An American in Beirut
Not the Story You Were Expecting from Lebanon
Journalist Cathy Huyghe wanted to show an unexpected side of wartime Syria. So she traveled to Lebanon to meet with vintners who are making wine in Syria, despite—or maybe because of—the conflict.
Traveling in Lebanon, near the border with Syria, at the beginning of June this year may not have been the safest decision of my life. But I was chasing a story, and that chase has made me question how far I’m willing to go—geographically, emotionally, and psychologically—to get it.
This particular story started three years earlier and continues to this day. It was 2010, in a fancy hotel in Paris with fancy wine. Off to one side were two guys who were…different. Which means, naturally, that I made a beeline for them.
They poured me a taste of their wine in my glass, and our first conversation went something like this.Me: So you're making wine? In, uh, Syria?Them: Exactly!Me: Why are you making wine in Syria?Them: We love wine! And we think everyone should drink more of it.Me: I agree. But…Syria?Them (pausing, with considerably more seriousness): We want to show the world that our country is about more than its politics.
This was before Syria blew up. I kept these guys on my radar in the years since then, and this summer I had a chance to visit them in Beirut. Neither they (nor their consulting winemaker) have been able to cross the border into Syria to access their own property since November of last year. Yet they were still making wine.
There was a story here, and I wanted it. But it was not about the wine per se. It was about business and politics, and my initial questions when I met them in Lebanon would be along the lines of: How do you operate a business when your country is at war? And, how do you convince your workers to stay on the land rather than join the flood of refugees? And, how are other producers of wine in the Middle East affected by the conflict in Syria?
It was an unusual, and potentially provocative, story. Even before I left the U.S. for Lebanon, I was getting some pushback. “It is difficult for me to speak about wine in Syria,” one of my sources said, “given the terrible tragedy that we are suffering in front of the world unable to care.”
It was certainly a fair point. But I explained—to this source and several others—that my article was starting with people who wanted to show the world that Syria is about more than its regime, and that I wanted to show a side of Syria that is unexpected. The response was silence. Maybe they didn’t get it. Or maybe they just didn’t believe me. But I had to go and see for myself.
My personal anxiety before I left the U.S. for Lebanon was much more acute than when I actually got there. Partly it was a question of the unknown; I had never been there before. Partly it was the security issues and the U.S. State Department’s travel advisory, even in June. Partly it was the reaction of every one of my American friends and family, which was, without variation: Lebanon? Are you sure?
No, I wasn’t sure. I was anxious too. But I went anyway.
I had traveled in the Arab World before, in the Middle East and northeastern Africa as well. I had a solid frame of reference. I wasn’t naïve. I was aware of the danger, and my eyes were open.
Then I arrived, finally, in Lebanon. In June I landed in Beirut, and traveled in the Bekaa Valley. I listened and I watched, and listened some more, so that I could write.
I wrote about the motivations of businessmen, and their determination to persevere. I wrote about how people—from Syria, Lebanon, Israel, and Tunisia—demonstrate in their own ways that their countries are about more than their politics. Or that they would like them to be.
I wrote, in other words, about life. Another part of life in the Middle East than what we usually see in the media, to be sure, but life nonetheless. And the near reality of death.
In other words, I got the story.
But my pursuit of it is what gave me pause. Why did I want it so badly? Why was I so determined to get this particular story from that particular place at this particular time? Why was I—why am I—drawn so powerfully to a war zone?
There was the adrenaline and sense of adventure, for sure. That was part of it.
Part of it was the opportunity to tell an unusual story. As a writer I'm hungry for compelling insight that is not black and white or hard and fast but that is somehow true nonetheless.
Part of it was that I was looking for the slivers of humanity. Even though I’m properly outfitted with a journalist’s radar for objectivity, not to mention a business sense for what motivates people and decisions of commerce, I realize that my heart is looking for even the smallest portion of hope and humaneness.
And part of it is that I know in my heart that conflict, and hopefully resolution, is an integral part of the work of my life moving forward.
As I tweeted from the Beirut airport on my way home, my internal axis has effectively tilted a few degrees truer. I credit this to the people of Lebanon, if not to their politics. My axis has tilted a few degrees more aware, too, to slivers of humanity even (or especially) where we aren’t conditioned to find them.