So I started the last post to write about the Middle East and BAM, the Armenian part of me took over.
I did, in fact, write about my oft forgotten, Lebanese self soon after but it became a confessional, a rambla-thon of grand proportions and I’m not sure where to go with it. After all, I need to work on a community action plan for the laundry coop not wax poetic on the politics of belonging.
Sometimes, my boyfriend tells me that my Lebanese identity is curiously absent from discussions. Recently, a friend brought it up too which makes me wonder. On my self-deprecating blog (on my domain) and Twitter, there aretraces of my childhood in Beirut.
However, it is often in relation to a situation or a specific discussion, but it never creeps out on its own like my ruminations about Armenian culture. Then again, I also don’t talk about being a Quebecoise, though I suppose I am since I have lived in the province of Quebec for almost 22 years, and Montreal is home.
You should hear me discuss my background/heritage when someone prompts me and they often do: it’s never the same. Rather, my answer depends on the dynamics of the conversation, the conception of locality that my interlocutor has and my given mood.
I’m usually Canadian, sometimes “from Lebanon”, but I’m always an Armenian or of Armenian origin. It’s actually more complicated than that since my parents weren’t born in Lebanon nor in Armenia, but we don’t usually have all day.
This semester, a very perky (read: annoying) classmate wouldn’t take no for an answer until she could place my accent. I was feeling playful, so for the first time in my life, I insisted that I’m Canadian and nothing but.
Let me see you handling a very cheery and perky 20 year old.
Anyway, my perception of identity is fluid. For those who know me, my Canadian identity is quite interesting: though I’m not a nationalist or patriotic (the connotations make me break out in hives) in the George W. Bush context the term now elicits, I’m very much a Canadian. Still, I don’t believe in hyphenated identities.
I’m not an Armenian-Canadian or an Armenian-Lebanese for that matter. I’m a Canadian. I’m an Armenian. However, I never say I’m Lebanese.
It might have something to do with the perception the Lebanese project. If you spend any amount of time with them, you will know that a) they will adamantly deny being Arab and b) they will claim their Phoenician ancestors and c) they’re often speaking in Parisian French in such an exchange.
I have never been to Armenia (yet). Indeed, I was born and raised in Beirut with intermittent stays in Europe and LA and living in Syria and Cyprus before moving to Montreal. My nostalgia for Lebanon is present and fueled by folk music, films, FOOD and fucking politics. As a ten year old, I could sadly match any political commentator on American TV – perhaps not in fluency, but political analysis.
Why don’t I discuss it then? What is more: would I desire to return to Beirut? Most probably not. When I was a teenager, the second most annoying thing (next to being dragged to an event at Sourp Hagop) was conversing with my parents’ friends about returning to Lebanon.
In an attempt to assuage their nostalgia and guilt, they often channeled their longing for Lebanon in a teenager whose identity crisis was manifold. It’s true: I did not want to leave the Middle East – after a tumultuous childhood, frequent changes in different locales (boarding school in Cyprus was not preferable to bomb shelters no matter what my parents hoped), can you blame me for wanting stability? Actually, I fell in love with Canada once we arrived, except that we moved here in February in freezing temperatures (-20 to -25 F for you Yanks) and I still have not gotten used to the cold.
I had more culture shock in Aleppo and Latakia, Syria than upon moving to North America.
As I reflect on these conflicting identities, it makes me wonder. Last year, I discovered that as a mere woman, I would not be able to transmit my Lebanese citizenship to my children. In fact, Lebanese citizenship isn’t ascribed automatically nor did Armenians always benefit from it. Still, my Lebanese passport is dusty and hasn’t been renewed in over 15 years yet I would never renounce my citizenship.
Despite yearning for Armenia, being concerned for my homeland, following inner politics and helping from the diaspora, there is a distinct dichotomy that is at play here. Although I haven’t yet met her, I know it’s a matter of time before I make her acquaintance – volunteering, living, working, visiting (any and all of the above). In the days when Armenia didn’t recognize dual citizenship, I would have said my connection to my homeland was beyond political considerations. My Armenian identity has nothing to do with a passport.
Now that I can claim Armenian citizenship, it wouldn’t occur to me until I live in that society and contribute to her well-being and even then… Therefore, I don’t always feel qualified to comment on Armenia’s internal struggles, though my heart breaks through each cycle of violence, corruption, the lack of women’s rights, and I also feel tremendously proud of my fellow Hays. In the case of Lebanon, it’s another reality. I may not have talked publicly or at length about my beloved Lebanon before or often, but my heart beats furiously for Beirut, all the same.
Despite the occasional nostalgia about my childhood, when I reflect on the country, it is the political upheaval more than personal memories or longing that surface. My relationship is complicated: people who teasingly chide me for denying that part of my lived experience don’t realize the implications of their words. Moreover, I hadn’t quite come to terms with my complex affair with Lebanon. Besides occasional commiserations with folks under siege, I don’t dwell on it in more than 140 characters.
Truth be told, Beirut was tangential, palpable, and real whereas my yearning for Armenia (though every bit as haunting) is a dream (for now). I don’t have any immediate family members in Armenia, though my aunt and uncle have a house there, a cousin spent many years in Yerevan on media development and training journalists in South and Central Caucasus. Still, Armenia is my fantasy whereas Lebanon is a vivid hallucination and memory.
And yes, I do have relatives in Lebanon – from my aunt to cousins whose children I have never met – but I don’t have any desire to return from my exile. I have been curious, indeed, but I would like to think that my happy childhood (at home) and my ghosts are better left buried. If it hadn’t been for 2006, I would have said that the Lebanon of my memories – tantalizingly sweet and miserable – had been replaced by a semblance of normal life. Perhaps, I didn’t want to face returning to a home that was no longer my own, a city that I may not have recognized, and a reality that I might not have known. Perhaps. The truth is those who matter are elsewhere (my family) and the rest are dead.
Still, my heart beats wildly for Lebanon specially when she’s being raped. It just does so in private (until now, that is) and in a compartmentalized way.
After all, my stories are waiting to be written (about the quirky and perspicacious characters that helped rear me as much as my ‘rents). For now, literature soothes me (in English and French, sadly), the music of the Levant seduces and devastates me, and spirited critical analysis that connects me to that part of the world, giving me goosebumps, once again.
What I do think about is the happenstance that landed my family in the Middle East: the Armenian Genocide, of course. Would I have been as vested in Russia? Sure, I may have been able to read my Babel, Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, Gogol – my darlings – in Russian. How would I have turned out? Would my political sensibilities have been as varied? Would my Russian be as rusty as my Arabic?
And then I think – no more Fairuz, no more Farid el Atrache, no longing desperately for the tragic Asmahan, Oum Kalthoum? Sabah Fakhri’s mawal? Dalida? Even with my less than perfect Arabic, I have the soul even with my clumsy ministrations of the language. Oh, banish the thought!