Most teenagers are on a constant search for who they are and with me, it was no different. But adding two countries, one transatlantic migration and three cultures fused together never made my search any easier. I was born in the Middle East, raised in Southern Lebanon. My family and I came to the U.S. when I was five years old. Nine years later, at the age of 14, my life began to lack a physical heritage, so after some begging, lots of packing and the hectic booking of flights, my mother, brother and I got on a plane and made the journey back to our roots.
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The 14 hour flight was an absolute nightmare; the plane was packed with people and an overwhelming amount of crying children. We were restless, sore and beyond aggravated but as soon as the pilot announced our suspension over Beirut International Airport, everyone broke out in cheers and excited applause. The airport was larger than I imagined and the signs were a conglomeration of Arabic, English and French. Outside, my grandparents and my uncles were waiting for us with flowers and balloons. As soon as my mother saw them, she burst into happy tears. We hugged and laughed and cried until we had no more energy to move. Luckily, my uncle had parked his car close to the exit and we began the 2 hour drive from Beirut to Tripoli-but first, a stop at the famous Al-Hallab Restaurant and Bakery. The restaurant is a luxurious and enchanting fusion of traditional Lebanese gastronomy. My mom and I have spent years fantasizing about this moment. After ordering just about every dish on the menu, ranging from kibbeh, to homemade hummus to heavenly kennafa, we declared ourselves officially Lebanese…and well, officially full.
After our short stop and the car ride, we arrived at my grandparents’ house in central Tripoli, in a building about 10 stories high. Because Lebanon is such a small space geographically, construction tends to go up rather than out, resulting in skyscraper-like buildings and offices.
We stayed in Lebanon for 5 days shy of a month and embraced the Mediterranean sights whole-heartedly. I spent my days getting to know my cousins and large extended family. I indulged myself in homemade foods and reacquainted myself with the striking beauty of the Mediterranean Sea. I spent the days letting my skin soak up the warm sunshine as I ambled along the shores of the sea with a cup of creamy, pistachio gelato in my hand and hearing the sounds of Arabic bustling across the shops in Al-Azmi Street. I tried recalling the memories of Tripoli I had when I was a child, but my brain refused to do so, so I decided to make new memories instead.
Talking to locals let me practice my Arabic, and also realize just how welcoming and hospitable Lebanese people are. Because of the constant political unrest, people there have learned how to live one day at a time and not worry about what the future might bring. As an upcoming, nervous, slightly awkward high school freshman, this was one of the most valuable lessons I had ever learned. So armed with this newfound knowledge, a box of baklava, a beautiful bronze tan, and a stunning fluency in Arabic, I deemed myself ready to face high school. And on the flight back to my quaint Virginia town, the search for my identity both ended and began.
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