Ten days to spend in Beirut with my mother – that was my plan as I boarded the plane in Philadelphia, with no agenda but to relax and enjoy her company and support her as she approaches the age of 90.
Politics on My Mother’s Mind
Upon arrival, as I sat with my mother to have supper on her balcony overlooking the Mediterranean Sea, she filled me in on the latest news in Lebanon. She’s always kept abreast of the intricacies of Lebanese and regional politics — ever since studying political science at the Lebanese University, and especially during the Lebanese civil war while living in Kuwait where not a day would go by without her listening to several radio/TV stations, and reading local/regional newspapers in order to get the full scope of developments from multiple points of view. So in her quick update on the current state of affairs, she mentions her bewilderment about the government’s proposed WhatsApp tax. I didn’t quite understand how a tax could be collected on such a widely used free app that is an essential lifeline for so many (including my mother) within the country and those connecting to family and friends abroad, so I didn’t give it much thought, till the next day when my mother exclaims with surprise that the cabinet passed the tax and other income tax increases. And the next thing we see on TV that night of October 17, 2019 people were out in the streets protesting against the government. As some violent clashes broke out, the banks quickly announced they will close the next day, as well as schools, universities, and businesses. My mother and I sat riveted as TV reporters fanned out across the country interviewing people on the streets. Usually I tended to tune out Lebanese news that features talking heads of politicians ad nauseam, but now, I couldn’t get enough of hearing people tell their stories live on air.
Witnessing and Participating in the Protests
And so a mass movement, an uprising, quickly took hold and spread from the capital to Tripoli and cities and villages all across the country. Initially a few thousand took to the central squares and streets. Within a couple days, estimates of over a million Lebanese were protesting, united in their call to fight corruption, sectarian politics, and an economic crisis where the majority are struggling to make ends meet with their quality of life and basic services getting worse each year.
It was such a heartening moment to be in Lebanon – the place of my birth, where I grew up the first five years, and returned annually in subsequent summers till the civil war broke out and forced my family to travel less frequently from Kuwait. All these years I’ve had conflicted feelings about Lebanon and my Lebanese nationality. I always felt out of place when I visited and struggled to understand how most people’s loyalty to their sect, village, hizb (political party), or regional allegiances perpetually prevented a shared sense of national identity.
And now overnight, almost 30 years after the end of the 1975-1990 civil war, the Lebanese were fed up with their party warlords and all the government leaders. They rose up in a unified voice to demand change in leadership.
As I participated in the protests in Downtown Beirut, I was in awe of the impassioned voices, youth and elderly, people from all walks of life expressing their pain and anger and calling for change. The fear of speaking out was lifted and people were frankly speaking their mind in public. A carnival atmosphere permeated the streets and squares. There was a palpable sense of camaraderie and collective will to do well, from picking up trash to providing free water and food, while retaining a sense of humor and fun to ease the pain. This sense of public good is something that really touched me, the feeling that all the people out in the streets are in this struggle together, that collectively and with persistence they can force the government’s resignation. Equally heartwarming were the expressions of solidarity across cities from the coast to the mountains to the valley as residents of each community spoke, and travelled to protest sites, in support of the other — a novelty in a country where typically people claim loyalty only to their village or town.
America is my Home, Lebanon is my Inspiration
As America has been my home over the past 36 years, in the West and East coasts where I have studied, worked, raised two boys, and made lasting friendships, I have sought ways to retain the language, traditions, and heritage that I grew up with to be an intrinsic part of my life here. Lebanon has been my source of inspiration, especially since I decided to establish Al-Bustan, an organization that educates, presents, and supports artistic expression and cultural production.
With every trip to visit family, I would return to Philadelphia contemplating the rich experiences that lingered around food, music, design and literature, which in turn would inform and shape the work of our organization. Chef Ramzi’s cookbook with recipes and anecdotes from across Lebanon was the first hefty cookbook that I carried back in my suitcase. The repertoires of Marcel Khalife, Oumeima El Khalil, Rima Khcheich, and Fairuz have deeply informed our music programming. The contemporary designs of Images D’Orient by sister/brother team Peggy and Charbel have inspired an arabesque aesthetic, as have the designs of creative directors like Joan Baz and Ashley Choukeir. The beautifully illustrated Arabic storybooks by Nadine Touma and her team at Dar Onboz were a prized collection on each of my trips in order to nurture a love of the Arabic language with my boys and Al-Bustan Campers.
These relationships and experiences fueled my desire to grow Al-Bustan over the years. I believed that the political/economic troubles that strained and corrupted Lebanese society could be avoided outside of the country. In America one could build a brighter vision, devoid of the entrenched hizbi politics, sectarian divide, and class disparities.
So it is at this turning moment in which I see Lebanese coming together in a unified way that I am hopeful and excited to imagine myself part of a country where I could feel that I belong. More importantly, I’m hopeful my mother may actually see a new Lebanon arise in her lifetime, inshallah.
Al-Bustan Seeds of Culture