The cedar inside

It takes distance to realize distance isn’t what we longed for most. Leaving my country for another was my childhood dream, recurring throughout my teenage years and most of my twenties. I wanted to leave, to go far away, to contemplate my old world from behind a long telescope and smile at the achievement of becoming an expat. The dream seemed much different than what reality turned out to be.

I always knew I loved my country, even though I bashed it often, even though I felt better once on a plane, spending months away from it, escaping all its troubles. I knew I loved it, but I didn’t comprehend why exactly, or that this distance I so urgently needed to take wasn’t from the country itself.

Lebanon has always been tagged with both beautiful and terrible labels, always described but never really understood. It is the land of the millenial cedar trees, the party country par excellence, there are beaches and ski slopes thirty minutes apart, and oh, have you tried the food? Try the food. All of it. Our stereotypes so dear to our hearts we repeat them incessantly to whoever is willing to listen, because they’re true but also, to some extent, because they calm our insecurities and give some sense to the blind love we have for Lebanon. For you see, it is also a land that suffered war, repeatedly, is situated in a strategic location amidst conflict zones, lacks proper…well, everything, and if those weren’t reasons enough to flee it, many students graduate with no job awaiting them outside school doors. Nonetheless, I wish the news told it all, how Lebanon bravely survived its wars, all of them, how the partying goes on no matter what, because hope is what we are made of (aside from hommos), how peace is maintained in the 10452 square kilometers that are home to seventeen different religious denominations, how our people are among the best and brightest wherever they go, becoming CEOs of huge companies or Brazil’s president or Selma Hayek, and how the undying pride of both those who stayed and those who left makes our country shine everywhere despite its minuscule size and its inherent mess.

I do miss my country, much more than I imagined I would and for reasons other than those I had anticipated. I miss its resiliance, its strength, its pride even during moments of strife or when there’s little to be proud of. I miss the smiling faces of neighbours who’ve seen me grow, the exclamations of strangers when they notice they know one of our family members that we barely know ourselves. I miss beers on the seashore even though I don’t like beer and watching the manoushe lady poking my pie with her fingers without hearing someone ask her to wear gloves because we all understand that’s not how it’s done. I miss the simplicity in a country that is everything but simple, and absurdly, I somehow miss its absolute absurdity.

Before leaving,  I knew I loved my country, but it took just a few months in a foreign land for me to become a true patriot, to know that we can count all a country doesn’t give us, but it’ll never outweigh what it does, the sense of belonging, the culture that none other will match, the history that only we understand fully because for a while we were part of it. No country is perfect and Lebanon certainly doesn’t come close, but perfection is a boring quality after all, offers no excitement and stirs no feeling below the skin’s surface. My Lebanon, I now get a new kind of goosebumps at the thought of you, one I don’t mind at all.

Advertisements

Bubble trouble

I woke up early today, too early, and as I vainly tried to fall back asleep, an odd flock of random memories visited my forcibly awakened mind.

When I was around 10 years old, my mother had to get surgery. At the time, having not experienced the matter myself or really been told what it entailed to have bones and tissue sawed and sliced, it didn’t seem as big of a deal as I now of course realize it was. She packed the few things she needed, pyjamas, hair and toothbrush etc. and left home. I believe I had school that day and went on with my life with the simple thought that my mum wasn’t at work but with a bunch of doctors, and that I oddly wouldn’t find her home when I returned. In my mind, that was it, I’d miss her but it wasn’t something to fuss about. Children can sometimes be terribly naive.

So I went back home, dad too, with news that we’d visit her the next day.

“Have a bath now.”

I remember hating baths at the time, all the tiring procedure of scrubbing and experiencing that burning in your eyes as ubiquitous amounts of bubbling shampoo trickled onto my face and ever unsuspecting eyes. So I got in, got clean and got out. The chore of personal hygiene over, it was time to return to more enjoyable pursuits. Or so I dreamt before hearing:

“Now we must dry your hair so you don’t catch cold.”

I had forgotten how structured my father could be in certain situations, and heat being the last thing I wanted applied on my scalp, I sighed and reluctantly nodded in approval.

“I’ll get the hairdryer”, he said.

I remember feeling amused and slightly scared at the thought of my father caring for my hair, a man who, well, didn’t have the gift of such a mane to really claim expertise in the department.

It hurt. There was pulling and indescribable manoeuvres with him trying to balance a boar bristle brush in one hand and a bulky 90s hairdryer in the other, pulling from the left and bumping my head on the right. The 80s blow-up made a failed comeback that night, but it was nothing compared to the ponytail we gave up on the next morning. Oh, dad…

Looking back, I think that period really strengthened my abhorrence for hairdryers, and it still shocks me when my dad, seeing my hair wet, tells me to go dry it off. Just look the other way, pops.

Happily obsolete

I grew up the old fashioned way. In a time of electronic evolution and new technologies, my parents decided to bring me up the way they were, with no added help, no frivolous objects, thus repressing the urge to follow the latest trends and rendering me less of a victim of increasingly elaborate marketing ploys.

I learned to use a vinyl record player when my classmates were walking around with discmans, I had a twelve channel programmable television set and a cassette player when my contemporaries had a hundred channels, cable and the latest hi-fi systems. I also played with elaborate (and definitely non-aerodynamic) paper airplanes and retro electric trains when gameboys and Nintendos were all the rage. You’d probably assume that made me mad, and you’re right, it did…at first.

As years went by, the more I had access to what was considered obsolete and the less I dabbled with modernism, the more I learned to count on myself for entertainment and everyday tasks like reheating dishes in a skillet or oven pan and finding the right technique to not end up with half of my food stuck at the bottom of what could easily become a dish-washing nightmare. And yes, I never had microwave popcorn with all the fake butter and ten thousand useless ingredients; instead, I went through bags of burnt kernels to perfect the corn popping technique, and guess what? I still can’t make a decent batch. Didn’t expect this turn of events, huh? I learned to cook whole meals from scratch while my friends were playing video games but I still can’t make a half decent bowl of popcorn at 27, how ridiculous. Well, it doesn’t end there. Since I moved from my parents’ house, I have had access to microwaves much more often – home still being a preserved haven of health and lowkey technology – and have used them a few times to reheat something in a hurry or make the occasional mug cake. However, popcorn remained a pan-only treat until about a week ago when my roommate popped some in a paper bag. The thought having pleased me, I decided today to try my hand at the matter and followed the relatively childish procedure: put popcorn in bag, close bag, program microwave and…pop! Except she forgot to tell me one thing: how many minutes do they take in there? I was alone and just pressed on 4, a reasonable time in the microwave world, I thought. One thing is for sure, guessing is a bad idea. A burning smell started exuding from the machine around three minutes in, but being in unfamiliar territory, I assumed it was a figment of my imagination, for how could anything burn in a microwave? Famous last words. I opened the door when the timer rang, unfortunate tune of my popcorn’s death sentence: inside the brown paper bag was a clump of black chunks formerly known as popped corn kernels. I’ll refrain from describing the dark cloud that also came out of my unfriendly helper.

Ultimately, I suppose my old-fashioned upbringing had nothing to do with my popcorn-making abilities, I believe I just don’t carry the kernel-popping gene (or the paper plane designing one if we’re being precise). Nevertheless, I think I’ll maintain the tradition of making my future children just as clueless about society’s downward spiral into the technological abyss, teaching them the value of time and what wonders a little elbow grease and creativity can produce. My train and record player patiently await their little hands…or mine until then.

With change…comes change

I haven’t written here in a while. Not for lack of words or things to say, mostly in an attempt to bridge the life I had when I created this blog and the one I’m leading now, an ocean away.

I moved to a new country a while ago, to a place I had never been or ever imagined I’d end up. I needed change since the moment I took my very first breath, sudden urges to move around taking over my mind every few months, with an inability to remain still in a region that is anything but. I’m Lebanese, I am proud to be Lebanese, but I just don’t fit in Lebanon, and Lebanon doesn’t fit the many versions of who I am. So I packed my bags leaving out what didn’t fit in the two pieces of luggage I had resolved to take, things, people… 27 years’ worth, and boarded a plane. Two, actually. Needless to say it but here it goes: I am very far from home… and from Lebanon. That distinction is essential.

I’ve lived with my parents my whole life, befriending them early on, and while I did everything to leave Lebanon behind, I never wanted to leave them. It’s hard. Much harder than I had thought possible. You’d think I’d have gone bored from seeing their faces everyday and yet here I am readjusting every inch of my mind to fit this new reality, one without them, one where I have to start all over, meet new people, decipher a new accent, memorize new streets and decide what I should keep from my past. Will streets I’ve walked in my whole life look the same when I visit? Will I start listening to Sabah and eat labneh every morning in an attempt to lose less of myself to this new environment? Or will I rejoice at glimpses of my former life with every little cucumber I bite into and every familiar face I run into on my way to fulfil whatever new habit I’ve acquired in this foreign land?

I’ve changed already, and it’s only been a short while since I left. I’ve changed and it feels like it’s only the beginning, the start of missing everything, the end of missing out, the biggest change of all: what if now, all I want is for things to stop changing? Is it finally time for this restless spirit to find constance? For a while, at least?

For a friend

I know not how to make my voice say

That my heart cries for you today,

And I know not how to comfort thee

With much more than an earnest plea;

Today I ask all angels in the sky

To turn each gasp and every cry

Into beds of roses for her to sleep,

And may your soul learn not to weep

For we’re all but visitors doing time

Till those promised bells begin to chime.

We are so near the sweet departed

Who want us not so broken-hearted;

Despite the void and all the pain,

Remember not these days of rain

But count the days of sunny splendor

Given to us by ones so tender.

It is not far, this new hello

Though hours seem to pass so slow,

We’ll see their bright faces again

So keep in mind that until then

If your strength begins to sway

I am only a few steps away.

Half sunken friendships

Over the years, we shed friends like a snake sheds its old skin, leaving behind what no longer suits our current state of being. We walk away and take with us memories, remnants of those other humans forever stitched onto us.

As friends, we learn intimate details about one another, whether personal or random, things like favourite colours, birthdays or allergies; we learn them out of necessity, out of duty and out of love,  however varying the degree of it is. We accumulate knowledge of these other entities, keep our expertise of them safe within, willfully forgetting how possible all of it might one day become useless or obsolete. Friendships end, it is a fact human nature forces us to forget each time we embark on a new shared adventure, and so does our knowledge of all things pertaining to our once close chosen relation; we pick people, and we also choose to let them go, whether willingly or reluctantly. We’re no longer updated with joyful news, little tidbits of their daily lives, changes big or small…we are the strangers we first started as…but with baggage too deeply engraved to be forgotten. “No, don’t put strawberries on the cake she can’t…actually, go ahead, never mind…”. “Ahhh it’ s today, I forgot to wish…upon a star”. Sometimes it slips our mind, their sudden absence, how their importance weighs less on our life and heart..or does it really? Is every relationship we’ve built and forsaken truly erased from our hearts as from our minds, or does it all remain deeply etched under newer, kinder, better constructed ones?

Things change, but we remain marked, stained with little specks of all the somebodies we once knew, forced to deny how present they once were, unable to forget they were…so very there.

A slice of happy

There comes a day in every person’s life, hopefully not too late, when they open their eyes and realize: you don’t need much to be happy, very little really, much less than you ever thought possible, much less than seemed plausible.

They try to sell you dreams, the wrong ones, the long ones, filled with glitter and champagne, all fun and no pain, hiding the truth in magazine cuts, movies and songs painting pictures too vivid to be real, images of lives we never get to live or feel. Happiness isn’t found in high heels and overpriced steak dinners, it’s not hidden in bad radio music and drunken parties, in cheap motel rooms or expensive electronics, it’s in those moments at the cash register, right before the bill arrives, that moment before the dream becomes too real and dies, when the steak is still appetite, the party still expectations, the room still neat and the game still a brand new toy to be plugged in and soon worn out. Happiness is in the thought of happiness, the moment before, the seconds that lead up to what we think is true joy. Happiness is in the head, in the slow buildup, the heart’s crescendo, an illusion soon gone to be resuscitated with yet another dream.

Don’t be fooled, this isn’t a sad post, no bitterness here or hopeless wanderings of the mind; this is a reminder that happiness is self-made, one that’s present before the material things arrive, before the media’s intervention, before money is thrown and the mind drowned in alcoholic hallucinations. Happiness is everywhere, ephemeral but continuous, abstract yet concrete, misconstrued but reachable by every single seeker of magic. Happiness is free, it’s in the eyes of that one person who stands by you, it’s in the heartbeat of one that leans in closer, in every sunrise and every sunset right before each day begins and at the close of every tiresome string of hours. It’s in every expectation and every success, in each new experience and every resurfacing memory. Happiness is more human than you’ll ever know, the most beautiful illusion, the most magical reality. I’m happy, hope you’re happy too.