The day after the United States began to evacuate “non-essential” staff from its Embassy in Damascus, I too bought a ticket out of Syria. Except to use that ticket I’d first have to fly in the other direction — I wasn’t even there yet.
I spoke to my parents from the 3:00 am bus leaving Abu Dhabi for an airport three hours away in the north of the UAE. “Do you hear the birds?” they asked. It was May in the suburbs. “Do you hear the air conditioning?” I asked back. While the next week never ceased to the vacation I needed it to be, it felt at first and at moments like a sprint towards a fire. I flew to the Levant to thaw from the sterility of the Emirates. Sure, fire can burn, but it warms until the bite.
So there I was, heading to the places my mother had never wanted me to go, at the times when the world said it was worst to go to them. And it was two days before Mothers’ Day.
It was morning when I landed in Beirut, the town many have named the “Paris of the Middle East” — a comparison I find fitting not because of the friendly mercis or the presence of crêpes and Hermès bags, but because it is a city that survived war and hardly faded as an image of romance and posh class. In Beirut, of course, the 2006 Lebanon War with Israel is far fresher. Slate streets are the city’s bones and sandy colored buildings its Parisian skin, marked only with the scars of bullet holes and half-collapsed edifices. And twenty-million dollar condos looking out on the Mediterranean. And the army.
Covered trucks blanket the country in and outside the cities with young soldiers in fatigues riding staring out from benches in the bed. As I framed a shot of the Mohammed al-Amin Mosque in the heart of Beirut, three Humvees strolled by, machine guns and bullet belts hanging off the back. I knew photography would be an extra challenge this time of century, what with abundant suspicions of foreign spying and a distinctive lack of tourists — throughout my whole time in the city, I was the only one I ever saw take a picture of anything that wasn’t the sea. I pressed the shutter and heard the click. The first rule of photography: shoot first, ask for permission later.
My first “No photo!” came hours later in the afternoon, not after I snapped workers pouring cement (which I thought might be suspect) but when I took a picture of a house in the exact opposite direction. Maybe I was on to something.
About three minutes later, the law bore down more heavily: I had found the Maghen Abraham Synagogue, the most prominent of Lebanon’s abandonned synagogues, one that was deserted in the seventies at the start of Lebanon’s civil war (after sustaining damage from Israeli shelling). It was now in the middle of a silent pedestrian street walled in with construction barriers. A security guard waved frenetically and indicated behind me, where a soldier with a rifle was also making a hand motion. It was the Middle Eastern come here but looked exactly like the American wrist flick, get out of my face. I stayed stuck in the middle, about a hundred feet from each of them, not sure where they wanted me. I took a step towards the Synagogue and Security, but no such luck. “Jaysh,” the guard called. Army.
It was explained to me that the President’s house was nearby and that I would need to delete the photos. I deleted one (of three). He asked about my business in the country and in the neighborhood. “It’s a church, right?” I said.
A little raise of the eyebrow and a smile. “It’s a Jewish synagogue.”
The Arabic words for Synagogue and Church being nearly identical, he made sure I knew what the difference was with a little extra adjective. I shrugged.
The solider seemed content to be bemused, likely packing me into the category with the best defense, “Idiots Who Don’t Know Any Better”. He asked again if I had deleted the photos and I affirmed that I had, showing him on my old camera’s small screen the beginning of the memory card and scrolling in the wrong direction. It may have helped that with an Arabic sensibility, the direction right means backwards. It’s not always great to lie to the face of a man with an automatic weapon, but he let me go. And I’ve still got this:
The security guard anxiously let me walk into the Synagogue, his eyes glued to my hands. Light blue walls and ornamentation and real Hebrew words likely painted by those that can’t read them are strangely wonderful. The dust and rubble on the floor, I think, are no longer souvenirs from the war but scraps from a new process of renovation that is almost complete — workers drilled and buffed as I followed the guard out the door. I couldn’t take one picture. “It’s not finished,” he said. “You can take pictures when it’s finished.”
This man told me that the repairs are paid for by ten families of Jews that live down the street from the Synagogue in the small Jewish Quarter of Beirut, Ouadi Abu Jmli, that was once home to thousands and thousands. The Jewish population in Lebanon is now unknown; the community fled during the Lebanese Civil War that began in 1975 and lasted for 15 years to a number of countries the guard listed (including Israel).
It was hard to understand his explanations in Arabic through thick layers of accent and mustache, but he was clear in his message of Beiruti tolerance. “Christians have a book too — the bible — true or no?” A very Lebanese refrain. “True,” I said.
“And Jews have — it’s the same thing. We all answer to Allah rab al-’aalimiin,” a perfect parallel with the Hebrew, Elohainu melech ha-olam.
Beirut has a reputation to uphold, and it does so in part by restricting access to information. I take pictures in large part to remember — to ban photos is to begin to alter the way memories are formed (and shared). Don’t take pictures of what’s broken, says the word on the street: it isn’t broken. Developer signs along the corniche proclaim in English and French that the world is “Beiruting” and that the city is “Reliving its Golden Age” — if the internet makes Beirut look damaged, they fear, all may be lost.
As for the photos and the eyebrows raised and whistles blown, I can’t seem to pay heed; documents of damage can just as well be powerful motivators of good as they can be disheartening. Sure, I may be finding ways into non-essential trouble, but abstention on those grounds is no way to live. If those were the rules I’d have long since hooked myself up to a feeding tube with nothing but tube socks and a DVD of Monty Python and the Holy Grail.
Unfinished construction and synagogues are part of Beirut, just as much as that famous rock formation and expensive cab rides. It’s much better that way.