Nimr, one of the movie’s protagonists, fled to Lebanon to escape forced military conscription. GroundTruth Productions/Fair Use. All rights reserved to the author. [This article is the outcome of a partnership between SyriaUntold and openDemocracy].
Having lost their home, they themselves are now lost in Lebanon, living a tale of spiraling loss that devours everything in its wake. Perhaps this is the metaphor conveyed by ‘Lost in Lebanon’ (2017), a film by Georgia and Sophia Scott that sheds light on the lives of Syrian refugees in this small Mediterranean country.
The film examines various dimensions of loss — such as deprivation and alienation — through a new concept of life in exile, in a country (Lebanon) where precarious residency comes without self-awareness. This loss then expands, encompassing the terms and conditions of existence on foreign land, which itself turns into some sort of prison.
In Lebanon, Syria seems closer to those who have fled, or been forced to leave it behind. The intimate thoughts and aspirations regarding Syria are clearly on display in the eyes and words, and in thoughts and memories unleashed by the characters. These emotions escape through the film and draw a picture, a new portrait of diasporic Syria; a Syria which is comprised of personal details, and of countless lives awaiting any glimpse of hope for a future return.
In ‘Lost in Lebanon’, we watch aspects of the lives of four characters. Each has a unique backstory, but they all revolve around the exceptional circumstances of Syrians in Lebanon. In spite of their differences, they are brought together by a desire for a better life; a life for which they struggle, consoling themselves in a prolonged wait. They burn away their days without solutions in sight.
Returning to Syria now is not an option. The characters live in places that are, albeit alien to them, corresponding to their crises. Their relationship with their surroundings is characterized by misunderstanding and confusion.
A house in Beirut does not resemble a tent in Akkar or an office in Shatila Camp, nor does it resemble a camp school to which dozens of children go for fear of illiteracy and all-too-accessible violence. In each of these different and disordered spaces, the notion of ‘place’ becomes rather absurd.
We come across someone who brought his place all the way from Syria, only to discover it too late and regret the sweetness of its discovery in his homeland. His fellow Syrian describes Lebanon as a calm and comfortable place to start planning and working. Another one is still clueless about it and overwhelmed by its details. Thus, these places weave their threads of identity around the necks of those fleeing the calamity.
In search of the lost Syria
A father awaiting the arrival of his new baby, Sheikh Abdo (39) keeps thinking about the future generation of those who had left their homeland and settled in unofficial camps in northern Lebanon. What the future holds for them is utterly unknown and frightening, to say the least. Perhaps this is what pushes him to build houses, or rather tents, for himself and for others around him in the open land of Akkar. They initiate their new life by building the only school in the camp.
Nimr (16) is a volunteer member of the same organization in which Sheikh Abdo works. Together with another group of Syrian volunteers and tent dwellers, they form a loving team that teach children. They maintain that, with free weapons and a protracted conflict in Syria, education will help protect them from potential extremism.
The young Nimr has great ambitions and dreams that are almost beyond returning to Syria. But he keeps drawing Syria’s nearby borders with his fingers in the air. “I do not know where it is exactly, but it should be somewhere behind these mountains.”
Syria is behind the nearby mountains indeed. Everyone knows that. However, reaching “over there” is almost beyond any dream they may have. In reality, they have a small school and a blue tent.
The most dynamic character, Rim (26) is shown singing revolutionary anthem “Paradise, Paradise!” (Jannah, Jannah!) as she watches a protest she had attended in Syria back in 2011. Rim’s vitality does not wither. It accompanies her in Lebanon, paving her passionate strides as she works in the narrow alleyways of Shatila Camp.
In her office in Beirut, she works hard to organize the provision of aid to the Syrian families living in the camp. Constructive ideas are always present, but the black reality of instability weighs heavier. “We have to gather information about each family,” explains Rim, “including all the lacking items.” These plans do not end in the right place. The damage is too severe to be mended by repairing a window, installing a faucet or coating a wall.
Shatila Camp, which is almost present as a character, offers a glimpse into the distant future of Syrian camps if they were left to fend for themselves. “This is a special place where no one should be forced to live,” says Rim.
Perhaps this originally Palestinian reality is going to reproduce itself, repeating the same story of neglect and lack of services. This is what seems to await Syrian refugees. Not only has the war shattered their reality, but also any logical conception of life in a better place.
Muwaffaq is a sculptor whose personal freedom seems to be voiced louder than the sounds of war. He fled because he could not bear the idea of killing someone. When he had to join the military, he preferred the loss in Lebanon to that in the midst of war.
Unlike the three other dreamers, Muwaffaq’s plans are of no concrete substance. He instead grasps at the meagre possibilities in his life. However, his sculpting is a more realistic part of his life than wandering around escapism and its justifications.
Muwaffaq sometimes plays with Syrian refugee children in the camps, helping them to enter Syria with their voices. “Who among you is left outside Syria?” he asks them, before whispering to himself: “Only I am.” The group of children stands on a large map of Syria to learn about its cities. “I am from Aleppo,” shouts one of them, perhaps knowing nothing about Aleppo but through horrific news.
But his shout resonates deeply within Muwaffaq’s soul, who is tormented by the question of identity. He asks himself: “Who is the Syrian refugee child? Isn’t he just a child? Why these extra words?” The same question will be asked of a new student of Sheikh Abdo’s, a child who knows nothing about Syria except for the tent in which he is growing up.
The notion of Syria, which expands day after day, does not generate any further notions. Syria does not lead its children but to an inevitable homelessness. “What matters it to be inside Syria,” continues Muwaffaq, who lets the children enter Syria only on the large map.
Forbidden to return, forbidden to stay
The places that occupy the lives of the characters do not seem easy to comprehend or accept. The issue is too vast to be summed up in the phrase “We left Syria and now we live in Lebanon.” The complexity has reached the state of being a pariah in Lebanon, while remaining deprived of living in Syria.
The three young men live in constant fear of deportation to Syria. It is the same old fear of Syrian security checkpoints and arrests, now lurking in Lebanese security checkpoints.
The sounds of Beirut are different from those of the camps. Between the open land and the urban settings, the protagonists of an inevitable escape lie in a limbo. Between the desire to return and the fear of being deported, or rather exiled to death, anxieties grow, worlds and aspirations narrow, and pressures take down the remainder of the sense of safety. All of this is taking place in Lebanon, a country that is already too narrow for its citizens.
Residency papers, or obtaining official documents in the host country, became a huge burden on their shoulders, to be added to the dream of return, the education of children or the building of a school.
We no longer see a trace of any of these concerns in the film after the arrest of Sheikh Abdo by the Lebanese security forces. Following the amendment of Syrian entry and residency laws , they cited the expiration of his legal stay in Lebanon.
Dreams are dissipated and cards are shuffled, but concerns remain and intertwine. Young Nimr travels to Beirut, and Muwaffaq is registered as a refugee at the UNHCR. “Nothing will change,” he says confidently. He quotes what they said, with their tremendous capacity to make people wait and hope. “You have to wait. We will inform you of any developments.”
With perturbed breaths, Rim waits to hear news of her parents’ arrival to Syria. Her parents are the only ones around her who can return, albeit with much anxiety on her side.
‘Lost in Lebanon’ captures these transitions in time, which expand the scope of anxiety and instill fear. We notice that something begins to disappear from these faces, which were just expressing their dreams with bright eyes. They have now become outcasts, bewildered by the declaration of their rejection.
As they sit, discussing and assessing current events, the age of the tent silently grows older, and so does their stay here. Official documents become an even heavier burden to bear. The situation worsens as responsibilities and restrictions increase. By now, it is forbidden to either return or stay.
“Why don’t they just put us in a hole and bury us? they’d be fine!” says a participant in one of Reem’s team meetings.
The impact of the security stress on their lives remains paramount. After his release from a Lebanese prison, Sheikh Abdo returns to the larger prison, i.e., the Akkar camp, which changed and became even narrower and tougher in the meantime.
Sheikh Abdo goes to the hospital along with his wife, who will give birth to their new child. He contemplates his newborn, who had just arrived without documents and without hope, inheriting his father’s misery. As such increases the number of Syrians whose mere existence in Lebanon is in violation of the law.
“How will we solve the issue of his papers?” is the question that remains open and unresolved, while the child lets out his first cries, announcing his arrival in health and safety.
Muwaffaq makes a disconcerting, albeit predictable, choice. He will travel to Turkey and then by sea to Europe. “I would like to go by sea,” but the sea sends him a troubling response: Today, another group of Syrians drowned while trying to cross the Mediterranean.
The sea is not lethal in Lebanon. The film invites us towards its end to imagine closed and narrow spaces. Nothing gets you nowhere in Lebanon, including the sea. Even a moving landscape of the Beirut port, a metaphor for travel and relocation, could not serve to suggest a new relieving transition.
Whether between mountains and vast green areas, or cement and slowly built towers, Syrians in Lebanon seem endlessly stranded in an irredeemable state of patience and loss.
The film mainly focuses on refugees in Lebanon as one of the long-lived Syrian tragedies. However, the four protagonists on this journey make excuses for the country, noting the possibility of adapting to its hell “with much suffering and humiliation,” as Sheikh Abdo’s wife puts it. She does not know what the future holds for her little kids, nor for her own adrift life. She cries, while everyone else contemplates untenable solutions.
The origins of Syrian restlessness in Lebanon seems to be at the crux of the Syrian tragedy. The homeland has continued to haunt those who have left it.
In an hour and a half, the film places its characters and locations within fixed frames, presenting a visually restful story. The footage does not serve a dramatic purpose beyond observation and following the characters through the scenes. In the camp, the footage is general, conveying a sense of collective security despite the poor livelihood prospects.
This slight contentment is reversed, as a critical situation with greater pressure arises. The following scenes are captured via close-ups on the faces of young people, particularly Rim, Muwaffaq and Nimr, alluding to their overwhelming conditions and increasingly narrowing space.
‘Lost in Lebanon’ is based around the spiral of safe return present in everyone’s life. The protagonists do not miss an opportunity to pray for return, but they mean a safe return which meets the desired conditions of stability. Nonetheless, these hopes are shrouded in ambiguity and hopelessness.
The footage of the film begins and ends with the same despair. We start by walking towards a bright light at the end of a tunnel, only to return to its darkness once again as the film concludes. Such is the path of hope when conditions are hopeless. One is destined to constant search, however, in the hope that pains may illuminate the path.
This piece was first published on SyriaUntold on 6 June 2017.