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When we published the book Springhints, I wrote the last chapter about the untouched work of memory in Lebanon. In fact I insisted that the text should occupy the place normally reserved for conclusions with the implicit intention of proposing recommendations.
The book, being a phase in our ongoing project, was followed by discussion panels. Attentive readers kept repeating to us the following criticism: In our questionnaire we missed out on the right of the Lebanese diaspora to vote, and the absolute necessity of this becoming a norm acknowledged by law. Why should Lebanese citizens living abroad be deprived of their basic democratic right and duty to vote? It was constructive criticism and so it stayed with me.
When I decided to write for “Lebanese Without Frontiers” I had to go back to that, this time linking the Lebanese diaspora and the right to vote to the theme of war memory, a subject that haunts me and that has been dictating my research for the last 3 years, and will continue to do so for several more to come. I wonder indeed how did we miss out on such a critical point? And how did we forget those Lebanese who left? Have they been displaced to oblivion? Perhaps when we are so taken with our “internal” complexities we forget the outside world or feel so far from it, almost cut off… The Lebanon effect!
And then I started thinking of how my fellow citizens leave Lebanon, where they go and how often they come back? It’s ironic that I myself should be writing this from Paris. I left Lebanon many times and returned many times, a bit like smoking: can’t quit it, but always try to, and when I’m not trying, it remains in the back of my head. I should quit smoking… I should leave Lebanon. It’s highly toxic yet intoxicating; it’s highly addictive and dangerous; it can kill you, yet it’s so thrilling. And yes, already I’m not sure if it’s still about smoking or about Lebanon, strange analogy, but a pertinent metaphor.
But then there are those who succeeded in quitting Lebanon for good. They left and never came back. They got “stuck” in the rest of the world, as if they were trapped outside the borders of Lebanon. But from their perspective, they’ve escaped and are never coming back.
Some, I know by their first names. We go way back, all the way to the 1980s. They are my schoolmates, my fellow scouts, my partners in laughter and innocence, they are part of who I am. We slept in the open and counted stars and said things that I still remember. Some are first generation in their departures; they didn’t all go far, they are right here in Europe, just a few hours away from their homeland. When the wind is strong, they can probably smell the thyme.
Yet some have spent 25 years without visiting–or perhaps they do so once, to confirm the wisdom of staying away. No Christmas, no summer, not even for a death or a marriage. They had a hero who died; you can’t forget that, not when you are 15. When you are young your heroes are not supposed to die … When they do you never forgive them.
All Lebanese are war-damaged creatures, but I wonder what unspeakable violence was done to those who won’t come back, how deep is the cut? Is it even deeper than mine? Or yours? Why is it so impossible to console them? What made them go as far as the point of no return? Why is it difficult to even discuss it with them? What gaping wound dictated their self-inflicted exile, like an undisputable sentence? An ever renewed and fresh trauma makes them recoil at the thought of Lebanon, as if the country meant imminent and vivid pain.
But I know the love is there, probably greater than they will ever say, one of those objects of our affection, difficult to show off, thorny to admit to, and sometimes (to express the taboo) so hard to feel proud of, so hampering. The guilt that necessarily accompanies such negations is insurmountable.
I know the longing is there, unspoken. I know the concern is there but in the form of anger and rejection and despair. I heard someone say: “Lebanon does not belong to us anymore, it’s lost for good.” And so they took on new identities, they adapted perfectly elsewhere, they are exemplary Europeans and Americans, and they married blondes, gave their children fanciful names and altered their last names. They never taught their kids Arabic. When you are a loving parent you protect your child.
Someone else once told me “Putting up walls around you is never a solution, nor any sort of protection from being hurt again. Walls are never immune to deception from the outside. I have learned it the hard way and it made me a miserable person, sad and afraid. Afraid of trusting again, afraid of socializing, afraid of being true and real, afraid of loving. I hid, just like you, in my own little world, hibernating, because I thought it was the solution. On the contrary, the remedy is to face your fear dead on and confront it. It takes time to achieve that, I know, but time heals everything.”
In this reasoning was a silent promise of love, too ambitious but true, only to disappear again behind frontiers of a multiple and complex nature, beyond the Atlantic. The hidden farewell came back to me in waves that I rode without resisting.
It must be difficult to love in Arabic.
My friends from the past who left never to return to Lebanon make me want to apologize–I’m not sure for what, not knowing it’s for reviving a desire they swore against, a whole history a whole life and a whole identity concentrated in a scout camp, and buried there, alive. But who knows how to measure a soul?! It doesn’t take much space to pack a photo and a couple of songs. They carry and cherish the essence of a precious perfume of endangered source. When I talk to them I feel like I am touching the past, when they talk to me they feel like they are touching the country they deserted and never stopped missing.
This is how a person, and through that person, a country, becomes history. We embrace each other and find harmony; how often one gets to touch his memories? It’s like touching an improbability.
This is why it’s so difficult to let go. The massive disinvestment of what might have been. And yes, already I don’t know if it’s still about a country or about love.