Love thy neighbourhood

Society This article is part of the series Neighbours

Neighbours: A series of seven stories

Wherever we are in the world – home or away, in the place we were born or somewhere else – there will always be someone next door. A neighbour, a person living by our side. We may differ in manners and ideas of how things should be done, but we will remain closely connected – because borders and walls, bushes and fences from metal or wood, connect us more than keep us apart.

Lebanon, bordered on one side by the Mediterranean and on the others by olive, orange and wheat fields, may have complicated, if not outright thorny, official relations with its neighbours today. But the relationships nurtured by people are different. By their very essence they traverse borders, and connect what is on one side with the other. 

There is also a distinct neighbourly culture within Lebanon, which connects people living in the same street or building: a culture of chatting, sharing and helping one another. Some might argue that this is fading away with time; that close neighbourly relations are something of the past. Either way, there seems to be an inherent nostalgia associated with the concept of neighbours, and we are interested in finding out its current relevance. 

The seven stories in this series on Neighbours, all written or produced by former participants to our workshops on journalism and writing, set out to do that.

First out is the tender memory of Sarah Khazem of early morning rituals with a temporary next-door neighbour; following that is Abby Sewell’s conversations with Syrian activists on the revolutionary events in Lebanon. Layla Yammine’s meeting with an antiques dealer in Beirut’s Basta neighbourhood comes third; fourth is Andrea Olea’s notes of kitchen conversations with two Palestinian friends.

Hamoud Mjeidel then takes us to the families residing in Umm Ali’s building in Shatila, and Ghadir Hamadi invites us to hear her family history spanning Lebanon and the Gulf. Rayan Sukkar and Samih Mahmoud, finally, brings us voices from those who may be considered neighbours of the ongoing Lebanese uprising.

Growing up, my dad worked for an oil company in Saudi Arabia and my mom was a stay-at-home mom.

Me and my sisters were raised in a compound that mainly consisted of other Lebanese families, each coming from different parts of Lebanon. Mine was almost identical to all the others in the neighbourhood; a warm neighbourhood that shielded us kids from “the big bad world”, as the adults often phrased it.

Our parents had left Lebanon when the country’s political and economic situation became too much to handle, during the civil war that kicked off in the 1970s and stretched well into the 1990s. Hundreds of thousands of Lebanese left during those years, to places in Europe, the Americas, Africa and the Gulf. In 1997, when I was less than a year old and the war was over, my father got a job offer in Saudi Arabia. He relocated by himself at first, “to test the waters” in the foreign land.

Packing up 26 years of his life into suitcases and boxes, leaving the only country he ever called home and the neighborhood he had lived in since his birth, he also left behind a sense of familiarity, a place where every kid was everyone’s child.

Where he grew up, every lady had the same authority over you as your own mother. 

“If your neighbour told you to run to the store and get her some milk, you simply would not say no,” he always assured us. 

It was like one big family, living in tens of building squashed next to one another.

So my dad left, but he always looked back on a country he loved – and one that also had scarred his childhood with the smell of wars, death and constant insecurity. 

Soon after his arrival in Khobar in eastern Saudi Arabia and settling into his new job, my mom, my little sister and I followed him.

Living in a new country with no relatives and friends, just the four of us, triggered homesickness with my parents. But they knew that their children’s future was in this new foreign land, and so we stayed.

My parents left Lebanon in search of better opportunities, but still chose a country nearby, one that was just an affordable plane ticket and a few hours away.

The Lebanese who left to the Gulf and beyond might have felt resentful toward their country of origin, but once they reach their destination, they worked hard on recreating a piece of Lebanon.

They wanted us to appreciate the life they built for us, but still have the opportunity to fly home during holidays and connect with our roots and extended family.

But my dad was not the first in his family to leave Lebanon. Before him, his dad, my grandfather, had left our tiny village in the south to go to the Gulf and work in trade, along with his brothers and cousins. Them, like so many, went in search of better life opportunities and to help provide for their families.

They were part of the first phase in Lebanon’s modern history of migration to the Gulf, which took place prior to the 1970s oil boom. During this first era, more than 80 percent of migrant workers in the Gulf countries were Arabs, who had arrived there fleeing wars and conflicts, or escaping high rates of unemployment in their countries. They came from the two opposite extremes of the social ladder: the already successful and wealthy who searched for new opportunities, and the underprivileged who hoped to do better abroad than they did at home. 

Egyptians, Lebanese, Palestinians and others – both privileged and underprivileged – were among those who jumped at the first chance they could get to flee their countries in the 1970s. Boats, planes and buses took them away from the countries they once called home.

When my dad prepared to leave for Saudi Arabia in 1997, he first went to buy his suitcases from a shop in his neighbourhood. One simply cannot leave the neighbourhood without bringing a bag from it. In the southern Beiruti area of Bourj Al Barajneh where my parents lived, that place was the go-to store to visit the second someone planned on traveling elsewhere. Many outbound migrants have left Lebanon with suitcases from there.

After buying a suitcase and taking it home to start packing for his journey, my dad no longer felt that his plan of leaving the country and starting off somewhere distant was surreal. Rather, it was getting more realistic by the minute.

For many who migrate, the place where you are born never really leaves you, no matter how far you go and how long you stay away.

During four out of the five years that passed since moving back, I wanted nothing more than to leave Lebanon. 

The Lebanese who left to the Gulf and beyond might have felt resentful toward their country of origin, but once they reach their destination, they worked hard on recreating a piece of Lebanon. This is evident in the hundreds of Lebanese bakeries you can find across continents, for example.

Arriving at King Fahd International Airport, my dad knew deep down that it was going to be a long journey back home, that his initial short term immigration plan would stretch into the future.

There are no accurate estimates, but the common saying is that there are more Lebanese living abroad than in Lebanon itself.

Myself, I did the reverse migration of my dad and grandfather. I spent all of my childhood in Saudi Arabia, then moved back to Lebanon with my parents and four sisters in 2014. My first year in Lebanon was filled with cultural shocks. Over my inability to find mainstream Lebanese jokes funny, how hard it was to connect with others who hadn’t been living in Saudi Arabia. During four out of the five years that passed since moving back, I wanted nothing more than to leave Lebanon. 

I could count on one hand the number of things that drove me insane in Lebanon. The frequent power cuts, the unnerving noise pollution, and the nerve-wrecking traffic jams.

All the things I never had to deal with while growing up in the Gulf.

In Saudi Arabia, almost every family in my neighbourhood had the Lebanese flag hung up in their living room, woke up to the sound of Fairouz and travelled “home” every few months when a close relative or friend got ill or passed away, only to come back with Lebanese spices for everyone else.

In the international school I went to in Khobar, my class photo looked like a perfect image of a United Nation poster. We were a group of people with different ethnicities and religions, coming from different countries – yet getting along well and smiling cheekily for the photo.

I want to yet again, just like my dad and grandpa, take a pinch of trab al arz, Lebanese soil, plant it somewhere and call that place home all over again.

But at some point, Lebanon became my comfort zone. It became my familiar neighbourhood where everyone knows my name, my grandma’s house is just a 15-minute drive from mine, and I share people’s language, fears and hopes. It is true that Lebanon does not provide the basic necessities for someone to live a comfortable life: there are frequent power cuts, water shortages, a corrupt ruling class that drags the country into further debt each year and an unstable security situation. But despite wanting to leave, I finally slipped into a familiar routine and started to live a kind of life that made things easier for me.

Today, at 23, I also want to leave to the Gulf, but for different reasons than my dad.

I wouldn’t want to live in a primarily Lebanese area, nor would I want to live with my cousins and relatives. I want to eat different kinds of food, develop new habits and think in untried ways. But mainly, I want to dream differently from those around me.

My dad had a dream. He dreamt of raising a family in a safe and secure environment, were resources were not scarce and his kids’ security was not threatened by stray bullets and senseless wars. 

He dreamt of access to luxuries he never had access to growing up, because Lebanon at that time was drowning in war after war, and attack after attack. 

Before him, his dad – my grandpa – also followed his dream, to give his kids the education he never had – and he did.

Coming from a family that for generations found ultimate comfort and ‘truth’ in being close to those who think similarly to them – and after having lived all my life, until this day, in neighbourhoods with people who are similar – I can’t help but feel a strange longing for being able to live, for once, in a neighbourhood where my house is not an exact replica of every other house down the road.

Today, using Lebanon’s notoriously slow Wi-Fi, in between the power cuts, I find myself searching for a new life, in a different neighbourhood abroad. I want to yet again, just like my dad and grandpa, take a pinch of trab al arz, Lebanese soil, plant it somewhere and call that place home all over again.

Neighbours was produced as part of the 2019-2020 Switch Perspective project, supported by GIZ. All illustrations by Ismaël Abdallah.

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