Should I stay or should I go? Raja Abdallah explains his tricky relationship with his country of origin.
Can’t live with, can’t live without; damned if you do, damned if you don’t: this is the love-hate relationship most Lebanese, inside and abroad, have with their native Lebanon. And I’m no exception. Brought up in Lebanon, twice expatriated, twice returned willingly to settle “back HOME.”
So what is it that brought me back … and is it HOME forever this time?
I left Lebanon “for good” at 18 to study in Montreal, Quebec, where I started a career and a family. Life could not have been better. Canada offered superb quality of life and endless opportunity. Ten years later however, I was poached by a Lebanese industrial group and chose to return to Lebanon and work on rebuilding a war-torn country. I was also starting to realize Canada had its downsides: unbearably cold in winter, huge taxes and a weak sense of social and cultural belonging – in spite of the large Lebanese diaspora.
So I embraced Lebanon with an open heart and never looked back. Yet something was still not right. After 10 years abroad, I did not identify with the post-war society – it was too material and superficial for my liking. Most of all, I did not find it a suitable place to bring up two young children, due to a lack of basic playgrounds and green spaces, among other things.
And so I emigrated again in 1999, this time to Switzerland, a country that I swore I would never leave “except in a horizontal position.” This was the perfect country, with picture-perfect scenery, mild winters and low taxes. I hated the idea of turning my back on Lebanon but this time I had my children’s future at heart. But yet again, 10 years later, then in my 40s, my perspective of life changed again and I decided once more to head back to Lebanon. With Europe and the banking sector deep in financial crisis, I longed for the entrepreneurial and dynamic spirit of the Lebanese economy. I felt the country deserved more from its expats. After all, who would care for it if not its native sons?
There is a responsibility on those who lived and learned abroad, to bring precious skills and good habits back HOME. And so Lebanon has been our HOME again, ever since the start of the decade. We have gone through Lebanon’s ups and downs from the real-estate bonanza and economic boom to political deadlock and a garbage crisis. Will it be HOME forever this time? In spite of a dreadful 2015, probably yes. My years abroad have taught me that every country has a dark side, its share of problems, crises and curses. But while Lebanon’s biggest asset is its people – its resilience, business ingenuity and love of life, my fear is that Lebanon’s biggest threat resides in its very own people too: a weak if non-existent sense of national identity, with feudalism, tribalism, religion, disunity and special interests running deep even among the most educated and sophisticated. In fact, the “enemy within” is the worst of all enemies.
As the late Ghassan Tueini once said: ”Lebanon is not a hotel where you can check in and out at your leisure”. So until further notice, this is indeed HOME… and not a hotel anymore.
For more information visit theunep.org