What If??

This is “Episode V”  in the memoir I’m writing for my Creative Non-Fiction class. Previous installments are hereherehere and here. This one covers a “what-if” kind of thought.

What would my life be like if I never moved?

It’s a question that crops up almost every time I open Facebook and scroll through the infamous stalker-enabling news feed. I see several of my elementary school classmates sharing pictures of themselves as high school seniors, talking about the “good old days” and making plans to visit one another, wherever they may be.

It’s been fourteen years since the last time I saw any of them. These faces used to be those of classmates, friends, and acquaintances. Now they belong to kind strangers, wrapped in an aura of familiarity but nothing I can reach out and hold onto. They had all laughed, cried, partied, and struggled through their high school, and even college, experiences together. What can I, a faint memory of a quiet bespectacled 12-year-old who buried herself in storybooks, possibly have to say to them now? After a couple of failed attempts at a reconnection, I now simply content myself with knowing they are happy and successful.

I remember something a friend of mine in Qatar once said: “I was born and raised here, and even lived in the same house my entire life.” She was twenty-one at the time, and I clearly remember that the first thing that came to my mind was, “Oh dear lord, the THINGS you must have in that house!” (Anyone who’s moved at least once will know exactly what I mean). The second thing was, “Damn…that’s an insane amount of stability.”

My five years in Canada were spent in three houses. Even my first twelve years in Saudi Arabia had me living in two. If I wasn’t moving houses, I was moving countries. “Born and raised” is a term that I never used.

So, sometimes I sit back and think: What if, when I moved to Lebanon from Saudi, I never moved again? Would my life be better? Worse? Or just…different?  I’ve always felt that my experiences living outside of my home country made me a better person—and I still do. But at what cost?

When I was abroad, I was exposed to an incredible variety of lifestyles, religions, and people. I knew what it was like to be in a society that treated everyone as an equal, and demanded respect in return. The more I remember, the more I know just how vital these experiences are in shaping who I am today, and I try to never take them for granted.

However, as silly as this may sound, I’ve also never had the unique experience of having a childhood friend. I’ve never had people who stood by me as I grew and changed other than my immediate family. (Obviously, it’s hard to have that kind of relationship when you move every few years). I left Lebanon at fifteen and came back a full-fledged 24-year-old with my own worldviews, knowledge, social experiences, and life stories. It was nearly impossible to find common ground with those I left behind. Even cousins I called friends for years as a child no longer knew me, nor I them. A loss that I can’t deny was sorely felt.

In the end, my lifestyle left little room for fostering long-term history, connections and attachments with people I cared about. It’s probably what hurts the most on those quiet evenings when my mind is bored and starts to dig up an analysis of Life So Far.

If I was given a do-over, would I change a thing?

You know what? Probably not.

A Summer on its Head

This is “Episode IV”  in the memoir I’m writing for my Creative Non-Fiction class. Previous installments are herehere and here. This one is about the Lebanese “July War” in the summer of 2006.

I slumped down slightly in the van, fiddling with my shirt and looking out the window. I was in the middle of paradise, or so it seemed, and yet I was surrounded by tragedy. My mother sat next to me, praying softly while my little sister stretched her legs out in the third row. Whether she was sleeping or also staring ahead, I don’t remember. What remained was the silence and uncertainty—so thick you could reach out and touch it, but you knew it was safer to keep your distance.

What I felt on the airplane a mere two weeks ago had been so different than what I was experiencing now that it could have occurred in a parallel universe. I was so giddy I could have out happy-danced a kid with an all-expenses paid trip to Disney World. Instead of a strange and rickety van, I was in First Class, courtesy of my father who traded tickets with me as a treat. Though I’d have preferred the company of my family in Economy for three hours, I couldn’t say that I didn’t enjoy the edible food, VIP service and a window seat that didn’t have an airplane wing blocking half the view. As my iPod blasted everything from Joe Cocker to Marilyn Manson, my brain waltzed and headbanged to the thoughts of seeing my cousins, aunts and uncles for the first time since I’d moved to Canada five years ago.

“About ten minutes left until landing.” The usually incomprehensible and oft-ignored speaker blared.

I leaned my head against the window and inhaled the wave of awe that washed over me as I took in Lebanon. Its familiar buildings and beautiful beaches were surrounded by winding roads that splayed out like a psychotic spider web. My heart swelled. I didn’t think I would miss it this much.

From the minute we got off the plane to the minute I hugged all my teary-eyed relatives, to the second I came home and dropped my suitcase in my room, I hadn’t stopped smiling.

Now, a fortnight later, no one was smiling. As the van trudged along, I quietly absorbed the lush green mountain view. It could have been on a postcard. “Ironic I had to see it like this.” I thought almost blandly as my restless fingers twisted the edge of my shirt for the umpteenth time.

The thunder-like bombs that rattled my windows and had us all sleeping in one room had been dropping for a week now. We could no longer pretend that “they would end it tomorrow”, so my mom took action. My father was in Qatar at the time, so she found us a reputable cab driver who would take us to Syria. So here we were. As the long minutes ticked by, I had nothing to do but toy with the anger, disappointment and sadness bubbling inside of me. I had wanted so badly to connect again, to feel like I belonged back in the country I’d only spent three years of my life in. We had so many plans, and yet we had to run away, and leave behind loved ones in a pit of uncertainty, tragedy and death.

Powerlessness wasn’t a feeling I was particularly used to.

All I knew, as we finally reached the border, was that we were not afraid. I could see the fear in the air, could converse with it if it had a voice, but we wouldn’t let it touch us. The war may have been the first thing to shake my budding reconnection with my roots, but I would be damned if I was going to let it terrify me.

The Odd Fiasco of University Elections

When it comes to politics, I can be described as somewhat knowledgeable but—action-wise—rather apathetic.

I mean, I find it fun to keep myself up-to-date on what’s going on in the insane world of American politics, but it’s mostly because I find it fascinating in a train-wreck kind of way. That, and the fact that I know in my heart of hearts that whatever happens in the U.S of A tends to affect the rest of the world.

So I pay attention.

Still, I don’t get involved because of said apathy and, as an Arab living in the Middle East, any American president would be hard put to have Middle Easterners’ best interests at heart. So, Democrat or Republican, my little corner of the world is still damned in the grand scheme of things.

On the bright side, I also find American politics bloody amusing when it’s not making me facepalm ’til my nose bleeds. It’s one of the reasons I love to watch The Daily Show and The Colbert Report so much.

However, I’m even more apathetic when it comes to politics in Lebanon. We have so many political parties and leaders that you’d be hard put to even count them all. We are divided by religious sects and ideals and it’s such a damn messy and freakishly sensitive topic that I prefer to stay out of it completely.

Which leads me to university elections.

The ‘political’ groups within AUB (my university) are often associated with the actual political parties that run Lebanon. So I stay out of that as well because I think Lebanese politics should be bundled up and thrown in the nearest incinerator for all the good it does to my hanging-by-a-thread country.

I had been avoiding the whole election frenzy quite well for the past couple of weeks…until today. Because today is Election Day.

I had just come on campus, with my class being a bare 10 minutes away, when I bumped into one of my co-workers. I happen to like her company so I had no qualms about her suggestion that she walk with me to class. She immediately asked me if I was voting, and as always, I said, “Nope.”

She said, “You know if you don’t vote then you can’t have a voice and say anything against what’s going on in your university. Don’t you want to be sure you have people in charge who have your interests at heart?”

I replied, “Well, there is nothing I really feel should or can be changed. I go to class, go to work, hang out a little and go home. Whoever’s in ‘power’ isn’t gonna change much in my everyday life, so why should I care?’

“You can make your voice heard. People associated with political parties don’t have to have a hold on the university. Even if you submit an empty ballot, you’re saying something. And my group is independent, we are associated with no one. And we’ve made differences before. Come on, you can vote, it won’t take long.”

I had to pause. I did feel pressured—very pressured—not only because I was feeling somewhat persuaded but also because my 2:00 class was inching closer and closer. “Listen, I have class in seven minutes, can I come back later?”

“Voting won’t take five minutes, come I’ll show you where.”

Mind you, I never voted for anything a day in my life unless you count those “show of hands” situations that happen in class. I had no idea how things worked there. She led me to a crowd of people and made sure I had my ID card handy as well the names of the people in her group: A self-described “leftist , independent, pluralist, and progressive student organization” called No Frontiers.

The thing is, I had very little idea of what her group was about save that it wasn’t affiliated with any political party—which was a plus for me. I also thought my co-worker has a pretty good head on her shoulders and I subconsciously trusted her judgment. Besides, what harm can it do?

I pushed through an insane crowd of people. Everyone was yelling questions at me like “Are you a senior? Freshman? Sophomore?!” and shoving tiny slips of paper into my hands that held the names of their own party’s candidates.

Let me tell you something: I don’t do well in crowds. At all. Too much stimulation coming from all sides and I look like a tiny lost puppy. I focused my eyes to the ground, crumpled the slips of paper into my fist and shoved them in my jacket pocket. Inside the voting hall I went to the “Junior” table (because my name in the database is still listed as Junior despite the fact I only have one more semester to finish) and got the ballot and voted for the No Frontiers representative and dumped it into the box.

I galloped out of there and made it to my 3rd-floor class with zero seconds to spare.

I admit I had extremely mixed feelings the whole time. Did I vote because I was convinced? Because I was forced? Was I too easily lead by the nose in a crowd that I was unaccustomed to? Did the fact I liked my coworker make it that much harder for me to say no and run off before she could catch up?

I hated that I voted for a group I knew so little about. Okay, so they weren’t associated with a party…but what did they stand for? And just because you say you’re independent doesn’t mean that there isn’t something more complicated under the table. In Lebanon, nothing is ever simple. You have to have backup from somewhere or you’ll never get elected at all. In my beloved nation, it’s all about connections, connections, connections.

My brain turned it over the entire class period. When it was finally over, I was happy to be on my way to meet with Zee and Quirky for lunch and forget about the day’s happenings. I figured I would go home and do my own research later.

Alas, I ran into a couple of other friends only feet away from my class: Femme and Tiny Tyrant. Femme grabbed my hand and said pleasantly but authoritatively, “Time to vote!”

Thing is I had told her earlier over WhatsApp that I had no intention of voting. Now she was going to make me do it.

I yanked my arm back, and without thinking, said, “Too late I already did.”

Her eyes widened, “Who?! Who did you vote for? Don’t tell me [some political party]!”

“Um, no. I don’t even know who those are.”

“Did you vote red? Green? White?”

Yeah, let me back up and say Lebanon’s parties also have associated colors. The longer I live here the more colors become tainted to me.

“Dude, I don’t know what colors belong to who.”

Tiny Tyrant pulled a thick rubber-banded pile of small green papers from her backpack. “Did you vote for these people?!”

I took a glance at the names, “Um…nope not these guys.”

“Nooo!!!” Femme cried, “You shouldn’t have voted at all if you were going to vote for 14 March!”

That stopped me dead in my tracks.

**I should also back up and say our political parties are divided under two main umbrellas: One group is called “14 March” and the other is “8 March”. Don’t ask me to explain the names—all you need to know is both tend to hate each other rather fiercely. Needless to say, Femme and Tiny Tyrant were ardent 8 March supporters. (I am also no fan of 14 March but I am not hardcore 8 March either).**

“Wait,” I said again, “Who the hell said I voted for 14 March?”

Femme clarified, “If you didn’t vote for [group she supported] then you voted for the other side.”

My heart began to beat quickly. What did I get myself into? I didn’t want anything to come out about my political leanings, especially if they were false. Dammit, why did I not keep my mouth shut?

I didn’t know what to do, so I just told the truth, “Guys, I voted for No Frontiers. They aren’t associated with anyone, let alone 14 March. Hell the girl who was convincing me to vote wasn’t even Lebanese!”

I took a breath. Okay, this couldn’t be that bad, really, and I got the vibe they weren’t even aware of what No Frontiers was. The conversation seemed to stop and the girls and myself went downstairs—I to meet with friends and they to go to the building the elections were taking place in.

That is until they saw Zee, whom they also knew. In about no time flat, they had dragged her along with them to vote, despite my trying my best to get her to just leave the whole thing alone.

So…yeah. That’s my first experience in our university’s version of democratic elections: Voting under duress.

Fortunately, a friend of mine who is pretty well-versed in the comings and goings of AUB told me that No Frontiers is independent as things go, and did have a nice history. So I was somewhat relieved. (I’ve linked to their site and liked what I saw when I read it, so I guess that was a bullet I managed to duck).

Still…God knows I won’t be pushed that easily again.

Achrafieh

This is “Episode III”  in the memoir I’m writing for my Creative Non-Fiction class. Previous installments are here and here. This one is about the recent bombing in Achrafieh that I wrote about on October 20th. 

My pencil scrawled over my sketchbook again and again.  I had homework I should have been working on, but I was in a drawing mood. My co-worker, Sam, sat next to me scrolling through his Facebook news feed. It was a late Friday afternoon, and I was bored and wishing I could go home early but I had a 5:00 class that I would be hard put to skip.

Sam’s phone rang, and he left the table to answer it. I was only half-aware of the conversation, as I was mostly putting effort into simply trying to stay awake. But I heard Sam’s tone change suddenly.

“Wait, what happened? Are you okay? Is everyone okay? Yeah, I’ll keep that in mind. Okay, take care all right?” As he hung up he caught me looking at him. “There was an explosion near my parents’ house in Achrafieh.”

I inhaled sharply, “Damn, is everything okay?”

“Yeah, they’re fine but they’re still seeing what’s going on.”

“Ah.” Despite the fact that “explosion” didn’t exactly drip with positive connotations, I didn’t feel much tension yet. I believed he was talking about some kind of gas leak, a minor explosion that was caused by stupidity or neglect.

Rex, who overheard the conversation, immediately grabbed the office phone. “An explosion in Achrafieh is not a good sign,” he said almost normally as he dialed his mother. I was almost surprised to hear her loud, panicked voice through the receiver. Rex, on the other hand, almost sounded bored, “Okay! Okay yalla mish mishikleh, [it’s no problem] calm down.” Then he hung up without further ado.

I looked down at my sketchbook. This was definitely something far more serious than some stupid gas leak. As more of my coworkers called their families, Rex plunked himself next to me, pulled up a news website and began reading up-to-the-minute headlines. It was soon confirmed that the “explosion” was actually a devastating car bomb in the middle of a residential area.

It was almost surreal, and at the same time…almost normal.

Something I had come to learn over the years is nothing seems out of place when you’re in the thick of it. Although there was some worry, the entire office had a vibe of mere curiosity about what was going on. (And, of course, there were the good-natured arguments over the who’s, what’s and why’s of the whole situation). I smiled inwardly at a coworker who was scouring Internet sites for The Italian Job, a movie he wanted to see even as chaos erupted only minutes away. While one guy was reading out the latest numbers of casualties and injuries, another was playing a Flash game while another was arguing with a friend over why the phone lines had been suddenly cut.

I couldn’t help but laugh to myself at the absurdity of it all. If this happened in Canada, I could only imagine the level of fear that would pervade the very walls of the room around us. Here? We complain about not being able to find a movie we want to see and argue politics. Then we head to our classes, pack up our stuff and go home to mothers waiting anxiously in their living rooms in front of the evening news.