Why Can’t Beirut Be Your Base? 

Artwork by @tracychahwan

As of 2 weeks ago, I’ve been in California for a year, and everyday since, I ask myself that question. It’s the same one my dad asks me every few months. 

My peers have been leaving Beirut since I graduated in 2009. For every ten that left, one would quietly return after a year or two away. They’d finished their master’s degree and couldn’t find a job or they were unhappy abroad. When I’d hear of their return, I’d think it was because they couldn’t cut it on the outside, they were weak, and they came back to their comfort zone where they knew the potholes, the dekkenji, and electricity cuts. They knew their coiffeur with the green hand and they knew their way around without Google Maps. They couldn’t make it in the West and they returned to the uncivilized shithole where they could forget about the pressures of the future and stick to focusing on just that coming Thursday. It wasn’t the same for me because I had chosen to stay all along. These were arrogant assumptions for me to make, someone who hadn’t been away from Beirut for more than 6 months in my adult life. I was projecting a fear of my own onto others and I now wonder if the reason I stayed so long wasn’t that I loved Lebanon so intensely but because I didn’t want to leave and come running back a year later, unable to accept my own insignificance outside of my small pond. I wanted to be sure that when I did leave, because it was only a matter of time, I wouldn’t come back so soon after departure. That I would make it in America (or wherever) because I was good enough to. That I wasn’t just good enough for the kakistocracy of Lebanon. It didn’t occur to me, the person who was deeply enamored in the city that formed me, that people would come back because they were tired of fighting to belong somewhere else. That they were tired of distance.

Last month, I was speaking to my former Geitawi neighbor who’s now back in London. We were talking about our recent exits from Lebanon and how it’s been hard to reconcile our timelines with the rest of the world’s. Living in Beirut for so long, I used to feel that those who had left (and not moved back) had gone down a slide into the ocean of adulthood while I stayed in the shallow end of the pool that is Lebanon. The pandemic was the Great Pause that made us all float on donuts in a lazy river without any sense of falling behind. We were all meandering in the uncertainty. We didn’t need to figure out how to climb out of our holes because every human was in a trench with banana bread. But now, as the world reopens, that sense that I am behind is verified. Those around me have already acclimated as their main concern has subsided; meanwhile, I’m at the bottom of the professional food chain with an obliterated ego. I have left Beirut and I’m trying to catch up with people who didn’t float in the same river as I did for the last two years. 

I want to say that I’ve gotten the hang of it, being here, but it’s been repeated rounds of readjustment. I’m still untying the knots that were braided too tightly. How long can the “last two years” be a valid excuse for not finding your way back to yourself? How long before “I’m still healing” or “I’m still in transition” are no longer active promo codes and I’m just failing? How long before I admit that this is just who I am now? Will I ever be the person I was again? 

@blcksmth, quote by @briannawiest, found via @mantramagazine

I work in a family-owned wine retail shop here. It’s like a parallel life to what I did in Beirut, except it’s not my family and I’m surrounded by more wine than I’ve ever had access to. I can’t remember a lot of what I learned before 2019 and I wonder if the memory gaps in my wine knowledge are related to what came after or if I just miss experiential learning. Wine is supposed to be my bailiwick but being in a place where what I do know isn’t as important as what I don’t know has made my confidence evaporate. In my 6 months of being at this shop, I’ve carved out a corner for “Ancient World” wines which has made me the point person for any wine that the rest of the staff don’t care about. Natural, Croatian, Armenian, Slovenian, send it to Farrah. By being invested in furthering Lebanon’s wine presence, I have become a buyer for all other nations.

“I don’t know how old you are but when I was 34, I was working in restaurants, and the place I was working at went under. I had to start over with $600 in my pocket,” says a well-off older customer after asking me what I was doing before I got the job that introduced us to each other. All I had said was that I left Beirut a year ago because things had gotten messy. Unlike many people I’ve said that to, he knew what I wasn’t saying based on his response. Before he left he told me, “good luck with everything, you’ll be okay.” I’ve hardened so these interactions don’t snap me in half immediately but they catch up with me later, usually in the form of spontaneous, uncontrollable tears in a Target aisle or on the 101 when I see a cop’s lights in my rearview. 

I convince myself that this little entry-level gig I have makes an impact. Our wines in a shop that can ship to the majority of US states is a big win and my being there will facilitate their success. In my frustrated moments, I think about the longevity of it all and if this small dent I’ve made will be filled with German Rieslings when I’m not there to replenish the rack with Merwah. 

One day when I was feeling like I’m pushing for an industry that doesn’t notice what I do or how I do it, I received an email from a Bekaa Valley wine producer in response to my January 2022 newsletter. “We miss you lots back in the old country where you made a difference. I won’t say more.” I stared at the kind words but all I could see were ones that weren’t there. The words that play in my mind: does what I do *here* matter?

“Why can’t Beirut be your base?” says my dad as I’m about to drive in for an extra shift. “You’re just working in a wine shop.” I know it comes from a place of missing me but it’s a gut punch. My job doesn’t warrant living on the other side of the planet and I have to justify choosing it over being at home with them. Needing to convince my parents of decisions for my well-being that even I’m not convinced of is a headfuck. What am I doing here? Is this what I came here to do? What’s keeping me away?

Of all the heroes in Marvel & DC, my favorite has been Batman. I had thought it was because he was just a flawed human at the core, no powers bestowed upon him besides his family’s wealth that allowed him to build a secret lair and don a super suit. Grimey Gotham, interpreted by many to be the comic book world’s New York City, was always Beirut to me. In the latest Batman film with Robert Pattinson which is more crime-drama than action-adventure, I see it even more and I see myself in the privileged yet damaged, cynical yet hopeful, protective yet unprotected Bruce Wayne. In it, he says, “The city is eating itself. Maybe it’s beyond saving. But I have to try.” 

I have trained myself to go down the list of reasons why Beirut can’t be my base. It’s the same list I repeated internally until I got on the plane last March. At this point, I have a speech I recite to myself: Being here is rehab, to be here is to heal and process what happened before I left. Beirut has not been good for you even if you won’t admit that to anyone here. This doesn’t have to be permanent. California may not be where you want to be long-term but it’s what you need right now. 

Tweet from Nneka M. Okona, @afrosypaella

“You sound like you’re grieving,” says a therapist I can’t justify paying for beyond that first consultation call. It does feel like a great loss. Loss of a country, a former life, and even the future one I wanted to have on my apartment’s dining table that is now covered by bedsheets. Is wanting to go back a sign that I have healed or is it a sign that I don’t want to? There are some days when I don’t want to self-regulate, days when I just want to stay in my delusional nostalgia for just a little longer.

I went to the doctor last month for a regular check-up. In an effort to distract me from the exhilarating experience of a Pap smear’s gynoculars which function like a cervical crowbar, the doctor went with what should be a normal question about how my family is doing back home. “You’re tensing up,” she says.

Post from Celine Semaan’s IG, @celinecelines

That’s not to say that I haven’t felt myself melting into the manicured grass of suburbia. Here, as I’ve said before, my thoughts are soap bubbles above my head that have time to hover before they burst. I have the luxury of reflecting in steady solitude. The distance, while being the thing I hate the most about California, is also why it has been restorative. It is so far away that tuning out Lebanon is effortless. There is a part of me that submits to this more and more as the days pass even though everything I do is tied to the country. Each day, I allow the ignorance to wash over me a little more, so much so that it scares me. But I want to stay in the sunshine just a little longer. 

And again, it is the distance that is also destructive to this restoration. It’s a detached reality from the one that I know. I forget that I’m half American and that I was born here because this alienation is how I felt as a child too. I only understood that after moving to Lebanon and now I’m here again but I’m resisting the permanence. I want to be present but I don’t have the energy to explain all that I am to people, the kind of explanation that is required for meaningful connections.

Then there are things that take me out of where I am and bring me back to where I was. Like when a vendor who sliced his finger open when he dropped a massive wine bottle said he’s still finding glass a week later. It was a harmless statement but I flinched. The words my friend’s mother said came back to me as he said it, the words she said as we swept up glass darts that had shot at the walls of her apartment after the Beirut Port Blast. “We’re going to be finding glass for years after this,” she said with exhaustion because she’d done this before. For months after the blast, people were posting shards that were found in their houses.

Last week, there was a power cut at the shop because of a faulty timer. My station’s UPS battery beeped and I translated the meaning to the shop’s frantic owner like I was speaking a foreign language that he refused to believe I spoke. I wished I wasn’t fluent but at that moment, I thought of Lina Mounzer’s afikra Conversations interview where she unpacked “the privilege of marginalization” and how growing up in a cracked snow globe will make you question where the snow is coming from. I have been increasingly grateful for the perspective and the skill set that Lebanon has given me, despite what it took to acquire both. The privilege of an early shattering of illusions makes you look for the icebergs no one can see on the calm waters because you are always counting lifeboats, always filling buckets, always aware that nothing is constant except the sea. As Mounzer aptly put it, “you’re aware that you’re not the center of the universe.” My lack of trust in systems and my faith in the community has me confused as to why Americans are not in the streets protesting every single day. All that I can conclude is that the people are not united against the government in the same way. They believe it functions because it is only everywhere else that is broken. Everyone else wants to come here so it can’t be that bad, right?

Rima Abou Khalil tweets, “A question to the new diaspora/immigrants: is there relief when you leave? Has your soul returned to you, even if just a little bit? Is there hope?” to which Zeina H. Beck responds, “I’ve been thinking about it since yesterday and I don’t know. If anyone does, let me know.”

I’m trying to learn more about the wines from the rest of the world so that the thing that differentiates me (my knowledge of Lebanese wine) isn’t also the thing that limits me. But when I research Sicilian grapes, I look at links to our sea trade, its lingering Arab influence, and the origins of the Zibibbo grape (North Africa). When I work on an email about a New Zealand Chardonnay, I get lost in the Maori concept of Tūrangawaewae. While this one (non-Maori) producer tried to claim it as an interpretation of terroir, it feels deeper than that to me. Tūrangawaewae is your place in the world and where you have a sense of belonging, where you feel empowered, connected, and rooted. “Tūranga” means standing place and “waewae” means feet so together, it is the solid ground you stand on. I read that and I think about Lebanon. When I get assigned work outside my scope, I know it’s good for my growth but it also shows me the truth about my career in wine: I only care about wine when I can see how it relates to home. My wine research is just an alternative way for me to bob on an anthropological raft and it makes me wonder how long I can fake this passion if it is just an identity crisis wrapped in homesickness. It makes me want to dive into work that has nothing to do with Lebanon but I worry that that is the only reason anyone is listening to what I have to say. And I worry that it’s the only reason I have anything to say at all.

This is the question I don’t have an answer to, one that keeps being whispered to me the longer I am away from Beirut. If I’m not talking or writing or researching about Lebanon, who am I? I want to pull the Mediterranean over my head like a duvet.

I keep wondering if this sense of belonging I can’t find here in America is my stubborn resistance to being at ease. It’s my rejection of this trade-off.

Maybe I’m not good enough for America. Maybe, America isn’t good enough for me. Either way, I’m going to stay in the sunshine a little longer.

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