Leaving Beirut

Last week we left Beirut, about six weeks earlier than planned (we had planned six months).  That’s the main point.  We left and we’re safe and we were safe, but decided to leave anyway, under what we’re calling “An Abundance of Caution”.

After the US Embassy attacks and protests across the Middle East two weeks ago, we got a little spooked.  It wasn’t so much the protests themselves — they didn’t reach us in Beirut and a few people protesting in itself isn’t enough to have us leave anyway.  We had been in Egypt in 2011 after the regime fell and protests would break out at Tahrir square, but we felt relatively safe.  But this time, the protests were directed at Americans (never a good thing, when you are an American) and they happened so quickly, reminding us again that we shouldn’t take anything for granted especially in Beirut where there’s just a single road to the airport that routinely gets shut down during protests (which happened during our stay, for just one day) and Lebanon is bordered by war-torn Syria on two sides and a closed border to Israel on the other.  In 2006, US citizens had to be assisted out of Beirut because there was no other options for leaving the country.

Anyway, it’s safe as safe can be in Beirut, but we were spooked and we started to research, and when you’re talking about reading more deeply into the day-to-day political jibber jabber, it’s going to go something like this:

“I’m going to blow you up!”  One country (you know who you are)

“Nuh uh, I already have like a million people ready to blow YOU up, and you’re ugly.” The other country (yeah, real grown up)

Anyway, if you read Middle East news, especially politics, you can find this kind of posturing any day of the week.  Of course, it just so happened that this week, Israel was saying they didn’t need international approval to bomb Iran.  In turn, Iran implied that Hezbollah (headquartered in Beirut) and Hamas (Gaza strip) would bomb Israel off the face of the planet.  Settle down kids!

This is the thing about the Middle East:  everything is connected.  During Friday evening prayers, a Muslim religious leader talks about a little crackpot film from the US and that weekend in Tripoli, just 40 miles north of our house in Beirut, they burn down a KFC in protest.  Because when there’s no US Embassy nearby, what do you protest?  Oh that’s right, deep-fried fast food chicken.  Same-same.  I just love how the world sees Americans.  Ahem.  Meanwhile just south of us, Israel is threatening Iran, albeit obliquely, but within Beirut an armed militia is ready to step up if needed.  With rocket launchers.  Great.  Nothing happens in isolation.  If you live in the Middle East and follow current events, this kind of thinking will drive you crazy.  Or it’ll force you to leave.

We started talking about it with friends, trying to decide if we were over-reacting or not.  Then we just looked at each other and said:  “What are we doing?”

I mean it’s not like we’re doing UN peacekeeping work here, or running an orphanage where dozens of children depend on us.  We’re travelers. We’re learning Arabic.  We like the city.  If you have to ask, “hey guys, do you think it’s safe to stay here?” then, maybe you already answered your question.  And not that I want to throw out the “we have a family” card — because believe me, people threw that at us when we decided to come here (of course they also did when we went to pretty much every country that’s not on the Carnival cruise route) but I don’t relish the idea of making an emergency exit while pregnant and with a toddler, when we could have left on our own terms.

So we just jumped.  There were so many details to work out, from our house to Arabic classes to letting the people involved with my book know, to telling our friends and family and so on.  We packed up, gave away everything to the church next door (thank you for the beautiful sounds of Sunday mass chanting, St Jacobs!) and nearly had a fist fight with our liar landlord who thought we couldn’t read Arabic well enough to see he had appended the contract in his favor (a little last-minute drama typical for us) and took a taxi to the airport.  Our car slowed at a checkpoint and we held our breath as they waved us on.  We did it, we made it out.  Even though we knew there was no immediate danger, it still felt like relief.

And just like that, a chapter was closed.  I think we made the right choice for us in that moment, and I am proud of us being willing to just go, when we got a whiff of it being unsafe, rather than being too stubborn or becoming complacent, thinking we could outsmart risk, just because we’d never been burned.  I don’t need to get burned, thank you very much.

Oh but then the pangs!  It all happened so quickly I haven’t processed any of it.  Good bye Beirut!  We loved you and we’ll be back.  We have unsettled business, my dear, and I’ll practice my Arabic every day.  Until next time!

40 Comments

  1. So, you didn’t really tell us where you went! Ah the suspense.

    Anyhow, I couldn’t agree more about this:
    If you have to ask, “hey guys, do you think it’s safe to stay here?” then, maybe you already answered your question.

    That seems like solid logic.

  2. I was wondering about this after seeing the protest news.
    You gotta do what you gotta do.

    Would have loved to see some more posts like this presenting how life goes on beyond the protests covered by the media, but I probably wouldn’t stay if I was pregnant either. 😀

  3. Very odd to read this post when I was just thinking about Anthony Bourdain’s Beruit episode from a few years ago. [Random.] You made what you felt like was the right choice for your family – we can all relate to that! I probably would have done the same.

  4. Chicken!

    No seriously, at least you all lived there fo a while. And the Arabic?

    Have you learnt enough that you can move on to Thai?

  5. Best of luck on your next destination! Although I must say that I love that you held out for as long as you could, always with an open mind. I’m the first to encourage adventure in lesser-known destinations, even with family (I visited Beirut one year ago alone with my then 20-month old) but the way things are currently overall in the region– best not to take the chance.

    Look forward to reading where you’ll land next.

  6. I happened to see your Thai crab curry on twitter and was like, WTF?! Follow her on twitter people, you’ll know where she is 🙂 Great article about just doing whatever the hell makes you feel comfortable, because isn’t that really what this ‘digital nomad’ malarchy is all about? You’ve nothing to prove, look forward to your latest adventures!

  7. Love these photos guys. Glad you’re all OK. The MIddle East does have a way of getting under you skin in the best kind of way doesn’t it. Hope you return someday.

  8. Haha, cause burning down a KFC has SO much relevancy to protesting an independent film made by one individual. Glad you guys are safe!

  9. I was wondering about you guys as well. I am sure it was a hard decision to make and not one you took lightly. Ultimately, you have to do what is best for your family. Lebanon is on my list after my current passport expires. Hopefully things will have calmed down by then. 🙂

  10. It sounds like the right choice, you don’t want to mess with that. Plus a change is always fun, I can’t wait to hear the updates!

  11. Somewhere (and probably not that deep down) in your biological hard-wiring, you had to play the “family card” even if you disliked your friends and family sometimes overplaying that card in the past. When I realized that our now 20-something Millennial sons no longer need parental units for their own survival, it was a big relief in terms of worrying about putting myself in harm’s way. There’s a reason why they advise against getting between a mama Grizzly and her cubs. So, our #2 son is wandering around Asia (and blogging about it) and his father and I are free to skydive (not that we do). It would be sad for them to lose us, but at this point in their and our lives, it wouldn’t be tragic. Don’t feel sheepish about leaving Beruit. It’s time to start finding a nice nest where you can give birth to #2. It’s what most humans (and animals) do if we can.

  12. Very engaging article. You are so brave risking a trip to Beirut in the current climate! You were absolutely right not to be complacent and listening to your instinct. Always err on the side of caution as he who fights and runs away lives to fight another day.

  13. So where are you? Maybe you can start a “where in the world are the Gilberts” instead of just Cole…

    Glad you are out. Better safe. And I know that I want to be pregnant in a place I can really put my feet up and be sick AND running…

  14. Couldn’t agree more. We have family in Syria and in Israel and have learned it takes a unique mindset to live anywhere in the Middle East. Your assessment of the situation was spot on and of course now we are all wondering where we will find you … waiting for the big reveal … glad you are safe.

  15. Melanie - NJ

    You were true to your blog title “Almost Fearless”. Being parents always puts you in the right frame of mind for making a safety decision. Glad you are well !

  16. @michael yes we went to thailand for now, just because it’s easy to get set up here on short notice but we’re planning on heading to our next destination for another 6 months or so to have the baby (and study another language).

  17. I think you made the right move to leave early. Better safe than sorry especially when children are involved.

    Good luck in Thailand and where ever you head to next.

  18. I am relieved for you. I think the KFC attack worried me more than the embassy attacks because it showed people were going to attack *anything* American.

    Yes. You don’t know me from Adam but I consider you friends enough to be concerned when bad things happen.

  19. When can we have peace there in middle east? I think they’ll stop bombarding each other’s country until they got what they want. Feels so sad that not only some citizens get killed but also travelers get kidnapped sometimes! 🙁

  20. Hope you’re having a good time in Thailand although watch out for the floods!

    Loving the photos on this blog. Am tempted to sign up for email updates.

  21. We think you did the right move. You have nothing to prove.

    BUT where have you gone? Good luck anyhow.

    Paul

  22. I think the KFC burning up is definitely an indication that things could go wrong and I’m glad you guys packed up and left. It’s really unfortunate how politics can stain the general view of a place or it’s people (with the exception of your landlord who certainly deserved more than just the threat of a fist fight!) Good luck with Thailand!

  23. The dangerous the place, the more challenging to travel? I would normally read online news on the country where I am planning to visit before I book a flight. Safety is my priority!

  24. Love the way you write and describe your travels. You’re really an inspiration! Be safe and god bless!

    //Daniel

  25. Seems like an eventful time in Beirut. Hopefully, in time you can look back on this experience and find some more positives e.g learning Arabic. Out of interest, do you know what the current situation is with regards to border crossing into Israel and Syria? Enjoy Thailand.

  26. Well, Just to mention : Beirut is not a country it’s a city-the capital of Lebanon- because someone wrote “Leaving a great country like Beirut must be tough “. I would like to say, that I am Lebanese and I live in Beirut. I thought that you might like to hear a Lebanese point of view… Lebanon is a very small country, though it contains a lot of ideologies, parties, opinions, religions that are all different. So sometimes, you might see on the news that Lebanese are protesting, while it’s very rare to find all Lebanese (I mean the majority) protesting because of the same thing. Also, the media always exaggerates about the situation in Lebanon, even our local media makes things look much worse than they are, International media makes it look like Hell. While, we all go to our jobs everyday and party every weekend and shop in the malls… And we are not afraid. To be honest, a wave of anxiety passes through every now and then, and sometimes we get scared to invite our immigrant relatives to come over since the airport way could be closed anytime… We are not a perfect country, after all we are a third world country. But we are not as bad as you think, we are safe and we love tourists. Actually, Lebanon is a wonderful country full of adventures, and us Lebanese, we got used to adrenaline rush, if you are looking for some adrenaline… Just visit us …

  27. Stunning photographs and really enjoyed the story as well. When’s the book coming out? You’re very brave travelling with a kid and one on the way! Beirut looks like a fascinating place.

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