Solitude and el SaaHa

October 21st, 2009

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Since 1991, when my family and I took our first trip back to Lebanon following the “end” of the war, every immigrant Lebanese family or friend we know has seized each opportunity to return to their beloved homeland where the mystery, as many call it, of this land and its beauty begins to unfold as soon as the plane hovers over Beirut. Even I, as a twelve-year-old, thought “I’m home” as the wheels of the 757 hit the runway of the airport before it was “Rafik Hariri.”

And then you wind along the sea coast, passing fruit stands and palm trees until you climb the mountain where your family lives, and those who didn’t meet you at the airport rush down from the balcony where they’ve been keeping watch. The neighbors stand on adjacent balconies and smile broadly. Your family reaches you, breathes you in, and kisses you ardently while greeting you with high-pitched voices. People rhythmically mill about the streets and you see them gathered in the saaHa looking on to see what the commotion is all about.

In the meantime, your immigrant parents and others you know have kept mostly to Lebanese circles in their respective American cities. The Turkish coffee steadily bubbles. Lebanese satellite burns the television. Children are tethered to prevent them from becoming too “American.”  And the longing for the warm embrace of community and sensory stimulation and chaos back home persists, though morphs. Over time, life in America becomes comfortable with heeded Rules of the Road, uninterrupted electricity, straight lines, customer service, relative stability, and, most importantly, the choice of solitude. The latter simultaneously becomes a comfort from the lack of anonymity and privacy especially characteristic of the village, and reason to complain, “Everyone keeps to himself in America! Our neighbors are strangers! Americans…”

Returning home becomes a vacation, in which the travelers wear their newest clothes and regularly announce how this or that is done in America. They become irritated with the driving, the smells, the lack of amenities. But they revel in the liveliness and warmth of the little country by the Mediterranean where they grew up, and sigh with mixed feelings upon coming back to their American home that they must get back to “the routine.”

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I have been a resident of the Hamra district for two years now, where it seems there is anything but routine. As a Chicagoan as well, I compare Hamra to Wicker Park. Concentrated with hipsters, artists, intellectuals, old money, and yuppies, it is a neighborhood consistently updating its face with new chains and cozy pubs and demolition of old relic buildings and businesses. It comprises one of the most mixed populations in Lebanon and caters to that with anything from a brothel to a Dunkin Donuts coffee.  I entered Hamra as a stranger, meeting individuals at this party or that pub. Eventually, with Facebook and social events, I found that a surprising number of my separate acquaintances and friends know each other or live in the same building or worked with each other, or made out, or whatever.  The common thread? Hamra.

Before my friend left Lebanon for Northwestern U. last month, she whimsically recounted the vendors and “street” people who were distinct characters of the Hamra she had been a resident of for several years. We considered the web of people that living and playing in Hamra, spins. It is true that Hamra is a central space for people from all over Beirut and Lebanon and the world to integrate as well as to navigate Lebanon, even if it is a just a square, without disarming yourself of your beliefs, personality, or your radical forms of expression.  Nonetheless, my friend’s conclusion was firm: “Hamra is incestuous.” Leaving the saaHa for  Evanston, Illinois was a necessary, though temporary, change.

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The saaHa in a village is the town square, a public space for all. I know from visiting my grandparents as a teenager, the saaHa in the village is where you stroll arm-in-arm with a cousin and make eyes at the pubescent boys. And where the boys shoot off fireworks. Whenever there is an event – wedding, funeral, elections – you can see the heads of men and women scattered in groups in the saaHa. It’s the daily meeting point, where you can count on something happening or/and someone you know. It’s about finding an open space.

I know a man who locates the saaHa in his roadwork of memories of the Lebanon he left in the ‘80s, as the meeting point for his emotional happiness.  He raised his children in America and married them off and bought homes and retired. Still, he doesn’t use English and he insists that back home one can lead a “life.” He remembers how he was surrounded and his family protected by the company of his village. And he sighs and sighs and all of his thoughts are Libnan, Libnan. Yet, he sold his house and his land in Lebanon and unwittingly committed to the solitude of a suburb in America.

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The film Amreeka, which played at last week’s international film festival in Beirut, narrates a story about a Palestinian woman and her son who immigrate to the U.S.  It is funny, touching and quite authentic. I highly recommend seeing it, unless you’re squeamish about the immigrant experience :) .  It starts playing in the U.S. soon…

www.amreeka.com

4 Responses to “Solitude and el SaaHa”

  1. […] a Young American Lebanese writer Solitude and el SaaHa October 21st, 2009 Since 1991, when my family and I took our first trip back to Lebanon […]

  2. Katie says:

    Thank you for giving us the personal, anecdotal, and societal.
    I feel like I’m zooming in and out of your different homes when I read your lovely entries.

  3. Paula says:

    Very nice Reeemz! You make me feel like I’m with you when I read this.

  4. Rida says:

    a very nice depiction of hamra and its unexpected routin.

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