Culture | Hummus vs. poutine

An immigrant's existential crisis

In the months before I arrived in Montreal, my homeland of Lebanon was in a volatile state.  Groups within the population were blocking major highways with burning tires and smashing car windows, protesting the fact that members of their sect had been kidnapped in Syria, whose fate was unknown. Others protested the frequent blackouts happening all over the country, and low wages for government contract workers. I was skeptical that would prove their point. I couldn’t wait to leave. Knowing that I was coming here to McGill, and moving here with my mother and sister, I was in a state of bliss. The depressing reality of violence and the lives lost over religious conflict did not, and still don’t, make sense to me.

Don’t get me wrong: this wasn’t happening all over the country. Parts of the country, so deeply rooted in their religious beliefs and ethnic affiliations, used burning tires in an attempt to prove their point. I looked at my Lebanese passport with disgust, because the knowledge of its symbolism, and my understanding of my country’s history, seemed absurd in a 21st century context. I was excited to receive Canadian citizenship, and discard my old passport for a new one – one that would guarantee me better prospects and security. August 14 rolled around, and I packed my bags and headed to the airport at dawn. Watching the same old scenery roll by – the old buildings, the national stadium, the modernized downtown district – didn’t even make me feel melancholic. I didn’t even cry when all my friends were sitting in my living room sobbing at my imminent, and maybe permanent, emigration to a land they had heard so much of, yet knew so little about. I distracted myself on the plane; I watched Breakfast at Tiffany’s and Across the Universe, and that was when my throat started blocking up, and tears started brimming in my eyes – at 36,000 feet over the Atlantic.

Even so, I landed in Montreal with new hope, and I was glad I didn’t have any trouble at customs. I had been wary after my friend received a humiliating cavity search in front of three American officials as he entered the United States to attend university, ostensibly because his passport is Lebanese. I wondered if they would have done the same to me, had I not shaved my very Arab-looking beard at the insistence of my father before travelling. “One look at your beard and your nationality, and they’ll lock us all up!” he joked.

I decided that I wasn’t going to be one of those people who cried at every chance they got because they missed everything back home. Of course, I did miss a lot of things, but I never showed it.

Only 48 hours after we landed, members of a Shiite clan closed down the highway leading to the Beirut International Airport by laying burning tires across the road. Lately, this has become a trend. Of course, it had something to do with Syria, and the hostages that were kidnapped who happened to be related to the clan. The media here in Canada portrayed the event in such a violent light that I was so scared for my family and friends’ well-being. I asked my best friends in Lebanon what was happening. “Same old, same old,” they answered.

Eventually, we settled into our new apartment on Drummond, and I attended orientation day with dread, afraid that I wasn’t going to meet anyone, or that no one was going to like me enough to stick around. While we were standing in groups, a girl asked me where I was from. “Beirut!” I said, with enthusiasm. She asked if I was from the Muslim side or Christian side. I was amazed that people still thought Lebanon was segregated. I realized that knowledge about Lebanon in Canada is skewed, and that ongoing violence in certain areas of my home country don’t help the matter. “Neither,” I answered.

It’s not as if I’m not proud to be from Beirut; it’s just that I am ashamed of what is happening there now. I don’t want people to assume that Lebanese people all resemble the violent portrayal in Western media. Adapting to Montreal has been easy. Being fluent in French and English was essential. What I love about Montreal is the eclectic mix of nationalities and cultures that come together in this one big mix of a population that coexists peacefully, a concept that has been alien to me until now. My only fear is forgetting about Lebanon – that through socializing myself deeply within Montreal, I will lose the Lebanese part of my identity, and sever my connections with my home country. I can already feel it happening. All these joys I experience in Montreal have already overshadowed most of my bad memories from home. Although I have many fond recollections, I can’t say I miss the electricity that goes off every two to six hours, or the lack of hot water, or the scattered sectarian tension.

As for my experience with the Montreal gastronomic scene, my first encounter with poutine did not go well, and left me invading my small bottle of Tums and my reserve of chamomile tea. I miss homemade hummus, chich-taouk, and tabbouleh. Basha and Amir do not even come close.

I guess you have to leave your home country in order to really appreciate what it has to offer.

Now I need to try to balance the best of both worlds. In Arabic, we say, “He who negates his roots, negates himself.” I try to abide by that philosophy every day, and remember that no matter how violent, impoverished, or sectarian Lebanon may be, it has an infinite amount of good to offer. One day, I hope to receive my Canadian passport, and proudly call myself a Canadian citizen. But when that day comes, I won’t forget that I come from Lebanon, the country that made me who I am.


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