Landing, for the first time on my own, in the city of Beirut, I could not feel further from ‘aloneness’. With the rays of the bright sun flooding the plane and the echo of excitement disseminating through the entire carriage, I was happy to be home.
Asking an official at the airport for the nearest payphone, he immediately picked up on the ‘impure’ accent- “where are you from?” This I have grown immune to ever since my first trip to Lebanon seven years ago. I suppose a Lebanese mother, an Iraqi father and a lifetime in the UK do culminate in a rather interesting cocktail.
The relatives- an entire minibus-full, had soon arrived and not having the shadow of my mother to hide behind, my first challenge had been presented to me. First the enquiries about each member of the family back in London, then a second round of the same enquiries, followed by a third, and then the ice has broken, we are discussing politics, the war with Israel that had taken place in the summer of 2006, the ins and outs of the family gossip- who’s getting married, who’s moved away, who’s given birth – the whole lot. Uncensored.
Later the same day my cousins and I headed towards the mountains, to a beautiful place called Aalai not too far from the city where I spent the first couple of nights. Parking the car on the side of the road and stepping out to take in the view, I was literally speechless.
Going in to downtown Beirut was all too different a story; like walking back onto Oxford street, or sitting in a café in Paris. It had its own vibe, but it wasn’t for me, a Londoner gets enough of that. The stark contrast of driving a few metres further out of the city, was one that shook me and is still embedded in my thoughts. My cousin was now showing me around the daahye, the outskirts of the city- the predominantly Shia Muslim area of Beirut and by far the worst affected by the Lebanon-Israel 2006 war where whole buildings still lay flattened to the floor.
I travelled to the south of Lebanon a few days later, to my mother’s home village, Jwaya, where I spent the most part of my two-week stay. I was now adapting to a different kind of norm. One where everyone knew who you were, where you had come from, where you were going to, what you had for breakfast, what you would have for dinner- (the exaggeration is only slighter than you think). Despite this, being able to say ‘Good Morning’ to everyone you passed, walking around in pyjamas and looking normal, telling the shopkeeper you’ll be back tomorrow to pay for your purchases, no knocking on doors as they are always open and being able to enjoy an afternoon tea with friendly faces, is a very enjoyable experience. For a limited period only, in my opinion.
I spent a few days with a mobile clinic, set up by the Sadr Foundation which stopped by deprived villages to offer free medical advice, check-ups, and prescriptions to villagers who would otherwise have little or no access to healthcare. It was a true eye-opener to the simple things we take for granted. The heart-felt thanks from genuinely grateful patients provided a deep-rooted motivation.
Another day I requested to visit the Palestinian refugee camps in the town of Tyre. This too proved to be an inspiring experience. Talking to the generation who had first been forced out of their country, and their children, and their children, pushed me further in my dream to do something to help these people. It shouldn’t take a humanitarian crisis like the one we witness today to open our eyes.
Walking along the Corneesh I bid farewell to a place I yearned to return to soon. A country so small its name doesn’t fit on it in an atlas, and yet the home of so much resilience, determination and achievement.