The following is from a series of musings on trauma, memory, community, and place. The introduction to the series and beginning essay [link] explains the purpose of this month of entries.
I remember coming home after a long day spent in Hamra.
I was at a corner calculating the best destination reference point to use in order to corral a service taxi.
By this I mean to say the judgment that unfortunately occurs which involves “placing” people.
An attempt to ascertain a cabbie’s “place of origin” to determine where he might or might not be willing to go.
And hopefully guessing a destination target that might be along his journey.
During times of great tension I notice certain cab drivers take meandering paths determined by sect and political alliance.
There is also an unstated “border” tax that still splits the city in half.
The border remains the Green Line of the Civil War.
I happen to live just inside the Western half.
I resent this segregation.
It’s not of us, but imposed on us.
Sodeco is a mall complex that sits on what was the Damascus Highway.
This is the de facto Green Line.
A former ambassador of France called this a “gift” from his country.
He said those exact words.
My friend was a caterer working at his house.
It’s like someone from the federal government calling the New Jersey Turnpike a “gift”.
An asphalt ribbon of egress designed to encourage commerce and outside interference, with no attention paid to those who have to live near it.
Or who are split from their neighbors by it.
That about sums it up.
Walking the last leg of my journey, in an effort to escape the hot July noonday sun, I decided to shoot down a shadier side street of my neighborhood.
One I don’t usually travel down.
Near the fancy mosque.
Flying a Saudi flag.
Two men approached me.
They showed me some security “IDs”, and asked for my identification.
I showed them my residency visa rather nonchalantly; this is where this kind of thing usually ends.
“What’s this name?” I pronounced my name for them.
“You’re Lebanese?” Originally, yes.
“You have American nationality?” Yes.
“Do you have your passport?” Yes.
“What’s in your bag?” I opened my bag.
“What do you do?” I’m a professor.
“What’s this?” It’s a pencil case; I teach art.
“What’s in this camera?” The battery is dead.
“What’s all this?” Newspapers, magazines, books.
“Where is your house?” [“beit“, meaning, where do you live.] Here, in this neighborhood. What’s going on? Did I do something?
“Give us your phone.” [The names, images, music, etc. will spell out one’s political/religious affiliation.] I handed over my phone.
“Where is your house?” [“diyar“, meaning, where is your family based, another sectarian giveaway.]
Here, I didn’t understand his use of the word, though I could guess it was related to “dar” (house/original district).
I wanted to be sure I understood, so I asked him to repeat himself.
“You speak Arabic, you’re Lebanese! Where is your place of origin?” I don’t know. I can’t know.
“Why can’t you know?” I was in an orphanage, and then adopted, and then I came back. I don’t know my family, or where I’m from.
“Which orphanage?” In Achrafieh.
“In Sioufi?” [He uses here a rarer, older term to define a section of Achrafieh; it would mark me as “Christian”]. Yes.
“And you came back?” Yes. 10 years ago.
“How long have you lived in this neighborhood?” [A mixed neighborhood, Muslim/Christian, but also Sunni/Shi’i] Eight years.
“And you don’t know where you are from?” I just explained to you! What do I need to repeat for you to understand? We don’t know where we are from! Why all the questions?
I knew I had crossed a line by raising my tone.
I also knew that within two blocks were a couple of dozen people who would vouch for me if need be.
Just like they did when the General Security bureaucrats came around to “verify” my presence before I obtained my nationality.
He stared at me, and then gave me back my residency card.
I had bested the test.
In the equation of whether I was worth pursuing, the end sum came out in my favor.
I put everything back in my bag.
In a few minutes I had traveled quite a distance.
Perceived as not Lebanese.
Then “proven” as Lebanese as well as “American”.
Then proven as Lebanese over American, since I “speak the language”.
That despite whether or not I might claim these for myself.
With “fitting in” in this micro-locale obviously having a different definition than the one I was used to.
“Where are you from?”
This is the question I was always dreading as a child.
This is the question I dreaded growing up.
This is the question I dread to this day.
Especially when it takes on very particular sectarian, political, religious significance.
There is nothing in the possession of the adoptee that can give any of this away.
We are ciphers, non-entities.
I worry now that this makes us hugely suspect, because no one can “place” us.
In a context where such “placement” counts enormously, even to the extent of one’s safety.
Life or death.
We don’t want to cross any lines.
“Where are you from?”
I’m from any place where people know me well enough to not ask me that question.
Our “belonging” is not in our hands.
Checkpoints make sure of that.
These days I tend to not stray too far from Home.
An act of willful self-segregation.
Image: Last illustration class at AUB | Date: April, 2011 | Place: Basement studio; AUB campus, Beirut | Camera: Sony “CyberShot” DSC-TX1; Carl Zeiss lens | Caption: This was my last illustration class taught at AUB. Their project was to take a local cultural figure and a quote from them and make a linoleum print portrait. We defined “local” as anyone speaking a regional language, so as to avoid notions of nation-state. Printing is “beaux-arts” style, meaning collectively done. Watching the wall fill up with their prints is one of my favorite teaching moments.