A Twitter Diatribe
The other day a major American newspaper asked if I wanted to weigh in on the Beirut Explosion. I lived in Beirut for the better part of 15 years. I wrote a book about my time there. As you might imagine, I have a lot to say. Ten years ago—hell, five years ago—I might’ve said yes.
Don’t get me wrong: I love Beirut. I’ve lived there for longer than I’ve lived anywhere else on earth. But what happened in Beirut on August 4th, 2020 is profoundly not my story. I didn’t grow up there. I’m not from there. Unlike a lot of my friends from there—and by the way I don’t say “Lebanese friends,” because Beirut is full of Syrians, Palestinians, refugees & residents & citizens & other statuses, up to & including stateless; migrant workers from many different countries; & all kinds of other folks, many of whom need help right now…
It broke my heart to leave Beirut. But I was also lucky to be able to. I had the ability, the privilege & above all the status—the right passport, the right nationality—to leave. I had. Somewhere. Else. To go. I have friends who can’t even get a visa to visit this country. Who can’t visit relatives. Who get scholarships because they’re brilliant & talented & can’t even come here to take them. I obtained residency in Lebanon with ease. They can’t even get a visa to visit the US.
And it’s not like people’s troubles are over once they get residency or citizenship abroad. Unlike my ex, & millions of other Lebanese who live abroad, I don’t have to keep sending money home in order to help relatives who pay the corruption tax every day, just by living there. Just by living in their own f**king country. The cost of living in Beirut is astrof**kingnomical. Think NYC rents—but in a country where the minimum wage is $450 a month. “You can’t afford to live in Lebanon unless you live somewhere else,” a friend once joked, in frustration.
For that reason, between half & two thirds of all graduates are forced to leave the country in order to find a job. Far too much of their hard-earned $$ ends up lining the pockets of the corrupt warlord/bankers (yep, it’s a thing) who run the country:
And all this was /before/ last month’s explosion, /before/ last year’s financial collapse, /before/ the October Revolution that Lebanese people started last fall when the politicians tried to extort them for using WhatsApp, the lifeline that keeps them in touch with family abroad.
During my 15 years in Beirut, I witnessed these things, I saw them, I reported on them. But I didn’t /live/ them. Not directly. Not the same way as someone who /has/ to live them. I didn’t live the crushing sadness of someone who is forced to leave their own country in order to work abroad in order to support their family—only to see half that money go to murderous crooks. I didn’t live the corrosive hopelessness of someone who keeps trying & trying but can’t get ahead because a warlord’s son or daughter or crony or client always gets the job instead.
I watched my friends go through this. But I didn’t live it myself. I don’t know it in my bones the way they do. This isn’t just some virtuous, “ooh look at me, I’m being such a white ally” faux mea culpa liberal guilt humblebrag, btw—like, Oh the poor downtrodden Lebanese, let me congratulate myself for “centering” them & “honoring their experience” so I can feel good about myself (and, more importantly, superior to the other, bad white people).
F**k that s**t. This is about people being the goddam f**king experts on their own lived experience.
I lived poverty in America. I lived in a homeless shelter as a kid. With my mom. That’s a thing I know in my bones. That’s my lived experience. That’s where I am an authority. And that informs everything I do, up to & including what I write about Beirut, the Middle East, & food.
I can tell you about my experiences in Beirut & Baghdad, & what I witnessed there. And I believe that that is a thing worth doing, or I wouldn’t have done it. As an American, it is my responsibility to examine my country’s role in the Middle East. To do that, you listen & learn.
But being an expert on your own experience of a place—no matter how much you listen, learn, read countless books, study the language, talk to everyone you can, & even live there for years—is not the same thing as being an expert or an authority on that place. See the difference?
If you go live in a homeless shelter for a couple of weeks, months, even years, in order to learn what they’re like, you will know a lot about how homeless shelters work. If you’re an insightful, empathetic, understanding observer, you will have valuable things to say on homeless shelters in America. I’d want to hear those things. But as long as you have somewhere else to go, there’s a level you still can’t understand. Can never understand.
You’re not going to grasp what it is to be a kid or a mom who is there because they have nowhere. else. to go. I’m not saying don’t do it. It’s our job to attempt to understand other peoples’ experiences. But don’t mistake experience for expertise. Know what you know, & what you don’t.
Outside knowledge can be useful. Sometime an outsider can articulate things that insiders take for granted, or are too busy or tired to untangle, or just get tired of saying. Sometimes it’s good to have an outsider listen to what insiders have been saying for years, to no avail.
But it’s also our job, as outside observers, to question why people aren’t listening to the insiders. Why are some people listened to, while others are not? Why do media/publishing/academia treat some people as biased or subjective when they tell their stories—but not others?
And what can we do, as outsiders, to change that? One of the simplest & most powerful things we can do is stfu. And pass the f’ing mic. Ask yourself: is this my story to tell? Can someone else tell it better? Sometimes the most powerful thing you can say is nothing at all.
I didn’t always do this myself, btw. I used to fancy myself quite the expert. If I met my ten-years-ago self today, I’d probably think God, what an insufferable know-it-all. To anyone who had to put up with that: my sincerest apologies.
I have a lot to say about Lebanon, the Iraq war & my country’s role in the Middle East. But I’ve said a lot of it. #PublishingPaidMe to write about it. So when that newspaper asked me to write about Lebanon, I replied with the names of some Lebanese writers & reporters I know.
If you’ve made it this far, thank you for reading, as always. And stay tuned for a list of Lebanese & Lebanon-adjacent writers, reporters, bloggers, thinkers, poets, punsters, professors, public intellectuals, activists & unstoppable anti-corruption machines for you to follow.
Please help the people of Lebanon. Here’s a comprehensive list of wonderful local organizations that do fantastic work on the ground.
And I’ll quote @LaraJBitar: Please make sure that not one penny you give goes to the Lebanese government.