“The last time I was this scared was 2006,” she told me this afternoon, moments after she crossed into the Northern part of a city ravaged with battles. I guess that’s saying something given that the person in question spent a good part of the war that year in a 3×2 ditch that her family calls a shelter.
The matter to immigrate out of Lebanon was always a matter of if with me. Today, becoming an expat is no longer a matter of if. It’s simply matter of when. And with each passing day, that “when” doesn’t seem to get here soon enough.
I tried as much as I can to disassociate myself from what was happening in my country lately. It was time not to be constantly negative, I said. I’m better off than most people in this country, I convinced myself. But then I realized that the standard of living in this country is just not good enough. And by the looks of it, it will never be.
“I always cried at the idea of you leaving here,” my best friend’s mom told him. Then, as she dried her eyes and looked him straight in the eyes she said: “Do your best to leave.” My best friend is currently unable to go back home because the roads leading back to his bedroom (and cat) are cut off due to gunfire and protests.
Welcome to the safety of the republic of Lebanon, post-parliament mandate extension. Weren’t things supposed to get better, theoretically?
Being in Lebanon today means being in the same country as people like Ahmad el Assir who, a few years ago would have never ever dreamed of catching a spotlight. Today, they enjoy modest popularity and incredible funding that enables them to launch full blown attacks against the Lebanese army and threaten cities that are dubbed the capital of their region.
Being in Lebanon today means living with the likes of Hezbollah who, proud as they are of being on terrorist lists everywhere, resort to arguments in the form of zionism and Israel whenever the going gets tough. And the argument works every time because it sure sounds beautiful to be fighting Israel all the way in God knows where.
Being in Lebanon today means being nothing more and nothing less than a number in a Christian game of empty slogans, fancy billboard wars, fiery television shoutouts and no tangible work whatsoever. It means members of the side you once supported thinking you’re switching allegiance and shutting you out while those on the other side thinking you’re as one-sided as they are. It means not fitting in within any of the rhetoric being spoken – and being accused that you are of the same mold anyway.
Being in Lebanon today also means being in the land of a Lebanese army that knows nothing but to call on moral support whenever its members get killed. “Support us against those who want to cause mayhem in this country” is the typical line of the same army which, in recent days, beat up peaceful protesters in one part of the country and stood by watching as the same militias killing it today passed by its members in their tanks.
Being in Lebanon today is living in a land where men of cloak have power that grows proportionally to their beard’s (sometimes mustache-less) length. It means feeling less and less empowered as the days move forward. It means feeling less and less safe. It’s become living in a place where there are so many red lines floating around you never know which red line you crossed when you’ve seemingly done nothing wrong: the red lines of religions, the red lines of religious militias, the red lines of politics, the red lines of sects, the red lines of bigots and the red lines of those living in their own version of Lebanese la-la land.
Being in Lebanon today means living with people who think there’s nothing wrong, whose reply to this is simply: “you go ahead and leave, stop bitching and spare us some breathing space,” who marvel at the beauty of some fireworks and somehow use them as an argument to convince themselves that tomorrow will be a better day. I know those people because I was one of them. And I tried as hard as I can to remain one of them. But it just didn’t work anymore – I can’t live in la-la land anymore.
“I just had the most demoralizing phone call of my life,” she told me as we snaked our way through the quiet streets of Beirut after midnight. “Did you know we are not allowed to be in the same research opportunities abroad as people who have any form of relation with you-know-where be it funding or otherwise? So here I am, working my ass off for years… Only to find out the research program of my dreams is out of the question.”
I tried to comfort my friend by telling her things will be okay. But the question begets itself: regardless of the politics of it, why do I have to be the one always ruining my future because I’m Lebanese? Why do I have to be the one putting the questionable morals of my country first when my country has given so little back to me? Why do I have to be the one constantly on the losing end just because I am in the possession of a navy blue passport emblazoned with a golden Cedar? Why do I have to be the one passing on opportunities in order not to disappoint a country that has never managed to impress me?
I am currently pursuing a medical degree and I thought I was getting the best medical education that money could buy and given my country’s standards, and at more than $20,000 a year, I sure am. I thought getting acquainted with hospitals around this country was exposing me to how things are done, strengthening me for a future in which I give the best standard of care for my patients while giving myself and my future family a decent living standard. What I learned, however, surpassed the pathology and the pharmacology of things: medicine in Lebanon is not patient oriented. It is pocket-oriented. And no, this isn’t about Lebanese hospitals. “If only you have any idea how many procedures being done are absolutely unnecessary,” a senior physician told my group. “They’re done because doctors get a cut off the money – not because it’s the best practice for your patients. Learn the textbook – and adapt what you learn the best way you can.”
What I also learned was that entering the workforce over here once I’m done with my degree is going as close to hell as possible. Instead of a specialty welcoming new blood and minds into its fold in order to progress, it shuts on itself and shuts you out in the process as you try to claw yourself in. The veterans divert patients away from you. They try to sabotage you. They ruin your reputation in order to keep the golden goose all for themselves. Good thing the $100,000 spent in your education was paid for by your parents.
“You are the future of the country,” he told me as we moved around Paris. “What future might that be?” I asked. That person highlighted a place of promise, a place that I would be proud to call home. “And do you intend to return?” I then asked again. He shook his head. Yes, our expats make us proud. Their accomplishments make us marvel at the beauty of having opportunities. Yet they infuriate me when they preach without living it, without getting it, without knowing how horrible it is to know you are living in a place of no opportunities, no future and no hope whatsoever – despite the opposite you try to convince yourself with everyday because there’s nothing better than denial to ease the medicine to be gulped down everyday.
“If you don’t handle Lebanon at its worst, you don’t deserve it at its best,” I was told as well. What best might that be, I wondered.How long do I have to handle a downward spiral of Lebanon’s worst until the clouds start clearing? Why do I have to be a masochist, forcing myself to live in times of war that seem to never know a way to end just because, in theory, my country needs people like me? But does my country even want me?
What about what I want?
I want a decent future for myself and my children. I want a second passport that doesn’t require me to knock at embassy doors and plead in order to go on vacations. And I want to transfer that second passport to my parents so they can get a better life, a life where they are valued and cherished for the amazing creatures that they are. I want a place that guarantees my liberties – that allows me to curse the president, insult Jesus and categorize a political party as a terrorist group. All in one sentence for the whole word to see. And live to tell the tale. I want a place where I can pursue a career in which my input is not only valued, it is sought out. I want a place where I don’t have to screw over my patients in order to become better off financially – and still be able to repay my parents all the hard-earned money they spent in my education. I want a place where I can drive without feeling like maneuvering cattle in a prairie. I want a place that knows rules and laws are there for a reason.
Lebanon is home. It’s a place I didn’t feel I fit but always felt I belonged. I belonged to the streets that enchanted, the people I called family and the faces that gave me reassurance that tomorrow might be better than today. Today, those streets feel desolate and foreign. The people I call family have become strangers. The faces that gave me reassurance in days past now get me worried.
Will I miss it when I leave here once I’m done with my medical degree? Perhaps so. It’s hard not to miss the place that built me. But I think I’ll take a pinch of trab el arz, some cedar grains, plant them wherever a visa and an opportunity take me and call it home all over again.