When traveling, the world is a classroom. At times, the intended lesson does not come at the time of study. My time of study began in 1992, at the age of 19, shortly after Lebanon 's civil war ended. My parents had sent the three of us, my sister, my brother and me, to our grandparents for a month. We saw such devastation that we wondered if our parents had made a mistake; had they known what the living conditions were they certainly would not have sent us. Ten years after my 1992 visit, the lesson came home after I witnessed a change made possible even in the most hopeless of environments.
" Garbage, for me, became an indicator of how Lebanon changed after the destructive effects of a thing called war. "
Garbage, for me, became an indicator of how Lebanon changed after the destructive effects of war. In war, garbage collection stops. The entire infrastructure of waste collection breaks down. During the war, the Lebanese suddenly had to decide how to get rid of the waste they created. Most decided not to decide at all. They just tried to survive. So it sat. In piles, on hills, in courtyards and it sat there forever. Garbage does not decompose, not as it seems to do when it is collected and magically disappears to the landfill and one is allowed to forget its existence.
In fact, garbage left to lay creates a mass of smells, pests such as rats and cockroaches, and other health hazards. I remembered the first time I had to kick a rat off my shoe as I walked down a darkened hallway to my Uncle's apartment. Or how I only slept three hours the night I realized I had shared my pillow with a cockroach. So some decided to burn the garbage. It seemed the immediate solution, but they had to live with the thick, black smoke, the ground beneath now unable to grow anything. In 1996, my second visit, I learned that I did not like burning garbage any more than I liked piles of garbage.
As time went on and the memory of war became more distant, the issue of garbage changed. In 2000, people's energy moved more away from basic survival to improving the quality of life. A company named Sukleen emerged and they regularly come around, even to the most remote of places. They are known by the color of their trucks and collection bins, a lovely mint green. Every day, my Teta would walk to the curb to dispose of the day's waste in those bins. Piles of garbage, the pests and other health hazards had disappeared. In 2002, I noticed on a popsicle wrapper I had just bought the universal symbol of a nondescript human throwing away garbage in the proper bin. Underneath the symbol were the words "for Lebanon." The decision of where my wrapper goes was no longer left up to me, but to the Sukleen company.
My final lesson came during my last visit, when I realized that garbage had become a symbol for change. During a short 10 years I was able to witness changes a country went through. And even when an outsider like myself felt hopeless about Lebanon 's ability to grow, it did. The remarkable Lebanese people are resilient and war's devastation on them was temporary, not permanent. In fact, I predict they will continue to change. And bylaws will be in place, if not already, to fine people for an action they had done without thinking for 20 years- littering.
This essay appeared in Al Jadid, Vol. 9, no. 45 (Fall 2003).