The End of Belonging

Over the last few days I’ve been engaging mainly in two major activities. The first is ingesting as much food and drink as humanly possible at every available opportunity. The second has been explaining to all my visiting expatriate friends whether or not I’m enjoying Beirut. Both activities have their positives and negatives. The former is causing a tightening of my jeans around my waist and an arduous struggle against ever-present hangovers, whilst the former is sending me into deep meditations on the nature of my identity.

I’m not quite sure what to tell people when they ask if I’m enjoying Beirut. My automatic response is to say no, but I’m not convinced it’s the honest answer. It’s usually an answer that is elicited in the wake of a particularly annoying day on the roads or the ludicrously tardy arrival of a plumber. The truth is I don’t really know yet because I’ve only been here a short time. I haven’t really settled into a routine, a proper job and so on. And I’m not prepared to judge the place until I have that sense of normalcy. This brings me onto another point. Beirut is somewhere I have to get used to. I didn’t grow up here, and the only years I lived here (between the ages of 15 and 20) were just enough to give me a solid group of friends and a list of favorite places, but not really enough to give me a sense of belonging. I have always viewed Beirut with certain romanticism, and the time I spent here during those years gives me the same attachment to the city that a New York native would have for Michigan if he happened to go to college there.

Which brings me to a far wider ranging question with almost existential properties. Will I ever really be Lebanese or Beiruti? I have lived in the UK for far longer than I ever expect to live in Beirut, but have never really considered myself entirely British. I had Lebanese flags and posters of Baalbek on my walls as a kid before I even remember setting foot in Lebanon at the age of 11, yet I’ve never really considered myself entirely Lebanese. The struggle to find a definition of who I am has, ironically, become the best approximation of that definition. Then I realized, through my friends in London that this is a pretty widespread phenomenon amongst people in my generation. I had Russian friends in London who grew up in Prague but went to American schools. What would that make them? I had Mexican friends who grew up in Switzerland but now live in France. What would that make them? And I slowly began to realize that everyone I got along with pretty much anywhere in the world had the same deep-rooted crisis towards their identity.

As I was discussing all these elements with a friend of mine the other day, he brought up the subject of Third Culture Kids (TCK). I have to admit I’d never heard of the concept and it sounded a bit like an 80s pop group to me. However, being a serial-Googler, I headed home and started looking for information. What I found was comforting beyond anything I could have imagined. According to my extensive research (i.e. a leisurely perusal of the corresponding Wikipedia page), a TCK “refers to someone who, as a child, has spent a significant period of time in one or more culture(s) other than his or her own, thus integrating elements of those cultures and their own birth culture, into a third culture”. Then, going through the piles of research on my desk (scrolling down), I was relieved to learn that TCKs tend to have more in common with one another, regardless of nationality, than they do with non-TCKs from their own country.

It’s so nice to read that someone has the same problem as you, if indeed it’s a problem at all. It’s kind of like discovering you’re not the only person who likes watching reruns of Home Improvement on Sunday nights. You feel part of a community. Because ever since I’ve been back in Lebanon I’ve been having trouble really identifying where I fit in. But maybe that’s the point; maybe I’m not supposed to fit in anywhere. I’ve come to realize that for me the real division in Lebanon isn’t religious, social or economic. The main barrier between people is that between those who’ve lived abroad (by choice or by necessity) and those who never have (by choice or by necessity). And I’m not convinced it’s a surmountable barrier. Whether you’ve lived in Europe, Africa, Asia or the North Pole, you bring back characteristics with you, both positive and negative, which are irreconcilable with the prevailing order of things.

There has been a lot of research conducted recently in the field of existential migration, studying people who migrate for the purpose of self-fulfillment rather than refuge or financial necessity. In the context of the free-flow of people and resources that has accompanied globalization and the opening up of borders; this is a particularly interesting field. People can choose to move about far more freely. They have choices they wouldn’t have had a few decades ago. This excess of choice makes things harder in a sense, because we’re bound to take a few wrong turns along the way. A new book on the subject is entitled “The End of Belonging”, which I think is a poetic title in itself. As well as the new concept of existential migration, the research proposes a new definition of home as interaction; that the ‘feeling of home’ arises from specific interactions with our surroundings that could potentially occur anywhere, at any time. This is almost antithetical to the usual definition of home as a fixed geographical place.

I’ll never be fully Lebanese because I love Fawlty Towers too much. I love the feeling of a cold drizzle in South Kensington. I love dunking a Chocolate Bourbon into a mug of PG tips. I love complaining about the weather. I love queuing. I love living in a city where there are people from the four corners of the Earth, and plenty of ‘em. And I never lived through the Lebanese civil war, which I feel guilty for and will never allow me to fully participate in the nation’s collective consciousness. But then again I’ll never be fully British. I love the sun too much. I love waving my hands around and raising my voice when I’m trying to make a point. I love Kibbeh Nayyeh. I love the gentle breeze in the shadow of a pine tree. I love smiling old men selling Chiclets on street corners. Oh, and I’ve got a hairy face and a funny name.

So I’m neither here nor there. I’m somewhere in between and that’s where I have to really settle in. And I think I can make my peace with that. Ubi bene, ibi patria!*

*Where I am at ease, that shall be my homeland.

25 Responses to “The End of Belonging”

  1. Joumana
    December 28, 2009 at 8:08 pm #

    Welcome to the club of people who don’t fully fit in anywhere. But would you really want to, if it was possible at all? I don’t really see that as being synonymous with identity, anyway. I don’t know who decided identity referred to the tribe one comes from, but they seem to have the wrong species. It may works for ants or bees, not for the (hopefully) fully developed individual consciousness that is a human being.
    In short, your identity has nothing to do with a place, geographical or conceptual.

  2. anne
    December 28, 2009 at 8:09 pm #

    thank you so much for what i’ve just read; had i had your facilities of writting ,these exact words would have come out; i lived in lebanon during 20 years being native french and yet living in france and being considered as lebanese.i’m a foreigner everywhere and yet nowhere. je suis aujourd’hui citoyenne du monde avec mes racines diverses et variées.et je veux bien avouer que ça incite à la bougeotte.
    digère bien tes repas de noel bientot c’est le reillon ,tes jeans risquent d’en prendre encore un petit coup

  3. Celine
    December 28, 2009 at 11:46 pm #

    nice read!
    I just want to admit googling most of your “i love…” about English culture and totally understanding what you mean when it came to the Lebanese ones.
    I guess i can never fully understand what you are talking about since i have lived in lebanon mainly, but still do not totally consider my lebanese identity as an intrinsic part of my character, though i am all the time reminded of it as being part of me by Lebanese and foreigners alike (specially the one at embassies and airports!).

  4. Lorena
    December 29, 2009 at 12:30 am #

    A friend of mine also introduced me to TCK a while back and I completely agree that its so much easier getting along with people with that similar sense of all/none identity. Six months living here and I still don’t feel like I am really here. And then I get the question, so why did you move back from Boston? And through gritted teeth, I make up some “acceptable excuse”.. That’s a whole other topic! hehe

    Anyways, I hope to find some sort of comfort in just accepting that.. like you seem to have.. Hopefully :)

  5. leila Jisr
    December 29, 2009 at 8:37 am #

    excellent. I myself am a mix of cultures, nationalities and religious beliefs.. so i don’t fit anywhere, yet i am happy here in beirut, and was happy in Paris and in Copenhagen where i grew up. Still i lack roots, roots that make me feel part of something big, something strong. i always feel that i am not like the others, yet i fit in perfectly with strangers “nomads” like me that visit us. i don’t necessarily click with lebanese women, but i do with spanish or americain. disturbing in a way but part of my identity and who i am. So thank you for sharing. It means a lot to know other people are feeling the same way.

  6. Johnny
    December 29, 2009 at 10:06 am #

    I think what you’re feeling right now is the same despair I felt when I returned from NY to Lebanon. I was expecting my friends to look at me in amazement. The rooms to light up in excitement everywhere I went. But I was wrong. Lebanon, and Beirut especially, never lost any momentum. People were having fun, every group of friends had a funny guy, a rich guy, a smart guy, a trendy guy and an intellectual guy. There was nothing special I could add to that equation, except perhaps for an American accent, or a few fancy expressions every now and again. When I arrived, I could barely read arabic, which I thought was kind of cool (coz it always led me to explaining why this was the case and gave an opportunity to say that I’ve lived for 20 years in manhattan), but I wasn’t the only one. Many Lebanese friends had the same problem. I couldn’t even brag about my weaknesses anymore!
    All in all I think the problem is that we people living abroad have this tendancy to believe that Lebanon remains in a standstill while we’re away. And that everyone envies us. The truth is, sadly, Beirut couldn’t care any less.

  7. Nasri Atallah
    December 29, 2009 at 1:56 pm #

    Afternoon everyone!
    I had a feeling this post might generate a response, but this is almost overwhelming. It is indeed very comforting, beyond words, to know that people share this same rootlessness and restlessness. At times it is a handicap, and makes me stagnate. But at others I feel very proud of my multiple heritage. One thing I was interested to read about research on TCKs, is that they’re much more mature than their peers in their teens (very true sadly – boring kid) but ironically take longer to “grow up” in the 20s (also very true)!
    Keep the comments coming!

  8. Maya
    December 29, 2009 at 2:40 pm #

    Nasri, this is such a beautiful piece of writing! I got goosebumps at the last paragraph, and I identify SO MUCH with what you said. I lived 18 years of my life in KSA, went to a French School, had best friends at the American School, and moved to Lebanon 5 years ago, and still don’t feel entirely Lebanese, neither can I consider myself at all Saudi or French. This piece made me really feel comfortable and more “aware” of the situation I’m in. Amazing!!! Thanks for writing this and sharing :)

  9. R
    December 29, 2009 at 4:22 pm #

    When we were kids in Cyprus, my moms Polish best friend used to refer to us as International Refugees, I thought it was cool! I moved to Jordan for high school, then to Canada for college, and back to this ‘dreaded place’ for three whole years. Then I moved to London for a year, and thats when I realised I actually belong in Jordan. I think our advantage is we will always have the choice of staying, or getting on the next flight out. When u begin to see ur future in one particular place more than anywhere else, then u do have a sense of belonging. I’d hate to conform entirely, but clearly there’s enough to keep me here.

  10. Super
    December 29, 2009 at 6:28 pm #

    “I had Russian friends in London who grew up in Prague but went to American schools.”

    KUDOS!!! Although it should have read something like this: “My best friend IN THE WHOLE WORLD, was russian in london grew up in prague… etc” but i’m really flattered anyway.

    LOVE YOU HABIB.

    PS the world is your oyster.

  11. Nasri Atallah
    December 29, 2009 at 7:00 pm #

    Maya – replied to you on Twitter :)

    R – there’s a certain peace of mind in making that realization though, right? you know somewhere probably isn’t ideal for you but that you should be there.

    Superkat – you’re a star. can’t wait to see you guys soon in London, Prague or better yet, Beirut!

  12. Claire
    December 29, 2009 at 9:56 pm #

    Thanks for this post. I am much older than you all, and had to face this feeling of in-between-ness when it was rare. It may be unconfortable, but now you can share it with millions. The best definition I’ve heard of us “from everywhere and nowhere” is “Diasporans”. And diasporas are lucky to have a home now, on the Web.

  13. JOBOX
    December 29, 2009 at 10:18 pm #

    I am Lebanese and i lived all my life in Lebanon …. i feel that i am not fully Lebanese as you said… I hate Kebbeh nayeh i hate cigar as well, I hate how people drive how they deal with each other i dislike politics and all the Lebanese politicians ,i hate (wasta)….. But I love lebanon because everyone knows me by name I love Lebanon for its opposites I love Lebanon for no reason. I love lebanon for all the reasons of the “world.”.
    I just discovered your blog..Great work Keep going

  14. Pat
    December 30, 2009 at 10:35 am #

    nice blog

  15. Olgs
    December 31, 2009 at 8:09 am #

    Ah… the old “so what do you consider home?” chestnut.

    I’ve tried to answer the question posed by a million people, a million times, a million different ways…and I still don’t know the answer.

    Thank you for arming me with something intelligent to say in response:: “You know what love? I’m a TCK.” And to, preferably, leave them wondering what that means, walking off in my Burberry scarf purchased at Harrods, looking back and giving them a wave that could rival HM the Queen’s, flashing a quick smile with a tanned face courtesy of my latest stay at mama’s house in Dubai and winking with my almond-shaped Siberian eye.

    Another great one Nas! Keep ‘em coming.

  16. Cynthia
    January 3, 2010 at 7:17 pm #

    Nasri… Loved your piece….
    It left me with one thought…. HOME IS WHERE THE HEART IS… And I believe we are capable of loving many people, many places, many things all at the same time but always in different ways…

    Cheers for a Happy 2010… :)

  17. Possible Bliss
    January 5, 2010 at 9:26 am #

    Well done Nasri, youve captured the feeling of TCK’s well, thats exactly how i feel. I hate it when people ask me where im from. Am i british? having been born in London and lived there for a while? Am i from Abu Dhabi? having grown up there for over 16 yrs? Am i palestinian because my mother is? I cant identify with just one culture or language… and im too in love with Fawlty Towers as well to make a decision.

  18. Lara
    January 8, 2010 at 10:08 pm #

    I LOVE Fawlty Towers eventho I am in the USA and not UK! Oh and AB FAB! :)

  19. will donovan
    February 11, 2010 at 7:56 pm #

    when you’ve decided there’s nothing left to type, you’ll be where you want to be. and not just in beirut.

  20. Christine B.Osborne
    April 30, 2010 at 11:25 am #

    Well, I was born in Sydney and have lived and travelled everywhere as a travel writer with a base in London. If I identify with `anywhere` it is with the peoples of the developing world especially South Asia. I have lived in London for 37 years yet I have retained my Australian passport because I don`t feel any more English than I do Australian. I am a citizen of nowhere in particular, as it were, as while I pay UK taxes etc. it is merely a convenient base to live in order to visit `elsewhere` And yes one of the places I felt comfortable was the Beirut of yr post – the Beirut of the very early 1970s.

    I like what one woman has said about the diaspora and how we now have a place on the web.

  21. Lara
    June 30, 2010 at 10:26 am #

    Thank you, thank you, thank you !

    An American friend introduced me to the third culture 10 years ago when I interrupted my life in Germany to spend my teen years in Jordan where I had trouble finding people who were like me. Not German and not Jordanian, simply world.
    Since then I have been on the quest searching for a third culture and spent 22 years in Europe looking to find out that I belong where my routes are, somewhere in the Arabic World. When I went to Beirut last year, from the moment the plane landed along the Mediterranean I felt this could be it, looking to Europe on the other side. When I then ‘walked’ Beirut I thought WOW ! These people have been hiding the third culture and living it. You are free to dress however,to say whatever, to eat and drink whatever and the list goes on, I finally felt FREE! I finally felt me! The perfect Arabic-World mix for a world person. When then one evening I got the question where are you from ? I thought okay…it was normal to get this in Germany because of my darker complexion but I thought please god,why here and I thought I am finally home….
    After Beirut, Dubai was on the list. And despite it being an artificial city (or spot) with its ugly high skyscrapers, over sized malls, air conditioned everything and definitely not walkable I thought NO WAY and wanted to leave immediately. When I then by a very lucky coincidence attended a dinner for a bunch of young people working there who came from so many different countries I suddenly felt a bit ‘home’ amongst them, although I have just met them. But we all shared the multinational multicultural ‘virus’.
    So I think, feeling home comes from the people we surround ourselves and choose to be with…so that third culture is not limited to a geographical location….Chicago, London, Berlin, Paris,Barcelona,Qatar…still, Beirut remains one of my favorite geographical ones :) ! Enjoy it !
    Excuse the long comment !

  22. Kenyatta Rydman
    July 19, 2010 at 6:48 am #

    I don’t really agree on the recipe, but regardless a very well written post – I’ll link back from my Online Spanish Tutor web site in the comments, when I get time.

  23. Seif
    September 8, 2010 at 3:40 am #

    Just discovered this blog and im loving it already!

    I too am a TCK and its so good to know theres others out there (and a name for it!).
    Ive always been intrigued by beirut and how is it that place that has the right mix of arabic and european, the right type of people and culture. But ill never know until ive tried it and i think i will.

    Im Half Egyptian, Half Syrian born in Cairo lived in Cairo when i was young but for the past 11 years ive lived in London. But, i dont consider myself fully Egyptian,Syrian or British. Although i lean to my British-Syrian side… but not fully.
    Very confusing, but when Im asked where are you from in London i say cairo, when asked where from i say Egypt/Syria, but when in Egypt i say london/Egypt and so on.

    Not really having one concrete identity is weird but can be cool, heck i have connections in 3 diffrent countries and that can only be good.

    Your blog was awesome, keep doin’ your thing!
    Still I like the lebanese more than the Syrians or Egyptians Or Brits!…Beirut one day?

  24. Nasri Atallah
    September 10, 2010 at 4:34 pm #

    Thanks for the kind words Seif. There’s definitely a whole bunch of us out there.

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