As soon as I stepped into the harshly-lit, humid and ever-so-crowded Beirut airport, familiarity flooded my senses. Anxiety did as well, as it had ever since I boarded the plane from Rome. I was going to visit my extended family alone after completing a study abroad program in Greece, one I deliberately chose for its proximity to Lebanon. My sleepless eyes gazed through crowds of restless people trying to get home, scanning for a familiar face, until they finally settled on one — my cousin, ten years older than he was the last time I saw him. His eyes were the same kind ones I remembered, and they instantly filled me with relief.
My cousin drove me through narrow, bumpy streets of Beirut, through the neighborhood that for so long existed only in fragmented memories in the back of my mind, coming to the forefront in the presence of certain smells, pictures or feelings: the smell of busy Michigan Avenue through the window of the car on a hot summer afternoon, a stack of shiny photographs at the bottom of my mom’s drawer in her room. Pieces buried deep in the recesses of my mind that I was never able to quite put together, but appreciated nonetheless.
On the 2am drive to my grandma’s house where I would be staying, my cousin and I exchanged few words. I told him he had changed; he told me I had too. We exchanged questions of how the flight was and how we’ve been as I stared out the window and took in the sights- towering faded buildings, balconies decorated with clothes lines, little shops closed for the night. There was so much I wanted to say and ask him, but I couldn’t bring myself to formulate words. My heart was jumping with excitement and nerves- after not being here for so long, I worried about all that I had missed. So much had changed in the past decade- and I worried 12 days would not be enough time to catch up, to rekindle that sense of home that I used to feel in Lebanon. Even worse, I worried that I would not be able to connect to my family anymore and that they would regard me as an outsider, because after all, I was.
In the days to come, nothing would prepare me for the overwhelming feelings that I would experience — nostalgia most of all. Memories I forgot I even had were revived as old traditions were revisited. My short stay in Lebanon consisted of family gatherings every single day — a room full of aunts, uncles, cousins, all gathered in my grandmother’s house, eating on a spread of newspapers on the floor. It consisted of sweltering heat and periodic power outages and motorcycles buzzing and card games until morning. I met new family members, as the passage of time had brought them into my life. So much had changed; we were no longer the uninhibited little kids we used to be, unaware and unbothered by the disconnect that is created by living worlds away. I was aware of every awkward pause, every forgotten Arabic word, every relative’s different life that I was so out of touch with. But the unequivocal pull of family, the love that traverses time zones, oceans and decades, was still the same, and I imagine it always will be.
In my Grandma’s spare bedroom, where my cousins and I were staying, there was a little wallet-sized picture of my mom as a teenager tucked into the side of the mirror. My mom, the youngest of 11 siblings, the first and only one to move to America after marriage, the one that left everything she knew and loved and risked it all at the tender age of 18. I felt her presence with me in Lebanon, in the way her siblings would talk about her, remarking about how much I resemble her both in physical features and mannerisms. I saw her eyes in my Teta’s, as she held my hand and recounted stories about my cousins and me so many years ago. I tried to imagine what she was like in her younger days, surrounded by family and her language and free from the bounds of stress that come with immigration. In all the old pictures, she’s always smiling big, looking carefree and happy. I wondered what her life could have or would have looked like had it taken a different course. I wondered who I would be had she stayed, had I grown up there with all of my cousins, had I never known the balancing and clashing of two identities as they fought tirelessly to reconcile their differences. But that reality is only a distant dream, and for now I choose to enjoy the nuances that come with who I am.
I felt insanely lucky to be there, to have these roots, to belong somewhere that expects nothing of me except to keep it in my memory. I felt lucky and undeserving of the out-pour of love from all of my family members — the way they put all of their responsibilities on hold to make sure I had the best time I possibly could. The way they finished my sentences when I struggled to make a coherent thought in Arabic instead of dwelling on my mistake. To my aunts who invited me for breakfast and dinner every day, my grandma who spent hours making food she knew I liked, my cousins who took off work to spend time with me. To the owner of the corner store a block from my grandma’s house who surprisingly still remembered me and whose eyes lit up when I walked in.
The days went by fast, too fast. It was time to pack my bags for a final time and make the journey home, much before I was ready to say goodbye. The drive to the airport was silent and tearful, the car overflowing with my suitcases and my cousins who insisted on coming along, and in true Arab fashion we stayed hugging in the airport much longer than we needed to.
People wonder how you can be so connected to a place you are so geographically far away from, how you can feel so strongly for people you see once every decade if you’re lucky, how you hold on to a language that seems to fall apart in your mouth. I don’t know how to describe it, other than that home never really leaves you. While I left feeling incomplete, I also felt a piece of me come back that I never even knew I missed; now I’m counting down the days until I can go back home again.