“Watching Beirut Die”

July 28th, 2006 by Alex

I’m a long-time fan of chef/food writer/TV personality Anthony Bourdain’s writings. For those of you who don’t know, when the current fighting in Lebanon began, Bourdain was there filming his show, and was trapped. Today, he writes for Salon about the experience. It’s a must-read; in my opinion, it’s one of his best, if not one of the best articles I’ve read all year.

The news clip of President Bush, chawing open-mouthed on a buttered roll, then grabbing at another while Tony Blair tries to get him to focus on Lebanon — plays over and over on the TV, crushing our spirits and dampening all hope with every glassy-eyed mouthful. He seems intent on enjoying his food; Lebanon a tiny, annoying blip on an otherwise blank screen. I can’t tell you how depressing that innocuous bit of footage is to watch. That one, innocent, momentary preoccupation with a roll has a devastating effect on us that is out of all proportion. We’re looking for signs. And this, sadly, is all we have.

A few miles away, of course, hopes are similarly downscaled — yet far, far more urgent:

Will there be bread?
Will there be water?
Will the power come back on?
Is my family OK?
Will I die today?

In the end we are among the lucky ones. The privileged, the fortunate, the relatively untouched. Unlike the Lebanese Americans who make it out, we don’t leave homes and loved ones behind, we will get out and return to business as usual. To unbroken homes, intact families, friends and jobs. After a hideously disorganized cluster fuck at the eventual “assembly point” — a barely under control mob scene of fainting old people, crying babies, desperate families waving pink and white slips of paper, trying to get the attention of a few understaffed, underprepared and seemingly annoyed embassy personnel in baseball caps and casual clothes — we are put in the charge of the sailors and Marines of the USS Nashville who’ve hauled ass from Jordan on short notice to undertake a mission for which they are unrehearsed and inexperienced. Yet they perform brilliantly. The moment we pass through the last checkpoint into their control, all are treated with a kindness and humanity we can scarcely believe. Squared away, efficient, organized and caringly sensitive, the Marines break the crowd into sensibly spaced groups, give them shade and water, lead them single file to an open-ended landing craft at the water’s edge. They carry babies, children, heat-stroke victims, luggage. They are soft-spoken, casually friendly. They give out treats and fruit and water. They reassure us with their ease and professionalism.

On the flight deck of the USS Nashville they’ve set up a refugee camp. I wake up on my folding cot and look around. With every group of traumatized evacuees — with every family, every group of children, there’s a Marine or two, chatting, exchanging stories, listening. They open their ship to us. They look so young. All of them. None looks over 17. “Where you from?” one asks me. I say, “New York” — and he tells me, “I ain’t ever been there. I’d like to.” His friends agree. They’ve never seen New York either. The mess serves tuna noodle casserole and mac and cheese and corn dogs. A sailor or Marine in a bright green dragon suit entertains children. We are kept informed. We are reassured. We are spoken to like adults. On the smoking deck, a Marine shows off a Reuter’s cover photo — taken only a few hours earlier — of himself, nuzzling two babies as he carries them through the surf to the landing craft. His buddies are razzing him, busting his balls for how intolerably big-headed he’s going to be — now that he’s “famous.” He looks at the picture and says, “You don’t know what it felt like, man.” His eyes well up.

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