanon for the next few weeks. It deserves no less.