The Ending to Begin Again

This is “Episode VI”  in the memoir I’m writing for my Creative Non-Fiction class. Previous installments are herehereherehere and here. It’s a short one that I plan to use as my ending:

I sit on the precipice of another new beginning. It will take a blink, maybe two, and I’ll be a graduate. I have some idea, a big idea, no idea where I’m going to go next. I just know that I want to travel again, and I want to make an impact on the world, like it had an impact on me.

I want to have an open future, but I know I don’t have much time to sprawl on the couch and be picky about what I want to do. I like to write, to tell stories and I want, hopefully, to teach. I see people as books to be opened, and I want to have an experience in their lives as they have one in mine.

Sometimes I feel isolated, or passive, and I hate it. I miss that time in my life where things were fresh and just…different. I want that feeling you get when you come home at the end of the day and know you did something unique, something that you’ll remember for the rest of your life. I haven’t had that in so long. I’m coming to a point where everything I plan will point me in that direction—in the one of change, travel and adventure.

It’s another five months until I pull through to the other side of AUB, and another two months after that before I get my TEFL certificate. That will be my ticket to world travel and encounters that will have a higher impact on me than I’ll ever have on anything else.

And after that, who knows? My life was never based on plans that actually worked out, and, for better or worse, nothing ever turns out the way I think it would. Then again, what does?

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.

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.

Adventures in Feminist Teaching

This is another “episode” in the memoir I’m writing for my Creative Non-Fiction class. My first installment is here. I figured I might as well lighten the mood from my last post. Hope you enjoy! (And, just to state the obvious, “Quirky” is a pseudonym, and a rather fitting one).

Oh God, Hala! I felt so weird! I couldn’t wait to get out!” Quirky shuddered, “The only reason I didn’t leave early was because I was in the front row and I didn’t want to cause a disturbance.”

I stifled a giggle, “Dude, the class is called ‘Feminist and Queer Theories’. It would be weird if it wasn’t weird.” I knew Quirky had a penchant for the dramatic, which is why it was entertaining to see her riled up. “Besides, what was it that shocked you so much?” I asked.

“Man, there were these people there with mohawks and piercings and tattoos! Which, by the way, is all good, I mean, do what you want and all, you know?” she barely paused to inhale, “But! There was this one girl! She was wearing a sleeveless shirt and she didn’t shave AT ALL! It was dis-GUST-ing.” The indignation and repulsion were practically tangible, and now I really wanted to laugh my head off.

Now, to be perfectly honest, my first experience with a woman who didn’t shave her armpits was no more mature than hers. It was in a public restroom in Canada and I definitely did a double-take and stared more than I should have. Being pretty ignorant, I often brought up the memory as something to laugh at. I know better now. So I can’t say I blamed Quirky all that much.

However, thanks to having lived in Canada, by now I had watched and supported gay pride parades, read feminist blogs (radical and otherwise), and often debated heavily with people holding vastly different viewpoints than mine. At the moment, sharing a feminism class with a woman who chooses the au naturel route wasn’t on my list of odd experiences. When it comes to people’s very personal life choices, I find it problematic, at best, to categorize them into black and white, “right” and “wrong”, without asking myself a lot of questions first.

Quirky, however, was about to explode from the indignation: How could she “let herself go” like that? Didn’t she want to be attractive? Didn’t she want to be seen as beautiful? Why would you want to do that to yourself?

I glanced up from my bag of chips and raised my hand to stave off the stream of rants. She quieted down, but I could see the confusion and outrage still dancing in her eyes.

“Well…what if she doesn’t want to be judged as attractive just because she shaves? What if she doesn’t even care? Why does she have to be seen that way?”

Quirky stared at me for all of two seconds before exploding, “This is how society is! Just live it! Why do we have to question everything?!”

For the sake of brevity, allow me to draw a curtain over the rest of the scene.

Math and Stereotypes

I’m taking a Creative Non-Fiction class where the teacher is asking us to write “episodes” of our lives memoir-style. We all had to choose a theme to base our memoir on, so I chose identity with a focus on my experiences in Lebanon. I’ve written two “episodes” so far, but I didn’t like the first one much, so here is my second attempt. Let me know what you think!

It was an early summer afternoon, and my grandmother’s dining table was hopelessly buried under my papers and textbooks. I bent my head over a page of math problems, though my 12-year-old brain was busy creating a wonderland where math didn’t exist. (Not that my tutor needed to know that). I had always suspected he found quiet amusement in my inability to understand what he was teaching me, a point which won him no favor. I gazed down at the numbers strewn all over my notebook and tried, unsuccessfully, to make sense of them. At this point, a break would have been more than welcome.

I did not have to wait long. Mr. Imad, either out of pity or boredom, decided to make small talk. As is wont to happen when you don’t know how to relate to a pre-teen you barely know, his go-to subject was the weather.

“Wow,” he said, leaning back, “Sure is hot isn’t it?”

I smiled a little, thankful for the distraction, “Yeah I know—Lebanon’s so humid. In Saudi it was hotter, but it was dry heat— not like this.”

“Oh Saudi’s different!” he said authoritatively, “It only has one season: Summer!”

He looked at me expectantly, waiting for what was sure to be my inevitable chuckle at his hilariously true observation.

Instead, my eyebrows rose. Summer year-round? Really? 

Although it was just a silly remark–more of a joke–he triggered something in me and I couldn’t bring myself to drop it. My mind flashed back to a particularly cold February day in Riyadh: Crossing the school playground while clutching my thick jacket to myself, shivering while the wind nipped at my face and re-styled my hair.

I shot back (with a tiny dab of pre-adolescent derision), “Of course not. In winter it gets cold enough to wear coats and sweaters. It’s freezing.”

My teacher’s grin faded just as fast as it appeared, and confirmed that he honestly believed what he had said before, “Oh, wait, really?!”

“Well, yeah. It’s not always hot, you know.” I said, almost defensively. Nothing irritated me more than when people made judgments about something they knew nothing about. Saudi Arabia has a laundry list of faults, I thought, but don’t make ignorant remarks just because you feel like you know better.

I was young, and perhaps his gaffe was the perfect target for someone who resented his condescension about my math skills (or lack thereof). But though Mr. Imad was the first to make such a remark, it was hardly the last. That moment was the beginning of my realization that being raised “outside” made me far less susceptible to jumping to conclusions, something that often isn’t taught in classrooms. Even though it hasn’t made things easy, it’s something I wouldn’t trade for all the mathematical talent in the world.