Could a place that I did not visit until I was 40 years old possibly be the land that built me? I’ve struggled with this conundrum my entire life and finally had the opportunity to travel to the mythical Middle East to explore this question for myself. I dislike being asked where I’m from because there is no simple or short answer to that question. I was born in Hollywood, but saying I was from L.A. never felt right because although I lived in L.A. County I never lived in Los Angeles. I’m of Armenian descent, but I’m not from Armenia per se since my parents weren’t born there so where does that leave me?
Well, the woman from another era who raised me and had the deepest impact on my life was born in Lebanon. Since she spent a majority of her life there all of the stories she told me and the photographs she showed me were of memories she had from the years she lived in Lebanon. My parents met each other as teenagers while living in Beirut where they also became high school sweethearts. All of the stories I’ve heard about my mother’s and father’s love story were set in the streets, movie theaters, and mountains of Lebanon. The majority of my aunts, uncles, friends and even my better half were born in Lebanon too! In my imagination I could see Lebanon… the land where ALL of my people spent some of fondest years of their lives, and where they all lived before they came to the United States.
The hills of Lebanon
Over Thanksgiving break this year, we decided to take at trip to Lebanon. My husband hadn’t been back in 28 years to visit the bulk of his family who still live there. About a month before our trip the Lebanese government announced a proposed tax on WhatsApp. Why is this relevant? Well, mobile service in Lebanon is expensive and the entire country relies on WhatsApp to send texts, voice texts, and phone calls for free. Considering the political leaders of the country have been unable to effectively address basic infrastructure needs like providing potable tap water or electricity and citizens have to pay for both public and private water and electricity the thought of having a tax levied on a free service outraged people. The now infamous proposal to place a tax on WhatsApp became the straw that broke the camel’s back! From Tyre to Tripoli people took to the streets and much like other parts of the world the people were looking to start a Revolution (or Sawra in Arabic).
Friends and family were concerned about the timing of our trip. We began hearing things like “it’s not a good time”, but after much thought and consideration we decided not to cancel our trip. Sure, the country was facing an economic crisis and revolution but when has there ever been a good time to visit Lebanon? It’s always been a politically and economically volatile and unstable country. Remember what happened in 2006 when Anthony Bourdain tried to film an episode of No Reservations in Beirut? Sure, there were sporadic protests, road closures, and petroleum strikes while we were there, but it seemed like things calmed down while we were there and flared up again after we left so we got very lucky. We were able to go into Beirut and walk around the Souk’s and Martyr’s Square while things were peaceful.
Martyr’s Square – Beirut
I can say with 100 percent confidence that it was the most inconvenient time for us to be there as tourists. Gas stations were staging strikes every few days so fuel was scarce and banks were only allowing people to withdraw $100 a week. For a country where the majority of the people have a “live-for-the-day” mentality and like to enjoy the finer things in life, having to tighten their belts was not a welcome sentiment. The current economic situation was placing financial stress on the rich and poor alike. Everyone was worried about the Lira losing value. I found it difficult to empathize with the middle and upper-class because a lot of them employ domestic workers and drive Range Rovers, but I did feel for the lower-class and youth.
“Before a revolution happens, it is perceived as impossible; after it happens, it is seen as having been inevitable” -Rosa Luxemburg
If you’re familiar with Middle Eastern hospitality you can imagine how despite the poor timing of our visit our family insisted on taking us sightseeing. We made efforts to only allow them to take us to local places like the Jeita grotto, Harissa, Byblos, Jounieh etc
We wanted us to see Sidon, Baalbek, Anjar and a handful of other places, but on top of being in the country at the most inopportune time we also had the added challenge of only being there for 7 short days. Most of our time was spent visiting with family members. The highlight of the trip for me was getting to meet the members of my husband’s family whom I hadn’t had the pleasure of meeting before. There was so much warmth and love. I couldn’t believe that despite the separation and distance he had remained so close to his cousins and family members. It helped me gain a better understanding of his upbringing and values. I now wear my last name with a different level of comfort and belonging.
As for how I connected with Lebanon there were two things that struck me while I was there. This is the one place where I can trace back all of the stories and memories near and dear to all my loved ones. Where I can hold up old family photos that mirror the exact locations where my grandparents and parents lived and loved. It’s also the only place I’ve ever visited where locals assumed I was raised there. The way I speak Armenian led my husband’s family members to assume I was born in Lebanon too. Being of Armenian decent and having visited Armenia many times I have never once had someone assume I was born in Armenia because the dialect of Armenian I speak is not the same as the one spoken in Armenia. In Armenia, as an Armenian, I am a clear outsider and people know it the instant I speak, but in Lebanon when I spoke Armenian I fit right in. However I didn’t feel like I belonged there either because it’s not a historically Armenian land. It’s just where my people ended up settling after the Armenian Genocide.
I am so grateful we had this initial opportunity to visit Lebanon. I wish we had more time to explore and enjoy the beauty of the mountains and the Mediterranean sea. Luckily we caught quite a few beautiful sunsets like these and I’m sure that in the near future we will be back.