Story and Photo by Anna Brown, Study Abroad
My first interaction with Lebanon was with the infamous Lebanese bureaucracy. I stepped off the plane and was quickly pushed into a chaotic line. For almost an hour, I had to stand there in the hot Beirut–Rafic Hariri International Airport, waiting for my visa to be finally approved. I was then finally allowed to exit and step into the scaling August day. Luckily, the driver I had hired had been waiting for me, and he spoke in rapid English as we drove into the city. He pointed out a tall, hulking skeleton of a former Holiday Inn, remarking about how snipers used to shoot people from there during their civil war. As we snaked into the city, he bemoaned the traffic but kept the windows open, letting the warm Meditterian air into the cabin.
Once in my neighborhood, it took us almost an hour to find my new address. Beirut, and Lebanon in general, don’t really have addresses. In Beirut, apartment buildings are only named, not numbered, and street signs are hard to come by. It took five different groups of Lebanese men standing by the road for us to finally find my building. I tipped the driver extra for his trouble, not quite yet understanding the value that my US dollars had. I then took the rickety elevator, which lacked a door up to my apartment. There, I was briefed about all the intricacies of Lebanese life by my roommate.
“Don’t drink the water or even use it to make tea; it’s saltwater.” My roommate stated, unsurprised by the fact. “The power goes out from about 10 am to 6 pm, so the generator should come on, but it doesn’t connect to the water heater, so make sure not to shower during that time. Also, wave hello to the soldiers outside. They’re quite nice.” It was a lot to take in, a lot of things that I had never had to think about growing up in the United States. I asked her if this is how it is everywhere in Lebanon or just our apartment?
“Oh, we are lucky,” she replied, smiling. “We have a generator and 24/7 water.” I soon learned just how lucky I was. Another group of exchange students lived in an apartment that would routinely lose water for days at a time. One girl was late to class because the generator in her building hadn’t kicked in, leaving her trapped in an elevator. Beirut was a constant juxtaposition, with glittering high rises and expensive clubs, yet lacking in basic amenities like clean water or 24-hour electricity.
Living in Lebanon was a constant learning curve: it was learning about the 18 different sects, ignoring the bullet holes in every building and rationalizing the gleaming skyscrapers situated next to dilapidated Ottoman-era buildings. As a student at the American University of Beirut, I was on a constant mission to find out why things were the way they were. I studied French colonialism in the area and how they had completely re-oriented Lebanon’s economy to focus on silk, making them unable to produce anything domestically. I learned how Lebanon went through government after government following decolonization and developed a power-sharing structure to prevent religious war. How the 15-year civil war had wrecked the country, and how nothing after it was fixed because the people that had run the war were now running the country.
Through all of this, I was struck by how amazing and resilient the Lebanese people were. I was even more amazed by how they chose to come together and finally fight back against the corrupt government that October. I sat stunned, watching a country—that had been divided amongst religious lines for centuries—rise up against a common enemy. I got to take to the street, along with my friends. I saw my classmates finally fighting back, finally working for their rights. But still, nothing actually changed. The power still went off at 10 am every morning, the same children still begged on every street corner and the same systemic issues still reared their ugly heads in every facet of life.
To me, living in Lebanon for a semester and getting to experience the October uprising firsthand was proof that more students need to step outside their comfort zone when looking to study abroad. I came face to face with many of the issues people from all around the world deal with, and I got to learn from classmates as they fought for their rights. I truly saw that learning cannot be confined to a classroom but should be the product of the wide world around us—that issues cannot only be read about from a textbook but must also be seen in real life.
The story is featured in VOL 5 ISSUE 2 Fall 2020 (Print Edition)