The End of Belonging


Over the last few days I’ve been engaging mainly in two major activities. The first is ingesting as much food and drink as humanly possible at every available opportunity. The second has been explaining to all my visiting expatriate friends whether or not I’m enjoying Beirut. Both activities have their positives and negatives. The former is causing a tightening of my jeans around my waist and an arduous struggle against ever-present hangovers, whilst the former is sending me into deep meditations on the nature of my identity.

I’m not quite sure what to tell people when they ask if I’m enjoying Beirut. My automatic response is to say no, but I’m not convinced it’s the honest answer. It’s usually an answer that is elicited in the wake of a particularly annoying day on the roads or the ludicrously tardy arrival of a plumber. The truth is I don’t really know yet because I’ve only been here a short time. I haven’t really settled into a routine, a proper job and so on. And I’m not prepared to judge the place until I have that sense of normalcy. This brings me onto another point. Beirut is somewhere I have to get used to. I didn’t grow up here, and the only years I lived here (between the ages of 15 and 20) were just enough to give me a solid group of friends and a list of favorite places, but not really enough to give me a sense of belonging. I have always viewed Beirut with certain romanticism, and the time I spent here during those years gives me the same attachment to the city that a New York native would have for Michigan if he happened to go to college there.

Which brings me to a far wider ranging question with almost existential properties. Will I ever really be Lebanese or Beiruti? I have lived in the UK for far longer than I ever expect to live in Beirut, but have never really considered myself entirely British. I had Lebanese flags and posters of Baalbek on my walls as a kid before I even remember setting foot in Lebanon at the age of 11, yet I’ve never really considered myself entirely Lebanese. The struggle to find a definition of who I am has, ironically, become the best approximation of that definition. Then I realized, through my friends in London that this is a pretty widespread phenomenon amongst people in my generation. I had Russian friends in London who grew up in Prague but went to American schools. What would that make them? I had Mexican friends who grew up in Switzerland but now live in France. What would that make them? And I slowly began to realize that everyone I got along with pretty much anywhere in the world had the same deep-rooted crisis towards their identity.

As I was discussing all these elements with a friend of mine the other day, he brought up the subject of Third Culture Kids (TCK). I have to admit I’d never heard of the concept and it sounded a bit like an 80s pop group to me. However, being a serial-Googler, I headed home and started looking for information. What I found was comforting beyond anything I could have imagined. According to my extensive research (i.e. a leisurely perusal of the corresponding Wikipedia page), a TCK “refers to someone who, as a child, has spent a significant period of time in one or more culture(s) other than his or her own, thus integrating elements of those cultures and their own birth culture, into a third culture”. Then, going through the piles of research on my desk (scrolling down), I was relieved to learn that TCKs tend to have more in common with one another, regardless of nationality, than they do with non-TCKs from their own country.

And I slowly began to realize that everyone I got along with pretty much anywhere in the world had the same deep-rooted crisis towards their identity.

It’s so nice to read that someone has the same problem as you, if indeed it’s a problem at all. It’s kind of like discovering you’re not the only person who likes watching reruns of Home Improvement on Sunday nights. You feel part of a community. Because ever since I’ve been back in Lebanon I’ve been having trouble really identifying where I fit in. But maybe that’s the point; maybe I’m not supposed to fit in anywhere. I’ve come to realize that for me the real division in Lebanon isn’t religious, social or economic. The main barrier between people is that between those who’ve lived abroad (by choice or by necessity) and those who never have (by choice or by necessity). And I’m not convinced it’s a surmountable barrier. Whether you’ve lived in Europe, Africa, Asia or the North Pole, you bring back characteristics with you, both positive and negative, which are irreconcilable with the prevailing order of things.

There has been a lot of research conducted recently in the field of existential migration, studying people who migrate for the purpose of self-fulfillment rather than refuge or financial necessity. In the context of the free-flow of people and resources that has accompanied globalization and the opening up of borders; this is a particularly interesting field. People can choose to move about far more freely. They have choices they wouldn’t have had a few decades ago. This excess of choice makes things harder in a sense, because we’re bound to take a few wrong turns along the way. A new book on the subject is entitled “The End of Belonging”, which I think is a poetic title in itself. As well as the new concept of existential migration, the research proposes a new definition of home as interaction; that the ‘feeling of home’ arises from specific interactions with our surroundings that could potentially occur anywhere, at any time. This is almost antithetical to the usual definition of home as a fixed geographical place.

I’ll never be fully Lebanese because I love Fawlty Towers too much. I love the feeling of a cold drizzle in South Kensington. I love dunking a Chocolate Bourbon into a mug of PG tips. I love complaining about the weather. I love queuing. I love living in a city where there are people from the four corners of the Earth, and plenty of ‘em. And I never lived through the Lebanese civil war, which I feel guilty for and will never allow me to fully participate in the nation’s collective consciousness. But then again I’ll never be fully British. I love the sun too much. I love waving my hands around and raising my voice when I’m trying to make a point. I love Kibbeh Nayyeh. I love the gentle breeze in the shadow of a pine tree. I love smiling old men selling Chiclets on street corners. Oh, and I’ve got a hairy face and a funny name.

So I’m neither here nor there. I’m somewhere in between and that’s where I have to really settle in. And I think I can make my peace with that. Ubi bene, ibi patria!*

*Where I am at ease, that shall be my homeland.

Nasri Atallah

Nasri is a British-Lebanese writer, publisher and talent manager currently based in Paris. He enjoys watching satellite television channels in languages he doesn’t understand, and bad espresso.

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