At 5:00 p.m. on Sunday, August 2, 2020, I left Beirut to begin a month-long walk across southern Lebanon. It was only two days later, at 6:07 p.m., that a massive explosion tore through the city. Nearly 3,000 tons of ammonium nitrate ignited in Warehouse 12 at the Port of Beirut, setting off a blast that killed 218 people and injured thousands more. 1 In the hours that followed, a plume of pink smoke mushroomed into the sky, filling the atmosphere with toxic particulates. The effect was all-consuming; smoke blotted the sun so completely that night seemed to settle early. With not a single window left intact, there was no escape from the thick, noxious fog. 2
In Lebanon’s southern region, night has retained its sense of substance and materiality.
The panic that set in during the hours after the explosion recalled a history of anxieties around nighttime atmospheres. According to the writings of medieval physicians in Europe and the Mediterranean, night descends to earth as toxic vapors that afflict the human body, causing rheumatic illness. 3 To evade the deadly nocturnal air, nurses would seal the doors and windows of sickrooms every evening at sunset — a common practice until after the Copernican Revolution, which posited the sun as the center of the universe. Modernity would produce its own aerial terrors: the appearance of industrial pollution and, in the 20th century, the invention of airborne chemical warfare.
I found myself contemplating this history on the night of the explosion. I was, by then, walking between the villages of Jabal ‘Amil (Arabic for Mount ‘Amil), some 70 miles south of Beirut. 4 There, in Lebanon’s southern hinterland, night has retained its sense of substance and materiality. Shepherds use astrolabes to decipher the movements of the stars, while caretakers prepare food by the light of tallow candles. Where the land is especially dry, farmers water crops after dark, away from the evaporative force of the sun. Night is also a kind of refuge. It is, for some, the only time to work or to attend school — this is especially true for people who live in the region without legal status. Such is the case for many refugees and migrant workers who’ve come to Jabal ‘Amil over the years. A considerable number of those displaced by the Beirut explosion and its economic fallout have also relocated to the area.
Life in Jabal ‘Amil, a predominately Shi’i Muslim province, has been turbulent for a long time. During the Ottoman and French occupations, colonial officials restricted Shi’i teachings, forcing the region’s culture into the shadows. Colonial authorities burned schools and libraries, destroying written histories and impoverishing ‘Amili literature. The night sky would become an essential component in the emergence of a restorative oral tradition. Into its stars and constellations, ‘Amilis folded stories of a shared past — stories that no empire could scheme to erase.
Yet independence hardly brought an end to the turmoil. The project of postcolonial Lebanon, an heir to the French vision of Grand Liban, a kind of new Phoenicia, emphasized the growth of the capital while suppressing the economies of the rural south. Jabal ‘Amil has remained poor and under-resourced, and thus vulnerable to opportunistic, sectarian interventions. 5 Zionist aggressions have also become a fact of life — with annexed villages, devastating invasions in 1978, 1982, and 2006, routine trespasses on Lebanese airspace, a permanent military buildup along the Israeli border. Constant surveillance by the Israeli Defense Force — reconnaissance planes shuttling above Jabal ‘Amil — have changed the night sky irrevocably.
A desire to illuminate the world is inherited from the Enlightenment. It is also an alibi for colonialism.
My own family was internally displaced to Beirut following the seizure of our village, Taybeh, by the IDF, which established the South Lebanon Security Belt along the country’s southern border in 1984. 6 I am of the first generation born outside the south — a generation that has rarely returned, even after the liberation of our lands. I felt a duty to go to Jabal ‘Amil, if only for a few weeks, to observe how its people forge nocturnal imaginaries. Yet as I navigated the night, I was neither a native nor a stranger. I felt torn between life in the countryside, where night is rich with ritual and social interaction, and urban protocols of safety and security I’d become accustomed to in Beirut.
I am used to thinking of night as an absence, a problem to be solved by switching on the lights. But I recognize that a desire to illuminate the world is, in a sense, inherited from ideas of truth and rationality associated with the European Enlightenment. These ideas are also, of course, alibis for colonial administration or, in the postcolonial period, for economic development. The last thing I want is to indulge a preference for the visible, or the knowable, whether by privileging a community’s most prominent actors and institutions or by shedding unwanted light on those who find safety in darkness. My preferred method is thus to take a walk, by night, in the company of whomever I meet. Here I offer glimpses of these encounters.
Late-night winds whistled across the rugged expanse, rocky and rough. Buzzing cicadas were the only other sign of life. The flashlight in my hand was little comfort — it made the darkness feel bigger and more encompassing. Dry grass tore at my hiking attire, grabbing and scratching at any exposed skin until I was forced to stop, suddenly aware of how much noise I was making. Legs heavy with exertion, I moved toward a clearing to set up camp for the night. With my tent finally assembled, I clicked off the flashlight and looked at the stars.
The clearest object in the sky was an Israeli surveillance aircraft.
The sky was much murkier than the one I remembered studying from my grandparents’ balcony. But that was 20 years ago. Now the ambient light from neighboring towns makes it difficult to discern the stars and recall the “sky stories” that I learned as a child. My favorite was the tale of the “Three Nightwalkers,” about a trio of sojourners who happen upon the entrance to the great Mount Qaf of Islamic lore. 7 The story is part of an oral tradition that goes back centuries. But when I returned to Jabal ‘Amil, my memory of the story seemed faded, out of focus. The clearest object in the sky was an Israeli surveillance aircraft, an MK3. Lebanon’s southern border was only a few miles away. 8
The colonial aircraft has itself become a carrier of legend. Locals describe the MK3 through reference to a legendary figure, the imposing Umm Kamil, known for the fear she instills in village children. As I came to learn, it was only natural that the two would eventually become associated, in part due to unfortunate similarities between their names. An emphasis on the Mim and the Kaf (M and K) immediately evokes the name of the matriarch herself — Umm Kamil, Mm Kamil, M Kamil, MK. This association reveals how the people of Jabal ‘Amil struggle with a polluted, militarized night sky that no longer flares and shimmers. The appearance of surveillance aircraft still leaves villagers turning to each other to say, “Umm Kamil is here, bring the kids inside and tug the windows shut.”
On my second night, the blinking IDF aircraft was replaced by three points of light bouncing in the distance. A young girl swept the beam of a flashlight across the wild grass, lighting a path. She was there with her two sisters. For a small fee, the girls — they looked between nine and twelve years old — ferried night workers across the fields, stopping at a stream to collect water. Aya and Hala were refugees from the Syrian civil war, displaced in 2012; Fatima was born in Lebanon a year later.
A circular nighttime economy allows displaced people to survive.
“Do you do this all night?” I called when I was close enough. “We’re going to the river in a bit,” one of the girls replied. I nodded and together we waited for others to join. It was already nearly 2:00 a.m. and they had hardly any patrons. An hour later, it became clear that no one else was going to show. A curfew imposed by the municipal government — part of an effort to slow the spread of Covid-19 — had limited foot traffic in the area, reducing the sisters’ business. After talking me into paying an extra fee, they led me to the stream.
We looked at the moon reflected in the currents. The girls removed their shoes. Hala turned her flashlight toward the water and small fish swam forth from every direction. Aya threw a net into the stream and caught a dozen. When the girls returned to the riverbank, Fatima gutted the fish and Hala separated their remains into two plastic bags. The flesh would go to Abou Karim, the owner of a restaurant, who paid the girls in money and flashlight batteries for their nightly catch. The second bag sloshed with oily fish liver. The oils, they told me, would light their lamps at home. This was their circular nighttime economy: a series of resourceful tradeoffs that allowed them to survive.
A Warm Mattress
There are many migrating people who’ve ventured into Lebanon in search of a better life. They often come illegally. Some cannot afford the required paperwork, or do not meet the terms of the kafala, an employer-based sponsorship system. Others have had their documents confiscated by abusive employers. At times, they become trapped and have to go into hiding, leading their lives after dark. 9
On the third night of my walk, a young man and his daughter found me assembling my tent. I was in a wheat field a few meters from their home, my arms full of camping gear, when they invited me to stay the night. They led me to a pair of small rooms made of salvaged metal roofing. Steel shelves, lined with pots, pans, and household knickknacks, were pushed against the walls of the first room. The entirety of the second was carpeted in thin mattresses. It was here that the family of five slept. Once inside, the children moved promptly to their spots below the window. Their mother lay beside them, and the grandmother beside her. But the father lingered by the door, trying to determine how best to accommodate me. I ended up lying next to him, just inside the door.
Many people migrate to Lebanon in search of a better life. They often come illegally.As we lingered together at the threshold of sleep, the conversation turned to the explosion in Beirut. The family had been living in the city but decided to leave in search of better opportunities. In the capital, they had been forced to share a room with seven other families. Their children were undocumented and no schools would accept them. The only available jobs were dishwashing and garbage collecting. Here in the countryside they could at least find work in agriculture. 10
At 4:00 am, the father stirred his children awake for school, although it was still completely dark outside. Their grandmother, already up and rubbing za’atar into flat bread, passed us each a sandwich. Curious as to where exactly the children were headed, I packed my things, thanked the women, and followed the rest of the family to school.
As the children skipped ahead, I became distracted by a murmur of recitation. A crowd of mourners in a cemetery beside the road were hurrying through funerary rites. It was only at that time of night that migrant workers had enough space and privacy to bury the latest victims of the pandemic. They were not native to Jabal ‘Amil (nor to Lebanon) and were thus denied the right to movement and visibility; they had become permanent residents of the night.
At the school — a decommissioned industrial hangar — children were already sitting in a circle reciting their lessons. The only source of light was the flame of a tall, white candle. Half the teacher’s face bloomed in an orange glow; the other half was thrown into shadow. As a gust of wind blew through the hangar, she instructed the children to shift their positions — their voices would be safely carried into the wilderness, rather than back toward the village. The teacher held a copy of the Qur’an. She asked each child to recite a particular verse and explain it to the class. Not every student was Muslim, of course, but this was the only instruction any of them had access to.
Oppressive policies are always failing to restrict the mobility of those they attempt to confine and monitor.
The night schools are illegal. To attend them — or to teach in one — you have to violate a state-mandated curfew. Some of the children were born in Lebanon, but because they were not issued birth certificates or identity cards, they spend their young lives in obscurity. The informal night school is their only hope for education. But the commitment of the teacher — the risks she takes each night to work at the school — and the participation of children’s families tell a different, perhaps optimistic story: oppressive policies are always failing to restrict the mobility of those they attempt to confine and monitor; the scrutiny of civil authorities can actually generate spaces of care, education, and mutual aid.
This night school, illegal for those whose existence the country does not recognize, called to mind the golden age of education and scholarship that had once characterized southern Lebanon. It was there, across the villages of Jabal ‘Amil, that Shi’i scholars had established schools in service of students from all over the region. But intense religious persecution experienced under Ottoman rule in the 18th and 19th centuries prompted a major downturn in intellectual production — later exacerbated by war, famine, poverty, and punitive taxation. What used to be a hub of literary and scholarly production had become, with the transformations of the modern world, a place where people are forced to learn in the dark. 11
In the Eye of a Sheep
Days later, I would gaze into the murky eye of a sheep. A shepherd whom I had met in the hills taught me how to read time as the animal’s pupil grew, gradually, with the darkening of the evening sky. The shepherd, after decades of practice, could gauge time to the closest hour, even minute. Learned over centuries, the shepherd’s sense of time was different from the synchronicities of urban space; time here, ruled by the rising and setting of the sun and stars, did not dictate precise intervals between meetings, commutes, radio call signals, or the buzzing of cell phones. It rather demonstrated a logic of approximation, something closer to the time of nature. At least that’s how it seemed to me as I studied the sheep’s eye and glanced, occasionally, at the sky.
Heading further south, the shepherd turned toward the trees for direction. He put a hand on the bark to feel its warmest side, removed his shoes to better feel the moisture in the soil. The conditions were right — he stood and rallied the sheep towards the valley. A tiny, folded almanac, detailed by the shepherd’s wife with handwritten charts listing phases of the moon, was tied atop his walking stick. It fluttered quietly with the wind. He invited me to sit next to him and watch the light change. It was easy to sense the approach of night. It was prophesied by the low sun and the deepening shadows cast on the eastern curve of the surrounding hills.
Sometimes, the night is full of wonder. Sometimes it is frightening. The very next night I experienced that fear. I had offended a farmer, who, wielding a shotgun, chased me into a valley. Roots slashed at my ankles until I fell to the ground.
“You’ve been stealing my cow’s milk and her dung!” he roared, shaking me violently. The farmer cocked his gun, but then dropped it when he saw the confusion written so plainly across my face. He took a moment to register my tent and backpack, and realized I was not the man he’d been looking for. Wordlessly, he extended a hand, and together we walked back to the road, silence between us.
“There’s a thief who’s been passing through my farm,” he eventually explained. “He milks my two cows and steals the cakes of manure stacked beside the house.” The cow dung, he told me, had been dried in the sun, then kneaded with straw to make briquettes. He burned these in a furnace to keep warm during the winter months. The point of the dung had, until then, been completely lost on me.
Like fish oil, cow dung had become a valuable commodity following the country’s economic crash. The combined effects of a growing debt crisis, the pandemic, and the Beirut port explosion depreciated the Lebanese lira by 95 percent. Raw material, ordinarily considered to be waste, has become a kind of currency — and is often subject to theft.
Having confirmed that I was not the thief, the farmer asked why I was wandering across the valley so late at night. I struggled through an explanation of my walk, one that made him furrow his brow in confusion. He asked a question that, for many across Lebanon, is the most essential of all: “What is your name?”
In Lebanon, names indicate religious affiliation; in a country overrun by sectarianism, they can immediately determine how people interact. Names aren’t the only identifications. The farmer’s accent and the flags that flapped from the roof of his home told me that he was Shi’i. But my accent — Beiruti Arabic combined with the French I learned at school — confused him. I was also, in a sense, confused. The disorientations of a new/old place, of a life led in shadow, had revealed the limits of my self-knowledge as a second-generation Lebanese urbanite. I was darkness, and my host was holding the flashlight, exposing a part of me, yet blind to what lay outside a small set of impressions: my accent, my name.
“You’re from the south!”
The happiness on his face was obvious. For him, a son of the south had finally returned home, not only from the city, but from el ghorba — life abroad. 12 He disappeared into his house and returned with three little cups, which he placed, carefully, on a plastic side table: one for himself, and two for me. The smaller of the two he offered me contained Zamzam, holy water he’d brought straight from Mecca. He asked me to wait as he wrote a few words — two verses of the Qur’an — on a scrap of paper and placed it in the glass. The ink dissolved into the water.
Jabal ‘Amil’s oral tradition marks an eternal bond between the land and the spiritual world that encompasses it.
The farmer explained that, by drinking the water, I would be protected from bad jinn — supernatural creatures that roam the world, invisible to us. He told legends of a jinn that swallowed a man from a nearby village; of a woman who cursed the moon and died on the same day from dehydration; of a haunted house with a three-headed snake. He told of children’s ghosts roaming the night in Jabal ‘Amil, avenging acts of violence. These stories, it seems to me now, lend structure to community life — a structure forged not of steel and concrete, but of proverbs and myths. Jabal ‘Amil’s oral tradition marks an eternal bond between the land and the spiritual world that encompasses it. Hence the proverb, “Look under any stone in Jabal ‘Amil and you will find a poet.”
The farmer’s stories, in fact, describe a history of atrocity — rumors of cannibalism during the Great War, when the Ottoman army embargoed grain imports, leading to mass starvation. Memories of this famine continue to shape ‘Amili historical consciousness. Our ancestors’ modest agricultural lands were used to feed much of Greater Syria — certainly ‘Amili farmers bore the weight of war as much as the martyrs who are commemorated with public monuments in Beirut and Damascus. 13 And yet, the farmers’ essential sacrifices have, for a long time, been suppressed. Theirs is a case of historical memory transmitted through whispered folklore and allegorical narratives — shared over a campfire and cups of coffee, or marked by an anonymous stone beneath a tree.
As we talked of famine and war, of jinn and ghosts, the night around us grew thicker. I shared my reasons for walking all this way, and my anxieties about the way forward. The farmer grew pensive. He asked, “Why don’t you do something here in the south?”
A New Path
After Abou Ahmad the farmer came Umm Saleh the grocer, Abou Ali the butcher, Umm Karim the gardener, and Mahmoud the municipal employee. The knowledge they’d impart would trace a path back to my family home in the village of Taybeh.
My interest in returning had, until then, been overwhelmed by guilt — guilt for my privileged upbringing in the capital, for my escape into Eurocentric education, and for my immigration to the United States. I did not feel that I deserved to be recognized, much less welcomed home to the Jabal ‘Amil of my ancestors, whose resistance was written in the stars above me. But none of this mattered. Within a few days, I was speaking with Taybeh’s mayor before an audience of local councilmen. He ushered us into the largest meeting hall the municipality had to offer.
I felt guilt for my upbringing in the capital, for my escape into Eurocentric education, and for my immigration to the United States.
Seated at the head of a long table, I related my findings to the audience, expressing a desire to record the nocturnal histories of the region. Motioning out the window beside us, the mayor recalled the story of Tarik al-Nahr, the river path: “It used to lead from the village down to the Litani River. Surely you know the story of the ‘Three Nightwalkers’?”
He told me that the legendary Nightwalkers — whom I knew from the sky stories of my grandparents — had only discovered Mount Qaf because they’d first set out to the river for water. “It’s a tricky thing,” he said, “to travel to the river at night.” The Nightwalkers had trekked through the valley for hours, but by daybreak they were back where they’d started. “Perhaps the river felt they did not deserve its water.” Others around the room nodded. When these men were young, they’d taken turns lugging buckets of water up the hill. They knew what it meant to meet water at its source.
Later they taught me the modern history of the site. With the construction of the Taybeh Pumping Station in 1952, the footpath leading to the river — a trail stamped into the soil over centuries — was replaced by a new road large enough to handle the passage of pumping equipment. The footpath had become irrelevant, though the Litani River remained a key source of sustenance for the local community. In 1978, Israel invaded southern Lebanon, exerting control over the river (the invasion was code-named Operation Litani). The familiar sight of villagers carrying buckets of water had changed — now it was soldiers who used the path, patrolling the surrounding landscape. By the time the IDF retreated in 2000, wild grass had reclaimed the worn earth and the path had been lost. Other than a series of concrete steps, and a road that connected the path to the village, it was as if the path had never existed.
The more we talked, the clearer it became that the path and the night shared a kind of invisibility. The idea of reviving the path, of reinscribing it into our culture beyond ordinary means of memorialization, inspired the audience that morning. My work would be to rebuild the path, consulting with ‘Amilis over the coming months and years. So many municipal decisions in Jabal ‘Amil are defined by urgent questions of survival. But a slower project, to be carried out over an unhurried period, would allow ‘Amilis to imagine a future unburdened by the pressing concerns of the present moment.
Subsequent conversations and meetings with the community would continue to enrich my understanding of the project. Community members came forward with troves of archival materials — sketches of Tarik al-Nahr, photographs, maps, stories, diaries. Some of these artifacts had, at one time, lined the shelves and alcoves of Jabal ‘Amil’s libraries, before landing in personal collections. Now they are being assembled to support the mayor’s decision to grant me a building permit.
Today, I begin the work of creating a new path to the water, and thus give these scraps and memories new life. The path will comprise a series of stations dedicated to the sky stories. While each stop along the way pays tribute to a specific myth or memory, they also come together as a cosmic timepiece; the stations conduct shadows that approximate the passage of time in the valley around them. The mayor’s permit notes the importance of resurrecting a path that lies in “memory and inherited wisdom” and “provides the new generations with an archive of their ancestors’ oral legacies.”
“A path for a path,” he promised as he passed me the paperwork.