32 Years After Civil War, Mundane Moments Trigger Awful Memories

When you’re a child, how do you get through a war?

A lot of Monopoly, Scrabble, card games, candles and windowless bathrooms turned into family bomb shelters, almost like a big sleepover — if you can ignore the hard tiles and loud shelling of some group trying to kill you for reasons you don’t quite understand.

Yes, war is pulverized buildings, the screech of ambulances, blood, funerals. But war can be boring for long stretches, and you pass the time by falling back on the trite and familiar.

But some of those same crutches used to make it through a childhood scarred by conflict — like endless board games — are now a source of trauma for me and my friends. We grew up during Lebanon’s civil war and are now adults trying to live normal lives, raising our own families as the country crashes and burns yet again.

For my generation, emotional minefields can surround the most mundane activities even 32 years since the war ended.

Everyday items like candles can trigger traumatic memories of the war. As sweeping power outages in Beirut continue, residents have once again found themselves living by candlelight.Credit…Anwar Amro/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

“I don’t do well in romantic settings,” said my friend Nadine Rasheed, a 40-year-old product developer who now lives in New York. “Candles give me anxiety. We spent so much time studying by candlelight after school.”

When she was in her 30s, and newly married to an Americanman living in Lebanon, they went camping in Jordan. After a long hike, he had arranged for a candlelit dinner in the wilderness. She panicked.

Then, after calming down, came the long explanation of what it was like growing up during a civil war, forced to rely on old inventions, like the candle, as your country deteriorated and electricity became rarer and rarer.

“It’s a collective trauma in Lebanon, and a complex trauma, because we aren’t talking about one thing, but many events that people have lived through,” said Ghida Husseini, my former therapist in Lebanon who specializes in trauma. “It’s the war, it’s the stress of losing your livelihood and not feeling secure.”

The author, right, with older siblings on a family visit to the Baalbek ruins in the 1990s, after the war had ended.
The author (infant on right) and an infant cousin at their baptism in Lebanon during the war.

Nadine and I have waited our whole lives for Beirut to return to the glamour of our parents’ generation. In many ways, Beirut is still seductive, still on the precipice of being “the next Berlin,” as hipsters like to say. Which is why it makes it so hard to let go.

The war lasted for 15 years, until 1990. Tired of waiting, the nation accepted a blanket amnesty for a shaky peace. We watched as militia leaders traded in their blood-soaked fatigues for designer suits and started running the country.

Now we find ourselves waiting, again, as those war criminals-turned-politicians have mismanaged the country — an ongoing banking crisis has seen the currency shed over 90 percent of its value — and skirted responsibility for an explosion at Beirut’s seaport in the summer of 2020.

The crisis in Lebanon has meant households are once again stockpiling candles and board games. Reminders of a past war are now staples of the present decay.

Lebanon has experienced its worst economic crisis in decades, which has at times prompted violent street clashes between police and protesters.Credit…Diego Ibarra Sanchez for The New York Times

I first recognized how everyday objects could cause hands to go clammy and brains to overload with memories when a friend suggested to Nadine and me that we play a board game one night.

“No, I don’t want to,” Nadine said, taking a resolute stance on something that would seem so trivial to most.

But I knew exactly why she had said “No!” so forcefully 10 years ago, even though I didn’t speak with her about it again until a few weeks ago when I called her for this article in my role as an international correspondent for The New York Times, now based in Mexico City.

“Cards. Candles. Flashlights. They give me this sad feeling, because there was nothing else to do but play cards in the underground parking garage my family used” to avoid shelling, she said. “I remember sitting on a mattress as a kid, surrounded by candles. There’s a feeling of being trapped. There is no TV. No music. No electricity. You can’t go outside, it’s too dangerous. All there is — is cards.”

The war spared no sect (Nadine is Druze), left no childhood undamaged, but the bad memory triggers can be different for every survivor.

Raoul Chachar, a childhood friend from a Christian suburb of Beirut, told me he loves card games. It’s the sight of the Virgin Mary that haunts him.

Raoul Chachar developed a stutter after enduring nighttime bombings during the civil war. Credit…Natalie Naccache for The New York Times

On those nights when the shelling was fiercest, when the families in his apartment building would shelter in the stairwell (with TV sets moved to the hallways to keep an eye on the news), Raoul would transform into a superstar of cards. He and the neighbors he played with learned to calculate how long it would take for the tanks nearby their building to reload their projectiles — playing board games rapidly before the shelling would begin and the pieces would scatter across the board.

“Cards was my childhood, how can I hate it?” Raoul said recently. “And I was the best.”

One night, as Raoul slept — his bedroom window had the dining table nailed to it, to protect against snipers — bombing started. His mother cried out for him, looking frantically until they found Raoul, then 5, crying while hugging a framed photo of the Virgin Mary that had fallen from the wall, praying for his life. He developed a stutter after that.

“When I left Lebanon, I left. I only took my stutter with me,” said Raoul, who has lived in the United Arab Emirates and Poland since leaving Lebanon. “That’s it. That’s the baggage I took with me.”

I was lucky. I did not grow up in Lebanon, at least not full time, as my father worked abroad, waiting for the war to end and the chance to move back.

Yet every summer, no matter what happened — an Israeli invasion, the suicide bombing that killed hundred of U.S. Marines — we went back, to be with our family, to hold their hands and say: We have not abandoned you. It was the most twisted of survivor’s guilt, a role I played every summer until we moved back to Lebanon in the early 1990s when I was 10.

We had our close calls during those summer visits. In 1985, my mother took my siblings and me to run an errand and she pulled off the highway to take another route. Seconds later, a giant explosion ripped through where our car had been idling, killing at least 50 people. We watched the wounded flee, blood streaming down their faces.

Many are left wondering how their adult lives would be better if their childhoods had been different.

For Abed Bibi, a 58-year old married to a friend of mine, he cannot handle the dark.

Abed Bibi, who now lives in Dubai, has vowed never to return to Lebanon.Credit…Natalie Naccache for The New York Times

A Palestinian Sunni Muslim, he grew up in the Sanayeh neighborhood of Beirut, near the Greenline separating the Christian east from the Muslim west.

Decades later, sunsets are one of the sources of trauma for him, still.

“You know how people stop and look at the sunset? I hate it,” Abed told me. “I can’t look at it.”

Because it meant night was coming. And nighttime meant shelling.

Abed’s family lived on the top floor of their apartment building. At sunset, during the worst days of the war, his family would walk down to their neighbor’s better-protected ground floor apartment.

“Sunsets remind me of every time we had to go down to the first floor to the Armenian family to take shelter there because that’s when the shelling starts,” he said, going silent before whistling to mimic the sound of incoming fire.

Now watching his own toddler daughter grow up in Dubai, Abed vows never to return to Lebanon, for his daughter’s sake. And his.

Like many, he harbors a lot of anger, over the childhood that was robbed from him.

“I could have been a better person, a stronger person, maybe wiser, with less fear,” he said. “Especially the fear. Because fear is trauma. I’m a grown man and I’m afraid to walk in the dark. Because to me, the dark is war.”

A view of Beirut. “Sunsets remind me of every time we had to go down to the first floor to the Armenian family to take shelter there because that’s when the shelling starts,” Abed said.Credit…Diego Ibarra Sanchez for The New York Times
Back to top button