The Perks of Being Lebanese

Back in December, I hosted a photographer who wanted to visit Lebanon in order to experience our on-the-edge diverse lifestyle. I showed him around as much as I could given the short time I had, taking myself to Tyre for the first time in my life. I had never been that far South before. I left him there in order for him to see life in that Southern city firsthand. A couple of days later, we met up in Beirut and somehow he started contrasting and comparing my country with his. He comes from one of the world’s biggest superpowers so it’s understandable that my country is lacking in comparison.

But I couldn’t take it. Snarkiness started to ooze out of every word I uttered like the sharp blade of a knife. Jabs here and there about how his country could never – ever – have the history that my country has started flowing. I even surprised myself when it comes to political declarations which would probably get any Lebanese who knows me turn his head in disbelief. Imagine me proclaiming support for Hezbollah and you’ll get the drift.

I felt it was necessary. It’s not about being politically correct. It’s this built in sensor inside my brain to defend Lebanon whenever I can to whoever I can. And it goes off at random times, despite the logical part of me telling me that I should probably stop. I can’t help it. My relationship with my country is that of some serious love-hate. And I can’t escape it.

Bref, I nag too much sometimes and I know it. I know some of you hate it – but living in Lebanon leaves you constantly angry, constantly furious, constantly edgy. We all deal with it with the best way we can and considering what we’re dealt with every day, I daresay we handle it really well. Most of the time at least.

To those who thought I’m being quite negative, you’re probably right. This one’s for you. Now smile and take it in because such articles will only come rarely. Let it sink in because you won’t hear me saying this very often – not that it matters since it’s now online for everyone to see – but here it goes: I probably wouldn’t trade growing up in Lebanon for anything else in the whole world.

It’s not about the copious amount of money I could have had. It’s not about super kickass passports I often wish I possessed. I think growing up here, witnessing the struggles of here, dealing with the hardships that here represents have gotten me to grow as a person in ways that any other place probably wouldn’t have provided.

In a way, growing up here has made me a person who is capable of standing on his feet wherever you throw him. It might sound cliche – positive vibes always go around clicheville – but it’s something that the past year has truly reinforced in me.

When I was in France, the French were shocked I could juggle three languages fluently without a hitch, something that was completely normal to me but seemed very odd to them. It is there that I came to appreciate exactly how thankful I am for the decent education I got here. The fact that I was able to keep up with more knowledgeable physicians at the hospital where I did my clerkship doesn’t only reflect on my mental capacities but on the way education in Lebanon shapes you up without you even knowing it. It is no wonder that with all the preparation we subtly get in school and later on in higher education institutes, we are able to excel when given room and opportunity.

That month I spent in France opened up my eyes to something else that I hadn’t really thought of: life in Lebanon does not go on in a protective bubble that separates you from everything else happening around you.
The aforementioned idea started to get formulated in my mind back in 2011 when I wrote a small article about 9/11 and some members of American family stopped talking to me as a result. I still don’t see anything wrong with my article. If anything, I stand by it more than before. But it’s the perception of the article which differentiates my American kin from yours truly. For them, I am being harsh and insensitive because I haven’t lived it and I am not American. To me, they are being very concentric and limited. But it’s no one’s fault really: my perception as a Lebanese of the world is and will always be of people whose fate isn’t in their hand, of a country which is always a part in a chessgame of bigger fish.
And while we nag about that as is our right, I think the premise of the life this sets is healthy: to know that there’s always another story taking place somewhere, to know that there is another side to us, to know that there is life form outside of the bubble that we love to live inside and to know that everything has a reference point to put things in perspective.

The photographer who came here back in December was more than interested in something that I not only took for granted but thought was beyond normal. My hometown coexists quite peacefully with a neighboring Shiite town. My best friends happen to be either Shiite or atheists or Sunni or Maronites. We differ politically, we argue more often than not. We come from severely different backgrounds in our own country. But we still find ourselves at one table having dinner as often as we argue about the backgrounds from which we come. The experience itself is one that we ignore because it’s never in the forefront of our thoughts. But to an outsider, the interactions we have and the friendships we strike are things that are beyond interesting. When that photographer pointed out how odd to him that dinner table setting was, I started to think about it more and I realized that I am what I am today because of those people that have come into my life from all those different backgrounds. And despite some eccentric bearded men from all sides wanting to tell us that our friendships are abnormal, our relationships still exist and they keep flourishing. The majority of us as Lebanese have friends who come from backgrounds that had, until quite recently in historical terms, been fighting against each other. Yet that’s never an issue. It’s not even something we think about. But imagine how bland our lives would be if the only people we knew shared our thoughts, our views and barely differed from us in the things that count.

And as I go back home every day from class or from those dinners with friends, another thing I take for granted is my family. The fact that the family unit is still very cohesive in this country is a treasure in itself. Child psychology tells you how important a tightly-knit family is for the development of a human being. But this isn’t about psychological theories. How often do we think about the warm meal awaiting us back home which our grandmother or mother more than willingly cooked for us, along with a warm hug because even though they had last seen us a few hours prior they miss us terribly?
And I don’t meant this in a sexist manner for those feminists gearing up for international women’s day. How often do we think about that awesome person we call grandpa who, as he grows up, becomes more kind hearted than a five year old boy? Or how about those siblings of ours that we love to hate but can’t imagine living without? Or those cousins we keep bickering with and the aunts and uncles who raised them? How about our fathers who, despite their strong facade, love us to the moon and back?
The family unit in Lebanon is not restricted to the parents and siblings. It transcends them to anyone who shares your family name. And we pretend that it aggravates us off when families gather in certain occasions. But the truth is that our family, including those extended members we don’t like to think about, act as a firm ground for us to stand in troubled times. And they do that without us asking for it.

Life in Lebanon sets you up to be a great individual when given the framework to allow such greatness to unfold. It makes you more aware of the world. It gives you a rich cultural experience to start from. It gives you a strong educational package to build a life upon and gives you a sense of belonging that makes you prone to find anchor wherever you’re thrown. It saddens me to say that I will probably leave this place someday because the future might be bleak. And I lose hope in it sometimes and I rekindle it at other times despite my better judgement. But it remains that being Lebanese is something that makes me proud. It is something that I believe has offered me the essential that makes human beings shine and make a life for themselves. That life probably won’t happen here. But that life will forever owe itself to here.

Cheers to all those Lebanese perks we keep taking for granted.

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30 thoughts on “The Perks of Being Lebanese

  1. I was reading the news just now which is normally depressing and was surprised to have this pop up in mail. Amazing post! It made me smile from cheek to cheek.

    Reply
  2. Elie I really enjoyed reading this piece! You did a great job:D
    I have two comments to make: First, not every Lebanese recognizes the beauty of living in such a diverse community as ours and is able to look outside himself to realize how our circumstances are shaping us into more capable human beings. Your realization in that article is a blessing in itself :).
    Second, you repeated in your writing more often than once, that if given the opportunity, a Lebanese can really shine. I’m afraid that not everyone is given that opportunity to prove him/her self.In fact, few are the people who actually get the chance to do so. Is it lack of motivation or confidence or drive that’s depriving them of achievements? Or is it purely circumstances? I don’t know. Either way, I think that if not all are given equal resources to invest their skills in their own country, it’s not much of a perk.

    Reply
    • Hey Maya,
      I replied to you in person but it’s not official until it’s here 😛

      First part: yes, I agree. We all live it but we don’t realize it until outsiders point out how odd it is.
      Second part: I was referring to us shining abroad, not necessarily here. And despite not everyone having the ability to make it abroad, the perk isn’t with us shining, it’s with us being equipped to do so.

      Reply
  3. The perks you speak of are very real and special to folks live being able to speak two or three languages and having good friends from different communities. Many Lebanese are very innovative because they can see “life” from different perspectives and as insider/outsider. Other peoples who live similarly are also quite innovative. Good that you could see it and share it!

    Reply
  4. I just read your article, and I read it again, I read it to my mother, i read it to my father, to my sister, and shared it with some friends. Thank you, for reminding me just how much I love this country and how lucky I am to have lived by its traditions.

    Reply
  5. I can understand your frustration, comparing the places where we grew up to determine which one was “better” is like comparing apples to oranges, you just can’t do it. If you or your friend were born in Cambodia, you would’ve had a lot of nice things to say about Cambodia. This says nothing about how Cambodia really is, it just says that people get attached to the places they lived all their lives, regardless where that may be. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Confirmation_bias

    Reply
    • Seeing as I criticize things in Lebanon more often than I praise, I fail to see how this applies. If I had grown up anywhere else and had been frustrated in France because I didn’t know the language or got stumped in any political discussion or whatever, I would have had a corresponding conclusion.

      Reply
  6. I hope you will continue to enjoy these perks, even though the big fish chess-game is casting a bigger and bigger shadow day by day…

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  7. “That life probably won’t happen here. But that life will forever owe itself to here.”
    This part made me tear up – thank you for the beautiful article. Positively is not cliche!!

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  8. When I read this article, I couldn’t but laugh being reminded of a Lebanese that I used to know. I can’t really say what kind of a person he is, as my opinion would be too subjective and ruled by my personal dealings/interactions with him. However he wasn’t without his flaws, especially being quite the hypocrite he was in some areas but then I still remember him vividly because of the way he was proud of being Lebanese and his attachment to his family and everyone and everything Lebanese. He taught me those values especially the former as till then I hadn’t really cared about my heritage and to be honest, I used to be ashamed of some of the shortcomings of my fellow Indians.

    As much as I know it is confirmatory bias when it comes to this person (thanks to Nader, that was an interesting link), I cannot but be impressed how Lebanon evokes this patriotic feeling in its people. A few years ago, the only thing I knew Lebanese was about this series that used to be shown on Australian TV channel SBS – hadn’t bothered to know more about the country. Then a few whispers when the Cronulla riots happened here, but now after moving to south-east of Australia wherever I trip, I find someone or something Lebanese and I can’t help smiling.

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  9. Hey Elie,

    I can relate very much to what you’re writing here. I fled from Lebanon in late 2007 at the age of 20 to go live in France (where I still live today).

    I vividly remember being at the airport, the day I left, and thinking “I’m leaving because I don’t feel like I belong here”. Growing up in Lebanon, I felt that I was missing out on a lot of “great things” happening abroad.

    After the first months (the “honeymoon period” of sorts) Paris started loosing its charm. Certain things were missing, things I used to take for granted. But that’s not just it.

    Paris isn’t as glamorous or exciting as I thought it’d be. There’s a Lebanese idiom, “بلاد برا”, (“the countries abroad”), by which people like to indicate the “rest of the world”, implying that it’s necessarily better than the crap we have here… I had succumbed to this generalization as well, and confirmation bias prevented me from seeing this for month.

    By 2009, I had become a rabid defendant of everything Arab-and-Lebanese, often surprising myself by the positions I was defending. After all, I was often talking to French people, and how dare they criticize Hezbollah in front of me when they have no clue of what they’re talking about?

    Ultimately I grew out of this generalization mindset, and here’s a friendly advice to you:

    Every time you catch yourself blaming your country, stop. On the spot. Our country has many problems, but it has a lot of benefits; just like any other country in the world. Whatever your problem is, it won’t be solved magically simply by being in France, Canada or the US. It’s all in your head. If you have the strength to shine, you can do it, no matter where.

    Reply
    • Thank you for sharing your story. I don’t think the last part is especially true. You don’t factor in “connections” in France and “bleid barra” as much as you do here. It’s much easier for you to shine here if you know someone who knows someone who can make it happen for you, not only on your own merit. I’ve seen way too many people who have the strength try and fail.

      Reply
  10. “…one of the world’s biggest superpowers…”
    Yikes, reading this I imagine a white guy from my country, but the superpower I call home has too many visibly obvious faults for that to be so 😉 I also didn’t know you had family here in the U.S., sorry to hear that you are estranged. I’d like to read that article from 2011, link?

    and…always good to have a healthy sense of LOVE for your homeland. 🙂

    Reply

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