When I made the decision to quit my comfortable life in London and move back to Lebanon, I was warned. Many people tried to talk me out of it and said I was mad for leaving London; why would I want to leave an organised first world nation for third world chaos? I was born and bred in Beirut, but I had worked almost two decades of my life to escape Lebanon and make a living the furthest possible from it, it seemed like the wildest idea to throw it all away and move back to the very place I had been avoiding. The truth is, after a long time abroad, I longed for my roots, my family, a grounding experience; there was an unexplored part of my identity I needed to understand. A dismantled relationship, 12 years of finance, and 30 boxes of packed belongings later, I knew it was time to reset, move back home and join my family business to learn from the greats before it was too late.
I figured it wouldn’t be an easy ride, and I was all for it; I always enjoyed a new challenge. Economic and political hurdles didn’t seem insurmountable, I was excited, it was just what I needed, I thought. I was prepared, I had a carefully curated list of spicy comebacks to intrusive questions about my very single relationship status, whether I wanted children, my religious and/or political affiliations and choices about my body. I had it rehearsed, I thought I had it all under control.
What proceeded to unfold has been the roughest ride of my life. No amount of preparation would have braced me for this.
A whirlwind of turmoil
Little did I know that I would be thrown in the deep end, for months on end. A few weeks after I landed, Lebanon’s streets exploded with populist protests over the worsening economic situation. A series of roadblocks and strikes ensued, businesses were shut for weeks. Banks imposed restrictions on cash withdrawal and foreign transfers.
I was faced with endless dilemmas about the running of our business that I could never have foreseen. How do we ensure safety of our teams while the situation on the streets worsened? How do we pay staff and suppliers when banks were closed indefinitely due to customers harassing bank tellers for their cash? How do we ethically advertise for our products in dire economic times? I was not prepared for all this. And yet the universe believed I was the woman for the job.
A few nervous breakdowns and some hard decisions later, we seemed to have crossed that wobbly bridge and I was back on firm ground, looking forward to exciting plans and projects I had in store.
And just as I was settling into a productive rhythm, the dreaded Coronavirus lockdown was upon us. I found myself searching for innovative ways to keep the business afloat and to support our employees. All the while our local currency, the Lebanese Pound, was rapidly devaluating, the financial system was crumbling and access to basic provisions became increasingly prohibitive. Everyone was worried for their health, the streets became eerily quiet and the pressure grew stronger to find a way to make a buck.
The truth is, I love being in Lebanon. I am close to my family, the weather is the perfect kind of Mediterranean, the food is otherworldly and fresh produce packs a punch. I’m doing exciting work, I’m learning a huge amount of new things, and I’m exploring new territory in my homeland; Lebanon serves up some scenic views like you’ve never seen before. I am also always inspired by the breadth of the many talented entrepreneurs, designers, storytellers and artists here.
Amidst all this turmoil and economic devastation, Lebanon still inspires me. Beirut gives me more creative energy than I ever had. I knew this chapter of my life needed to be in Lebanon, there were things I needed to create, things I needed to say, things I needed to deliver before I could move on to other parts of life. There’s a sense of belonging here that anchors me.
6 things I’ve learned while living in Lebanon
While there’s so much I love about Lebanon, it’s safe to say that life here has not been easy, I wanted a challenge and I was served a mountain of it. Navigating living in Lebanon is a tricky adventure, so I compiled a list of 6 things I’ve learned while being here that shed some light on unspoken truths.
- You need to learn to preserve your energy
Living in Lebanon requires a daily dose of positive energy that overflows from you. The dozens of micro-aggressions you receive in your morning drive alone are enough to drain your supply. Most drivers in Lebanon believe that they are entitled to the right of way, whether it’s driving out of a side road, overtaking you on the highway or driving out of their parking spot, it’s their god-given right, so deal with it. If you make it to your destination unfazed, you’ve won. Make sure you find ways to regenerate your energy on a daily basis, have some hobbies you love, surround yourself with people who replenish you, and spend time in places that fill you up. That’s the only way to keep going.
- You will have to drop names
You’re always on the good books when you know somebody who knows somebody; and make sure you drop their names! In Lebanon, it’s the key to survival. It’s not enough to be your own human being and have your own credentials, you are mostly referred to as the friend of, cousin of, colleague of, neighbour of, hiking partner of, or any combination of those, to mean anything to the average Lebanese.
- You will be faced with the curse of your appearance… everyday
Be prepared to have your body noticed. Really noticed. Even the concierge will have an opinion about your body, whether you’ve gained weight, lost weight, had enough sleep, look tired, look better today, hair looks frizzy or look sad without makeup on. The double standard imposed on women is infuriating, nobody is serving men meaningful comments for having their bellies hanging from too much arak or for not shaving that day. My aunt asked me if I was okay on a Sunday because I had my hair in a ponytail and had no makeup on. I love her to bits, she’s the sweetest, but that’s how deep people get into your appearance. Take it on the chin and have some solid boundaries about what people can and cannot impose on you.
- You must assert your boundaries
Rehearse your comebacks, nosy people are everywhere! Everyone wants to know everything about you in Lebanon, gossiping is a national sport. Locals are quick to box you into certain categories; they process humans, based on their religion, political affiliations, relationship status and financial condition. I’ve had people I just met casually ask me with no reservations what religion I was, if I was married or whether I had kids. These seem to be some of the many standard questions everyone freely asks. I’ve been repeatedly left stunned and perplexed at how intrusive and boldly rude some of them are. If like me, this is a personal space you won’t allow trespassing into, prepare your polite responses in advance so you don’t get caught puzzled in the middle of the conversation.
- You’ll learn that tipping is everything
The unsaid rule is true. Without a healthy tipping hand, your life can be miserable. Everyone expects to be tipped in one form or another. Transactions take months on end to complete, formal paperwork just doesn’t get executed until you tip. This applies to both public officials and private professionals. People will not do the job they are paid to do without an additional tip. If you’re trying to set-up a business project in Lebanon, make sure the folks you’ve employed to do the work are also eating from the same bread you’re baking; otherwise, expect it to take much longer to complete.
- The sad truth is that the misogyny is real
I hate this, I hate writing it and I hate living it, but it’s real and it needs to be discussed. In Lebanon, my experience is that there is a palpable belief that women are less capable than men. The sad truth is that both men and women perceive a woman’s position as secondary to men’s. I have been mansplained to, interrupted and patronised in business discussions with words such as “3ammo” (which means “little one”) or “habibteh” (translated to “sweetheart”, a condescending term in formal conversations). If you’re a woman in Lebanon, you will spend considerable time correcting people, putting them back in their places and imposing more polite references. If you’re a man reading this, please help us be part of the solution, women alone can’t fix such deeply entrenched warped beliefs.
While I only touched on a few challenges in this article, some of them are problematic, they signal deeply rooted toxic traits we have as a people. Little progress can be achieved at national level if we cannot even employ enough self-control and patience in our daily car drive to politely let someone pass. Similarly, economies that thrive are those that have integrated women into their workforce, have learned to respect them and value their contribution. The more we discuss these issues and give them enough airtime, the more we can collectively be part of the solution to create a better home for everyone to thrive in.
For more mindful pieces, visit the Blog page.