Twenty years is a long time to live anywhere, especially in a country as unpredictable as Lebanon.
I can honestly say that for the first ten, I felt like I was waking up to a new country every day thanks to the sheer adrenaline rush of living in a country that like Almodovar’s women, was perpetually on the verge of a nervous breakdown.
Lebanon had - and has – reason to feel unstable. Two ghastly neighbours, both of whom have repeatedly invaded and occupied it, both of whom still pose an existential threat. Political and religious schisms never properly healed and periodically exacerbated by external players seeking to stir the pot either for their own benefit or to keep the country off-balance. Irregular electricity, failing water supplies, terrible pollution, environmental catastrophes, the never-ending loss of built heritage, the relentless flow of the young and the talented to stabler, more promising countries, poorly-paid jobs, the extortionate cost of living, the selfish, corrupt, bloody and perhaps worst of all inept political class, stupid outdated laws, gross inequality, rising poverty and marginalisation - on paper, the country made absolutely no sense, which was why it was a miracle to me that it existed at all.
From time to time, and especially when the rest of the region became engulfed in the turmoil and wars that followed the Arab Spring, articles would appear in foreign, but also some Arab newspapers about when perennially-unstable, shaky Lebanon would be ‘next’, when it too would succumb to the weight of its own history and fall prey (again) to its sectarian and social demons.
On visits home, once I’d assimilated the convenience of 24-hour electricity, endless water and fast Internet – not to mention Amazon, PayPal and other modern conveniences - I’d quickly grow bored. The lack of real news, the stultifying boredom of security, the endless rules and regulations. In the UK, everything is permitted, but so tightly regulated, it becomes impossible. Or at least unpalatable.
In Lebanon, almost nothing is permitted, and yet everything is possible. Especially if you know the right people, or are adept at ignoring the rules, which seems to be a Levantine neccessity for getting through the day without loosing your mind entirely.
I do not seek to romanticise. Life in Beirut, especially these day, is hard and is getting harder with every passing day. As a foreign resident and a freelance journalist, I was subject to much, much less of the day-to-day bullshit that sours Lebanese tempers and ultimately, enjoyed the luxury of knowing that whenever I wanted, I could pack up and leave said bullshit behind.
Living there made me appreciate the UK, at least my version of it, much more. For all its faults, Britain does at least attempt a semblance of caring about its citizens, seeks to deliver the services they pay for and, as has been proven in the past, will defend them when the country is threatened. Lebanon? Well, let’s just say that on the official level, none of that applies. When Israel invaded in 2006 - the fourth of perhaps fifth tim it has invaded Lebanon since 1968 - the State was nowhere to be seen and the military had been confined to barracks.
While I’ve never been bullish about Britain - the result of being called called too many unpleasant names as a child, not to mention brushes with the National Front as a teenager - with family in India and a childhood spent growing up in an assortment of Developing World countries, I have never taken for granted the many and important freedoms and rights that I enjoy as a result of being one of its citizens. If the price of safeguarding those privileges, hard-won through decades, sometimes centuries of struggle, is stultifying regulation, then it seems a small price to pay for security and services. But although I like my country, and often love it at times, even on my best days, that love pales beside the crazed obsession I felt for Lebanon every day, almost until I left.
I say almost every day, because in the end, I stayed too long.
By my estimates, I overstayed by six years. I should have left in 2012, when it became clear that I was no longer able to overlook the daily assaults on dignity that living there entailed – the increasingly aggressive public sphere, the crumbling public services, the rising cost of living, the dire political drift – but I did not, because I did not want to leave on a low note.
Then I should have left immediately after finishing my walk in 2016, when fresh from 28 magnificent days in the mountains, I was abuzz and ablaze, head full of the incredible heritage, staggeringly beautiful landscapes and warm, generous if idiosyncratic people I encountered along the way. That walk, every painful, bloody step of it, rebuilt Lebanon for me, deepening my love for it but also reaffirming that it was time for me to leave. And yet, I did not.
In the end, I did not leave until February 2018, almost two years after I began my walk from Marjayoun. The delay - or so I told myself - was to permit me to finish this book. Writing it in Beirut would make more sense, I reasoned, for if I was in Lebanon, it would be easier to look things up, call people and find any information I suddenly found I needed. But of course, that did not happen. Sucked back into the miasma of everyday malaise, of power cuts and water shortages, of mounting piles of rubbish and simmering discontent, of angry taxi drivers and surly salespeople, the golden, glorious experience I had just had became slowly obscured, not dimming or diminishing, but disappearing into the distance.
I tried, half-heartedly to write, but not making any money, I spent most of my time chasing stories and trying to pitch to publications that particularly since the country’s association with refugees and the Syrian civil war, were no longer interested in the kind of Lebanon I wanted to write about, and I was damned if after almost 20 years of writing about the positives, I’d start writing the kind of doom-mongering features that still sold. And so when I did leave, I had the outline of the book, but I didn’t have a single chapter finished.
Even though I stayed, I did manage to leave before my love could sour, a fear that had begun to overwhelm me in my last years there. And for that, I am eternally relieved. To leave a country I had loved for so long with a bad taste in my mouth would, I think, have been one of the worst of all possible outcomes. I cannot tell you why it was so hard to leave. I am a past master of saying farewells. I have lived in and left many countries and have no doubt that I will continue to do so in the future, but leaving Lebanon was one of the hardest things I have ever done. Whether part of me didn’t want to, or I just couldn’t imagine what to do next or where, doesn’t matter. I hung on, even when every day gave me a reason to leave. For that, I lay the blame firmly on the endless charm of life in one of the most fucked-up, fascinating, irritating, intriguing, hopeful, hopeless and eternally seductive cities - and countries - on earth.
So I miss you, Lebanon. I miss your charm and your ease. I miss your beautiful mountains, and bastardised coastline. I miss your laughter, your flirtatiousness, your surprise. I miss your people, who embody a little bit of everything and everywhere and perhaps as a result, are of no one and nowhere in particular, which for them makes them lost and for me makes them universal. I miss your fluidity, your flexibility, your guile.
In these fractured times, I still find much to admire in you. You are the first truly post-nation, nation and your people, when they aren’t enmeshed in petty rivalry and threats, have for all of their existence and the last 40-odd years in particular, been asking, answering and where necessary, re-asking and re-answering the very issues that almost everywhere else in the region now finds itself asking; who are we, what do we want, where are we going, how important is diversity, how can we all live together equitably in difference, what is the meaning of freedom, tolerance or acceptance? And if they get those answers right, tiny Lebanon can be the archetype not just of the region’s future, but perhaps of the wider world’s, too. Cosmopolitan, creative, cultured, Levantine, where others see black or white, Lebanon sees endless shades of grey, and where they see a wall, it sees doors through it. Endlessly adaptable, willing to cross lines, to change shape, to be other, Lebanon follows the path of least resistance, of compromise and at its best, the hybrid, ambivalent, variegated culture that results is big enough to house all difference.
Ancient land, eternally in the Now, forever hung-up on the past, question, answer, cauldron of nearly all the 'isms' currently tearing the world to pieces, textbook example of the limits of private initiative and the need for central government, paean to the beauty and possibility of diversity, roadmap to chaos, blueprint of a better world, passionate friend, implacable enemy, heartless, headless and munificent, I miss you, sometimes painfully, but with this final chapter, we are done, you and I.
I love you.
I will visit.
But I am never coming back.