‘I’m from Lebanon’: The top five assumptions made when these words leave my mouth
Krista Lourdes Akiki | Friday, December 6, 2019
The Notre Dame introduction is something we have all done hundreds of times since we got here. So, every time someone asked me to introduce myself, I would start off with “Hi! I’m Krista Akiki. I’m from Lebanon…”. And that right there turned out to be the cue to cut me off.
People around me seemed pretty impressed by the fact that I was Lebanese. I was really proud of that part of myself. I would jump at every opportunity to describe what it was like to be raised in Lebanon. The fact that so many people around seemed so intrigued by my culture and were interested to learn more about it actually warmed my heart.
As rich and challenging as my experience here in the United States has been, I can’t help but nostalgically reflect on all that I have left behind back home. I could sit here for days to tell all about the beauty and charm of my hometown, the energizing cosmopolitan nature of the country’s capital, the antique countryside charm of the towns niched among the most mesmerizing scenery or the cultural heritage that silently depicts years of civilization and tradition. I firmly believe that the philosophers, intellectuals and poets of our world, those who have who have set foot in Lebanon’s otherworldly land and experienced its grandeur, have done a much better job than what I could aspire to do as I string together descriptive words interlaced with feelings of awe and nostalgia.
Victor Guérin, French intellectual, explorer and amateur archaeologist who was fascinated by Lebanon’s mountains wrote, “When its peaks dissolve in the darkness of the night, star chandeliers radiate above them, as if the hills of Lebanon were lifting their dome on their palms, or as if there were heavenly beacons illuminating the mountains of Lebanon.”
Former US ambassador to Lebanon, Jeffrey Feltman, expressed genuine appreciation towards Lebanon and its people: “The Lebanon that I am leaving soon has retained all those wonderful qualities that so impressed me when I first encountered this beautiful country; a talented, cosmopolitan and energetic people; a lively and free media; a respect for diversity; and deep democratic traditions.”
The fascination and curiosity expressed when I reveal my Lebanese identity is often accompanied with quite flagrant assumptions or stereotypical hypotheses. Don’t get me wrong, I have never been offended by the questions people have asked me. It’s quite the opposite actually. Many of them, aside from offering me a good laugh, have helped me spread greater cultural awareness vis-à-vis my side of the world.
Below I have compiled and attempted to answer five assumptions I found most noteworthy or even most superfluous.
1. “Have you ever seen snow before?”
Many believe that it has never snowed in Lebanon or that Lebanon is a desert. In fact, Lebanese people enjoy a Mediterranean climate characterized by long, warm and dry summers and short, cool, rainy winters. This climate primarily ensues from Lebanon’s location between the aridity of the Africa and the humidity of the Mediterranean Sea. Moreover, one of the many advantages of Lebanon is that the shore and the ski slopes are merely separated by a relatively short two- or three-hour car ride. So, yes, I have seen snow before. I have skied and trekked in beautiful valleys covered with glowing white snow only to come back home near the shore where I’d have lunch outside in the warm sun and cool breeze. “My Lebanon is a serene mountain sitting between the sea and the plains, like a poet between one eternity and another.” – Gibran Khalil Gibran, Lebanese writer, poet and philosopher.
2. “Woah, so you’re exotic!”
We definitely don’t have the same definition of “exotic.” I was not raised in the desert; I did not ride camels to school, nor did I raise tropical animals as pets. No, I definitely cannot belly dance … and the list goes on. I think people tend to have that very compartmentalized and standard view of countries in the Middle East, but trust me when I say the differences between two neighboring countries within that region are quite abundant. Robert Fisk, English writer and journalist, really captured the essence of that in “Pity the Nation: The Abduction of Lebanon” when he wrote, “It was the beginning of the Orient. … It was the beginning of the West. … When I arrived in Beirut from Europe, I felt the oppressive, damp heat, saw the unkempt palm trees and smelt the Arabic coffee, the fruit stalls and the over-spiced meat. It was the beginning of the Orient. And when I flew back to Beirut from Iran, I could pick up the British papers, ask for a gin and tonic at any bar, choose a French, Italian or German restaurant for dinner. It was the beginning of the West.”
3. “Is Lebanon very conservative or traditional?”
Multiculturalism flourishes extraordinarily in such a geographically limited country. In Lebanon, you can dive into the eastern culture with its intriguing traditions and unique customs in one area, and then head to a different area and experience a Euro-American way of life. The diversity and the harmonious mixture of values are truly exceptional. According to Pope John Paul II, “Lebanon is more than a country; it is a message of freedom and an example of pluralism for East and West.”
4. “I didn’t know you were Catholic. Isn’t Lebanon an Islamic country?”
Within the answers to these questions lies years of fluctuating sectarian divide and coexistence among the Lebanese population. Lebanon has long epitomized the concept of coexistence as churches and official Islamic institutions, political parties and even Islamist and Salafi movements have promoted Lebanon as a model for both Christian–Muslim coexistence and the Christian presence in the Middle East. Since the 1970s, the Roman Catholic Church has consistently promoted the country as a model for Christian–Muslim relations. Despite tensions, conflicts, instability and political unrest often relived by the country, the population has always been very diverse when it comes to harboring religion and religious sects.
5. “Do you speak Lebanese?”
This has always been a very entertaining question for me. Ironically, in a certain context it rings true; however, the logical and rational answer to that is no. Let me explain: in Lebanon, the official national language is Arabic. A high percentage of the population also speaks either French or English fluently, if not both. Now when it comes to everyday communication, people will speak a more relaxed and informal Arabic where words and sentence structure become more casual. Over the years, the younger generation started inserting French or English equivalents of some words then used them to complete what essentially would be a discussion in Arabic. People even started making up words and eventually the words would become widely accepted and frequently used by everyone. Public Radio International (PRI), a global non-profit media company, published an article dedicated to this phenomenon. The abstract included the following: “In Beirut, residents switch languages practically with each breath…” “Many people here codeswitch to varying degrees, says linguist Loubna Dimachki. “Codeswitching, what does it mean? When you’re combining two languages in one sentence or in the whole interaction.” Multilingualism is everywhere: hellos, thank-yous and how-are-yous are often said in French, street signs are in Arabic and French and menus in restaurants or cafes are in all three languages. The most famous example of codeswitching is probably the following: “Hi. Kifak? Ca va?” which essentially combines English, Arabic and French. The Lebanese people like to joke about it and label it the Lebanese mother-tongue, and funny enough it has become part of who we are.
So, can you tell I miss Lebanon?
Krista Lourdes Akiki is majoring in management consultancy and global affairs. Coming from Beirut, Lebanon, she always enjoys trying out new things and is an avid travel lover. She hopes to take her readers on her journey as she discovers new lifestyles and navigates new cities. She can be reached at [email protected] or via Twitter @kristalourdesakiki.
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.