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……