This post was originally written as a submission for the Outpost, for their second number on the ‘possibility of living here’, so I wrote about my own experience living in Lebanon. The submission didn’t make the cut, so here it is!
You always want to come back.
No matter how comfortable you are in your life abroad, some part of you is always thinking about it. You think about it when you hear someone next to you on the bus speak Arabic and you feel your heart melt a little. You think about it when you close your eyes and can feel the Beiruti sea breeze on Rawche without having to do much else. You think about it every minute of every day, it’s like this nagging feeling that won’t ever go away, gnawing at your soul. I’ve always asked myself how can one could be nostalgic of things one barely knew. But you can. You can feel linked to where you come from by an invisible, tenuous yet incredibly strong thread, coming from your heart to that place.
I was born abroad, another statistics on the Diaspora never ending numbers, and for as long as I can remember we’ve always gone back and forth between abroad and Lebanon, for my parents didn’t, or rather, couldn’t bear exile too well.
Then one day, I decided to come back. I packed my bags and went, deciding somewhere along the way that I wanted to be part of the new Lebanon. I have two degrees in international law and human rights, work experience in that area, and I was a remote part of the booming Lebanese civil society that was trying to organize itself to bring social change to the country. I wrote articles for different Lebanese outlets and took part in any online campaigns I could get my hands on, but somehow at some point this did not seem enough. I needed to live it. I had the luxury to choose, and to be able to come back to Beirut to become an actual part of it. I thought I could bring my skills and experience to my country, I thought Lebanon would need me, and that I could give it my all. And in a way, Lebanon did need me. Just not in the way I thought.
Beirut had, and still have, this incredible attraction over me. Its bubbling creativity, exuberant force of life, its people, its smells, everything seemed to be calling my name. Needless to say, despite knowing Beirut quite well, distance and time had blurred its flaws, only leaving a frangipani flowers/diesel scented dream. I was in for a rude awakening.
Over the past couple of years, Beirut has earned in Western media the reputation of a lively, stylish city, a heaven for party goers and a cultural hub for arts, which in some part is true. However, this depiction is only one tiny aspect of Beirut, the one the most privileged only can enjoy. What I have discovered while living there is that the incredible weakness of the state is felt at all levels by people living in Lebanon. Basic infrastructure of making water and electricity available to all are not fully functional, thus once again creating inequalities between different regions of Lebanon and neighborhoods of Beirut. Political instability is clearly a drawback for anyone that is thinking of coming back to Lebanon, but I wouldn’t say that for me it was the biggest, for after a while you just learn to live with the risks. It’s the daily chaos, the constant need to have an alternative solution up your sleeve because the state simply isn’t there to fulfill its obligations and the constant violations of civil liberties and socio-economic rights that wear you off after a while. Workers do not have social security, social benefits, people’s rights are trampled on every day, human rights like the right to education and health are contingent to your financial means and this, in order to get Lebanon’s talented workforce back, needs to change. To me, the most insufferable part was the dire inequality. The wage and social gap between different strata of the population is disheartening. And can – and should- inspire revolt.
After a year in Beirut I received a job offer in Switzerland. I thought long and hard about going back to Geneva. Was I abandoning Lebanon to its inept government? I felt guilty, but here I was, having an opportunity to do a job I love, under normal working conditions, in a country that uses the taxes I pay to build proper roads and offer good public education. Something in my mind kept nagging me, telling me I had a right to a decent life after all. And so I left again. Looking back, I was too angry at Lebanon’s phenomenal potential being wasted by greed, sectarianism and corruption to stay and be useful. I was too angry at my own inadequacy to change turn things upside down.
And so I left again.
However, i remain convinced that opportunities are there and lie in the resourcefulness of Lebanon’s inhabitants, in civil society that grows stronger and manages to get more people engaged, in the creativity of its talented people. The more we push for positive change, the more we’re likely to attract and bring change. The moment is now, when the whole region is pounding its fists for change, demanding that its potential is achieved. The moment is now to impact our region’s future and we should not let it pass. The moment is now. We have a whole new landscape to build.