Nottingham, United Kingdom
|View of Lebanon from an airplane window. Photo by Elie Najjar.|
“Dear passengers, we will be arriving soon at Beirut International Airport.” We had indeed arrived in Lebanon, the land also called Leb-Uh-Nunh and other names before that. Mesopotamians called it Chaddum Elum or “the fields of God.”1 The Greeks called it Phoenicia, attributed to the Tyrian purple dye. Phoeiké also means the polar star, sunrise, palm trees, and roses.1 Lob-Hannan means “the heart of God” in Syriac and in Aramaic, the mother tongue of Jesus Christ.2 In Hebrew, Laban means whiteness, snow, and milk. Louban indicates incense and aromatic wood.
The first facts I ever learned about Lebanon were revealed in an old yellow book called If Lebanon were to Speak by the great Zahle poet, mathematician, linguist, and historian Saed Akl. I used to keep that book under my pillow, reading and rereading it until the stories seeped into my dreams and Akl’s wondrous narrative carried me like Aladdin’s carpet to this ancient land where every grain of sand hides a story. I learned about Pythagoras, who was conceived in Sidon, and his daughter Damo, whose name is immortalized in the city of Damour. I mourned Dido, or Elyssa, the legendary founder of Carthage, who died by the flaming sword of loyalty and nobility. I imagined Jesus roaming the southern shores, revealing his miraculous nature in Qana, baptized in the river that springs from Mount Hermon. I learned about the first atomic theorist, Mochous, who lived in the tenth century BC. I met Europa, the mystic princess who was kidnapped by Zeus, and Cadmus, who taught the alphabet to the Western world. I traveled to the holy city of Geb-El or “the source of God,” later on known as Byblos, the origin of the word bible. I visited Berytus Nutrix Legume or Beirut, where Dorotheus and Anatolius compiled the legal code for the Roman Empire.3 My brain dozed with the faces of countless Lebanese greats like Amir Fakhr-Al din, Hassan Kamel Al Sabbah, Gebran Khalil Gebran, Saint Charbel, Charles Malek, and many others.
As I grew up, a different face of Lebanon stared at me from newspapers and TV screens. I was confronted with the repercussions of a monstrous civil war between eighteen angry sects trying to demolish each other in the name of nationalism. An estimated 120,000 martyrs4 died for 120,000 causes. Those who survived the war lived in a state of constant victimization and vengeance. Street lamps sprouted pictures of young martyrs trapped in time and memory. The white walls of once joyful cities were full of religious graffiti, hate letters, lost promises, threats, and caricatures of foreign tyrants, all with the same bloodthirsty stare in their eyes. Cedar trees were chopped from social consciousness and Kalashnikovs, swastikas, swords, skulls, snakes, and rabid beasts became symbols of our nation instead. Alleyways that used to smell of fresh bread and coffee now reeked of fear. Radios that once rumbled with Feiruz’s angelic voice now echoed with relentless announcements of political unrest, economic collapse, security crises, propaganda, corruption, barriers, kidnappings, assassinations, bombs, war, occupation, and displacement. God seemed to have abandoned his Lob-Hanan and Jesus the land of his childhood. What remained were soulless calligraphic designs of Allah and deformed crosses on rifles, tanks, bombs, and missiles.
The third face of Lebanon was that of our daily lives. My own journey started in my pre-med years, when I joined a group of volunteers to rehabilitate prisons, build schools and playgrounds for underprivileged children, clean streets, and reach out to those in need. Immersed in the joy of giving and serving, I saw my homeland reflected in the faces of those I served. Lebanon greeted me with the happy hands of children dancing barefoot in the mud to celebrate their newly built school. I saw it in the old fishermen of Tripoli, who brined pots of fish and rice to thank us for rehabilitating the buildings destroyed from the armed conflict between Jabal Mohsen and Bab El Tebbani. Lebanon was the paralyzed man in Ashrafeyyeh, who insisted on carrying bags of sand in his wheelchair to help rebuild his house, which had collapsed because of a car bomb. Lebanon was Sako from Zahle, who had been a medical student in 1975 but suffered a mental collapse after being kidnapped by militiamen, who now wore a white robe and sold bread on the street with a smile and kind greeting. Lebanon was Ali, the shepherd from the south who writes his poetry on grass leaves, imagining they are an extension of his six-year-old son who died after an operation in 1996.
The spirit of my homeland soon spread to the medical school, where doctors became experts in carrying heavy stones, painting walls, mixing cement, breaking fences, driving tractors, and most importantly, discovering their own roots in people who had been forgotten. During my residency, our projects expanded. We built a free clinic in Nabha Bekaa and started monthly visits to rural villages to give free consultations. On August 4, 2020, a huge explosion destroyed half of my cherished Beirut. For two days I worked relentlessly in the operating theater, suturing tendons, fixing fractures, cleaning wounds, and dreaming of healing a country. After the surgeries, I carried a broom and wandered the streets, trying to remove the rubble and misery with a million other volunteers.
Neither the ancient stories nor the reports from the daily newspapers mattered to me anymore. I was done with the past and the faces of those who had died. I wanted to find my homeland in the hearts of the living, in those who are right next to us in the street, village, mountain, or shore, who are still alive and waiting for a true human touch.
As I waited for my suitcase to arrive, I contemplated the enigma of this little piece of land. We all are Lebanon: we love this land as much as we love ourselves, for Lebanon will always be our beloved homeland.
- Murr, May. Lebanon-Phoenicia, Land of God. Beirut: The Weekly Labnaan, 1980
- Aql, Saʻīd. If Lebanon Were to Speak. Louaize: Notre Dame University Press, 2006.
- Collinet, Paul. Histoire de l’école de droit de Beyrouth. Paris: Société Anonyme du Recueil Sirey, 1925.
- UN Human Rights Council. 23 November 2006. “IMPLEMENTATION OF GENERAL ASSEMBLY RESOLUTION 60/251 OF 15 MARCH 2006 ENTITLED HUMAN RIGHTS COUNCIL”
ELIE NAJJAR comes from the land of Cedars. Professionally, Elie studied orthopedic surgery in Lebanon, worked for a while in Paris, then joined Queen’s Medical Center Spine Surgery Unit. On a more personal level, Elie is a full-time dreamer and a part-time spine surgeon. Elie hunts for dreams through literature, the faces of people, and the endless stories in the endless streets of cities. Writers like Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Amin Maalouf, and John Steinbeck among many others have shaped Elie’s life. Elie has already published several poems and articles in international and won the Jane Austen Writing Competition.
Second prize winner of the Glory of Lebanon Contest, in collaboration with the Lebanese American University Gilbert and Rose-Marie Chagoury School of Medicine