This is a thought on emigration.
Sitting at the Deux Magots, Saint-Germain-des-Prés in Paris, having coffee and breakfast with Joy, a high-school friend of mine. I am living in Paris, she’s living in Montréal. Both born in wartime Lebanon, raised in the war-postwar era, attended French school, lived there until our early twenties, then out of there.
Both confidently and ostensibly Lebanese, proud of whatever we think is Lebanese, Mediterranean, deeply attached to “the roots”, nostalgic of “the origin”.
As a matter of fact, we were talking about our nostalgia. We love Lebanon, as all the Lebanese abroad do. In that respect, we are no different from our fellow-émigrés in Europe, North-America, Latin America, West-Africa, the Arab countries. We also feel frustrated and outraged whenever we’re there.
It’s a love-hate relationship. Emotionally loaded, passionate, highly disruptive, contradictory. There must be a part of masochism to it, too. Our homeland makes us feel needy, yet it molests us.
Joy and I came up with a name to describe this love-hate paradigm: we called it the “Lost Paradise” Paradigm. We talk in glowing terms of the country we left… then why did we leave? Doesn’t make sense. We say we love it, yet why don’t we go back? It’s painful to go back. We don’t want to feel hurt anymore, although we very clearly know that our life abroad is no less cruel and demanding.
If you ask us: “Do you want to come back?” We cowardly reply: “To do what? Sit around with my parents and do nothing? Pretend to go to work?” We know it’s not really that. Abroad, our life has more meaning. We produce more, we are more alert, we do something, we are more concentrated; we feel we exist as individuals. But the heart lies elsewhere. Plus, whatever we say, our parents count much more than we admit they do. Dilemma.
The paradigm of the Lost Paradise is not an exclusively Lebanese paradigm; it is the same for the other diasporas. The Homeland is idealized, its way of life and values are evoked with long sighs of regret… Paradise lost. We were thrown out of the Eden Garden by our own volition, tempted by the Serpent of “technical progress” and “modernity”, we ended up living in remorse and pain (“In the sweat of our face shall we eat bread”), yet in the earthly delights of our host society.
Why doesn’t it occur to us that Man is also happy on earth? Trying to recreate, with bittersweet memories and remorse, the Lost Paradise on Earth.
Distance is a catalyst of idealization: when away, we forget about the traffic jam, the nauseous smell of “Mount” Bourj Hammoud, the alienating politics (who rushed our decision to leave), the unbearable inertia in social questions, the power cuts and the choking domestic water supply. Our attitude is similar to those of adults idealizing childhood. Now that we are grown-ups, we forget all about the children’s cruelty and the countless low blows we suffered from in remote times.