GDMFA 2014


I am twenty-eight years old, and whenever I have to answer the question, “Where are you from” I pause and stare blankly. Most people at twenty-eight can answer this question. My family and I reside everywhere and the answer I always respond with is:
I am Lebanese.

But am I really? I am internationally identified as Lebanese. I carry a Lebanese passport. I was born in Lebanon, a tiny country in the Middle East. I was raised to look forward to moving to a better place, not knowing exactly what and where it was. This ambition made of me foreigner in the country I grew up in. The day I left was August 15, 2011, at 2:30 am GMT +2, and the departure was orchestrated by Delta Airways. The better place was finally identified: United States of America. Three years after leaving, I successfully detached myself from my childhood home, but have not found my adult home. I still don’t relate to a particular geographic location. Instead, my hopes have matured into a realization that the better place is a community of my own making. But, before I go on describing this environment, let me explain my inability to belong to the country I was born in, Lebanon.
The Republic of Lebanon was established on November 22, 1943, after 20 years of a French mandate preceded by five hundred years of Ottoman rule. Before that were the Crusaders, Mamluks, Seljuks, Fatimids, Abbasids, Umayyads, Romans, Hellenistic, Assyrians, Persians, Egyptians and Phoenicians. My DNA is a fusion of the DNA of the people who passed through the 10452km2 that make up the country. However, I, today, am recognized as an Arab.
I am a Lebanese Arab.

But am I really? The civil war into which I was born geographically segregated the demographics of Lebanon according to religion. I grew up in a Christian neighborhood that happened to host an Armenian community. I went to a Catholic high school but attended Greek Orthodox Sunday mass with my maternal grandmother (because she was not Catholic). I grew up in the Christian part of Lebanon. Until I was 18, I did not know any non-Christian Lebanese.
I am a Lebanese Christian Arab.

But am I really? The Republic of Lebanon functions according to sectarian laws. For example, as a Maronite Christian (which is a religious group specific to the Levantine region), I cannot get a divorce by law, whereas my Sunni Muslim friend can. She, on the other hand, would not inherit her father’s property, because Sunni laws prohibits women from inheriting. My civil rights are dictated by the Maronite Church.
I am a Lebanese Maronite Christian Arab.

But am I really? The current education system in Lebanon was designed by the French after world war one. The schooling was conducted in French, even though the official language of Lebanon was and still is Arabic. English missionaries established schools later that taught in English as well, making almost all of the Lebanese population trilingual.
I am a Lebanese Christian Arab. Je suis une Libanaise Arabe Chrétienne. Ana Libneniyyeh Arabiyyeh Masihhiyyeh.

But am I really? My answer today is no, no, no and no. I do not want to live like that, and neither did the other 15 million Lebanese who reside outside of Lebanon. Today, I am adult enough to reconsider things and reject others.

All of these labels determined my childhood lifestyle: the school I went to, the Lebanese “Christian” dialect I speak, my civil rights... yet they did not shape my values. My identity was developed due to external factors that were coincidental. I did not choose to be a Lebanese Maronite Christian Arab even though being one impacted my day-to-day life.

My life changed when I went to college in the capital of Lebanon, Beirut. I met people from other parts of the country, with different religious beliefs, who actually shared values and interests with me more than the people I knew growing up. These new relationships made me realize that I could be part of an entity that was not based on location nor religion. This also made me question this segregation and the tremendous effect it had on me. I needed to disconnect from it, in order to connect to a place where I was identified through my values. Thinking that a country that doesn’t identify its people through their religion would be the “better place,” I decided to pursue my graduate studies in the USA.

One of my earliest observations after having met my classmates at MICA was that they use the word home freely. They can refer through it to the latest city they were living in, where they were born, and/or where they were raised. I appreciated the loose relationships with geography, and I thought to myself, “Success, maybe I can claim to belong here.”

I was determined to adapt and connect to this new culture I was physically in. I did not hang out with Lebanese. Instead, I went to house parties, and drank beer from that red plastic cup. However, I became homesick. Lebanon was always on my mind and remained a reference point, whether good or bad.

I found myself living two lives. One was physical, in Baltimore, in which I was doing my best to adapt to a new life I deliberately chose. The second life was virtual, in which I was maintaining frequent contact with my Lebanese friends who have also, in turn, left Lebanon in search of new identities. More than five of my closest friends had also become emigrants, in different parts of the world. Communicating with them enabled me to travel, virtually, and simultaneously, across time zones. This dispersal created a stronger tie between us. We were sharing the like and dislikes of the new places we moved to and compared everything to Lebanon. Two years later, I am exhausted trying to adapt to the US culture. I realize I will always be the one with an accent. My name will never be pronounced correctly, and I will always need someone to explain to me learn and understand the slang terms used around me.

My hopes of being from somewhere have been lost. I still don’t identify myself as from a particular geographic location. I, on the other hand, became intrigued by these new kinds of relationships I was building across a geographically dispersed network of friends. I would be having breakfast in Baltimore, and my friend in Doha would be having dinner at the same time. I wondered how a dispersed population could be so connected? Through those virtual relationships powered by apps like Skype, FaceTime, whatsapp, and viber, I was developing a new community that I could call “The Nation of the Lebanese diaspora”, a place that is not found on a regular map and that only includes people of my choice.

I stumbled upon the term “post-geographic” in a review I read of the book Zero History by the fiction writer William Gibson. This contemporary concept gave me a framework in which I could start defining this communication that powers the community I unintentionally created, the community I belong to. Let me tell you about it.

My community includes people separated by oceans and is not situated anywhere in particular. It encompasses individuals with Lebanese roots but is not labelled as Lebanon because it does not identify with the irrational segregation system Lebanon follows. It is not divided by religion, but it tolerates all rituals and rejoices in its diversity.

Members of my community do not have accents, and their names are universally recognizable. They blend in with the populations of any country they visit and every other community they interact with. The members of my community are international travelers but they are not nomads.

My community is not bound to any timezone and it doesn’t confine itself to the GMT system. It magically celebrates the arrival of every new year simultaneously around the globe. Its members can be having breakfast in one place and dinner simultaneously in another. I designed my community using technological tools, including the internet. My community soothes my homesickness through exchange of data with my network yet doesn’t carry the burdens of a continuous presence since I choose when to be part of it and when to ignore it; this is its beauty.

Through this network, I capture photographs, text, and sounds simultaneously in different locations and time zones around the world. These collections allow me to travel through time and be with my parents in Beirut every Saturday at noon GMT-5, as this is our Skype date. Knowing they are a button away makes it easier to see them on a tiny screen yet not touch them. Technology, internet and globalization power my community and bring every person I miss to the same location, at the same longitude and latitude, my devices.

My community acknowledges this absurd feeling of being together when we’re not. It answers the question: how close can we get to someone who is a thousand miles away? My community is a contemporary definition of denial perhaps, but it comforts me. It is a resort I go to whenever I feel disconnected from the culture I am physically immersed in, even though it only satisfies sight and hearing and leaves other senses thirsty. The process of collecting data from my friends who live all over the world is an ongoing one that can be visualized in endless ways, and this is what is appealing to me. For the past year I have been visually representing these collections that are recorded simultaneously around the world by my Lebanese friends in the diaspora. By sharing this data with each other, we recreate our own little place. I can write a book about the flaws of Lebanon, why I cannot live there, and how different my values are than most of the Lebanese, but one thing I will always be sure of is that this Lebanese community will always be there, wherever it is located.