Book Review: Beirut to the 'Burbs by Anissa Rafeh

As a Lebanese-American taking up residence in Beirut, I love comparing notes with my fellow breed on life in these parts. The ubiquity of third culture kids in Lebanon owes to the mass emigration during the Civil War, when our parents set sail in pursuit of safer, more stable existences abroad.

The Lebanese-American crowd is a unique bunch, because even though we hail from a country encompassing 50 states and 9.83 million km2 (that’s almost a thousand times more expansive than Lebanon!), we understand each other.

We all love Costco, laned highways, coupons, astronomically fast Internet speeds, sales all year long, See’s Candies, generous portion sizes, and, more recently, poke bowls. We thrive on all-you-can-eat buffets; we enjoy standing in line (no, we do not use the word “queue”); we believe bigger is better (hence Costco); and the only food delivery we’re aware of is pizza (and Chinese, if you reside in NYC).

Anissa Rafeh, in her second book titled Beirut to the ‘Burbs: Adventures of a Suburban Misfit, recounts what it’s like for a Lebanese-American who spent her entire young adulthood in Beirut to move back to her hometown of Richmond, Virginia. Like me, Anissa was born in the Land of Opportunity. Unlike me, she resettled in Lebanon to pursue her university studies at the AUB (I applied, was admitted on a merit scholarship, and even enrolled. But at the very last minute, my terrified parents insisted I return to Southern California).

Anissa Rafeh at the launching of her second book Beirut to the 'Burbs

Anissa studied, worked, and adapted to the Lebanese lifestyle with everything that comes with it—throwing her car to the valet vultures wherever she went, getting constantly primped at the salon, strutting everywhere in heels, and even ordering home delivery for meds from the local drugstore.

After spending close to two decades in Lebanon, Anissa packed her bags and headed “home” to her birthplace. Her book is a hilarious juxtaposition between life in Lebanon and Richmond. She delves into the stereotypical responsibilities of adult Americans, things as mundane as a mortgage, clipping coupons (or downloading an app that accomplishes the same thing), salting the driveway to prevent snow buildup, and dealing with the hazards of oven self-cleaning.

The quagmires she finds herself in when on dates (arranged online) are totally relevant to any Lebanese girl who’s ever lived abroad: does the guy pick up the check, or do you go Dutch? How about the so-called eligible Lebanese bachelors her relatives attempt to fix her up with? The awkward situations she has to wade through leave you both wincing and laughing all at once.

There’s a chapter where Anissa confesses how Lebanese expressions occasionally slip from her mouth in the presence of a non-Lebanese audience. For example, a colleague had cut his hair, and she accidentally uttered “naaiman.” Dumbfounded, he asks for an explanation, and Anissa’s attempt at describing the connotation of the term is sheer amusement. There’s another instance where she tells a serviceman “ya3tik il 3efyeh,” and that spirals into an interesting discussion on relief from one’s labor.

"Uh, yeah, about that idiom..." (photo credit: Brian Talbot/Flickr)

From Beirut to the ‘Burbs is not a conventional story with a plotline, character development, climax, or denouement. It’s a descriptive nonfictional narrative with loosely connected chapters about themes like “I Have a Boyfriend, His Name is Netflix” and “You Say Tomato, I Say Banadoura.” Lebanese who have spent any time abroad would derive pleasure from it, readily empathizing with the author’s plight.

Anissa leaves us embracing the “neatness and organization” of the simple life in Richmond, where you never have to fret about electricity cuts, water heating, protests, and garbage disposal. 

She then hastily tries to elevate Lebanon on a pedestal for its “mystical magic.” It’s obvious she does what we all (must) do to survive life in this purgatory: convince ourselves there’s more beauty than meets the eye. 

Don’t worry, Anissa, we totally get it. It’s a daily exercise in self-contentment (and hair-pulling).

Beirut to the ‘Burbs is published by Turning Point Books and is available inside all major Lebanese bookshops like Librairie Antoine and Virgin Megastore.


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