Thousands of Miles Away from Home

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.

17 Responses to “Thousands of Miles Away from Home”

  1. Elsa says:

    Lovely Rima! This sort of leaves me with goosepumps.

  2. CJ Higgins says:

    It was so nice to see you yesterday. I always feel as though you have been here all along. I really admire your sense of adventure and after reading this beautiful articles am left thinking you are extremely blessed to have the best of both worlds!

  3. Rima says:

    Thanks for reading and the comment Elsa!

  4. Rima says:

    It was so great to see you too, Connie Jo! Our porch meetings are always special. I am lucky to have the best of both worlds – especially when they’re full of awesome people! Thanks for always reading… lots of love.

  5. Maroun says:

    The picture is at “Mousa’s Castle” in the Chouf area by the way.

  6. Rima says:

    Leik shoo hayda ya Maroun – you know this country too well! Thanks!

  7. Maria A. says:

    Rima, this is beautiful, and has made me even more homesick. How have you been? I would love for us to catch up when I’m in Beirut in December.
    Ria xo

  8. Rima says:

    Thanks Maria – that means a lot! (Though, sorry to add to your homesickness…) We’ll definitely catch up in December… xoxo

  9. tracy says:

    I loved this Rima. You captured some of my memories in there too. It makes me sad that people no longer clap when the plane lands. I remember once when there was a guy at the back of the plane even playing his oud when we landed.

  10. Silvia says:

    Great entry…but I always wonder about Americans (particularly first generation), of all cultural backgrounds, who wax nostalgic and praise to no limits the lands of their ethnic roots. Why not permanently reside there if it’s so fantastic? Where is the critique?

    An Immigrant to the US

  11. Silvia says:

    I reread your post and owe you an apology. I commend you on your courage to move to Lebanon.

  12. Fouad says:

    Hey Rima

    Lovely entry. I totally understand what you mean by that feeling you get flying over lebanon. I find it hard to breath when it gets that emotional. Then again, I’ve only been back twice in the past 9 years… Wonderful.

    Maroun, for once give some feedback on the entry, we all know it’s Moussa’s castle… Ya kalb.

  13. Miray says:

    Wow Rima, that was incredible, just simply beautiful, got tears in my eyes and you got me missing my Lebanon even more now

  14. Miray says:

    I almost forgot to tell you the pic of you guys is amazing, uncle Tony looks so young and Christine is so cute!

  15. mary says:

    this was nice to read….i remember the first time landing in 1991…there were guys doing the dubke on the way out of the plane! it was so amazing to be home for the first time…i will never forget it.

  16. Simon says:

    This is such a nice piece; amazingly candid, sincere, nostalgic, and funny …
    I particularly loved those tiny but wonderful and funny images, like: “riding on my grandpa’s back at just a year old with an unlit cigarette squeezed between my teeth”, “I was, being dragged – for the *whole* summer”, “unapologetic staring”, “Everything that I ate tasted like it was glazed with heaven-love”, “everyone poked me to tell them stories so that they could get a kick out of my slaughtering of the language”… it makes the reader live those moments, and laugh :)

  17. Rima says:

    hey simon, thanks for the comments! i appreciate you reading, really. the images that are conjured up are slightly beyond my control :)

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