[spectre] Out of Beirut: Exit Stamp July 17 2006

nat muller nat at xs4all.nl
Thu Jul 20 17:13:02 CEST 2006

Out of Beirut: Exit Stamp July 17 2006

My Lebanese exit stamp reads July 17th; it was supposed to read August
4th. It wasn’t till the next day, Tuesday July 18th that I arrived with
the second flight of the Dutch evacuation convoy via Aleppo at the
military airbase in Eindhoven. My friends and family were relieved to see
me “out of Beirut”, and escaping the violence.  The flurry of smses with
these 3 simple words “are you out?” keep coming in till today, July 20th.
It is strange how an exit can take on different connotations, what is
deemed a lucky escape in one context, is an artistic export product in
another:  “Out of Beirut” is the name of an exhibition recently held at
the museum of Modern Art in Oxford.  I had made a mental note to ask my
artist friends in Beirut to borrow the catalogue from them.  There was no
time. Nor was there time to say goodbye to friends; it all happened so

I had only registered with the Dutch embassy on Friday July 14th; noone
was picking up the phone so J. and I decided to go there.  Very few people
there, just one obviously distressed Dutchman of Lebanese origin.  “I
haven’t been back since 26 years, and now this”, he tells me.  The lady at
the counter copies my passport and asks me for phone numbers.  She
reassures me that now we have only reached “Phase I”, and that no
evacuation plans are being made.  She advises me to stay in Beirut, and
not attempt to go to Syria by myself, since the embassy cannot vouch for
my safety.  Fine, I wasn’t thinking of leaving to Syria, despite the many
phone calls of Swiss friends urging me to join them just across the border
in Tartus.

In the meanwhile the situation keeps escalating, and bombs keep pounding
infrastructure, the South, and the Dahiyeh; the casualties mount.  We move
from Qasqas to a friend’s place in Achrafieh. By now electricity is on and
off.  We see the first refugees wandering around bewildered in the streets
of well-to do Achrafieh. Whenever electricity is on, we are glued to the
TV.  I joke that the only new Arabic word I learned this time around is
“khabar ajil” (breaking news).  One wonders when news stops being news,
how long it will take the world this time to turn its head away with bored
media saturation; how many more atrocities have to be committed before
something can be viewed as “news”. There’s a paralysing silence on the
part of the international community, especially the EU: no official or
strong condemnation of the disproportionate use of force, absolutely

I am in the middle of an interview with Belgian national radio Sunday
night, fulminating at how biased the media coverage is, when an sms of the
Dutch embassy shows up on my phone: “Evacuation at 5.30 am at the Dutch
embassy; bring money, passport, food, one piece of luggage.” I panic: to
stay/to go; how can I say goodbye to my friends?  I only have hours.  In
the middle of my panic someone from Foreign Affairs in The Hague calls me.
His voice is so calm and friendly, as if he rehearsed the words and tone
to perfection. He inquires whether I had received the sms, whether I was
fine and had any additional questions.  “Is the crossing to Syria safe”, I
ask him.  It takes him a few – obviously very composed moments of silence
to answer me. “ Well, we cannot guarantee that.” “So the only thing
safeguarding us, are a few flags attached to the buses?” “Well, yes, but
don’t worry.  Do you have any further questions, Ma’am?”

July 17th, 5.30am. J. and I make it to the Dutch embassy.  The scene is
surprisingly orderly. This has certainly changed over the past few days,
as more and more foreign nationals are trying get out of the country. 
While queuing up to register I meet my friend Raed, an artist and
musician, but now free-lancing as a cameraman for foreign TV stations. I
break down in sobs; he tries to calm me down
to no avail.  “We will meet
again soon, Nat, in Amsterdam or in Beirut, inshallah.” I wish I could
believe him. Later on, I chide myself for crying: I don’t have a right to
tears, with people’s lives being torn apart, their houses and businesses
destroyed, their loved ones gone. Where on earth do I get the arrogance to
weep? My goodbye to J. is very short.  “See you soon”, he says as he
kisses me. I feel a pang; time has become suspended.  Who knows when
“soon” will be.  We were supposed to leave together on August 4th for a
holiday in Holland, now my travel companions are about 250 other Dutch
nationals, many of them carrying dual citizenship.

We only manage to leave around 7.45 a.m. The coordinators had decided last
minute that probably it would be a better idea to attach the Dutch flags
on the roofs of the busses, rather than have them in front.  Well yes, the
roof is definitely a better idea for aerial vision than the windscreen.
The whole flag operation takes about an hour. The irony of it all: only a
week before had we smiled upon the Lebanese passion for football during
the World Cup, and the exuberant flag parade in the city of favourite
teams (Italy, Brazil, Germany, you name it). We had joked how easy and
playful the bearing of a flag was: if your team loses, then you just pick
another.  How exclusive and devoid of choice the bearing of a flag has
become now: it can mean your ticket out, and your only guarantee of
safety, or it means you cannot get out and are fully exposed to the spoils
of war.

We slowly make our way out of Beirut, passing familiar places. Many people
weep; it’s heart-breaking. Once in the bus, I start hearing stories. One
Dutch woman, fluent in Arabic, had come to the embassy with absolutely
just the clothes she was wearing.  She had fled her house in
Dahiyeh with her kids, not knowing whether it was still standing. Another
family had been living in Lebanon for over 5 years; doing relief work in
the Palestinian camps.  The decision to leave was extremely hard, but they
just didn’t want their kids to go through the trauma. And then of course
the Lebanese-Dutch, who leave family and friends behind. But there are
also a bunch of back-packers and tourists who are pragmatically sober and
unaffected about it: they aren’t leaving anyone behind. My neighbour turns
out to be something of a distant colleague; he’s an art professor teaching
at the art academy in Enschede where I did a few guest lectures. He just
left his Lebanese girlfriend behind; they only managed to have one day
together before she moved out of the Southern suburbs, to the safety of
mountains. The trip takes ages, in Tripoli we see the bombed out police
station or army HQ, I cannot remember. At the border we hear Tripoli was
bombed again, moments after we passed it. We get held up 5 hours at the
border, which seems nothing in comparison with the 9 hours of the
Italians, the previous day.  I see refugees pushing wheelbarrows filled
with suitcases over the border; people just clutching flimsy plastic bags,
with no possessions whatsoever. The line of busses and cars keeps getting
longer and longer, the Lebanese as the Syrian officials have no way of
coping with this.  How can bureaucracy matter in times like these?  At the
Dutch embassy in Beirut they had distributed copies of the exit forms to
us. The Lebanese officials didn't accept the copies; they wanted us to
fill in the proper forms. More delay and agitation in the heat of the
midday sun.  Then the Syrians make a fuss about the transit visa
I become
exasperated: it was better in Beirut. We finally make it to Aleppo around
8.30pm.  More bureaucracy, this time Dutch.  They flew in an evacuation
team.  The boys of the Dutch “Koninklijke Marechaussee” (the Royal
Constabulary) look fresh and cleanly-shaven.  We on the other hand, are
exhausted, hungry and dirty.  At 3.30am, I am finally allowed to board the
second plane to the military base of Eindhoven.  The first plane took the
elderly, families with small children and pregnant women.  The Dutch have
chartered a Turkish charter with a Turkish crew, since it was impossible
to get a Dutch carrier on such sort notice due to the holiday season.  The
hostesses are made up and dressed impeccably; they smell of expensive
French perfume.  It seems so absurd to me.  They beam benevolent smiles
upon us as we scramble for seats. 4,5 hours later we land in Eindhoven.
“Ladies and gentlemen.  Welcome to Eindhoven.  Thank you for flying
Freebird Airlines; we wish you a pleasant stay.” The protocols of decorum
seem absolutely grotesque when thinking about what’s happening in Lebanon.
 Everything seems trivial and meaningless, and even words become reduced
to rubble.

Nat Muller

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