Archive for August, 2011

Streets of a New Home

Friday, August 26th, 2011

For some of us, who have decided to uproot ourselves from one continent to another, meeting a change of norms, rules, faces, scenery, an absence of physical memory, a distance from everything you knew and made you, a meeting of the strange and starkly uncertain, a realization of your new options and the ones lost – and so much more – you find yourself wondering how would it be if you went back? What if I lived in that city, Chicago, Illinois, that great big city filled with opportunity and culture and tons of sidewalks that recall my footsteps during all those years? That city with the perfect grid of streets, the home of the first black president of the U.S., the one with all those bike paths. What if I returned to that city further south of Chicago, in the heart of Illinois, Peoria, where everyone knows my name, and who my sister, brother, mother, and father are? And what if I stayed here, stayed put in this city where I feel in love, but have less to grab for? Or does it just seem that way?

I was walking with my friend Lina, in downtown Montreal, when I wondered about the two of us, and the opportunities we sought.  We both have complete access to these two beautiful cities, Montreal and Chicago, where our families are, where jobs are not scarce, where the government will take care of you (I mean, much more than in Lebanon), where there are patch-works of green public spaces, where there is world renowned art, architecture, musicians. Where there are laws and accountability, security and small chance of war or random bombings. Where downtown is an easy mix of people, without the too-stark contrasts of social stories.

I was capturing the city in front of me, when I said to Lina, as we walked hungrily toward the Thai restaurant we were searching for, “We have access to two of the best cities in the world – why aren’t we here?” And as she replied, “Beirut is one of the best cities in the world!” I thought the same.

I believe that each person who makes Beirut her home has done so because one or both of two things – love and opportunity. It does have this slow-gripping way of bringing you closer and closer to her bosom. It begins with a thirst – for history, language, family, community, movement, politics, activism, roots, purpose. It is the latter that resonates most with me. In the U.S., I’ve always felt that I could participate in grass-roots efforts but I never felt it could make a difference. In the U.S., I can certainly fight my small battles against unfair wars, prisons, corrupt corporations or politicians. When thousands of us walked through the streets of Chicago against the war in Iraq, although I believed that shaking things up was certainly important and a seed planted, I never felt like anyone would give a shit, past those who were on the street. In fact, my generation was regularly belittled by the generation who protested on university campuses across the U.S. during Vietnam. Here we were, planning on marching, not only knowing it wouldn’t make one bit of difference in what happened in Iraq, but also with the excitement of a cat with a ball of yarn. I felt tiny. We have felt tiny. This feeling is most overwhelming when you vote. Not only does my itsy-teeny vote only partly matter with the blue and red states and all, but – with the exception of Obama – I always have felt like my choice was the “lesser of two evils.” And even he makes us wonder how we hold on to those slivers of hope and change he promised us; will he vote for a two-state solution (but I’m confused, I thought he wanted one??)? He was one that made his way deep into the heart, but he too floated right back out into that unreachable space on top of a hill where decisions are made for everyone else.

The corporations are too big, the debt too deep, the country too damn wide.

When people think about Lebanon, the first word that comes to mind is usually not “opportunity.” Allow me to say – it is never the word that comes to mind. In fact, there are approximately 15,000,000 (is that number correct?) Lebanese who live outside of Lebanon (versus approx. 4 million inside). If you took a poll, you would find that most people have left Lebanon in search of opportunity. But let me tell you, there is a certain number of us who seeks opportunity in Lebanon – often, a means to purpose.

I am not philosophizing. I just sometimes try to figure out how it is I ended up in that small little country that I was sooo lucky in my adolescent mind to have not been born in.  Today, I don’t know if I could find such a comfortable place to live still teeming with foreigners who have come to save it. It’s almost comical. That NGO and UN workers, umpteen journalists, teachers, and missionaries come to this beautiful, historic, hospitable (in most ways) and largely feeble, incapacitated, tottering place with big ideals and revolutionary wet dreams – only to find a dysfunctional government that likes its victim status and the Mediterranean Sea and snow-capped mountains that won’t stop calling. But it feels good, in some sort of sick way. As in, things are shit, there’s a mess to pick up, and so we go to work each day with the thought that ‘I have a purpose,’ ‘I am a member of a community,’ ‘I am visible’ – and there are only 10,452 kilometers squared to cover; maybe something will stick, or someone will hear me. Yet, I can still go sit by the sea or have a drink in Hamra and meet up with all the other idealists I know. When the state of the affairs of the state are not looking up, which is the yooj, we still have a sense of ‘purpose’, kept afloat with a heated discussion, a new plan, collaboration –  although our optimism may have plateaued and ‘opportunities’ seem to be far and few between – as in, what’s next?

Some of us leave for big chunks of time to other parts of the world on different voyages. But as soon as trouble sneaks up again or another country hits bulls eye in the Arab Spring, for example, our heads perk up and a feeling of pride vibrates our bones; a sense of excitement; and a rush sweeps through, over, and back out. We are thrilled that there may be another opportunity to feel a significant part of something.