That Bloody Question

I found this in my drafts folder from last year. Like literally last year–I wrote this in October 2015. I haven’t been here in so long…but I think you may find this entertaining:

I’m twenty-nine years old and I still have issues with the question, “Where are you from?”

I feel like I have a limb in so many places that my brain refuses to settle on one succinct answer. After today, I decided that it’s high time I pick a city/country and just stick to it.

I went to HR earlier to ask a question, and she ended up mentioning how she was new to Arizona, and I had to go and say, “Oh that makes the two of us!”

Naturally, she had to ask, “Oh, where were you before this?”

My brain doesn’t know what to do with this question. Before this immediately? A tiny country in the Persian Gulf that I’m almost sure you’ve never heard of. (Unless you tend to read/know about mind-bogglingly rich Arab countries with a penchant for outlandishly expensive things).

I said, after a now-almost-characteristic pause, “Canada.”

“Oh where in Canada?”

“Montreal.”

“Oh, do you like it there?”

YES! She didn’t ask me if I spoke French! Good, good.

“Yes, it’s great!”

“What brought you down here?”

My brain is dumb. So dumb. So dumb in its unrelenting penchant for accuracy.

I paused again, motioned with my hands and said, “Aaaa…lot of things.”

Because I left Montreal in 2006. And I’ve been in two countries since. So, yes, a lot did happen to make me wind up here.

Now she looked confused. So I had to tell her that I’ve lived in a lot of places even though I was born in the US but I haven’t lived here. So when people ask me, “Where were you before?” I can literally say one of four different countries and I wouldn’t be wrong. I tried to be quick and simple about it, but after the hole I just dug for myself, there was hardly anything quick and simple to be found.

“Wow, that’s an interesting life story that came out of nowhere,” she said.

I wasn’t sure if that was a jab at my sudden idiotic rambling, or if she was genuinely interested.

(For what it’s worth, she lived in DC before coming here. DC is muggy and cloudy, and Arizona is not).

I wanted to kick myself as I made my way back to my desk. Why didn’t I say, “Canada. Montreal. I found a job here I liked, so I moved.”

For a fleeting moment I thought about picking a US state that sounds bland. Wisconsin. Nebraska. Idaho. I figure no one will ask follow-up questions on a state that sounds like there’s nothing in it. Then I feel bad because what if those states are awesome and I’m just sitting there judging them because they don’t have the enthusiastic marketing team that California and New York do?

Anyways, here’s to me being Canadian, born and bred, and please don’t ask me to speak to you in French.

Wish I Could Fake It, Though

So, I took a cab to AUB today–like I always do. Now, I’m usually used to a short, quiet drive to my destination but I’m no stranger to the talkie types.

This was a talkie type. After commenting on a couple of random stuff, to which I replied to normally, he casually remarked, “Lahijtik masriyyeh. Inteh min Masr?”

Translation: You have an Egyptian accent. Are you from Egypt?

That…was a first.

I realize my accent in Arabic indicates I’m not terribly fluent, and that it may be less than standard. But do you know how vastly different the Lebanese and Egyptian dialects are? I mean, we understand each other very well, but I’m talking almost poles apart. Our words, tense forms, and speech rhythms don’t have a lot in common.

Case in point:

English – “What is this?”

Lebanese – “Shoo hayda?”

Egyptian – “Eh dah?”

See?

I almost laughed out loud since it was such an odd remark. He insisted I spoke like an Egyptian even after I told him I was Lebanese, and born and raised in Canada. (Only half-true, but I’m not about to spill my life story to a random cab driver). He even asked if both my parents were Lebanese, just to be sure. It was weird.

By the way, I have absolutely nothing against the Egyptian dialect or being Egyptian in general. I actually wish I could at least imitate them, because I link their accent to quick, witty, and hilarious people. But anyone can tell you that my attempts at trying to talk like one are laughable at best.

Upon hearing the story, my mom quirked an eyebrow in amusement and said, “The guy’s never heard Egyptian in his life if he thinks you speak like one.”

I can’t disagree, but it’s odd as hell if it’s true. Anyone can tell you that 99% of the Arabic movies on TV (as well as a huge chunk of songs on the radio) are in that dialect. It takes an astounding level of ignorance to not be able to pick it out correctly.

I have to admit though, it was a refreshing change of pace from the usual, “You were living outside right?” and—the less often but far more relevant—“Are you Jordanian?” questions I seem to get on a regular basis.

Friends, Canada and the Lebanese

When the topic of friendship comes up, I often end up telling people that I never made Lebanese friends in Canada because I couldn’t stand them. They were far too into their own lives and their own culture—like they were living in a mini-Beirut and they refused to get out of it. Whatever annoying traits they had while living in their own country was amplified tenfold outside of it, and they clung to what they believed was “their way” with an iron grip of hard-headedness.

I know. Harsh. Really damn harsh.

In fact, I’ve thought this way up until about…oh a week ago? Then, during a discussion in my Language and Identity class, I suddenly wondered why I thought Lebanese people abroad were so difficult for someone like me to befriend.

So a rewind is in order. I may be Lebanese and possess the right to be very critical of my people, but I can’t do it on a whim. Where did my afore-mentioned judgment come from?

Sadly, it seems that what I recite as seemingly personal experience is really very little of my own. It’s mostly secondhand discussion from people whose opinions matter to me. I would be the last person to call them exaggerators or liars, and I’m sure the way they see the Lebanese abroad is just as valid as the next person’s opinion…but it isn’t my experience.

All I personally saw in Canada were groups of Lebanese hanging out together, and specific areas where Lebanese communities resided. (It’s no secret that they like to stick together, and prefer the company of each other over others). However, I feel that saying Lebanese are stubborn and not easy to befriend when you aren’t like-minded is unsubstantiated at best.

(Come to think of it, I did have Lebanese high school classmates—all boys—and I definitely didn’t like them much. Still, what high school boy is a pleasant companion when you have nothing in common with him? I don’t believe that clouded my judgment either).

So, what’s the real reason behind my lack of buddies from my home country?

The answer, it turns out, is freakishly simple: It just didn’t happen to be the nationality of those I did happen to make friends with. No active avoidance. No particularly bad experiences. I just “clicked” with certain people and, coincidentally, they never happened to be Lebanese. (Or even Arab for that matter).

Rather anti-climactic and lacking in drama, eh?

For what it’s worth, I have a small but solid group of friends here in Beirut and all are Lebanese and we get along great. It only seems that I need to reconsider things more often as the years wear on, and make sure that my conceptions are my own. At my age, you think I’d have that down pat, but I guess it still needs work…

L’Accent!

Location: Montreal, QC, Canada (Atwater Metro Station) Year: 2004

A snippet of a conversation an acquaintance of mine, Alex, and I had while waiting for the subway to make an appearance:

Alex: “Oh wait, you’ve only been in Canada for three years?”

Me: “Yep. I used to live in Lebanon and, before that, Saudi Arabia.”

Alex: (In surprised disbelief) “But…your accent though. It’s flawless!”

Me: Oh, hah. Yeah,  I went to an American international school in Saudi. Hell, I had classmates and teachers who couldn’t speak a lick of Arabic.

Alex: Really? That’s pretty cool.

That was the first of a good handful of occasions where my accent—or lack of one—was a topic of surprise. Although it didn’t strike me as odd at the time, it did make me wonder if people honestly thought all Arabs sounded like the marketplace merchants in Aladdin. (I do love that movie, but it’s so overrun with cultural misconceptions that it kinda ruins the experience).

In short, my incredulity stemmed from this notion: Globalization has enough of an impact that it should be taken for granted that there are going to be people who never touched US soil that could speak just as well as any born-and-raised American. I went so far as to believe I would never judge anyone by the way they spoke.

HAH! Life, you know how to humble a person.

Fast forward to 2008 – Doha, Qatar: I’m sitting on the roomy windowsill in the Student Representative Council office, chilling with friends. Three feet away, a student I’d never met before was speaking in an accent so perfectly American one could easily assume she’d lived there her entire life.

People: I can’t deny that I became a replica of Alex that night in the metro four years ago. Why?

She was dressed like this:

Talk about jumping to conclusions. In my (somewhat lame) defense, I had twelve years of life in Saudi Arabia and a year in Qatar by then. Up until that moment, every Qatari I met who dressed that way spoke with a visible Arabic accent at best. (Doha has excellent American and British international schools, but those who dress this traditionally don’t make a habit of roaming their halls).

I had to ask, “Did you used to live in the States? Or…??”

She smiled at me. (What face coverings, called a niqāb, have offered me is a way to discern smiles, frowns and general emotion just by focusing on someone’s eyes). I knew from her expression that she had received variations of this question a thousand times but was still good-natured about it. “Actually, my mother is American and my father is Qatari.”

I hadn’t thought of that. I laughed shyly and added, “That’s cool. I’m sorry for asking but I really wasn’t expecting that accent to come out of you.”

I felt hypocritical for being shocked that someone who chose to dress the way she did would be able to speak English so well. But it did open up a conversation, and later, I got to know more about her tough and inspiring history. I was on the verge of sharing it here, but decided that it isn’t my story to tell.

I have to admit, it was a humbling experience to know that I was not incapable of surprise in these situations. I also learned, again, that I had to work harder on erasing my preconceived notions on a people I thought I knew because I’d lived in their societies for years. You learn that whatever fault (for lack of a better word) you may find in someone, you have just as much a chance of finding it in yourself.

A Perfectly Nonchalant Conversation

Location: Montreal, Quebec, Canada. Year: 2003

I plunked myself down in my usual front-row seat. I was well into my first semester at Dawson College, a CEGEP located in downtown Montreal. It was, thankfully, a 180-degree difference from high school and I had contentedly fit into it like a hand into a glove. (Well a glove that fit, anyways).

I was early; there were only two or three people milling about in the room. I pulled out my notebook and attempted to kill time my usual way: Spacing out while peppering the margins with doodles. It wasn’t long before the sound of my name broke into my reverie.

I quickly turned around to face a girl several rows behind me, “Yeah?”

She wasted no time, “You’re Lebanese, aren’t you?”

“Yep!”

“How old are you?”

“Seventeen.”

“Seventeen?” she said with genuine inquisitiveness, “Aren’t you supposed to be married by now?”

Um what?

Despite my initial incredulity, she remained earnest. This was an honest question. Perhaps it was odd that my teenage Lebanese self wasn’t sporting a wedding ring already.

When I found my voice again I retorted, “Um, no. Why would you say that?!”

“I just meant–well my Lebanese friends are all saying that they’re gonna get married soon, so that’s why I asked.” (I don’t know how relevant this is, but as far as I could tell, the girl was a typical-looking Caucasian blonde).

“Oh…well, no I’m not about to get married anytime soon.”

By this time, the class was filling up and the instructor was calling us to attention, so that was the end of that bit of oddness.

It was my first experience with how Lebanese girls are seen from a foreigner’s perspective. Apparently my teenage brethren were known for wanting to get hitched in 21st Century North America.

Who would’ve thought?