Why I left Lebanon and Became a Transitional Citizen

27 June, 2022
Tom Young, “Port Explo­sion,” Beirut, Lebanon, 2020 (cour­tesy Tom Young).

 

Myriam Dalal

 

I booked an appoint­ment for my pass­port renew­al ear­li­er this year, while my sis­ters con­tin­ued to update me on what might be described as a “pass­port short­age cri­sis” in Lebanon. All three Dalal sis­ters were bom­bard­ing our What­sApp group with links to arti­cle head­lines such as “No means to leave”, “Lebanon run­ning out of pass­ports,” “Thou­sands stuck as Lebanese author­i­ties sus­pend pass­port renewals” or “Lebanon halts pass­port renewals as fears of exo­dus grow.” We dis­cussed the alter­na­tives, we argued, we cursed, we shout­ed (main­ly through voice notes). I might be the one with the low­est lev­el of anx­i­ety among my sis­ters, even when I’m the one they’re wor­ried about these days in the paper­work fias­co. Sim­ply put, this anx­i­ety can be tied to the fact that my par­ents had all five of their chil­dren between 1976 and 1986 in either Lebanon, the UAE or Kuwait — depend­ing on the pro­gres­sion of the Lebanese civ­il war since 1975 — so my sis­ters and I have been through one life expe­ri­ence after the oth­er, both as a fam­i­ly (there are only four of us, now), and as Lebanese cit­i­zens, name­ly sur­viv­ing the 1996 and 2006 Israeli wars on the coun­try and some 60 oth­er “small­er” inter-Lebanese con­flicts and vio­lent events from car bombs to ter­ror­ist attacks and beyond.


I’ve moved in and out of at least sev­en dif­fer­ent places since the August 4th Beirut Port blast, near­ly two years ago…maybe more. I’ve lost count. I had left Lebanon because I came to real­ize that this coun­try that I was told was mine, actu­al­ly wasn’t. This under­stand­ing felt more like an aha moment, in which I became aware that an institutional/governmental dec­la­ra­tion assert­ing your adher­ence to some coun­try would not guar­an­tee your feel­ing of belong­ing to this piece of land that your par­ents passed on to you. Lebanon was not my coun­try, it belonged to some­one else, and it was some­thing I saw very clear­ly in the year pre­ced­ing my depar­ture. The thing is, once you see some­thing, you can­not unsee it — I love it when the Eng­lish lan­guage proves the impos­si­bil­i­ty of such an act by show­ing you the absur­di­ty in using the verb’s contrary…you know, like unlove.

I think that it is a spir­i­tu­al dis­as­ter to pre­tend that one doesn’t love one’s coun­try. You may dis­ap­prove of it, you may be forced to leave it, you may live your whole life as a bat­tle, yet I don’t think you can escape it.  —James Bald­win, Paris Review

I start­ed look­ing at the con­cept of “home coun­try” as more of a starter kit, one that your par­ents are forced to give you at birth, for admin­is­tra­tive rea­sons and to facil­i­tate your upbring­ing, and one that includes your name, sur­name, and reli­gion. The time will even­tu­al­ly come when you’ll be able to make your choic­es and con­tin­ue the remain­der of your life with a name, a sur­name, a reli­gion, and a nation­al­i­ty that you choose for yourself.

A “nation” is not a fact; it’s a con­cept. That’s why philoso­phers, soci­ol­o­gists, and many oth­ers have tried to define it through­out his­to­ry: for Ger­man philoso­pher Johann von Herder, the nation refers to a cul­tur­al ensem­ble which pre­cedes the cre­ation of the state, while for French his­to­ri­an and philoso­pher Ernest Renan, the nation brings togeth­er peo­ple who share a com­mon past. I now think of the nation as more of a sociopo­lit­i­cal con­struct which feeds on trib­al instincts, and a sys­temic insti­tu­tion­al inven­tion to sep­a­rate, iso­late, and even­tu­al­ly rule . We tend to mix up words and mean­ings some­times for the sake of sim­pli­fy­ing our ter­mi­nol­o­gy and expres­sions, and in so doing , we end up assum­ing that one thing unde­ni­ably means the oth­er. As such, nation­al­i­ty doesn’t nec­es­sar­i­ly mean belong­ing, nor does moth­er­land mean birth coun­try; I, for instance, was born in Kuwait, a coun­try in which my par­ents spent most of the Lebanese civ­il war years. So, in this case, my birth coun­try wasn’t my home coun­try, and my nation­al­i­ty didn’t make me feel like I belonged in Lebanon. It’s true that my Lebanese ID nev­er promised my amal­ga­ma­tion with Lebanese soci­ety, but I didn’t know that until much later.

Nation­al­ism is an asser­tion of belong­ing in and to a place, a peo­ple, a her­itage. It affirms the home cre­at­ed by a com­mu­ni­ty of lan­guage, cul­ture, and cus­toms; and, by so doing, it fends off exile, fights to pre­vent its rav­ages.  —Edward Said, Reflec­tions On Exile

And so, I left Lebanon. I took with me some near­ly weight­less objects that could serve as memen­tos, and there­fore be eas­i­ly trans­port­ed through con­ti­nents, air­ports, and check­points; objects that could act as sou­venirs once they’re placed in their new envi­ron­ment, and through which Proust’s madeleine expe­ri­ence could be reen­act­ed. I packed my suit­case with this homey feel­ing and moved to France, think­ing I had reached a point in my life where I could be priv­i­leged enough to choose a coun­try for myself, a place with which I shared com­mon val­ues, or at the very least, a piece of land that per­mits me to exist. In my quest for a new coun­try, I was deter­mined to sign a social con­tract with this new piece of land/regime to make sure the choice was mutu­al. Cit­i­zen­ship is like mar­riage; it’s an admin­is­tra­tive con­tract for which love isn’t a prerequisite.

A view from the writer’s win­dow, Rouen, April ’22 (cour­tesy Myr­i­am Dalal).

 

It turned out that the French tend to have a dif­fer­ent def­i­n­i­tion of a French cit­i­zen, and it is not that of an Arab woman with a name not encrypt­ed in the Larousse of Euro­pean names. Instead, I was a for­eign­er at the very least, an Arab Mus­lim most of the time, and a low-class refugee for those who want­ed to take things a step fur­ther in their clas­si­fi­ca­tion. Clas­si­fy­ing me didn’t require any fur­ther inves­ti­ga­tion beyond an appraisal of my looks, because, you know, “hips don’t lie.” And with French pres­i­den­tial elec­tions hap­pen­ing in April of 2022, the rightwing can­di­dates were very clear about their under­stand­ing of what a French cit­i­zen can and should be like. It didn’t mat­ter much if the journalist/author and one of France’s pres­i­den­tial can­di­dates Eric Zem­mour want­ed to strip any con­vict­ed bina­tion­al of their French cit­i­zen­ship (based on a sup­pos­ed­ly log­i­cal argu­ment in which he assumes that French nation­als nev­er break the law); nei­ther did it mat­ter if he want­ed to change the names of all non-French sound­ing cit­i­zens. What sad­dened me was that there were many who applaud­ed these state­ments (32% of elec­toral votes went to right wing can­di­dates in France’s first round of elec­tions), and I was des­tined to run into one of them, soon.

As much as it angered me to be clas­si­fied in Lebanon, based on my par­ents’ reli­gions, my looks, my aca­d­e­m­ic pur­suit, where I lived, my habits and just about every­thing else,  it seems that peo­ple here in France also have an urge to box every­thing and every­one. But in my ide­al­is­tic lit­tle mind (per­haps most­ly in my heart), I had begun to draw myself a new home here. A new life was begin­ning to take shape and I thought my nation-scout­ing was begin­ning to con­clude. It now seems as though for­eign souls are des­tined to roam this world end­less­ly and tire­less­ly, and only in their state­less­ness will they find their true cit­i­zen­ship. In fact, the past year or so can be summed up as life in between lock­downs and mov­ing in and out of Chatil­lon, Paris, Sartrou­ville, Bon­sec­ours, and Rouen. All the while in Beirut, Dad was going through his own moves, hos­pi­tal­ized, and in and out of the ICU. My sis­ters’ anx­ious What­sApp mes­sages updat­ed me on his health con­di­tion through their infor­mal head­lines, as I wasn’t allowed to leave France before the renew­al of my res­i­dence per­mit here. It seems to me all I do as a tran­si­tion­al cit­i­zen is either wait, move, or hide (the exile’s equiv­a­lent to the body’s usu­al “fight, flight, freeze” reac­tion to threat/danger).

I’m cur­rent­ly nego­ti­at­ing a new work con­tract abroad which requires res­i­dence in yet anoth­er coun­try, and for that, I’ll soon have to repack my posters, pens, and clothes. I’m try­ing to cope with the feel­ing of hav­ing lit­tle in com­mon with any place; per­haps in know­ing that this time, I’ll be able embrace this whirling dervish status…even try and dance along as if life were one wild dabke.


They say some peo­ple anchor them­selves in oth­er peo­ple, so he/she becomes their home, their coun­try, their nation. While that sounds beau­ti­ful in the­o­ry, I still haven’t fig­ured out a way to direct my heart’s com­pass while my brain is swim­ming in all direc­tions. I keep leav­ing behind a crush here and there, writ­ing con­fes­sion let­ters to some, post-depar­ture. So, I’m either writ­ing or read­ing as a pas­time dur­ing this uncat­e­go­riz­able tran­si­tion­al state, in an attempt to learn more about my state­less com­pa­tri­ots in books, nov­els, and poems, as words are prov­ing to be our only valid and true pass­ports to date.

With these vol­umes pil­ing up here on a shelf here in Rouen, I know I will be need­ing an extra suit­case for them if I relo­cate soon.

 

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Transitional Lebanese waiting for her new nationality, Myriam Dalal is currently concluding her doctoral thesis in plastic arts, aesthetics, and sciences of art at the Sorbonne. She has been writing about arts and culture for the past 12 years, for many platforms and daily newspapers in Arabic, English and French, including Annahar, Al Akhbar, Al Modon, Sawt el Niswa, and the journal of Philology and Intercultural Communication/Military Technical Academy Romania.

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