When I was a child, I spent most summers at my grandparents’ home in the Lebanese mountain village of Roumieh, overlooking Beirut and the Mediterranean coast. From the swing on the veranda, an expanse of umbrella pines and terracotta-roofed villages tumbled steeply toward the sea.
In the evenings, my grandfather would set up a tiny portable television outside to watch the news, and my grandmother would point out the constellations of lights across the hills, naming the villages and towns: “There’s Bhannes, near Bhersaf. Beyond them is Bikfaya, but you can’t see it from here.”
The mountain’s geography was mystifying. Elevation seemed to both stretch and compress space. Villages separated by a few hundred meters of fragrant air were as distinct as planets, while the great city by the sea seemed close enough to touch. Maps showed the road to my grandparents’ house neatly branching off the main street of the village. In reality, it torqued as it rose steeply up a hill, tracing a question mark toward the sky.
That terrain was full of uncertainties, and it is even more so today, as the war in Syria, just a hundred or so miles away, has worsened. The United Nations registered over one million Syrian refugees in Lebanon between the beginning of the war in 2011 and 2015. The number today may be closer to 1.5 million. In a small country of under five million people, the effects of the influx seem unfathomable in their enormity.
When I try to imagine them, it’s the vista from my grandparents’ mountain balcony that I see, with even more lights glowing in constellations across the valley. And it occurs to me that my grandmother’s nightly cataloging of towns back then was her way to come to terms with Lebanon’s own history of violent displacements. It was the late ’80s, after sectarian conflict had turned Lebanon into a patchwork of confessional enclaves and no-man’s lands separated by invisible borders, much like the state of Syria today.
Her ritual of surveying and naming was therapeutic: It conjured a vision of Lebanon as a reconstituted entity — territorially and politically — to replace the scenes of fracture flickering across my grandfather’s black-and-white television.
For us children, it was a geography lesson meant as preparation for the strange homecoming that always follows a great war. Lebanon then, like Syria now, seemed finished as a state or a coherent nation, and one day we would have to make our way through its contorted political landscape, and find a new place in it.
One summer shortly after the end of the Lebanese Civil War, in 1990 or 1991, my father decided that my siblings and I needed a different sort of geography class. Four children squeezed into the back seat of an old gray-and-black, two-door Chevy Malibu, and we set off every day to explore the parts of Lebanon not visible from my grandparents’ balcony.
Within two weeks we’d crossed the country several times, stopping in places we’d only heard the adults speak about: the Roman ruins at Baalbek, the Crusaders’ sea castle in Sidon, the palace of Emir Bashir II in Beiteddine, the pockmarked sniper alleys and killing fields of downtown Beirut. Few of our destinations were prepared to receive tourists; the postwar reconstruction effort was barely underway. In fact, this may have been the objective of my father’s expedition: to show his children the remains of Lebanon’s First Republic, the country of his own childhood.
I remember the barely suppressed looks of relief on my grandparents’ faces when we’d return to their house each evening, fresh with stories about the places we’d visited. I delighted in laying out our itineraries for my grandmother, listing the towns that we passed and the roads we’d taken, especially those I’d heard her mention on the balcony on previous summer evenings. Now she listened while I spoke, our roles reversed.
On our last expedition, we pulled off the coastal highway about 10 miles north of Beirut, drove up into the hills above Jounieh, and descended into the Dog River Valley. We arrived at the mouth of the Jeita Grotto, a massive network of majestic limestone caverns that burrow for more than five miles under the mountainside. Jeita had been a major attraction during the golden age of Lebanese tourism in the 1960s. It was shuttered shortly after the beginning of the civil war in 1975.
A single soldier was sitting outside a dilapidated guard post in front of the cavern’s entrance as we rolled up in the Malibu. He listened, incredulous, as my father explained that we were interested in touring the cavern.
“Jeita is closed, sir,” the soldier said slowly. The upper passages had been converted into a munitions dump for the Lebanese Army. There was no electricity or ventilation, and no tourists had been allowed to visit the site in over a decade.
“You should come back when it opens again — maybe in a few years,” the soldier said, casting a perplexed eye at my mother, who was beaming in gratitude.
My father got out of the car and the two men conferred for a few minutes. Some sort of exchange took place — of ideas perhaps, more likely of currency — and the next thing I knew we had left the noonday heat and entered the delectable cool of the mountain. The soldier walked ahead of us, cracking signal flares every few minutes to illuminate the cave’s soaring vaults, hung with monumental stalactites.
We wandered for a while before coming to an underground river. A few rowboats sat overturned near the water’s edge, where they’d been left when the caverns were closed to the public. The soldier stopped and told us that it was time to turn back. My father smiled.
As we floated down the river, my siblings and I dipped our fingers into the water, marveling at its chilliness and at the echoes our voices made against the glistening walls. The soldier sat in the back of the boat, a stone-faced Charon, rowing us forward toward the depths of the cave.
The expression on my father’s face remains one of the clearest memories I have of the trip. It was a look of triumph. The war was over. The presence of his family floating down a river in a prehistoric cavern was somehow proof of that. It was still here, and therefore so were we.
Elias Muhanna is the Manning Assistant Professor of Comparative Literature at Brown University.