2014

Destination: USA

I have Two articles for you today: Untraditional and Destination: USA. They are both peripherally connected. I hope you will enjoy reading them as much as I enjoyed writing them.

The Immigration Officer at the airport did not say the usual: Welcome Home, Ma’am. Actually, he was quite rude and practically threw the passport down on the counter, not even handing it to me! That’s new, I thought to myself! Have things changed that much since I flew off to Beirut seven weeks ago?

A young man, who was with me on the plane flying back, smiled at me as I stood waiting for my bag. His luggage arrived. He swung it effortlessly to the floor and kept on standing there. I thought that he must have another bag still to be coming on the conveyor belt. Then I saw my bag. It’s a big and heavy one, I must say, which is why I generally do not like to travel in winter lugging all those heavy garments. As soon as I put my hand out to reach for it, however, that young man rushed and retrieved it, stood it up and pulled out the handle all the while smiling at me.

“There you go,” he said with a big beam. “Thank you so very much,” I answered smiling back. At that, he turned around and left. He was waiting until he retrieved my bag for me! I have no idea why except to say: What a Knight in Shining Armor that was! What a kind thing to do! And I hadn’t even put my “Damsel in Distress” face on! I was so delightfully amazed! You know what? I did say that I had angels sitting on my shoulders throughout my trip, because I had spent seven absolutely blissful weeks in Beirut. Now, I thought, those same angels must still be with me! Oh, I do hope they’re comfortable perched on my bony shoulders! I don’t want them flying away just yet – or, ever, really!

Over the next few days, and in between everything else at home, the mail pile was gone, bills paid, handled, filed and put away! All the magazines that had arrived in my absence were neatly stacked on my bedside table. My clothes had been put away tidily. Nothing more to do!

Now I needed to get out of the house!  I got in my car and whizzed off at 50 mph on the highway! (The speed limit is 45, so I was OK!) It was such an unbelievable feeling to be able to do that! Such a huge feeling of Freedom! No wonder my Saudi sisters are fighting to be able to do this, I thought! I’m in Control! And from the ability and Freedom to drive, that sense of Control transcends itself to other areas as well. If I can be in Control of a car it says, if I have that Freedom to drive when I want to, then I can be in Control and enjoy that sensation of Freedom in other aspects of my life as well. It is simply a feeling, a sense, an impression, a purely psychological state of mind that is, nevertheless, very palpable.

All of this made me recall the very strange sensation that had permeated my entire being as soon as I had set foot in the United States. I had felt an indescribable sense of Freedom. I cannot quite explain it. It was, actually, quite jolting and surprising, especially during these times, when we are living, as at no other time, in that Brave New World atmosphere where our every move, every email, phone call, Facebook or Twitter encounter, every time we listen to our music, charge an item, or while even now, in my car, driving alone on the highway, the Powers That Be know how to GPS exactly where I am and know exactly what I’m doing! For Heaven’s sakes they can even drone me right here on the road, if they so decide to do! That’s Huge! That’s Awful! That is quite eerie and frightening!

So what then is that sense of Freedom that we Americans seem to feel that we possess? Why is it that I now have a sense of being freer here than anywhere else that I’ve ever been?  Is it hubris? Have we simply been brainwashed to think so? Is it some magical potion in our water, or in our atmosphere?

Beirut, after all, is probably one of the freest countries in the Middle Eastern and Arab Worlds. My friends there can say whatever they feel like. They can do whatever they want. They can freely express their political or any other opinions. They can, unlike their Saudi sisters, drive. They are all up on the latest technology! On a daily basis, I do not do anything here in the US which is that different from what my friends do in Beirut. Their children are not unlike mine and neither are their grandchildren.

So I was quite flummoxed by my own question! How do I explain that sensation of freedom then when, over and above the constant and ongoing state of surveillance we are living in, our police force has transposed itself into an army? And, had I stepped a bit more on that gas pedal while I was whizzing off at 50 mph, and had a cop seen me, I would have a ticket by now issued by a rough and gruff policeman who does not welcome any light banter, or joking around as the cops once did. It used to be that I – or any other woman – could flirt my way out of being cited. Not since 9/11! Not since that fateful day that oppressively changed the US and the world. So where then is that sense of freedom coming from, I wonder?

The Immigration Officer at the airport was as rude as some of the personnel in Beirut, or anywhere else, can be. The nice man who helped me with my luggage is no different from any kind and gentlemanly human being anywhere else on earth. The cop, who could have ticketed me had I been speeding, and had he caught me, is not that much different from what cops all over the world are menacingly morphing into nowadays. (Although, and just to be fair, I can probably still flirt my way out of a situation with a Middle Eastern or Arab cop!) Lawmakers and politicians in the US, in Lebanon and across the world, are mostly (there are always exceptions!) corrupt and opportunistic. Corporate greed is paramount. The rich are hogging their wealth, and the poor are getting poorer. So no differences there either! There really aren’t, and, in general, those huge differences amongst societies anymore. Yes, different countries have their special history, culture, climate, cuisine, etc. etc. but, fundamentally, the differences during these very unsettling days and in the world’s capital cities especially, are becoming less and less obvious.

So while I do not really have an unequivocal answer to that perplexing question of freedom, it may be worth mentioning two distinctions: the first is one that I had always sensed, the second I had just observed on my recent trip.

Lebanon is a tiny country. There are, as the adage goes in Beirut, Zero Degrees of Separation between the Beirutis! Wherever you are, in whatever circle you’re moving, there is bound to be a near or distant relative in common with one or more persons whom you are with; a friend; a neighbor; someone! In such a situation, one becomes, and on a constant basis, beholden; beholden to one’s family, to one’s relatives, friends and society as a whole. One’s every action is recorded, every word is analyzed, every move scrutinized, dissected and bisected. Society then assumes the role of judge and executioner. As a result, people themselves become very judgmental.  It is that feeling, I believe, that can often cause people to feel restricted, sometimes even claustrophobic. I know for sure that this is what I used to often feel when I lived there. My stay was too short for me to feel anything of that personally this time. I was also too euphoric to really care. However, a few of my friends alluded very clearly to that, and to the fact that they resented it. (Add to that the almost constant state of war that Beirutis have been suffering from over decades and that has, understandably, made them war-weary, stress-weary, worry-weary, politician-weary and corruption-weary ergo feeling even more restricted) However, this “beholden-ness” is, in reality, universal. It is one of the methods by which societies alter their behaviors. It is how the United States, for instance, corrected its bigoted behavior towards gay people. Somehow though, in a small society like Beirut, this scrutiny becomes more intrinsically personal than societal and can oftentimes become too invasive, oppressive and visibly hostile towards those who are untraditional trailblazers.

But, again then, is “beholden-ness” enough of an argument as to why we, in the United States, feel more of that sense of Freedom than anywhere else? Could it be just an illusion? Because on the political level and vis-a-vis our standing across the world, we are, sadly, more hated and resented than admired and respected. Our calls for Freedom have become an albatross to all those “others” whom we have maimed, killed and whose lives we have totally upended, and are continuing to do so! Yet, and setting aside that ugly political aspect, it is totally another story on the social level; for, unlike any other place in the world including Beirut, we are certainly not as beholden to each other. This is probably why we feel that we can freely break away from any restricting tradition, oppressive regulation, or unnecessary societal pressure that could hold us back from progressing and from enjoying that sensation of Freedom.

This brings me to the second possible distinction. In Fairfax County where I live, (as in most of the big cities in the US), we have a very diverse population. Beirut is mostly a homogeneous society – the Palestinians, Syrians, Iraqis and other Arabs who live there are cut from the same cloth really. And, had it not been for political malfeasance that lit the fires which caused religious sectarianism to flourish, the peaceful, though fragile, social contract that had existed amongst the different religions, sects and people would have continued to be honored. So the only “diversity” in Lebanon, it seems to me, are the 200,000 Eritrean, Ethiopian, Nepalese and other home helpers! My community in the US, on the other hand, is multi-ethnic. This feature has forced society and our laws (that’s important!) to become more compassionate, more sensitive and mindful, more accommodating, tolerant and more democratic, though it remains a work in progress. There is no doubt, though, that this translates into a much more humanitarian and a less judgmental approach. Unlike Beirut and other smaller communities therefore, we are, essentially, not as beholden to each other as much as we are to our social contracts and to the laws of the land.

I know that despite our foreign, as well as our domestic, policies where we have been royally blundering, this country seems to invite us, entice us, lure and even dare us to break away from archaic and dated traditions. More than any other place on earth (including Europe), it constantly promotes us to create new paradigms for ourselves and for society in general. This characteristic is woven into our very unique fabric and ethos. The more I think of this the more I feel that this must be one of the very central reasons that grant us that incredible perception of Freedom which we all seem to value so much.

Much as I love Lebanon, and as adaptable to living anywhere as I am, I would really find it very, very difficult to ever give up that amazing feeling of Freedom (or, at least, until The Powers That Be take that away from us, too!). Perhaps it is simply a mirage, pure hubris or brainwashing, a potion in our water, or in the atmosphere, and, if that is, indeed, the only way to explain it, then I am Guilty as charged, your honor! Guilty as charged!

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