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.

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Happy Birthday Dad! (With a Seemingly Unrelated Story)

When I started at Dawson College in Montreal, I dutifully attended the pre-first-day-of-classes orientation session, listened well, and took copious notes. (Although it was truly helpful, I either completely ignored or was mostly inattentive in every other orientation session since I graduated from there).

Anyways, I learned you could sign up for a mentor for your first semester—a teacher who could help you out and give you advice if you felt like you needed support while transitioning from high school to college.

I was never happier to be out of high school (bloody hated it), but I thought signing up for a mentor would be a good idea. After all, I had no predictor of how good or bad my experience was going to be, and any in-college support was a plus.

I was signed to a man named Simon. (I used to mentally call him by his full name, but now I can’t remember it anymore). He was a sweet man, though he did have a certain air—or attitude—that, to this day, I can’t put my finger on. Perhaps I didn’t seem like the awkward, nervous teen he thought would be the type to sign up for a mentor. Or maybe he found my mile-a-minute speech pattern and general enthusiasm a bit odd. (I have no idea, really. I’ve never been good at reading people).

Anyways, it’s suffice to say that he was a nice guy…there was just something slightly “off” that I can’t specifically point out. Not that it mattered much in the long run, really. We had several sessions and then I left for good because my time was up and he had another mentee. I hardly ever saw him again. In hindsight, I could have done just as well without him—there wasn’t much in terms of help/guidance that I particularly needed. Still, I liked having someone to chat with about regular stuff, especially because I hadn’t made friends close enough to hang out with yet.

The reason I bring this up is I suddenly remembered something today…which is coincidentally my dad’s birthday. You see, from the age of twelve to nearly twenty, my dad and I lived in entirely separate countries. When we moved to Lebanon from Saudi Arabia, he stayed behind to work. (First in Saudi Arabia, then Qatar, where he still is). Three years in Lebanon and five years in Canada were all spent with my father visiting a few times a year. (We saw him more often in Lebanon, as his visits were more frequent and we also used to go back to Saudi during our breaks). I missed him terribly, but the situation just meshed in as a part of our lives. I never felt distant from my father. I always felt his presence in one way or another, despite the fact that, the vast majority of the time, he wasn’t physically there. My mother spoke with him on MSN on a regular basis. We sent emails back and forth. He was very much a part of our lives when we were all in Saudi, and we spent as much time as possible with him whenever he visited after we moved away. This has always stuck with me. 

This isn’t a unique situation for people. Several families we know (and about a million we don’t) live the same way. The father/husband stays behind in the Gulf to continue working and the family is sent overseas for the kids to continue their education or to get American/Canadian/UK passports. I just accepted it as a situation that just…happens.

It was during a session with Simon that it dawned on me that this kind of a relationship could be perceived drastically differently. I was mentioning the moves I’ve been through—from Saudi to Lebanon to Canada, and how my dad stayed behind and yadda-yadda…

When he interrupts in the most offhand and perfectly knowing tone, “So, you hardly even know the guy!” and chuckles.

For a long half-second, I was struck dumb. What? Did he just think I had an absentee father…someone who is just a distant shadow who had a hand in spawning my form and not much else?

My answer, in reality, came out lightning fast, although my mind was reeling because I did NOT want him to have this view of my father as someone I didn’t even know. I don’t remember what I said exactly, but I do know I vehemently denied his careless assessment of my dad’s stance as a parent, of his effect on my upbringing and in my life. I was a little upset, but I didn’t show it. How could he be so nonchalant in throwing out such a judgment?

I know that it’s a logical conclusion, technically speaking. If someone tells you they lived in a separate country from their father since they were twelve, you might just think there wasn’t much “fathering” going on in their lives. But it killed me because I read so many books featuring kids who didn’t know their dads, or whose dads lived in the same house but kept their distance. Mine wasn’t like that—how could he think so?

My dad had traditions with all us kids. He used to make boats out of orange peels and put orange slices in them, reciting lines from the Arabic-dubbed version of Treasure Island. He would kiss us all good night on the forehead, and—when we were younger—sometimes he’d cuddle into bed with us, and we’d just talk, one-on-one. He read us stories that to this day I still mentally read in his accent. He taught me how to swim and how to check if a surface is hot by waving my hand over it first. Math was my absolute worst subject, but when he stayed up with me, he detangled it in my head, almost literally. It took little time, and everything suddenly made perfect sense. So much so, I solved a problem on the board in fourth grade using a method a grade above what my teacher was teaching, thanks to my dad’s tutoring. He gives amazing hugs, and I’m sure I got my love of cuddle hugs from him. As kids, we used to all pile under the blankets with him, squeeing in glee, because it was cold outside and we were going to all sit under his wonderful blankets and be awesome together. (He had two blankets he ALWAYS slept in. They were unique and smelled just like him). He took us on vacations to Turkey, Egypt and London. He always made sure we stayed in the best places, and visited every important landmark he could discover. He’s a ceaseless reader and explorer and never stops learning. He’s the pillar his entire family leans on, and is the most honest and hard-working person I’ve ever met in my life.

So to anyone else who might have a Simon-like reaction, I say this: You don’t know just how much I know him, thank you.

Happy Birthday, Dad. I couldn’t ask for a better one.

My Ramblings Are Nomadic Too

I’ve come to realize that almost every blog and social media account I’ve ever created was due to me either procrastinating or suffering from boredom.

Often it’s a semi-lethal mix of both.

My very first blog was something called Obscurity in the Land of Moonlight, which sounds like a painfully pretentious novel written by a bespectacled preteen with barely-legible penmanship. 

In real life I was a 20-year-old tween transitioning from a life in Canada to one in Qatar. I was floating around without the vaguest clue on what to do with myself. It was too late to register for college, and—on top of that—I wasn’t sure I knew what I wanted to do anymore. Fun stuff.

Along came my Canadian best friend, whom I affectionately call “Lebne”. We had made a habit of chatting for disgustingly long hours on MSN in spite of the time difference. (What can I say? We’re both verbose individuals). During one of these real-time paragraph-fests, she mentioned some of the stuff she liked to read on LiveJournal. (Remember LJ? It’s the MySpace of the blogging world). Since I liked to write, wouldn’t it make sense to make an account?

It didn’t take much thinking. After all, I already had a Tripod-supported website called Active Chicken (I swear there is a perfectly rational story behind that), so talking about stuff in my life wasn’t new to me. And, hey, it was something to do, right? I opened an account, blabbed up a first post and—voilà! Here I am.

I’m mentioning this because I’m always saying that I barely moved out of the Gulf/Middle East since the time I started blogging—which is true. But, you know what? Ever since I did, I never could stay in one spot. I didn’t make it to a year-and-a-half on LJ (where I changed my theme approximately 625 times) before I discovered the black hole known as WordPress.

I distinctly remember needing to study for one of my business courses that fateful night, but the procrastination bug had already burrowed a Texas-sized hole through what was left of my mind. So, what better way to deal with that than to make an entirely new blog? I’m nothing if not logical. So I whipped up an account, chose the first of what was to be another 832 themes, and lo, Grins and Clockwork was born! I even learned to export my LJ’s entries into it, which freed me to delete that account for good.

G&C went along a similar vein to Obscurity, but gave me more room to categorize my posts and generally talk about newer things that were going on in my life, like my college experiences and my friends. Sometimes the updating was enthusiastic, but other times a month would see one to three posts at most. Even so, I always made sure I stuck around it somewhat, just so people knew I hadn’t died.

Still, I started to get that…tell-tale itch. It’s when I realized I was starting to lose focus and none of my previous posts were remotely inspiring. I needed a fresh start to go along with the fact I had graduated with my business diploma from college, and was now studying English in AUB…in yet another country. 

I quietly set up a third blog, which I named The Crooked Trident. When I got a few posts in, and felt it was starting to look like home, I announced the closing of Grins and Clockwork after three great years. It didn’t take me long to permanently move my merry self to a brand new place.

Unsurprisingly, it took a mere year before a bout of “Let me try something else now…ooooh, how about a themed blog?!” to push me to create No Easy Answer.

I guess you could say that even if I’m not physically moving, my consistent need to ramble sure is. 

It also seems obscenely vain that I can talk about myself for this long.

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…

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?

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.

Talkin’ ‘Bout My Arab’ation

A buddy of mine asked me a pretty interesting question today. We were in the car with a couple of other friends and we had parked outside a masjid (prayer space) because one of them wanted to pray. While we were waiting for her to finish up I mentioned that I’d never been in one before because I’ve always just prayed at home instead. This sparked a short discussion from my friends about the occasions in which they had gone to a masjid or mosque, like during Eid or Ramadan. After a short pause, one of them asked me, almost randomly, “Do you consider yourself Arab?”

At first I wasn’t sure what he meant. I told him I was Lebanese, and thus yes, I am Arab. But he said, “No, I meant do you consider yourself an Arab? Do you see yourself as one?”

That gave me pause for thought. Believe it or not, no one’s ever asked me that before. I’ve said several times that I don’t feel particularly Lebanese, but I’d always taken my being Arab for granted…which is kind of odd considering that I’m always turning over ideas about the complications of my identity in my head.

Still, despite that, I found that it only took me a few seconds to state that, yes, I did identify as such and was proud to be one. I added that I was also definitely “westernized”, but that didn’t mean that I didn’t embrace my Arab culture and traditions. (My definition of westernized is being exposed to American or European culture from a young age and having it subconsciously incorporated into your identity/behavior as a person). I’m thankful and proud that I can speak and understand Arabic, even if I’m not as fluent as I’d like to be. I’m thankful that I was taught to read it, even if my current skill is only at an intermediate level. I’m proud to be part of a widespread ethnic group with a deep and rich history. The fact that there are so many Arab countries, and that each one has its own culture while also sharing many elements with its Arab neighbors, is pretty awesome. On the other hand, it’s also rather sad considering our countries tend to be in conflict with each other more than anything else. (But that’s a whole different story).

My friend added that Arabs raised outside tend to be very westernized and that those who have lived in the US or Canada for a generation or two tend to be more distant from their “Arab roots”. Thus, they become just another American or Canadian while being “Arab” becomes relatively meaningless. However, even if I’d lived in Canada or a similar country my whole life, I would still identify myself as Arab because the environment I was raised in was Arab. True, my family is modern and open-minded enough to take the best out of everything we’re exposed to, but we also have a strong connection to being Arab and Muslim without being remotely fanatical about it. It’s just who we are.

And for that I can only say, above all else, I’m extremely grateful. I feel more well-rounded and exposed to many more ideas than I think I could have ever been otherwise, while not sacrificing my connection to where I came from.

Question for Readers: What ethnicities or nationalities do you identify with? Is it  easy for you to pinpoint who you are and where you’re from?