On August 6, 2020, I awoke to a Facebook video from a relative in Lebanon about the destruction of her son’s home after the explosion in Beirut. His bleeding wife barely escaped. The post included a few words about their shattered dreams and a plea for Lebanon to rise up from the ashes, as it has so often throughout history.
Later that day, another cousin, Ghassan, emailed to say they were “devastated by the catastrophe that seems to be drawing us further and further into a bottomless abyss.” Accustomed to being resilient, he admitted they were “dangerously close” to their “extreme limits.” The despair shook me.
I spent time with him and his family in 1992. Their civil war had come to an end. I arrived in Beirut in the sweltering heat sometime around midnight. The khamsin, a dry, stifling, sand-laden wind originating in the North African Sahara, had veiled everything in dust. My mother, my then-husband, and I climbed onto a sooty black bus that transported us to what looked like an overcrowded military bunker. It was Easter week. The child I had travelled there to adopt, six days old, was waiting for me in an orphanage.
Before this, I had never been to my country of origin. I never had the desire to go, partly because of the way I was raised in the 1970s on the south shore of Montreal, away from the diaspora that had laid down roots in Ville St-Laurent and the Town of Mount Royal—families I only saw on Sundays at the Antiochian Orthodox Church when my father schlepped us across the Jacques Cartier Bridge to Jean-Talon Street. I never felt connected to those people, whose children all knew one another from school. But I was also an outsider in my own town. Neither Protestant nor Catholic, I was “Other” on my school registration form—meaning “different.” And who, as a child, wants to be different? It embarrassed me when we celebrated Easter later than the Catholics. “They’ve got it wrong,” my parents would say when I cried about being the only kid at school without a chocolate covered egg at recess. I hid behind my lunch box with my kibbe and hummus that smelled different from everyone else’s peanut butter sandwiches. “Ewww, what’s THAT??” I was always asked.
All of this contributed to my lack of interest in a country whose language I did not speak and whose culture I was not a part of. I was trying to be Canadian. It took wanting desperately to have a child to make me reconnect with my roots. Not coincidentally, this coincided with my first published poetry collection, Swimming into the Light.
Ghassan, a cousin I had met only once when he was an international student at Harvard, picked us up at the airport. With his knowledge of the law, he had helped us prepare the adoption papers. Ghassan stood behind the glass partition, one of many black-haired, moustached men pounding on the window to attract the attention of passengers they had come for. I couldn’t pick him out. Bearded men in sunglasses and flowered shirts were prowling around the airport. My Québécois husband whispered into my ear that they were probably Secret Service agents.
Ghassan led us to a parked Mercedes and barked an order to the driver. He stepped on the gas and sped down roads without traffic lights or stop signs, roads with potholes the size of craters. We stared incredulously at the gutted backstreets of Beirut, with their skeletal reminders of buildings and torn advertisements for Paris Lingerie and Camel Lights. The downtown core was a mess of rubble and slack wire waiting for daylight to guide the wrecking ball. I noticed a squatter asleep under the drooping floorboards of a broken hotel.
For three weeks, while the adoption was finalized, we stayed with Ghassan’s family in Beit Mery, 16 kilometres outside the capital. A small mountain town of ancient Roman and Byzantine ruins, Beit Mery had beautiful views of the Beirut peninsula and a slice of the Mediterranean coast. Their clay-roofed, limestone home was filled with relatives coming and going, women chopping garlic and making baklawa, men strumming their ouds around the dining room table. It was my first meeting with Ghassan’s sister-in-law, Miral (the relative who posted the troubling Facebook video). She had prepared a beautiful crib to welcome my son.
For the first time in my life, I was around people who understood me without a word being exchanged. I fell in love with their demi-tasses of thick coffee, their courtyard roosters, their ancient cedars. Even my separatist, pure laine husband, a fish out of water, developed a deep appreciation for the country when my uncle, a renowned doctor and politician, raised a glass to toast our arrival. “Vive le Québec libre!” he declared, strangely in tune with my husband’s desire for independence.
They chauffeured us to landmarks in the surrounding areas: the American University of Beirut, the damaged St. Georges Hotel, Byblos, the Caracalla Dance Theatre, and more. They wined and dined us and treated us to their legendary mulberry and cactus-fruit ice cream. Beirut was the Paris of the Middle East, my immigrant grandmother used to brag. Whenever she mentioned it, I closed my eyes and imagined wide boulevards, elegant restaurants, fashionable women in chic cafés.
But this was not that. It was a wounded stretch of land in the early stages of rebuilding itself. Luxury condos were starting to go up, hotels, disco clubs. The country was still fragile. “Please don’t take that,” Ghassan would say whenever I trained my camera on a bombed-out building or anything else suggesting a city under siege. He didn’t want me to remember the city that way. “One day,” he said, “when you return, you will take some pictures of the real Beirut.”
When my son graduated from high school, I decided to take him to Lebanon. We hadn’t been back in 17 years. During that time, I hadn’t followed the news closely, except for the assassination of Rafic Hariri, the prime minister largely responsible for reconstruction after the war, and the 2006 Israeli airstrikes. From the pictures, Beirut was ship-shape again. Old structures had given way to twenty-first century modernity. There would be lots to visit, including Crèche-Saint-Vincent-de-Paul d’Achrafieh, where the nuns had named him Fady (“Saviour” in Arabic), an orphanage with a beautiful lemon tree under which we stood and counted our blessings, and the hospital we drove to that early morning in 1992, where my son was handed to me, swathed in a gentle white blanket.
Sadly, we never made the trip. My son, at the time, was conscription age and nervous; well-meaning friends had warned me he could be drafted into the army.
Nor did we make it two years ago, when I floated the idea again. My son was turning 26. As our excitement piqued, stories began appearing in the news—trouble, apparently, brewing on the horizon. We contacted our family in Beit Mery. Come, they said with trepidation.
Feeling uncertain, we stayed away. Again.
And now, after the horrific news of the catastrophic explosion that sent a mushroom cloud billowing and a supersonic blast wave radiating through Beirut, now after my cousins’ bleak messages to us about the physical and emotional devastation caused by this tragedy that is being called one of the largest non-nuclear explosions in history, I wonder whether we will ever make the trip. I wonder whether my son will get to see the place where he was born. And, like my Lebanese cousins, I wonder what it will take for their country to rise up again, from the ashes.
Carolyn Marie Souaid is the author of eight poetry collections and the acclaimed novel, Yasmeen Haddad Loves Joanasi Maqaittik (Baraka Books, 2017). She has performed at festivals and literary events in Canada and abroad, and her work has been featured on CBC-Radio, in The Malahat Review and the Literary Review of Canada. Her forthcoming poetry collection is The Eleventh Hour. She lives and works in Montreal, where she counsels Inuit students attending John Abbott College.
[Photo: Joel Silverstein]