Life in Lebanon

By Laila Ai-Sisssi

The sky appeared grey before it turned black. Walls of white foam trailed me with an amplified angry roar. I swam faster until my arms felt like sandbags. On the verge of drowning, Rawyia’s voice echoed as if reverberating from the depths of a sinkhole. 

“Wake up, La!”

The engine sounded deafening, and my eyelids felt heavy. I drifted back into a deep sleep. Rawyia shook my arm. “Wake up! We’ve arrived.”

I remembered we were aboard an airplane, and we’d escaped from Egypt. I felt disoriented. This was my first time flying after traveling by train from Alexandria to Cairo. 

“Are we landing?” I asked.

“Yes.” She squeezed my hand. 

The passengers chattered loudly, and their laughter annoyed me. Some kissed and hugged, while the others stared out the windows. Families and friends awaited them, and I couldn’t help my envy. Even Rawyia’s husband waited for her in Lebanon.

No one waited for me on the tarmac. I longed for Mama, wishing I had stayed with her. I wondered what would have happened if I had never met Ghassan or fallen in love with him. I would perhaps have divorced and stayed with Mama. I knew wish and destiny were like two wild Mustangs that could not be tamed. They ran in different directions and dashed down different paths where rivers of fate and desire would not merge. To choose one was to disappoint the other. To make one happy would torment the other. 

“We’ll be fine,” Rawyia assured. “In no time you will forget the past—an arranged marriage and your escape on your wedding night.”

“Rawyia,” I said, “I can’t forget Mama’s cheeks bathed in tears, her lips quivering as she struggled to bid me farewell and the despondent look on her face. I can still hear her weeping. The pain I feel is shredding my heart to pieces and breathes fresh life into my guilt.”

“I hear you, La,” she said, patting me on the back. “It’s a painful experience you faced. However, you have chosen a future of your own design, so forget the longing to return to Mama, at least until we settle down.”

I admired Rawyia’s control of her emotions. She always seemed to turn the pages of her life without regret. I knew she loved Mama, but she didn’t allow that love to disturb her plans. She looked relaxed as usual, her make-up fresh and her hair coiffed to perfection. 

“Did you sleep?” I asked.

“No. Have you forgotten I’ve flown to Lebanon before? It’s only two hours between Egypt and Lebanon, and the time here is the same as back in Alexandria. Too early for you to sleep. The afternoon is still young.”

“The sound of the engine and the rocking of the plane soothed me to sleep, I guess.” 

I fiddled with the gold pendant Mama had given me, and hoped touching it would calm me down. The sound of her voice and whispering prayers while placing it around my neck still echoed inside my head. My good-luck charm. 

Rawyia interrupted my reverie. “Think of the good times awaiting us in Lebanon.” 

I smiled. In the past, when I became emotional and tears gathered in my eyes, Rawyia would say, “Seal off those tear ducts of yours.” 

I expected no empathy from her. She had no patience or tolerance for emotions. I knew she was the one person, after Mama, who wanted the best for me. 

“You are not the first or last to run away from home.”

“How do you expect me to have a good time without Mama,” I said. “I still see her eyes shining like two bright stars in a dark sky when she wished me good night. I will always long for her shawl of love around me.”

Rawyia rolled her eyes. “I love you, but I wouldn’t tolerate your desperate need for Mama’s love,” she said.

“Rawyia, you are only one year older, yet emotionally, we are a million years apart,” I said. “Love would remain the foundation I would stand on going ahead in the future. I miss not only Mama but Ghassan as well.” 

“Ghassan again,” she snapped. “I thought you were over that puppy love.”

I couldn’t make her understand what Ghassan and I had was real. I loved and expected to marry Ghassan in Lebanon. In the past, Rawyia expressed her frustration and threatened not to support me whenever I mentioned Ghassan. She had always been against him, never believing that we shared a genuine love. 

The pilot invited passengers to look at the snow-covered mountains. Rawyia and I peered across the aisle to the right, but we couldn’t see the mountains. However, the clear blue sky filled me with a desire to go back to Alexandria. I took a deep breath as my memories took over and my eyes filled with stinging tears.

“I can’t wait to see your apartment,” I said to change the subject.

She put her arm around my shoulders and kissed me on the cheek. 

“Will your husband be waiting for us?” 

“Marwan is busy,” she said.

“Are you happy with him?”

“Let’s not talk about Marwan. You and I are together again, and that’s all that matters now. I didn’t marry him for love.”

Marwan is my sister’s second husband. Rawyia is twenty years old, and he is sixty-nine and well off—a fact that impressed her. She wanted a comfortable life with someone easy to manipulate, and Marwan was just that. 

Rawyia’s life back home in Alexandria was unhappy. She had been forced to marry Gamal at the age of sixteen. In less than a year, and against our parent’s wishes, she ended the marriage before she and Gamal moved into their matrimonial home. She ran away and took refuge at our Aunt Hamida’s house. There she met Marwan, a family friend. 

Rawyia believed no man worthy of her love and respect. As a child, our step-brother sexually abused her. My father had trusted him to enforce virtue and protect our chastity, but his trust was misplaced.

“La, we were born free just like men,” Rawyia often said.

I didn’t understand what she meant, because we grew up accepting the control of all men in our family. We learned as children that God ordered men to control women, and women were to obey men. Rawyia rejected that subjugation. She was a feminist before we ever heard of feminism. 

Rawyia believed that as a divorcee she would be given full control of her life. She envisioned herself liberated and living her life as she wanted. However, she soon discovered that freedom for women in the Egyptian culture was a fantasy. Instead of being independent, she became a pariah. Family and friends saw her as rebellious and unruly, not free and independent. 

When Papa refused to take her back into the family after her divorce from Gamal, she reconsidered getting married again. Marwan became her second husband. A liberal, he fulfilled her every expectation and took her to live with him in Lebanon.

“I don’t love him,” she said again and again about Marwan. “However, I need the comfortable life he offers.”

Rawyia’s behavior towards men created a rift between us. Nevertheless, I admired her. She was smart even though she performed poorly in school. She fed me words of encouragement and instilled in me the confidence I lacked to pursue my divorce from Farook. I could not have left Egypt without her support. So, I composed myself to appear happy about relocating to Lebanon, but I couldn’t fool my sister.

“La, cheer up. You wanted to leave Egypt, didn’t you?”

Tears welled up in my eyes.

She leaned close to my ear and whispered. “I miss Mama, too.”

We hugged.

“You can count on me,” she said.

“I plan to grow up and count on myself,” I said with a chuckle.

The airplane came to a stop on the runway. The fasten seat belt light went off. People started to shuffle to their overhead luggage. 

“This is it, La,” she said. “There is no going back.”

“I know, Rawyia, but I worry about Mama now that you and I and Hady are gone from Egypt.”

She kissed me on both eyes, her way of preventing me from crying. 

“I am scared,” I confessed.

“You are a big girl, Laila. Trust me. You will forget the past once you settle down.”

“I don’t plan to forget the past,” I snapped.

“La, look out the window. Beirut comes alive at night. No one sleeps early in Lebanon.”

Rawyia’s enthusiasm annoyed me. I took that moment to ask, “Would you support me financially to study journalism?” 

Her eyes widened, then grew small and distant. She stared at me long enough to make me nervous. Growing up, I had learned that this kind of stare meant trouble. 

“This is it, La,” she said. “The past is over. Forget your dream of education and grow up.” 

Rawyia’s demand sounded like lifting the lid of a boiling pot and releasing old conflicts within the rising steam.

“I know, Rawyia,” I said to keep her from getting angrier. 

Back home in Alexandria, we had argued whenever I expressed a desire to finish school.  She dismissed the idea of education for herself and for me. 

I decided to wait for things to calm down before I tackled the subject again. I silently vowed not to allow Rawyia to destroy my dreams just because she’d helped me to escape. 

The pilot’s voice drew our attention when he announced the weather in Beirut, and wished us all a pleasant stay in Lebanon.

“We’ll be fine, La,” Rawyia promised before we left the plane. “Together, we’ll conquer the world.” 

She released a faint sigh. 

I grinned and kissed the pendant, thinking positive thoughts for the future. And I believed Rawyia when she said we would conquer the world.

Laila El-Sissi resides in California with her family since 1982. Laila studied French Literature. She is a Memoirist, women activist, novice poet, author of Out from the Shadow of Men, and a regular public speaker at the Common-wealth Club, the Golden Gate Breakfast Club, California State University in Monterey, Berkeley Book Club, public libraries as well as book stores, Rotary Club Berkeley, Member of The Berkeley Club of Business and Professional women. She is also a member of CWC Fremont and Pleasanton Branches.

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