Fall 2006 Vol. V, No. 1
Escape from Lebanon
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
"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
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
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
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?