Lebanon: a story of love and hate
I walked to the farthest end of the terminal at Charles de Gaulle Airport in Paris. They always give us the last gate, I say to myself. Because we’re rowdy.
Will I bump into someone I know?
Most people don’t expect to see a familiar face on a plane. But going to Lebanon, you do.
Anyway, I think, I’ve been away for years. Do I still know anyone? Will anyone know me?!
I could probably slip in quietly. Like you do in most countries. All countries, in fact. Just not this one.
I’m one hour into the four-hour flight, face buried in a book.
Most days, Lebanon feels microscopic.
We land. And then passport control: Lebanese to the right, foreigners to the left. A cultural crossroads.
Which way do I go? Which way do I feel?!
A little bit of both. The perpetual insider/outsider. But there’s no third option. No middle ground.
I go right.
“Welcome home,” the officer says, as he takes my Lebanese passport. I see his forehead scrunch for a second.
“You’re expired,” he says.
I am, I think. In so many ways. It had been over two years since I was last here. This trip is long overdue.
“So sorry!” I fumble with broken Arabic dripping out of a rusty faucet. “I didn’t even check!”
“It’s ok,” he says. “We’ll manage it.” Only in Lebanon.
“You’re Druze,” he says. A statement — not a question.
Here, I have to pick an identity and stick with it. As a Lebanese-Palestinian, Arab-American, Druze-Greek Orthodox-atheist, I want to be all of those things at once. How many identity-hyphens can I manage?
“Should I go back through the foreigner line?!” I ask my passport officer. The left side was empty. The whole flight was Lebanese.
“No. You’re home now,” he says. “Get yourself a new passport while you’re here!”
“Thank you,” I say, as he hands me my stamped-expired passport.
“Where are all the foreigners?” I ask.
“The days of foreigners are long gone,” he says.
“I’m sorry,” I say to him, to no one in particular. For many things.
But now I’ve officially arrived. I’m in the country that is my half-home. The place I lived for four years.
The last time I was in Lebanon was just after the explosion in August 2020. The explosion that brought an already-broken city to its knees.
Lebanon had been debilitated by layers of disaster — economic collapse, government ineptitude, unprecedented levels of poverty, the pandemic. And then the blast. Had I still been there, I would not be writing. My apartment faced the port.
A few days after the disaster, I wrote. And wrote and wrote. What else could I do but howl onto my screen?!
I wrote that Lebanon’s go-to “resilience” rhetoric needed a revamp. A reality check.
We were — we are — victims of a corrupt, rotten system. But we also feed and fuel that system. We are the hosts upon which the bloated parasites feed.
Lebanon is a toxic relationship. It’s like falling in love with a thug who has “potential.” But he doesn’t ever want to see it fulfilled. And still, we fall for it. We say: “This time, it will be different.” We say: “He has changed.” And we end up in bed with him again.
That’s Lebanon. We love it, but it lets us down.
But still I defend it vehemently — on the outside. For foreigners (the line on the left), images of Beirut are frozen in 1982, a pockmarked warzone.
“No, no!” I say. “You should see Beirut now. She’s beautiful!”
And then the blast. Yes, Beirut looked like 1982 on that day.
The last time I saw Beirut was after the blast. What would I find now?
When I moved to Afghanistan in 2002, political theorists spoke of the “Lebanonization” of Afghanistan. I did not know what that meant at the time. Now I see: it is a collection of enclaves, tribes, clans, ethnicities, sects, divisions — lumped together by force and called a nation. There’s no such thing as Lebanon unless you bump into a fellow Lebanese on the streets of New York. For a few minutes, you’re both Lebanese, until one person asks for your last name or your village. And then the illusion of Lebanon is no more. You’re reduced to a geography, a sect, and, by extension, a political persuasion.
Our system, as we call it, is sectarian. Meaning, Lebanon’s political structure — and just about everything in Lebanese life — is organized along religious lines. Fifteen of them. Relationship status: it’s complicated.
Not just that. I’m a feminist. I see everything through that lens. The world is (dis)organized along gender lines. Surely Lebanon is a victim of this, too.
Enter Sextarianism, an extraordinary new book by friend, scholar, fellow feminist Maya Mikdashi. My first day back in Lebanon we had organized a book talk for her. This is critical stuff we need to understand. More than that, we need to learn and apply.
Here’s the premise: We cannot understand state power without examining it through the lens of sex and sexuality. All this stuff is tangled up. Not just in Lebanon — everywhere.
Sectarian or secular, women still lose because sex determines every aspect of our bodies and lives — organized along patriarchal lines. Can we choose whom to marry? No. Going beyond your sect is not recognized. Can we choose when to marry? No. No one agrees on what is “too young.” Can we give our Lebanese nationality to our half-Lebanese children? No. Religion follows the father. Moms just don’t count — politically and personally. We’re property, passed from father to husband.
“Like a sack of potatoes,” they say. Yes, potatoes.
Meanwhile, today’s Lebanon is, in many ways, completely the same and entirely different from the one I left. Effects of the blast remain. Physically, yes. But more so on the psyche of the Lebanese. This trauma will be felt for generations.
The economic crisis continues. The Lira is all but worthless. And what is the impact of such poverty on those who are already poor — on those who are marginalized and vulnerable and already on the fringes of society? What is the impact on women?!
Simply put, women are more likely to take on risky work in order to survive. They are abused more, and can escape less. They have more responsibility, and less resources.
Girls are taken out of school, married off before their bodies and minds are ready, having babies they don’t want, with husbands they don’t want. This, too, will be felt for generations.
Health is precarious. Safety nets are fractured. And survival is questionable.
“But we’re resilient,” we keep saying. Sure. We’re resilient because we have to be. Do we have to be, all the time?!
We cannot (re)build a country on a permanent fault-line.
We have lived for four months without a president. The country is leader-less, even when there is a head of state. Now, total political paralysis. At the same time, we play symbolitics — symbolic politics. A charade. While the rest of the country starves.
Poverty was 25% in 2019. Today, this once-middle-income country is experiencing its worst-ever economic crisis. 82% of the population is below the poverty line. And the currency continues to plummet. Every time it seems to reach rock-bottom, it descends further. How does this story end?! I wish I hadn’t failed macroeconomics in grad school.
In concrete terms, 50,000 Lira used to buy lunch for two. It used to be $33. Today it is $1. Tomorrow it will be less.
I went out to lunch with a dear friend. We ate, we talked, we laughed. We cried also. How could we not?
“Do you have halawa?” I ask the waiter when our big meal was done. “I really only want a bite.”
“Not really,” he says. “But I will find some for you.”
That is Lebanon, too. The passport-control officer who will let me in and welcome me “home.” The waiter who will make my dessert happen even if it is off the menu.
He brings a small bowl. No charge.
I smiled, squinting as I looked at the incredible view, the Mediterranean Sea electrified like glittery nail polish. Impossible not to fall in love with this place. Again, again, again.
“Lina?!” Another familiar voice. A hearty hug, and more joy. “We’re so happy you’re back!”
Everything has changed and nothing has changed.
Rinse and repeat.