The Lebanese Civil War (1975-1990) was a devastating three way conflict that was fought between Christian, Muslim, and Druze militias for control of the country. The country itself was an artificial construct that consisted of several former territories of the Ottoman Turks that were slapped together in 1920 as the Autonomous Territory of Lebanon. After having lost World War I after having allied itself with the Axis powers of Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Bulgaria; Turkey was forced to cede territory to France as part of its war reparations. In 1943 while France itself was occupied by German forces, the Vichy French government granted Lebanon its independence.
Although Lebanon’s capitol, Beirut, was once known as the Riviera of the Middle East, sectarian conflict erupted into violence in 1975 and evolved into a fifteen year long civil war. Over the course of this war, 100,000 people died, a million more were displaced, and billions of dollars of damage were done to the country’s infrastructure.
After the U.S. State Department cleared this country for travel, I joined a handful of American teachers in 1998 in helping the American Community School of Beirut make the transition from having had an all Lebanese faculty during the Civil War to again becoming an International American school. We were joined by teachers from New Zealand, South America, Canada, and the United Kingdom.
Our students included the children of expatriates from western countries. Most of our students were from affluent Lebanese families. One of my third grade students was the daughter of Beirut’s governor.
By American standards, the conditions were rough. Our classrooms were not air-conditioned. Since Beirut was built on the shore of the Mediterranean Sea, the weather was hot and humid. Although the classrooms had ceiling fans, during the worst of the heat and humidity all the fans really did was to blow hot air around each room. While the faculty lounge and administration offices were air-conditioned, our on campus faculty apartments were not. Whenever we tried to take refuge in the faculty lounge, a campus security guard would glare at us and turn off the light and the A/C.
Relief from the unrelenting heat came after the principal took the entire school to the ski resort at Faqra which was situated on Mount Lebanon. Each grade level spent a week at this resort.
By day we spent the day skiing, hiking, building snowmen, and having snowball fights. At night we played games, told stories, drank hot chocolate, made popcorn, and watched videos.
Our first dinner consisted of Marrakesh (vegetable curry) with rice. We also had pita bread and hummus and a cucumber salad. Although most American children would likely have not eaten this dish given our cultural preoccupation with meat, the Lebanese students ate this vegan friendly meal with gusto.
Our Marrakesh included chick peas, carrots, celery, onions, potatoes, peppers, spinach, and tomatoes; all of which were mixed together with a spicy curry sauce.
Having previously written about the production of a chicken curry candle, I decided to make a vegetable curry candle. My vegetable curry candle includes broccoli, cauliflower, carrots, peppers, spinach, home fried potatoes, and tomatoes.
The candle smells of curry and hot peppers.
Although I had a two year contract to work at ACS Beirut, I left after the first school year. The living conditions were horrendous. On my first day in Beirut, the ceiling fan in my apartment fell, narrowly missing hitting me in my head. The tiny refrigerator in the apartment kept breaking down causing all of my perishable food to spoil. Raw sewage bubbled up the drainage pipe to contaminate the shower stall of my third floor apartment and to fill my home with the fetid odor of rotting stench. Since I lived on campus (through no choice of my own), the principal also consistently “volunteered” me to give weekend tours of the school to the parents of prospective students. A lot of these appointments were scheduled for the morning and kept me from sleeping in.
The 1998-1999 school year ended on June 25, 1999. That night the Israeli Air Force bombed the city. Streaking low over the Mediterranean Sea, a wave of Israeli jets swooped overhead causing the faculty apartment to shake. A Syrian anti-aircraft gun that was stationed just one block away opened fire. As a civilian veteran of the First Gulf War (having worked in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia when the Iraqis were firing scud missiles at Dhahran), I rolled out of bed as the entire building shook amidst the ack-ack-ack firing of anti aircraft guns.
From the relative safety of being under a heavy desk, I could see red tracer fire arching into the night sky. As explosions thundered in the distance, the wail of sirens sounded as first responders reacted to the bombing of bridges, telecommunication centers, cell phone towers, and power stations.
Just as I thought that it might be safe to come out from under the desk, another wave of Israeli jets streaked overhead. The attack lasted all night. In the morning, the only teachers to report to work were the expats. The Lebanese faculty and staff were not present. Some were sleeping at home. I later found out that many had evacuated from Beirut and had fled to the surrounding hills.
The Israelis later announced that the bombing of Beirut was in retaliation for Lebanon’s failure to control Hezbollah (the Party of God) which had been attacking Israeli forces. While the Syrian military had occupied most of Lebanon starting in 1976, the Israelis had occupied the southern part of the country starting in 1985. The Israeli occupation of Lebanon was seen (by the Israelis) as being a security buffer against terrorist attacks that were being launched from Lebanon into Israel.
In the aftermath of the bombing, an angry American mob tried to storm our Consulate. Lebanese police had to shoot some of the protestors. During a separate incident that had nothing to do with the U.S. Consulate, someone threw a grenade over the wall that surrounded our campus. The grenade exploded in an empty courtyard and no one was hurt.
I was particularly sorry for the owner of the snack shop that was next to our school. The morning after the bombing, I found the owner of Washington’s crying in his shop. Since the bombing had damaged the city’s power grid, we experienced rolling blackouts. The loss of power had caused the owner to lose his entire inventory. All of the ice cream had melted. The sodas were warm. Without knowing if or when full power would be restored, the owner of this tiny shop was effectively out of business. There was nothing I could do for him other than to buy out his stock of pistachios and almonds to share with my colleagues.
When Beirut’s international airport opened after another week, I flew back to the United States via a KLM flight to Amsterdam. Although I had a business class ticket, the ticket agent upgraded me to first class. It turned out that his sister had been one of my third grade students.
“Have a safe trip,” smiled the agent as he handed me my upgraded ticket. “Thank you for everything you’ve done.”
Since I flew into Amsterdam from Beirut, Dutch security isolated a handful passengers on my flight at an empty passenger gate. All of the passengers were unaccompanied men. Our luggage was X-rayed and inspected by hand. One by one we were also interviewed.
“How long were you in Beirut?” asked an unsmiling plain clothed detective in English with a Germanic accent.
“I was there for one year.”
“And why were you in Beirut?”
“I was a teacher at an international American school.”
“And what was the name of this school?” The detective went on to ask about where I had lived, who my immediate supervisor had been, and what her phone number was. He also wanted to know what I had taught, why I had left Beirut, and why I was travelling to the United States
After having answered all of these questions, I was returned to the detention area while the detective conferred with a colleague. I was eventually released to catch a connecting flight back to the States. The Dutch officer never explained why I had been subjected to this interview or what the security personnel had been looking for. In retrospect I suspect that since I was single and travelling on a one way ticket from Beirut to the United States, they might have been concerned as to whether or not I posed a security threat as a possible terrorist.
Given the length of the security screening, I made my connecting flight to British Airways during the last boarding call. I have been stateside since July 4, 1999 and after having spent 17 years abroad as both a child and as an adult, I have no plans to ever again live overseas.
I was not soured on living abroad by my experience in Beirut. I have instead been seduced by the fact that I own my own home which is comfortably furnished with my own belongings. I have a comfortable life, have four cats, and am in the slow process of launching a food themed candle business.