‘I still find it extraordinary I never regarded myself as the child of refugees’
Pierre Jarawan revisits Lebanon, which his parents left in 1982, the setting for his novel
Pierre Jarawan: We do not talk about the civil war. That topic is best avoided in Lebanon, no matter who you’re talking to. Photograph: Marvin Ruppert
The narrow dirt road to my aunt’s house takes us past whitewashed villas with date palms in their gardens.
“It is so nice to see you,” she says, as we jolt along over the stony surface. “It’s been so long…so long. You look more like your father than ever, but you definitely have your mother’s eyes.”
I’ve had my eyes closed these last few minutes, trying to remember how everything smelled before, because I’m confused by what I see. The last time I was here, 16 years ago, there were olive trees where the white villas are now. And my aunt’s house, a white, three-storey mansion, was the finest house in the village. Its windows sparkled in the sun, and lemons and figs grew on the trees in the garden below. When we finally arrive at the house, I can see that the lustre has faded. It saddens me to see the plaster peeling off the walls and cats slinking around where I played as a child. My aunt’s house, overshadowed by the big new villa, seems almost shabby.
“You can have the guest room on the ground floor or sleep upstairs in the apartment,” she says. “Make yourself at home.”
My parents left Lebanon in 1982. They had met at the ecumenical Schneller School in the Bekaa Valley. Up to that point, the high plateau region had been relatively untouched by the civil war. My mother, who is German, was a teacher at the school; my father, a social education worker. It wasn’t easy to be a couple and work in the same place, so my father took a job in Saudi Arabia, assuming that my mother would soon join him. But then Israel intervened in the civil war, and even the uplands were no longer safe.
“I remember when a helicopter was shot down right above the school,” my mother once told me. “It crashed into the schoolyard and burned out, but no one from our school was hurt.” She often spoke of nights spent in the shelter with the kids, the sound of distant explosions reaching their ears through the school walls. So, it wasn’t until later that my mother fled the country and joined my father.
My brother was born in Saudi Arabia, in 1983. I was born in 1985, in Jordan. My sister was born in 1989, in Germany, where we’d been living for a year by then. Three children – three different countries.
As a boy, I loved Lebanon. It was where my father was from, where we spent our holidays and visited the extended family. They all adored me because my hair was still blond then. They’d pop sweets into my mouth and let me have a go at the shisha pipe, and my parents wouldn’t mind. My aunt’s house was the best place in the world, up on a hill, with a view of the sea, and tortoises wandering round the garden. I spent many summers there. Then school exams got in the way, and university, and all the other excuses.
I didn’t return to Lebanon until July 2015, to do some research for my novel. It was 16 years since I’d been to Beirut. I was shocked and saddened to see how little the city – indeed the whole country – matched my memories.
The streets were lined with rubbish, and the innate friendliness I’d always associated with Lebanese people seemed to be buried beneath a cool reserve, in Beirut at least. But every story takes a different slant depending on where you begin it, so I decided to follow the coast 80km to the north, to Enfeh, where my aunt lives. I didn’t want to leave the country without feeling something of what I remembered from before.
For several kilometres, tents line either side of the road to the village where my aunt lives. Washing hangs on lines outside them. Children play in the dust. “Syrian refugees,” my aunt informs me. Later, when we’re sitting in her living room, she’ll say: “We give them food, we give them clothes, but they’re ungrateful. They steal.”
My aunt has grown old. She’s nearly 80 now. Her skin is mottled with age spots, her eyes are no longer bright, and her hands shake as she carries in a tray of flatbread and olives. I offer to help, but she dismisses me.
We do not talk about the civil war. That topic is best avoided in Lebanon, no matter who you’re talking to. It’s easier to talk about the Syrians, arriving now as refugees only 10 years after the Syrian army withdrew from Lebanon, having occupied it for 30 years. My aunt – after moaning about the Syrians moments ago – is now saying, “What can we do but take them in? We are Lebanese – we welcome everyone with open arms.”
Some say we are the sum of our memories, that the fabric of our identity is artfully woven from fragments of memory. But how can we fully be who we are if all we remember is scraps and fragments?
There’s one thing I still find extraordinary: I never, and I really mean never, regarded myself as the child of refugees. There was never any talk in our house of having to flee Lebanon – not because my parents wanted to repress memories, but because they never saw leaving Lebanon as fleeing civil war but rather as an opportunity to be together elsewhere.
When I was a child, my half-Lebanese heritage lent me a touch of the exotic. At school, I gave presentations about the Phoenicians, and traded my flatbread with curious schoolmates during break, in exchange for sandwiches and chocolate bars. I was the only kid in school who had a shisha pipe at home and, what’s more, was actually allowed to use it.
Being only half-German made me special, not foreign. Now, whenever I plead for empathy with refugees, I often begin by saying, “My parents, too…” But in the same breath I ask myself, when did this even become relevant? Why do I even feel the need to mention it? And I wonder how my aunt could have forgotten it…
Entering the arrivals hall back in Munich, I notice a group of people gathered around a TV screen. A news anchor is reporting on Pegida demonstrations in Dresden, reading out the latest statistics on refugee hostels that have been attacked.
I think of my aunt, of her house that was once the finest in the village, of the road that used to be lined with olive trees and prickly pear cactuses. I think of smiling faces in the streets of Beirut.
And I wonder when it all changed. Or whether it was ever the way I remember it.
Pierre Jarawan is the author of The Storyteller, translated from the German by Rachel McNicholl and Sinéad Crowe (World Editions, April 2019, £11.99)