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Article
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Lebanon

The day home did not change: the politics of nostalgia

Events are the ephemera of history; they pass across its stage like fireflies, hardly glimpsed before they settle back into darkness and as often as not into oblivion. Every event, however brief, has to be sure a contribution to make, lights up some dark corner or even some wide vista of history.
(Fernand Braudel)

 

Fireflies

The beeping dial tone taunted me, like a handful of glass scraping across my insides – it was a familiar feeling following Lebanon’s asphyxiating thirty-year civil war and daily anxieties about what has happening and concern for friends and loved ones.

I had spent several hours trying to reach my mother in Beirut after a massive explosion tore through the city’s belly that balmy summer evening of August 4th.

In a futile attempt to make sense of it, I watched, eyes puffed like curdled milk, Instagram video after Twitter video of destroyed homes, crushed cars, shattered windows. The blast incinerated trees, rearranged the faces of centuries-old buildings, pulled the ashen Mediterranean sealine inwards. News outlets reported that the Beirut bomb was so huge it was heard in Cyprus.

When I finally got through, at 2 am, I was hysterical: so grateful she was safe, so ashamed for feeling so grateful. I expected Mum to be hysterical as well. In between muted sobs, she spluttered out the words: We are used to it.

Some answers become anvils. I didn’t know – or ask – which ‘it’ she was referring to: the 2006 war with Israel; Hariri’s assassination; the Syrian Occupation; the Lebanese civil war she grew up in, thirty years of fighting (that led to peak migration to Australia) which ‘ended’ in the 90s, but never actually ended.

Mama didn’t mean to normalise tragedy – her years were wrinkled with it, but this felt like a rupture, a fracture from living within the demarcations of what was considered ‘normal’ tragedy.

The world finally found out the cause of the bomb – the 750 tons of ammonium nitrate that left 6,500 people injured, 200 dead, that disappeared dozens under chunks of city, which citizens would later sweep up, dig through, and clean.

It was not Israeli spies or terrorists or separatists or extremists or enemy neighbours. It was a lethal neglect, the inevitable conclusion to decades of colonial rule, cronyism, and corruption, that catapulted us to the troubles of the civil war era, and beyond.

It was us.

 

Diaspora

During an event to fundraise for the victims of the Beirut Blast, one of the speakers reminded the online audience that our Home Affairs Minister once said resettling Lebanese Muslims into Australia in the 1970s was a ‘mistake’. A statement one does not so readily forget, like a shadow that momentarily shrinks in the corner as it prepares to grow and swallow the whole room. Our discourse is bloated with this type of Islamophobic, anti-Arab commentary, which is regularly propagated by politicians in power (I write this as we mark fifteen years since the Cronulla riots and almost two decades since 9/11).

The fundraiser, organised by a collective of Arab-Australian writers who wanted to help out, inevitably featured a discussion of their place in Australia.

‘Helping out’ doesn’t only exhume complex, contradictory feelings of helplessness and privilege, and of our relationship to homeland: it also puts a scalpel to our relationship with home.

Despite each of the writers hailing from divergent parts and pieces and migrational contexts, all felt at one time or another that society is not theirs. Some still feel this, others know it never has been or will be – theirs.

In his seminal book White Nation, scholar Ghassan Hage argues that our various racialised identities in Australia are ‘imagined, positioned, and managed as being in some way alien in relation to ‘Whiteness’ and ‘White’ values.’ This is what Hage refers to as ‘the fantasy of White supremacy’, rooted in the identification with European empire, with conquest and colonisation.

‘White’ is the default Australian culture, and ‘White people’ imagine themselves as ‘in control’ of this default, of this version of Australia. This is an essential part of White Australia’s imagination, a deliberate design to exclude, to induce feelings of exclusion – and to play on both.

It follows then that the more alien we feel, and are made to feel, the more displaced we become. The more displaced we are, the more eager many of us become to prove ourselves and our place here in this dominant version of Australia. Some through allegiance to this version and others to an alternative: to each other and to a ‘like’ community.

To fight this social, psychological dislocation, we invest in building Diaspora, where it can seem ‘easier’ to revive, maintain, or invent a unique interest and connection with a prior homeland – real or imagined, where there is no room or risk of forgetting, assimilating, or distancing.

This Diaspora reality is partly a social construct – a consciousness based on excavating memory of homeland, history, meaning and feeling, fables and folklore, group identity, goals and dreams. It’s a consciousness, driven by a desire for eventual return, that undermines and undercuts alienation in the ‘temporary’ home country.

Diaspora inherently encompasses a protective, at times inadvertently performative nostalgia to protect us from understanding a thing – or to protect us from a thing that does not understand us. We devote ourselves to national and cultural revivals, our lives are confettied with it.

We take our drums and our derbake to the Opera House to protest ‘our’ Lebanese Government, find solace in the global family Whatsapp group chats as we bond over multi-lingual memes and bizarre conspiracy theories and floral forwards, long for the ruins of Byblos and the shores of the Mediterranean bedazzled with silvery fish as we BBQ and hum along to Fairouz soundtrack on Sundays, gift each other containers of janarek in spring and frozen dried mint in autumn.

We reconstruct relics out of shared anxieties and feelings and rituals, rotate them on our spits. It is more important than ever to maintain the prayers of Eid or Maronite Easter morning (even if you barely believe), the big ka’ak bake offs, the over-the-top weddings with the satin and sequins and diamantes.

Elusive dreams of another place and another time are an inevitable part of our inheritance. This shared nostalgia comes to us, comforts us, presents us with a tried and tested, well-trodden track back home, one that we are used to, one where we can accumulate slithers of self, of meaning beyond the turbulence of displacement. This is the confluence of our body’s fragmented and fluid identities.

To exist in Diaspora is to exist within ambivalent, shifting fault lines, flamboyant and feeble. It is a continual conjugation of this hybridised Arab identity, faced with the double bind of racism and patriarchy as we ourselves perpetuate dispossession against the traditional custodians of this land.

Memory and the myth of resilience 

Each year, community matriarchs like Aunty Paula and Aunty Alissar remind us of the Sabra and Shatila massacre, a fixture of our Diaspora; barbed wire that has irrevocably changed the shape of our past and present consciousness.

At the height of the civil war, on September 16, 1982, the right-wing Christian Phalange militia stormed the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps in West Beirut, in misguided retaliation for the assassination of their leader Bashir Gemayel. For two days and nights, they murdered thousands of mostly Palestinian civilians. Israeli troops surrounded the camps to prevent the refugees from leaving. They fired flares throughout the night to help the militiamen see their way through the killing field. Mutilated bodies were dumped in mass graves. To this day, people are still waiting to hear about their dead.

A few years after the massacre, a general amnesty was agreed upon as part of the peace accord that ended the civil war. There would be no justice, no-one to be held accountable. Not only was all forgiven, but the old warlords were promoted, trading camouflage for crisp, clean suits. They recycled themselves into a ‘new’ Lebanese government and, much like the mass graves, they buried every last shred of the war along with their culpability. They cosmetically overhauled the country and its skeletons, the literal and metaphorical, leaving Lebanon in a perennially weakened state of political dynasties and fiefdoms – and we, the people, watching, in misery, in misunderstanding, in collusion handing over matchsticks, as the country destroyed itself.

A post-colonial hangover of sorts, the massacre at Sabra and Shatila was intended to keep the people of Lebanon divided. The colonialism and its imprints brutalised us all the same, just in different ways, whether we stayed or left. Our parents and grandparents who migrated here nurse open wounds and unspeakable traumas and yet mercifully perhaps, their sense of identity, the ‘national’ and local and familial, was developed and stayed intact before they were uprooted.

But as their children, as first or second generation, we are experiencing a unique manifestation of a Lebanese-Australian settler identity, and the fill-in-the-blanks inherent to it. Ours is one of being trapped in a cycle of unbelonging, we feel out of place here and there.

Our identity struggle is both an undeniable manifestation of that displacement, and an attempt to build an identity outside of it. This process is scattered with what we think we should be; with perceived powerlessness that we are unable to control our own destiny; and an impotence that despite international solidarity, we cannot transform our reality.

As so here we have found ourselves deep in a crater: faced with a present that is non-negotiable and a colonised past marred with these moments. We are tempted to turn and return to a nostalgic memory. Ours or borrowed. Our parents, our grandparents, as we slip on their forbearing, their resilience.

‘One is always at home in one’s past’, Vladimir Nabokov writes. I would add: we are at home in the memory of our past. Ours and borrowed. And often the reality of this is a blurry picture of a past that can never be the present – or a past that never was.

We mourn past glories invoked by modern nationalism and liberation movements, and our inability to reclaim them – despite how many times we convince ourselves our beloved Lebanon will rise again. But country is a broken headstone.

This present-day reality – equal parts memory and myth – has whittled us down and named us resilient. A reward for surviving what we weren’t expected to. A reputation we have earned: we hold pool parties as sirens shriek, we refashion bunkers into pubs and dance clubs. A response we offer: how cursed blessed we are to have outlived this growing list of ‘troubles’.

The institutionalisation of memory and myth of our own resilience undoubtedly functions to help us cope – and in doing so, it is rather cruelly, ironically, a (reluctant) acquiescence of the conditions that made it necessary for us to rely on the idea in the first place. An acquiescence that has metastasised into intergenerational trauma, one of our few heirlooms as children of Diaspora.

Garbage (trauma and the tyranny of uncertainty)

Before the bomb, before the forest fires, before the chants (Kilon ya3ne kilon, ‘down with all of them’) and the mass anti-government protests uniting people across lines that had divided for decades – there was stockpiles of garbage. Literally.

Public sector mismanagement – the old ‘normal’, ‘Just The Way Things Are’ – had been so rampant that it plunged Lebanon into billions of dollars of debt, consistently devaluing the Lebanese Lira and making salaries and entire life savings worthless overnight.

Thirty years after the civil war ended, Lebanon still doesn’t have 24-hour electricity, functioning water and sanitation systems, or reliable rubbish collection. The administrative oppression is so large-scale, so absurd, so unfathomable, it has corroded the distance between fact and fiction, between reality and allegory – home is a dump.

The tyranny of this anaemic infrastructure and corrupt bureaucracy has manifested itself in people’s inability to make a simple domestic call to one another, to wash vegetables with clean water, to pay a bill or tax and actually expect to receive the public service, to walk on a sidewalk that is not heaving with rotting, reeking garbage.

This tyranny has left us, our upbringings and our relationships parched. It is an affliction that has forced many of my family members to leave. This tyranny has kept people sagging with perennial uncertainty and political malaise, distracted from the pursuit of any potential mechanisms that might be used to remove the ruling class from power.

Uncertainty is a ‘state of siege’, to borrow from renowned poet Mahmoud Darwish, and it is eternally present in Lebanon with a singular aim – to continue to be eternally present.

No one can plan a life like this. No one should be ‘resilient’ to this, to living in a constant state of emergency (If anything, this is a lesson we have collectively learnt in 2020-1).

Having processes, and processing, helps fast forward making decisions and plans in life. And in Lebanon, decisions and plans are artefacts of the elite. 

I have the privilege assigned by Diaspora, the privilege of choice. But to be in Diaspora is another type of uncertainty – it is memory and nostalgia and leaving a home when you’re never really leaving. It is always explaining your existence, with less time to simply exist, or realise your existence in a way you fully get to choose.

I find myself always finding reasons to talk about Beirut, to tell the city’s stories, our memories, to sit with it and care for it, joke with it and dance with it. We hate it. We also love it. I am unable to discern whether it is trauma contoured with memory, or memory with trauma. A trauma that causes us to unbutton in fragments, some of which are my own, firsthand, some inherited, and many a mutation of both.

To be an Arab Muslim woman settler living on stolen land is to try to reassemble these fragments, to find meaning in them, to strive for a semblance of ‘justice’ and search for little joys and small loves in the disjoints of Diaspora.

 

Roots

For those of us who are accustomed to being one word, one step away from destruction, testimony is necessary. Memory is our best line of defense in a world that promises oblivion. Like fireflies, memories light up the different, dark corners of our lives and disappear. Sometimes, I cannot see them at all. I remain a world away, remembering things unremembered a world away – unable to participate fully in either world.

I am equal parts (survivor’s) guilt as I sit on a train to Some City or Other reading Darwish, and (cautious) hope as I am part of a generation that still thinks we can suture the hurts, cleave these fractal parts, compensate for the loss – absolve myself by building a better Lebanon, here and there. A Lebanon that is free of its past, but never free to forget it. I want a Lebanon that wants us – that wants all of its people – holy or unholy, whether they belong to none of the seventeen sects, or all of them, whether they’re refugees, or domestic workers who are in our care. Lebanon needs to deserve us, just like we deserve it. We are for each other … and that’s a practice it’s time we get right. We have all lost so much, and are still losing. We are tired. We have a right not to give up on any more of our tomorrows.

But messages of (false) freedom do not make us messiahs, when in truth we are an unceremonious conveyor belt of contradictory emotions like despair and relief, rage and grace, detachment and gratitude.

‘It is not a dead society that we want to revive,’ wrote Aimé Césaire. ‘It is a new society that we must create.’

Remembering, documenting experiences and stories like mama’s, waiting for the calls and witnessing the histories and writing our elegies, is how we ensure our survival. And even then, it may not be enough. This is the topography of how we read, and how we are read and misread. It announces that there is such a thing as Us, that We Are, already – especially during times when we second guess our rusty lungs.

Nostalgia is more than a reaction or romanticised notion or act of self-preservation.

It is part of our heritage, but it is not permanent asylum, nor does it demand canonisation. It is a reservoir of insight, of empathy, it can bring our multitude of worlds closer.

Radical ways forward are rooted in tradition and nostalgia. As we learn more about ourselves, and where we cannot accept our present, we will refuse to resign ourselves to the same problems, the same scabs that flung us towards nostalgia in the first place.

These scabs are omens, we must confront them, pick at them. In doing this, we must be prepared for even more questions than answers. As we peel away at our identity, so, too, we must peel away at the unjust foundations of this country, so-called Australia. This act does not conveniently sieve us of responsibility and complicity. That is the ground we have to stand on.

Above all, nostalgia is not right or wrong – it merely is. And it is inescapable. Our present is a condition of it. We must reach a point where we are ‘free’ of our actual past – not free to forget it. Free to fight for something we know, to follow the blueprints, but not so focused that we can’t make room for the unfamiliar.

A room where we must make peace with the ever-expanding shadows, scrub its walls and cover them with wanderings and messes we have made, with shared pleasures, chaotic and delicate – signs that we are still breathing. A room that cannot be flattened. A room that does not deliver catharsis or resolution, redemption or equilibrium – just a refrain of returning, and beginning. Where there is no ending, only exits. A room that is ours. Where we, too, can sing – and sing home – in our own way.

Afterlude:

‘The wounds of my people have blossomed. The mothers’ tears have blossomed.’ Fairouz sang in ‘For Beirut’. Its last lines an instruction: ‘You, Beirut, are mine. You are mine. Embrace me’.

 

Photo by Rashid Khreiss

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

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Sara M Saleh is the daughter of migrants from Palestine, Egypt, and Lebanon, living on Gadigal land. A campaigner, writer, and poet, Sara’s work has been published in English and Arabic, and she co-edited the anthology Arab-Australian-Other. Sara received the 2021 Peter Porter Poetry Prize, and is developing her debut novel

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Comments

  1. It is good that you can articulate the problems of Lebanon Sara.
    Sadly, many of those problems are a worldwide phenomena with no easy solution.
    Resilience is borne by the exploited.

  2. What is really interesting regarding the Lebanese diaspora in Australia: at one point Lebanese, Greeks, Italians etc were all considered “wogs”, but that seemed to change. Was it post-Sept 11?

    I also think there’s a point to be made that Lebanese Muslim and Lebanese Christian are treated very differently in Australia, and aren’t necessarily lumped together…

  3. Moving, thought provoking. Will read again and again. Identity and belonging are active verbs, especially complicated in and by diaspora. Thank you.

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