CHAPTER 1: THE ARRIVAL
“Suzan was the key to my access, and how well I listened to Suzan was the key to making sure the doors I needed stayed open.”
The first day in Beirut my eyes opened to the damp draft of a single fan. The melody of the morning call to prayer flowing through the window from the mosque around the corner reminded me how far I was from home. My room lacked sheets and I had failed to bring any, but the air was so thick it held my body close. As the sun hit my eyes I noticed a picture near my head of men holding up guns to an effigy of Muammar Gaddafi. The photograph, taken after his death, was accompanied by a collage of newspaper clippings covering a long wall, erected to divide the living room in half and double the tenant space for the flophouse I now called home. Tarif, my host, had personally collaged the thin partition to hide its raw construction materials, and he assured me the placement of the Gaddafi photo was not intentional, but also admitted his dark sense of humor found it a funny thing to have guests open their eyes to at the start of a morning.
“My room lacked sheets and I had failed to bring any, but the air was so thick it held my body close.”
My room’s decor felt like an analogue for the city – functional yet disorganized. Beirut was to be a study in juxtapositions. Opulent high-rises towered next to the bombed-out rubble of old buildings, and quiet, religiously conservative streets stood only blocks away from bustling nightclub-lined strips. A brutal 15-year civil war divided along sectarian lines once tore the country apart; now the largest church and the largest mosque in the nation stood side by side in the center of the city. The differing ideologies and a cornucopia of ethnic groups sat stacked on one another, but the boundaries between neighborhoods felt like tacit chasms, like parents who sleep in separate beds but maintain surface pleasantries for the children’s sake.
This complex mixture of peoples and tensions has made the history of displacement within Lebanon particularly complicated. Different eras of conflict have led to separate diasporas fleeing across the borders in both directions. Politically, the country operates under a confessional form of government, equally allocating power between Christians, Sunni, and Shia Muslims. This format is meant to honor the population distribution of a more than 80-year-old census (new censuses are not taken) and also attempts to prevent one group from controlling too much political capital. Realistically, in spite of the best intentions groups are constantly vying for power, and this has often resulted in bloodshed. On top of the internal tensions, external influences from countries like Saudi Arabia and Iran further attempt to push and pull the dynamics of power and alliances. Even Hezbollah, considered a terrorist group by most Western nations and suspected of having direct ties to the assignation of Lebanon’s former Prime Minister Rafic Hariri, exists today as one of the key political parties. In fact, in some regions Hezbollah has come to act as the de facto local government.
“The differing ideologies and a cornucopia of ethnic groups sat stacked on one another, but the boundaries between neighborhoods felt like tacit chasms, like parents who sleep in separate beds but maintain surface pleasantries for the children’s sake.”
To navigate a place as complex as Lebanon, and to gain access to refugee groups, I needed help. I needed someone who understood the internal mechanics of the political system, and also the local hierarchies; I needed someone to help get me in, and help keep me out of trouble. That’s how I was connected with Suzan. Where I felt like an unqualified documentarian, Suzan was a remarkably seasoned journalist and fixer. A Beirut native, she’d reported on the region through a great deal of historic turbulence, and her long-forged connections to multiple communities was the reason I was going to be able to get into any of the places I wanted to work. Suzan was the key to my access, and how well I listened to Suzan was the key to making sure the doors I needed stayed open.