Archive for July, 2010

Thousands of Miles Away from Home

Tuesday, July 20th, 2010

Me, my sister (aka: Kool Moe Dee), and my dad. Somewhere in Lebanon. July, 1992.

In 1992, when I was thirteen, I landed in Lebanon for the first time I can remember (there were two other times at 1 y/o and 4 y/o, which I only can see in pictures, like the one of me riding on my grandpa’s back at just a year old with an unlit cigarette squeezed between my teeth). As most of the passengers on the plane that June, it had been the first time my parents had been to Lebanon in 9 years, due to the heavy fighting and instability of the civil war.  As the babies’ air-pressure screams subsided, applause filled the plane as tears trickled down the sides of passengers’ faces. I looked down from the plane window and noticed the square white houses. Two words swept across my mind: I’m home.

That trip was so many things to me at the time. I had not wanted to go at all. I would be entering high school that fall, and had been a professional rejector of many Lebanese “policies.” It was these policies – of censor, propriety, standards – that stood as stones piled high against the more liberal American “policies” that I was interested in. These stones were held firmly with my parents’ favorite phrase (which they no longer say): “You don’t need to be like the Americans.”

So here I was, being dragged – for the whole summer – to a place that was not only the originator of my non-liberties, but also a place that had fought itself for 15 years.

And somehow, the plane’s wheels touched the runway, and my head said, I’m home.

1992 was the time before satellite television spilled out the open windows of everyone’s village home, and I was part of the first wave of the diaspora to “come back” after the war; in other words, my siblings and I, the Amerkaan, were somewhat of a spectacle. Walking through the village provoked unapologetic staring (can you see curious old skirted women on their porches?) – it’s not like we looked so different, besides our smooth-lined American clothes. I learned that people were not necessarily interested in who we were (besides what family we were from); instead, questions seemed to derive from a curiosity about how we saw Lebanon – and what was it like b’Amerka? Which is better, here or there? Do you have this kind of traffic there? Do you eat mlukhiyeh there? Would you ever live in Lebanon? (I never had thought the answer to the latter would one day be yes…).

We were welcomed immediately.  Everyone was so kind, polite, and generous, to the point that I couldn’t believe that anything else was acceptable in the world. My grandparents spoiled us (I thought: so this is what it’s like to have grandparents!). Everything that I ate tasted like it was glazed with heaven-love (Why are the eggs so good? The cherries? Nescafe?). My Arabic was atrocious, yet everyone poked me to tell them stories so that they could get a kick out of my slaughtering of the language. Daily, my young aunt and I would walk by the church where at dusk we would meet other teenagers in the village, who were there to socialize or fall in love. I made friends, which I still have today. The air, the trees, the sea, the souk, the streets, the smells… all of it was intoxicating, shocking, and splendid.

After that year, my family and I would go every other year. And I anticipated it.  Those visits to Lebanon had helped fill the gap between my parents and us. I became more proud of my heritage. They more boldly outlined my identity so that I could more boldly outline my beliefs. My second language took on new dimensions. I learned what it was like to fall in love with a place. Until one day, at 28, I moved there.

Now, during the summers, when I am in Illinois at my parents’, as I am now, I witness others’ anticipation upon leaving, and their stories upon returning. The first round of family friends has arrived back from Lebanon. They are bronzed, jetlagged. They tell about the slovenly butcher and his truck full of dead meat; their American relatives who flip-flopped around the village with Almazas in hands; their wild nights at Skybar and in Gemmayze. They are edged with excitement, a sudden fatigue, a hesitant return to reality.

In five days, I will once again return to Lebanon. I am reminded of what my friend once said: “I can’t wait to leave Lebanon, just so I can come back. Isn’t that sick?” We had been talking about that feeling, that indescribably good feeling, of flying over Lebanon, as the plane takes its angle, and looking down at the coast of the country jutting into the engulfing gray sea and at the square white houses below.

Over Lebanon.