Haunted by Lebanon, thousands of miles away

Many Lebanese look forward to their opportunity to leave Lebanon and reside abroad. There is just too much to live with and handle in this small country. Living abroad is simply easier, you work hard, make a decent living and worry about raising your kids and improving your standard of living. I too was under that impression, until I actually got to live abroad.

Living abroad has not been easy. The easiest part was summing up my life in two luggage bags, entering a new country with a month’s rent and figuring it out from there. I still remember to this day, my first day in that new apartment. I arrived at 2 a.m. from the airport only to find an apartment bigger than my own house in Lebanon, but so tight and cold as it did not feel like home. You wake up with no one to greet in the morning, you come back home with no one to welcome you after a long day. I was fluent in English  but had no one to talk to. My meals were lonely, my walks around the block were lonely, my visits to the restaurants were lonely. I was literally living the famous Lebanese saying

” Not even a tree to claim – مقطوع من شجرة “

With determination, the sense of alienation did recede, only to haunt me at night as I surrendered to the utter silence to visit Lebanon in my dreams.

I would be lying if I said that after 3 years, 5 months, and 11 days the homesickness is history. Judging based on every single Lebanese expat I have met, I should get used to my new companion and learn to live with it, for homesickness is here to stay.

You see, living abroad is not as easy as it may look from afar. Being an only child and living at a walking distance from both of my grandparents’ houses and the majority of my cousins’ houses, the warmth of a family and sense of belonging was could not be replaced so easily.I lived in the same neighbourhood for 23 years. You know what that means?

Every time I stepped outside the house and headed towards the main road, I had to salute the old lady next door and listen to one of her jokes, I had to stop by my grandma’s house and get her blessing as I made sure she did not need assistance of any sort. On my way, I also had to refuse the constant offer to stop by for a cup of coffee at the grocery store. For 23 years, I got to see the grocery store owner grow sick and old, until his kids now manage it. It is not just one of those chain grocery stores with 10 cashiers. I know they charge 250 L.L. more for everything, but hey, I have a relationship that goes way back with them and know more than about them than my own family members. Remember , I still have not made it all the way to the main street yet. On the way, I frequently bump into one of my aunts or my parents’  friends who ask me about them. I most certainly shake hands with a friend of two. Now that I am at the main street, so I can either pick my car from the parking lot ( Yes. I park that far due to lack of parking availability, or take a cab). And then people ask why are Lebanese always late?

While many of you who have lived in densely populated areas may relate to this, those who lived in areas were the buildings were not haphazardly placed, may still know what I am talking about.

I moved from that to a building where I have not even seen the faces or know the names of my neighbors right across from me. I take two steps and I am inside their living room, but they could care less to know the dark-hair Arab-looking stranger across the hall. I go to the grocery store and I see a different cashier every time, most of the time they are so busy they don’t have time to talk to the customers. I sit 8 hours behind a desk where my next door cubicle neighbor has nothing to share with me so does not even bother to go beyond the polite indifferent “How is your day going?” I leave home without having to say good morning to anyone, I come back without being welcomed by anyone. I bet you if it were not for my parents who I talk to daily, if I happen to disappear, no one would even notice….

So why share all this with you?

I share it not to tell you that living abroad is a miserable experience and I hate it. On the contrary; despite all the hardships, tears, sense of alienation, psychological pressure, longing for a family, and the loss of sense of identity, I am enjoying it. The time I have spent abroad has been such an enriching experience that has helped me grow in so many ways I cannot explain. It has helped me discover myself, learn about other cultures, grow emotionally and mentally, cherish my family and most importantly appreciate what I left behind.

But I still wake up everyday trying to put together a plan of how and when to return to Lebanon. I still come back home to strike on day off the calendar, waiting for my next visit back home. I still go to bed with the Lebanese flag hanging over my head, the picture of my two parents on the wall and the wishes to visit Lebanon in the next 7 hours before I have to wake up again. To be honest, I feel I am living two lives at once. I am physically abroad but mentally at home. I watch the news every day, and not one TV channel but 4 or 5 of them. I read 2 or 3 newspaper articles and I type the letters L-E-B-A-N-O-N multiple times a day on twitter and instagram. What was previously a reality has now become an obsession.

Staying in touch with Lebanon through modern technology is something I am indeed grateful for, but some days (and recently most of the time) it has become a curse. If the constant ambition to go back, find a decent job that will pay enough to settle independently and raise a family was not enough to live with every day, I often find myself watching news reports of tires burning for the most naive reasons, of Lebanese dying in the name of sectarianism , of army officers ambushed by drug cartels, of religious men issuing Fatwas against basic civil rights, of MPs denying women their rights, of families forming their own military wings, of rivers flooding due to trash accumulation, of MPs arguing of how to form an election law that will make their slice of the pie bigger. Most importantly, I have to hear from my father  suffering in the cold as he reports to his job as a janitor for a public park where the electricity is cut off, even from public buildings, so he has to sit in the dark with no heating. I have to call my mother and write down the name of her medicines to make sure they are not on the fake risky list. I have to listen to my friend, who has been working hard for the last 5 years, saving every Lira he could, only to find out that he has not saved enough to pay first installment for a modest apartment so he can propose to the love of his life.

This is where my Lebanon starts to haunt me. I wake up thinking of it, I drive to work talking to it, even at work I envision it. I am driving back home looking forward to taste it or smell it, I go to bed getting ready for it. I extend my hand reaching out for it, but it looks at me and takes a step backwards, making the distance even further and the effort even harder. I insist so I let go of another shackle tying me around the ankle, I get even closer but with raging fire in its eyes, it slaps me in the face and says: Wake up! You are living in a dream.

I keep my arm extended, hold the tear in my eye and shout: Here I am, thousands of miles away. If a scary dream is what it takes to be by your side, then haunted I would rather be than separated and cast aside……

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About adelnehmeh

Another creature inhabiting the earth, unique but still so common.
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20 Responses to Haunted by Lebanon, thousands of miles away

  1. Rabih says:

    This is beautiful!! Pretty sure every Lebanese living outside feels exactly the same, at least that’s how I feel.
    Losing our sense of identity is definitely the worst! And you can clearly feel it once you go back and say to yourself: I feel like me! I almost forgot how it felt to be me….

    Anyway, I’m not here to add any drama to your already touching post but I’ve been here for 5 years and I’m pretty sure by now that i’m going to spend the rest of my life outside Lebanon… Have you ever tried going back for more than 3 weeks?

    Home is where the heart is! And we still have Fairouz and Ziad :)

    • adelnehmeh says:

      Thank you Rabih,

      Is much as I wish you did have the intention to go back, I do not blame you.

      If you do not mind me asking, do you have family abroad?

      • Rabih says:

        No family here. I came by myself in what seemed to be a crazy decision at the time… But with time, it’s turning out to be a very good one. (On personal growth level only)

        I understand you don’t have any family here either right?

    • Lived every bit of it in 1990, and totally relate…. But learned, as all did, how to move on when I discovered that most, if not all, Canadian students in my class had that feeling towards their home town far away. Today, after 22 years of world wandering with the sole idea of returning home, I came to the conclusion that Lebanon is no longer the physical environment and it’s memories, instead it is all the Lebanese I have met everywhere and have kept these memories alive, so keep them connections. I love Rabih’s conclusion: “Home is where the heart is” and there is no expat that I have met that kept home away from his heart…

  2. bigsip says:

    I have tears in my eyes because I am exactly like you!!! I have been living abroad for over a year and wondering when the separation anxiety will come to an end but I remember every day that I left for a reason… and that reason is still there!
    I hope that it gets easier one day. I don’t think that I’ll ever go back for more than a 2-3 weeks visit.
    Sad :(

  3. tony says:

    very sensitive story, i have been living outside for 6 month and really feel that i am not exist in this world.

  4. Sidney says:

    I moved back to Nova Scotia in 1992 after being in Lebanon for 2 years and I was supposed to move back to Lebanon in 1995 after finnishing my studies. I stayed here to get experience but discovered there is SO MUCH RACISM and DISCRIMANATIOn that I never found work in my field working for someone instead I got it on my own. Now 20 years later I am tired of the “locals only” attitude here that it’s affected my income, health and happiness.

    I may move back to Lebanon this summer as it’s my last resort. Believe it or not most Lebanese living in Lebanon assume we Lebanese who moved abroad live in paradise and think getting a job and making money is easy, IT’S NOT. Most Lebanese who became successfull in Nova Scotia did it ILLEGALLY by importing hashis (sp?) from Lebanon or buy selling stolen goods here. Also most rip people off by not paying them full for their products and/or services.

  5. Ghazi Zalami says:

    So very true my friend. I came to Australia on my own in 1978 during the civil war in Lebanon, did all kinds of jobs just to survive, got married two years later , have two lovely boys, now married and have three beautiful grand children, We are a very close family with a lot of love and affection, but I am still not happy after 35 years, I still dream of Lebanon every day and I pray and hope some day I will settle down there, Whenever I go to visit family and friends in Lebanon, they keep saying how lucky I am living in Australia which I am in a way, but they don’t know how hurt I am deep down within my heart and how I feel for Lebanon and long to live there for the rest of my life, unfortunately circumstances don’t allow it. As the saying goes “life’s a bitch”

  6. Gemma Glorioso says:

    Your article brought tears to my eyes, very heartfelt. Perfect choice and combination of words that depict the reality of Lebanese people living abroad. Personally, I am only half lebanese from my mother’s side. My father is Italian and I have spent most of my life abroad, only recently I came back to Italy and Lebanon has always been a “vacation only” place (although vacations could last also 3 months when i was younger). Yet, I feel the lebanese half of me more than any other thing, I have learnt Arabic and obviously lebanese, eno ma be7ke mkassar w hek :) and just like you, I share and cherish the family warmth that only my lebanese family is capable of giving me, the human kindness in most of the people I have met, the lack of fear that I feel when there (fear of being alone in an unknown place e.g) and most of all, the beautiful sense of absolutely no loneliness. Lebanon is beautiful, like my mother says “fi nafas rabna b lebnen” :) and I hope to move there soon. Europe is beautiful, but Lebanon is my heaven on earth.

    • adelnehmeh says:

      I am always encouraged by reading comments like yours Gemma.

      In times when those who are inside want to leave, and those who are outside call me crazy for wanting to go back, I always need someone to support my desire to go back.

    • adelnehmeh says:

      Thank you for your comment Gemma ( in my mind wondering if I am pronouncing it right)

      the problem is that God breathed so much into this land that the abundance of religions is keeping it in shackles….

      All we have is hope, just like the millions of Lebanese expats who leave with their eyes always looking backwards, just in case an opportunity or a glimpse of hope comes up that allows them to go back…

  7. remikahwaji says:

    Hi Adel, Thanks once again for a great post. I would like to be brief and quote Gibran here: “The universe is my country and the human family is my tribe.” If i may give you some advice:
    Love your neighbors no matter how cold they might seem to you at first. knock on their door, speak with them and teach them the Lebanese custom of being in excellent relation with everyone, of making friends with everyone, of being in a positive state of mind with respect to anyone. Make the first step and break the stereotype that they might have of foreign looking young people.
    Have a greater faith in humanity as a whole. I think this is one of the things we lebanese people excel at. It is in our DNA that we lived in a country which was the crossroads of civilizations. The Phoenicians conquered the Mediterranean with not a single weapon. They were extremely open to other cultures and that definitely made their success. This is more like an opinion but thinking about it inspires me for a greater unity with the world cultures.
    My parents are everything to me, and i totally understand that you miss them. You conveyed our feelings extremely well in your post. But i would add that going out there and meeting those neighbors, you might very well have some pretty good surprises. Organizing a get together party would be an idea!! Bring on the booze!! :D

    • adelnehmeh says:

      Thank you Remi for your heartfelt words and advice,

      To be honest, while I have not made friends with these specific neighbors per say ( some friendships you simply cannot force if the other end is simply not interested), I did reach out for many strangers who were interested in meeting someone from a new culture.

      I definitely see the power of being Lebanese, social, approachable and open to new people. I have made tens of acquaintances, very few select sprouts of friendships, but something about those childhood ones remains special….

      As for the parents, their sacrifices for me growing up are now being topped with their sacrifice of asking their only son to stay abroad only to support him in his quest for a better future. My turn will also come wen I have to pay my dues and sacrifice, but I always wonder whether the money and security I find abroad is worth stealing their only source of joy from them….

  8. Adelaide says:

    Every time I read one of your posts, I am overwhelmed with emotion. It’s amazing how your words speak right to my heart. You are not alone in your feelings, most Lebanese expats feel the same way. I miss my country, my family, our culture, our landmarks, our coastal line, our music, our kindness, our generosity, our friendliness and our hospitality and much more!!!

  9. Karen Williams says:

    Hi adelnehmeh,

    I read your blogs with interest, this one in particular hit home.

    I am a 51 yr old Australian woman. In my 20’s and early 30’s I had a teaching career, the next 15 years I had a long illness commonly known as chronic fatigue syndrome. I thought I had missed my chance of love until I met a Lebanese gent. He introduced me to the warmth and joy to which you refer, something entirely new to me….and I was hooked. But it was short lived, he had other plans, to find a younger woman…from Syria..as he wanted more children.

    Amazingly without looking I was introduced to Mr Lebanon number two….this time I had the opportunity to travel to Lebanon twice…more hooked! Sadly this relationship ended also because of a Syrian lady…there is now a plethora of beautiful Syrians pouring into Lebanon because of the internal war.

    This may seem strange but if any of your readers know of an easygoing, sweet Leb gent who might be interested in growing old with me in Australia please ask them to correspond and see how we get along. Like you the loneliness is not easy, it would be hard to turn back now.

    kindest,
    Karen
    Email; karenlynellewilliams@gmail.com

    • adelnehmeh says:

      Hello Karen,

      Thank you for sharing this personal info. I don;t think my match-making skills will prove to be helpful for you, but I will leave this comment on this post hoping that fate will allow the right person to pick it up.

      There are plenty of Lebanese(aka Lebos) in Sydney in case you are interested.

  10. Pingback: Expat Blog Carnival #4: Homesickness - Roving Jay

  11. Roving Jay says:

    Hi Karem just wanted to let you know that I featured your article in this month’s Expat Blog Carnival focused on Homesickness… thanks, Jay

  12. This is great,
    I’ve just started a vlog about my year abroad in Spain and I’ve recently uploaded my video on homesickness. Check it out :)

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