Two

Being surrounded by family all the time wasn’t really all it had been cracked up to be. One of my father’s 8 brothers, Samih, lived in the apartment across the hall in the building in Salim Sleim, another one of his brothers, Hassan, had the apartment downstairs. His children stayed there most of the time, though. They were in their late teens and early twenties.

It’s going to get complicated with family member names, I think, so I’ll briefly introduce my father’s family in a neatly bullet-pointed list:

  • My grandparents, sitto (grandmother) and jiddo (grandfather);
  • 8 older brothers, in order of descending age: Najeeb, Habeeb, Ali, Hassan, Zein, Adel, Samih, and Naji;
  • 3 older sisters, Najeebeh, Sabah, Najat

Yes, my father was the youngest of 12. My mother has no brothers and sisters, and my grandma and her husband are tucked snugly in the middle of San Fernando.

Anyway, there was family around, but it was rather boring. Samih came over a lot and informed us of breakfasts from Barbar and introduced us to his cat, Cookie, and his wife, whose name escapes me. My cousins downstairs spent most of their time going out and playing games on their laptops and showing us around a few places. Mar Elias, Downtown, BHV/Monoprix in Jnah – the works.

My first weekend here was my first time going to my father’s village in South Lebanon. I actually came from there today, and I’ll upload some photos of the area later perhaps, because I don’t think people see and hear about that area enough except in the context of violence and conflict with our neighbors over the border. It’s really not as bad as you would believe. And I think that other areas in Lebanon get the spotlight far too much. There’s a Roman castle down there too, folks (Beaufort).

The first weekend there was shit. It was slow and boring and the first time I’d ever been exposed to a rural region outside of the Poconos and there was lots of dust and heat and octogenarians about. Meeting more of my relatives, including my grandparents, was underwhelming, although they seemed friendly enough I suppose. We stayed at Hassan’s family house there. It was the first time we were directly faced with the power cuts here, in the middle of the night and in the company of Lebanese mosquitoes and a largish marble house where noise echoes in the darkness. And the heat with no air conditioning. It’s been 7 years and I haven’t slept without proper air conditioning since.

I got told off for my negative attitude at everything, but the fact remained that those sorts of things made me more homesick than you would believe. It’s those little details that really get to you – things like 24-hour electricity and Trix cereal.

After that weekend I don’t recall going back to the day3a for any significant amount of time, but the experience with the World Cup finals is kind of unforgettable. My dad’s family had always been split up into three main factions: Brazil, Germany, and a small section was Italy. Nobody had any affinity to these nations outside of soccer.

But the patriotism was tangible! Flags and jerseys and face paint galore. Coincidentally, Brazil, Germany, Italy and Argentina are the most popular countries to support here. So the Khalils had it more or less covered. Interestingly enough, Trinidad also made it in, introducing a majority of the Lebanese population to a nation most of them would have never heard of other wise, and giving me a country to support quite reasonably (they tied with Sweden! Celebrations ran rampant) until they were eliminated. After which I mindlessly supported Brazil, jersey and all. And then Italy in the final because Brazil lost against France.

I realize this narrative seems choppy in some parts but that’s how it was back then. Life was disjointed and strange and it made absolutely no sense. You can feel an overwhelming nostalgia in the dead of night and scream your lungs out for people whose names you don’t even know playing a sport you aren’t even interested in at a time like that. Restaurants will be packed (back then the area of Downtown Beirut near the clock tower was the hottest spot for this kind of stuff) and television screens bright. Vehicles will be tearing up and down the Corniche, honking horns. People will cheer in the tongues of their preferred teams. Fireworks will ricochet, the power goes in and out, bullets fly. It was a strange month of backs and forths. Oh, and I also visited a ladies beach for the first time in that month, which was odd to say the least. Beach culture in Lebanon is really different from in the US.

Very shortly after Italy found itself victorious in the 2006 FIFA World Cup, bullets flew.

One

It’s a daunting task, blogging. What’s the point of it, really? Keeping a diary? Then why make it public?And if you make it private, then why not keep a diary? What makes us different as bloggers is what makes us different as people, I suppose. I’ll be telling what story there is to tell for myself, because it needs to be told someday and today is as good a day as any, and for anyone who would like to embark on this journey by my side and help me get to the end of it.

Like every journey, this will begin at one.

I touched down at the Rafic Harriri International Airport on June 14, 2006, my off-white hijab wrapped reliably around my head the same way it had been when I’d taken to the skies from JFK the day before. My flight from Queens, connecting in Geneva and landing here, was my first international flight and most certainly my longest. The arrival was all so textbook, in retrospect, the way that day played out, perhaps the only textbook day I’ve ever had living in Lebanon:

A veritable entourage composed of my father’s family crowded at the arrivals gate with a bouquet of flowers waiting for us, grins plastered from ear to ear on sweaty, suntanned faces; stepping out of the airport into the smutty late afternoon air, so different in Beirut than in Brooklyn; the drive in an oldish Mercedes-Benz to my grandparents’ apartment on the eighth floor of a building in Salim Sleim; cousins, aunts, uncles, my grandparents not themselves there because they only stayed there in the winter, KFC, perspiration, my stupid swollen right eyelid which I only now remember in vivid detail that to this day makes its home in my face about once a year when I am particularly stressed; finally(!), a shower in an unused bathroom, feeling human again, kicking out the company, resting my unwrapped head on an unfamiliar pillow (the left one in the bedroom that always smelled of dust until the very last time I was in there, last October, and where I’m sure I will never step foot again).

Early the next morning was gray and calm and I was jetlagged. There was a tiny square of balcony in that bedroom where laundry was hung and you could see your little polygon of Beirut, framed by the backs of other twelve-or-less-storey residential buildings with their balconies and laundry lines and potted plants. I woke up and stepped out onto the balcony.

I’d found out less than a month before that we would be going to Lebanon to stay. I don’t think my parents would have told me or my siblings this decision had I not overheard them speaking about it in the kitchen the month prior.

My first morning here. Even now I remember that thought verbatim. It was the first day of the rest of my life and despite the tears and dread and hugs goodbye and letters from friends and gifts goodbye, this would work because Baba promised it would work. Perhaps I really would feel at home here in Lebanon, surrounded by family, not singled out because of my religion and dress the way I had been in a post-9/11 New York. Come to think, though, I didn’t experience that very much, or at least not that I can remember. Possibly because I didn’t become mhajabe until I was 10, probably because my parents liked sheltering me from that and I went to an Islamic school to boot. I remember experiencing profiling (is that really the word? How odd to think of it as applied to myself) only twice of note: when I was getting my passport earlier in the year and I had to give an explanation, in writing, as to why I wore a hijab, and the second when I was at JFK passing through the security checkpoints.

But in Brooklyn I had always had an affinity for areas like Bay Ridge with a denser Arab/Muslim population, where you could buy cheesies on the way to the beach (which really is what we called mana’eesh) and Arabic sweets and halal Chinese takeout and hijabs and abayas. So though I had never been to Lebanon before, I must have experienced it in some shape or form with the way my parents had raised me until that point.

The air wasn’t even hot yet. It really was very early. Nevertheless, I decided to get the ball rolling and start my day.

For some reason, only now do I remember the World Cup flags flying all over town.