Mourning from the Middle

On Thursday evening, Beirut was attacked by suicide bombers. Did you know that? 43 dead, hundreds wounded. My Facebook newsfeed was quickly filled with people frantic for news of friends and family, soon followed by the faces and names of those murdered. The father who tackled the third bomber, saving hundreds of lives, but losing his own. The nurse on his way to work. The three year old boy who in a split second was seriously injured and made an orphan.

Mourning and grief. Fear and dread.

Then two days later, Paris. More than 100 dead, even more wounded. My newsfeed fills with people frantic for news of friends and family. Stories of the horrific events start to filter out and posts start popping up, “Pray for Paris.” My newsfeed soon becomes full of my friends and family who have changed their profile picture to the French flag.

Mourning and grief. Fear and dread.

But then there’s another emotion starting to overtake my newsfeed. A new one from my Lebanese friends: Hurt. Anger. A sense of abandonment.

Why is the life of a Parisian worth more in the world’s eyes than a Beiruti? Why is every profile picture now a France flag, and yet we never had that option when tragedy struck our community?

This is not to take anything away from the horror of what happened in Paris. My Lebanese friends would be the first to say that. In fact many of them have also posted their own prayers for Paris. But I feel as someone living in between two cultures in many ways, I might have some insight – for both sides – as to why the imbalance and why it matters.

The Media

When the bombing hit Beirut, it was actually the leading story on CNN’s international page. It was described as a suicide bombing in a Hezbollah stronghold.

My Western friends, what does that make you think of? A war zone. With fighters and guns on every corner. Soldiers, terrorists, guns and bombs. That’s the mental picture conjured up by the words “Hezbollah stronghold.”

But what if I told you the bombs went off in a neighborhood? Homes, shops, cafes. One right outside of a school. It didn’t kill soldiers fighting in a war. It killed children. Moms and dads and sons and daughters, on their way to work, home from school, or out for dinner. Does that change your mental picture at all? Would you pray for us more knowing it is “innocents” going about their daily lives who were ruthlessly and senselessly murdered?

The Frequency

“They are used to bombs in the Middle East. It’s different in Paris.”

No.

Anytime a life is cut short, whether by violence, disaster or disease, it is mourned. Do you know that every 3 minutes, a child is diagnosed with cancer? But does that mean each individual child is not worth fighting for, praying for, grieving for? Of course not.

No matter how often it happens, you do not get used it it. We come up with different ways to cope, yes. But no, we are not used to it.

The Magnitude

There is no question that Paris was an attack of larger magnitude. Simultaneous attacks in multiple parts of the city are a big deal. So many people dead and injured. I read that it’s the day with the most casualties in France since World War 2. Tragic. Huge. Worth all the weeping and mourning that we can give.

This is not intended to take away from the magnitude of the attack in Paris in any way. But does anyone remember, or did you even know that this spring 147 students were murdered by terrorists at a college in Kenya? Why is that so different in the eyes of the world?

Grief is never a competition. We should grieve with all of those who are grieving. Whether in Paris, or Beirut or Kenya or in the house at the end of our street. Every life cuts short deserves our tears.

The Response

When he woke up on Saturday morning, Caleb was browsing through his facebook and had an odd notification. Several friends had marked that they were safe in Paris. That’s how we found out about the terrorist attack. Facebook had enabled a button for people to use to let their friends and family know they were safe when tragedy struck. We don’t have that in Beirut. Add to that the flags, the prayers, the world leaders condemning the bombings in Paris as an attack on humanity, the entire West seemingly standing in solidarity with a city facing it’s darkest hour…. and whether right or wrong, the FEELING is that Parisian lives are more important than Beiruti lives.

This is categorically not true. Every life has value. Death, no matter how or where it comes, is worth grieving. I know that most (I will not say all, because I’ve read your status updates and the articles you’ve shared) of my friends and family in the West would agree with me. Of course, we believe that all life is valuable. I know most would never say that an Arab life is worth less than an American or a European life.

But here’s the thing. If by our actions and our words, a whole community of people FEEL as though their lives aren’t seen as worthwhile, then we, the West, are doing something wrong, and we need to fix that.

The Coping Mechanism

This is a theory I’ve had for a few years now. I think that when faced with tragedy, one of our first coping mechanisms is to tell ourselves that “it could never happen to me.” I suspect this is universal, but I’m no expert and could be wrong about that. I’ve seen it in myself and in many of my friends. A bomb goes off, a shooting happens, a natural disaster hits and we start giving ourselves reasons why it is something we don’t need to fear. There’s a war there. I never go to that neighborhood. I don’t associate with those people who were targeted. Our country has better infrastructure to survive that earthquake, hurricane, tsunami, whatever. While deep down inside we know that tragedy can strike anyone, anywhere, I think this coping mechanism of distancing ourselves however we can helps us move through our daily life without fear.

But for many of us, at some point, tragedy will hit too close to home to rationalize away. For me, it was the December 26 bombing in 2013. It was right around the corner from our house. We felt it and heard it and ran to hide in the bathroom in case there was a second bomb. Had it been another morning, I would have been walking by. There was no rationalizing it away this time. But for the grace of God, my family could have been killed by that car bomb.

I think Paris is that for many Westerners. Those streets have been walked by many. We all go to restaurants and concerts and sporting events, so we can picture ourselves there. The streets look like the streets in our cities, in our neighborhoods. While my Arab friends think Americans grieve for Paris more because the victims look like them, I don’t think that’s true for most. I think what makes Paris so scary for Americans is because it’s a realization that, “that could be me.” Whether right or wrong, intentional or not, the average American can much more easily picture herself sitting at a restaurant with friends in Paris than she can see herself walking the streets of a “Hezbollah stronghold” in Beirut.

So to my Lebanese friends, please, give us some grace. People in the West are scared too and trying to cope with a world that seems to be falling apart all around them, just like we are doing here in Beirut.

But let us all remember that a cafe in Paris is not that much different from a cafe in Beirut. Different languages, yes. The menu isn’t the same and the weather is much warmer here in Lebanon. But the people sitting in the cafe for a break after a busy day, for a coffee and a chat with friends? The same.

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I have a whole head full of more thoughts. But this is getting long for a blog post and I can hear the water running through the pipes that have been empty for the past 24 hours, so I’m gonna get that shower while I can.

Since I started writing this a few days ago in my head, many more people who are much smarter, and certainly more well rested than I am have written a whole host of articles about this…. I don’t necessarily agree with them all, but it’s good and helpful to get other’s perspectives as well. The more we know and can identify with “the other” – whether that be the Westerner or the Arab, the better we can love, the more clearly we can pray, and the more united we can be in the face of those who seek to kill and destroy.

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18 thoughts on “Mourning from the Middle

  1. I have been wondering yalls thoughts on this. Thanks for sharing Nicolette. You managed to hold your thoughts together for a few days instead of writing 20 posts on Facebook…well done.

  2. Oh! Your words echo so many of my thoughts. Thank you.

    I haven’t changed my profile picture to that of the French flag–not because I don’t mourn for the French, but because how do I use my picture to stand in solidarity with those who mourn in Baghdad, Beirut, Paris, and so many other places in the world? How do I acknowledge and validate so much pain in one week? I’m not sure. Perhaps I just leave things as they are as I mourn for those I know who suffer in so many corners of the globe.

    Please assure your friends in your new hometown that they are not forgotten. Not every profile picture is a French flag because some of us don’t want to exclude them and their grief. My heart is heavy because they think they’re not just forgotten but unseen. Sadly, the truth is they are somewhat unseen. There wasn’t much press about the Beirut tragedy. Being unseen is worse than being forgotten. It is an injustice.

    • Thank you so much, Sheryl.

      This is for another conversation entirely, but I’d love to hear your thoughts about debriefing our kids… how much do we tell them, explain things to them?

      • “கொல்லப்பட்ட மீனவர்களுக்கும், கொலை செய்யும் இலங்கை கடற்படைக்குமான பிரச்சனையை இந்திய, ஈழ மீனவர்களுக்கிடையிலான பிரச்சனையாக ஹிந்து ராம், பேராசிரியர் சூரியநாராயணன் போன்றவர்கள் பிரச்சாரம் செய்கின்றனர்.”பிளவுபடுத்தலை அழகாகச் செய்கிறார்கள். அரசுகளின் சூழ்ச்சியை சாதாரண மக்கள் புரிந்துகொள்ள வேண்டும். முதலாளித்துவ, பிராந்திய வல்லாதிக்க நலன்களுக்காக எவ்வளவு மலினமாகவும் இறங்கிவிட முடிகிறது இவர்களால்.

  3. Good thoughts about the situation, but I do think you’re right in understanding that many of us have been to Paris which I’d why we are more shocked this has happened in a place we’ve visited numerous times.
    We do need to support all in prayer who are victims of this horrible violence. Our prayers are with you and the country to have safety.

    • Thanks for your prayers.

      One of my Lebanese friends said it really well… she said that we wouldn’t expect someone to grieve for a stranger the same way she would grieve for a close friend. Which I totally agree with. But at the same time, I have to acknowledge the hurt and betrayal that many felt at being ignored. I don’t think it was even intended, but I think it’s important to draw attention to their feelings.

  4. I so agree with the comment above, and we have been praying for hurt and grieving people in both places and for you and others who are the heart and hands and feet of Christ on the ground. (Have been wondering when you guys would weigh in…)

    • Thank you Priscilla. I actually intended to write this much sooner, but I can only thank our good ‘ole Lebanese internet for giving me extra time to consider my words carefully.

  5. Thank you nicolette for your empathy.. i love your article.. simple and honest.. problem is, people around the world (maybe due to the coping mechanism that you mentioned), are used to tragedy happening in arab countries… used to the sight of our children dieing.. so maybe they tune out since sadly it’s a common occurance.. in iraq, palestine, lebanon, syria.. death, bombing, wars happen everyday.. whereas it’s not a common occurance in france, this is why it has a different impact.. we cannot blame the west, how can we blame the west when the media coverage in lebanon for the parisian tradgedy was much more than the media coverage for many of the bombings that occur in iraq for instance..

    • Thanks Rana for your comment. I hope that this posts helps open some eyes at least to the suffering here. If even one person looks at the loss of an Arab life with a little more compassion than they would have before, then this post is worth it.

  6. Thank you for your excellent and beautifully written analysis. I agree 100%. I think there is such a thing as “Western civilization” – a sense of a shared history, core common values, a modern and pluralistic society – which explains (but doesn’t ultimately excuse) the fact that “Westerners” react much more emotionally to events in our part of the world.
    These comments I read online (written by an American) echo your “explanation” of the “emotion gap” between these various events :

    “I understand the sentiment that there is suffering everywhere, I really do, but I’ve never spent time in Lebanon, Iraq, Syria, Libya, or Yemen. And I don’t have friends that live in those places, or relatives. I don’t know their cafes, clubs, or public spaces. Those other countries were not integral parts of the United States’ formative history that I’ve read about or studied at such length. I don’t mean this as a slight to those nations, but more to explain that I don’t want to hear that I can’t express empathy for someone or something I have connection with because I am not doing so universally. It’s like telling me I can’t grieve especially for my friends who’ve lost their loved ones because I don’t grieve for people I hardly know at all. Tonight I’ve been thinking about two friends from college – one who lost her son this spring, and the other her husband only a couple days ago – and I wish I could do something about their pain. My sympathy for them doesn’t demean the memory of anyone else’s loved one unknown to me. I get that the world is not fair and media coverage is unequal. But horror is horror.”

    Again I don’t think this justifies the different treatment, but I think it at least partially explains it.

    • Thanks so much for your comment and for sharing the quote… Is it part of an article or blog post? I’d love to read the rest of it if there is more!

  7. I tried to leave a comment, and it didn’t go through. Or it did and I can’t see it… So sorry if this is a ditto:

    But in summary, I’ve been wondering if this is exactly how the people of Beirut felt. I found out about the attack and a rude about 10 minutes before I found out about Paris. Every time someone makes a comment like, “Isn’t that awful about Paris?” My knee-jerk response is, “and in Beirut too. Did you know that?!” And so far the answer has been, “No”.
    I also think you hit the nail on the head. The reaction and media coverage has not been the same, and yes, I think it’s because it hits home. When a bombing goes off in the middle east, it’s somewhat “normal” news, unfortunately. Paris, however, is much more “relatable” and place many have visited.
    But for us Beirut did hit home. Your family, the women, children, and the students mentioned in your letters are known to my kids. How awful to feel overlooked when tragedy strikes I just want you to know you’re heavy on our minds and I want the people of pay route to know that they’re not forgotten.

    • It’s through! Ages ago I set up a filter so that I have to approve comments to try to avoid spam on the page, and sometimes it takes me a while to get online. :)

      Thanks so much for your comment. It really means a lot to know that we, our friends here, our community, this country are on the hearts and minds and in the prayers of so many. Thank you!

  8. Thank you Nicolette for your thoughtful perspective–obviously the Paris attack has been more in my center of focus since I live here but it doesn’t mean I should forget the tragedy that Beirut has gone through recently and will hopefully make me consider more carefully my reaction to bad or tragic events in Arab countries in the future.

  9. Pingback: WorldVenture | What It’s Like To Live Among Refugees in Lebanon

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