I don’t know how to best describe travelling to Syria through Lebanon, but I will try. Have you ever had to cross of a river full of leeches? This is how Lebanon feels to me, and I suspect to most Syrians who’ve had the pleasure of going there. The Lebanese sink their teeth deep into our flesh and feed on our pockets and souls. Every time I’m about to land at Beirut–Rafic Hariri Airport, I ready myself for walking straight into a trap. There is no way around it. Damascus has a good airport, but I simply can’t fly there.
Why not? I’m not sure. Ask Chancellor Angela Merkel! Why my little brother gets to fly directly from Moscow to Damascus, yet I can’t find a single flight departing from the EU is beyond my comprehension.
I know this might be politically incorrect, and I admit that it’s a terrible thing to say; but I’ll say it. I hate Lebanon and the Lebanese. I hate their kind. I know it’s wrong to hate, and that it’s especially wrong to even use the word ‘kind’, yet I’m writing not what I think but how I feel. I’m not going to lie about that. I know that Lebanon is – in theory – full of good people. I know that there are so many people there who are much better than me. Yet, knowledge is not the same as faith. I haven’t interacted with a single Lebanese who could give me any faith.
The only Lebanese people that I’ve ever got to know are ruthless border guards and officers. They’ve never said ‘welcome’, nor have they ever smiled at me. Instead, I’ve been made fun of, shouted at, called ‘an animal’ and even beaten once by one of them. My crime is always the same: I hold a Syrian passport and I must pass their borders.
Until I was 26, I had felt no desire whatsoever to go to Lebanon. The first time I had to go there was in March 2014. That year, I went there so many times, though, that the Lebanese filled up my passport with their stamps. I had many affairs in Beirut, starting from picking up my IELTS certificate up to processing my Austrian student visa application. I opened an expensive bank account there because Syria’s banks had been crippled by international economic sanctions. Lebanon became Syria’s only window to the outer world.
Getting the Austrian visa was a daunting process that took me nearly half a year. In the beginning, the hardship of travelling to Lebanon was limited to the endless waiting lines at the border, the understaffed border crossing, and the occasional insults by the guards who treated Syrians like cattle. Yet, at some point, the Lebanese were so furious with the Syrian incomers that they decided to close the border. No one was allowed in, except for those who either had an embassy appointment, or a booked flight from Beirut to another country.
All the sudden, I was in Syria, and all my money was trapped in a Lebanese bank that I couldn’t access. I had to wait until the Austrian embassy gave me a justification to go there. Proving to have an embassy appointment to enter Lebanon wasn’t easy, though. I had email confirmations only, which the guards refused to recognize. I waited long hours at the border until they received a phone confirmation from the embassy. I wasn’t the only one waiting. We were a large group of Syrians, each heading for a different country. When the guards came back, they had lists with the names that would be allowed entry, and the ones who had to return to Syria. If an embassy answered the phone before ending their office hours, we could enter. If they didn’t, we had to either return, or sleep on the floor until the next day.
I had to be patient until my visa application was finally approved. My last trip to Beirut during that period was on January 26, 2015. The Lebanese allowed me entry for no longer than 48 hours. They warned me that if I didn’t leave their country within that period, I would be banned from entering Lebanon for a long time. I was more than willing to comply. I also had a plan set to do so.
I went to the Austrian embassy on January 27 to provide my biometric data. My passport had to stay there until the visa was issued on the following day. I had my flight from Beirut to Vienna already booked on February 1st, giving myself two weeks to settle down in Austria before my classes began. My plan was to return to Damascus on the 28th and come back to Beirut on the 31st, get another permit for 48-hour, and departure Beirut in the early morning of the following day.
There was only one flaw with my plan; I forgot to call the Secretary General of Hezbollah and ask him to keep the frontline calm until my departure.
During the dark morning hours of January 28th, Lebanese guerrillas launched an attack against Israel on the southern border. Two IDF Humvees were destroyed and several Israeli soldiers were killed or wounded. It was a major escalation, the kind of which is usually followed by a strong Israeli response. Whenever Israeli soldiers were killed, we always expected an all-out war. Beirut was tense that day. Some people were celebrating and howling for Hezbollah, others were panicking. Traffic jams in the capital stretched all the way to the mountainous Aley, where I stayed. It was a long day for both, me and Lebanon. By the time I returned from the embassy, the 48 hours had expired. Crossing back to Syria meant being locked there indefinitely. I would’ve missed my flight, and probably the whole study year. The Austrian visa would’ve expired by then. I turned to the Lebanese authorities, asking for a short extension. There was nothing they were willing to do for me.
I had no choice but to stay in Lebanon until February 1st. When I went to the airport to leave on my flight to Europe, I didn’t know what to expect. When the boarder control officer checked my passport, he refused to let me pass. Instead, he took me to his chief officer. That man was a despicable person. He was talking to me as if I disgusted him.
“You overstayed,” he told me.
“I know, I’m sorry. I had no choice. Have you watched the news?”
He didn’t shout at me or beat me. He didn’t keep me at his office for longer than 2 minutes. He told me that he was going to allow me to board my flight but that he was also banning me from entering Lebanon for an entire year. I politely asked him if he could make it six months, because I had to come back to visit my parents in Damascus.
“These are the rules,” he said. He didn’t even look me in the eyes.
It was nothing but spite.
I haven’t been to Damascus for two years now. However, my inability to travel there this time has nothing to do with the Lebanese but with financial hardships. I have decided to go the distance in January 2020 anyway, although I still haven’t figured out the math. I must go through Lebanon again, not knowing what to expect there this time. I’ve been told that the Lebanese authorities have restricted the movement of Syrian vehicles. This means that the commute between Beirut and Damascus will cost as much as the flight. I’ve also been told that people there are protesting all sorts of things these days. For random reasons sometimes, they close the road between Beirut and Damascus. Considering that I must book a cheaper nonflexible flight two months ahead, the uncertainty puts significant pressure on me.
For the past few months, I’ve been trying to make ends meet, barely able to pay rent and food. I might manage to afford paying a flight for January, but if I miss the return flight for any reason, that will be devastating.
I hate the Lebanese, because I’m a human and humans hate. Yet, the Lebanese people really are the victims of history. Throughout its recent history alone, Lebanon has been a poor and devastated country. God knows, Syria once used it for decades as a proxy against Israel. Not a long time ago, Lebanon was described as Syria’s “loose flank”. The Lebanese understandably hate our kind too. The only relationship they had with Syria was with ruthless Syrian soldiers who shouted at them, beat them and called them animals. We never cared to travel to Lebanon or ask what the Lebanese wanted. We took it for granted that they had to suffer as a weapon, either against us or against Israel. We made sure that their suffering was projected against Israel. Israel has defeated Syria in every battle since 1948, yet it was the Lebanese whom Syria recruited who brought defeat to Israel in 2000 and 2006.
Though, it wasn’t entirely our fault. We often fought as a proxy for Russia; Israel fought as America’s proxy. We’ve hated the Israelis, and they’ve hated us. The Lebanese have hated both the Syrians and the Israelis, and we all hate the Americans and the Russians. There is no end to it, but war. Thus, violence is inevitable, there is no way around it. We’re all mad, yet we’re not equal. Some of us get to be violent every now and then, and the others must suffer. Today, it’s Lebanon’s turn to be violent, and the Syrians’ turn to suffer.
The Lebanese now refer to Syria as their “loose flank”. I must go through their portals, pay double and accept to be humiliated. I must accept that the only relationship I have with the Lebanese is the one with their nasty guards and border control officers. It’s not like I can afford to stay a few days there to get to know the good people of Lebanon. I’m too poor now to open my heart to the Lebanese.
Lebanon is the last country on earth that allows entry to Syrians without a visa. Yet, I must hate the Lebanese for being the only access to my country.
We are imprisoned and the Lebanese are our jail keepers. It’s easier to take it out on them than the unknown juries who’ve made our verdicts.
At the end of the day, hatred is a matter of perspective.