RR

The Luck and the Privilege of Travel

Late November, Saturday evening, 7pm. The launch party is about to begin in a traditional, high-ceilinged Lebanese house, now an art and performance space. Rima rushes about, checking on the food, the sound system, the newly delivered boxes of Rusted Radishes, while I try to stay out of the way. I wander down the hall and back, admire the tall, arched windows of the room where a microphone is set up, then return to the front of the building, curious about the organization that now occupies it. In the entry room, which holds bookshelves and a coffee menu, a young woman answers my questions. Yes, Haven for Artists offers residencies, and yes, they welcome writers as well as visual artists. Even tattoo artists, she adds, introducing a lithe British woman who seems both curious and alarmed by the number of people streaming into the building.
.
I imagine designing ways to inscribe my vision onto the largest organ of the body, holding the needle steady as it penetrates, depositing a record from mind to skin, with permanence. Then I imagine taking up residence here for a while, welcoming the imprint of Beirut like a mental tattoo. My day would begin with a walk through the Mar Mikhael neighborhood not far from the sea, then a few hours of writing followed by a coffee break spent perusing these books—Nizar Qabbani, Roland Barthes, Susan Sontag. Now I flip through Rabih Alameddine’s The Hakawati, its mix of present-day story and fable appealing to me on this last evening of a too-short week in Beirut, and decide to read it tomorrow on the plane.
.
People continue filing through the door. I recognize two students from the workshop I taught earlier this week at the American University Beirut, one of whom spoke movingly of her family’s exile from Palestine. Behind them is a colleague of Rima’s from the English Department. Eager to pay for the novel and mingle, I reach into my purse, a small leather hexagon I’ve carried all week because, the internet insists, foreigners must be ready to show their passports at any moment in Lebanon. In fact, I’ve shown my passport to no one since the customs agent at the airport.
.
The room begins to spin. I feel around coins and bills, Lebanese lira, American dollars, along with promotional material from yesterday’s excursion to Byblos, where I folded pages in half and then in quarters, rendering them the same size as my passport so they fit snugly into the purse alongside it. Only now, as my fingers feel around the papers, squeezing them, lifting them out and digging once again, now I understand what should have been obvious hours ago and yesterday and maybe even earlier than that: my passport is gone.

 

 

The last time Kevin, Andrew, and I left the U.S. together, Andrew was just four months old. We hadn’t planned to do things that way. The year before, I’d agreed to lead my university’s fall study abroad program in Madrid, and although a surprise pregnancy could have derailed that trip, Kevin offered to arrange his teaching schedule so we could all go. I emphasized how hard it would be to have an infant in Madrid, and he countered that it would be hard having an infant anywhere. Why not Madrid?
.
We were both right, but the hardest part by far was caring for a newborn while getting ready to move abroad for three months. Once in Madrid, where the baby grew and began sleeping through the night, we entered a magical period of being a family. That was in the fall of 2008, the season when Barack Obama was elected president of the United States. On the first Tuesday in November, Kevin stayed up most of the night watching the coverage, coming to bed at 5 a.m. An hour later, I got up to feed Andrew, and as Obama delivered his late-night acceptance speech in Chicago, not far from our real home, I sat on the couch in front of a laptop, rocking the baby and weeping. What a wonderful omen it seemed that our son was born in the same year as the first African-American president elected to a nation built on slavery.
.
That was nine years ago. A literal and political lifetime. On this trip to Beirut, when we entered the Montreal airport for a layover, Andrew’s first words were, “Finally we’re in a country where Trump isn’t president!” He smiled, pillow under one arm, hair buzzed close around his head and flopping longer on top, the freckles across his nose giving him the air of a cartoon boy. Kevin joked about not returning to the U.S. at all, about taking up residency somewhere with a less ridiculous leader.
.
“Maybe Beirut?” Andrew asked.   

 

 

For many Americans who came of age in the 1970s and 1980s, Beirut remains synonymous with war, with footage of rocket launchers on hillsides aimed into the city and military vehicles rolling past the skeletons of colonial buildings. For those of us without ties to the Middle East, the war was over there, the way almost everything outside the U.S. is over there, far away even when we’ve invaded a country. At my first teenage job, the boss was a Greek man born in 1945 who knew Lebanon well and teared up talking about the family vacations of his youth, how stunning Beirut was and how awful that the bastards were ruining it now. I asked who the bastards were, and he shrugged. “What a shame.”
.
Even recently, when I told the father of one of Andrew’s school friends where we would spend Thanksgiving, he replied, “Beirut, Lebanon? We can go there now?”
.
His question wasn’t entirely ignorant. After a rash of kidnappings during the Lebanese civil war, the U.S. government made it illegal in 1987 for Americans to enter Lebanon. When the Clinton administration let the ban expire ten years later, it was with a strong warning that “only those Americans with compelling reasons should consider traveling to Lebanon.” At that point, it had been five years since any attack on Westerners, and newspapers like the Christian Science Monitor were arguing that the ban’s unintended effect was to prevent Americans from conducting business in Lebanon. Lebanese-Americans with dual citizenship had, of course, been traveling home all along.
.
My own perceptions of Lebanon as a dangerous place were overridden by Rima years ago. As a student in one of my graduate creative writing courses, she wrote a narrative essay about visiting relatives outside Beirut, with such beautiful descriptions of landscape and relationships and food that I wanted to experience it all first-hand. We stayed in touch after she graduated and settled into teaching at AUB, and her reports made Beirut sound like many places around the globe, the people mostly wonderful, the politics mostly maddening. When she invited me to visit the university as part of a lecture series, I accepted immediately, choosing dates when Kevin and Andrew could come along.
.
Then, while Googling “things to do with kids in Beirut,” I came across the U.S. State Department’s travel warning. Americans, it said, should avoid Lebanon “because of the threats of terrorism, armed clashes, kidnapping, and outbreaks of violence near Lebanon’s borders with Syria and Israel.” The warning was a level four, the highest possible. I checked the travel warnings from other English-speaking countries: Australia and Canada both urged their citizens to be cautious, while Great Britain posted a map with color-coded zones. The red zone lay along the Syrian border and in the Shatila Palestinian refugee camp in southern Beirut; orange lay along the Israeli border to the south, and everywhere else, which is everywhere we intended to go, was green. Nonetheless, I emailed Rima to ask whether I should change plans and travel alone. It was one thing to defy a State Department warning, but I wasn’t sure about making that same decision for a nine-year-old.
.
Rima’s response came back, immediate and decisive: “Those warnings are bullshit, I promise you. There’s less violence in Lebanon in a whole year than Chicago has in one weekend.”
.
That I believed. During the previous month, 410 people were shot in Chicago, seventy-four of them fatally. By the end of 2017, the annual total will be 3,561 shootings with 625 deaths, and these statistics are an improvement over last year. Violence in Chicago is concentrated in the under-resourced areas of an historically segregated city, but even in our relatively safe neighborhood, a sixteen-year-old boy was recently shot at point-blank range half a block from our house, and not long before that, a schoolteacher was killed by a stray bullet while heading to the train. Those incidents don’t keep me from walking every day, to the train, the grocery store, the lakefront, the coffee shop, or from riding my bike in rush hour traffic and doing pretty much whatever I want to do without worrying that my life might end, because the odds are still very much against it. Just as they’re very much against my family being injured or traumatized during one week in Beirut. This is how privilege works.  

 

 

Outside the launch party, I leave Kevin a voicemail and then a text. Our phone service is spotty here, and because he doesn’t respond, I try to relax. In just nine hours, a taxi will arrive to carry us to the airport for a 7am flight. I hope my passport is lying on the coffee table in our Hamra apartment, the one I rented because, despite believing Rima’s reassurance, I felt safer staying among Lebanese than in a hotel that someone with an eye toward making a political point might consider a worthwhile target.
.
Back inside, I lose myself for long moments in the amplified words. One after another, writers stand and read their creations, occupying my mind fully. How I love this process of translating memories, emotions, ideas, stories into a form that leaves one mind and travels to another. These writers are so talented, I think, and so willing to take risks on the page. Again I want to live here for a while, let the place work on my mind and prose and perspective. Then applause takes over, and I reach into my purse again, touching absence and feeling my stomach clench.
.
Out on the sidewalk, Rima and I hug tightly because who knows when we’ll see each other again. This is the heartbreaking part of travel: the loss, again and again, of day-to-day closeness. I want to bump into Rima in a bookstore in Chicago, meet for coffee, stay in touch in a way that What’s App and Facebook and every other form of electronic contact fails to match. At the same time, I want her to stay here, in vibrant, chaotic Beirut, with her lovely husband and adorable baby, with her step-daughter and in-laws and students and colleagues, in this place where sentences grow like vines, where vines trace the skin, where a lithe, British tattoo artist slips away from the crowd and, I imagine, back to her studio, inspired.
.
Twenty minutes later, I slip quietly through our apartment door, hoping Andrew is asleep. From the foyer I can see that the living room is clean, the coffee table bare, all our belongings packed into rolling suitcases and backpacks, and now Kevin is coming toward me with his usual, jovial expression, asking the question that pulls the air from my lungs: “Did you find your passport?”

 

 

In early November, 2017, just weeks before we came to Beirut, Prime Minister Saad Hariri resigned his position. He did so live on television from Saudi Arabia, reading a prepared statement that cited Iran, Hezbollah, and a purported assassination plot against him as the reasons for his decision. Twenty-four hours before, he had been in a cabinet meeting in Beirut when he received a phone call and abruptly left for Riyadh. Speculation about his motives focused on Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, who had begun imprisoning the other crown princes until they paid large sums of money for alleged corruption charges. Bin Salman was widely said to have coerced Hariri into reading the resignation statement, prepared for him in advance, and rumor had it that either he was being held hostage, or he was free to move about the world provided his children remained in Riyadh.
.
In the wake of Hariri’s resignation, Saudi Arabia ordered its citizens to leave Lebanon, and the international press exploded with predications of a proxy war to be fought between Iran and Saudi Arabia on Lebanese soil. Canada and Australia each heightened their travel advisories, urging citizens to reconsider all non-essential travel to Lebanon. The British update, on the other hand, simply said their map remained unchanged.
.
“What should we do?” I asked Kevin.
.

“Well,” he said, with a smile that made clear he trusted the British, “it’s always nice if the country we visit has a head of state, but is that really necessary?”
.

It was not. We checked the news right up until our plane took off, but by then French and Egyptian diplomats had gotten involved and Hariri was in Paris with his family, the resignation on hold.
.

In the last week, Kevin, Andrew, and I have enjoyed Lebanon, from grocery shopping and eating in restaurants to walking along the seafront, hiking with Rima’s family through a cedar forest in the Chouf, and visiting sites outside Beirut with the help of an enthusiastic taxi driver. Yesterday’s trip to Byblos also included a walk through the caverns of Jeita Grotto and lunch near Harissa at a restaurant known for its complimentary dessert: no sooner had we finished our meal than an astonishing amount of fruit arrived, fresh and candied, sliced and stewed, a dozen plates covering our table. Only one other family was there at the time, two men and a woman with children smaller than Andrew, and the abundance made us all laugh. One of the men asked where we were from and explained that he and his wife lived in the U.S. now, that they had arrived yesterday with their children to visit family. He grasped the shoulder of the other man, whose round eyes showed a resemblance, and said how brave we were to come to Lebanon with all the craziness going on. “We’re from here, and we’re not comfortable,” he said, laughing.
.

I nodded. “We were nervous, too, but once you arrive, you see how normal everything is, how people are just going about their lives.” I felt proud and triumphant, happy to have defied my government and witnessed the warmth and kindness of this country.

The man nodded, sadness creeping into his smile. “Yes, that’s how it always is,” he said, shooting a glance at his wife. “Everything is normal until it’s not.”

 

9:30 p.m. In a few hours, a taxi will arrive to take us to the airport, only it’s not us anymore. I imagine standing on the empty street after saying goodbye, coming back to this too-large apartment, trying to sleep.
.

Outside right now, all along Hamra Street, Syrian women and children are asking for help. Some sit on the sidewalk, legs crossed, backs leaning against a wrought iron fence or a stone wall, while others walk, approaching with their hands out, imploring. Their country’s border is just a few hours away, and on the other side of it, not even the British see a green spot of hope. The U.S., despite being a country of immigrants and resources and space, has accepted few Syrian refugees, and since the Trump administration came to power, the rhetoric of the president and his supporters has turned hateful, accusatory. As if being forced from your home by the barbarity of war means you’re trying to get away with something.
.

Rima phones as soon as she sees my text. “What can I do?” she asks with a ready-for-action tone of voice that gives me hope. She calls the restaurant near Harissa while I text the taxi company and ask yesterday’s driver to check his car. I also send a What’sApp message to the Airbnb owner to see if I can stay another night in this apartment. “Of course,” he responds in a soothing voice. “I know the pain you are feeling because it happened to me once, too. But please don’t worry. We will help you.”
.

Again and again, I go through the kitchen trash can, the bedroom, the bathroom, my suitcase, but in the midst of all this, a memory is forming. Last evening. When we arrived back in Beirut. What a lovely time we’d had riding the cable car up Mount Lebanon, taking pictures from the shrine on top, admiring the Mediterranean near sunset, with the white buildings of Beirut to the south and out on the horizon an enormous cloud sending rain into the sea.
.

In that memory, after getting out of the taxi on Hamra Street, Kevin heads to a store for bottled water while Andrew and I go across the street and buy two donuts. He intends to eat them both before dinner, in the suspension of normal rules that often comes with travel, but I can’t find my door key, so instead of heading up to our apartment, we sit down on a curb beside a parking lot. I hand Andrew the contents of my purse: tissues, a twenty-dollar bill, the Byblos promotional material folded into quarters, my passport. “Be very careful,” I say as Kevin approaches, “because a passport is the one thing we cannot lose.” Andrew hands everything back to me, and I put the objects in the purse, one by one, but I haven’t seen the passport since.
.

 

The passport. Without which a person cannot legally cross a nation’s border. Or officially, internationally, prove identity.
.

Despite its usage worldwide, the passport is a relatively recent invention. The earliest depictions of something like a passport are in an Egyptian tomb drawing dating from BCE and in a passage from the Hebrew Bible from 450 BCE. As Martin Lloyd explains in The Passport: The History of Man’s Most Travelled Document, various medieval rulers provided travel papers for noblemen who did their bidding, and in the sixteenth century, English subjects had to apply for travel papers in order to go to the American colonies, but these are fairly isolated procedures. In the seventeenth century, the King of Jahangir, India, proudly insisted that no travel documents at all were necessary in his peaceful kingdom. The Japanese didn’t begin issuing documents for citizens traveling outside the country until the mid-nineteenth century.
.

Lloyd traces the modern passport to eighteenth-century France, where documents were required for traveling between regions and eventually outside the country as well, although you didn’t need to be French in order to secure them. In its earliest form, the passport was less about the accident of birth or national identity than a way of overseeing movement. Governments have always used passports to control travel, as well as to exert policy. That’s why, in the wake of the French Revolution, the passport system was dismantled in favor of full-on liberté, at least until the wealthy class began emigrating and taking resources with them. By 1791, passports were back.
.

Though not for good. In England’s pre-passport days, Napolean praised the country for upholding “the first of all liberties, that of going where you please” and called passports “an embarrassment and an obstacle to the peaceable citizen but...utterly powerless against those who wish to deceive the vigilance of authority.” By the middle of the nineteenth century, as colonialism carried the concept of the passport around the world, several South American countries guaranteed citizens the constitutional right to travel without passports, while European countries such as Norway, Sweden, Italy, and Portugal abolished passports outright. France once again did away with them in 1860, at least until the Franco-Prussian Wars of 1870-1, after which the passport as a necessity of international travel spread around the globe. The twentieth century saw the League of Nations move to standardize passports in response to the European refugee crisis after World War I, when governments sought to track, assist, and repatriate huge numbers of displaced people—1.5 million from Russian alone, along with Belgians, Poles, Lithuanians, Serbians, and Turkey’s expelled Armenians and Kurds—but it also saw the rise of an open border system in the European Union.
.

I don’t know any of this at 10:00 on a November evening in 2017 in Beirut. All I know is that it feels like my passport, which I’ve carried all around the world but have never obsessed over, contains a piece of my soul. Without it, I feel vulnerable. Exposed. Illegitimate. As if everything I know to be true about my life—who I am, where I live and work, to whom I’m connected by blood and choice and circumstance—could be seen as fiction, and there is no way, without that small paper booklet, to prove otherwise.

 

 

The website for the American Embassy in Beirut is clear: to replace lost or stolen documents, you need to appear in person and only with an appointment. I click the online scheduling portal, calculating that if I go in first thing Monday morning, I might be on my way home by mid-week. But the embassy’s scheduling portal doesn’t work, or so it seems until I realize that there are no appointments available on Monday. Or Tuesday. Or Wednesday. Or Thursday. I keep clicking into the following week, the desire to stay in Beirut evaporating now that the departure date is uncertain and my choice in the matter gone. That’s the difference between travel and migration: in the former, we carry the expectation of returning at will to where we came from – home. In the latter, travel involves a trade-off, one place for another, one culture for another, a fully-formed past and precarious present for the possibility of a safe or stable future, and the price must be, among other things, a deeply unsettled sense of who you are.
.

The State Department travel warning plays in my mind. The U.S. government advised us not to come to Lebanon, and now the embassy won’t help because the punishment for disobeying is that they wash their hands of you. This is how things feel in 2017, when the U.S. president fixates on a wall along the Mexican border and stokes white supremacy and refuses to help refugees and enacts a ban on visitors from predominantly Muslim nations because, he said while running for office, “our country cannot be the victims of horrendous attacks by people that believe only in Jihad, and have no sense of reason or respect for human life.”
.

In a gorgeous, powerful essay, “War in Translation: Giving Voice to the Women of Syria,” Beirut native Lina Mounzer writes of translating Syrian women’s accounts into English, conscious always of the potential for misinterpretation. “We know how language can be used to beat the rhythm of the war drum, mustering ranks upon ranks of public support. We know how language itself can wage war against us, by mimicking the same casual dehumanization of a bomb. Everyone you know and love: terrorists. Militants. Strategic targets. Collateral damage. The leveling of your neighborhood: an unfortunate mistake. The razing of your city: the birth pangs of a new Middle East. Seven dead, twenty wounded. Forty-one dead, ninety-three wounded. 1.2 million refugees. 2,000 migrants.”
.

Dehumanizing language has always been part of my government’s foreign policy, but never more so than under the current president. On the campaign trail, he pledged to deport Syrian refugees, stating, “They could be ISIS, I don't know. This could be one of the great tactical ploys of all time. A 200,000-man army, maybe.” Since the election, he has referred to immigrants as “criminals,” “rapists,” “terrorists,” “animals.”  This language has translated into policy, with overall refugee immigration into the U.S. falling precipitously and a certain segment of the population applauding it. Because this, too, is how privilege works: it cultivates the belief that what you have is a result of merit rather than luck. It makes you afraid of loss and paranoid that others will try to take what’s yours.

 

 

During each of the last two Decembers, I travelled to India, leading students on two-week study abroad trips. Andrew still talks about how hard that was, how he wasn’t allowed to come with me. When I Skyped from Delhi or Mumbai, he stroked the screen or hugged his own chest and sometimes cried, and when I returned the last time, I promised him I wouldn’t go again this year. Now, having accompanied me on a long trip, having seen a new country and experienced the delight of life outside the U.S., he is puffed up, feeling grown and worldly. “I’m smarter now than I was a week ago,” he announced this afternoon. He’s excited to tell his friends about Lebanon, about the luxury car dealerships and the video arcade and the ancient city we walked through.
.

I imagine waking him at 4 a.m. and delivering the news that I can’t go home, how his eyes will fill with shock and dismay, how all the pleasure of a satisfying journey will be spoiled by this addendum: his mother got left behind. I think again of the Syrian families on the street. Women, children, some appearing to belong to each other, but who knows? On our first morning in Beirut, a girl about Andrew’s age approached our table at an outdoor café, hand outstretched and eyes pleading. Before we could respond, the waiter intervened, speaking to her gently in Arabic until she walked away. “She doesn’t have to go to school?” Andrew asked, this fact as foreign as anything he’d seen yet, and Kevin and I jumped on the delight in his voice. She’s hungry. She doesn’t have a home. Don’t envy. But also, don’t pity. Don’t look down on her. Understand that she is loved, just like you are, that not long ago she had what you have.
.

But what were we teaching him, really? What on earth do we understand?

 

 

Prime Minister Saad Hariri rescinded his resignation, and on Lebanese Independence Day, which this year fell on a Wednesday in the middle of our week in Beirut, he appeared at the festivities alongside the president. As we left town with Rima’s family, road after road was blocked by tanks and soldiers, but our driver kept maneuvering around until we were sailing down the highway. Periodically throughout the day, I checked the news on my phone, relieved that there had been no incidents, no violence, nothing to justify fear.
.

Over the last three decades, the U.S. has issued more than three dozen travel warnings to Lebanon. I’m not saying that none of them were warranted, but governments are comprised of people with agendas, tolerances, predispositions toward or against. Several months ago, Salman Abedi, a twenty-two-year-old man with a British passport, detonated explosives in the crowd at a London concert, killing twenty-three people and wounding more than 100. The month before last, Stephen Paddock, a sixty-four-year-old man with an American passport and an arsenal of weapons, opened fire on an outdoor concert in Las Vegas. Shooting from a hotel window, he was able to kill fifty-eight people and injure more than 850 before turning a gun on himself. Before coming to Beirut, as Kevin and I tried to gauge danger and formed contingency plans, we kept saying that there’d been no warning for Las Vegas. Or for London. Or Barcelona. Paris. Brussels. In fact, despite seven terrorist attacks in Belgium between 2014 and 2017, the U.S. State Department has not once issued a level four warning for that country. Americans traveling there are simply urged to exercise caution and avoid crowds. Safety, it seems, can be as irrational and as politically complex as danger.

 

 

At 11:15 p,m., Kevin and I agree that he needs to sleep, since he’ll be solely responsible for navigating the connecting flight in Frankfort and consoling Andrew along the way.
.

I know this mishap is a small thing overall. I haven’t lived through a civil war or seen my family flung across the globe. I’ve just lost a stupid document. I’ll get another soon. Still, in a fit of morbid humor that isn’t funny, I tell Kevin that a proxy war is sure to break out now, and that everyone we know here will flee while I’m stuck waiting for an appointment at the goddamned American Embassy.
.

Meanwhile, at Rima’s apartment just a ten-minute walk away, her husband Rami is sitting in the family room with some friends. Rima has told them about my predicament, and several times, Rami has urged her to call the police. “What for?” Rima keeps responding. “Are you crazy? Do you really think someone’s going to turn in an American passport?”
.

I’m thinking the same thing. That American passports are valuable, that the person who found mine may have sold it by now, that odds are one of the Syrian kids picked it up and gave it to a parent, older sibling, family friend, that refugees must be plugged into the black market, the way people at risk everywhere depend on informal markets to get by. I don’t begrudge it; in fact, the opposite. Why in the world would someone on the margins put ethics above survival? When Rima asks we can check with police, I scoff. “Don’t bother.”
.

Finally, at 11:30pm, Rami tells Rima once more to try the local station a few blocks away, and she does.

 

 

After the Rusted Radishes launch party, my Uber driver was eager to talk. He asked where I was from and told me about his younger brother who lives in New York, studying to become an engineer. The driver himself had lived in New York once as well, then in Buenos Aires for fifteen years before moving back to Lebanon. He said he loves this country and is happy to be home with family, but he does sometimes miss Argentina.
.

“Habla usted español?” I asked, and his smile filled the rearview mirror.
.
“Por supuesto!” For the rest of the ride we chatted in Spanish, ignoring each other’s mistakes and enjoying the way a change in language can open the mind and reanimate past selves. “I’ve missed Spanish, you know?” the driver said, and I did know, absolutely.
.

Eventually the conversation turned toward the prime minister’s homecoming this week. “All of this happened because of the Saudi Crown Prince,” the driver said. “That guy is crazy.”
.
I agreed emphatically enough that he took a chance: “He’s like your Trump.” His eyes sought mine in the rearview mirror, eyebrows arched.
.
“You know,” I replied, “the week before Hariri resigned, Trump’s son-in-law took an unannounced trip to Riyadh. I’m certain he had something to do with the situation here in Lebanon.”
.
The driver nodded, then shook his head, then shrugged. “American people are so wonderful.” he said. “But your government is shit.”
.
I laughed out loud. A year ago, he wouldn’t have said that, or I wouldn’t have agreed, or together we would have lamented the Obama administration’s missed opportunities in the Middle East. Ten years ago, embarrassment might have kept me from even admitting where I was from. But now there was camaraderie in the exchange, a sense that, like the majority of people around the world, we share the desire for a government worthy of us.

 

 

At the police station, Rima and I wait for a long time because my passport, which the officer assures us is here, is locked in a drawer, and the supervisor with the key has gone home. They are searching for the spare key, the officer tells Rima in Arabic. He wears military attire, gray and black fatigues, a black beret on his head. The guard out front is dressed the same and holds a semi-automatic weapon.
.
After forty-five minutes, the officer appears with my passport in hand and a satisfied grin on his face. Rima and I leap up, professing thanks, but he says there’s one more thing. “We must check your background to see if you have crime,” he tells me in English. “Do you have crime?”
.
“Nothing I’ve been caught for,” I reply, laughing because the flight doesn’t leave for hours. I have all the time in the world.
.
After sitting a while longer, though, I grow suspicious. There have so many news stories lately of travelers stopped at U.S. borders, some of them on tourist visas, some with green cards allowing them to live and work legally in the country, some who are naturalized American citizens with brown skin or features that suggest ties to other parts of the world. Some travelers report having been refused entry until they unlocked their phones and shared social media passwords. Since leaving home, I’ve been rehearsing what I’ll do if an immigration official insists on scrutinizing my electronics in this way, but this is just a thought exercise. There’s little chance I’ll be harassed at the border.
.
I joke to Rima that if the Lebanese police check my social media profile, they’re going to find a lot of negative comments about the U.S. government.
.

“They won’t care about that,” she says, rolling her eyes and smiling. Then her face turns serious for a moment and she looks at me hard, before shaking her head. “Nah. They won’t care.”

 

 

Hamra Street is mostly empty at 2:00 in the morning, but walking alone doesn’t make me nervous. Rima has assured me that street crime is rare here, and I enjoy the freedom, the expectation of safety so different from life at home.
.
Back in the apartment, Kevin meets me in the hall, eager to see that I really do have the passport. “I can’t believe it,” he says. “You’re the luckiest person in Beirut.”
.
I agree. After tiptoeing into Andrew’s room to kiss his forehead, I lie down on the couch to wait for 4:00 a.m. Adrenaline still courses through my body, as if I’ve escaped danger even though there was none. I think of the woman I passed on the way back from the police station, sitting alone on the sidewalk in the middle of the night. She was maybe thirty-five, with deep eyes and wide cheeks, wearing a hijab and a wool sweater. I wonder what Saturday looked like in her old life, how the rhythm of her weeks used to go. I wonder where she sleeps now and whether she has enough to eat. Her outstretched hands were surprisingly warm.
.
Soon today will become tomorrow, with no transition between. On the flights home, I’ll read a good chunk of The Hakawati, enjoying the way its present-day scenes in Beirut intertwine with past stories in the U.S. and fables from ancient kingdoms, reality infused with mythology, perspective with youth, the borders of time and space fluid, as borders everywhere should be. For now, I lie still and imagine the story I’ll tell at home: Beirut is perfectly safe. Lebanon is stunning. And get this— someone found my passport on the street, across from Kababji Restaurant, and turned it in to the police. I’ll never know who.

Contributor
Michele Morano

Michele Morano is the author of Grammar Lessons: Translating a Life in Spain, and of many essays and short stories published in literary journals and anthologies including Best American Essays and Wave-Form: Twenty-First Century Essays by Women. She is Chair of the English Department at DePaul University, Chicago, where she teaches in the undergraduate and graduate creative writing programs.

Post Tags
Share Post
No comments

LEAVE A COMMENT