Young Syrian refugee in Beirut.
Photos by Leonie Lohwasser.
Over January Leonie and I decided to travel to Lebanon. “We just want to see what’s happening, see what’s going on down there,” we announced with quiet arrogance. Truthfully, we had a greater aim, though admitted to no one. We were going ‘to Challenge Ourselves.’ The reason to end all reasons, self satisfied and smug, the cause behind thousands of gap years and the sole explanation as to why there are so many fresh faced 18year olds floating around Africa building orphanages and Making-A-Difference.
A friend of mine once told me she couldn’t bear extreme sports because she found the blatant disregard for one’s own life incredibly ‘middle class.’
“It’s such a luxury the rich can afford, to be so bored that they actually attempt things that could end in death,just for fun. Whilst people in other parts of the world have to cling to their fragile lives so dearly.”
I guess we were exactly the type of people my friend was talking about.
Boy and bird.
Certainly, as we swaggered through the arrivals lounge in Lebanon, i had a strange feeling stirring in my stomach. I was reminded of a hot afternoon in suburban Melbourne. Bored shitless, as is so often the case for 15 year olds, I had taken to lying outstretched on the scalding concrete and poking my dog with a stick while he was eating. Each time i produced a horrible snarl from the usually docile animal, i would recoil, gritty knees tucked close to my chest, terrified but secretly thrilled at the terrible scene I had caused.
With orientalist images of Lebanon in our head, we were trying to poke the dog. The first evidence of just how wrong we were emerged as soon as we arrived. May, our friend and classmate from Denmark greeted us with a warm hug and then directed us to her car. I was a little confused when she jumped in the passenger seat, and then realized she had a driver. A driver? When we reached her house, we were greeted by two maids in matching soft pink uniforms. They scuttled around the house soundlessly.”I hope it’s okay that you have to share a room,” May apologized. “Let me know what you want for breakfast and I’ll order it in the morning.”
So, it turns out May is incredibly rich. Or at least her family is. Not that this really means anything, but it does need to be mentioned because of the obvious and very important class divide that exists in Lebanon.
My friend’s truth hit home in Lebanon. In a relatively safe country like Australia, many people are middle class. We have such a strong level of welfare through taxes,the wealth is distributed more evenly.
In Australia, there is a particular type of middle class. They are wealthy, but they aren’t showy with their money. They read penguin classics,they eat quinoa and shop at charity stores. As Grayson Perry explores in his series In The Best Possible Taste, this is the desire to show the world that one is an upright moral citizen, that their wealth is not undeserved. Perry says, “In the past, a good burgher might have regularly attended church or done voluntary work; today they buy organic, recycle, drive an electric car or deny their child television.” Rather than dolce and gabanna, this kind of money is dressed in RM Williams found at Savers “for only 5 dollars.”
Charity shops just don’t work in Lebanon. If you’re rich, there’s no subtlety about it. It’s all about proving that you are not gripped by the same poverty that crushes most of the population. And it’s about showing that in a big way.Leonie and I strolled through endless streets of franchises shucked straight from the streets of LA. Handmade and homegrown are the domain of the intellectual middle class of Melbourme. Instead, we were treated to perfectly baked French pastries, huge American Chinese restaurants and dresses that looked like Paris Hilton’s chihuahua had decided to treat itself and get a vajazzle.
During our stay May seems a little tense, on edge. We come from safe countries. We don’t know how things work here and we could end up in trouble.
Leonie and I shrug this off. But again, this nonchalance is a luxury afforded by our stable upbringings. Walking through the streets of Beirut, it’s easy to see the cause of tension. Buildings pockmarked with bullet holes are a timely reminder of the civil war that ravaged the city from 1975 to 1990.
The infamous Holiday Inn, Beirut.
But aside from the ever present fear, there’s another tension.
When I talk to May about it she says Lebanon is “like America in the 60s”
As an example, May explains the difference between her and her mother. Her mother married at 18, was pregnant at 21 and was only expected to be a beautiful and good wife and mother.
“It would have been inconceivable for her to study abroad like I did.”
According to May, this lifestyle shift creates tensions between young people and their parents, that are more magnified in Lebanon than they are in somewhere like America which went through that lifestyle shift long ago. Often young people lead double lives, and feel constantly pressured and guilty.
Weirdly, i’m reminded of the tense feeling in the air during my time in Tokyo, another place that had a huge disconnect between the young and their parents. Although in completely different ways,both places feel like things could just explode at any moment. My exboyfriend compared being in Tokyo with surfing “just go with it, just let it wash over you. You can’t control things here.”
But while in Tokyo you’re surfing waves of endless control, here you ride chaos. The city is alive, so much more alive than anywhere else I’ve been.The streets ripple and rage with life, people spill from stores, the corniche is filled with entangled lovers, children, balloons, bikes skidding in all directions. The roads are filled with vans missing doors and the sky is cracked with the blare of angry horns.
“Lebanon is a bleeding heart,” May says simply.
“It’s a bleeding heart that is constantly pumping, to keep the blood from gushing out the wound.”
One morning, fresh from the cash machine I ask May about her country’s notes. US dollars are used as, if not more, often than the national currency and aesthetic difference is stark. Whilst the greenbacks champion historical figureheads such as George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, the small green,yellow and blue rectangles that make up the Lebanese pound feature little more than pictures of pine trees or Arabic lettering.
“We don’t have people on our notes because we don’t have anyone official worth remembering,” May jokes. But it’s a topic that’s brought up regularly,not just by May, but by her boyfriend and her friends, sitting cross legged,discussing the state of their home country late into the night.
If countries fail, the people do not simply disappear. It raises the question, if Lebanon as a country fucks up, what happens to the Lebanese?
The government is dysfunctional, but the country functions anyway. It’s an insecure and exhausting existence. But strength and resilience shows itself in beautiful and unexpected ways. People are always finding their way around things.
One of May’s good friends, Mahmoun, has started his own charity. Mahmoun, a Syrian himself, found a Syrian refugee one night stranded in the rain, looking for accommodation. Within 24 hours he and a friend had raised money to accommodate the woman, and within weeks they started extending their help.
Now Mahmoun, at just 20 years old runs his own charity called “Hand in Hand” which provides food, blankets and other supplies to a growing mass of Syrian refugees. He runs it with donations from wealthy Syrian expats and a small band of volunteers.
It seems extraordinary to me that Mahmoun manages this around a full time University load but when I ask him about it, he shrugs.
“Lebanon can’t even look after themselves, so why should they look after Syrians?”
Syrian refugee children.
As the weeks go on this resilience shows itself in more ways.
One night over dinner, May’s friends all flash their passports. Canadian, French, American. It’s a motley crew of dual citizenship.
“The Lebanese passport means nothing,” May explains, “you need a visa for almost every country.”
When a system fails, you find a way around it. There is no public transport so people buy up mini vans and ferry people across the country. Standing on the street, hailing down one such doorless, jam packed van, it occurs to me that i’ve definitely waited longer for a train on the Sandringham line.
On our last days in the country Leonie and i find ourselves in of these minibuses, hurtling down the highway at 90 km an hour. This bus is particularly popular so we’re packed in, 6 to a seat. There’s a woman crammed next to Leonie with her tiny son tucked firmly at her side. She’s been a refugee in two different countries now; originally fleeing to Syria, and now last month leaving Syria for Lebanon, always finding a way around.