Letters From Lebanon

Daniel Rich, Saddam Grand Mosque, Baghdad, 2008. Courtesy of the artist and Peter Blum Gallery.

Beirut, Texas

Political candidates who want to burn down Washington, DC, perhaps should see what a country looks like with no effective government.

Back home, people are debating the beliefs of a guy named Rick Perry. I’m enthralled, but from a distance, being as I am in the Middle East, on a month-long posting in sticky summertime Beirut.

My wife and I are staying in the gentrifying neighborhood of Hamra, on the city’s west side, where everywhere you see the bullet holes from Lebanon’s more than decade-long civil war. Beginning in 1975, it had been a fight that was at times waged block by block, pitting neighbor against neighbor, belief against belief. The city hasn’t fully recovered: Today, the government barely functions, with routine cuts in critical services.

This past Monday, dazzled by the legacy of that fighting and exhausted by the commentary I’d read about GOP candidates in Iowa, I left the house and walked into the haze of afternoon with my two-year-old daughter, Loretta. We passed jagged chunks shorn from walls, tattoos of heavy fire snaking up a building’s wide facade, the flowering of ugly divots over a doctor’s office. A line of holes even decorated the spire of a nearby church. In Iowa, Perry had complained that any government was bad government; in Beirut, a strong state is something to yearn for.

Then, in the hot whoosh of afternoon traffic, we heard the peal of bells. Loretta had been born in Riyadh, and for her whole life so far—from Saudi to Yemen, Qatar to Dubai, Istanbul to Beirut—we almost always heard Islam’s call to prayer. Not that I minded much. When we baptized the girl Catholic, it had been more out of respect for her grandparents than because of any personal religious conviction. Living in the Middle East, Islam had become something I maybe even loved a little. But the bells! The sound was gorgeous, and something stirred. I gripped the stroller tighter.

“Bells!” Loretta squealed, ecstatic. My heart beat faster. “Bells!” she screamed again.

“That’s a church,” I hollered above the din of traffic. “Those are our people!”

Suddenly, we pulled beside a sleek BMW, with darkened windows and official plates, its engine growling. My first thought: Had they heard me? My second thought: Oh, god, what have I said? The city was still very much divided along sectarian lines, and a declaration of faith could come across like a shot fired. But the car roared off.

Politicians should probably try visiting Beirut, where they’d encounter that beloved concept: a land without restrictions... or sidewalks, water, or reliable electricity.

That night, I wondered if I could tie what I’d seen to the arguments put forth by the presidential candidates. I thought about the bullet holes that showed the apparent costs of unwavering belief; the power outages that illustrated one of the unintended consequences of “limited” government; the way a set of bells made me swell with unfamiliar fellow-feeling.

It occurred to me that politicians should probably try visiting Beirut, where they’d encounter that beloved concept: a land without restrictions... or sidewalks, water, or reliable electricity. Speaking about an opponent, Rick Perry recently said this: “We would treat him pretty ugly in Texas.” He also called the guy a traitor. It was the ugly stuff of civil war, played out on an American stage.

Could the US—or the Middle East—get any worse? My wife, Kelly, a reporter, had been monitoring the situation in Syria, a place that’s currently testing out the darkest notions of treason. Over the weekend, a colleague had sent her a digital packet of contacts. During some online chatting, the colleague also sent Kelly an animated gif of a dancing man. The man danced, and as the contacts populated Kelly’s online address book, her computer began to light up with phone calls and chat messages from dissidents in Syria—people who were fighting for their lives.

“Can you hear me?” Kelly said, her voice strained. “I need you to speak clearly.” A resident of the embattled city of Hama described men who grabbed his friend and disappeared. Kelly stared at the wall, then began to type.

Tuesday, I was checking out a preschool for Loretta, and sat in a play room while kids from around Beirut worked together to build a house from brightly colored blocks. When supervision ebbed, the scene unraveled. One dark-haired boy struck out, swatting the pacifier from a pale girl with curly blond hair, who slipped into heavy sobs. Two little girls in sandals began battling over a stool, and one clobbered the other on the head. My daughter sat in my lap, not yet ready to join the fray. I couldn’t blame her.

But not all of us have a choice. I sighed, wondering how long we’d be watching Syria, waiting for Libya to fall, hoping for dominoes that haven’t yet tipped. I felt alienated from an America that was already obsessed with its own distant election. I yearned for a resolution—for us, for everybody—that seemed just as far away.

Through the preschool windows, a hot summer storm seemed to be blowing in. It was a bank of clouds I surely would have preferred to watch over US soil. But as the darkness came, I realized that, more than the selfish yearning of homesickness, what I longed for was a rain that could wash us all, that would soften the edges of this interminable summer heat.

Soon enough, though, the clouds I’d seen broke apart. The sun began to beat down again, and there was no relief in sight.