words shawna ayoub ainslie || images sabrina toppa & shawna ayoub ainslie
We stayed in my ancestral village, Kayfoun, with my father's parents, sister, her husband and two children in the summer of 2003. My extended family was amused as Nathan and I disappeared into a back room to read Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. “You are homesick,” said my aunt. She was right. We missed the words of English, not to mention the scents, space and sounds of America.
This visit to Lebanon was my second. The summer before, I had travelled with my parents. My father, returned to his native country, served as a buffer between me and the half of my culture I did not grow up in. We stayed one month. But this visit in 2003 was different; I arrived as an adult, husband in tow. I made a study of my aunt’s cooking. I made the appropriate social calls to friends and relatives, despite my inability to hold much conversation other than niceties. I even managed to make and serve Arabic coffee to guests—an act by which hosts and hostesses are judged, and one which established my status as a Lebanese woman despite my lack of language skills. It was difficult, this cultural immersion. But there was a heavier sickness that plagued me: longing.
I hungered for a home in Lebanon since childhood. I was born in 1981. The Lebanese Civil War took root in 1979 and lasted through the entirety of my childhood. While my father never taught me Arabic, he always referred to Lebanon as “back home,” and openly wished he could safely relocate our family there. I shared his dream. My American experience was rife with racism and pain. My genetics were written on my face. Many communities we settled into were openly hostile and encouraged us to return to a nebulous home. In Lebanon, though, I fit in—visually, at least. In the end, I loved the assumption that I belonged there.
But my husband Nathan was marked by a different set of genes. A blue-eyed, fair-skinned ginger, Nathan stuck out in the olive-toned phenotypical landscape of Lebanon. Our visit was post-9/11, when the presence of Americans in Lebanon was less than desirable. U.S. relations with the Middle East were tenuous–if not outright hostile–and international media was busy reporting the attacks by white Americans against anyone loosely resembling an Arab.
I was directed not to speak or make eye contact lest I give myself away as a non-native. Nathan was directed to claim he was Canadian if asked where he was from. Family escorted us everywhere. If no one was available, we spent our days in solitude, drinking tea on the balcony and listening for the call to prayer from the nearby mosque. We were made potential targets by the constant pendulum swing of fear and intolerance between East and West–however abstract, and perhaps artificial, those concepts turned out to be.
All at once, we were tired of it. Not of the country, but the tiptoeing. There was a house on the way down the mountain. It had a hole in its Spanish-tiled roof. “A bomb dropped in,” said my cousin. “A lot of the houses do not get repaired.” Nathan and I wanted that house. We had built a dream of buying and restoring it. In our fantasies, we would spend summers raising our children there to speak Arabic within the embrace of the extended family I had never had easy access to as a child in the broken diaspora.
Nathan’s desire to move with me to Lebanon was perhaps strong evidence of his deep love for me. After all, the inversion of our race-place experience was not lost on us. In any case, we realized that we had to function separately from my family if we were going to move to Lebanon. We needed to test ourselves, to gain a fuller picture of this country that seduced us. We needed to step away from the safety net of my family in order to discover if Lebanon really could be home–our home, anyway.
One morning, we left a note composed in both Arabic and English and walked to the van service pickup point downtown. We fled down the mountain at the usual breakneck pace, the driver leaning into the horn to announce his approach at every corner. The now-familiar scents of the country flowed in through the windows: gasoline, burned rubber, cigarette smoke. There was also an aromatic current of spiced meats, seeds, herbs and bread. The radio boasted, “Shakira! This is your Lebanon!” in celebration of the pop star’s impending visit. Buildings crowded around each other, and people roved from shop to shop, neighbors waving to neighbors. All the living in Lebanon was done outside.
We first visited a museum surrounded by soldiers with rifles. We got lost. We haggled with shopkeepers over prices. It was summer, the sun was high, and we did not have enough water. At one point, we couldn’t find a taxi in an empty neighborhood radiating danger. Eventually, we made our way to the Virgin Megastore where we’d first purchased the fifth book of Harry Potter. We stood in an aisle surrounded by English words. We ate burgers and fries that were comically oversized in a misguided attempt to approximate Western portions. It was a brief reprieve before we made our way back to the van pickup location.
When we got there, two older men approached as Nathan and I searched for Sami, our van driver. After a convoluted linguistic exchange—it was established that Nathan could not speak German (however, I could) and that I could not speak Arabic well, but my husband could. In any case, the men told us Sami's van did not run back up the mountain on Sundays. They knew my family’s house, though, and they pointed us to a bus, which ran across the nearby tourist city of Aley.
From Aley, we took a taxi the rest of the way to Kayfoun. It was far later than we had anticipated returning, and we were met at the door by the ashen faces of our relatives. We found my aunt and uncle anxiously pacing the floor and my grandfather sitting with a banana in one hand and our letter in the other. My grandmother, overcome with worry, had gone to bed.
I took it all in, their anxiety inching into all the space of a home I did not yet have in Lebanon. I knew my eyes were seconds from tearing. My aunt laughed, hugged me, cried and scolded me. My uncle gave me an all-too-familiar reproving look, and stepped outside to smoke a cigarette tensely. My grandfather looked back and forth at Nathan and me. I was gripped by the fear of having disappointed him. Surely, Jido had cause to be angry. But he held our letter aloft and laughed. I laughed, too. All that planning, writing the letter, sneaking away before anyone woke up, almost getting stuck in Beirut. In the end, all we’d wanted was to find our way back. When I pieced it all together, I realized we had found what we were looking for: that elusive sense of belonging.
Nearly thirteen years have passed, and we have not returned. War and birth have blocked our passage, just as it did in my youth. My grandparents have passed away. My cousins are grown, some of their children older than mine. My aunts and uncles show the universal signs of age. When I was in Lebanon, I longed for the familiarity of my American home. Now, when yearning strings my heart, I fill my ears with Arabic music, my nose with Lebanese scents, and my husband or my children’s bellies with meals learned in my aunt's kitchen. And, when the sickness is at its worst, I find a cramped Middle Eastern market where I can stand in an aisle completely surrounded by Arabic. There, I pretend I am home.