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Escape from Lebanon

Fall 2006 Vol. V, No. 1

Escape from Lebanon

Ryan Farha

At around eleven o'clock on the morning of July 17, I received a call on my Lebanese mobile phone from a number I didn't recognize.

"Is this Ryan Farha?" asked the voice on the other line, an American woman.


"The U.S. embassy is evacuating a small group of American civilians today. Can you be ready by 3 p.m.?"

"Yes," I answered, calm yet clearly excited. After the woman instructed me not to tell any of my fellow students about the evacuation plot, the conversation ended abruptly, with few details about the actual evacuation procedure itself. Regardless, I wasn't concerned. I scurried up to my dorm room to pack the one bag I was allowed to take with me; clothes, books, and souvenirs I had purchased in Lebanon had to stay behind. Hunched over from the weight of my stuffed backpack, I left my room and ventured out to find a restaurant where I could enjoy one last chicken shawarma.

That night, I was one of 34 Americans headed for the island of Cyprus on board a Greek cruise ship chartered by the French. My plans to spend a year studying in Lebanon came to a crashing halt, just as Israel began to intensify its devastating offensive on Lebanon and her people.

I arrived in Beirut on June 26, eagerly anticipating the year I was to spend studying at the American University of Beirut. I was enrolled in an intensive Arabic language program for the summer, followed by a year of liberal arts courses in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences. I was not a complete stranger to the city; my father, a doctor who fled Lebanon after the Israeli invasion of 1982, had brought me and my family there several times before. Nevertheless, I was excited to finally explore the country on my own.

Beirut went above and beyond my expectations. The Arabic language program was truly intensive: we spent most of the day in class, received several hours' worth of homework, and our teachers spoke to us almost exclusively in Arabic. Still, my evenings were free to explore the charm and craziness of the city's rebirth following the years of war it had seen. I wandered through marketplaces, past cafés and courtyards, and visited countless restaurants and street vendors, devouring chicken shawarma, baba ghanoush, falafel and other Lebanese delicacies.

Although it's nestled on the tranquil Mediterranean Sea, Beirut pulsates with energy at night. My classmates and I frequented the city's hotspots, visiting nightclubs with names like Crystal, Taboo, and Starlet. Beirut's charms kept us constantly busy; I can hardly recall an idle moment.

What struck me most about the city were its remarkable, continual contrasts. The road from the airport passes through grimy shantytowns, congested urban areas, and finally reaches the pristine downtown district, built with the dollars of wealthy Gulf Arabs and other investors. Walking down the street, one could pass gorgeous, scantily-clad Lebanese women, locking arms with their completely veiled friends and family members. The city is a fragile compromise between tolerant Western liberalism and the conservative, religious, and family-oriented society of the Middle East.

Because of my admiration for and attachment to the city, my first impulse was to mourn for Beirut's seemingly unavoidable fate when I heard the Israeli bombs dropping. It was as if Israel was not attacking Lebanon itself, but unraveling the 15-plus years of peace and progress that had grown since the fighting ceased in the 1980s. Lebanon had flourished into a safe and attractive vacation hotspot in the past 20 years, and just as it geared up for its most bustling and profitable summer in years, violence penetrated its borders, infecting Beirut's still-fragile, carefree atmosphere.

While the Israeli armed forces gained steam, both students and faculty at the American University avoided discussions about the conflict and its politics. When "the situation," as our instructors referred to it, broke out, classes continued with little more than a two-minute briefing on how Lebanon had seen far more appalling catastrophes, and that these kinds of "events" are "normal" in the country. Several days later, as bombs fell closer and closer to the university, classes were finally cancelled, though even then, some fearless instructors held impromptu Arabic sessions.

Violence is nothing new to Lebanon. The country has suffered through decades of conflict and warfare with Israel and other Middle Eastern powers, and the Lebanese have adapted to the persistence of aggression that plagues their country. During the five days of the conflict I experienced, I learned a great deal about the Lebanese people

and how they survived decades of war. They would do anything possible to downplay the threat, or find ways to forget about the impending danger. Even as bombs fell right and left, life in Beirut continued. Even I fell into their tradition of willed disregard for the brewing violence, continuing my life as normal. Once classes were cancelled, my friends and I, instead of sitting in our dorm rooms and waiting, played soccer, ate whatever food we could get our hands on, partied all night on our dorm's balcony, and searched for places to go out near the university.

One night, a few of us were walking toward a nearby café called Prague when we clearly heard at least four shells fired, most likely from the Israeli ships off the coast. We paused and looked at each other silently, wondering if we should return to campus, but without a word, we continued walking once the loud explosions ceased. This experience was representative of our time in Beirut during the war, which was dominated by long periods of what my friend Daniel called "painful tranquility," interspersed with moments of distant explosions and screaming Israeli jets flying over. In fact, we came to find the "kabooms," as we innocently labeled them, relieving in a sense, for they provided a strange sort of respite from the uneasy restraint of silence.

The following day was perhaps the closest we ever came to being under fire. I was in my bathroom brushing my teeth one morning when I heard jets roar overhead as our building shook. Instantly, everyone in the dorm ran out to see what was happening. A leaflet canister which failed to explode in the air had ripped a large hole in the soccer field next to our dorm, where we had been playing the previous afternoon. We hurried down to the field, to find the leaflets scattered everywhere which proclaimed in Arabic, "The resistance protects the country? ...The country is a victim of the resistance!" The leaflets had little effect in convincing the students that Hizbullah was the enemy; most simply mocked the poorly drawn cartoon, which ironically showed Lebanese citizens dodging Israeli bombs.

The next day, the Israelis attempted another leaflet drop at the University; the canister burst this time, but the leaflets all fluttered into the Mediterranean. It was fairly symbolic, I believe, of the failed propaganda campaign waged by the Israelis. In the first leaflet drop, the canister did not work properly. In the second leaflet drop, the canister worked but it missed its target. Either way, the Lebanese were not going to accept Israeli propaganda as long as their bombs continued to pound the country.

The streets of Beirut had become eerily silent several days into the conflict, after the Lebanese mostly fled to the mountains. Most of the American students in the city, forced to wait for their government while it stumbled over evacuation plans, stayed near the University campus. On one of my last days in Beirut, I ventured out to a hole-in-the-wall crêpe store to get some food. The gruff shopkeeper nonchalantly asked me a question which has stuck in my head: "Are you going to stay for the war?"

"Do you think this will be a war?" I responded.

He gave me an incredulous look, as if there was no other option but war. While I was still hanging on to the hope that the situation would calm down and I could resume my studies in Beirut, the Lebanese seemed to believe that war was inevitable, my family included. The day after the Israelis first bombed the airport, my father called me and told me he thought the situation would quickly escalate. He had already planned to fly to Damascus and whisk me away from the danger.

In spite of their pessimism about the coming days, life continued for the Lebanese. The day before I was evacuated, some of my relatives picked me up and drove me across Beirut (parts of which were being bombed) to their apartment to have a pleasant lunch. Their apartment afforded a wonderful view of the southern suburbs, the primary target for the Israeli bombs. Between courses of fattoush, grape leaves, and kibbe, remarkably loud bursts went off periodically as puffs of smoke rose in the distance, in plain view through the balcony doors.

Following the meal, my great-aunt drove me back to my dorm, and while it was strange in itself to be driving through a city under attack, what amazed me most was the fact that my great-aunt insisted that we stop on the way to buy a box of pastries. When I bashfully insisted that it was not necessary, and hunger was not the most important thing on my mind, she was adamant about the fact that I would need food while I was waiting until an evacuation plan was made.

Unfortunately, my friends and I had devoured the baklava by the next day, when I was to be evacuated with a friend the embassy allowed at the last minute. Packed on a ship bound for Cyprus, we simultaneously felt relief and disappointment. We were glad to be on the safety of the cruise ship, but we were saddened that our plans had been ruined and incensed at the fate of the city we grew to love. Traveling from Cyprus to Istanbul to London, we constantly judged each location vis-à-vis Beirut. For some reason, which we could not clearly define, no city could compare to Beirut's glamorous energy and excitement.

Looking back, I'm still mystified why I was never scared of the events unfolding around me in Lebanon. Mostly, I felt excited to be in a war zone for the first time, angry at the Israelis and those who sanctioned their actions, and a curious attachment to the city and those with whom I experienced its culture, nightlife, and its people. It is only now that I can only begin to understand the feelings of my father, my relatives, and the Lebanese, who have all gone through similar experiences, only on an immensely greater scale.

Upon arriving home, I heard a song by the legendary Lebanese singer Fairuz which somehow perfectly encapsulated my feelings:

To Beirut - Peace to Beirut with all my heart…
From the soul of her people she makes wine,
From their sweat, she makes bread and jasmine.
So how did it come to taste of smoke and fire?

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