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By the author of Street Survivalism: A Practical Training Guide To Life In The City and The Ultimate Survival Gear Handbook.
Salim Farah left Lebanon and migrated to Brazil in the early 90s, right after Lebanon’s civil war ended. He fought in the Lebanese navy while helping to take care of his family during the entire war when he finally decided to leave and start anew in more peaceful and promising lands.
More than thirty years later, he’s a prosperous, hard-working small business owner. Salim is a good-humored, charismatic character, respected in his community, and liked by his employees, customers, and friends. He loves sports and is still very active and strong well into his sixties.
We’ve been friends for more than two decades, and despite knowing him for so long – and also knowing about his participation in the war – only recently did I have the idea to ask if he’d sit down and talk more in depth about what the war was like and how it all happened. He agreed, with the condition that I kept his identity safe – to which I replied, “I wouldn’t do it differently, Salim. OPSEC, always.” And we laughed.
A very upbeat and positive, but also smart and observing person, he could perhaps provide some lessons and insights for me to share with the T.O.P. community about war, SHTF, and the challenges of life in general.
Lebanon has a beautiful and sad history.
Lebanon was a French colony up until 1945. The country was prosperous and civilized, so much so, its capital was then nicknamed “The Paris of Middle East”: a wonderful metropole with incredible architecture and landscaping, filled with elegant promenades, hotels and restaurants, lots of tourists, and a prosperous, vibrant society.
But religious division started to get inflamed by political and foreign interests. In 1975 war broke out between groups in competing alliances with neighboring countries. Infighting and revengeful massacres from side to side caused further divisions and growing resentments between Kurds, Syrians, Palestinians, Muslims, Christian Maronites, and many others.
The total death toll in Lebanon for the fifteen-year period of the civil war is said to be around 150,000, with an estimated one million people displaced. This may not sound like much compared to more recent events, but remember, Lebanon is a small country, and the world was very different back then. It’s a huge tragedy however we look at it – one the country has never fully recovered from.
The destruction of the economy and infrastructure after the first years of conflict caused society to descend into a militia economy, with internal and external forces providing wages, services, and rationed goods to their commanded, and also to the population – in great part through smuggling, extortion, arms and drug trades.
Ten years into the war, the Lebanese pound collapsed, and this led to economic hardship and inflation for everyone. High unemployment, flight of capital and skilled labor, and scarcity resulted. Today, more than thirty years after the end of the civil war, Lebanon is still suffering, and according to Salim, a lot of that is a heritage from those times.
Despite being a kid at that time civil war broke out in Lebanon, I remember following it with great interest when I was in my teens, and the war was still raging on. The images of the ongoing massacres and once-beautiful Beirut destroyed by shelling and bullets made a lasting impression on me.
Talking with Salim brought back memories of those times. I’m glad for the opportunity to revisit this event now that I have a different understanding of life and humankind. So let’s get to it.
Tell us a little about your background.
My family is from Zahlé, a city of 150,000 smack dab in the middle of Lebanon. It’s the fourth biggest city in the country, after Tripoli, Sidon, and the capital Beirut, which is located only 35 miles to the west. Back then, Zahlé was almost 100% Catholic, though the region in which it’s located had lots of Muslims.
And how was life in Lebanon before the war?
Life was normal before the war. Lebanon is small but strategically located and full of natural beauty. These are good for commerce and tourism. We have beaches and the beautiful Mediterranean sea, mountains with snow, magnificent cedars, fields, and good weather.
Lebanon was an important center of commerce and tourism then. It was a French colony until after WW2, so there’s a lot of cultural and commercial influence everywhere. The architecture was beautiful. There are some remnants of the Roman empire there, some old ruins – very beautiful. And Beirut was a pearl, sort of a dream city.
The nation was prospering, and life was good. We had a growing economy. Men in suits and women in fashion dresses everywhere, nice cars, booming street commerce, and awesome restaurants. You walked in Beirut, and you felt like you were in Europe – everyone speaking French or English, fancy stores, big banks, lots of trading. It’s in the blood, you know.
As for everyday life, it was small city lifestyle mostly. We’d go to school, ride our bikes, play with other kids in the streets, you know. Normal life. Everybody would go to work and about with their lives. You’re living like that and have no idea how much your life can change, and this is fine because no one can live 24/7 with something like the possibility of a war, or a disaster, in mind. You live life normally, and that’s what we did before it started.
Good point. It brings the question, how did the war change this?
Everything changed. It feels like a dream, or more like a nightmare, I should say, when one day you stop in the middle of the craziness and look around, paying attention to the reality and the state of things around you – buildings now destroyed, people dead, and others mourning.
You ask “why,” but it’s a pointless question because there’s no ‘why.’ Then you don’t ask that again, ever. I didn’t. It’s funny to bring this up now. I think that again, but it’s just a memory because I never ever asked that to myself or anyone else again, ever. Not just about the war, but everything else, I guess.
You also think how everything could change so much and so fast. It’s not in one day, even with the war and the killing, things take time to get really bad. It doesn’t hit everyone the same or at the same time. Some of us got it ugly right away in other parts, and for other people, it took months or years. But if it lasts long enough, it eventually hits everywhere and everyone. And this lasted for fifteen years.
You also think about how and when this is going to end, but it just went on and on. You wonder if there’s a future, and not just for you – you want to survive, sure, but at one point, you just stop thinking about that and do things in auto mode. Life goes back to normal even when normal is something very different, it just becomes normal again. The abnormal becomes normal, I mean, but you’ve got to do your work, and you focus on what’s at hand.
That’s quite a Stoic perspective if I might say. How do you think the war changed you? And how did it change others you know?
You know, the war lasted for fifteen years. I can’t really compute, honestly. My life changed, but I just did my work. I did what I had to do, and I focused on that. Oftentimes I’d take it as a game, so as not to go crazy.
Youngsters today would call it a video game, but we didn’t have those at the time. People ask how ugly it is, but they really don’t want to know. They’re attracted to the gore and thoughts of action and glory, but once you’re there, it’s dirty and sad and ugly. Oftentimes, it’s worse for the ones that survive, really. But we must cope, so we use these mechanisms, or the mind just boom.
Anyway, I had civil and military obligations, and I had social and family obligations. And I had to stay alive. It’s one day after the next. War changes a lot of things on various levels, but life goes on too. The world doesn’t stop spinning, and you have to move on.
It’s so far in the past. Sometimes it feels to me like a dream, something I watched in a movie, know what I mean? It’s weird because it was very real and brutal. But I’ve built my own family, my own business, and this is life for me, now and forever. And I had other challenges. It didn’t end there. Sometimes you think the worse is behind you, but there’s still more struggle reserved for you.
We have our challenges, and we have to face them and give our best. There isn’t much more to it, really. But life’s good, even when it’s bad. You need to see and believe that, no you need to have faith and internalize that, or you won’t survive. Your body may survive, but your soul – poof. You will want to die, or give up, but that’s the end, and it’s not up to me to take my own life, this gift.
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Those are great words and viewpoints, really, and I totally agree. Do you think this kind of mindset and mentality is important to overcome hard times?
I think about this sometimes, and I’m just thankful for my life. That’s it, nothing more. My challenges made me into who I am. I wouldn’t change a thing. Life is hard, and there’s evil and suffering, and we see things we wish we didn’t. I could’ve died, but everyone will die one day.
What am I to do? Kill myself? Or take it to someone else? Blame others, shame others, kill others? When things are hard, you don’t have to harden up yourself. You just face the challenges and do your best. Some will work, and some won’t. Fine. I can be hard, but I refuse to become hardened by circumstances or the way of the world.
Some people give up. Others make a huge deal of everything. Life’s simple really, you just do what you have to do, and everyone knows what we have to do. We know what’s right and what’s wrong. Only sick people don’t. But not everyone does, they still know.
How was leaving Lebanon and emigrating to Brazil?
Good question. We came to Brazil without speaking a single word of the language. We also didn’t have money, not a dime. We owed the cost of the ticket to someone else. We were flat broke, but hey, what’s one to do? You work hard, you save, you sacrifice, you pay your bills.
Thankfully, Brazil has a huge Lebanese community, especially São Paulo. Many others have come before and during the war. It also helps that the Brazilian people are very friendly and warm, very welcome. It was hard, but life’s hard, so what. I never had trouble, on the contrary.
Starting over like that is hard, even when you’re coming from a war and a destroyed country. But if you do that and stay honest, straight, and committed, you’ll make it. Be hard, be brave – take no shit from anyone. Fight when you’re attacked. But be kind and good, stay positive and just. Then you’ll live a good life, whether you achieve your goals or not. It’s a law of nature.
Let’s go back to the war: were there any early signs of what was about to happen?
Sure there were lots of signs. These signs and warnings build up. These things never happen all at once, suddenly. You see things being manipulated by higher powers, no one can set where it will end, but you have this sense that something isn’t right, and we’re being taken to the wrong path.
But hindsight is 20/20, and it’s easy to say this or that today. Back then, it was hard. It’s just a feeling you can’t really put into words of articulate much. There’s also a lot of side talking, fake news isn’t new, it has always existed. We’re not privileged, no one is, no generation is special. Saying otherwise is nonsense.
I keep saying that all the time, that these disasters, especially the ones caused by action of man, developed over time, in stages. If someone wakes up one day with the world crashing down around them, they weren’t paying attention, simply.
Yes, that’s absolutely right. I can confirm that’s how it happens. War didn’t just break out one day. But it’s not like just seeing the signs equals to seeing the future, or being ready for what’s coming. Most weren’t. I wasn’t, I admit. Normal people, the population, is just living their everyday lives, doing their stuff. That’s a lot to deal with already, isn’t it?
And it’s not like… I mean, you see the signs, but there’s always something going on, especially during some periods. Some stuff goes nowhere, but some stuff will end up pretty bad and go to shit. It’s very hard to tell what will turn and what won’t. You can’t keep changing your life to prepare for everything, can you?
That’s very important because it begs the question of how to prepare? Can you expand on that a bit, please?
It’s like… the signs are out there for everyone to see. But it’s easy now looking back. In reality, it’s much harder when you’re going through it. You can’t just drop everything you’re doing, work, career, plans, to prepare for a war or other things that may or may not turn out.
Not sure if I’m being clear, but you know some things in life will go bad, and some things will go nowhere. If I’m playing with fire in some way, it’s clear I’ll get burned. When the high instances (i.e., the powers that be) are playing, you can never be a hundred percent sure. So you keep on with your life, and you make adjustments as things and events unfold.
The press and the politicians will lie up to the last minute until they can’t anymore. It’s all so corrupt and obscure, really. And suddenly, something happens. But still, it’s not total chaos and disaster all at once. It will start and will go bad and then to worse, then much worse, and so on.
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Alright. But were there bigger or clearer signs showing how bad things were going to get? Something that drew your attention or raised worries in your family and society, in general, you could point to?
Yes, there were. Some people, some classes of people, know. They will lie too, or hide, but they will prepare in the background. When the boat is sinking, it’s each one for himself, and certain classes of people know how to take care of themselves. They have more resources and less to worry about in their everyday life, so they can follow the development of politics, the scene abroad, and so on.
So yeah, perhaps the most evident symptoms are the movements by upper classes: the rich, the politicians, artists, intellectuals, etc. Those with the means, connections, and information soon get uneasy, mobilize, and become more vocal.
Lebanon had strong ties with France, and many sent their families to live in Paris and other regions of Europe sometime before the first shots were fired. Early on, they’d say, “it’s for their education,” and it stuck because, indeed, that has been a tradition since the colonial period, to send people to Europe to study. It still is, actually. Lebanese people value good education, traveling, and knowing other people and costumes, so it’s no lie, nothing too special.
But during certain periods and situations like that, this can be a sure giveaway of something big coming. Right now, there are people from the upper classes interested in studying, but mass movements or uncommon moves in any direction in times like pandemics or other disorders, you have to pay attention.
But hey, they too get caught. Make no mistake about that. Even the very high and powerful classes get caught and entangled in wars and other movements. People are people, and we just screw up.
Do you recall the Lebanese civil war? What do you remember from an American perspective? Does this interview provide you with new information? Are there things we can apply to our own situation here? Share your thoughts in the comments.
Fabian Ommar is a 50-year-old middle-class worker living in São Paulo, Brazil. Far from being the super-tactical or highly trained military survivor type, he is the average joe who since his youth has been involved with self-reliance and outdoor activities and the practical side of balancing life between a big city and rural/wilderness settings. Since the 2008 world economic crisis, he has been training and helping others in his area to become better prepared for the “constant, slow-burning SHTF” of living in a 3rd world country.
Fabian’s ebook, Street Survivalism: A Practical Training Guide To Life In The City , is a practical training method for common city dwellers based on the lifestyle of the homeless (real-life survivors) to be more psychologically, mentally, and physically prepared to deal with the harsh reality of the streets during normal or difficult times. He’s also the author of The Ultimate Survival Gear Handbook.
You can follow Fabian on Instagram @stoicsurvivor