Under lockdown in Beirut, I couldn’t race toward the danger, the crisis, the need, the conflict—everything that marked my life as a foreign correspondent.Photograph by Hassan Ammar / AP
An elderly woman walked slowly out of her apartment building and stood in the street, staring after the ambulance that had just taken her son away. Her hair was curly and gray and she wore thick glasses, brown slacks, a cardigan, and a white surgical mask. My cameraman and I had filmed as Red Cross volunteers loaded her son into the red and white ambulance, with its emergency lights flashing. He was dressed in white overalls and had a face mask duct-taped over his nose and mouth. The only thing that distinguished him from the volunteers was a pronounced limp, a stoop, as he pulled himself into the back of the van.
After the ambulance drove away, the man’s mother remained in the middle of the street, crying softly behind her glasses. My cameraman and I were working on a story about volunteers in Beirut picking up covid-19 patients, and we had been told that it was too dangerous to ride in the ambulance. Instead of getting in our car and following the van, as we’d planned, we stood in the street, at first trying to remain several metres away from the woman. She began walking toward us and speaking to me, and pulled down her face mask. As a reporter, I wanted to talk with her. There had been an event, and a person was deeply impacted by it. The space between us should, of course, have shrunk. It felt natural to want her to come closer—to talk, to confide, to share her suffering.
The woman was in shock, and, it seemed, about as alone as anyone can be—alone in crisis, in grief. She said that her son had been discharged from the hospital the day before, but then had become very ill again and had to go back. “Maybe they suspect something. I don’t know!” she told me. She seemed to want the reassurance of talking, of hearing an encouraging voice. I wanted to put my hand on her shoulder—a gesture of kindness and empathy that is natural to any human being and vital to a journalist, a stranger present for the most traumatic and stressful moments in other peoples’ lives. For me, expressions of compassion are a way to share in the experience as respectfully as I can. Instead, in that moment, I backed away as she stepped toward me, tears in her eyes and panic in her voice. It was the most inhuman moment of my career, my most counterintuitive physical and emotional act.
We waved a rushed goodbye and jumped into our car, driving off in the hope of catching the ambulance. The woman stayed in the street, eyed by two neighbors who were leaning over a balcony. Normally, in Beirut, there would be several dozen people gathered around to watch and help and make suggestions and take charge and offer solace. Now there was only isolation, distance, watching others’ distress from afar.
Until that moment, the reporting trip had felt like a relief—an expedition outside after weeks inside my apartment during a countrywide lockdown that saw Lebanese soldiers chasing joggers back indoors and stern corner-store owners enforcing one-in-one-out policies. Lebanon’s authorities had acted quickly after the first projections of the potential impact of the coronavirus were released, in late February. A Lebanese American University study predicted two and a half million cases and a hundred and fifty thousand deaths by the end of June. With remarkable efficiency for a political class traditionally ranked as one of the world’s most corrupt, Lebanese officials launched a wide-ranging shutdown.
Initially, I felt a secret sort of cheerfulness at the news of the restrictions. After years of trying to overlap our travel schedules as journalists, my husband and I would get the kind of extended staycation we had always joked we needed. I could cook more and read. I could finally send my literary agent more pages of my painfully slow-moving book. Raised by Scots-Irish Presbyterian farmers, I’m a workaholic. Here was the ultimate permission for guiltless rest.
That novelty wore off within a couple weeks. After a month and a half, I realized that it was the longest period I’d spent in the same country for nearly a decade. My life as a foreign correspondent for “PBS NewsHour” had been one of constant movement, flights, hotels, and journeys that turned into further journeys. It had been about getting to events as quickly as possible and witnessing them firsthand. After twelve years of war reporting, I found a crisis that I could not run toward, no fixer with whom to make plans via WhatsApp, no flights to book, no bags to pack. There were no maps I could take off my office wall for the journey and attempt to fold (they would never fold the same way again). No security risks to discuss and, ultimately, make peace with.
In place of these things, I was forced to stay put, be still, wait—all things that I have managed to avoid over the years under the guise of doing my job. I’ve been dismissed as old school, naïve, and idealistic. But I believe that no one does anything well, including living life, unless there’s a decent purpose to it. For me, that purpose always has been to show our connectedness—not simply to document suffering but expose the world to a person’s response to their suffering. That’s where their humanity lies. That is what we all share. That’s how we see people as they are: complex, afraid, brave.
As the lockdown dragged on, I struggled with my own fears and restlessness. Each day, I ran on a treadmill that I had panic-bought at the beginning of the lockdown. It hummed beneath me as I pretended I was bounding toward the Mediterranean, which I could see on the horizon outside my dining-room window. The YouTube renditions of the Tao that I listen to as I fall asleep, the journaling in the morning, the home cooking that has now become a competitive sport: these are done not to occupy my time, but to occupy, burn up, tame a little of the unease in me. The rush to get out was like a provisionally pacified beast that shared my mind and my apartment. The British-Italian explorer and writer Dame Freya Stark described it well, writing, “The beckoning counts, and not the clicking latch behind you: and all through life the actual moment of emancipation still holds that delight, of the whole world coming to meet you like a wave.”
I know that sense of emancipation all too well. I even managed to turn it into a semi-respectable job. It is the rush of coming down the steps of a plane in bright sun, a rucksack over my shoulder; the newness of being on the road; and, of course, the sense of a new version of self. While travelling, I have prided myself on not complaining, always expressing gratitude to be doing what I do for a living, aware that it was something I could only dream of as a little girl. The connection with people across the globe: kebabs and tea with Afghan colleagues, lying under a tree by the Panjshir River; exchanging sheep-farming techniques with Maasai warriors in Kenya; being called “little sister” by Syrian activists, as fighting echoed nearby. I look back at these moments in my life and am overwhelmed with a gratitude so intense that I barely catch myself before I cry.
Now I see the privilege of travel like never before. Two European passports waved through airports and embassies, the travel budgets, the warmth and kindness of colleagues, friends, and strangers. The world laid out before me in a way that billions of other people will never enjoy. I have greedily gathered experiences with the abandon of a child. Now I’m humbled by my struggle to be without them. Others have lost so much—real things, including people they love. I have lost nothing other than a sense of myself. If I cannot be out in the world, am I still a part of it?
Now I pace around my apartment while the marvellous and fascinating world waits outside. Initially, I was in denial. Frantic e-mails that I sent to an Afghan diplomat brought promises of a visa. But Beirut’s airport remains shut. Perhaps a ferry to Cyprus, like during the war here? Not possible. A visit to Wuhan? My poor husband glances up from behind his reading glasses and reminds me of reality. No Wuhan, no Kabul, no ferry to Cyprus. Just another night of “The Handmaid’s Tale” and Chianti. My pasta sauces are getting better. My jogging toward the horizon is less labored. I’m going nowhere faster.
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