Seeing Through the Smog This work is considered exceptional by our editorial staff.

November 13, 2010
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The first thing you notice is the smog. It drapes over the city in countless gray layers, extending from the sky to the ground. Then, just as your eyes begin to adjust, you’re hit by the smell. It’s that smell of factories and seaside pollution, of too many gas stations and too many cars. And, before you have time to think about what could possibly come next, you hear it. A constant stream of impatient honks and beeps mix with a poorly orchestrated ensemble of noises that charge at you from the televisions inside various surrounding apartments, as if maximum volume was the only option on the remote. And while trying to hear your own thoughts above all the madness, you will barely manage to step out of the way of the angry and unnecessarily rushed driver who just came very close to hitting you (as if pedestrians were outdated and people were born in cars), and you will probably wonder, “What IS this place?!”
I’d like to welcome you to my heaven on earth.
Before I moved to Greenwich in 2000, I lived in Beirut, Lebanon. I have gotten a pretty interesting range of reactions when I have told people that. In elementary and middle school, it was often met with an “Oh, in New Jersey!” or, from the few that knew it was a country, “Wait, so are you like, Muslim?” (Thankfully the reactions matured a bit more with high school and the war in ’06.) Initially though, it was frustrating coming from somewhere no one seemed to have heard anything about. Mana'eesh (these thyme and sesame seed covered pizza-like things that deserve an essay of their own) were replaced with bagels, clusters of apartments turned into streets with actual houses (it took me several months to grasp the concept of basements), and the half hour of morning Arabic prayer led by Soeur Thérèse (one of the nuns at Jamhour) was cut down to a speedy, “I pledge allegiance…”
Then came the war. The newspaper and TV flashed images of bombs, destruction, and death. Phone calls from family in Beirut became more and more infrequent. Three years passed before I was able to go back again, and in those three years I did what so many do in the face of unwanted change: I shut my eyes and ignored it. The summer I finally went back was a slap to the face. When I returned, I expected nothing less than perfection. Instead, buildings I once played around had crumbled from explosions; the number of people, dirty and barefoot on the streets, had more than doubled, and my understanding of Arabic had vanished. Angry and confused, I kept asking myself where had my fairytale gone?
My fifth day there, though, I had my big (excuse the cliché) epiphany. I had been waiting for my cousin outside of the nearby sandwich place, when a family pulled its car up next to me. The father rolled down the window and asked me in heavy Arabic, “Hello, could you tell me how many hours until this place closes?”
It took me a few seconds, but I slowly answered, “In about four.”
He thanked me and drove away. I stood there for a moment, trying to get a handle on what had just happened. Then I realized; I had understood. I had responded, in ARABIC! In what I think of as one of my happiest moments of clarity, I finally accepted that while so many things had changed, nothing was truly different. Buildings may have crumbled, but the country still stood strong. This provided me with a certain global awareness and cultural appreciation that I would not have had had it not been for the war. But these realizations extend further than just the boundaries of Lebanon.

In August of 2009, I was part of a group of high school students from Trinity Church that traveled to the Dominican Republic. Our one-week trip was spent building a bakery and working with children in the village of Consuelo. While the manual labor was certainly rewarding, it was the people who left the greatest impression on me. There was the little boy, who so animatedly struggled to tell our group leader a story using the limited English he knew; Tété, one of the oldest women in the community, whose apparent love and devotion to her village and the people around her so strongly reminded me of my own family ties; the local translator, who, by joining us through language, nurtured a bond far beyond proverbial boundaries. It was with each of these people, with the village as a whole, that I felt a connection unlike any other.
While many would feel uncomfortable with such an alien situation, an unknown language, an unknown culture, and an unknown place, Lebanon had fostered in me a sense of adaptability and acceptance. In the people of Consuelo, I observed the same pride and cultural resilience that I feel for Beirut. Coming from a town like Greenwich makes it difficult for many to get past the cultural and language barriers presented by a new country. But in the same way that I remain hopeful and optimistic for Beirut, I remain open and faithful for Consuelo.
Now, take a glimpse at the city again. The smog has cleared, and when you look through the buildings, standing tall and glorious despite their battle wounds, you can make out the people of Beirut. Masses of families and friends on the beach are oblivious to anything but the hummus in their stomachs and the warm waters of the Mediterranean on their toes; a man rides his bike down the sidewalk, toting a basket of fresh mana'eesh just waiting to be eaten; a woman, in the midst of traffic, reaches out of her car window and gives a bottle of water to the frazzled boy wandering the streets. You step out of the way of the hurried driver, and he shouts a frantic apology out the window while throwing you a friendly wave. And now that you can finally hear your own thoughts, you will stop wondering and you will just know,
“This place is perfection.”





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