Cynthia F. Davidson came of age in the vibrant city of Beirut, Lebanon, once known as the Paris of the Middle East. But when civil war breaks out in 1975, this young American woman and her expatriate family are caught in the crosshairs. After her sister is shot and her father kidnapped, the violence makes it impossible for Cynthia to return to Lebanon and reconcile her losses there.
On a quest to understand Beirut’s demise, Cynthia moves to Paris, France in 1984. There, she attempts to chronicle what happened in Lebanon through the life story of Georgina Rizk, a young widowed Lebanese refugee and the Arab world’s first and only Miss Universe. Through a series of tumultuous love affairs, friendships, and fraught encounters with Georgina in the City of Light, Cynthia realizes that by trying to tell another’s story, she needs to face the hardest truths about her own.
Seekers of transformation have been flocking to the City of Light for centuries: artists, mystics, writers, revolutionaries, royals, and refugees. And twenty-seven million tourists a year were making Paris the most visited place in the world when I went there for a ten day vacation in January 1984. A month later, I put my affairs in order and returned, to become one of the two million who call Paris home.
My home had once been in another Paris, the “Paris of the Middle East” Beirut, Lebanon. Having come of age in that former Levantine colony of France, I believed I belonged there. But shortly after I turned twenty-one, Lebanon devolved into a gaping, bleeding war zone. Those of us who witnessed its demise can hardly believe the Beirut we knew is gone. The promise of its heydays lives on in our memories.
During the two decades of my most formative years, my family made our home in the Middle East, although we had all been born in the US. My American expatriate parents might have stayed in their Beirut apartment if Lebanon had not become another casualty of man’s inhumanity.
The Lebanese Civil War almost finished us: my sister was shot in Beirut, my father kidnapped, our apartment looted, and friends disappeared. Some were tortured and killed. Worse yet, some became torturers, killers, and black market profiteers. While others have the luxury of ignoring what went wrong in Lebanon, we who lost everything familiar there crave a decent explanation for its disappearance.
The nightmare of that faux Paris still had me in its thrall when I moved to France at age twenty-nine, determined to discover what had gone wrong in Lebanon. The ongoing fighting made it too dangerous to return to Beirut for answers. After the invasions of the Syrian and Israeli armies, my parents finally gave up and returned to America in the summer of 1982, after twenty-one years in the Arab world. Each member of my family struggled to readjust to life in the US after being abroad for so long. In addition to what was lost in the fighting, we had also lost our foothold in the world at large, and this wreaked havoc on my sense of belonging and identity.
Thoughts of Lebanon’s ruination preoccupied me. As the war raged on during my twenties, I dreaded having turned my back on a place and a people when they needed their friends the most. I didn’t know my grieving process had a label, and a form of treatment, until years afterward when the term “post-traumatic stress disorder” came into vogue. Desperate to draw conclusions and be done with the torment, I decided the best way to come to terms with the war was to find out what had caused it.
That meant finding someone with deep knowledge of the how and why. Only survivors had any credibility with me. Who else could be trusted to explain the reasons behind such devastating violence? Furthermore, it had to be a Lebanese national who had been there, not some foreign analyst, or a pundit with an agenda. Sure a local person was better qualified to tell the world what had gone wrong in Lebanon. If my country, the US, had fallen apart in a civil war, I would want a fellow citizen to explain the lived truths of our story.
Apart from nationality, I wanted to hear it from another woman. And I chose Georgina Rizk. Not because she had once been Miss Universe, but because the multiple tragedies she had endured since wearing that crown had left her fatefully suited to the task. Her involvement with people from opposing sides of the conflict had transformed her into a cipher, with insights from more than one perspective. So I put my faith in this search for the truth, via another person, without fully realizing the risks of such a plan. Nor did I comprehend the limits of logical, factual quests, which rarely repair our hearts or restore trust, in others or ourselves. My psyche steered me towards a female survivor, and a French city, each with their own experiences of wars and healings. Living in Paris put me through a process as peculiar as it was unexpected. And although my three-year cure in France came close to killing me, this memoir is a testament to how Paris managed my transformation. Vive la difference.