It’s that question that I know everyone in my generation has asked themselves at least once.
Which land do I belong to?
Previously a given. It was the land your family grew up in, the land you were born in and the land you spent your life in. You belonged to the land you were on.
Is this still the case?
The civil war in Lebanon was in full force at the time of my parent’s graduation. Both looking to continue their higher education, they flew across the Atlantic Ocean and landed in Mississippi. It was still a time of segregation and also a time of limited international knowledge. “Did you come to the US by bus?” They would ask my Mother. Four years later, with Lebanon still in conflict, they bid farewell to the US and moved to Saudi Arabia. A hot land, a dessert, but closer to home and an opportunity of a safe and stable job.
Years passed. During, 18 of them I grew up in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. Subsequently, I spent four years in Beirut, Lebanon attending university and finally moved to Dubai, UAE 6 years ago.
Looking at the numbers, I should be from Saudi Arabia then UAE then Lebanon.
I don’t eat the same food as the folks from Saudi Arabia and I don’t look similar to the people of the UAE.
I walk along Mar Mkhayel, a newly invigorated area of Beirut, where homegrown restaurants and that hipster vibe are all you can find. I stop besides an older man, in his kakis and buttoned up shirt, he sits at his storefront calling out his hellos to friends walking by.
“Excuse me.” I say to the man in Arabic.
“You have an accent young lady, it seems you live abroad.” He replies.
I say, "Yes, but I’m here to enjoy my vacation. Can you tell me where Le Chef is?” I respond.
“Do you know where the old carpenter shop used to be?” He asks. Prompted by my squinting eyes, he follows up with. “Its right across from the police station.”
“Ah yes! Merci!” I respond while walking away and giving him a wave.
“Sahtain.” His bid farewell.
My countrymen have withstood the trails of political instability and the shambles of a corrupt government. Rising from this instability, entrepreneurs and creative minds thinking without restrictions. Even with all the greys, shirts are pressed and sharp, lips are that trendy shade of rouge and every second of that evening is enjoyed in that new alleyway gem, because they deserve it.
I haven’t lived in Lebanon for the majority of my life. I haven’t shared in those tribulations. I don’t know that old carpenter or that one alleyway which leads to the stairs and my accent is not on point.
Am I less Lebanese for that?
Safe and sound I am, in my stable corporate job. I live in a foreign country that I love but I still require a visa to stay here. I have a home but it’s not the one I will grow old in. I have lots of friends around me, but my extended family doesn’t walk in unannounced just because they haven’t heard my voice since yesterday.
It’s that ever-present tradeoff in life.
On my last evening in Beirut I spend it having dinner with my uncle. A man who lived his life in Lebanon, went through the trials of the country, knows each road, each family and each fruit with the ease of saying 1, 2, 3.
Here I am sitting by his side on his green chair. I can see my mom’s features in his and so mine as well.
Dinner is prepared and beautifully set in front of us. Small mezza plates of our favorites - green beans in olive oil and lemon, a plate of labneh and tabouleh among others.
In tandem, we wrap a piece of bread up and scoop a bite of tabouleh from our plates. We nod our heads to the quality of parsley. Seamless coordination.
I mention a story from my childhood, we both laugh and I say,
“Khalo (uncle) sthatilak (I missed you).”
“Habibteh (my love), anna sthtatilik (I missed you). ” He replies.
The same words that leave my breath he utters back to me.
And from that moment I understand what culture and belonging really means.
In this age of aggressive diaspora, it’s important to know your roots and what roots really mean. It’s no longer the land you are on, but it’s those details.
It’s the way you eat, the words you use, what you find amusing, what you find 3eyb (taboo) and the things you don’t see like your spirit and kinship for one another.
Years and miles away from your land is mutually exclusive to your belonging.
To answer my own question, am I less Lebanese then the rest? No. We may be different on the surface, but similar where it counts.
I leave you with some photos of Beirut, the blues, the beiges, the colors and the whites. A city full of juxtapositions. The tradition of authentic tiles, older than I, verses the smell of wet graffiti on the city walls. Its spring, what a magnificent time to feel the fresh air.
Location: Beirut, Lebanon