For Whom Do I Write?

Josie ElBiry is a writer, editor, and teacher. Though she is originally from Houston, Texas, she has called Lebanon home since 2010.

Father Antoine just stopped by. My mother-in-law is elderly, so he comes in the rain to give her the sacrament. My husband and my kids follow him in prayer in a language I cannot yet speak, their intonation in unison; I know by its cadence and a few of the words that it is the Hail Mary. 

As of late, these visits for prayer allow us pause from the hurricane outside the window. The people of Lebanon are in full revolution against the government, a national event born of fatigue from entrenched corruption and ineptitude. Each sunset has become a stroke upon a clock tower—the end of the third day, the sixth, the ninth.

As I write, our sleepy town in the mountains, far removed from the tight crowds thronging for revolt along the coast, has attracted a couple of dozen people at the round point. They carry flags and march around in a pathetic attempt to match the fury playing out below us. I can hear their sparse, strident voices through an open window.

The October Revolution, as it has been dubiously christened, began Thursday, October 17 upon the announcement that the people would be leveraged to pay for Lebanon’s crippling debt.

“Hey, they’re gonna start charging us for WhatsApp calls,” my husband announced that afternoon. My eyes glazed for a moment, but I ignored it and went back to writing. I produce copy for an emerging digital marketing platform out of Dubai. For me, the day was business as usual.

By evening, Martyr’s Square in Beirut was swarming. People gathered with flags and back packs. Slogans were quickly exhumed from the 2015 “You Stink!” revolution against the same, ineffectual government. Over the next two days, the movement organized and gained traction. We watched from our perch on the mountain top, on flat screen TVs juxtaposed against nineteenth-century stone, as the crowds swelled past one million, watered and fed by volunteers and neighboring bakeries and restaurants.

Volunteers have gathered each morning by the dozens to collect and separate the trash from the night before. New tents are erected by the day. The carnival-like atmosphere is replete with song, face painting, and humorous albeit crude chants against government figures.

The army, meanwhile, has been sent in to open the roads, miles of corridor blocked off by the exuberant masses. In the night they haul impossibly large stones across the roadways. On the morning of the seventh day, soldiers swept in and corralled a sleepy contingent of protesters. It all played on television, a David and Goliath struggle. The army approached in a phalanx and tried to divide the small crowd.

They pushed back.

I held my agenda in my lap in front of the television and began to cry as women shielded their kids and dirty, worn out men shoved back against armed soldiers in riot gear. People saw what I saw. The protesters were on their phones, frantically trying to hold their position.

Within minutes, the highway began to fill with more people. In less than one hour, there were thousands. They arrived with stacks of Lebanese flags—red and white bands bearing a green cedar tree. Mothers strode onto the scene with babies. Cases of water were borne on the backs of men and youth. The army was overwhelmed. They retreated to the median.

In an awesome series of events, the news cameras got in close to the dividing line between a row of women and a row of soldiers, men who were torn between protecting the people and obeying the Ministry of Defense. Some of these men, dressed in camouflage and holding automatic weapons, openly wept as the protesters calmly stood their ground.

I dumped the day’s agenda and opened my laptop. I spent a couple of hours writing about the scene which had unfolded right before my eyes. Within hours, the piece was published on Medium.

But for whom? Did it serve to stroke my ego while the story I told involved real suffering? Was I using my platform as some grotesque attempt to validate my proxy-driven tears? Do I have any right?

We have joined the protests on two occasions. The camaraderie on the coast is jaw-dropping. People have abandoned sectarian flags and religious differences. The crowds are loud, spirited and absolutely peaceful. We spent hours on our feet in the heat, eating croissants and drinking water as volunteers brought them around. Roars and chants mixed in with laughter and tears. There were old women, people in wheelchairs, infants, women in hijab, women in halter tops—united in a monolith of NO MORE.

In the passing days, I have retreated to try and write as an escape, as a way to look through the lens of my own thoughts so as to avoid the cacophony of drama all around. I can conveniently mute the television so I don’t have to hear the chanting, the women screaming into the microphones. My eyes course back and forth in the night, my sleep an exhausted coma. I fill my belly each day with food and buy beer in the afternoon, a pathetic sufferer thirteen hundred meters above the real suffering.

Our internet is crushed, and I wince as, one by one, I have to delete booked, online ESL classes. I may lose my teaching job, the one that sustains me because writing still hasn’t.

My editor calls from Dubai. I can’t believe my own voice when I say, “Yeah sure, I can have that in tomorrow afternoon, okay?”

“Great! But, let us know if you can’t.”

But I can. I can because I need something to dive into, a task not at all related to what I see unfolding each day.

Tonight, Hassan Nasrallah has sent the call, and Hezbollah supporters are swarming the streets with their sickly yellow flags printed with green automatic weapons by the hundreds. The cameras show them rolling, a gang on motor scooters. I am sickened by the possibility that they will go to clash with protesters. How hard will they push to break the army lines?

I went to buy a bottle of wine before the sun fell. Now, I sit to write a blog post about how I focus on my job in the middle of wrenching mayhem. That’s easy. Cowardice provides thick blinders. I have lived here for nearly ten years, but I am not sure if my Lebanese friends endorse my struggle.  I weep in the mornings when my emotions are still in the dreamscape, and I fear the ultimate retaliation of the government against its people like a cold against my bones. This is a protest which began as a few dozen and now breathes as one, massive organism, and I feel like a bystander, a tourist looking for a photo op in a moment that will define this country indefinitely.

They see me. They commend me, but secretly lament that I can leave any time I want. I suppose this is true, but I don’t want to leave. Lebanon is my home.

 
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