Will Lebanon Ever Change?

I was sitting with my grandma a couple of days ago in her warm kitchen while she cooked me lunch. As the tawouk simmered, she started asking me about my days. It’s not the typical chit-chat to let awkward time pass by. She was genuinely concerned.

A few minutes later, my grandma started going on and on about how she wished God would give me nothing but success wherever I went and whatever I did, how I deserved nothing but the best, etc.

What she said might be a bunch of cliches to you, but it got me thinking. There will come a time, and that time is coming up really soon, where I will probably say goodbye to my grandmother at an airport gate, like many of my friends, and never see her again.

The idea made me terribly sad. I started wondering if I really should go through that. Why is it that we all need to face such a moment in our lives of farewells that don’t have a meeting on another side?

I sat down and tried to come up with a list. I like lists. My obsessive tendencies find solace in such forms of organization that put things clearly in front of you.

Pros of staying in Lebanon: family, hummus.

Cons of staying in Lebanon: subpar future medical training, subpar future salaries, subpar future life, subpar security, subpar facilities, subpar infrastructures, subpar everything else?

The shock of my life came to a visit to Istanbul recently. I was going there in the mindset that the city would definitely be subpar, that there would be very few things to see and do, despite what everyone else was telling me. It was, after all, a city in Turkey, a third world country like mine. How good could it be?

I was faced with one of the more impressive European cities I’ve actually been to. It had an extremely well-functioning public transportation system. It felt safe. The sites were all extremely preserved and a delight to see. The queues were enormous. Everywhere was very crowded. The shops stayed open till midnight. The streets kept bustling till 5AM. The internet was very fast. The streets were very clean and had all forms of landscape design about them. The greenery was abundant. The city had an undeniable charm to it with its rustic buildings and preserved style. I was in love.

I was also saddened by how things could be for the cities I call home. I was walking through Istiklal street late one night when it was drizzling and the crowds were dense enough to be charming and the street acts were singing and it felt so alive in that moment that I thought about Beirut and Tripoli and what they could have been, Istanbuls in a third world country, and it made me sad because back home, people were still arguing over March 14th and March 8th, digging up 1975 civil war ideas and hurling it at each other to give credibility to their claims in 2014. Back home, people were calling for war in times of peace, unaware of their actions and unaware that there was anything wrong in what they were doing.

In Lebanon, the best analogy that can be given to us is that many of us are Beirut and Tripolis that are waiting to be turned into an Istanbul: people who have the potential to be something but are held back just by being here. The truth is that we will always be held back as long as we stay here, because this isn’t a place that wants to harness our potential and become a better place for us to grow and make it grow. This is a place that is content with what it has and what good that has to offer and doesn’t seek to improve upon it. Will it ever change?

My friend Ismail is my first friend to leave today. Hala, Stephanie, Elia, Mira and many more are leaving soon. Some of their older siblings have already left. Their younger ones are already preparing to leave. I’m leaving too because my future here is anything but guaranteed the way that I want my future to be.

My generation isn’t the only one to leave as well. My grandma has gone through such goodbyes way too many times. She did them with her daughter whom she shipped off to Australia about 30 years ago. She did it with her three sons who left her to go to the United States a couple of decades ago. She probably told her sons and daughter the same thing she told me. I’m also certain she had hoped they’d come back to her one day when, as she definitely told them, things got better here.

I’m sure we all have tales of our grandmothers and mothers doing the same over and over again to no avail.

My mother told me that same thing that day. Why don’t you finish your speciality in the United States and then come back work here? She was sure things would be better in 10 years. But are they? My mother was anything but realistic, I guess. Both of my parents acknowledge, however, that they know I must leave and recommend me doing so.

Pity the nation whose parents know their children must leave them indefinitely to have a better life for themselves?

My country has never ever seen me as a priority. Today, my country is preoccupied with trying to elect a president who will do nothing. It’s also preoccupied with a growing debate about legalizing hashish because that’s definitely a priority. In a few months, it will become preoccupied with the 2013 debate of an electoral law again and I’ll still be forgotten. By next year, some other political mess would take center stage and we’ll all be relinquished to the sidelines as we observe, take sides and forget. The cycle will then proceed to repeat all over again.

But don’t you worry, people, because Beirut was on some fancy list a while back, nightlife is abundant, summer festivals are up in full swing and the tourists might come back this year!

It’s perhaps detrimental to our mental state to think that our perpetual stagnation will last another decade or more, but it would be erroneous to assume otherwise given how we’ve been living. Many of the current generation has only been governed by one speaker of parliament in its lifetime. The people we grew up around have been discussing the same politics today of when we were children. “Enta Aoune aw Ouwatje, enta Roum aw Mwarne” was what we got asked as kids. The same questions still get asked today.

A few years from now, my mother will become a grandmother. And she will be cooking lunch to one of her grandsons. And she will tell him how she wants nothing but the best for him in life and I’m sure he’ll wonder if he’ll ever see her again when the time comes for him to leave. Family and hummus or everything else? That hummus must be exquisite.

6 thoughts on “Will Lebanon Ever Change?

  1. You left me out of words…
    I have to say goodbye to me sister twice every year and it always hurts…
    I always think that there is hope, that tomorrow would be better… but sometimes reality hits me.. Maybe I am inventing hope to stay here 😦
    Thank you for your words, It’s always nice to read you


  2. I was in similar position as yours in 1975.
    I enjoyed my life and my career in the USA. But i always return to spend times in Beirut and Lebanon.
    My impression as yours is painful when i visited recently Istanbul. Beirut can outdo all the cities around us in Tourism , Services and Joie de Vivre.
    If our politicians give us peace and stability.
    In fact in time of peace corruption can reap better dividend. They should not be concerned about it.
    Don’t despair a change has to come.


  3. Here’s a comment from the Diaspora.
    I was in exactly your situation 40 years ago, left Lebanon for further education then returned to Lebanon to work, and serve. Then left again 10 years later, for good.

    To start with let me quote from a book written also 40 years ago by Dr. Charles Malik. In 1973 Malik wrote a signature book that he named لبنان في ذاته or “Lebanon in Itself”…. :

    He talks about the ten characteristics of Lebanon that define it and distinguish it decisively from other things …..and he dedicates a chapter to each.
    There is a chapter on The Unique Mountain
    Another on The remarkable Lebanese Village
    He dedicates one for Trade, another for Emigration, Christian Moslem Tolerance, Freedom etc.

    On immigration…He says: “The phenomenon of emigration is a cause for pride, a shameful thing and a tragedy… ….at one and the same time.
    Pride, because of the achievements that our emigrants have realized in their second homelands by their pioneering and self reliant spirit.
    Shameful, because Lebanon, their fatherland, does not provide them with the condition of livelihood, so that they had to leave.
    Tragedy, because of the great suffering that the Lebanese emigrant has to bear in his soul, and which is known to God alone. The existential story of the Lebanese emigration in all its human and spiritual dimensions has yet to be written.”

    Malik continues: “the World Lebanese Cultural Union has tried to bring Lebanon and its emigrants closer together. Such a goal requires…. from the homeland government… much more sincerity, seriousness and purity than has been manifested up until now.”
    Then he continues:
    “Decisive crises…. may yet arise wherein the Lebanese emigrants might help Lebanon more!! than its resident citizens can…….. and concludes: without this phenomenon of immigration throughout the ages Lebanon could not and would not have existed”.

    Many of us visit frequently and our hearts pump differently once there, they also pump differently inside the adopted country, differently than those who were born here. This Easter I was supposed to visit but could not, so I wrote this piece of “poem of instructions” to my friend who was about to visit:

    Inhale the mid day deep blue sky and the scent of the blossoming spring flowers on the hills overlooking the jewel city of the Mediterranean.
    Kiss your tante Antoinette goodnight at dusk because she sleeps early, and drive down to Achrafieh, bumper to bumper, turning the radio nob from station to station, and somehow you’re not annoyed, your hour on the road goes like a dream or a silent Charlie Chaplin movie.
    The road and potholes are exactly as you left them centuries and millennia ago
    Wake up on Sunday and sip, with neighbors and friends and nephews, the menthe of shaanineh that prepares you for the week of salutations and kisses of Easter.
    Wake up at 7 am on Monday, strolling to the balcony, leaning on the railing…spotting Abou Elias down below guiding the cars into your building or squeezing them in their reserved tight parking spots on the streets.
    Someone you love walks on the balcony behind you and you turn around and she hands you a cup of Turkish coffee that smells so fresh yet so old.
    Make the hissing sound of your lips aspirating hot thick coffee, and leave the empty tiny cup on its small plate, on the small table on the balcony, then get up slow … and go back into the living room for a just delivered pliant and olive oil soaked man’ousheh
    Soon your eyes fall heavy, calling for nap
    Close them, then half open them, as you drift back to your bedroom
    and fall asleep on the beep beep sound of taxi horns below, but be careful, as their silence will wake you up, something could be wrong, and people could have deserted the streets
    then the church bells really wake you up
    You get up again, walking barefoot on the Persian carpet of the living room
    You’re 21, no! You’re 64, but it feels 21, actually what does it matter, and who cares…time overcame all distance of the oceans!!!
    Ahhhhh! What a day in Achrafieh!!!

    I have peered and poured into the eyes and souls of youth in Mar Mkhayel and Hamra streets and bars late at night on many visits in the past few years. I do see hope. The year I left Lebanon my friend’s father, now long deceased, said “you don’t have to go just because you want to come back when it is peaceful over here, there is no peace here, just ceasefires”. He may be right if you think in terms of a generation or two, but I am confident now he, and we, were wrong on the time scale only: there will be peace eventually, we are just in a long transition.
    And it is so beautiful today seeing the world through the eyes of the youth. Not only I feel it could be a window on the future but it is a personal attempt at living life again and again, like the shedding and re-greening of trees and like, alimallah. But it’s also an obligational education: our children are shown life through our eyes and when they’re adults perhaps it is more appropriate to try to see life through their eyes.



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