Oh My Darling, Levantine

First Week Back

  • After being used to anonymity abroad, bump into 3 people you weren’t planning on seeing every time you walk out the door. In sweatpants.
  • Return to your hotspotsUncle Deek Nescafé and a walk down the corniche, Jerry’s gin followed by Barbar’s shawarma, and Cantina for a midday red and shanklish. Beirut hotspots have a shelf-life of 3-4 months, making the crowd a seasonal hoard of lemmings that rotate between the same locations that have changed names.
  • Become a lemming and check out the coffeeshop in Gemmayzeh that’s the new Kalei that was the new Urbanista that was the new Cafe Younes. HA, no one is like Younes.
  • Redownload Tinder and swipe. Send too many Barry White GIFs.
  • Commit all possible traffic violations while cursing every relative you’ve never met but are probably related to.
  • Party with your people and remember what that feels like in a place like Lebanon, a country that suspects its Prime Minister is being puppeteered by Saudi Arabia, has an estimated 2 million refugees, and hasn’t had a census since the 30s. It’s not supposed to work but it’s perfect and thus, perfectly Lebanese.
  • Listen to Enta Omri on your drive home after said party and think, shit, she was baller even though you can’t understand 60% of the song. Vow to visit Oum el Dounia* before you have a family and kids.
  • Swipe on Tinder. Download Bumble.
  • Catch yourself two-stepping through the alcohol section of Wesley’s whenever Havana plays on the loudspeaker. Remember that dadboss will laugh at the security camera footage in an hour.
  • Smile when you think of all the money you’re saving because Amazon Prime doesn’t exist here.
  • Begin planning New Year’s Eve with the returning expats across the globe because, despite being gone for 6 months, you are the only one rooted in Beirut.
  • Try to write a blogpost. Sounds like all your previous pieces about returning home but with less feeling, less attachment, less love. It doesn’t feel true. Or it is and you don’t want it to be. Scrap the draft.

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Second Week Back

  • Start to see that although Beirut traffic is as bad as LA traffic, in Beirut, you’re only traveling a distance of 4km and it’s all potholes.
  • Try to fill up on black coffee, moringa tea, and water so as to avoid the ever-expanding waistband that accompanies manaeesh and turkey season. Fail miserably when spicy spinach pies from Faysal suspiciously appear on your kitchen table.
  • Celebrate Lebanon’s annual existential crisis, also known as Independence Day, by eating too much mezza and working late so people can buy pumpkin spice and cranberry sauce for their Friendsgiving dinner the next day.
  • Run out of people on Bumble. Delete Tinder.
  • Start reading the Los Angeles newsletters of events you’re missing back in California. Peruse culture-heavy events in Beirut as a reaction. You will find ways to love her again.
  • Go back to complaining about $7 parking for dinner at a 5-star hotel even though you were easily paying double that in Santa Monica on a Monday to have frozen yogurt.
  • Begin losing socks in the family laundry machine.
  • Stop using the driving playlist used on the 118 in LA. Beirut needs more Godsmack.
  • Tell yourself to focus at work. Keep your head down, pause, and look up only to see that December is all, “I need 5min, I’ll miss call you” and you’re still in a towel.
  • Write a blogpost that captures the humorous albeit depressing emotions that now accompany returning to the only place that gets you to write with raw intensity.
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Artwork by Jamal Saleh for Raseef22

In the midst of the mental noise, the only soothing voice is Fayrouz’s. Now you understand why cabbies and chauffeurs, or anyone sentenced to prolonged periods on the streets of Beirut, play her melodies all morning. It makes you wonder how many lives she’s saved, from the pedestrians on the Raouche promontory to the bus drivers of Charles Helou. It may be that exact memory of rainy drives to school that lowers your blood pressure; that illusion that you’re in the puffy anorak with loose feathers poking out, the gray clouds so thick they could hold you, and there’s a phantom smell of zaatar.

You don’t live here, you survive.
It could be that the secret to living here is staying in the passenger seat.

Oum el Dounia* = translates to “Mother of the Universe/World,” a nickname given to Egypt, home of the late singer Oum Koulthoum.

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California Made Me An Artist

For me, getting a Costco membership card was more exciting than getting a driver’s license. This could be because of #thatWesleyslife but it also feels very adult to buy family-sized goods. However, I’m not a family which is only an issue when it comes to perishables. I’ve had the same tub of Tide all summer and I don’t need anyone to encourage me to finish off a gallon of salsa but my cat & I can only eat so much rotisserie chicken salad.



I’ve grown to like long freeway drives. It’s where I do a lot of introspection on my own stream of consciousness – the same kind I used to do while literally running around Beirut. What they say about LA is true: you spend a lot of your time in the car. Beirut traffic is intense because you have to dodge so many incoming threats but cruising on law-heavy Interstates can be therapeutic in their repetitive continuity. Sure, I space out and I miss my exits but then I get more time to wonder if I’ll age like Gabrielle Union or if I’ll ever find my Mark Ruffalo so we can Thriller our way into the carpool lane of life.

At events here, some parking lots only offer stacked parking for a little less than $20. Stacked means every car parks bumper to bumper and you leave when you can, no one makes way for you to get out early. In Beirut, every lot is stacked except the attendant will let you out la 3ayounik* because you pay him $5. In these moments, I miss our twisted valet/parking attendant mafia but those moments are brief because I’ve come to appreciate order and automation.

Even Home Depot has self-checkout machines, the runner-up to the perk of home delivery which some say is convenience but is actually avoiding human interaction. I thoroughly enjoy going to HD even if it’s just for industrial rolls of bubble wrap. The warehouse is a giant toolbox of possibility. The pungent smell of lumber. The closets I’ll never build. It makes me feel so physically small and insignificant yet capable of anything because I own a hammer. In truth, I have the spirit of a maker but the grace of Scuttle.


Still, the instrument you need is readily available should you want to explore your innate talent of garden shed construction. It’s so tempting to be constantly crafty and, as a result, I’m always wielding a box cutter with a pen stuffed somewhere in my bun.

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Laguna Beach Festival of Arts, 1994

As a child in Laguna Beach, I spent my prepubescent years at art shows or holed up in the office of my parents’ Western art gallery on the town’s main drag. When I wasn’t researching El Chupacabra or walking to Subway with dadboss, I was learning about oil paintings, female nudes, and sculptures that were tree trunks carved with a chainsaw. The smell of wood shavings thanks to the winter Sawdust festival still triggers thoughts of candycanes and the color red. Laguna makes art look like a viable career choice, not just a hobby. You’d think that I should’ve known being a creative was clearly my destiny as of age 7 but alas, I took a few scientific detours before returning to the righteous path.

Only now do I see that those years in SoCal cultivated the first creative seeds in me. Last year, a friend called me an artist and I laughed because the word seems associated with bougie philosophical frauds or drop-out scrubs who need to justify their unemployment. “Farrah, you took time off from your job so you could go to Rome to study typography. You’re an artist.” Oh, that kind, the real kind. Me?

“I can’t hate where I’m from because where I’m from made me.”
Roots, Flo Rida

I shamelessly quote Flo Rida on the regular to myself whenever I’m upset with each of my homelands’ faults because, like it or not, they gave me my layers. And while California may have made me an artist, Beirut, dare I say it, made me a writer.

*An Arabic phrase that means “for you, of course” but in literal terms means “for your eyes”

Remember, Remember the 3rd of September

9/3/2008
I had walked out of AMIDEAST in Downtown Beirut. My brain had liquefied after my first stab at the MCAT, the aptitude test that decides your fate when it comes to your chances at attending medical school. I was a pre-med general-bio junior, I was head over heels for my best friend, and I was barely under the age of 21. I had never even had a beer.

9/3/2017
The 1st anniversary of the opening of the Wesley’s megabranch in Hazmieh, home of my mid-career shift after a jump from art director to creative wildcard of the family business. Now, on the other side of the world, I look forward to walking the aisles of Home Depot because the smell of lumber makes me think of possibility and I’m educating myself about different grapes used in wine production. I am nowhere near the path I was on again but I take comfort in seeing that although the chips fell haphazardly, they still seem to have come together into an assembled jigsaw puzzle. Granted, it’s more of a Monet than a Titian.

What will September 3rd bring forth 10 years after falling asleep on an AUB bench?

Maybe You Don’t Want Me Back

 

IMG_6399For being a coastal state that believes so strongly in flip flops, not enough Californians believe in pedicures. I’ve yet to figure out the 405’s mood swings or how to properly hydrate for an expedition across the traffic of the freeways without needing to find a Starbucks restroom. I’m getting excited over finding a $12 tub of laundry detergent that can do 205 loads, checking the physical mailbox every morning, receiving the orange-wrapped LA Times Sunday paper (with coupons!), and making trips to the grocery stores. That last one could be an occupational hazard; what can I say, I was born to discover food.

As a kid, I could not grasp why we had to spend all day in the kitchen sections of department stores. My parents would peruse the shelves of pans and pressure cookers with awe (another clue to our future in retail). After spending 35 minutes in Target looking for a food processor because I got tired of washing garbanzo beans out of the Vitamix blender whenever I make hummus, I understand the obsession. Maybe it’s genetic but apparently, I have an affinity for small cast-iron skillets.

Without noticing, I’ve been away in LA for a month.

I feel like Aziz Ansari’s Master of None character, Dev, who went to Modena, a small town in Italy, to learn how to make pasta except I’m in Simi, a suburb of Los Angeles, learning how to make kibbeh. And then, I read the stories coming out of little Beirut: Roy Hamouche’s death, the Nader Saab scandal, female protesters being beaten by the army, the new electoral law, talks of enforcing the death penalty, the death of the environment.

 

In all that darkness, the light that emerges comes in the form of Cannes wins for a Leo Burnett campaign that was fighting Article 522. The irony that the only positive I see is that of raising awareness of our own country’s shortcomings is not lost on me. This is the point though: the pushbacks are the only positives. Even Facebook pictures of the latest night at Decks on the Beach don’t evoke any FOMO but rather, an eye roll. The positives are not the parties, the Jounieh fireworks, or the wineries, they’re the baby steps made to pull us out of the drudgery.

I don’t want to be an expat that takes a figurative shit on Beirut just because I’ve left it. However, in the last few years, I’ve seen even the hardcore believers in a better Lebanon start to buckle under the weight of the place that doesn’t want to climb out of the sewage-ridden gutter. I’d like to think that getting older has a lot to do with that because time becomes a main concern. The time you’ve invested in trying to wade through the trash-infested waters and the time you’ve got ahead that seems more fragile than when you were a fresh AUB grad. Priorities shift to the concrete: making a stable living, creating a safe home for your parents and future family, and, at the simplest level, being happy with what that home can give you. The more time you put into Beirut as you mature into a somewhat stunted adult due to a comfortably sheltered existence, the more you are drained and left to question: can I build my life, one like the one my parents provided for me, here? More importantly, should I?

 

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 Netflix – Master of None Season 2, Episode 9

Marie-Rose Osta’s short film, Status Quo, made it into the LA Film Festival. Considering what a moment that is to a young, aspiring Lebanese filmmaker, the US embassy felt it was not necessary for her to attend and rejected her visa. Her short was a vignette focusing on the absurdity of the Lebanese and their surroundings. While the TV is reporting ISIS border incidents and actual threats, her oblivious characters focus on the trivial worries of typical Lebanese daily life like a cockroach in the bathroom that is lit by a flashlight because the power is out. Pointless arguments between the lovers are illuminated by the TV screen’s light as the audio continues to drone on as background noise becoming just a hum. If it weren’t for the subtitles, I wouldn’t have paid attention to the juxtaposition at all. How true to reality is that? When I was speaking to her about my impression of the film, she told me that foreigners picked up on the dramatic insight more than the Lebanese viewers that it was based on. Foreigners see it because the fear that is a cast member for us is a cameo in the sitcom that is their life. It’s still palpable to them while we are so numb to our status quo that we don’t even see it when watching it unravel on screen.

If you’ve left, it means you’re fortunate enough to have that option but it also means you’re fed up. For me, it means I’m a little heartbroken. There is guilt for walking away from someone you love, like you’re abandoning them when they need you but their uncertain salvation is only done by dragging you down too. Leaving is a gross, reluctant form of self-preservation. My expat friends and the last ones still standing on Lebanese soil, who are planning their subsequent moves in the next 18 months, have all said different versions of the same thing: Lebanon is home but I can’t be there anymore. The only thing that brings me back is my parents.

It’s true, the formidable pull for me is the parental unit especially when I imagine dadboss as Atlas, cradling the Wesley’s world on his shoulders. Everything else does not seem worthy or permanent.

I attended a friend’s family iftar a few weeks back and it was like being inside a Lebanese enclave in the heart of SoCal. It started to feel like you could have that dose of home while still being in a society that was made up of humans of all shades, without the accompanying condescension that comes from growing up in a homogenous village by the Mediterranean. America has its fair share of racism but at least here, there is a spectrum of people.

It could be the current sociopolitical climate but there is something about being in the US that makes you want to either assert your ethnicity or completely ignore it. Beirut, I may be making my own labneh, hanging a map of you above my bed, and playing Arabic songs for my American relatives but those are signs of gratitude for how you’ve shaped me. Like every love that comes into my life, you’ve left your imprint on who I am but I’m on the other side of the earth and I don’t miss you the way I thought I would.

As much as I love you, maybe you don’t care.
Maybe convincing myself of that is my way of coping with this sense of betrayal for wanting to stay away.

Maybe you don’t want me back,
maybe I don’t either,
maybe that’s okay.

The 6 Basic Emotions of Leaving Lebanon 

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The impending departure date has rekindled my explorative fire that went out sometime in early 2016. Then, getting swept up in the day-to-day and marathon training as of July, the need to investigate Lebanon’s hidden corners took a backseat to kilometers and containers. My excursions had kept me deeply infatuated with the unturned stones that built Lebanon but the more I run around to explore, the less I run around to run and the more I spiral into this abyss of treat-yo-self-neglect. I’ve yet to master the right balance of self-care when it comes to trying to do it all. I won’t attribute my temporary move to CA to the lack of recent road trips or coffee encounters but I’m sure it aggravated my jaded stupor that had me stuck on autopilot.

THE LAST FEW WEEKS
They’ve been a mix of stargazing in Kfardebian, dancing at the Jazz Festival to Monday Night Blues Band or to La Bamba at Taqueria, prepping for afikra, strolling through Khiyam prison, joining a walking tour of Downtown, practicing some Arabic calligraphy, and ingesting way, way, way too much shawarma – kidding, not even possible. (This may be a preemptive measure since there will be nothing like Barbar in California but I’ll need to drop in on Zankou Chicken to see if they’re still repping us right after 17 years).

LEADING TO THE FEELS
Psychological research has classified six facial expressions of distinct universal emotions: anger, disgust, sadness, fear, happiness, and surprise. These encapsulate the emotional roller coaster ride before checking out of Hotel…Lebanon.

ANGER
The traffic. The horns. The corruption. The. never. ending. brain. cuts. It’s all so taxing on your thought process. Much like our modern-day online reading patterns are now interrupted by hyperlinks, the average attention span and focus in Beirut has a lot to compete with.

On top of fender benders and a failure of a parliament, my mom orchestrates a royal symphony every time she does dishes and I’m thinking, why is there so much NOISE? Why can’t I afford to take a kickboxing class twice a week so I don’t scream into my giant birthday teddy bear who I share my bed with? Yes, I’m almost 30. Farrah, please GO grow up. 

DISGUST
The rising levels of this emotion are what push people out of here. The repetitive web of damaging self-destructive behavior in the form of a country. It’s all the same. The same problems and the same parties with the same people having the same conversations. We’re on a MiddleEastWorld loop with no flies to swat. You romanticize your midday strolls but then the stench of garbage infects your nostrils while you’re ogled by an ass on a motorcycle who zips by construction workers building a monolith in the place of another demolished old home. Why am I subjecting my body to this filth? What’s so beautiful about this? 

Even the dating pool is detrimental leaving you questioning what kind of standards you’ve conceded on and what you’re settling for in a hostage negotiation for love. Why do I have to put up with this? Why am I, a smart & decent catch, underappreciated and overlooked by the opposite sex? What am I doing wrong?

SADNESS
Suddenly, your anger and disgust are alleviated because there’s an exit in sight and all you’re registering now are the positives you’re going to miss. Like when you reflect fondly on an ex, forgetting all the disappointments or red flags. Beirut is a jungle and you are swinging on the vines through the 3 kilometers that take 45 minutes to drive through. She is what kept you connected to reality and saved you from speaking with a Californian accent. Why do I have to leave you to feel fulfilled? Is that what’s going to happen? What if it’s just me? Why does it have to be like this? 

FEAR
The comfort zone of the bartenders who know you by name (because you’re a regular, not an alcoholic), running into high school friends outside their barbershop as you walk through Gemmayzeh on a Saturday, or even the simple pleasure of the perfect plate of muhammara. What if I miss out on something? What about lunch breaks with dadboss? What about Wednesdays at Dany’s and Sundays at Jerry’s? What if I’m making a huge mistake? No, I need to get out of the frying pan and into the fire, out of the Mediterranean and into the Pacific. But the Mediterranean is your fire. Wait, what?

But then I reread my posts about my numerous returns where it felt like home was just as I’d left it and I remember that dreaded feeling for anyone with ambition: stagnation. I’ve had enough summers in Beirut. What’s (or who’s) to be missed won’t be affected by a brief disappearance. The FOMO is overshadowed by the desire to sink into the other side: my American half which has been repressed since my early years in Laguna Beach.

HAPPINESS
When I feel ineffective professionally, it hits hard because it is such a fundamental part of how I identify myself. I’m a powerhouse workaholic so when I’m demotivated and unproductive, it shakes my core. The discoveries and adventures ahead do create anticipation but, in all honesty, the part that I look forward to the most is the clarity that comes with the California sunshine. The short-circuited brainwaves will reboot.

I’m excited to have coffee in the backyard, to learn how to cook Lebanese classics because I’ll have my own kitchen, and to do my own laundry so I don’t have to spend 20 minutes looking for a pair of socks. Legalized marijuana, chance sightings of celebrities on Sunset Blvd, PCH that stretches all the way down the sandy coast. Call me a simple dork but, even with all that, adulting activities while getting creative shit done are what I crave most.

SURPRISE
In a strange twist of events, being put on a deadline gives this sense of urgency to take advantage of the limited time. Procrastination and postponement weren’t options anymore. It has unexpectedly reminded me why I love living here and has provided me with the state of mind I want for my send-off so I can make a fair comparison once stateside. I didn’t want to board a flight leaving Beirut thinking, good riddance you hellhole because she’s better than what my recent apathy has made her into mentally.


I ran into a friend at Souk el Akel who asked me, “shu you’re done with Beirut?” Something tells me this is a whole other kind of beginning with her given how California makes me turn up the Arab. Split time between the two coasts may force appreciation and acknowledgment of the good & bad in both places. Give me enough sunshine with Panda Express orange chicken and California might just make me see where home should be rather than where it is.

Ten days to go but, either way, y’all know I’m coming back for the shawarma in four months. So as I did before Barcelona, let me say: Beirut, I haven’t left yet but all I ask of you while I’m gone is that you be smart, be strong, and be good.

Bambi Recommends: May in Beirut

Who’s tired of cocktails and parties? Okay, no one. But if you want to throw something new into the mix, check out the below suggestions for things to do in May.

IMG_5302Midad Exhibition
Dar el Nimer, Hamra
Midad refers to the carbon inks that are made of the soot of burnt natural ingredients. The exhibition itself addresses the history of Arabic calligraphy, walking you through the history and uses of the artform. It runs till October 2017 with talks and workshops until July. The development of the script and how it progressed through time is truly fascinating.

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Stargazing with BeirutVersus
Various locations
Khalil Azar of BeirutVersus has been organizing trips up to mountaintops for quite some time now. It all started when he joined some Brazilians on a night photography session in Dora. Next thing you know, he’s diving deep into astrophotography and teaching peeps about Polaris, bolides, and the many constellations around us. Not sure if there’s any upcoming gazing for the rest of May but keep an eye on their page either way.

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Layers of a Ghost City – Downtown Beirut Walking Tour
Starts & ends at St. Georges Hotel
Marc wants to stay under the radar so I’m limiting this to a paragraph. The new walking tour on the block, Marc leads groups on Saturday afternoons through Downtown Beirut. He does a superb job putting the old & recent history in context and giving you both sides to the controversial Solidere project. You don’t need to be a foreigner to learn a little bit about the city. It’s 3.5 hours long and Marc’s spending a semester in Berlin over the summer so join the next one while you can.

Off-the-Ground: Design Hackathon for Social Impact
Antwork, Hamra
Part of Beirut’s 6th Design Week running from the 19th-26th under the theme Is Design a Need?, this 2-day hackathon is bringing 30 designers together with organizations to address 5 social issues weighing down on the city. Read more about it here. If you’re more about activism, besides Design Week, there’s also Heritage Watch Day with a focus on Dalieh and Honeine Palace.


And if none of those do it for you, go grab a new book at Oliver’s Kitchen & Coffee Shop in Gemmayzeh. I recommend their Middle East section, melanzane, and lemonade.

What’s Left of Khiyam Prison

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Once a French military barracks complex of South Lebanon built in the 1930s, the Israelis converted the Khiyam Lebanese military base into a detention center in 1984. Infamous for the torture of captured members of the resistance, their relatives, and those who refused to cooperate with Israel and the South Lebanon Army (SLA), the 5000 detainees held there never went to trial and at least 15 never made it out alive. Formerly known as the Free Lebanon Army who fought against the PLO, Amal, and Hezbollah, the SLA was a Lebanese militia that operated as the Israeli proxy during the 1985-2000 period. The SLA is known locally in the South as jeish Lahad (Lahad’s army) after Antoine Lahad, the general that took over when the previous leader, Saad Haddad, died in ’84.

The SLA disintegrated in 2000 with the withdrawal of Israeli troops and the prison has been a symbol of the Israeli occupation of the South ever since. After the withdrawal, many SLA members fled to Israel and Europe out of fear of how their fellow Lebanese would feel about their actions when the dust settled.

Israel denies any involvement in what went down in Khiyam and says the SLA did all the dirty work. They just supervised and provided the equipment, training, and funds. According to a Human Rights Watch report, Israeli intelligence agents had direct involvement with the Lebanese interrogators. It also states, “Israel is obligated under international law to hold accountable and prosecute its own citizens and Lebanese nationals who participated in or condoned acts of torture at Khiyam.” Instead, those that fled to Israel are rumored to be living under their protection at the expense of the Israeli taxpayers.

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THE TORTURE 
The 70x70cm bathrooms (seen above) of the military base were converted into solitary cells that left prisoners in complete darkness. Torture ranged from electrocution of the genitals to whipping while tied naked to a flagpole in the blazing sun or freezing cold to being doused in hot and cold water while cuffed blindfolded to window grilles. Prisoners were allowed out in the sun for 15-20 minutes every week or two. The “chicken cage” was a 90 cubic centimeter enclosure for extra-severe forms of punishment.

“In Khiyam prison, we died a hundred times every day.” – Al-Akhbar

The guide of the premises, Ahmad el-Amine, was a prisoner of Khiyam for 4 years. As we passed the pile of stones that was once the cells of 500 female prisoners, he said that the SLA (or the Israelis by contiguity) would sometimes detain the wives, sisters, and mothers of the male prisoners. His wife was an example. Besides those who were working with the resistance, female relatives were also taken in and used as leverage to get prisoners to give up information. They’d tell a male detainee that their mother or wife was in the next room, make rape threats, and force him to listen to her screams until he’d cough up the answers kept secret while under interrogation.

Perhaps the most disturbing part about all the physical and psychological torture was that it was conducted by their compatriots, sometimes their own village neighbors who had joined the SLA.


KHIYAM PRISON TODAY
During the 34-day 2006 war with Israel, in an attempt to erase what happened there, the grounds of the Khiyam Prison were bombed via airstrike. Along with the lives of 4 UN observers, around 65% of the structure was reduced to rubble leaving behind just a few solitary and group cells with their intact bedframes plus vehicles used by the multiple armed groups.

Sitting at the top of a hill overlooking the border towns of Lebanon and just up the street from the municipality building of Khiyam, the remains of the prison receive visitors from all over. Ahmad lives there, giving tours in a yellow branded cap and selling $4 DVDs on the torture and disturbing history of the site. Old trucks and tanks rust near the watchtowers on each corner that now have Hezbollah flags waving from their posts.

If you find yourself in the South, go see it while you still can. If there’s ever another offensive with our favorite foe, they may attempt to strikeout “Khiyam Prison” on their to-do list once and for all.