Learning from Lebanon

Lebanon (1)By Sophia Smith-Galer

There we were, sitting in the sanctitude of our dialect class, when gunfire punctured the air.  “Are they fireworks?” we asked meekly. “No,” our teacher replied, “it’s probably a tribute to a martyr.”

Peace and quiet is a distant dream here in Beirut, Lebanon, where roads are still a car-horn, expletive-filled chaos thirty years after the war and generators and water tanks hum constantly.  Not forgetting, of course, the spouts of random gunfire.

I study Spanish and Arabic and, having squeezed some time in Spain into my adjacent summers, I have devoted my year abroad to studying in Beirut.

Moving to a country that shares borders with a civil war and butchering pseudo-Caliphate didn’t really bother me at the time – blame the breezy confidence of youth – but it did concern my family. I had obscure Italian relatives ring up my grandmother to tell her “Well, I wouldn’t let my daughter go there” and family friends lit candles for me at church.  Despite the funerary farewells I remained adamant that I was going to enjoy my time in Lebanon – and survive.

A word to the wise for those considering doing their year abroad somewhere slightly off the beaten track: do it. As long as the Foreign Office has painted your bit of the map green, there is absolutely no reason to back out.

Contrary to the popular belief of the ignorant that the Middle East is a bomb-ridden camel farm, Beirut is cosmopolitan, essentially one big party – something which both my Instagram and liver can testify to.

Durham is a cosy little castle with cosy little pubs, cosy little Patrick’s Pizza and all too cosy, all too little Klute. When you take on the decision to learn languages you make the choice to embrace much more than learning how to count to one hundred and the mythical subjunctive. You embrace new cultures, new ways of life, new polemics; you learn how to cope with situations you might never have lived through otherwise and you meet inspiring, life-affirming individuals.

Whilst I am not discounting years abroad in more conventional places, take what my friend and fellow year abroader Hannah Azuonye said after working in Dakar, Senegal. “For me, France’s history and culture is as much about the ex-colonies and the Francophone world as it is about the country itself. But it was also a desire to challenge myself that pushed me to find a job in Dakar; France just seemed too straightforward.” If you are the type that likes a little complication in your life – and, as a linguist, this is likely to describe you – why not? “It’s not easy, but there’s no better way to demonstrate your initiative, courage and originality. You’ll learn so much more than a language.”

Lebanon (3)So, what have I learned?  Contrary to the popular belief of the ignorant that the Middle East is a bomb-ridden camel farm, Beirut is cosmopolitan, essentially one big party – something which both my Instagram and liver can testify to.

But Beirut’s skyscrapers cast long shadows over its swollen population of Syrian refugees and frustrated Lebanese. I have seen beggar boys beaten up for being Syrian, or drugged to sleep on the streets by traffickers in the hope that you will feel sorry for them and give them money – all incentivising me to volunteer for an NGO that supports Syrian youth education here. I have learned how constant, nearby war can desensitise you to conflict and a false sense of security, mirage-like, can hang over an entire society.

The biggest threat to my own personal safety, however, has not been ISIS. In Beirut I have been groped and catcalled; in taxis I have been told I am beautiful as the driver stops the car and tells me to sit in the front “so that we can talk better.”  Men have pulled their cars up to me as I walk on the pavement and try to corner me in order to talk to me and ask if I’m married. It’s not the way you’re used to being approached, and you are far too far away to have a moan on the Durham Feminism Forum. Different cultures involve different behaviours; you’re allowed to be mad about it, but to survive you have to get over it.

I dutifully watch the news every day; the nightmare of the Lebanese borders with Syria and Israel has long been a somnolent normality for the Lebanese and you move with their rhythm. Somebody put up a Hezbollah flag next to my flat and I wave every day to the officer who sits in the massive army tank outside my school.

As Hannah said, what better way to demonstrate your initiative, courage and originality? Take note that some universities (notably Oxford) consider Beirut a no-go zone for their students; use your advantage as a Durham student to just go for it. With a competitive edge and an inquisitive mind, you’ll be headed a lot further than where your year abroad will take you.

Photographs: Sophia Smith-Galer

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