An American in Beirut: Much Has Changed Since That Christmas Family Photo

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

July 21

Every year, my family sends a Christmas photo accompanied by well wishings to our relatives and closest friends. More often than not, this picture has been the family sitting on the steps of our house with our dogs turned the wrong way and refusing to pose and my brothers and I looking a year older — really very ordinary stuff. So it seems a bit strange that this year's Christmas photo should be any different. But it will be. It was taken right here in Beirut and was done so less than a month ago. (Click on the family photo to the right to enlarge.)

The picture is taken on the Corniche — a sort of Beirut boardwalk that runs along the Mediterranean Sea. It's a favorite spot for Lebanese families, couples and teenagers to saunter back and forth or simply take in a sunset view over a picnic-style dinner. Pole fishers line its wall and, on a good day, reel in plenty of fresh fish while the Beirut health-conscious walk, jog, bike or speed by on roller blades.

My family was in the middle of that scene — smiling and arm over arm. We were standing next to an impressive, modern lighthouse with a setting sun streaking the Mediterranean Sea nearly every color of the spectrum acting as a backdrop. The photo was taken by a stranger who was walking by and offered to help. It turned out that he had little actual idea how to use a camera and so repeatedly pressed the shutter release button at the same time as the on/off button (which doesn't really work well…). After several failed attempts and some instruction, he got it right, took our Christmas photo, handed me back the camera, shook my hand and introduced himself as an Iraqi. He had come to Beirut for the summer, to escape some of the violence in his own country.

Getting my family to vacation in Beirut took some convincing. My parents, like many Americans, had spent a good part of their lives hearing mostly negative things about Lebanon. They'd heard it was war-torn. They'd heard it was always on the brink of violence and division. At times, they'd heard its people were anti-American. All of which flew in the face of what turned out to be far-and-away the best vacation we'd ever taken as a family. And yet here we are now exactly a month later. I'm still in Beirut. That hasn't changed. But my mom and dad, my two brothers and my sister-in-law are back in the U.S. and worried about me. And things aren't looking so good.

If I were to venture down to the Corniche this morning, I wouldn't see much sauntering. In fact, I'd probably be one of the only people there. Families, couples and teenagers could probably think of safer and more ideal views than the one they'd be seeing now. Israeli warships now line Lebanon's harbor much as Lebanese fisherman had lined the harbor walls. And as for the Iraqi man who had trouble with my camera before taking my family's Christmas picture, who knows where he has sought refuge for the second time in only a year.

"War Chic"

Last night the power was out for several hours. Today it went out from 12:30 to 5 p.m. Achrafieh, my neighborhood in Beirut, is rationing electricity so that every day we can expect to be without power at some point. Every day, that point has stretched for more and more hours.

Electricity is one of the hot topics around here. Everyone's worried because petrol is not coming into the country. Overland routes to Syria are dangerous and truckers aren't making the trip. The ports are blockaded and ships can't make it. How much longer will we have electricity? Will the power plants be bombed as they were in 1996? How long will generators last before they too become useless?

About six days ago, when some of the implications for being in Beirut for all of this were setting in, Iman and I purchased 100 tea light candles and a clunky, multiband AM/FM radio that uses four AA batteries. Maybe to take our minds off the fact that we had somehow found ourselves preparing for disaster, we dubbed the items "war chic." With the power out, our war chic was put to use last night. We lit some candles and, wanting to know what was going on around us, flipped through the AM stations until we found some commentary in English. From there we huddled around our AM/FM radio and listened intently. And explosions, almost certainly in besieged South Beirut, occasionally interrupted.

There was something timeless and surreal about the whole thing. It was almost as if we were staying up late to listen to the call of Game Seven of a World Series. Frankly, I was almost disappointed when the lights switched back on because we both knew we could just go back to watching the game on TV. But this conflict isn't made up of innings. It has few boundaries and may not end up having any winners. Make no mistake about it, if this becomes a routine - daily and longer outages, perhaps no electricity at all, it will bring real panic and true crisis to real people.

There are rumors that the generator at the American University Hospital in Ras Beirut only has about five days extra capacity if electricity were to cut out today. It's just one thought among many currently occupying minds across Lebanon.

Click here to read the first installment, entitled, "An American in Beirut: As War Approaches."