I had just moved permanently to the United States and was struggling with a cultural shock: No family, no friends, new job, and a taxing immigration process. Not to mention the personal life of a young independent woman uprooted from the only culture she has ever known to be planted in the vast and overwhelming “land of the free and home of the brave.”
When I left Lebanon in August 1990, the political and military landscape looked grim and hopeless. There was not even a glimmer of reconciliation, co-existence or compassion among warlords or their followers. Divisions ran deep sometimes cutting through families pitting father against son or driving siblings to kill one another. Christians turned out to be the worst haters, and I lived and worked among them but always underwent harassment and put my life in danger to reach “the other side” whatever that was. The voice of moderation had no place in the mix. Those like me stood out like an eyesore, but moved proudly among all regions, having pledged allegiance to no one. Reaching out to the other side such as the Muslim side was “a complete waste of time” according to one of my colleagues. Many people agreed with him! The way things were going it looked like this doom was going to plague Lebanon for many generations to come. Thus, I moved to the U.S. with the intention not to look back!
Then, October came with historic and dramatic changes. There were massacres and a complete takeover of the Christian areas -- the only part of Lebanon free of Syrian influence until then -- by the Syrian army. Syria and its agents now controlled all of Lebanon the news said. The godfathers of the warring Christian factions were crushed: Michel Aoun sought exile in France and Samir Geagea was jailed. Their followers would be muted for years.
So, I placed a call to Lebanon on one sad October morning to try and understand what “the war is over” really meant.
For perspective it would help to think that the Internet didn’t exist then. No laptops with connections and a Google to answer every question on one’s mind. Businessmen and women walked around with pagers. They made them look extremely important and a few steps above the rest of us every time their waists buzzed. This usually prompted a rush to the nearest phone or pulling a huge phone with an antenna that constituted the mighty mobile phone for the few who could afford it.
To call Lebanon one had to go through the International Operator who would try for hours sometimes to get a line through and connect you. So, I called the one friend who can explain it as simply as possible and tell me where we go from here.
In answer to my breathless inquiry, my friend simply said, “Yes it’s over.” “The Syrians are in control.” “It’ll change. It just needs time.” I cried that day, but it was more because I was feeling sorry for myself and all my friends who paid a high price for a war we had nothing to do with and never supported. Plus, Syria’s control of Lebanon was always a pill impossible to swallow as far as I’m concerned.
The Cedar Revolution of 2005, which no politician had any role in, rightfully forced Syria out of Lebanon. Unfortunately, like any good revolution it had its opportunists and hijackers. The divisions returned and many Christians filed two lines as if going for their last communion following the same men who once got them to kill one another and will do it again in a heartbeat.
Being an immigrant far away from Lebanon reinforced in me lessons I learned growing up in my multi-faceted family such as appreciating and respecting diversity. Even those you most disagree with, have the right to be heard and make their point across. Immigration teaches people to be creative in their approach to new topics and issues. It’s simply because a different world is gazing and judging them now. Take controversial topics still taboo in most Arab societies such as homosexuality, civil marriage, divorce, abortion, cloning, scientific research and advancement that infringe on the existing religions or belief systems, observe your reaction to them and measure how much that is stemming from your environment.
Step outside the box. It was built to lock you in. Everyday society repeats to you that you and this box are a perfect fit. You belong in it and it was made especially for you. You’ll never fit into another box, you’ll never be happy outside of it.
The truth is, you’ll never know until you try. The truth is that we were made to fly and soar and enjoy life to its fullest. We were never intended for a box or a bubble or chains or countries or boundaries or land. We are born naked and we turn into dust when we die. What’s in between is our own society’s making. The society we happen to be born into or the one we are forced to live in or the one we choose for any particular reason that can range from pursuing happiness, love or a better life, to seeking asylum of fear of persecution.
The truth is some people, especially the young among us, are already living outside their little jails. Those who are not affected yet by the corruption of life and its agents don’t even know about the box. Society looks at them as immature, naïve or eccentric. They are free. The kind that once got a taste of the freedom life is supposed to be; they will never go backward. They are the ones who are free even if they’re shackled, jailed with no chance of leaving their spot.
On this October anniversary, I’m turning my sad memory into a step forward into the light to say it’s time for the blinded Lebanese to wake up and step out of their prefab coffins and live Freedom. The only leader they are intended to follow.