Where to start, Beirut?
Coming back for a surprise Easter vacation, 6 months after leaving you ‘for good’, I never thought I would be departing again, a fortnight later, with so many emotions.
Not the ones I felt back in October 2020, such an indescribable feeling when you carry your life in a suitcase and bid farewell to your family and friends with a crushed heart and a forlorn soul. Nor the overwhelming feeling anchored to my mind of that little child, holding his teddy bear, sobbing at the airport as he sees his mother depart one final time in a direction different to his. These emotions happen once; the day you decide to turn the page on the land that has deprived you of everything. And they come back to haunt you over and over again. This is why I advise you to carefully ponder this decision before taking it. Cause once you join the legion of expats, there’s, unfortunately, no turning back.
What you feel when you come back for a visit to Beirut is far worse. A mixture of guilt, remorse, reminiscence, love, hate, rage, disgust, longing, despair, belonging, not belonging, death, and everything that comes with them. So many questions torment you every day of your trip. What if you made the wrong decision, despite everything going on? Why did you ‘abandon’ the ones who loved you? Are you past the point of no return? Will you ever come back ‘home’?
Speaking of which, this is when things get seriously complicated. For the first time ever, you feel homeless. I definitely don’t belong to France (yet), and don’t belong to Lebanon (anymore). And being at crossroads, in ‘no man’s land’, is particularly disturbing.
Bewildered, you see people looking at you differently now, you the guy coming back from Europe with pockets full of money – so they think – and who’s living the best life that could ever exist. They don’t know that the path of an expat is full of hurdles. That they have to go through hell before settling in, that they – mostly – can barely put some money aside, as taxes, rents, and food expenses ravage their salaries.
On the other hand, you also change your vision towards them. You look at them helplessly, with pity yet admiration as you still see them battle in the same country that has knocked you out of it, but which has, until now, failed to knock them down on their knees. And you wonder as you panic while watching from behind your European screen the ever-increasing devaluation of the Lebanese lira, how they’re able to continue living in these conditions. Are they really alive though?
6 months later, people have really aged over here. They manage to contain their tears as they tell you with a not-so-credible smile that everything is alright. And then they ask you how you’re doing while envying your lifestyle in secret. You stand there, perplexed because no matter what your answer will be, you know this will only make them feel worse. For the situation they are currently fighting seems hopeless.
Speaking of age, your heart breaks as you see your parents grow old from afar, with more wrinkles and white hair settling in. Yet they manage to hide so well their discontent and sadness, because you know “ما تعتل همّنا، مهمّ انت تكون منيح”. They try to benefit from every second you spend with them. To smell you, to hug you, to kiss you, despite COVID19, to hear your voice, to see your smile, once more. For the first time, you’re in control. And those people who used to give you money and love around every corner, receive them from you now as life’s circle reverses.
As you pack what’s left of you in your childhood home, to transport them to another country, while leaving your parents with a small envelope containing some valuable banknotes nowadays that banks will never get hold of, you hug them tight with sadness and rage, as you start growing distant emotionally. At least you force yourself to do so. Despite being crushed on the inside. Despite knowing that on your next flight here, you’ll count more wrinkles, more white hair, more years, and fewer friends, fewer smiles, less you.
You wonder as you take one final walk down the aisle that leads to the gate of the plane that carries you to what you force yourself to call home, what has become of this country, of you, and what will become of this country, of you, on your next visit. One thing is sure though, you’re not a citizen here anymore. You’re just a tourist in the land of the walking dead, and you fear with time, that you’ll only be remembered via memories hanging in frames, that your mother cleans and contemplates from time to time, as she wipes away the tears from her eyes, and the layers of dust from them, that will only grow thicker and thicker.