Beirutis Return To Bombed City—Will They Stay?

BEIRUT, Lebanon, Oct. 24—There it is again: a high, ominous, whining-whistling sound, followed by a great explosive BOOM! It’s very nearby this time, perhaps just a few yards beyond the thin wall that separates my tiny garden, with its two scraggly orange trees, from the rest of West Beirut.

The impact sets a couple of car alarms off screaming into the greenish evening gloom, and from further away there’s a familiar clicking sound, that horrible, hard tick-tick-tick that means the bullets are real.

British Airways gave me a couple of foam earplugs when I flew here last week, and I’ve taken to wearing them as I type. But even so, I struggle to remember that all these bangs and pops are, actually, joyful bangs and pops: It’s the Eid al-Fitr, the three-day festival that marks the end of the Islamic fasting month, Ramadan. This is a celebration. And yet it’s a wonder to me that the Lebanese haven’t lost their taste for fireworks.

After all, my bottle-rocket-loving neighbors are some of the same Beirutis who, this past summer, were kept awake by nightly Israeli air raids and real, very deadly explosions. U.N. Security Council Resolution 1701 ended the 34-day war between Israel and the Lebanese militia, Hezbollah, scarcely more than 10 weeks ago. My friend Soha tells me that her three small daughters, like so many Lebanese children, are still nervous, clingy, uncharacteristically tearful.

Foreign peacekeepers are still arriving—including a fresh batch from Turkey just today—even while many Lebanese are wondering aloud whether the fragile peace will last.

I’m definitely not enjoying the fireworks right now, I’ve decided, but of course, this isn’t my Eid, and I’m not one of the people that they’re intended to delight. And perhaps, seen in a certain light, it’s a healthy sign that Beirut is having such an apparently normal Eid al-Fitr, complete with syrupy clotted-cream sweets, firecrackers and bursts of celebratory gunfire.

But for many Lebanese, this is far from being a normal holiday. Many of the Beirutis I’ve been speaking to in recent days are furious with Hezbollah for dragging their country into a conflict with one of the best-armed nations in the region, and almost equally angry with their government for being too weak to prevent it.

Most of the Lebanese who fled the country during the fighting have returned home by now, but they’re resuming their work and their studies cautiously, weighted by anxiety.

“The feeling is different now,” my friend Elie tells me. “We are Lebanese, of course—we have that hope that just keeps pushing, no matter what. But people are getting depressed. Even in the early 90’s, just after the civil war, there was more hope than we feel now.”

Nada, another friend, who is in her early 20’s and thus can scarcely remember the civil war, seems to feel a bit of pride at having stayed throughout the summer, at having lived through the bombings and the sleepless nights and the hours of dull anticipation. “War,” she informs me in a world-weary tone, “is 99 percent boredom and 1 percent fear.” Young Lebanese of her generation, who had the greatest hopes for the so-called Cedar Revolution, feel almost overwhelmed by disappointment.

They are also struggling financially. The war dealt a terrific blow to Lebanon’s economy, and many Lebanese companies have slashed employee salaries. For Nada and her similarly ambitious friends, whether to stay in Beirut or to seek better opportunities overseas is a constant topic of discussion.

Of course, Nada and her friends—universally trilingual and well-educated, with the connections and family support necessary to start new lives abroad if they chose to—are the lucky ones. The day before yesterday, searching for cheap towels and sheets for my temporary apartment, I ended up in Haret Hreik, a predominantly Shiite suburb in southern Beirut that my friend Andrew has nicknamed “Hezbollah central,” and which was especially hard-hit by the recent Israeli bombing raids.

As we turned a corner in the direction of the shops I wanted to visit, my taxi driver, Mohammed, a smallish, wiry man in his mid-40’s, dapper in a crisp blue windowpane-checked shirt, gestured at a giant pile of scorched rubble.

“Before the Israelis,” he told me, “that was my apartment building.”

I can’t remember what I said, but Mohammed seemed so touched and delighted by my interest that he seemed to entirely forget that I wished to buy household supplies. For the next hour, he gave me a street-by-street, literally blow-by-blow tour of the Dahiyeh, as the southern suburbs of Beirut are known.

“That used to be an excellent supermarket,” Mohammed would say almost fondly about a certain heap of shattered concrete. And: “That used to be the building of our television station, Al Manar, run by Hezbollah.”

The density of destruction—whole blocks of buildings simply collapsed in on themselves—was stunning. I had seen some of this before, back in August, and found it dispiriting to realize that very little had changed.

The piles of rubble looked a bit more weathered, more trash-strewn, but few of them had been removed, and scarcely anything, so far as I could tell, was being rebuilt.

Mohammed, for his part, seemed to be greatly enjoying himself. Hezbollah, he told me, had given him $12,000 in cash to compensate him for the loss of his apartment, and he fully expected that he and his family would be moving into a better one soon. He slowed the car way down as we passed a clothing store called Gravity, with window displays of acid-washed jeans and bright, cheap, stripy men’s shirts, all at extra-low Ramadan prices, and nearly came to a stop by a massive hole in the ground.

“And this,” he said reverently, “used to be the home of Sayyid Fadlallah,” who is widely considered to be the spiritual father of Hezbollah.

Something, I suddenly realized, had changed. Driving around the Dahiyeh back in August with my friend Andrew, we’d seen scores of dramatic Hezbollah banners, some of them three or four stories high, stretched down the sides of building. On every block, there had been dozens of yellow Hezbollah flags and homemade signs bearing proud, militant slogans. Where were they now?

Even here, next to the destroyed home of Sheikh Fadlallah, they were nowhere to be seen. Was it possible that even here in Haret Hreik, Sheik Hassan Nasrallah’s core supporters were feeling disappointed and angry too?

I turned to smiling Mohammed in the driver’s seat, but here in the Hezbollah heartland, I felt just a bit too nervous to ask him. Besides, he’d been so kind already, and was starting to pepper me with questions about my family, about life in New York.

Katherine Zoepf, a writer based in Beirut, is working on a book about young Arab women for the Penguin Press.