A Simultaneous Wish to Return and to Abandon

For exiles, the lure of Beirut and elsewhere persists despite the political and social nightmares

A Simultaneous Wish to Return and to Abandon
A view of blooming Bougainvillea tree at Buddha Garden in New Delhi, India / Sanchit Khanna / Hindustan Times via Getty Images

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In my last three months in Istanbul as a correspondent, after my wife and I decided to immigrate to Canada, I remember us frantically visiting every nearby place that was on our bucket list. We spent a weekend in Cappadocia, where we woke up before dawn to fly in a hot air balloon over the iconic scenery. We strolled through Balat and Fener, the old Armenian and Greek Orthodox neighborhoods of Istanbul. We took the ferry to Buyukada, the largest of the Princes’ Islands off the city’s coast, spent afternoons in Moda on the Asian side of the city and bought mementos from the Spice Bazaar and even a Turkish rug that adorns our living room. We spent long hours in an immigration office trying and failing to renew my wife’s soon-to-expire residency, hoping to maintain a tether, however fragile, to a place that had been our home, but not really. We still do, in the form of a frozen embryo at a hospital left over from our IVF journey, and we keep telling ourselves we will go back for our little one someday.

We had decided to move because it was no longer tenable to stay. We had moved from Beirut about two years earlier, and my experience in both cities covering Syria and regional issues left me with a sense that life and dignity were worth very little in our nations’ estimations (we are Egyptian and Syrian). Istanbul never felt quite like home to me as much as Beirut or the Dubai that I grew up in and where I spent the first 25 years of my life. They were all missing something that I couldn’t quite put my finger on. But the prospect of leaving made me truly want to live in Istanbul, to experience it to its fullest, to truly have been there.

Those memories resurfaced when I read Lebanese poet Zeina Hashem Beck’s wonderful piece this week in New Lines, about exile and finding home. This line in particular resonated: “Sometimes it takes a departure to begin staying. You suddenly want to properly inhabit the place you’re leaving soon, to get things done around the house that you’ve been meaning to do for years.”

“The Last of the Bougainvillea Years” traces Hashem Beck’s journey from her childhood in Tripoli to college years and early adulthood in Beirut, before moving to the Gulf and then Dubai for a decade, and finally arriving in California. Throughout, she reflects on what home means and how we seek to re-create it through friendships, and the little things that make exile and transformative moves bearable, and why we struggle to belong. 

Early in the piece, Hashem Beck talks about how the bougainvillea trees came to symbolize home for her. “This is the last of the bougainvillea years: I never cared much for trees. Sure, I loved to look at the cedars in the snow, the almond trees in blossom, but I always defined myself as a city girl — obsessed with cars and buildings and streetlights, with watching people on sidewalks, in bars, in coffee shops, from balconies. The bright pink bougainvillea, however, is almost worth a city. The ‘majnouneh,’ as we call it, the crazy one. When we were looking for a house, it was the many mature bougainvillea trees that made me decide on renting this one. I can see their vibrant pink from most windows: my office, the now rugless living room, my bedroom, the kitchen.”

But as her departure grew closer, the trees became a focal point for her grief. “I’m mourning Dubai, whose highways no longer scare me and instead lead me to dear friends’ houses. I’m mourning Beirut, which rose and danced in October and exploded in August. I’m mourning the ever-reduced possibility of going back. I’m mourning Arabic, which my children will no longer learn in school. And I’m mourning the bougainvillea in my garden — my companions, my beauties, my trees with infinite iridescent flowers like thousands of windows.”

Why do we yearn to go back always, even when we’ve had perfectly good reasons to leave? Why is wandering so difficult even when you’ve been welcomed with open arms? I have thought about this much in recent months. I have always had a broad community of friends wherever I’ve gone, but Canada was difficult, because our move coincided with a pregnancy and birth with no community around us, followed by the pandemic and its restrictions. We haven’t lived here really, despite being physically here almost four years. I don’t know Montreal in the way Hashem Beck felt like she knew Dubai when she looked out her windows at the bougainvilleas, though I knew Dubai and Beirut that way. 

I’ve been finding it particularly hard to gain a footing also because I struggle with accepting the reality of things back home. The decline in rights, the incidents of violence against women, the decrepit economies and fraying social orders, the oppressive dominance of the most virulent strains of religion. It has made me want to abandon the past entirely.

And yet. That gnawing sense of being out of place persists, of being able to rationally and intellectually be happy with where I am, while remaining irrationally and emotionally resentful of this exile.

We all have our bougainvilleas. I’m happy she found some in California.

“As I take my now-usual walk around town, I spot baby bougainvillea in small pots outside of a CVS Pharmacy. I can’t carry them with me, but I’m scared they’d disappear if I don’t buy them this instant, so I send Marwan a breathless voice note pleading with him to drive here right away and buy me two. Though he’s usually not one to respond quickly, this time he does and comes home with five small trees; we eventually place them in front of the roses in the garden. The weather is warmer now at the end of February, but I worry they won’t survive the next winter cold. We would need to bring them inside when the nights get too chilly, and I’m not sure I have the energy for that kind of care. I research what’s best for them: a pot with a 15-inch diameter, placement in the sun and other instructions I sloppily skim over. I read that when they’re the right amount of thirsty, they flower. I look at them: They’re beautiful and out of place.”

From this week (July 4 – July 8, 2022)

Islamic Views on Blasphemy Are More Complex Than Pakistani Courts Admit | Read More

Scenes From My Ongoing Egyptian Captivity | Read More

Podcast: A Poet’s Take on Language, the Sea and Abortion | Listen Here

Mosul’s Walls Tell a Story of Brutality and Recovery | Read More

The Last of the Bougainvillea Years | Read More

How Middle East Media Outlets Fan Homophobic Flames | Read More

Turkish Sitcom Taps Into the ‘Seinfeld’ Vibe | Read More

How Prejudices Warped Health Care in the Colonies | Read More

Beirut’s Pigeon Fanciers: a Mix of Thugs and Theorists | Read More

Faith and the Football Field | Read More

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