Jenny Ponnig gives her account of the challenging, frustrating and beautiful educational experience that you get from raising your kids in Lebanon.
The land of cedars is a country with an ancient past and an unpredictable future. Living in Lebanon’s present is a complexity that I want to discover and explore with my kids, so that we can learn more about this place we call HOME.
My Lebanese husband and I decided to bring up our children in Lebanon when we were married. We wanted them to be protected by the seclusion of family and the social overtone of tradition which Lebanon balances well with a very modern and cosmopolitan attitude, because it has been influenced for over a century by the Lebanese diaspora. We knew their education would be exceptional – most Lebanese are learning three languages by the time they are 5. But it’s hard to ignore the stress of living in an underdeveloped country when it’s a hassle to renew the children’s identity papers and maneuver around maniac drivers while driving over shoddy roads just to get the kids to school.
Still, the main challenge I face is the absence of my family. If I would have realized how difficult it is to raise kids without my own parents nearby I might have had second thoughts about starting a family in Lebanon in the first place. Fortunately my husband’s brothers and sisters readily accepted me as part of the family, and have always respected the way my husband and I are raising our girls. They aren’t anything like those domineering, controlling and evil in-laws that are depicted on popular Middle Eastern soap operas.
At mealtime we speak a Lebanese blend of Arabic and English over my sometimes successful kousa al-mahshi, my daughter’s favorite, or more often mjadara because it’s easier to make. We partake in all the traditions of Christmas, Ramadan, Easter and Eid al-Adha, and how they are celebrated in Lebanon. At Christmastime we’ll take the kids to Byblos to see the colossal tree and decorations that just keep getting more spectacular with every season. During Ramadan we’ll have iftar among family and friends.
Weekdays usually revolve around school and work, but come the weekend we often try to explore different historic or cultural places of interest this small country has to offer, or take them on escapades until they’ve exhausted their youthful energy. Exploring the ancient ruins of Baalbek, Byblos, Faqra and Tyre, exceptional playgrounds, is on the top of our list of fun and educational activities. Jbeil’s Wagonpark is a public garden with beautiful grounds, equipped with modern safe play structures for kids. The private Yuppie Park, in Hazmieh, is an extensive awesome outdoor play palace complete with a wooden boat under a canopy of trees. My kids enjoy the Sanayeh Public Garden in Beirut, but it’s heaving with families on the weekend. Bicycle jaunts along the paved trail just north of Zaitounay Bay are pleasant in the morning. Dino City, in Ajaltoun has a small forest filled with life-size dinosaurs whose roars and grunts used to startle my eldest daughter.
One of my children’s favorite adventures is riding the teleferique from Jounieh up the steep mountainside to Harissa, which offers a splendid view of Jounieh Bay and Beirut. I try to stay focused on the beauty of this 15-minute journey in order to silence vertigo whispering in my ear. My daughter recently admitted to me that she’s always a little scared on the teleferique, but I suppose enthusiasm overcomes fear because we’ve been on it a dozen times.
I’ve realized that over the past 10 years making a life in Lebanon takes time and patience. It’s not always easy living in a country that is in constant flux: battling economic turmoil, pushing away storms of conflict on its borders and a near-stagnant bureaucracy. I decided soon after my first child was born that the only way for me to appreciate Lebanon for what it is, with all its downfalls and power outages, delicious cuisine and beach resorts, multilingualism and matchless fashion is to discover this multifaceted country with my children because it is a part of them and their identity. Lebanon is home.