To Be the Daughter of a Lebanese Woman

2016-01-26    |   

To Be the Daughter of a Lebanese Woman

I will not lie and say that I deserve the Lebanese nationality because I am one hundred percent Lebanese. In fact, I am Lebanese-Egyptian, and my dual identity transcends the provinciality of its Lebanese or Egyptian side. Wherever identities are linked, a conduit for chauvinism and discrimination opens as well. I find no justification for lying to convince others of my claim to hold the Lebanese nationality, either. I am no more Lebanese than anyone who does hold the nationality, or any person who has lived through its everyday events, affected by them and perhaps influencing the course they take, perhaps ungrateful towards them and perhaps pleased by them. While my Egyptian identity is an entry point to my belonging, which has unfolded in its own particular way, I am amongst those who were born in Beirut during the civil war at the end of 1977. Back then, the war was in its infancy when they thought it would last two years. However, the bombs did not stop falling.

In November of 1977, the road from Beirut’s district of Mousseitbeh to the “Georges Moarbes Hospital” in the district of Badaro was a thorny one. But it was the only hospital where my mother felt comfortable giving birth to me. It was an old house, she says, towering and white and with a garden enclosed inside. She loved it there and felt at home. I knew that when Doctor Georges delivered a girl, he was very displeased that he had not produced a boy for the young woman, whom he loved himself. As for my own personal memories, they begin with the bombings during the Israeli invasion of Beirut: I hid under the body of my aunt on the ground floor, in one of the rooms that the family deemed to be safer than the others, the ones they seek refuge in during wars. Bereft of protection among those who were not even able to reach maturity and in a state of collapse, we hid. Before I was five years old I had repeated the words “I don’t want to die”. This house, my first home, was destroyed during an attack. We slept in my uncle’s office for a while, until we found another house in Mousseitbeh, where we still live today.

After the invasion, a recurring rosary of memories links together chains of consciousness: many wars, ice cream during a truce, scarcity and exertion, celebrations, friendships, and a life woven from the rhythms of my hometown, Beirut. Every year we would spend three months in Cairo with my father – another story, albeit one that made me the Lebanese woman that I am. It was Beirut that bore witness to attending school, going to university, the demonstrations, reading, the excitement, party politics. Beirut is where I penned my articles, where I worked a lot, and overworked and somewhat retreated. Beirut formed the basis of my novels: its faces and backdrops, the squares and the clashes, and the sense of belonging. Beirut is my city.

At the same time all this was happening, what set me apart from my peers was a relationship that drove my mother to exhaustion, to absurd lengths, to worries, and to repeated cries; it was a relationship that put us on the radar of Lebanon's official security agency, the General Security. She had fallen in love with an Egyptian and married him. Her own Lebanese nationality fell under surveillance, and my presence was subject to daily negotiations. The vicissitudes of the civil war closed down the schools often, but the General Security still required notification from the school in order to permit my sister and I to remain in the country. I remember screaming, stubbornness, and angry breakdowns in the General Security’s makeshift building (makeshift due to “the military events”). I remember many scenes in many waiting lines in the many official rooms occupied by the General Security of “West” Beirut; we were moved between these rooms with our mother. Sometimes, she would come up against absurdities; sometimes, she would sell her possessions to pay for the costs of the paperwork during the war’s many sieges. But, truth be told, we did not live a single day in the country without holding fully legitimate papers. The woman who had given birth to me waged war to secure them.

Today, whenever I enter a General Security office –in much more comfortable circumstances than those my mother experienced during the war– I, too, enter them on the verge of breaking down. When I stand before the General Security official in the airport, I, too, am on the verge of bursting out. I have a swell of anger-driven energy that will not be quieted. My papers are always in order; they cause me no worry. The worry is inside of me; the anger is on account of my mother.

On the day they removed her name completely from my official papers, my existence was transferred from her “guardianship” to the “guardianship” of my employer, whose name is on my residence card. Struck with fierce bitterness and sadness, I felt as though I had been shattered, like our house. My mother said to me: “It is as though I didn’t give birth to you, or as if I am not Lebanese. It is as though I mean nothing at all.”

The day the naturalization decree was passed in 1995, my mother submitted the names of my sister and I along with a complete dossier, in accordance with [legal] stipulations. My sister’s dossier granted her the nationality to which she was entitled; mine did not. “It fell through the cracks.” My file had been overlooked by mistake, and there was no possible remedy.

At the time of the decree, tumult broke out among some members of parliament; I remember one of them, Nematallah Abi Nasr, who opposed the decree because of anxiety over demographics – the numbers of Christians and Muslims in the country. One insult after another was unleashed against the naturalized men and women. Full-throated and unreserved accusations were leveled at them, in the media and directly to their faces, that they were ignorant, backwards, dirty, indigent, and “disabled” (as though having a disability were something to be accused of, and Lebanese nationality was equivalent to Nazi membership).

The decree did take form on the ground, but the particulars of its justice were not fully achieved, nor were its mistakes corrected. In truth, justice had no place in such a context. Today members of parliament celebrate the naturalization of male expatriates and their families, but not the families of expatriate women. Everyone knows that such celebrations are only of numbers, not justice; they are for the sake of elections, not the Constitution.

Once, when I was following up on the nationality law while working at [the newspaper] As-Safir, Abi Nasr and other MPs declared that a Lebanese woman is not reliable enough to carry the right to pass on her nationality. A Palestinian man will trick her, they said, and use her to become naturalized. They will look for an ugly woman or a weak-minded spinster and marry her for her nationality. From beginning to end, this kind of talk is loathsome. It is disgraceful to every woman in this country.

It seems that respecting the people is not a requirement for those wishing to enter parliament. “A Palestinian will trick her.” The cycle of insulted peoples and nationalities is repeated, in language that is no different from any crude racist pattern – borrowing whatever it needs from a pool of customs, traditions, and conservative concepts…all for the sake of establishing power, consolidating influence, striking a deal. It is as though the MP is as a man at home in his pajamas, passing judgement as his grandfather told him to, knowing that his grandfather might sometimes have been more severe in his justice than he.

But in Lebanon, justice has a constitution that was written in the age of this very grandfather; it does not speak of “tricking women”. The aging Constitution speaks of equality between Lebanese women and men in holding nationality rights. Our MPs are reneging on our founding Constitution (which one would hope might be updated over the decades). They are censoring and suppressing it to dictate instead the laws of their own making, which sometimes justify murder, and affirm the priority of [catering to money and power] over justice. By imposing its guardianship on Lebanese women, parliament is suppressing the Lebanese Constitution.

Over the past month, as a feeding frenzy was cooking up in preparation for a “debate” about the recovery of nationality law, I entered the country on an entry visa for the first time. For academic reasons, I had spent a year in Britain, during which my residency had expired. My Egyptian passport was about to expire as well. A jungle of official paperwork awaited my return, but before all of those details I had to obtain permission to enter my own country. That day in the airport, with the mess of papers that I was required to carry, I was not angry with the General Security. I was not humiliated, nor did I feel oppressed, as I usually did. Instead, I found a resolve that I had not known before, and a readiness for battle.

As someone who had felt the loss of justice and lived through bitter and smothering sorrow, I had arrived at a place where I held the right to a measure of confidence. [I realized that] it was the political posturing which spoiled the justice of the nationality law and the relationship between women and the state, that was causing me harm – along with others in my country, regarding other issues in our lives here. My birth certificate, my mother’s original identity card, my old passport, my old residency card, my work permit, a letter from the newspaper, a document from the embassy…a series of papers confirming my movements and the chapters of my life story. General Security officials were understanding; the procedures took time. I did not become angry with them; I was told more than once that the law was inadequate, that I was obviously Lebanese, that the nationality was my mother’s right and that the country’s leadership was corrupt. I was not angry with them, but found instead a sense of recognition this time that calmed the revolt within me, which was in turn was redirected at the causes of corruption.

The residency cards of the family members of a Lebanese woman carry the label “courtesy”. The state is being “courteous” to us. In 2010 a group of civil society organizations led a struggle [on the issue of residency permits]. The participants were largely women married to non-Lebanese and individuals descended from Lebanese women, whose residency had to be renewed annually at a cost of US$250. Following the [campaign], they began granting residency for free (with a work permit) for a period of three years – under the label “courtesy”. These conditions are less restrictive than what had preceded them, but the discussion over their very existence remains the same. The obstacles to correcting the mistakes of 1995 remain; with every revision of the law, they tell us that the file is closed and forgotten. The refusal to apply the Constitution when it comes to realizing citizenship for Lebanese women is still in effect. It continues to bare its fangs, while its voice is muzzled with an unlawful language. Because the nationality recovery law was passed in an absurd amount of time, challenging it will not lead to the implementation of constitutional justice – only the race for demographics. They hold files for which there is no way forward; they apply archaic custom–based law and of self–interest, or, at the most extreme, of factionalism. Days pass by year after year, and they remain unchanged. The Constitution is not applied, and justice is not attained.

I know that I am Lebanese. Many others face more tragic circumstances than mine, while others are in less distressing situations. But every family member of a Lebanese woman is certain that they are Lebanese. This knowledge does not consist of constitutional guarantees alone; it comes from life itself – from being, every one of us, a stitch in the fabric of the country. The family house, its smell, its importance to the map of one’s life, the cafe that is no longer there and the cafes that have sprung up, school and its official certificates and the worries of waiting, memories of a friend from primary school struck by shrapnel and of the lighting of the Christmas tree each year with the play, university and friends, and the ongoing world of their friendship, love and its power, beginnings and transformations, the electricity, the daily quarrels about the situation in the region, the panic at an assassination, the crash with every explosion, mastering the skill of taking refuge in a secure shelter or a hiding place, the inability to plan for the long term…this is a narrative with no end to its depth, which no census can capture. It does not end when one leaves the country; only when one leaves this world. Even when displaced by travel, the significance of Beirut remains. It is the source of the narrative and the aim of the words “return” and “homecoming”.

It is a narrative that no piece of paper can muffle, and a feeling that the calculations of parliamentarians cannot measure. These are the stakes of the quest; let justice be done.

This article is an edited translation from Arabic.

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