Making the Case for Lebanon: To Move or Not To Move Here?
A couple of weeks ago, I received a very thought-provoking inquiry from a Beirutista reader. It went to the tune of this: a family of Lebanese origin residing in Southern California was debating whether to transplant their three children aged 11, 9, and 5 to the land of their heritage. The father had immigrated as a teenager, while the mother had been born and raised in the US. Their last trip to Lebanon dated back some six years, and they were seriously contemplating a move here to immerse their kids in the culture and rigorous educational system. Seeing as I had crossed that bridge, they wanted my opinion.
My first reaction was to grimace. How would the kids feel, I immediately empathized? 20 years ago, like almost every family that fled Lebanon during the civil war, my parents faced the exact same dilemma. The post-civil war ‘90s witnessed what appeared to be a rebounding economy, the promise of a rebuilding nation, and the hope of restoring Lebanon to its once golden age. Many families in the diaspora were hell-bent on coming back, reuniting with their relatives, and taking their rightful places in the biblical Land of the Cedars.
My family was one of them. In fact, in 1992, my brothers and I were among the inaugural class at Sagesse High School in Ain Saadeh, Lebanon’s premier American-style high school. We had bid our classmates in California farewell forever, or so we thought, and stuffed duffel bags with toys and trinkets to tote with us to our new home.
At Sagesse, our measurements were taken for uniforms, both formal and athletic. We were required to purchase the school’s stationery and textbooks, a far cry from American public high schools, where you receive both an in-class and at-home set absolutely free. Notebooks, writing utensils, paper, pencil sharpeners, you name it – it was all part of the package, totally complimentary.
I remember coming home from Sagesse in tears every day that first week. I couldn’t stand it. Kids were excessively frivolous, picking on each other if their Oxford shirts weren’t properly tucked in. Teachers had questionable English accents. The administration was pretentious with their noses skimming the clouds in the sky. The only thing I remember enjoying were the bags of chips at recess, because they enclosed a surprise gift inside. I found comfort and consolation in those disposable trifles.
After three months, my parents pulled us out and returned to the US. The timing just wasn’t right. They tried again in the fall of 1994, determined to give it a second chance. But then my grandfather in California fell seriously ill, inducing my father to fly back. And my mom couldn’t cope with shouldering all the responsibility solo in what was a starkly different landscape from the one she'd left. It seemed Lebanon just wasn’t in the cards as a permanent dwelling place for my family.
Lengthy summer visits imprinted more positive marks on my mind than Sagesse had, and I resolved I would one day call Lebanon home. But I ended up declining admission to the American University of Beirut, which came tacked with a rare full merit scholarship. A thorough campus visit and brushes with undergrad professors left a sour taste in my mouth. Why was AUB even on my shortlist, one counselor probed disdainfully? I would never stand a chance competing in this climate of cheating, insisted an engineering professor. “Go back to where you came from” was the unanimous verdict delivered by AUB personnel.
So I backed out and followed my parents home. The University of California Irvine groomed me to be a research-oriented mechanical engineer, and four years later, I claimed an enviable spot at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to pursue my PhD. After snatching up an MS, I followed my heart to Paris, where a unique MBA program for engineers coupled with a junior consulting position beckoned. Upon graduation, I knew it was now or never. Either I make the plunge and relocate to Lebanon, or I let the dream shrivel and die like a raisin in the sun. I chose the former.
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Seven and a half years have since passed, and I still find myself wondering whether I settled by settling here. Some days I think, “what the hell was I thinking?” Other days, I'm proud of having swam against the tide to apply myself and test my capacity on every level—professionally, personally, and mentally. I didn’t take the easy path, the paved road illuminated with streetlights and traffic signs. On the contrary, I took the pothole-ridden track, poorly lit and totally obscured, a vicious motorway where you will get pummeled if you abide by the (imaginary) lanes.
Am I a better person for it? What did I gain by losing any semblance of logic, reason, and sanity? A fleeting, abstract notion called culture? The opportunity to live in the environmentally-dilapidated land of my forebears? And what exactly will I be affording my own posterity, now that I have one, by electing to remain here?
Dear Beirutista reader, you took me back decades, reminding me of that impressionable little girl once charmed by the ineffable mystique that is Lebanon. Living in this volatile, toxic country affects our vision, and we might be guilty of overlooking the boons of existing here. It's true that as soon as we touch down on foreign soil, we quickly begin to pine for that which we left so willingly and gladly.
I wish I could advise you one way or the other, but the answer to your query is hardly black or white. It’s an open-ended question to which there is no correct solution, only an infinite number of possibilities and uncertainties.
All I can tell you is this: if you move here, you will satisfy your curiosity of the unknown and what if. Your children will be enveloped in an evolving culture that more and more incorporates elements of the Western world. You will enjoy amenities galore, and the wafting scent of manakish zaatar will never be more accessible and alluring.
If you choose not to move here, you will continue on the fast-track to globally accepted definitions of success. You will never have to worry about the deprivation of basic rights and utilities, like water, clean air, electricity, and internet. Your children will be taught to be accepting of all colors, creeds, and cultures, and they will embrace their unique, mixed identities.
But that curiosity of the opportunity cost will forever gnaw at you. And in a perverted state, unquenched thirst becomes inconsolable regret.