Lebanon: My Timeless Dilemma
“Why are you in Lebanon? What are you doing here?”
Almost exactly one decade ago – on January 2, 2011 – I boarded a flight from Los Angeles to Amman via Paris. Amman was not my final destination. It was the first stop in a circuit of three Levantine countries – Jordan, Syria, and Lebanon – where I would be leading an ambassadorial mission on behalf of my alma mater, MIT in Boston. At the end of the month, after my tour ended, I decided to linger in Beirut and look for a job.
I’d forever dreamt of planting roots in the land of my heritage. Growing up, my brothers and I had spent paradise-like summers in Lebanon that exposed us to the warmth and unique hospitality of our culture. We spoke the language fluently, so I certainly never felt like a foreigner. And most importantly, I’d recently bagged my second graduate degree and was ready to launch a career. Somehow, the consulting gigs I’d held in Paris and Abu Dhabi felt lacking. Sure, I was challenged intellectually. But I was in search of that elusive work-life balance.
As I ricocheted from one interviewer to the next in Beirut, one common question quickly emerged: “What are you doing here? Why have you come to Lebanon?” On paper, that question is arduous to answer. Indeed, why would anyone who was raised in the comfort and modernity of a first-world country even for a second consider making a home in a third-world jungle? Let’s be serious here: the expression “Paris of the Middle East” was dubbed after World War II, when Lebanon was undergoing a cultural renaissance. Arguably it no longer applies to a country steered by sectarian strife, political upheaval, and rampant government inefficiency.
Whenever I’d attempt to tackle that question, I came up short. If Lebanese people didn’t believe in the worth of their own country, how could I, a bright-eyed and bushy-tailed third-culture kid, convince them otherwise?
Delectable cuisine? Mediterranean weather? A storied past? Ancient ruins? Fine, but what about abysmal infrastructure? Meager livelihoods coupled with an exorbitant cost of living? Constant political gridlock? Polluted environment? Corruption within every layer of society and in every institution? Anyone in her sane and rational mind wouldn’t willingly overlook the latter in favor of the former.
And yet I did. Passionately and persistently. In fact, my effusive self-assuredness gave birth to this very blog, wherein I chronicled my adventures and lay praise to Lebanon and its talented artisans. My love of Lebanon grew deeper by the day, and with every visit back “home” to California, I was even more confident of my relocation to the motherland. I wrote a blog post that was picked up by An-Nahar newspaper in 2014 about “why we come back to Lebanon.” Readers abroad frequently asked me to weigh in on their own dilemmas of resettlement.
What can I say? I adored every square meter of that messy madness which marks our sea-bordering nation. I successfully blotted out the faults in the failure-stricken system and instead elected to focus on our strengths. How else can one ever be happy with one’s surroundings, if not by ordaining happiness as a state of mind?
|Beirut coast, November 2011|
I’ve been away for some time now. In November 2019, just three weeks into what I surmised had the potential to become an unstoppable people’s revolution, I flew back to LA ahead of the birth of my second child. The coronavirus pandemic, which brought our entire world to a grinding halt by mid-winter, prevented my return to Beirut, and Lebanon’s debilitating financial distress merely rubbed salt in the wound of an already diseased nation, keeping me at bay indefinitely.
As I ponder a return to Lebanon, where my husband’s livelihood remains, where we continue to take up residence in the northern suburbs of Beirut, where powerful and positive memories of the past decade decorate my consciousness, I wonder if I will like what awaits me. Will I be able to embrace the new faces, literally and figuratively, of my chosen homeland? Can I get past the hyperinflation and economic stagnation that threaten to chuck Lebanon into irreversible collapse?
There’s a sinking feeling inside of me that, just as our parents’ generation waxed poetic about life pre-1975, before the civil war, I’ll be mentally reverting to the relative euphoria that was pre-2019. There will be a clear and defined line of demarcation in my head separating the golden era from the damning years unfolding before us. Today, too, a war of sorts is being duked out, but if and when there is a triumphant victor remains to be seen.
One thing is certain, however. Now, more than ever, I expect to be barraged with those pestering queries of “Why are you in Lebanon?” and “What are you doing here?”. And it’ll be me fielding both the Q&A.