Across the Rickety Bridge

It’s been almost a year since the Beirut Port Explosion. I have typed that sentence out again and again, changing the number value each time I revisit this draft.

After the blast, I read many thoughts and threads about the gap. The gap when you’re the only one at the table scrolling through posts on Palestine while others talk about patty melts and new Marvel films. The gap when you twitch because a Cessna flies overhead and it’s not a reason to move away from the windows. The gap that comes with seeing activists online screaming for all issues equally, except for those that relate to people who are like you. The gap that requires you to sing happy birthday to your parent over WhatsApp video and hold back tears because then they’ll worry about you while their world crumbles around them. The gap that has you lying to them about being okay so that they’re okay.

The gap is isolation in many forms.

I don’t want to do this. I don’t want to be writing a cliche account of diaspora melancholy. Shut up, you are privileged to have crossed the rickety bridge. I don’t want to be the person who posts Gibran quotes and laments about the homeland from my work-from-home desk in Californian suburbia.

For the first time, I’m seeing what it’s like to be on the diaspora side of things with a sense of permanence. I’m experiencing the gap in new ways because I know that the next time I visit Lebanon, I will be on a timer. I don’t necessarily identify with the grand diaspora entity just yet. Months ago, while still in Beirut, a friend of mine described a separate category, a subset of the diaspora, made up of those who spent a chunk of their formative years in the region and left. This subset had a different interpretation of estrangement from home mixed with a deeper knowledge of the hardships of living there. This is not some form of exceptionalism, I am part of the diaspora in that I left but I was also born here. I’m not an immigrant but I’m not just the daughter of one either. Maybe it is all in how you position yourself in discussions about home: do you stand with your home country and face your new one or is it the reverse? Who is your “we” when you speak? Maybe you only truly become a member of the diaspora when you have crossed the rickety bridge and fully turned around to face home from the other side.

The Sarde After Dinner podcast interviewed singer & philosopher Rabih Salloum last week and he brought up a strong point regarding citizenship, belonging, and loyalties Lebanese have to those (zu3ama) who provide services and favors. Salloum said that, in reality, those “services” are basic rights and that there is no sense of ownership in Lebanese citizenry, but rather a feeling of being indebted to someone else in power for access to rights that should be a given.

A given.

I catch myself observing others like a perspicacious documenter. I make mental notes of things like how the city clocks listed on someone’s smartphone tell you where their loved ones are or how strangers are quick to introduce their dogs by name but don’t do the same with their own. What is a given here in the USA is what stands out most. In the past, when I used to travel from Lebanon, I would be reminded of what we lived without and what I had gotten accustomed to gradually the longer I was grounded there. Like the frog in the pot of water set to boil, when I landed in LA at the end of March 2021, it hit me all at once. I couldn’t grasp the level of depravity we had been subjected to for the 18 months prior, the slow simmer that incapacitated us to the point of revolting obedience.

When I try to explain that to people here, they want me to list the givens that they’re overlooking. “Sitting in the grass in the park, using stoves without replacing gas canisters, physical mailboxes, cashless everything, self-checkout, Lowe’s, potable tap water, public beaches with free parking, donuts.” They grin like a toddler just said the cutest thing and I wonder what picture I’m painting of Lebanon as a result of holding up such a mirror.

In the US, driving makes me anxious but it’s an unavoidable part of living in massive California. There is so much blind trust in the system and in each other. I’m almost envious of their faith that all fellow drivers will follow rules and this makes me more vigilant. What if I, the one who learned how to drive in Ouzai, turn out to be the rule-breaker and I put everyone else at risk? What if I’m the one who doesn’t understand consequence? And yet, my first thought is of consequence, not safety. Facing authority is my first concern. Getting pulled over, not getting rammed into. Avoiding police, not avoiding accidents.

I’m the one that should adapt even if the rules don’t make sense, even if bike lanes are a death wish, even if I can make the left turn, even if the light just turned yellow. I’m more passive, I stay 5 under the speed limit, and I apologize more even though I disagree with how things are done or don’t even understand the how at times. For how dare I question America, look at my other country. I should be grateful to be here.

Anthropologist Ghassan Hage, in his brilliantly-named blog, describes this as a “primal injury” and says this shrinking of the self results from, “the simple fact that unlike the local, the immigrant belongs to a country that could not care for them.”

I don’t want any trouble, just let me have my boring Sunday.

My departure from Lebanon doesn’t feel concrete but it creeps up on me during rudimentary tasks that are part of settling in. I realize that this isn’t happening anymore, it’s happened. Switching my WhatsApp number, filling out an Emergency Contact card and not writing my parents’ info, or even answering an Uber driver’s “so do you live here?”

Kinda, I mean I do. Yeah actually, I just moved back.

It feels like a lie but each one makes it more official and reminds me that “here” and “there” have been swapped in my sentences. I have a WhatsApp group of six friends. Five years ago, we were all still based in Lebanon. Today, we are each in different parts of the world while each corresponding set of parents remains in Lebanon. As of 2021, I had more friends who had moved to the US than I did left in Beirut.

Last week, I had a phone call with a friend who left Lebanon after we graduated from AUB. “You sound like yourself before the trauma,” he said. That felt like another lie but one I wanted to believe. The last time he saw me was in December 2020 when I was reeking of bitterness, fed up and on autopilot. And while I’m not as maudlin as I was then, I feel I’ve shed a skin and I’m not seeing the world with the same eyes as those used in 2019. “I know it sounds weird but I’m glad you won’t be there when I visit because I won’t have to leave you behind again when I go,” that same friend said. That wasn’t strange to hear and yet a similar statement of “it’s good you got out of there” sounds different coming from Americans, even the ones that claim to care about you. They’re right but it stings when they say it, as if everything they ever knew about the Middle East was true after all.

On July 4th, I pushed myself to leave my suburban sanctuary. On the day that is all about celebrating America, I woke up to memorial posts commemorating eleven months since the blast. Only after I got to the barbecue, did I find out that fireworks aren’t just for county parks and Disneyland anymore but they’re the centerpiece to this day’s bonanza on every block. After flinching and fidgeting every time a BOOM unknowingly erupted in daylight, I was hiding tears and I eventually disintegrated into a blubbering mess. I begged the only person who noticed not to sound the alarm. Please don’t let people see me as the broken Middle Easterner even if that’s exactly what I am. She attempted to comfort me by equating my PTSD response to war vets by saying, “others go through this, your experience is similar to theirs.” No, no, no. And in the flurry of American flags and racist rants, it wasn’t an 11-month anniversary for anyone else there and I was the only one not part of this America. There are many Americas.

I’ve had intrusive thoughts that I bury by repeating you’re here now, make it work. Lebanon is no longer a safety net. Going back home isn’t the option it used to be just like leaving wasn’t the choice it used to be. When I’m scrolling Twitter, I wonder if I’ve made a mistake and question if this is where I should be. You’re here now, make it work. What if I find out someone back home is in trouble and I need 24 hours to get to them? You’re here now, make it work. The most shocking one is that I want everyone to leave, I want them safe, I want them out. Out where they can take a hot shower without asking if there’s water, where they can go for a cruise on the highway without thinking about wasted fuel, where they can turn on the AC without needing to know iza dawle aw ishtirak. I want them out so I can do these things without feeling guilty that they can’t. You’re here now, make it work. I have to make this work because of what got me here, what made me leave, and what has now made it so I can only see my family for weeks out of the year.

I flirted with the idea of leaving Lebanon in 2017/2018 but I went back and I don’t regret it. I adopted a crusty Penny found in Qoreitem. I moved out on my own. A Better Beirut began. I launched B for Bacchus. I forgot about leaving for a while. I danced in Riad el Solh during the early days of thawra, I tagged the ground under the Martyrs statue, and I got teargassed in the Square with my sister after they blew us up. This last year in lockdown, as articles cited a lira depreciation percentage that kept increasing, I kept wondering if I would still care about Lebanon if everyone I cared for was gone. If it was not a dysfunctional place, would I still have this toxic attachment? If I moved for the sake of novelty and opportunity without the loss of home as I knew it, would I still have this fury inside me?

I keep reading things about leaving but then again, when something is on your mind, you see it everywhere. It is a hot topic when it comes to Lebanon’s survival mode though. Since high school graduation, any time I said that I was choosing to stay in Lebanon, it was dismissed because it was a choice not everyone had. After two decades there, I’ve been reduced to just another person that left because they could and it infuriates me. I have learned that the ability to leave silences any pain you have associated with the act because the mere option outweighs your misery and diminishes your solidarity. As long as you have that parachute, you are not the same.

Honestly, I don’t miss Lebanon yet. The memory of so many consecutive low days hasn’t washed away to the point where I can have dreamy illusions of our beautiful mountains and shaffeh coffee cups. Things have only spiraled further since I left and nostalgia, hopeful optimism, and unsolicited advice to locals from expats are all still irritating.

To believe we are apathetic is to accept that we are deserving of all this — these fuel lines, these bread lines, these empty pharmacies and stolen bank deposits, this exploded port, and above all these vile and ruthless warlords — as punishment for that apathy.”

Lina Mounzer’s latest in L’Orient Today

The Port Explosion rattled me but it also set me in motion. Six months later, I was finally seeing a therapist after ferociously resisting help all my adult life. Lebanon is not falling off a cliff now, it’s already hit the water and it’s struggling against the undercurrent to come back up for air. My therapist, who helped me jump ship, is still there and now I feel I am selfishly holding onto a lifeguard who can’t swim. The current is tossing us both around but I’m wearing the life jacket. The rest of the world continues to spew brink of collapse spicy headlines, pushing our heads back under water when we’ve reached the surface to take a breath.

I think about Lebanon more than I hoped to and probably more than I should. Perhaps it is my own form of punishment: penance I feel I deserve for being able to buy Advil without thinking, fill my gas tank in 15 minutes, or tune it all out should I want to.

What I want is to surround myself with people who understand. People who don’t miss the anesthesia awareness but don’t allow the amnesia forgetfulness. Our baseline has been reduced to bas oxygen, merci so we are ashamed to want more than the bare minimum, even if we have left the crucible. What is this masochism? What has the love for Lebanon done to us all?

But I’m here now, I have to make it work.

Update: Ghassan Hage read this and wrote a response.

One thought on “Across the Rickety Bridge

  1. Pingback: 85/ The Legacy of the Great Lebanon Famine (with Lina Mounzer and Timour Azhari) – the fire these times

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