Stranger’s awareness is a funny thing. It’s so right and so wrong at the same time.
When you land in a strange place where you don’t know your way around, where you don’t speak the language very well or at all, where you can only see the unnuanced surfaces of things without knowing what came before or what lies behind…you will not be able to properly understand what you’re looking at. You will not be able to stop yourself from comparing it to the world you do know and seeing it in your own alien frame of reference and in terms that do not apply. It’s unavoidable. Seeing is not the same as understanding. It takes time and effort to get past this. I’m working on it as fast as I can.
Then again, strangers do notice things that locals do not. They see things fresh without having their observations dulled by routine and repetition. What may seem universal to the local may be obviously provincial to the stranger. The strength of a stranger’s perception is his ability to vividly compare two separate places. Two separate places loom large in his mind and in his short-term memory at the same time. This is why home looks different after a long trip abroad.
The first time I walked past Beirut’s Holiday Inn I was thunderstruck.
Decades before I ever arrived in Beirut I knew what kind of damage both locals and foreigners had done to this place. And I’ve seen far worse urban destruction than this. I stood at the rim of Ground Zero in New York City just after September 11, 2001, when the pit was still burning and the stench still stretched to Central Park and beyond.
What struck me about Beirut’s Holiday Inn (and by no means is it the only war damage still visible in this city) is that it’s so obvious and that no one bothered to take it down yet. It’s not hidden on a side street. It looms over the city like a monument, even after 15 years of peace, and no one who lives here seems remotely disturbed by it. No building that looks like this would be allowed to stand in Europe or the United States.
I understand why it’s not a big deal to Beirutis. I’ve set eyes on it hundreds of times now myself. It no longer shocks me, not in the slightest. I don’t even notice it, really. It’s just another building, just a part of the scenery. I’m losing my stranger’s awareness.
Some Westerners I meet around here have been in the Middle East so long they’re used to even the worst things about it. My friend David Enders, who spent a year and a half in Iraq covering insurgency, terrorism, and war for Mother Jones and The Nation, talks about car bombs as though they are normal.
Car bombs aren’t normal. Car bombs are car bombs. They are weapons of murder, mayhem, and terror. However many people they kill, they wound entire societies.
Beirut has car bombs, although not a single one has yet exploded while I have been here. Lebanon may be physically close to Iraq, but it’s not at all the same kind of place. At least it isn’t right now. The Holiday Inn is a reminder – for those who still “see” it – of what Lebanon recently was.