There was a guy waiting in line at the Pearly Gates for his chance to enter heaven. The line was long and there was an offer to go for a tour of hell. Down in hell it was like one big party – beautiful people laughing, drinking, gambling. After returning from his tour he passed through the Pearly Gates but the quiet chanting and constant playing of the harps in heaven seemed incredibly dull compared to life in hell. The white clouds, wings and robes were beginning to get on his nerves. After a while he could stand it no longer and asked God for permission to transfer into hell permanently. Upon arrival into hell, he was immediately chained and thrown into a vat of boiling oil. He couldn’t understand what was happening. This was nothing like the hell he visited earlier. He called out to the Devil for an explanation. “Don’t confuse tourism with immigration!” replied the Devil.
The Lebanon has a thousand faces. On my first brief visit, it could have very well deceived me. I might have left my caring, protective hosts believing that Lebanon was all about dinner parties, warm hospitality, excellent food. Or I might have stayed indoors for two weeks, on the phone to concerned family and friends, listening from the balcony as gun battles took half the city hostage, and come away with the impression that Lebanon was not for tourism, let alone for settling.
But it didn’t. After nearly a year, I can attest that for that short stay, Lebanon was true to its diversity. I experienced the party spirit and the reserve of tradition; the openness and the prejudice; the open can of politicians; the electricity cuts and the water shortages; the ostrich approach of young people during conflict and the silence of the streets in times of trouble.
All of these are authentic elements of this disco ball country. The only aspect of an average Lebanese life which has not reared its unwelcome head again since I relocated here is that of war. Before and after May 2008, news agencies have been portraying the land of the rising phoenix on a short fuse, on the brink of a new civil war. Well the real news is, it hasn’t happened yet.
Although I’m still far from being a local, my current home has shown me a few other faces. The weariness of war, the desire to be known as something other than a war-chic party capital, the extent of barefaced money-grabbing development, long-term hospitality as opposed to interesting newcomer hospitality.
But there is one face which Lebanon refuses to show me. Not because I am a foreigner, but because I am the wrong kind of foreigner: an expat, not an immigrant.
Same thing, no?
expatriate (abbr. expat): a person temporarily or permanently residing in a country and culture other than that of the person’s upbringing.
immigrant: a person who comes to a country where they were not born in order to settle there.
But in reality we all know the difference between people from rich countries moving to a country and those from a poor country. And in truth, these immigrants are not meant to settle; they are not meant to be immigrants. They are not supposed to rent – and cannot buy – property. They are supposed to leave their families back home, and return to them when they get too old or ill to clean all day.
It calls for a new version of the old joke. Don’t confuse the expat with the second-class immigrant. But it isn’t funny.