This piece was originally published in New Lines magazine’s Just Landed newsletter, which you can sign up for here.
I just got back from Lebanon, where I got a taste of how it feels to go into the country, a hub for foreign journalists covering the region as a whole, for a brief sojourn, with much less fear of being detained and questioned or caught and deported.
Last time I was there, I lived illegally for three years in Beirut as an undocumented Syrian refugee, at the risk of being sent back to my demise in the country I had been forced to leave. This time, although not yet a French citizen, I was recognized as a refugee by France, which had given me a long-term residency and a travel document, and it was already very different.
This was my first visit since I left Beirut in early February 2020, before a number of developments: COVID-19 became a pandemic; financial collapse accelerated with horrifying rapidity; the August 4 port blast rocked the city, wounding virtually everyone I know; and the hope for change, probably at its highest level in the last few months of 2019, dissipated.
It was an overwhelming time for me (I could not even sit down, think and write a proper issue of this newsletter while there — hence my long absence). Apart from seeing some of my favorite places reduced to ruin; missing many of those whom I love who are no longer there; and paying more than 10 times as much in Lebanese liras as I did the last time I was here for a cheese-and-thyme manoushe, a quintessential Lebanese round breakfast flatbread, there were the changes that had to do with my own situation. I was thinking about questions of privilege and identity in journalism, as I have often been doing, this time from the very place where the extent to which those privileges enjoyed by some affect the output of a media outlet and the lives of their less-fortunate colleagues.
When I moved to Lebanon in 2017, flying in from Sudan where I had stayed during a two-month interval, I was treated with much rudeness and condescension at the airport and was asked many questions about my intentions in entering the country, where I was going to stay and with whom, etc.
I lived in fear of being stopped at a checkpoint, which deprived me from traveling much inside the small country, whether for work to Akkar in the north or Nabatieh in the south, or to go see the ruins of the temples of Bacchus and of Jupiter in Baalbek in pursuit of my undying passion for classical antiquity.
I can also remember a time when I was worried about speaking in my Syrian dialect, relying on English and French to help me navigate life in a bastion of formerly bloodthirsty militias now posing as modern parties, such as Kataeb or the Lebanese Forces. My accent in English, more British than American, often transformed the hasty dismissal of some classist or racist interlocutors into curious astonishment.
Trying to survive all of that as a Syrian refugee was one thing; aggravating it further by working as a journalist for international media, critical of the ruling oligarchy, was another.
As I walked past the area where the residence of the prime minister stands, I remembered the time when my British press card was not enough to let me in, even though it was for other colleagues who walked in right in front of me, because I was the one who said “sabah al-kheir” (good morning in Arabic) rather than hello or bonjour. I was asked to stand aside for my papers to be checked, then took advantage of a distraction caused by the arrival of a flamboyant Lebanese TV personality in a massive car with tinted glass, to walk, then sprint, then hop into a taxi that took me back home, where I watched the PM’s press conference online.
I also remembered the days of the October 17 protests in 2019, when I could see nothing but policemen and soldiers who would be interested in a catch like me, a troublemaking journalist who is also a Syrian and who was there illegally. My mother, who called me on the first day of the protests while we were under tear gas and a tightening security grip, only expressed concern that I spoke to her in Syrian Arabic while surrounded by Lebanese people.
This time, it was different. I was greeted with relative politeness at the airport, arriving there from Greece — where I had been visiting archaeological sites and wineries in the Peloponnese — and receiving a genuine-sounding “safe travels” two weeks later as I headed back to Paris.
I walked the streets of Beirut feeling safe, my French travel document in my pocket. We went to several places outside the Lebanese capital, passing through checkpoints, laying eyes upon which did not even make me flinch.
I spoke at a workshop on inequality in international media, particularly the issues faced by “local reporters,” “news assistants” and “fixers” — something that I was invited to do after my New Lines Magazine essay that resulted in this newsletter — and I had no concern at all about appearing there, saying what I wanted to say, then walking out.
Throughout those two unforgettable weeks, I kept repeating to myself: This must be how it feels for journalists moving here from abroad to report on Lebanon and neighboring countries. All the work I had to do would have been carried out with much less fear of reprisals and a farther-reaching range. I found that hard to fathom in its fullness: Journalism must be easier than I thought!
I keep hearing that physicians and medics from Syria are highly desirable in some countries, like Germany, because of the combination of extreme circumstances they had to work under (lack of basic equipment, medicine and a safe environment) and the complex conditions they had to treat (resulting from war and its fallout). If only it was the same for journalists. I have yet to hear someone say about a skilled, risk-taking, bi- or multilingual journalist with a nose for news: “Imagine what they could do with a proper staff position and the resources they need to prosper.”