The War… A View from Beirut

Lina AbiRafeh
7 min readNov 1, 2023
In the passport line in Beirut.

I was in Lebanon when this war started. In a day, all plans crumbled. In Lebanon, they are used to this. I could do nothing but sit in horror as events unfolded. I tried to write. Even then, I hardly found the words…

Day One

Here in Beirut we watch the news all day. Mygod, mygod is all I can say. Ironic, for someone who does not believe. There’s no god. There’s no humanity.

Already I am running out of adjectives, out of expletives. It is too soon to lose my words.

We talk about nothing else. Who can work — or even think — in these times? I cannot. I gave decades to an international system — one that has done nothing but let us down, exposing its total impotence. Do not speak of human rights when not everyone is seen as human.

No one goes into this work — on social justice and rights and dignity and equality — thinking it’s going to be a quick fix. We do this because we’re in it for the long haul. And because we’re ok with being part of the change that we might not see in our lifetime.

“We are living day by day,” I said to a Lebanese man.

“No,” he said. “Living day by day is a luxury we do not have. Here, we live hour by hour.”

Olive Introspection

Here’s what I know about war… there’s a lot of down time, a lot of in between moments where we pretend things are normal. I’m using my pretend-normal time to learn about olives.

Apparently, green olives are the teenage version of black olives — they all come from the same tree. I actually thought there’s a green-olive tree and a black-olive tree. Nope, olive colors, in all their delicious diversity, come from the very same tree. (Humans, are you listening?)

And these beauties come from our own tree. But they’re not ready to eat yet. They need salt and stuff, and then they need to float around for a while. And there are all kinds of techniques about squishing and slicing them. And all kinds of things to add to their olive-bath, like garlic and chili and fennel and stuff.

Olives hold a lot of meaning in this region, and olive trees even more so. For Palestinians, these trees are a national symbol, a connection to the land, and a source of identity. The destruction of olive trees is one aspect of the violence that continues to play out on repeat.

But for these olives… they will be ready to eat in 6 weeks. Who knows what the world will look like when these little guys are done, but I hope it will be a world worthy of delicious olives, with enough for all of us.

A blog I did not publish… a howl into the void

I am a feminist.
I am an activist.
I am a humanitarian.
I am an academic.
I am an aid worker.
I am a speaker, author, advisor.
I have worked for 26 years in over 20 countries.

Let’s start with that. But who am I?

I am an Arab.
I am an American.
I am a Palestinian.
I am a Lebanese.
I was raised first in Saudi Arabia, and then in Washington DC.
I am of mixed religions — practicing none.

Here’s how I’ve spent my nearly-49 years: 13 years in the Middle East + 18 years in the US + 18 years across 10 different countries in West and Central Africa, Papua New Guinea, Afghanistan, and a few others.

Have you formed your judgements yet? Form them. I’m used to it. Many have tried to squeeze me into all sorts of boxes. Good luck. I just don’t fit in them.

It may come as a surprise that all of these things exist in one body. It has not been fun or easy holding this many things in one head. There are contractions, clashes I have to grapple with. There are consequences.

I was almost ten when I moved to the US. At that time, I was the “fucking A-rab,” the “terrorist,” the brown kid in a white school. I was bullied relentlessly. And I never forgot that experience. Maybe that’s why I went into aid work, focusing on women’s rights, because I know what it’s like to be treated as less-than.

The “othering” never stopped. And then September 11, 2001. And the “othering” turned violent.

People looked to me as if I had to apologize, or explain, the event. “What do you think, Lina? You know… as an Arab…”

And once again, we were “terrorists.” The screams in the grocery store to “go back where you came from” and the relentless scrutiny of any brown person. And the fear.

Still, I have dedicated my life to equality, rights, justice. To me, it applies to everyone, everywhere.

I am sick of the violence and hatred. I am sick of the death and destruction. Have we not found other ways to resolve conflicts than to blow each other to bits?

I am shocked that too many humans lack humanity. I’m sick of all of it.

And now we bear witness to a genocide. “Never again!” We’ve said a few times before. And I’m sure many who are silent today will self-righteously condemn this tomorrow, when it is trendy to do so. Conveniently packaged for our social media consumption.

What else am I sick of? Social media pundits and ill-informed opinions of those who do not understand the region, and can hardly find it on a map. I will not fit my story, my history, and my opinions into a tweet. Nor will I pay too much attention to those who do. Everyone has an opinion. And these days everyone is an expert in 280 characters. I hope we’re still able to form intelligent opinions built from fact and provided by credible sources. But some days I’m not so sure.

I continue to believe in peace. And coexistence. And FULL EQUALITY. And I continue to find ways to work for it. My entry point is women. Because that’s where I believe our greatest hope lives.

I’m writing this from Beirut. And I’m soon going back to New York. But today, neither place feels like home. I cannot live in a region that does not share my views. I cannot live in a country that denies my identity — and my humanity. Very little has changed for Arabs in America after 9/11. And the days — decades — that followed.

Once again, I belong nowhere. Or maybe everywhere. Because maybe I’m not the only one who’s stuck between worlds.

I am the person who worked in humanitarian emergencies, cleaning up the messes of war. I know what war looks like. I have seen my share of violence. I have worked in these wars — men’s wars — where women and children are the ones who are trampled on — for generations.

I am done with this violence. I do not condone it. And I am tired of the life I’ve had to build trying to fix it. In warzones and natural disasters, I worked on ending sexual violence. For decades. It is the most fucked up job in the world, but I never felt like I had a choice. And when it comes to this kind of violence, none of us are immune. It’s the most unfortunate commonality we’ve got.

These wars, all of them, are feminist issues. Conflict, violence, occupation all have a more profound impact on women and girls. I’ve seen this firsthand in too many places.

Still, I continue to believe in our shared humanity. I continue to believe that the assholes who rule us do not represent us. I continue to believe that there are good people everywhere — people who want this shit to stop. Please be loud today, so we don’t keep paying for it tomorrow.

There’s an African expression: When elephants fight, it is the grass that suffers.

Innocent people are always the grass. And we’ve allowed the elephants to fight for far too long. Enough now.

Leaving Lebanon…

“Get out!” Everyone said.

“Get out!” The Embassy said.

And now I’m getting out. But it’s not with a sense of relief at all.

How do I explain the schizophrenia that characterizes the Lebanese identity? Sure, I’m only half Lebo. But I’m probably twice as crazy.

I hate having to choose this or that, here or there, us or them? And I’m a different “us” and a different “them” depending on where I land. I’m only comfortable in transit.

I leave today with a suitcase stuffed with guilt — this is the excess baggage I can never offload. Why do I get to leave while others can not? Why do those who get to leave leave — and leave this poor place to collapse? How do we build anything sustainable on quicksand?

Can I do more “over there”? When am I coming back? What will it look like when I come back?

“If it was gonna happen it would have happened,” one guy in the passport line says.

“When it happens, it happens,” the other guy says.

“We leave anyway, in case it happens…”

“What else can we do?”

Friends collide in the passport line.

La weyn?!” To where?! One calls to the other loudly, with that signature flick of the wrist to punctuate the question.

“Dubai!” She screams back. “You?!”

“Montreal!”

“Until when?!”

“God knows,” she says.

“God knows,” her friend answers.

“Welcome to Rafic Hariri International Airport in Beirut. We are pleased and honored to have you in our city,” says the recording. And again in Arabic. And again in French. Here we speak all three languages — interchangeably.

And now the mass exodus of youth, talent, energy, capacity, enthusiasm, creativity… these are the people who hold one-way tickets.

Once you’ve cleared passport control and they stamp you as out, you’re out. And then you’re floating around duty free. Being free of duty suddenly takes on a different meaning for me. I am not free of duty, no matter how many kilos of nuts and sweets I buy. My duty feels different.

I will always have a yes/no love/hate stay/go with this place.

Beirut, you drive me nuts. Your madness is your charm. And when I’m “over there” I bask in the calm… until I miss the chaos. And then I’m back here again.

I’m always dissecting myself into a million pieces, sprinkling parts of me in these places.

Like adding spices to my dinner.

Until the jar is empty.

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Lina AbiRafeh

Global women's rights expert, author, speaker, aid worker, feminist activist with 25 years of experience in 20 countries worldwide - and lots of stories!