Thoughts from a Beirut Party Bus: Cultural Performance as Resistance

The bus drove past the port and someone lowered the volume. The professor spoke up frantically, pointing outside the window.

View from the parking lot where our bus dropped us off, the Teleferique line to reach the summit of Harissa above us.


he bus drove past the port and someone lowered the volume. The professor spoke up frantically, pointing outside the window.

“This is it! This is where the explosion happened! Look!”

Everyone stopped what they were doing and crowded against the left windows, watching in silence, mumbling prayers, heads moving from right to left, eyes locked on the ruin. Memories flashed, taking everyone back to the moment when they first saw or heard the news. During the whole of my life, and throughout my parents’ lives as well, the majority of news coming from our homeland(s) has just been devastation after devastation. Our heritage in the past century, as understood by the West, has been carved from the carnage of our tragedies. Here was the physical testimony of yet another. There was some silence before someone, not knowing what else to do, turned up the music.

It was the day after the wedding and I was on a school bus in Lebanon that my father had rented along with five or so other families. There were about 30 of us who had travelled from Canada, the United States, and the Emirates. We were going to take a tour of the major sites, going up a mountain in a Teleferique, strolling through the Byblos bazaar, eating fish by the coast. None of us were from Lebanon, and most of us had no intimate connection to the country; we were tourists. We have friends who have mutual acquaintances in Beirut, which helped us with finding a place to stay, renting the bus, and hiring a driver. If we had no connections whatsoever, our trip would have been significantly less comfortable, and the journey to get there was already harrowing enough.

We were supposed to leave the day after Christmas, and as though we were living in a Hallmark movie, our flight was cancelled due to a massive snowstorm throughout southern Ontario and the northeastern United States. We were supposed to drive to Detroit, fly to New York, and board a plane bound for Stockholm before finally flying to Beirut. We were making preparations to drive to New York and reunite with our itinerary before the airline told us they wouldn’t honour the rest of our flights since we missed the first one (but it was cancelled!). A few days later we heard a story on the news of a family who was driving through Buffalo who got buried in the snow. No survivors. These are the sorts of stories that make me believe in the idiom that everything happens for a reason.

We found new, last-minute flights (at great expense) and our new itinerary was similar, but we would have a layover in Paris instead of Stockholm. We still had to drive to Detroit to catch our first flight, a journey which normally takes two hours but instead took us six. This was one part due to the weather and one part due to me and my sister (in a separate car from our parents) getting stopped at the Canada-US border and questioned for an hour. You aren’t allowed to take your phone with you when this happens so we could just imagine our parents panicking. Really it was my fault, I don’t know why I was honest when they asked us where we were headed. We answered their trivial and seemingly endless questions about our family and our itinerary, and eventually they sent us on our way.

After 48 hours of travelling, we made it to Beirut, but not before we were given quite a bit of trouble by the border agent. Apparently—and this was surprising for me to learn—Palestinians normally face some trouble when trying to enter Lebanon. We had the safety of our Canadian passports, but the agent wanted to see our Jordanian passports (long expired), as they had our full family names which the Lebanese government could keep on record. A method of surveillance and tracking, to be sure—names in the Arab world are tied to particular cities and villages. In our case, it binds us to Nablus in the West Bank.

Three days after we were supposed to arrive, and two days before the bus tour, we attended the rehearsal dinner. Everyone came dressed in their best traditional Palestinian clothes; tatreez (embroidery) filled the hall, a tapestry of unwavering pride and red thread. Mezze flooded the table, threatening to spill over in the typical fashion. Amidst the crowd, the bride and groom could not be missed. We had all travelled across the world (not without significant effort) to celebrate them. Here finally, was the beginning.

And then the drums. There is no warning before a zaffeh, no easing into it. It comes all at once. First the drums, then the cheers and zagareet (that rhythmic trilling noise Arab women make with their tongues), followed closely by the bagpipes, the horn, and the stamping feet. The rest of the wedding would be typical: photo-taking, dinner, speeches, dancing, white dress, white cake–relics from an internalized colonial past. We are constantly straddling the line between East and West, attempting to reconcile our identity, but never without disdain on one end and longing on the other. But this, this zaffeh, this was the exceptional moment. Tears welled up in my eyes as I realized the gravity of this moment. I forced them back down, suffocated with a zagareet.

We are constantly straddling the line between East and West, attempting to reconcile our identity, but never without disdain on one end and longing on the other. But this, this zaffeh, this was the exceptional moment.

Normally, this customary event would take place at the bride’s family home, the groom and his entire family coming to claim her. But we were all strangers to Beirut, and so the narrow sidewalk outside the restaurant would have to do. This was distressing to my father, who loves a good zaffeh. He wanted to “do it right”—wanted to hire another band and group of dancers to perform outside the hotel she was staying at to make it somewhat more authentic. My cousin held her ground successfully. In the end, the location mattered little. The energy of the dancers, the musicians, the guests, the great-grandmother shouting prayers and the women responding with ‘aweeeeee’ha!’—that made it what it was.

I am not a sentimental person by nature, and weddings are not something I would claim to hold dearly. I dream of a swift elopement, not a white dress or a floral arch. But there, on the streets of Beirut, I understood. We are a stateless nation, a diaspora of refugees and expats floating untethered, grasping at the threads of culture to bind ourselves to one another, to a not-so-distant past, to an ambitiously hopeful future. This is what keeps the movement alive. More than that, it is what keeps us alive. Without it, we would embody that unspecific, ambiguous label—"Arabs"—which they use to erase us from the history books. Here, we were unmistakable. Palestinians. A definition solid as concrete walls and throwing stones.

On the bus, our gravity and visibility were felt by those inside and outside the vehicle. There was a rudimentary speaker system that my father hooked his phone up to and began blaring 20th century Palestinian music through as the bus started to gain speed on the highway. During a particularly upbeat track, a few of the men stood up and began a dabke line (a traditional dance composed of rhythmic steps and stomps)—yes, inside the bus. It was hilarious and crude and beautiful. The older men looked close to tears as they smiled and belted the lyrics of these songs. The words they were singing told the stories of Palestinian massacres throughout the decades. In particular I remember a song chronicling the massacres of Sabra and Shatila; sites that were only a few kilometres away. These men who had really lived it, who had been rocked back and forth throughout the Middle East, were here on this bus smacking their foreheads, lost in a reverie, straining their voices to clutch as tightly as possible to that culture and those catastrophes. To remind us, the young people who were more distant from it, even in the wake—no, especially in the wake—of a wedding celebration, that our people have and continue to suffer, hardly a stone’s throw away from where we were. I thought about what forms intergenerational trauma and I thought about how I did not know all these men, but I had heard stories of some of them, familiar tales of inattentiveness and abuse. Yet this was them at their best. Preserving memory.

This, I thought, is the Palestinian experience. Remembering and reliving the tragedies whenever we got together, no matter the occasion. As a Palestinian, you need to learn to hold two worlds within yourself: the everyday life with its highs and lows, celebrations and grievances on one side, and on the other, sufficiently distanced but never invisible, the weight of the catastrophes both past and present. Every event in your life has this shadow beneath it; you cannot escape it and do not wish to. These memories and tragedies are part of our collective story, and we cannot celebrate without uniting these two worlds: the wholeness of our tandem hope and grief. Every happy moment is riddled with bitterness, regret and guilt, and yet we would not have it any other way. If we ever lose that, the remembrance and acknowledgment of our ongoing trauma, even in the midst of our happiest moments, that is when you’ll know we’ve lost the homeland for good. 

These memories and tragedies are part of our collective story, and we cannot celebrate without uniting these two worlds: the wholeness of our tandem hope and grief.

I knew how special these moments were. I felt like I was witnessing them from afar. I didn’t participate much in the singing and dancing—I didn’t know the words or the moves. I felt apart, with the responsibility of a bard. I immediately and frantically began to write notes, fighting against the growing motion sickness, another bit of heritage from the women in my family. The singing and the dancing had sufficed as a distraction for a while, but I was reaching the end of my rope. I was relieved when finally we found ourselves in a large parking lot, with the sea on one side and the mountains on the other, a Teleferique line above us to reel us into the summit.

From the lookout in the Church area in Harissa. A view of the Lebanese coast against the Mediterranean.

We reached the top of the mountain and entered the church area, Our Lady of Lebanon standing proudly, watching over Harissa. It had the quiet and peaceful energy one feels when visiting a religious site, as though everyone is holding their breath. All around you could see the same cedar tree that’s on the Lebanese flag. I made a little game in my head of trying to pick which one matched the tree on the flag best. A childhood friend and I stepped into the shrine for a couple seconds. I could tell my friend was uncomfortable, perhaps fearing she was out of place as a Muslim, or that she would be reprimanded in some way. But it was small and beautiful and smelled of incense and prayer. I stared at the stained glass and tried to force my mind to harmonize with that of the worshippers. Exiting felt like stepping into a new world. How can such profound silence exist adjacent to what is, essentially, a tourist site?

My mind stayed still as we walked down the spiral stairs down the hill, back towards a café where we would board the gondola to reach sea level again. The steps were wide and I was entertaining myself by seeing if I could manage to step only once on each rise. I had a lot of thoughts swimming in my head and I was trying very hard to concentrate so that I wouldn’t forget them, concerned that there would be too many memories for me to collect and save. I could hear the Mediterranean and the wind and scraps of quiet conversation from the rest of my group. And in the far distance but getting louder, yes, there it was. Unmistakable. Sam Smith’s “Unholy” belting from the cafe speakers. I had to laugh. And I mean I really laughed out loud. What a world we live in. To say the illusion was shattered wouldn’t be precise. I was almost charmed. Why shouldn’t these experiences exist as one?

Our Lady of Lebanon shrine, the church behind it.

Part of the culture and memory that our parents are trying to preserve doesn’t exist anymore. They left the b’lad (homeland) in the '90s and early 2000s. The land and the people and culture within it has moved forward without them. I could see it in the way my aunts and uncles in the Middle East were lax with my cousins in a way I could never expect from my parents in Canada. My parents felt the need to hold onto the Middle East as it was in 2004, lest they lose it entirely. I know it is not only my parents. My other children-of-immigrant-parents’ friends have cited the same phenomena. I think it’s a combination of guilt and trauma from leaving their motherland that has caused them to freeze time in their minds. I don’t think they realize this about themselves, but I can see it in the way that calls to boycott “Unholy” on charges of blasphemy were being circulated just months prior, my mother a champion of this effort, and here we were, listening to it next to an ancient, holy site.

This is, of course, a generalization. Our driver, Yaseen, a 26-year-old man, already with six children, held extremely conservative views. He told us he does not allow his wife to leave the house without him. Ever. Not even to the market or the pharmacy. A few days later he had taken us to see a grotto with its ancient and gigantic stalactites and stalagmites. The plaques informed us that these structures grow two centimetres every one hundred years, slowly stretching towards each other. We marvelled in the cave, at the depth and enormity of geological time. On the car ride back, my younger sister was debating with Yaseen about women’s rights. She told him that she would only get married to a man who would take on an equal share of the domestic work. He told her it would take at least one hundred years to find such a man. At that my dad piped up:

“Two centimetres!”

The tension left the car and we all laughed.

The rest of the day after Harissa was a blur. I barely spoke to anyone on the ride home or at the restaurant when we were eating fish or even at the Byblos market. I was reeling from the day, from all these thoughts that were passing through my head, from the memories I was determined to hold on to, from the emotions of the wedding the night before and how they all formed a coherent understanding in my mind of what it means to be Palestinian. That was the year I missed New Years. It was that day, after the bus and the adventures and I was exhausted. I closed my eyes for a nap and I opened them at 12:59 a.m. to a dark, empty room, unsure where I was.

About the author

Nooralhuda is a Palestinian multidisciplinary researcher working in the fields of spatial design and political thought, especially within the South-West Asia and North Africa region. She is currently the Editorial Assistant for the books department at Frame Publishers, editing, coordinating, and contributing to architecture monograph and interior design survey books. Presently, she is beginning her graduate education in Islamic architecture at the Aga Khan Program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.