Dear Youhana

I’m leaving you, but not because I don’t love you. It’s complicated.

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But complicated is your middle name, so I know somehow you get it. I honestly don’t know if I’ll be seeing you soon or just reminiscing about you from a distance. Ours has been a contentious relationship, but I think I’ve finally accepted the fact that this is just how you treat people. You seem to be quite comfortable with the paradoxes of this world.

I walk down the corniche staring at a shimmering Mediterranean Sea, distracted only by the glint of snow-capped peaks in the distance. Can it possibly be ski season when all these joggers around me are in shorts and tank tops? As long as I keep my eyes fixed on the long-view, I can avoid the piles of trash that are washing up against the rocky shore.

There are scantily-clad supermodels posing in front of a proud collection of yachts while a fully covered woman casually looks on from the only visible part of her own body. Appearance isn’t everything to you, but it certainly is something. You are adorned with post-surgery bandages on your nose, and who knows exactly where else…?

My normal clothes make me feel severely under-dressed as I walk through Zaytouna Bay, but within 15 minutes by foot, I can feel embarrassingly overdressed next to other people staring at me from their make-shift tent.

Why do you so love to stare? I work hard to always stare in response, but I can never outlast you. I just walk on.

Then again, it’s a toss up if it’s safer to drive or walk. After all, the life of a pedestrian here is not an easy one. Sidewalks are an extra place to park and freeways are merely an opportunity to see how quickly daredevils can sprint and dodge oncoming traffic. As a driver, I count it a great accomplishment that I have not severed any limbs in my two years on the road (even if I have bruised a few fellow cars). It’s another victory that I was never hit by one of the packs of Ferraris weaving in and out of the four lanes – or was it three lanes – or one – or seven? What’s the purpose of those lines on the road again?

I can’t decide if you are the absolute worst or best drivers in the world. Every time I’ve ended up on the opposite side of a douwar I pause to consider the miracle I just witnessed. Perhaps my greatest win as a driver is simply that I am not still not stuck in the bottle-kneck traffic of Jounieh.

I will have to work hard to remember the rules for my children’s car seats when I leave you. Last time I brought one into a service, the driver briefly studied it in confusion, shrugged his shoulders, and tossed it in the trunk. I’ve ridden in way too many Bus Fours to recall whether or not it’s odd to be able to see the road underneath my feet while we’re speeding along to the sound of honking horns.

So much noise. At such volume. I can never tell if that’s gunfire or fireworks or just the sound of some sh3b’s overzealous exhaust pipe. You play “Happy Birthday” way too loudly, and your candles are always in danger of lighting the restaurant ceiling on fire. You do everything with everything you are… there is no middle ground. 

You wear your emotions on your sleeve. There are still times I can’t tell if you’re angry or confessing your adoration, as both are done with such a full heart and such flamboyant hand motion.

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Why do you charge so much money for everything? And always in cash! You are a living economic miracle. I have no idea how you have persisted, but against all odds, you have, you do, and you will. There is a new building under construction everywhere I turn. Who is buying these places? Who can afford you? This Lira seems like Monopoly money to me… 2000 of something feels like it should earn me a lot more than a loaf of bread.

Too much bread. My gut is bulging for the first time in my life, and I blame it completely on the convenience and deliciousness of man2ouche. You have the most savory food on the planet, and it has ruined me, I’m telling you. I may need to change the size of my pants for the first time in twenty years.

You fill empty space, and not just in my belly. In the narrow streets. In casual conversation. In anything that requires some form of organization. I once almost missed my flight to Cyprus as the supposed “line” gradually ballooned into a cone-shaped collection of bodies clamoring for their turn through customs.

But how I can defend myself in these situations? Two years of learning Arabic and I still receive most of my replies in English or French or just a raising of your eye-brows. You are truly your own code-switching collision of “bonjouraks” and “merci kteers.” You smile respectfully at we foreigners’ obvious accents while weaving in and out of three languages with effortless proficiency. Then you go and make an entirely new language for the sake of texting, merging numbers and letters… whatever, you invented the alphabet, so you have a right to flaunt your linguistic prowess. Let’s be honest, I’ve spent most of my effort just trying to learn your vast array of hand and eye signals, to say nothing of the proper timing to offer a kiss or shake a hand or just avoid physical contact all together. 

Most days I feel like I’m just beginning to get to know you. But I kind of think everyone who meets you, even those who claim to know you best, are in a similar condition. For much of our relationship I’ve simply gone with the flow, trying to follow the motions of the person in front of me like I’m the final shakhis in the twisting chain of some grand Dabke. I’ve been tempted more than once to just break free, thrust my hips to whatever Fayrouz tune is playing, and flick my wrists in order to blend in while sticking out. I’m never sure if you’re about to smile at me or scold me.

You shamelessly berate me with “harams” when my children aren’t wearing six layers and the breeze is gently blowing. I love and hate the audacity you freely show by involuntarily teaching me to properly care for my kids. But children are indeed adored. And elders are indeed respected, despite – and perhaps because of – their quirks.

The most endearing of khityarin are often found driving down a side street honking their horns and beckoning me into their cars (not to make it sound creepy or anything). Even if the self-proclaimed service driver doesn’t make enough money in a day to pay for his own gas, at least he has the power to half-heartedly glance up from his foam throne and turn away the poor soul that has stooped down to humbly request a ride in his chariot.

There is a family loyalty known nowhere else on the planet, even when you are outspoken of how crazy your own family is. I have never so badly wanted to have a village to call my own, nor a Teta to cook me a traditional Sunday brunch. The characters in my own imaginary Lebanese family are as quintessential as a Saturday night at Em Nazih. 

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You gifted me with two of my three children, but awarded none of us the grand perks of Lebanese citizenship (by which I mostly mean that cool passport with the cedar on it). Being in my early dad years meant that I rarely saw the side of you that emerges after dark, which feels like perhaps 95% of who you are. Do we even know each other at all? I once accidentally found myself awake past midnight in Mar Mikhael and wondered if I was dreaming. How do you do it? How do you stay awake? 

Ah yes. Coffee. Even Dunkin’ Donuts couldn’t stay away from you… how could I? I once stopped at a dukan to try and purchase a caffeine boost and the old man behind the counter insisted I sit with him and ponder life over a cup of his homemade Joe. Ahlan wa Sahlan ‘til I die. 

And I need a lot of coffee in the morning since there’s no need for me to leave my house with your endless delivery options. It’s not like that fancy restaurant doesn’t have to deal with the same power outages I do here, so why would I ever leave my building? Why would I ever leave you? Well, I guess there are more Lebanese in Brazil and more cedars in Britain. Undoubtedly the Lebanese diaspora will continue, and you will sprinkle your presence across the earth, if nothing else than to provide the rest of humanity with a little flavor.

My high school students unanimously wave their hands in the air when I ask who feels proud to be Lebanese, but only a few sparse hands remain after I ask who plans to stay. Is this the ongoing consequence of war on a new generation that has never fully known it themselves?

 I’m reminded of the Christmas Tree lighting ceremony taking place under the shadow of the Grand Mosque on one side and the watchful eye an infant messiah in the nativity scene to its opposite. Perhaps you are less concerned with the religious divides of former wars than you are with one’s loyalty to Barca or Real Madrid (although on your finer days you know you prefer Messi’s genius over Ronaldo’s good looks).

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When people ask me to describe you, “resilient” is the first word that comes to mind. I still haven’t found the right translation for it in Arabic, but perhaps that’s the telling part… perhaps your resilience is so core to who you are that it need not be named. I don’t know anyone that has taken so many beatings and dealt with so much heartache but still stands so confident and proud.

There is a great age difference between us, but you’ve never made it a big deal. I was born in 1982 when your southern border was opening to uninvited guests. It wasn’t the first time, and certainly not the last. You’ve played host to unwelcome guests for most of your existence, and your existence is about as old as existence gets. I question now if you actually ever invited me… but regardless, welcome me you did.

You have given and given, with so little given in return. You are literally littered from top to bottom, and I fear we have all taken advantage of you – taken you a bit for granted. The temples of your ancient days whisper of a time you were revered at the center of the planet. Modern voices gave you pet names like Switzerland and Paris to link you to other noble places on the earth. But you are your own personality. You always will be incomparable.  

Jesus of Nazareth was once in casual conversation with you before you overwhelmed him with that unparalleled wit of yours. He said you had the kind of faith that meant you will get whatever you wish for. Well my wish for you is that you would have that kind of faith once again… the kind that fights for a seat at the table and defends your own dignity. I hope I’ve been a small part of that becoming real in you. 

Yes, it’s true, I’m leaving you, but not because I don’t love you. It’s complicated.

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