by Lana Nauphal
I heard my first bomb when I was nine years old.
Late at night on the 12th of July 2006, I landed in Lebanon with my family—my mother, my father, my older sister, my uncle and my aunt—to spend the summer months in Beirut, by the beach, with my cousins and my grandfather, just as I had done every summer since then.
Late at night on the 12th of July 2006, Israel attacked Lebanon, and both countries entered into a brutal 34 day war, in which 1,300 Lebanese died, approximately one million were displaced, and Lebanon’s civil infrastructure was all but decimated.
I did not know it at the time, but I was with my mother when she found out that a war had begun. It was the morning of the 13th of July, and the two of us were out shopping for groceries in the Idriss Supermarket in Hamra, down the road from my grandfather’s apartment, as we always did the day after we arrived in Beirut for the summer. Our trolley filled to the brim with the usual delicacies—kibbe, labneh, jibneh—we came to a stop behind a cleaner, who was mopping up a broken bottle of Ketchup that had splattered on the linoleum floor. I was contemplating the messy blend of sharp glass and blood-colored sauce when I heard my mother gasp.
I looked up. She was staring in disbelief at a TV screen hoisted up on the wall in the corner of the store. A news anchor was speaking in arabic, in a fast, urgent tone. I couldn’t understand what she was saying, as I did not speak arabic, but I knew that it was important. Everybody in the store was quiet. My mother grabbed my hand, quickly steered us out of the aisle, and rushed us back home to my grandfather’s—leaving our trolley full of groceries by the crimson Ketchup stains.
After a quick family gathering, the consensus between my parents, my aunt, my uncle and my grandfather was clear: we had to get out of there. We had to get out of the country before the situation worsened. As the adults conferred, my sister and I sat playing together in our room, blissfully unaware of what was going on. When my parents came to tell us that we were going to have to leave the next day, I was upset.
“We haven’t even gone to the beach yet!” I wailed.
The shelling started in the evening.
Israel was attacking the south of the city.
As I heard the first bomb drop, my stomach turned. I was finally beginning to understand that something was not quite right—those big, booming, all-consuming sounds were much too frightening. But I still couldn’t fully grasp the reality of the situation at hand.
We all huddled up in the foyer, by the front door, as it was the only space in the apartment that had no windows. Trying to make sense of it all, I turned to my uncle and asked him, “Wadih, what are those sounds?”
“Nothing to worry about,” he responded in his usual matter-of-fact tone—yet this time it wavered ever so slightly. “You know, sometimes, when planes go really really fast, they break the sound barrier, and then there’s a loud ‘boom.’ That’s what you’re hearing. That’s all.”
Unconvinced, I turned to my father. “Papa, are we going to be alright?” I asked.
He didn’t answer.
Night had fallen, and the bombing had calmed down. The plans to leave the country the next day had been set: after several frantic phone calls, a taxi had been arranged to pick us up bright and early in the morning. It was time to go to sleep. As my mother laid our pajamas out, my father pushed mine and my sister’s beds together against the wall of the room, as far away from the window as possible. They kissed us goodnight.
In the dark, I asked my sister if we were going to be alright.
She didn’t answer.
It was 7am on the 14th of July; all six of us piled into a beat-up silver jeep, stuffing suitcases between seats and under legs. In the clear light of day, the fear I had been feeling since the night before began to dissipate, and I then became solely concerned with the incredibly long journey that lay ahead. Both Hariri International Airport and the Beirut-Damascus Highway had been bombed the previous day. Our only route to escape Lebanon was therefore through the northern tip of the country, where we were to cross over into Syria, into Homs, and drive south to end our journey in Amman, Jordan.
It all amounted to seventeen hours, I was told by my aunt. Seventeen hours. In that dingy jeep. With a Lebanese taxi driver. In this heat.
I had always suffered from terrible car sickness.
And that’s it. That’s mostly what I remember of those seventeen hours: a sweeping wave of nausea. I forgot about the terrifying sounds I had heard the night before; I forgot about my mother’s gasp, my uncle’s quavering voice, my father’s concerning silence. On the 14th of July, I was just terrified of throwing up. I hated throwing up. I hated the dreadful sensation of nausea. I wanted to get out of the car; I wanted the taxi driver to stop turning off the lousy air conditioning; I wanted my sister to stop hogging our shared iPod so that I could distract myself from my car sickness with some music.
When we got to the Syrian border, we had to wait in the car for our turn to meet the border patrol. I begged my mother to let me get some air and walk around. She complied. As I stepped down from the jeep and into the scorching sun, I looked around me. The border checkpoint was hectic. Cars were pulling up all over the place and people were swarming around. I was distracted for a minute by the commotion—but only for a minute. I was so nauseous.
As our turn came around, my father and my uncle jumped out of the car. They ran around agitatedly, talking to various different people in various different uniforms, brandishing sheets of paper, passports and money in the air. My mother watched them, preoccupied. I wanted her to take care of me, to pay attention to me. She seemed tense. Everyone seemed tense. Why did everyone seem so tense?
After what seemed like forever to me in my nauseous daze, we were given the all-clear by the border patrol. We got back into the car and drove off into Syria, leaving a wounded Lebanon behind in the rearview mirror.
Two hours later, the exact checkpoint we were at was bombed.
Syria was peaceful. Infinite desert landscapes drifted by the car’s windows. My nausea having slightly lifted after a quick lunch on the motorway, I fell asleep on my sister’s shoulder.
We made it to Amman at midnight. The night was cool and quiet. We checked into a hotel.
In the morning, on the 15th of July, we booked our flights back home to London. With a full day ahead of us to spend in Jordan, we decided to make a day trip to visit the Dead Sea—it was a once in a lifetime opportunity, after all.
The Dead Sea is one of the world’s saltiest bodies of water, and 9.6 times as salty as the ocean. Its extreme salinity has created an environment that is so harsh that neither plants nor animals can flourish there—hence its name. And because of its saltiness, you cannot swim in the Dead Sea; you simply float.
I walked up to the shore with trepidation, as my father, who had already taken the plunge, warned me from the water that the salt might burn my skin a little. I lingered by the rocks for a while, then made my way in. As I felt the cool, tingly water wrap around my skin, I was instantly refreshed. The salt lifted my body up, and though it did burn slightly, I did not care; I floated, weightless.
I got my beach trip after all.