If you’ve known me long enough or have been following Thoughts & Abouts for a while, you’d know that, despite my political science background, I’m not one to entertain political discussions. I don’t agree with some of my closest friends on political views, and, if you’re familiar with Lebanon, where I was born and raised, you’d know that it’s just better this way. But we’ll get to that later.
For now, let me just show you the place that brought me up.
Beirut was born to be exceptionally gorgeous. Shamelessly beautiful. A Goddess to look at. Despite the wars, the bombs, the insecurity, the high cost of living and low pay, the corruption and class disparity. Despite everything that normally makes a place unlivable, Beirut was where you’d go to live. My city never settled for looks, though. It seduced you with its charm, and drugged you with its appeal. But on the inside, it was arrogant, unbreakable with a heart of steel. It was shot from every direction, but shone through, more stunning than ever.
Over the years, Lebanese abroad would always tell you that their current situation is temporary. That this new place they live in, although great, is not Lebanon. “Akid badna nerja3” (of course we’re going back), is an expression you’d hear often.
Lebanese were hardly the only fans, though. State Departments and Ministries of Foreign Affairs around the world have had notices on their websites for the last 30 years, warning their nationals that Lebanon is highly dangerous, and visiting it would be on their own risk. You’d think this would stop them, but they adopted Beirut as their own and went every chance they got. Why? Because Lebanese mastered the art of living. Because Lebanon is where you meet people who would give you their bed and sleep on the floor. Where the food is to die for and the parties are unmatchable. It’s where everyone, regardless of where they come from, their likes and dislikes, could find a corner that would force them to be spontaneous. Drag them out of their comfort zone. Make them nostalgic for their best memories. Remind them of their first love. Awaken their dreams and ambitions. Reiterate their raison d’être. Whisper in their ears that they only live once.
And, We, the Lebanese People, didn’t have to do anything to earn the right to the country where everyone wanted to be.
But there is so much Beirut’s looks and charm can do.
Growing up, every Lebanese student without fail learned in geography class that Lebanon was strategically located to connect East and West. That with its moderate weather and diverse landscape, people could swim and ski on the same day. That its four distinct seasons made it all too attractive for people coming from countries that didn’t have that luxury.
They failed to mention in geography class, though, that our strategic location also meant that we should thank God for the Mediterranean, our only peaceful neighbor. That our neighbors on every other side have issues that have gone on for decades, often spilling over to Lebanese soil.
Also growing up, every Lebanese student without fail learned in social studies class that Lebanon was home to 18 sects “co-existing harmoniously.” That it was a democracy with a constitution, where people had a say in what goes on in their lives. That our electoral law allowed for proportional representation amongst all layers of society.
What our social studies class didn’t tell us is that the 18 sects appear to be co-existing harmoniously. That our democracy was words on paper. That in reality, we’re a hereditary monarchy, monopolized by a few families whose names we’ve memorized all too well. That our electoral law and constitution couldn’t make up for the sleaziness of our “leaders,” and the naivety of our people.
We, the Lebanese People, took Beirut and all that it gave us for granted and said “thank you, but no thank you.”
We have not learned. And I’m not sure we’re capable of ever learning.
We can blame our government. We can blame our economical situation and our debt and our neighbors and our political enemies and “el wade3” (the situation). And, and and. But, at the end of the day, we should blame no one but ourselves.
After all that has gone on in our Lebanon. After we’ve given time and time again the same people a chance to make a difference. After they failed us every time. After they starved us, split us up, disappointed us, ruined our lives, increased our debt, deprived us of our most basic needs, we still cheer them on and chant for them. Who are we. What is wrong with us. How have we not made those who have driven us away from our Lebanon accountable for every mishap?
Perhaps the only thing Lebanon has ever done for me was sign a no-objection letter, attesting that my government has no issues or reservations with me working for a foreign government. It was the quickest signature I’ve ever received from my Lebanon. And how awful did it feel.
I haven’t lived in Lebanon in 11 years. I know. Now you’re thinking ‘why didn’t just lead with this, so we could have spared ourselves the hypocritical speech.’ And I’ll beg to differ. Every Lebanese who, for one reason or another, has had to leave Lebanon, will tell you that distance has made our love for Lebanon grow fonder.
This same distance, however, has made us appreciate other governments that are doing for people who aren’t even their people more than my government has ever done for me.
I’ve been living in a desert, also known as the United Arab Emirates (UAE), for the last three and a half years. I dreaded this place at first. Maybe because I felt like leaving Lebanon for another Arab country didn’t make any sense. I was in the United States before that. But that was fine. I went to study, and that was justified. But how was I going to justify moving to the UAE when I couldn’t even justify it to myself. A monarchy in the middle of a desert.
I don’t think the way I saw the UAE changed until my parents came and visited. They opened my eyes to things I hadn’t seen. Things that are so different from Lebanon. Things they hated back in Lebanon. My parents who never wanted to leave Lebanon. Loved it here.
Their nod of approval redeemed my guilt in a way and allowed me to see the UAE from a different lens.
We co-exist harmoniously.
They were here on Easter Sunday, so we went to mass at a Catholic Church in a compound of churches and mosques. The priest led the sermon by “we thank His Highness Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan, President of the United Arab Emirates, for his wise leadership and allowing us to be here today.” I later found out that the Minister of Culture, Youth and Community Development, a Sunni Muslim, serving in the cabinet of a Muslim country where Sharia law plays a key role, cut the ribbon at the opening ceremony of the remodeled church and, according to sources, the government also contributed financially to the building of the church.
Major malls and stores here are decorated for Christmas. In fact, a few years ago, Emirates Palace, the UAE’s most luxurious hotel, put up the world’s most expensive Christmas tree to celebrate the occasion. In retrospect, Christians and residents of other religions are expected to respect Muslim observances through certain behaviors and modest dress.
We have a good life.
The UAE population constitutes mostly of expats, with UAE nationals only making up 10% of the population. Expats work across all fields and, for the most part, feel privileged to be able to work here thanks to the benefits and perks that the government has made possible. This has created a domino effect of feel-good everywhere you go, which has boosted the overall happy factor of the country.
The founder and first president of the country, the late Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, whom everyone who lives in this country respected and loved, had a vision to bring civilization to the UAE and turn an economy heavily dependent on oil into a knowledge-based economy. To do this, the government looked at the rest of the world and brought the best of models to be replicated and implemented in all industries in the UAE from education and healthcare to aerospace and energy. The benefits of having these models here have evidently trickled down to all residents, regardless of their nationality, who now not only have access to the best hospitals, schools and technologies, but also increasingly impressive career opportunities. Ones they wouldn’t have had back home. In a tax-free economy.
But it’s a monarchy.
For a big proponent of democracy, the monarchy in the UAE hasn’t bothered me one bit. Before you spit out words like indoctrinated or brainwashed, take a second to think, realistically, about the reason anyone would want a democracy. To choose the people who would represent them in government and make decisions that would be in their best interest. I already have that here. Without having to lift a finger. So right here, right now, I don’t care whether or not I got them to government or they just happened to be good leaders who knew what they’re doing.
In a desert.
The UAE is only 43 years old. It was (obviously still is) a desert, where people, then called Bedouins, lived in tents and rode camels. When you step foot in the UAE today, not knowing anything about its past, you’d think you just landed in one of the most advanced European countries. With its towering skyscrapers, huge malls and spectacular luxury hotels, the UAE quickly made its way to the top in the region. It didn’t spare any expense to build and develop the best and tallest and largest and every superlative adjective you can think of. For the most part, it doesn’t get involved in the enigmas of the region, which made it a safe and stable place for businesses to settle and tourists to visit. It defied all laws of nature by planting and replanting flowers in sand, and air conditioning every single closed space, making the desert a pleasant place to live.
But this post isn’t about the UAE or anywhere else for that matter. It’s about Beirut.
With Beirut, we didn’t have to try. We didn’t have to fight for our spot as the Paris of the Middle East or the Bride of the East or the soul of the region. Beirut just threw herself on us and let us take advantage of her.
So when I say “ma ba3ref eza berja3” (I don’t know if I’ll ever go back), it’s never Beirut. It’s the people.
Beirut, Beirut was too good for us.