Returning to Lebanon a year and a half later

Photo of snowy mountains
Salma Sarkis/Staff

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This Christmas, I flew out to Lebanon to visit my family for the first time since the start of the pandemic. I was thrilled to go back home and see my family after so long.

Yet, I was hesitant. An explosion, an economic collapse and a global pandemic later, I wasn’t sure if the place I had treasured every single Christmas would look or feel the same way as it did when I was a child. I wasn’t oblivious to the fact that things weren’t the way they used to be. How could I be oblivious when I was reminded nearly every day of Lebanon’s troubles by my parents, school and the news?

About a year and a half ago, an explosion at the Port of Beirut ripped through the heart of Lebanon, taking homes, shops and the souls of thousands of families with it. The blast came at a time of ongoing economic disaster and a growing COVID-19 crisis. Sixteen months later, the people of Lebanon await a light at the end of the tunnel. Day after day, hundreds of thousands of families continue to struggle to make ends meet as the price of basic necessities continues to skyrocket.

My mind wandered through all these uncertainties as we boarded our flight to Beirut. 

We landed on a Tuesday night. It was pouring rain when we first stepped out of the airport, frantically swinging our heads left and right in search of my uncle. After spotting him — and embracing him excitedly — we followed him to the car and began our drive home. Oddly enough, the car ride was one of the most memorable moments of our visit. Sometimes, you don’t truly realize how much a place means to you until you’ve gone back. I watched as my family’s energy grew stronger and stronger until eventually, there was a buzz in the air that could be felt through my dad’s radiant humor and my brother’s roaring laughter. 

By the time we were parked in the driveway, we were all bubbling with excitement. We hopped out of the car and raced to the flat where my grandparents eagerly waited by the door. 

It felt nice to finally be back. 

The next five days were filled with trips to the mountains, meals with family and friends and reminders of everything we had so dearly missed about Lebanon. We spent lots of time at home under an assemblage of blankets, catching up with family. 

On Christmas Eve, we were notified by my grandparents that in light of everything going on, the yearly tradition of going to the cathedral had been called off. Instead, we would be attending the small church next door. We instantly rejected the idea, and in an attempt to maintain the Christmas Eve tradition, we petitioned to follow the same routine that we’d followed since we were kids: going to the big cathedral followed by a celebratory dinner with family. 

Alas, my grandparents agreed to our requests, and on Christmas Eve, we attended Saint George Cathedral in downtown Beirut. This was the area that had suffered the most damage from the port explosion, and although the cathedral remained indistinguishable from the one in my memories, the same couldn’t be said about the surrounding district. Reconstruction was in place, but the scars were unmistakable. I saw some houses missing windows, others with broken doors and some completely knocked down, existing as rubble. Once upon a time, downtown Beirut was the “Paris of the Middle East.” It was known for its incredibly lively and vivacious atmosphere, where families would spend their days enjoying many restaurants, shops, cafes and concerts. Now, it was so quiet on what was typically the busiest night of the year. Although we had been shielded up until this point, it was impossible to fully escape the reality of life in Lebanon. 

The day after Christmas, we made plans to go for lunch with friends in the popular village of Faraya. The first snow had just fallen in the mountains, and the window beside our table overlooked a stunning alpine scene. My sister and I unsurprisingly shared a pierrade — a French dish where you can cook your own thin slices of meat on a heated stone. After lunch, we headed over to visit one of my dad’s childhood best friends. Awestruck by his beautiful house in the village of Bikfaya, I marveled at the unknown charm of the Lebanese mountainside.

A few hours earlier, before leaving the restaurant in Faraya, I had followed my brother and sister as they led me to their hiding spot with the best view. I cursed and yelled as we trudged through the ankle-deep snow, but the discomfort wore off as soon as we arrived at their spot. This view was breathtaking, one that captured the entire village as well as the picturesque mountains surrounding it. It was at this spot that I was able to take the most stunning photos that I later shared with my friends on Instagram. I remember receiving tons of messages from people asking me where I was. They all seemed to be pretty surprised when I told them I was in Lebanon.

I think most people I’ve met at UC Berkeley don’t really know what to expect when I talk about Lebanon. I’ve been around people who’ve searched it up on the internet and looked apprehensively at their screens. They observed the images of war, explosions or riots. It doesn’t exactly help that there are very few travel bloggers or YouTubers that have traveled to Lebanon. No wonder why people were surprised that I’d taken those photos in Lebanon; they’d only ever heard the side told by the internet. 

I struggled writing this article because I didn’t know how to find a balance between acknowledging the reality of life in Lebanon versus constraining it to everything that’s happened. I don’t want crisis to define the country, but how could I ignore it?

At the end of the day, I actually found my answer through the Lebanese people themselves. Despite everything, the Lebanese will never let political and economic issues conquer their pursuit of happiness. It would be impossible for them to ignore the pain and loss, but they will never stop taking pride in the beauty of both their people and homeland. So I ought to do the same.

I may only be a college blogger here at the Daily Clog, but I’m still excited to give Lebanon a morsel of the coverage that it deserves.

Contact Salma Sarkis at [email protected].