My first big departure from Lebanon was in 1997 when I went for a UNESCO master’s degree in Integrated Land Use Planning. It was thanks to Lebanon and to our story that I managed to land a scholarship.
Once in Paris, at an encounter with the head of the Spatial Planning Agency, I introduced myself as Lebanese. He opened his eyes wide, wished me good luck and referred to a recent advisory trip he’d been on in Beirut trying to advise on the country’s urban and other planning. In his words “On est arrives en se grattant la tete, on est repartis en se grattant le menton,” meaning they were curious about the options on arrival and left having concluded there was no hope for this country.
This sentence exemplifies what my experience with Lebanon has been ever since, sometimes high and sometimes hitting the lowest lows. As a Lebanese professional conservationist, I have been brought in to work with a number of countries and in a number of regions.
At first, I started working in countries of the Arab States, where being a woman with no PhD and no grey hair meant that I had to work twice as hard as my peers to earn the attention and respect of my counterparts.
The reward was the occasional reference to the beauty of our cedars amidst the plethora of heavy winks along with references to Nancy Ajram and Haifa Wehbe.
My next move took me to West Africa, where, during my first visit to Senegal, a colleague told me we could go to “Le Libanais.” Surprised, I interjected that I thought there were many Lebanese in Senegal, so why was he referring to one single Lebanese? Turns out that Le Libanais is now an adjective, the designation for anyone of any nationality that deals in trade, import/export or grocery. “It’s a homage to the commercial and adaptive qualities of your people,” he said, “you should be proud of it.” And proud of it I was – until my next move took me to Gabon, where I facilitated some work on watershed management and a partnership with the Societe d’Energie et d’Eau du Gabon.
At one of our big brainstormings, trying to solve the issue of deforestation and the dredging of soils this was resulting in, one of the participants suggested the simplest solution would be to speak to “Le Libanais” – yes, again – and make sure that all illegal logging and slash and burn was halted. Wearing my nationality proudly, and thinking I could be of help by intervening through the Lebanese Embassy, I approached this person and inquired if he could pass on the name of that Lebanese person doing so much harm. Little did I know that I was up for a surprise. Here again, “Le Libanais” had become a common slang word for designating someone who engaged in illegal activity, cut tree logs without permits and cleared forests with no control. That must have been my lowest low, and one of the hardest days for carrying my heritage.
Yet, time went by and now that I have started working across all continents, I have encountered Brazilians, Mexicans, Colombians and many more of Lebanese ancestry, proud of it and happy to say that in the middle of the Amazon, and in the smallest villages, you will find people of Lebanese origin. Lebanese are known as being fearless, adventurous and entrepreneurial people. Lebanese have managed to make it everywhere, including in Sierra Leone, where amidst the start of the Ebola epidemic, it was only through the Lebanese network that one would manage to find much needed chlorine and disinfectants.
Having entertained the love/hate relationship many of us expats do have with the home country, these experiences have taught me that our legacy is strong in both good and bad. Today I don’t shy away from saying I’m Lebanese. Today I embrace the fact that my passport allows me access to a handful of countries and a world full of diaspora.
It is thanks to Lebanon that I first started learning Spanish, curious as I was about the experience of Costa Rica. Indeed, this small country set in a similar geopolitical context as ours, had abandoned all military expenditure in the 1970s, declared neutrality and invested everything in education and nature conservation. I had a dream that one day, having lived and worked in Cost Rica, I would come back to Lebanon and convince our leaders to apply this model.
For now, thanks to Lebanon, I have only learned to speak Spanish, but the dream is still there and the heritage still strong.