I was born in San Francisco in 1996. My dad had been living in the U.S. for about 15 years by then, he left Lebanon in the 80’s during the civil war. He had met my mom on a trip back to Lebanon; they got married and she came here to be with him. After my brother was born, we began the process of the move back to Lebanon in 1999. The situation was “calmer” since the civil war had ended and my parents were hoping that by raising us in Lebanon we would have the opportunity of being surrounded by our culture and our home. They were nostalgic for the idea of being back also because the whole family was there except for my parents. We stayed in Lebanon for about 10 years and then came back to the U.S.
For my brother and I, Lebanon is the first thing we remember. When we moved back my parents assumed that that was it; they built their dream house, chose deliberately where we lived, went to school, making sure we weren’t too close to Beirut just in case anything happened – I suppose they weren’t over the trauma. We lived in a very religiously homogenous neighborhood. We’re Maronite and that religious community was all we knew, in school and at home. I’m not very close to family in Lebanon, there’s a lot of messy history there. But the friends I made at school ended up being a family. It was an “international” school but was very much Lebanese in terms of student body. Even internationals were Lebanese people who lived abroad and came back. I think growing up I didn’t feel much of a difference between my classmates that had been born here and me. As I got classmates that moved from abroad, I realized I related to them more than others because of my experience.
I left Lebanon five years before I thought I would; it was an unexpected consequence of the July war (حرب تمّوز). The early 2000s were relatively calm but when Hariri was assassinated in ’04, riots, instability, and sectarianism broke out violently. Being American citizens, we were evacuated. It was the first time I was going to leave Lebanon since settling there in 2000. It took us two years to leave so we didn’t actually move here until 2008. My dad came here to jumpstart things and my brother, mom, and I followed after packing up and trying to sell the house. I had two years to prepare for the move and tried to get myself excited about the idea of a new place and new opportunities. I realized I didn’t necessarily live in the safest country. It’s funny because there’s some things I grew up with that were totally normal to me, I didn’t realize that they weren’t normal until I came here. While I had time to prepare for it emotionally, leaving Lebanon was very traumatic. The first few years back in the U.S. I had this frustration towards Lebanon because I loved it so much but it caused so much pain for a lot of people, their parents, the people that left. I still have very vivid memories of our last night there. This year marked the ten-year anniversary of us leaving and I was back in Lebanon visiting friends. We talked about how we had never cried that much in our entire lives.
I was just starting high school when we moved back here. Everyone had already made their friends. My brother had a much easier time being at a young enough age, his accent even disappeared a lot faster than mine did. It felt like a shock. Have I adjusted? Yes. Have I assimilated? No. I think on a deeper level I didn’t want to assimilate. In high school I tried at first, to hide my accent for example. But then I realized it’s uncomfortable for me so I’m going to speak my normal way. I only felt like I had to do it because people kept asking me where I was from and no one knew where Lebanon was. When I tried to explain where I was from I’d get comments like “oh you’re a terrorist” or “oh you come from a terrorist country”. It was this survival mode of just needing to blend in.
In 2012 we went back to Lebanon to visit, it was my dad’s first time back since he had “officially” left in ’07. Within four days of us being there we got into a very bad car accident. We were driving up the cliffside of a mountain to Faraya, and of course there was no rail. A kid who had stolen his dad’s Jaguar and didn’t know how to drive such a powerful car crashed right into us. We were in a small rental car and my dad was taking his motorcycle on another road with a family friend so he wasn’t around when it happened. Our family friends were behind us and saw the whole thing. Our car was spinning and I remember closing my eyes because I didn’t want to see the car go down the cliff into the valley. Luckily it stopped on the ledge, I opened my eyes and my mom was slumped over the wheel, my brother was thrown onto the opposite side of the car. I remember getting out and opening my mom’s door. I was terrified that her legs would be damaged so I pulled her out of the car and dragged her out. She passed out and blood started coming out of her mouth. The kid came out of the Jaguar perfectly intact, with a few dents and a broken window to his car. My dad arrived and we called an ambulance but since it was going to take too long they put my mom in the other car with my brother and drove off to the hospital. I stayed there alone, and the police arrived at the same time as the kid’s parents. They put him in the back seat and drove off. They basically pretended that they were driving to get the insurance payout and to avoid the kid going to jail. There was no real justice, no one got in trouble. My brother had to get hand surgery and we supposedly had the best orthopedic doctor in the country who completely botched my brother’s hand and took out his cast before the bones even melded back together. We had our stuff stolen at that hospital from our second rental car. Everything that was bad in Lebanon revealed itself in this trip: no justice, terrible medical care, robbery and not being able to seek justice out of fear of retribution and corruption. I left never wanting to come back again. It took me two years to get over it. When I did go back in 2016, I remember getting in the car after lunch at my paternal grandfather’s place and thinking nothing has changed. I was right where I left off.
For me home is somewhere where you feel effortless, you don’t have to think about how others perceive you, you don’t have to think about your mannerisms, coming off as odd or foreign, and it’s not necessarily that I just feel this way in Lebanon. But generally in Lebanon I feel most myself, even though there’s a lot about the country and culture that I disagree with, and I’m always the first to criticize what I don’t support. But I really think it’s important to be critical of a place that you truly love out of a desire to make things better, or at least acknowledge them and find things that still make you happy within that place. A big part of home for me is also people. I’m always in awe because I go back to lebanon for only a few weeks a year and I still meet people and make lasting relationships. It’s easy. I feel free and bohemian and there’s this lightness that’s really indescribable. I had this epiphany when I was there this summer. It was a moment of hyper-awareness while coming back from a night out with my friends to the sunrise. I felt so awake, I noticed everything around me, the sun, the horizon, the sea, the people. I felt so at peace, this was home. It’s that feeling of presence everywhere that touches every part of you: physically, emotionally, mentally. I’ve been able to find that in some places, but it hasn’t been here.