People Always Leave

I take notes on my phone or in a Star Wars Moleskine gifted to me by Mo, a former-colleague-turned-friend. I have scraps of notes on napkins and post-its or recited to myself as voice memos. After August 4th, I typed out every new note as an Instagram post. All my thoughts were a discombobulated mess and I stitched them together publicly. The place that made us relive all the sorrow of that day was the same place I found others who were searching for words like the ones I was getting rid of. We bonded over all that was broken.

The “Beirut Blast” as it’s called today is why I haven’t written here since July. I couldn’t thread the needle to bring all those patches together. This will be an imperfect attempt but it’s not the year to be afraid of needles.

The other day, a friend said the beauty about coming from this part of the world is we don’t need to explain why everything is political because it just is. Even Tinder is political when half the profiles come from across a border that’s illegal to cross.

As their military jets violate our airspace on the regular, effectively taunting a population that doesn’t have the energy to protest a government who’s slowly killing them after instantaneous mass murder, I cannot fathom how our collective anxiety can ever subside. 

Do they not know how degraded we feel? Even if their recon drones don’t tell them, all you have to do is comb Twitter to see how we beg, if not for peace, then for quiet at the very least.

The soporific amnesia has started. It must be self-preservation that makes the country continue like we weren’t blown up. It makes me agitated. I don’t want to be ensorcelled by endless sadness but will burying it make the trauma decompose? Will taping over the footage because we need to function make us forever dysfunctional? 

Still from Mashrou Leila’s Radio Romance

On Jan 9, 2019, my dad was ranting in the car. He said, “I’m not very nationalist. Since my birth, they did nothing for me. They gave me nothing.” 

What they gave him, like many teenagers of the civil war era who share his detachment, is this supernatural talent to board up destroyed window frames as if the neighbor’s fly ball just flew into the living room. I have seen him switch in and out of crisis-mode so seamlessly. I was still hitting the floor in sheer disbelief after seeing the videos of the blast emerging on WhatsApp when he was ringing my doorbell, arriving to assess the damage. As impressive as it is, it makes me terrified to think what he has seen to have such a short lag time. 

It also makes me wary of transgenerational trauma when not given the chance to heal. Like Mikey Muhanna said in an afikra Conversation with Professor Jess Ghannam, “there’s no post, it’s just TSD. It’s CTSD, constant traumatic stress disorder.” Ghannam agreed and said that instead of approaching it like a disorder, it can be thought of as a normal adaptive reaction to awful things that gives you psychological antibodies. 

In an effort to reject this inherited ability to flip blank history pages, I’ve been walking through the streets of Mar Mikhael. This is a pattern of mine. After my first breakup, I repeatedly scratched at scabs by visiting the university campus where that relationship lived and died. It’s how I masochistically faced the ruins to reconcile my memories with the present. Instead of avoiding triggers, I tried to melt away any illusions that I could find false comfort in. For Beirut, the illusions are the kind that will create a dimension where the city wasn’t gutted, a place where none of that happened and I can still see transparent shards as just a shattered wine glass. 

That fugacious Fata Morgana will keep me here in the Beirut of my mind.

Protest Sign, Oct 2019

I went to Beit Chabeb with a hiking group at the end of 2019. “Hayde Beit Chabeb 2edemna bas ma ba2a fiya walla shab, kilon seyfaro*,” laughed the guide. Coming a few months after the start of our revolution that was deflating. The joke stung.

Around this time last year, before she left Lebanon, a friend told me she “wanted to hug the walls.” I fully understood that and envisioned the walls of the apartment building I had just moved out of.

In November 2018, when I had been living there for a few months, I wrote this note in my phone: I should close the shutters to block out the morning sun but I like to wake up to the birds returning to their nests in the bullet hole scars of my war time building. Sometimes in the shadow of destruction, there is new life sprouting like weeds growing in concrete cracks or birds’ nests in the gaping scars in the sides of buildings.

Just before I left that building, the birds did too. The landlord filled the holes with plaster. The issue with walls is they can’t hug you back and now even our walls have been viciously stolen.

In his latest Netflix documentary, David Attenborough said, “In this world, a species can only thrive when everything else around it thrives too.” 

I had previously made the assumption that I missed my friends the least because being the one at home meant I saw them most. Friends abroad needed to hope for an overlap in their yearly visits or a chance encounter in another city. But even being based in Beirut became less of a guarantee as their ties here loosened. I stopped feeling the gaps as they stretched from 6 months to 2 years to silence. 

I’ve stopped hugging them as tight when they get in their cars to the airport, I’ve stopped sending that safe-flight text before they switch to airplane mode, I’ve stopped attending farewells. The truth is I’ve stopped missing people altogether. I’ve become so numb to that sensation that it won’t register. I’ve stopped saying goodbye. 

At my first full-time job, I remember having a debate with Mo about why so many young people give up on Lebanon and leave. He responded, “But did they ever really try? What have they done for Lebanon?”

As a fresh grad, could you already know that you wanted more? That Lebanon wasn’t for you? I didn’t want to leave and have anyone tell me that I didn’t try. But more importantly, I didn’t want that to hang over my head. I wanted to be able to board a plane knowing that I had tried all the combinations but the safe wouldn’t open. And I did. I took breaks, came back, and tried another go at the safe. 

But any kind of safe isn’t easily accessed here.

The Who Run the World podcast recently interviewed artist Blu Fiefer about her single, Sint el Ew. She talked about these lines from the track: “I want to be happy, I want to be proud, I want to be capable.”

Over ten years of investing her time and resources into building herself up in Lebanon, she ends the song in exasperation with those words. In the interview she says, “but I’m trying, I’ve been trying…I want to be proud of where I am and what surrounds me and what I’m doing but you make that so difficult and you’re making me feel like it’s impossible. I just want to be happy and fulfilled.”

Before the blast, on July 19th, I wrote, “I find myself wrapped in bitterness and resentful reactions when I read hopeful words that I used to write. I don’t want to hate Lebanon. I don’t want to get to the point where I’d rather light a match and set the place on fire.”

I have told myself that if I was reaching the point of resentment, that was when I would need to leave. So many who left before me, did so with the taste of iron on their tongue. Internal fury and pain eating away at them, the airport gates couldn’t open fast enough. If I was ever to leave, I wanted to do it without rage.

I also wanted to be right about staying. I wasn’t naive in my hopes for the country and I wasn’t susceptible to abuse yet, here I was, repeatedly returning to my abuser. Even though I have accomplished so much and I have grown here, the process has beaten the fiery fight out of me.

While many are yearning to be near their families, I am making plans to leave mine. Although this confinement has made me more conscious of their value, I am weighed down by isolation. Lebanon has been likened to the sinking Titanic and, emotionally, I feel like I am floating on a door in the ocean with no remaining lifeboats in the vicinity. If I can keep my head above the water long enough as the rest of the world goes on without us, I can make it to another shore because I’m lucky enough to have a way out.

After pouring myself into Beirut, I’m leaving without rage. I am leaving empty.

I have a tattoo across my rib cage that says لبنان بقلبي. I chose these words because I knew the sentiment was a permanent one but perhaps it was a premonition. I’ve accepted that being Lebanese means grief is part of our existence but I didn’t know that it was going to be for the memory of a city instead of the city itself.

This latest wave of emigration is beyond expected and I can’t shake this sense of abandonment. Not because I can save Lebanon — I can’t. But leaving years ago wouldn’t feel final like it does now. A departure from this Lebanon is an ending because I don’t know what the country will look like when I return. With the state of the world, I don’t know when that return will be. Saying goodbye now is saying goodbye to this version of Beirut that I have in my mind but even she doesn’t exist anymore.

But then again, I’ve stopped saying goodbyes.

*This is Beit Chabeb (home of young men) but there are no men left, they have all traveled

3 thoughts on “People Always Leave

  1. Pingback: HFT Newsletter #5 – hummus for thought

  2. Powerful. I’ve been wondering how people there still feel. It’s so somber. I left before the blast and I left with rage and I’ve been trying to find an outlet for it, mainly through activism, trying to change something. Maybe it’s naive, but the rage has to go somewhere. I wonder if the same goes for emptiness. Anyway, thanks for this.

    • I can’t speak for everyone who may feel this way since a lot of what I do is still tightly wrapped up in the country. That makes it hard to separate from the somber reality, despite the hollow feeling I’m sitting in. I do feel it allows for bright spots too but still doing it all from an actual physical distance may be the healthier way to go about it.

      Activism (and all its forms) carried out with space can give us the sanity to keep doing the work for a country we believe in (regardless of whether we’re naive to do so) without feeling spent/deprived on an individual level. It’s a lucky curse that many prefer to remove like a tumor and there are days when I wonder if there is more peace in detaching completely.

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