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Our age of innocence

“I want to cry. But I also want to break something.” Every single day is a storm of emotions in Lebanon, writes Luna Safwan.


"If you were born between 1988 and 1992 in Lebanon, it means that your teenage years were full of assassinations and school days that were cut short, national grief days announced unexpectedly, and long lists of people who were slowly disappearing from the political scene and TV screens."Photo: Michal Gadek, Unsplash

There wasn’t a time in Lebanon when weathering a storm was not the norm. But the current emotional rollercoaster is proving to be one of the hardest to navigate, where you are caught between needing to nag and share how you feel, amid a sense of intense guilt because “everyone is going through this so no need to add up to anyone’s cup”. 

As the August 4 anniversary is nearing, Lebanese are struggling to unpack the trauma, the fear, the survivor’s guilt, and most importantly the losses.

It’s 2021. For us, as Lebanese, checking our teenage diaries is a trip down a bloody memory lane. In between the names of our high school crushes and our well-documented fights and misunderstandings with our best friends, there are pages full of bloody dates. In my case, from 1996 onwards.

It’s an emotional roller coaster à la Libanaise. We are pioneers, even in that sense: Lebanon does not believe in the concept of one crisis at a time, the country likes to serve them all at once.

In between the names of our high school crushes and our well-documented fights and misunderstandings with our best friends, there are pages full of bloody dates. In my case, from 1996 onwards.

When we talk about baggage, there’s no better example than that of the Lebanese youth. It is not totally civil war-related, but enough fear and violence to relate to what our parents have gone through from 1975 onwards. 

In Lebanon, there’s an entire generation that grew up longing to leave, to emigrate, to start somewhere else. There is a line we often read on the walls of some Arab countries – including Lebanon – which says: “Your country is not a hotel, you do not check out when things get rough.” It no longer makes sense in a country where farewell parties overshadow weddings, in the summer of 2021.

Our bombs and sunsets

I grew up attending school in downtown Beirut before it became “DT” or Solidaire. We used to call it Wadi Abou Jamil. 

That’s where my school was located, Besancon, one of the prettiest spots in Lebanon. Once you were inside that campus, you felt in a different world. But stepping outside was a disaster. Beirut was a city still in ruins, clogged roads and sewage, the smell was horrifying and mosquito stings were the worst. Destroyed buildings were an inevitable part of our childhood, reminding us that the civil war had ended only 3 years before and that we were not born in a “normal” country, the shadow of conflict would be engraved in your memory even if one hadn’t witnessed it.

Operation ‘Grapes of Wrath’ or the ‘April war’ happened in Lebanon in the Spring/Summer of 1996.

I was attending a cousin’s wedding in Beirut, my aunt was babysitting my baby brother. As the wedding ended, soon after picking him up and heading to our car to drive home, we started hearing the loud sounds of explosions. 

I changed my glittery orange dress into a denim jumpsuit, my parents prepared their grab bag, flashlights were tested, mattresses lined up on the living room floor. It was an exercise that they had mastered. We slept with our shoes on that night. 

Warplanes, my mother warns. We rushed to the house, my father driving frantically as street lights shut down and roads turned dark. News of the electricity company being bombed started circulating on local radios, 11 stairs up later, with no electricity or generator of any sort, our long night had just begun. 

I changed my glittery orange dress into a denim jumpsuit, my parents prepared their grab bag, flashlights were tested, mattresses lined up on the living room floor. It was an exercise that they had mastered. We slept with our shoes on that night. 

That was the beginning of the 1996 summer in Beirut. Naturally, summer camps were canceled, an electricity crisis was looming, the security situation was right on the edge. Weeks were spent living on the candlelight that summer, sitting on the balcony, listening to neighbors discuss the latest war, sleeping on mattresses on the floor of the balcony to defeat the heat, laughing whenever my mother complained about the “Smeds” cheese that we had to consume with a 4-days old bread: ‘It reminds me of the civil war’ she said. 

A consolation prize that summer was the sunsets. I believe one of the recurring thoughts back then while watching the sunset was that nothing could have been worse than that situation, really. 

To me, today’s rush after sunsets documented on Instagram, from Batroun to Faraya, makes sense. History is repeating itself, my fellow Lebanese are caught in the same vicious circle, one generation after the other. Some generations are experiencing round 2 or even 4 of the crisis. Our parents may have lost count.

Assassinations, clashes, and school

If you were born between 1988 and 1992 in Lebanon, it means that your teenage years were full of assassinations and school days that were cut short, national grief days announced unexpectedly, and long lists of people who were slowly disappearing from the political scene and TV screens.

If you had a politically involved family, you either stood on the March 8 side of the protests or on the March 14 side at some point, waving a flag, while thinking: “Nothing could be worse than these assassinations”. 

It means you’ve lost friends when you were 15 or 16 because you had opposing political views, it means you cursed the day you were born when 2006 happened, bringing back the childhood trauma from 1996. If you’re a child of Lebanon, you were told to cope with it and bury it and help others who were more unfortunate than you. You volunteered to cook for displaced families at a soup kitchen facility of a local organization. 

And between the post-May 7 months and 2015, to the days leading to October 17, 2019, you learned to love this city, Beirut, to love this country, Lebanon, but to always be prepared for what they could take away from you. Be prepared for constant instability.

You possibly also woke up during May 2008 coughing to the smell of burning tires and the loud sound of bullets and spent hours glued to the TV with your family, watching Lebanese clash together in the streets. And you probably remember families rushing out of their homes as B7 rockets hit their streets.

And between the post-May 7 months and 2015, to the days leading to October 17, 2019, you learned to love this city, Beirut, to love this country, Lebanon, but to always be prepared for what they could take away from you. Be prepared for constant instability. 

When you’re Lebanese, you’re always ready for heartbreak.  We speak of our love/hate relationship with Beirut, our toxic relationship with our country. If we were to unpack the feelings of every generation, one article wouldn’t be enough.

But the truth is, August 4, 2020, unpacked everything. It laid our souls bare.  All of our fears and traumas and losses.

We’re still trying to cope, to pick up the pieces, to smile and pretend that ‘It can’t possibly get worse.” 

But that is no longer an option.

Luna Safwan is an independent journalist based in Beirut. She is the host of the ‘Beyond politics’ weekly podcast. She reports on current affairs with a special focus on freedoms, human rights, Syria, migrant workers, and marginalized communities. She tweets @LunaSafwan.

The opinions expressed are those of the author only and do not necessarily reflect the views of NOW.