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On Fires and Roots

February 6, 2015

‘Flames they licked the walls

Tenderly they turned to dust all that I adore.’

Bastille, Things we Lost in the Fire

 

If you ever find yourself strolling around West Beirut’s Clemenceau neighborhood on a sunny afternoon with time to spare, head down Rue Spears, past the Sanayeh gardens toward the downtown area. You will come across an old, abandoned mansion behind a tall, bullet-ridden wall that I assume was once white. If you are thirsty for a little adventure and indifferent to a little law breaking, the rusty iron gate held shut by an even rustier chain will not be too great an obstacle.

 

Through the courtyard overrun with weeds, up the crumbling steps, welcome to the home of former Sunni politician Takieddin el-Solh. Mr. Solh was Lebanon’s Prime Minister under President Frangieh from 1973 to 1974, and again briefly in 1980 amidst the chaos of the civil war. Threatened by Syria, Solh fled Beirut for Paris in the eighties, where he died a few years later.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The mansion remained closed off, unclaimed, and abandoned until a young adventurer, Craig Finlay, and his camera ventured inside in 2009:

 

‘We found two things: piles and piles of binders, and dozens of black and white photos, all showing one man at various political events … His bookshelf was full of political treatises, with particular emphasis, as would stand to reason, on Lebanon and the Middle East.’

- Craig Finlay, Abandoned but Not Forgotten

 

In the kitchen, he had left behind a can of peaches, empty whiskey bottles, and an action figurine of a diver man.

 

The verb ‘abandon’ originates from the Frankish expression à bandon, a feudal law phrase from the thirteenth century that designated the act of giving up one’s rights to a property for a time: Mettre sa forêt à bandon meant to open one’s forest for anyone to pasture or cut wood in. It eventually came to imply an absolute surrender of jurisdiction.

 

Lebanon, my home country of which I have practically not spoken since I launched this blog, is a nation well acquainted with abandon. It is the Arab country with the longest history of emigration: its people began fleeing religious communal conflicts and economic crises during the second half of the nineteenth century and have not stopped since. The Lebanese left in search of freedom and economic opportunity, first to Latin America and Europe, then to the United States, Canada, Australia, West Africa, and after the 1960s, to the petro-rich Gulf States. After 1975, it was the horrors of the civil war that drove them out. Those who could escape the bombs took what they could carry and ran. Those who could not stayed, and many died.

 

Much has been written about the things people take with them when they are forced to abandon their homes. One survey showed that men often took land deeds, passports, and the keys to their homes and work. Women took family photographs, engagement rings, and other items of sentimental value. On the countless occasions when I have stood in front of an empty suitcase sprawled on the bed, I have too have wondered what I would take if I knew I would not be coming back. The dilemma is heart-wrenching.

 

 

What you leave behind is just as symbolic as what you take with you. More so perhaps, because there is no bringing back what is lost to the fire. Some things are easier abandoned than others; clothes, books, jewelry, money, even houses and entire careers can be replaced. It is the other things you leave behind - parents, siblings, friends, hurried and loud weekday dinners, interminable but equally loud Sunday lunches, a particular smell of shaving cream in the morning and a particular set of footsteps on the carpet at night, old-fashioned lullabies whose words you have forgotten and familiar sayings and recipes you never wrote down – that make you truly understand the unforgiving, irreversible meaning of the word abandon.

 

Leaving is not bad, and as Tolkien said, not all those who wander are lost:

‘The old that is strong does not wither, deep roots are not reached by the frost.’

 

I am only one of the fifteen to twenty million Lebanese expatriates or individuals of Lebanese descent in the world today. There are more of us abroad than there are in Lebanon itself (unofficial censes estimate 4.2 million). The Lebanese diaspora has built itself a life and a reputation, both good ones at that. I will not list all the famous Lebanese businessmen, politicians, designers, singers, academicians and heart surgeons, both because I cannot and because fame is not the only measure of success in overcoming adversity.

 

Of those who left, some have returned, many have not, some have forgotten, all have changed. What they left behind has changed too. Much of it, like the el-Solh mansion, has withered away. But that is ok, because no fire, no distance, and no amount of time, can burn the roots that made us who we are.

 

Perhaps I should leave this post’s conclusion to Chilean writer Isabel Allende, who was forced to flee her country for Venezuela after a bloody military coup overthrew the democratic government in 1973:

 

'Initially, I felt adrift, cut away from everything that was nurturing. […] But then I discovered that roots are not in a landscape, or a country, or a people; they're inside yourself.'

 

The peaches expired in 1988. Yes, I took the diver man. No, there was no whiskey left in the bottles.

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