An American in Beirut: Normal Moments Possible in Wartime, Normalcy is Not

This is the eleventh installment of an ongoing blog written by American Spencer Witte, a native New York resident who is studying and living in Beirut, Lebanon.

August 3, 2006

"A Day"

I'm a 24-year-old American who, as of July 12, 2006, had never been in a war zone. We're now entering our 23rd day of war between Israel and Hezbollah in Lebanon, and I'm beginning my 22nd day in Beirut. It's amazing how quickly human beings seem to adjust to their surroundings. Routines get established around changing realities.

I woke up late this morning. The fan was still going, pushing humid, Mediterranean air around a sun-soaked room. The first thing that came to mind was that we still had electricity — a welcomed sign since Wednesday had been bad and we were without it for about 18 of 24 hours.

Like many of my generation, I occasionally skip breakfast. But when I've had it here lately, the choice has usually been cereal. Iman and I have already gone through a box of Frosted Flakes (They're Grrreat!), Coco Krispies (deemed unfilling) and Coco Puffs (deemed both great and filling). Since many of Lebanon's dairy farms have been the targets of repeated Israeli airstrikes, we made the decision to buy a tub of powdered milk a few weeks back. I'd never had any particular reason for drinking powdered milk before this conflict, and after it's over, I hope I won't have any reason to drink it ever again.

Getting dressed doesn't involve a whole lot of decision-making, because I arrived in Beirut from Damascus with only a small nylon bag of clothes. My collection of t-shirts has since been washed several times in the apartment sink, but never when the power is off because then I'm wasting the water reserves. I have no idea where or how big these reserves are, but Iman likes to remind me that they're not very big, and I don't want to be responsible for finding out.

After leaving the apartment, I tend to do a fair amount of walking. Many of my family and friends are anxious to know if I'm being looked at any differently when making my way around Beirut. Occasionally the answer is "yes." Toward the end of evacuations of non-Lebanese, a few locals were looking at me as if to say, "Are you sure you didn't miss your boat?" I couldn't discern any hostility in these stares, but the confusion was written clearly across raised eyebrows. Over the last week, this look has disappeared in favor of a confident assumption that I must be a member of the press. After all, the press is pretty easy to find around here these days.

Eventually, I decide I've walked enough and jump into a cab heading for one of several Internet cafes I've located in both East and West Beirut. Along the way, it's quite possible to see two, and sometimes three, street-side interviews being conducted. Awkward camera crews approach uneasy civilians as they pass by. Sometimes reporters looking for a different angle go for car-side interviews — shoving a microphone into an open window, but also stopping traffic and starting a chorus of car horns. Some here in Beirut seem eager to give interviews, while others are tired of talking about Lebanon and war in the same sentences and so decline to do so.

Somewhere in the middle of e-mailing my family, catching up on the latest news and writing this blog, the power goes out or the Internet connection is lost. There is a collective sigh and some customers make their way for the door. If it's late enough in the day, I'm one of them, and from there I usually meet up with Iman and discuss dinner options.

These days, if you're in Beirut proper, choices are plenty. Many of the restaurants have reopened. Spinney's, the major supermarket in Achrefieh, has stayed open. And, perhaps one of the more bizarre parts about living in wartime Beirut, the delivery boys are still whipping around neighborhoods on their mopeds, with boxes of food stuffed into oversized backpacks.

Of course, these deliveries wouldn't dare approach besieged southern Beirut and its suburbs. All of Beirut has taken great financial losses, but only parts of it have been completely debilitated.

A choice of either takeout or some gesture toward cooking means watching more news, and using it to reassess our circumstances and options for staying in or leaving Beirut. We receive about 100 channels. Whereas Western sources are more inclined to show planes taking off and landing, Arabic sources like LBC and Al Arabiya are more likely to show the death and destruction that took place in Lebanon while the planes were in flight. The images are meant to shock, and they often do, because the reality can be quite shocking — body parts lying under rubble or lifeless kids being carried away by dazed and distraught parents.

TV isn't always an option. Power is spotty at night; sometimes we lose it for several hours at a time. When that happens, we head out to the balcony with our multiband radio, a couple of candles and a chessboard. In a previous blog [Click here to read that entry], I conceded that I was winless in all games up until that point. The last couple nights have been kind to me, and I've since pulled even.

There are many routines in Lebanon that look nothing like mine, where nothing is certain and few patterns present themselves. There are upwards of 800,000 displaced people in Lebanon right now — nearly a quarter of the population. Some who had fled used a recent 48-hour slowdown in airstrikes to check if their homes were still standing and, if they were, to collect precious belongings before again seeking safety elsewhere.

In the last three weeks, I've found that normal moments are possible in wartime. But normalcy is not. Last night, I was readying for bed at 2 a.m. when the bombing resumed in Beirut. The sound is unmistakable, and the heart always skips a beat. The windows shake, as does the hanging lamp, as does the floor. But short of ducking under a table, there's also an awareness that you're essentially helpless to the situation. And so you try to remember your routine; close your eyes, get some sleep and hope the fan is pushing humid Mediterranean air around the room when you wake up in the morning.


If you've been reading these reports, I'd like to hear from you. Send your comments, suggestions and questions to

Part I: "An American in Beirut: As War Approaches"

Part II: "Much Has Changed Since That Family Photo"

Part III: "The New Beirut Nightlife, Airstrikes as a Snooze Button"

Part IV: "People Leaving War-Torn South Ask, 'Which Way is Safety?'"

Park V: "How I Got Here and Why I Haven't Left Yet"

Part VI: "Lebanon on a 'Helpless Walk Through Time'"

Part VII: "War Doesn't Stop For the Weekend"

Part VIII: "We Hurt Each Other, Then We Do it Again"

Part IX: "No 'Human Predisposition to Craziness' Found Here"

Part X: "Lebanon Readies to Run Out of Fuel"