From the Archives of Al Jadid: 'The Lebanese Abroad'

By 
Emily Nasrallah
Author Emily Nasrallah
 
You tend to be harshest toward those closest to you because you know where they’re coming from, because your roots are intertwined with theirs and your branches are in continual dialogue with theirs.
 
Before you realize it, however, your sense of space expands so that your neighbors no longer remain only those on the same street as you, nor your relatives only those who are your first cousins, but also those whom you encounter wherever you go in the realm of emigration, or, as I prefer to call it, the realm of dispersion.
 
I have written many stories about the subject of emigration, and, still, that subject remains open before me, following closely upon my thoughts and observations of human conduct. I am surprised by my reaction each time I meet my fellow countrymen and women abroad. For they are not all Radwan Abu Yusef and his wife Raya, the protagonists of my story, “Flight Against Time,” with all that those two characters possess of goodness, sweetness, love, and authenticity. In this space, I’ll try to capture a few scenes and memories from what I have lived through along with fellow expatriates or have encountered in the various airports in this world, so that you can see what I mean.
 
I asked myself, but without finding a definite answer, why, when I’m in foreign airports, I shudder every time
I encounter someone who seems to be a compatriot? How, also, do I sense them, even as they approach from the far end of the street, as happened that one time in Montreal while I was riding on one of the Canadian city buses? At that time, a variety of people, representing the mosaic that is Canadian society, were riding on the bus. Suddenly, I saw her – that woman who was coming from somewhere close to the bus station. She was young, no more than thirty, and surrounded by a troop of kids, all fluttering about her, their screams preceding their footsteps until they reached the bus’s doorstep. They hopped on, and all the while, their mother was reprimanding them, “Shush or else! Lower you voice!” She gave out her orders in a screeching voice, threw herself upon the first empty seat she found, and then called her brood to sit down. They were oblivious to her, shoving each other and screaming, as if the people around them were mere statues, or as if they hadn’t just boarded a public bus, but were still in their house or backyard. And it was obvious from their behavior that the woman’s words, even though she was their mother, could not break through the rowdy mood that had overtaken them. Now that they had found themselves away from home, that is, away from the stern grip of their repressive upbringing, it was incumbent upon others to put up with their uncontrollable behavior and all its ugliness, just as one has to yield to a natural earthquake or fierce storm, hoping to protect oneself from it with whatever means available.
 
My stay in Montreal did not last long, as I soon had to return to Lebanon by way of London. Upon my arrival at the airport there, I was met by the same spectacle. Nor was I in need of signs to direct me toward the waiting room for the airplane that was to go to Beirut. The way was pointed to me by the visage of that “chic” lady, who seemed in her demeanor like a flag upon a ship’s pole. She seemed to me a copy image of the woman I had seen on the bus in Canada, except that this one was more fashionable in a bourgeois sort of way. She looked as if she had just emerged out of a beauty salon. Her hand was busy with a lit cigarette, which she would periodically puff at before flickering its ashes in every which way. In exactly the same way, she would flip her head each time she raised it to see what was around her, without her eyes ever resting on anything in particular. As for her legitimate offspring, they had formed a private bloc with the other children, and altogether were running behind a big ball, yelling freely, as if they were a soccer team playing in their neighborhood town square.
 
This episode, however, pales compared to other scenes I have witnessed in my other travels from and to Beirut. The scenes change and are transformed between departures and arrivals. Those leaving for Copenhagen or Frankfurt who get crowded together in the waiting rooms, along with their plastic bags, their clothes bundles, and their thick accents that point to their peasant origins seem entirely different when they come back. For the people who were once clothed in their peasant simplicity and artlessness must by necessity change, especially when their stay abroad lengthens, and even more so if they are ambitious youth. For then, they become exposed to one of the causes for modern extravagance: looks and fashion. This is why you find those young people willing to let go of their old appearance in order to embrace the fashions of their new world in as much as they can, except that the new look takes time before it can properly fit their figures, let alone suite them!
 
I won’t even talk about the accents. For the people I’m talking about travel abroad for finding work, not for learning new languages and getting an education. If they feel like becoming acquainted with the language of the land, so that they can “get by,” they prefer to catch new and fresh words from the mouths of those who speak it, not from books and grammar references. Some of those who left their country as refugees have not returned. Instead, they have arranged for ways to make a living and a future for their children in their host countries. If they happen to go back some day, it is for the sake of visiting their parents, but in most cases, they don’t return, preferring instead to invite their parents to undertake the visit of “old age” so that they can see how things are like in the countries of the North.
 
Because most who leave from Beirut airport are of this category, that is parents who miss their children and grandchildren, they load themselves with packages and fill their carry-on luggage to bursting, thinking, “the children will have missed the taste of their own country.”
 
The story is old and conventional. What is new to it is what was added by the long war to the emigration tableau, opening doors upon civilizations and peoples never before heard of.
 
In my most recent trip from Germany (middle of May 1997), I was fated to be one among a typical group of young expatriates who were returning to spend their summer vacation in their homeland. Here I will try to describe the scene as it was without fictional elaborations.
 
This particular airport was somewhat familiar to me, as I had stopped there before on a previous trip. For this reason, I did not need to search for the waiting room, for it was noted down on the flight ticket and was clearly within view as I stood in a long, disorderly line in front of the ticket counters. The line was filled with trolleys that were sagging under the weight of heavy suitcases, and with huge families with no fewer than six members, and numerous children…so many children!
 
These children led the way ahead to the waiting room, making room between one skip and another in order to let pass an exhausted-looking older lady who was carrying and dragging heavy bags, beside whom was a man even more elderly than she. The two of them, who, along with others, were returning from visiting their children, were of course loaded with gifts for each and every member of the family who was waiting for their return.
 
But the airplane that was going to Beirut was carrying another type of traveler; aboard were the young men and their families who were going back for their summer vacation. They seemed to outdo Western men and women, at least in outward appearance. Note, for instance, that young woman with her slim figure, tight pants, and high-top shoes of the latest style, which were inspired perhaps by military tanks. Her hair was carefully straightened, and her face was covered with every kind of makeup available. The young man accompanying her seemed to match her with his looks and hairstyle. Walking next to them was a two-year-old boy. How they were satisfied with one child, while all the women around them were buried in children, each hugging at least three, was a mystery. It was my luck to be seated near this couple in the airplane, a fate that made the journey home a screaming match seemingly without end.
 
During this whole time, I was asking myself why the Lebanese and Arab child begins his life crying. Why don’t the other children cry on the arms of their Western mothers? Is this quality inherited or acquired from lack of proper guidelines?
 
Certainly I am not partial to Westerners. But I can’t overlook the meaning of a proper upbringing, as it seems practically missing from the simple mothers who are lost between two worlds: the forgotten traditions of the past, and the assault of modernity, of which they are ignorant.
 
How else and with what right does that mother raise her voice complaining about the narrowness of her seat while her husband supports her and orders the stewardess to take her, along with her child, to one of those large seats in the front section of the plane, that is to a seat in the first-class cabin? In vain, the stewardess tried to explain the reasons why she couldn’t do as asked. In vain, she tried to explain the flight regulations to this man. He just kept insisting on refusing everything. Finally, she called upon two colleagues from the flight crew to solve this problem for her. Of course, there is no remedy except to make the man comprehend the meaning of respect for the law, which he would neither learn nor understand.
 
I tried to flee this scene by looking toward the seat next to mine and contemplating the calm young woman who had taken her seat near me without so much as a greeting and to whom I had nonetheless smiled and helped fill out the arrival customs form, of which she was ignorant, even in Arabic. Nonetheless, this young woman left a deep impression upon me when she opened her handbag and covered her arms, ears, neck and fingers with ornaments, so that she was transformed in a few minutes to a proper display window for gold jewelry. 
 
She told me, as she smiled proudly: “I’m a bride, and these are a few of the presents that my groom has offered to win my acceptance.”
 
I said, “Congratulations,” and thought of the significance of such displays in matrimonial choices; it seems that gold casts a special light upon marriage.
 
Of course I didn’t say any of this to her, but left her to enjoy that little comfort, what she seemed to consider one of the necessities of marital happiness, as she had been taught day after day, lesson after lesson.
 
As for some of the other young mothers, the image of one of them sticks to my memory. She was distinguished by her striking natural beauty. She had chosen an original Western dress – had the Parisian stylists seen it, they surely would have imitated it. She had covered her head and neck with a veil derived from the fashions of 19th century Turkish women that our women had adopted until the middle of this century. However, this young lady who was residing in the West, added to it a new touch by wearing a European hat, and so was able to combine on top of her small, and I might say intelligent, head, the traditions of old with the new – and oh what innovation was accomplished there!
 
I am always amazed by women’s fashions; it seems like something falling out of unknown planets. The stranger it is, the more women are attracted and attached to it. But my amazement increases while I am abroad, especially as I consider how expatriate women mix their styles, their languages, and their modernity. They scarcely leave behind their original skins before they lose sight entirely of where they should stand.
 
All that I have described seems insignificant next to the way in which special occasions, especially celebrations, are observed. At such times, the contest between the various parties is raised to its highest; everyone’s true character is revealed, and all material acquisitions are displayed in their variety and entirety. This has now become obligatory in the age of publicity and the commemoration of special occasions through video recording.
 
Upon my arrival at Beirut airport, I stopped criticizing entirely, and was brought back to my proper size, a common citizen who travels like any other, one who is not considered a special guest, for whom the drum beats, but one received at the customs area by a group of supportive friends and anxious relatives.
 
Translated from the Arabic by Pauline Homsi Vinson
 
This essay appeared originally in Arabic in the Beirut-based At Tarik Journal. The publisher of At Tareek has granted Al Jadid the exclusive right to translate into English and publish. 
 
This essay appeared in Al Jadid, Vol. 8, No. 41, Fall 2002.
 
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