I’ve been away for a while now. It’s been more than a month, but I’m back. I went to Lebanon: my native country, my homeland. It was with great joy and sadness that I came back on my adoptive continent of America, past the Atlantic Sea and into the cold embrace of Chicago. Yes, I had regrets when I left Lebanon, but I also felt a great sense of relief when I returned to my home here on Ashland and Montrose. My stuff was still where I had left it. I live alone. The dust was the only thing that accumulated upon the temporarily abandoned furniture.
I am working on my thesis as a graduate student in the Creative Nonfiction MFA at Columbia and I am starting to lose track of the boundary between the text as an assignment and the text as a recollection of life. Where is the boundary that separates what I write from what I survive? I am thinking specifically of the performative role of writing which includes voice, technique, and style; qualities that do not attain our lives except when we impose them upon it. To be honest, the borders are beginning to fade, and my thesis is beginning to feel more and more like chance, fate, or destiny. I am recalling a poem by Mahmoud Darwish that I would like to loosely translate:
“Who am I, to tell you what I am now telling you?
And I am no farther from being prey or predator than the roll of a die.”
In this short sentence is the understanding that understanding chance lies within the acknowledgment of all its possibilities. The reasons for which Darwish uses the terms predator and prey are too expansive for the scope of this short post so I will avoid diving further into their significance. Nevertheless, the idea of chance remains present and the elusive question is the following:
“Why was I born where I was born?”
In other words, how do I reconcile the necessity to depart from my homeland with the fact that I desperately want things to be the otherwise? It is unsurprising that the only plausible answer is that of sacrifice. These things we despise are sometimes imposed upon us, inevitable. Thus, the attempt to fight their undeniable existence is futile. Acceptance ensues, forcefully, as a sacrifice of principles. The following essay is part of a larger collection of essays where these questions are being raised. But there is something specific about this one which I would like to turn your attention towards. The boundary between reality and the performative pieces of writing does not appear out of nowhere. On the contrary, it is in fact the by-product of this immigration which pre-supposes a belonging to two places simultaneously, implying the presence of a liminal space. When does “Here” become “There” and vice versa and what is the term that defines the in-between? On how many levels are we interchanging these definitions and what are the consequences of these permutations on the body, the mind, and the spirit? The incident related in this essay is fruitful because it describes an incident where I found myself returning to my house after having gone to the airport to depart again towards the foreign land of America. I spent one superfluous day in Lebanon during which I was attempting to decorticate the impact of this unexpected turn of events. I was stuck in a limbo that attained multiple aspects of my being. I had envisioned my departure. I had prepared myself physically for it. I had packed my bags so that all the small elements that constitute my identity were ready to be stuffed in an airplane and shipped across a gaping abyss of water and land. And to an extent, I could understand the shock that this produced within me. The one thing that remained beyond my grasp, although I extensively attempted to discern it throughout the text is what I dubbed The Embrace of the Long Goodbye. This motif returns as an act that bears specific, memorable, and recognizable qualities and that can only be known to those who immigrate. It is a mixture of grief, acceptance, nostalgia, and love. Without attempting to overbear you with the details of this piece, here is the essay titled: “Wanting to leave but not being able to go.”
January 14th, 2021 – 10:06PM
Wanting to go but not being able to leave.
I handed my passport to the “Middle East Airlines” employee and placed my bag on the scale. “Good, the weight checks out.” I was thinking quietly to myself standing within the usual bustle of the Lebanese crowd that suffused my senses reminding me of another cultural shrapnel I am abandoning. A man, dressed in a casual attire, was wearing a black mask that starkly contrasted his salt white hair, and vehemently gesticulating before the glass panel of another airline agent. From what I gathered, his bag was too heavy and in order to retrieve it, an employee had to walk upon the treadmill where the bags were being taken away. He grabbed a red suitcase and returned it to its rightful owner who proceeded to empty the contents into his carry-on and return the bag onto the scale. Meanwhile, I was still waiting for the agent to explain what was going on. I was used to passport inspections being nothing more than a nonchalant acquiescence of identity. The white-haired gentleman was now standing next to me asking the “MEA” agent if he would like to some Arack, a gesture of gratitude for an obvious show of patience.
Arack or عرق is a traditional distillate liquor, made from anise and grapes, which turns white when mixed with water. The stranger presented a carefully wrapped plastic bottle to the agent who politely refused the gift. The man muttered under his breath as he walked away: “Well, I’ll just throw it away now.” At this point, I had been standing before the check-in counter for about 15 minutes remembering that I did not pack the two bottles of Rim Sparkling Water which contained the Arack that my father wanted to gift me. Two bottles of distilled liquor made by my grandfather Georges who passed away twelve years ago. The liquor is slightly older than the date of his final departure. I had come to the point where I needed to accept another simple pleasure left behind. Airports before long journeys are ruthless gatekeepers.
The agent had finally gotten a hold of his aloof superior who was attempting to help at least four disgruntled customers at the same time. The verdict was simple, and the answer came down like a sharp knife: “Final destination Chicago ORD? I’m sorry to inform you that you need a transit visa to pass through Canada. Your return flight stops in Toronto.” Of course, I did not have that damned transit visa and I was only passing through that damned country for two hours. That outrage was experienced inwardly. I only asked the agent if he could help me find another ticket. He replied dryly: “If you fly to Frankfurt with your current itinerary, they will send you back here.” I took my passport back and slid it into the manilla folder that held all my travel documents. I kept thinking about the horror of that sentence: “They will send you back here.” It was almost as if the agent was cautioning me against the psychological effects of this eventuality. God forbid, I would have to be forcibly returned to my home country, as if I were a box of damaged goods. And who are they? Who are the ones who will be sending me back? I walked out of the airport knowing that I was going to miss my flight. I called my father at 1:00AM. He had just made it back home:
Dad you have to come pick me up. I cannot get on the flight. It’s a Transit Visa thing. I don’t know what happened.
Sitting outside the airport, my daydreams were blending with the evening of this capital I could not abandon. The asphalt smelled of rain and the occasional cigarette smoke. People were unloading their luggage and this same chaos I thought I was deserting had begun closing in again invoking within me a bizarre sense of claustrophobia. In this country, I cannot simply sit alone and observe random passersby, I am bound too closely to the Earth: I know too much and too much about me is known.
I was thinking about Amin Maalouf and what he said in his book Origines:
“J’étais l’ultime station avant l’oubli ; après moi, la chaine des âmes serait rompue, plus personne ne saurait déchiffrer.”
When my father arrived, I was occupied. I was regretting my decisions and pondering this quote which invoked within me the dutiful sense that I should be one of the final chroniclers of my family’s history in this country. Maybe I feared the inevitable collapse of this place called Lebanon and that I would belong to class of people who would task themselves with the process of archiving the lifetime of a disappeared country. I had also failed to be a passenger. This role that always seemed so passive. All I had to do was board a vehicle operated by someone else. I botched the active role I had to play so I ended up riding shotgun in my dad’s car, driving back home and experiencing the deserted highway of a Lebanon under lockdown.
Of course, I laughed about it. Of course, I thought it was funny that I had returned home after saying goodbye to everyone. It was not unfortunate that I got to experience the warmth of my bed once more as well as the familiar echoes of my home’s hallways. These same places were both comforting and disquieting. I sat in my parents’ bedroom at around 2AM. My brother’s voice was exiting my mother’s phone. The bedside lamp was gently shaping the room with cool blue light. We were all laughing as we related similar incidents that had befallen other acquaintances. After I said goodnight to my parents and went to sleep, I was overcome with an unexpected wave of fear. I thought I was going to experience a bout of insomnia simply because I had effectively projected myself into the future in order to reduce the intimidation of a 25-hour flight. In the attempt to contain the immensity of the world, I had begun to rip out the thorns that bind me to Lebanon forcing my body to experience jetlag as a hallucination. My bed felt like a sentient coffin that refused to house a stringently foreign body. The last hugs I gave to my friends and family were still churning within me. Through a series of unfortunate circumstances, I had become aware of the qualities that constitute what I would like to call The Embrace of the Long Goodbye:
First, the embrace is long because it is meant to absorb as much of the other’s essence and presence as possible.
Second, the embrace requires the palms of the hand to caress the ribs so that the fingers may saturate the hollow spaces within the ribcage.
Third, family members and loved ones tend to lean a tired chin into the crease of a neck. Sometimes, the nose is buried within the clavicle almost as if a deep inhale is the antidote that will keep a sharper memory of the one who is about to depart.
Fourth, the chest must encounter the other chest and the feet must face each other so that those who embrace may sense each other’s heartbeat one last time.
Last, The Embrace of the Long Goodbye is garnished with loving expressions:
ما بينشبع منك
We can’t get enough of you.
These five traits have one thing in common: They are attempts to fight forgetfulness and distance. They become automatic to immigrants as they collect them through years of experiencing The Embrace of the Long Goodbye. The familiar, ungraspable goodbye. January 14th had become my long layover in limbo. I only heard the echoes of my friends’ voices as I consciously avoided meeting with them. I knew it would be too much to grasp. I had cast them into the nostalgic background and their position had become cemented, until my next visit.