We are our stories: When nothing else makes sense in Lebanon
August 12, 2020
"Lav es?" («Լա՞ւ ես» | "Are you all right?") It’s a simple question in Armenian that requires an unequivocally simple answer: “Lav em,” («Լաւ եմ» | "I am all right") even if you have hit rock bottom. Following the catastrophic explosion that tore apart the Beirut port and its surrounding areas, I received dozens of messages and e-mails with anxious inquiries. One particular “Lav es?” in the subject line touched me to the core, triggering a mix of thoughts and feelings, making it hard to respond right away. The words carried me back and forth and I realized I was writing a story instead.
The e-mail was from a friend in Cornwall—from Philip Marsden, a British anthropologist, travel writer, and novelist, who had decided to learn Armenian in the early 1990s. It was a first step in his long quest to find the secret of the “extraordinary resilience” of the Armenians. Amid the Gulf War and the collapse of the Soviet Union, he set off on a trip around the Armenian Diaspora and reached the frontline villages of Armenia itself to witness: “Where the threat was greatest, the Armenian spirit was at its strongest.”
It would be awkward to write about what was already in the news: the massive devastation, the loss of innocent lives, the homeless and their immense need, the destruction of Beirut’s oldest districts, the political and financial turmoil, the surging anger and resentment against the Lebanese authorities.
“Everything that I learned about the Armenians only served to deepen the mystery, to make them more surprising, more enigmatic,” wrote Marsden in his award-winning travelogue, The Crossing Place: A Journey among the Armenians.
It wasn’t a simple question addressed in my own language. It was as deep as any question Marsden had posed to the Armenians he had met in each town and village on his long itinerary that spanned geographical boundaries—from the shores of Lake Van to the Near East, Eastern Europe, and Armenia.
Marsden’s paths had crossed with Armenians whose personal stories and reflections had opened new dimensions to what he had already discovered. His insights were fueled by details and nuances, which he carved with the same intricacy, spontaneity, and devotion that he had traced on Armenian khachkars (cross-stones) in ancient churches and cemeteries.
Reading his absorbing narration had made me feel more Armenian than ever.
It is no short of an “encyclopedia of the Armenian spirit,” as Armenian scholar, Haroutiun Kurkjian once observed.
The language Marsden had learned to understand what makes an Armenian was the language I had grown up with and adored. My Western Armenian translation of his brilliantly crafted book was an homage to his enthralling quest.
He had made me feel more Armenian than ever.
I still look for an answer.
The civil war had just ended when Marsden ventured into Lebanon, making his way through military checkpoints, dangerous roads, and hostile looks at foreigners.
I leaf through the pages of his book, looking for a particular scene that unfolds like a Bruegel painting among myriad depictions of Armenian realities. The scene where he senses “a kind of palpable toughness” in men sitting around a television, “cracking pistachio nuts.”
I decide to sleep over the question. I don’t know what to say.
My family and I had escaped unscathed. Perhaps I could tell him that I didn’t even leave my desk when the ground shook and the explosion followed; that my husband had miraculously managed to make a U-turn after being caught between smashing roofs and crashing cars. Perhaps I could tell him about the stoicism forged by the Lebanese Civil War—the endurance of distress and hardship without complaint—that is still going strong after 30 years.
How about the story of an old friend, who, after escaping a “dull life” in Switzerland to start a new business in Lebanon, had more than 250 shards of glass removed from his body? While trying to recuperate, he was thinking about moving to Armenia…
The acrid smell of the explosion still lingers, when I drive down to Bourj Hammoud from the mountains overlooking Beirut.
Marsden’s image of “a kind of palpable toughness” in “cracking pistachio nuts” is a surreal mirage over a sea of shattered glass that stretches in all directions.
Those who had broken an arm or a leg are fortunate. Worse was the fate of those who have lost an eye, a loved one, a home…
The municipality is mobilized in full force: The ethos of guarding people’s property, maintaining order, and providing help is a legacy forged during the civil war.
In the streets, people are carrying broomsticks and buckets, piling up gnarled window panes and blasted doors. I try to read the vacant look in their eyes. Does the prospect of moving to Armenia hover in their minds?
It was becoming even more complicated for me to answer the question.
The explosion had thrust me into a flashback of the war.
Our house was on the green line between East and West Beirut. Soviet Armenia was not an option of a safe haven then. My father had made it his mantra to stay in his house and defend it to the end; it was "his Armenia”—or, more precisely, "his Sasun”—where his father was born before the Armenian Genocide.
The green line was a ghost-town, no different than a WWII frontline: Warring factions and snipers made the slightest movement a tale of tenacity.
The leader of the Lebanese Kataeb Party (Phalanges Party) militia, which controlled our neighborhood, was, against all odds, a young Armenian, Nizar Najarian (or Nazo, as we called him), who stood fast to his Christian beliefs and Lebanese identity.
He had risen to the rank of the party’s General Secretary and was tragically killed at the Kataeb headquarters near the epicenter of the explosion at the Beirut port.
“Asiga gabigutyun eh" («Ասիկա կապիկութիւն է» | “This is monkey business),” he used to say in his broken Armenian when he would come to our house to ask for the basement keys to store military ammunition. “The entire neighborhood will blow up if you store the ammunition here,” would argue my father in equally broken Arabic.
By the time Nazo would finish the tahn my mother served, he would be smiling and nodding in agreement.
He could have smashed the locks open, of course, but he wouldn’t…
The civil war had its own unspoken rules and moral bounds… Unlike deviously storing tons of explosive ammonium nitrate in peacetime.
I may finally start penning an answer.
The night of the explosion was maddening and suffocating. With hospitals beyond capacity and people seeking medical help in the streets, hearing about stories of improbable survivals was like being caught up in the chilling momentum of an endless horror movie.
Hugging my numbing sadness up to the wee hours of the morning, I was feeling more Lebanese than ever.
Amid the sirens of ambulances, I was listening to the songs of Fairuz, whose mythical voice had inspired hope and love during the civil war. Playing her iconic song “Li Beirut” ("To Beirut") on repeat, I was embracing the sweet and sour pulse of the city through the ages. Fairuz was evoking the tastes of the “lonely city in the dark,” “wishing peace” from the depths of her heart.
It was the song of changeover for me: I found myself translating the Arabic lyrics into Armenian.
I had always kept a distance from the Arabic language. For me, it was the language that poured out of the radio and filled our house with bad omens. It was the language of war, bombings, death, and breached ceasefires. I had never bothered to learn it good enough.
That night I made my peace with the language of Beirut, while the site of the explosion was still burning…
"Lav em, Philip jan." ("I am well, dear Philip.") We are our stories…
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