Monday, July 17, 2006

'I don't want to eat, I don't want to socialize; I want to leave'

The following letter was written by Jay Saxon '05, who was studying Arabic in Beirut this summer, to his friends and family on July 16.

Hello everyone,

A giant, massive, enormous heart-felt thank you to everyone. I have received emails from people I had forgotten existed, and despite frequent musings of "I don't know what to say but I hope you're ok," opening my email to 67 messages today makes me feel much, much, much, much better. Emails, even if you think they say nothing, are spiritual nourishment.

For those trying to call, you probably won't get through, as cell phones have started to go. I can still talk to my parents, but that's about it. T-Mobile charges $3 a minute for international roaming, so maybe this is a blessing in disguise, as our phone bill will be in the thousands. That said, if you have a free minute, I'm using my U.S. cell permanently now [], so if you call and get me, I will say hi for a minute and appreciate the gesture.

I am safe. That is the most important thing. We have been transferred to a small town north of Beirut. It's a long story why, but suffice it to say, we're almost all here now (a few have stayed in an apartment in Beirut, we can't get a hold of them but we hope they're ok). For now, we wait.

For those who are interested, in addition to the Birmingham News piece, Birmingham's NPR station interviewed me via cell phone last night. The questions are easily anticipated, but it may be of interest. The interview is online at. I can't beleive that's my voice, which sounds like I'm fine, because that's not how I feel. I have no emotions left. I wrote in my last email that we lived in this strange bubble of air conditioning and electricity, internet and phone, in the middle of a war zone. I feel like I should be in a bomb shelter quaking in my boots, when in reality I'm sitting in a fairly comfortable dorm room hoping I'll soon be able to sleep. I'm totally numb. I don't really know how to describe how we feel; we're "safe," but that's not enough. There's something about knowing that I can't leave this place no matter how much I want to that is terrifying. My roommate here has a father who is a former Naval intelligence officer; his old friends who are still in the service have told him they view this situation (and I quote his words directly) as "a shitstorm waiting to explode." That's quite unsettling.

There were bombings 10 minutes south of […] today, of the port at Juneiah where Israel believes Hizballah fired the drone plane that struck the Israeli ship yesterday. Other than that, this region is more quiet. The roads north have already been bombed, east goes to the Bakaa Valley, which is Hizballah country and therefore off limits, and south is Beirut and then no roads. Way South is where the fighting is, and it's no man's land.

Getting to Syria, as I mentioned in the last email, is now virtually impossible. All major and principal secondary roads have been destroyed, and all that remain are farm roads which are of questionable safety. One friend was able to get to Amman on these roads three days ago, but now they may be impassable. Israel bombed the road between the Lebanon and Syrian border crossing (it's about a 5 mile stretch through mountains, technically in Lebanon), so our previous evac. plan to Damascus is shot (pun intended). Moreover, Syria isn't exactly paradise, and there are so many Americans now that there is worry it will become a target, so it's probably best to stay away.

To those of you who called Senators/Congressman/whoever you know, it has worked. They have finally gotten on the ball, and put plans in motion. I don't know who out there knows who, but I now have (and this applies to nobody else here in our program, so I don't know how I got lucky) a Legislative Affairs Liaison from the State Department calling me every 6-10 hours, either with updates or just to ask how I am. It gives good piece of mind, and he assures me they're working to get us out of here.

Our hope for evacuation is now to be taken by boat (somewhat unlikely, given the destruction of major ports) or by marine helicopter to Cyprus. See this article for more details. We have been assured we will be taken out of here; the question is when, and how. Once we get to Cyprus, we are safe. We may be stuck there for several days, as all countries that don't evacuate directly are going there, so irony of ironies, I may be forced to rent a hotel and sit on the beach (Cyprus is mostly a summer resort island this time of year) for several days until I can get a flight out. I guess there are worse places to end up, but honestly, between beach and home, I want to get home.

If at all possible, I'll fly to Budapest, where I still have an apartment in hopes of finding a job there. If I can get to Budapest, I'll stay there for a few days, calm down, and fly home. If not, I'll just get off Cyprus to wherever I can go. What sucks most is that I'll be able to take what I can hold in my lap (if we get on a military helicopter), meaning (if i'm lucky, it's possible we bring nothing but what we carry on our pockets and belts) I can get my computer, my external hard drive with my 3,000 pictures from the last year of my life, my iPod, and a couple changes of clothes. Thankfully, my parents brought a ton back with them from Budapest in June, but there are things I have to leave here, and even though it's just possessions, leaving a tangible piece of yourself (worst of all is my Lonely Planets with my travel notes from a year) in a god-forsaken place feels a bit like scraping bits off of my soul to feed to the devil.

There are crazy people here, and by here, I mean this program. The quality of academic instruction was excellent, but the logisitics are a nightmare. Students are helpless and blindly believing what the director of the program says. She has actively put us in danger by encouraging people to ignore State Dept. warnings and stay and finish the program, despite every warning that says "GET THE FUCK OUT" coming from all corners of the earth. I will have more to say on this later, but it is a nightmare. We also live in a police state on campus. Though we are all adults (some old adults in their 40s and up), we are not allowed to be on the same dorm floor with members of the opposite sex; when our internet went out for a time yesterday, I went to my friends' rooms on the girls' side, the only place on campus (i.e. behind gates and guards and guns) where internet was available, to get to my email so I could email my mother and say "I'm ok." I was forcibly removed by three security guards and told by the University's director of security that I was taking advantage of the situation to violate rules, that my presence in a girl's room was "chaos" and "a crisis," and was told that if I violate any more rules, I'd be kicked off campus, and they don't care where bombs are falling. I am not making any of this up. This is what you get when a society doesn't trust adults to make their own decisions.

And still, we wait. I'm stir-crazy. We went to dinner tonight in […] as it's safe and we have no food here, and I was antsy the whole time. I don't want to eat, I don't want to socialize; I want to leave. At the same time, being alone in silence is miserable, and scary, so we travel in hordes. For you Princeton people, remember when we went to the Street freshman year in packs like gazelle, scared we'd be left to the wolves of the eating clubs alone? It's a ridiculous analogy, but transfer that sort of feeling to real life, with real wolves, and that's what's in my head. Nobody goes anywhere alone, and yet we all feel isolated. The Lebanese people find it slightly amusing (not in a malicious way, but there is no other word to explain it). A doctor came up to us tonight and asked if we were stuck, we said yes, and he said "Ah, I am sorry. We are accustomed to this, but it must be strange for you." They go about life as usual, and I am dead inside.

Thank you all for your concern. I am trying to keep my spirits up, but your emails help, even if you think you say nothing. Again, though I tried to add those who have emailed, I left people off this email list, so please forward to anyone who would care. I can't write anymore now. I'm sorry. I'm exhausted (shelling or frantically packing has left us up until past 3 the last three nights, and I've been up by 7 or 8 every day). However, this is a downer, so I will leave you with a bit of humor: in order to keep our spirits up, we have come up with code words. It is not smart to say "Hizballah" or "Israel" or "I"m sick and tired of Lebanon" in public, for fairly obvious reasons. Accordingly, after an intense and hushed debate over dinner, "Hizballah" is now The Flinstones, because they live in the Stone Age; "Israel" is now the Simpsons, because they don't know what the hell they're doing, and they don't really care; and Lebanon is " 'nan," (as in the way people called Vietnam " 'nam"). Therefore, when I return home and discuss my time in 'nan hiding from the Flintstones and cursing at the Simpsons, rest assured, I have not gone totally crazy. Just sort of.



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