I stare at the yellowing wall in front of me with the obnoxious florescent lights shining down on the hallway. I think about how many hours – or days – of my life I’ve spent sitting, pacing and standing in this purgatory: Beirut’s infamous General Security headquarters in Adlieh.
How am I feeling? That’s complicated.
It’s a mix of extreme relief, continuing anxiety and also a deep sense of sadness. If all goes well – if there’s no complication – I’ll be boarding a plane to leave Lebanon in the morning without plans to return.
I’m relieved because the representative from the U.S. embassy assured me the General Security would return my passport today (it was confiscated several months ago for a second time, due to ongoing residency issues that I won’t go into). I’m still anxious because I know that complications aren’t out of the question, despite the confidence the man at the embassy exuded over the phone a few hours ago.
And why am I sad?
Beirut has become my home. I’ve been living in Lebanon for five years. And although it may not be easy for some to understand, this place has become a part of my identity in ways that I can only attempt to explain.
When people ask me why I love Beirut, I tell them: “I grew up here.”
I don’t mean my parents raised me on these chaotic Mediterranean shores. My formative childhood years were spent far away, across the ocean, along the shores of Lake Michigan. But Lebanon is the place a 23-year-old version of me chose for himself, a place where this naive, dumb and impressionable white American boy decided he would build a life.
What happened in the five years since then? Everything happened.
I became an adult. I became independent. I questioned everything I thought I knew and realized just how stupid and ignorant I was.
I learned to love myself, like really fucking love myself. I gained confidence, found success, and accomplished so many dreams.
I loved and I cried a lot. I felt alone and I learned to embrace the loneliness.
After five years, I routinely found myself dancing alone in my apartment happy as fuck just to wake up and face the day.
That’s me now, and I don’t know how to explain it, but Beirut did that. She made me into this confident, happy and excited guy. Somehow I went from that shy, naive kid to this bold guy who will book tickets to random destinations and show up without knowing anyone or anything, figuring it out as I go along.
I transformed from that insecure and clingy kid into someone with friends scattered around the world, friends that I shared more with and feel closer to than I could have ever imagined before.
I’m comfortable now, comfortable with who I am and confident that my future is bright.
* * *
I hear my name being shouted from inside the office in front of me. I quickly stand and enter.
“Come with me,” the uniformed Lebanese General Security officer tells me.
He leads me into an office across the hallway, where another uniformed man has my file open. He looks at me, looks at the file and begins to question me gruffly.
“What is your profession? Where’s your address in Lebanon? Do you have a number?”
I answer the questions, quickly and robotically. How many times have I answered these questions over the last year? Every time I watched the officers write down my responses, wondering if they were actually recorded anywhere.
A part of me is annoyed, questioning why this process has to be so tedious and complicated. At the same time, I consciously realize that I’m a foreigner, and privileged as an American at that. A Syrian or Sri Lankan in the same situation probably wouldn’t even be in this room right now.
And generally, after five years, I have developed a tacit respect for the Lebanese General Security and the Lebanese Army. Having lived through periods of immense insecurity in Beirut, I’ve learned to recognize the crucial role these men and women play in keeping the country safe. Sure, they may overstep sometimes, but Beirut hasn’t had a bomb since November 2015, and the credit needs to go somewhere.
I start to remember the last interaction I had with a Lebanese soldier, at a checkpoint over the weekend.
On Saturday, just a few days ago, I decided to take one last road trip to the North of Lebanon. Over the past few years, some of the best memories have been weekend drives into the mountains, through the Bekaa Valley or along the Mediterranean coast.
I was fortunate to make local friends early on that shared a passion for regular adventure. My friends and I would almost weekly head out with little plan or just a general destination, off to discover new areas and unique hidden spots throughout the country.
Sometimes we would have long discussions on these drives, touching on any and every topic from politics to sex, to films, music and everyday gossip. And sometimes we would drive in silence for hours, taking in the beautiful landscapes passing us by, stopping occasionally to snap photos to be posted on social media later.
#LiveLoveLebanon crew … that was the nickname one of my close friend’s colleagues gave us.
So before I left, I just wanted to breathe the fresh mountain air and see my home from above one last time.
I drove alone, just me, the car and a shuffled playlist. I didn’t use Google Maps. I knew the roads. Years of riding and driving with friends allowed me to navigate most of Lebanon with ease, only occasionally needing to check an online map or casually asking someone for directions.
* * *
“Jason? You’re Jason?”
I’m back in the hallway pacing. An attractive Lebanese woman in uniform is addressing me. Her long blonde hair and perfectly styled makeup contrast nicely with her military fatigues and boots.
“Yes, that’s me,” I reply.
“When do you want to travel?” She asks in only slightly accented English.
“My ticket is for tomorrow morning,” I reply, getting nervous.
She checks her watch, and then looks up reassuringly.
“OK. We have until 5 p.m. Don’t worry. We are processing your file now,” she tells me, before walking off and entering an office down the hall.
I hope she’s right, but either way, I guess it’ll all be fine. Breathing in and out deeply, I continue to pace.
* * *
Driving north on the highway, I first pass through the urban sprawl of Beirut. Small high rises pass beside me, with bright neon signs pulling the attention of passersby.
Roadster. Crepaway. BHV. Zaatar W Zeit. ABC. All these brands I knew nothing of before Lebanon, they’ve now become familiar and comfortable. This sprawl continues passed Jounieh, passed Byblos … and I keep on driving.
After nearly an hour, I turn right, heading up into the Lebanese mountains. The landscape changes abruptly, as I begin to pass through mountain villages, climbing steadily in altitude.
I’m listening to some deep house club music with the windows down. The weather is perfect, sunny, warm – but not hot – and the air is so fresh. The clouds billow like beautiful cotton over the mountains to the left, and I’m newly impressed with the beauty of the greenery combined with scattered villages on the mountainside.
I feel so completely happy, so utterly content. What a life I have! How fortunate I am! I’m the luckiest guy on earth!
Ma fi ahla mn hayate … Maybe there are people as happy as me, but I can’t imagine one could be happier.
After nearly another hour of driving, I pull of and park by the legendary Cedars of God, Arez. I want to walk through this small forest one last time, to breathe the air and feel the importance of this small nation. I want to sit and look up at the sky and just exist in that space for a final moment.
* * *
Hours later, I’m on a different floor in a remarkably similar hallway of the General Security headquarters. It’s nearly 5 p.m. and I’ve paid $100 in fines. I’ve seen them place stamps on my passport, and I’m starting to believe I’ll actually get this document back by the end of the day.
I’ll have my farewell party tonight after all and say goodbye to everyone, but not goodbye … just see you later. I’ll make my plane and I’ll see my family for the first time in nearly two years.
It’s grandma’s 80th birthday party on Sunday and all my cousins, aunts and uncles will be there. I can’t miss it and I’m so excited to see everyone. Yes, I think it’s safe to believe that I’ll be there with them.
“Jason!” The voice shouts my name from behind the half open office doorway.
“Here you go. You’re done,” the man says.
“Everything’s fine? I can travel?” I ask just for confirmation.
“Yes,” he says, clearly eager to leave and head home.
* * *
I’m at the top of Lebanon, I’ve reached the highest peak: Qurnat Al Sawda.
To my right I can see the Bekaa Valley stretching until it reaches the Syrian mountains. To my left, I can just glimpse the Mediterranean at the extreme end of the picturesque mountains blanketed billowing cotton clouds.
The sun is bright. The air is fresh.
I close my eyes. I breathe in deeply. I turn around slowly, taking in this moment from every angle.
I love this place. It’s so beautiful, it’s so perfect.
Reflecting, I think about my time in Lebanon. So much has changed, I’ve transformed so much. Underneath everything, I still feel like I’m the same kid, but I’m wise now, more aware, confident and I’m happy – happy in this content and peaceful way.
I’m not afraid of the future. I’m not worried about failure or problems.
Five years ago, I boarded a plane to a strange country without knowing anyone. My hopes were high and I had no expectations. Now, years later, I’m leaving with more friends than I can count. I earned a masters’ degree, traveled to so many new destinations, learned so much, helped build a successful startup and honestly, reached a level I only dreamed of when I left the U.S.
How did this dumb kid from Michigan get to the point where he could navigate the crazy roads of Lebanon without a map? How did I get to the point where I found so much enjoyment in my own company that I could take this road trip alone and want it that way?
If someone had told 23-year-old me that I would be driving alone around this country and like it, I would have laughed in their face. The idea of navigating the roads would have seemed crazy enough, not to mention I hated being alone.
I don’t anymore. I like it. I learned to enjoy the moments of silence in my apartment, and the quiet anonymity of traveling solo. I’ve found peace inside my own thoughts and comfort in befriending myself.
At the same time, this internal comfort has positively influenced my relationships with others. I found that accepting myself and enjoying my own company allowed me to give better to those I love. I’m more honest now, more open and more trusting.
And I’m confident enough to be vulnerable with people, not fearing their rejection.
All of these things run quickly through my mind as I breathe the fresh mountain air. I’m home. What is home though?
Home is here. Home is now. Home is me.
I am home.
* * *
Days later, I’m surrounded by my family. Everyone came to my parents home in southwest Michigan to celebrate grandma’s 80th year.
It’s surreal to enter my teenage bedroom again. My parents haven’t made any changes and the walls are still the green and blue we painted them when we moved in. The snapshots of me with high school friends are still there, and my old yearbooks are in the closet. My matted photographs are stacked up on the floor, and old magazines are piled under my futon.
Who was this 17-year-old kid? Would he be shocked to see me now? Could he have ever imagined the last five years of my life?
My first morning back, I wake up early before the sunrise. Putting on my running shoes, I tell my parents I’m headed out for a run.
“Be careful running on the busy road between here and town. The sun isn’t up yet” my mom warns.
My dark humor kicks in.
“I’m sure I’ll be fine, mom. But wouldn’t it be so funny if I got hit by a car and died today in Michigan … after five years living in the Middle East?” I say laughing as I head toward the front door.
“Jason! That’s terrible,” my mom says as I walk outside. Clearly, she isn’t amused.
Jogging down my secluded street, I see the first rays of sunlight coming up over the trees. The air is so fresh. Everything is so incredibly green, and the crisp morning air gives me strength to run faster and better than I have in weeks.
I pass the liquor store near my house. I pass the St. Joseph river. I cross the bridge and enter the Village of Berrien Springs. Turning right, I run towards Kephart Street, where my grandma lives and more famously, the street legendary boxer and activist Muhammad Ali once called home.
The houses are the same, little has changed and I like it. Five years have passed and yet I feel my past has been caught in a time warp. Obviously, it isn’t true. The subtle signs of my parents’ aging seem exaggerated after nearly two years apart.
But I know, deep down inside me that I’m home in this place. My soul was born here, in this very village. I always loved it. And then I saw the world. It opened up to me in an amazing way and I became addicted to movement.
And now, I’ve made another big move. I’ve left all those amazing Lebanese friends, that nice apartment, the crazy drunken Beirut nights, the abandoned Roman ruins and those rugged mountains behind.
Sure, I’ll miss Lebanon, just as I miss Michigan. But miss is a weird word. Because it’s not so much of a sadness, as it’s a sort of happiness. It’s a nostalgic memory, a beautiful thought that brings a smile to my face.
Lebanon, I will always love you. I’ll love your mess, and your chaos, and your perfection and everything between and around.
It’s part of me now. I’ll always have Lebanon.
“Love knows not its own depth until the hour of separation.”
– Kahlil Gibran, The Prophet