Retirement age is approaching. He must choose. Does he continue to reside in the country that gave him a nationality and a meaning to his life, or shall he return to the land of his ancestors? Previously, he was quick to answer.
He used to say that he would return immediately upon receiving his pension. His brothers rejoiced in his promise as they believed that everyone who is far from his roots was definitely lost.
It is no secret that the idea of return came to his mind when he encountered living difficulties, which were many. The idea of return is a magical charm to heal a sense of alienation that is present every time you see yourself lost in another culture and a distant dictionary.
He laughs today as he remembers some episodes of his journey. In the beginning, he had feelings of hostility. He almost felt that he came to a hostile country. He smelled hate hidden behind the quick smiles and brief greetings. But a doctor named Time began treating his wounds and bruises.
He found work and got a monthly salary. The factory has a union, rights and rules. Fatigue is present but abuse is prohibited. He heard the word “law” frequently and with respect. The law does not allow. The law does not accept. The law does not permit. He understood that injustice was not inevitable.
It is necessary to pass through the circles of influence, whether through the channels of security, the political party or the confessionGhassan Charbel
He understood that you can object and protest, and you can resort to the court; and that the judge can stand against the strong even if they have the ability to climb to this position or that. He knew that officials avoid contacting a judge or obstruct the process of justice to avoid scandals and punishments.
He had a strange feeling. He sensed his dignity. This is not his native country, and yet, it treated him better than his country. Here, soldiers cannot knock on your door at night and take you to an unknown location. A sick serviceman cannot pour on you all the frustrations of his life and the complexes of his superiors.
Here, they cannot rip out your nails or limit the number of your fingers. All the arts of torture that our countries have donated are no longer allowed here. The prisoner has rights even if he is convicted of a horrific crime.
Living amid disparities was not easy at the beginning. We are communities of sanctified resemblance. The citizen is a replica of his neighbor, his grandfather and every citizen residing in any part of the map. Similarity is the golden rule. Similarity in belonging. One source. One color. One so-called “mawwal” in Arabic.
Every difference opens the door to corruption. Every question spoils tranquility and joy. The family has given us conclusive answers to the most difficult questions we would prefer not to repeat or elaborate. Here the world is different. They have escaped the spell of halos that cannot be touched or approached.
Everything is under scrutiny and examination. Everything is subject to analysis and revision. He felt very scared at first. Final convictions protect you from the anxiety of exposure to questions. Final convictions give you a degree of immunity and a reassuring roof on your head and a cushion. They help you close the door to the winds of uncertainty and questioning and the legacy test.
He had to practice living with people who did not belong to the same river. People who read in other books. People with different values and a different way of answering questions of both the universe and every day’s life.
Their values are different. So are their view of society and the rules governing the dealings between its members, their view of the state, the constitution, the individual and his rights, the judiciary, education and freedom.
It was never an easy matter. Some of his comrades did not pass the test. They either packed and returned home or stayed after turning themselves into strangers or a time bomb.
In his new country, he got married and sent his children to school. The children have deepened their belonging to the new country. They consolidated their proficiency in its language, customs and values.
Fearing that they would totally lose the features of their ancestral country, he was keen to spend holidays with them in the land where he was born. But he noticed over time that his children were becoming more immersed in the hosting world, its logic, symbols and ways of thinking.
Days passed. The children graduated and joined the labor market. The companies treated them as full citizens. Competence is a standard. Children got opportunities that are commensurate with their abilities. He knew deep in his heart that this was not possible in his homeland. Diplomas are not enough to get a job.
It is necessary to pass through the circles of influence, whether through the channels of security, the political party or the confession. So employment becomes a form of partisan recruitment, because you become indebted to those who allowed you to obtain the job.
The ‘Arab Spring’
When the “Arab Spring” swept through his country, he thought that it would compensate for years of absence from global development. He thought that it would accelerate progress and that the citizens have learned the lesson.
But when the elections were held, he was greatly disappointed. It is not enough to open the ballot boxes in societies that used to be run by a strong man, not with the constitution or the institutions.
The forces of the past reemerged, sweeping away dreams and turning every elections into a confrontation project. He visited his country several times in an attempt to convince himself that the doors of return were open once he reached the retirement age.
He originally came to trim garden trees in the quiet French city. When he knew that the resident was Arab, the conversation began. Since I loved stories, I asked him about his. But what he said struck me. He told me he had visited his homeland and was not reassured.
He sensed that there were no real roots for stability… and that the country remains threatened by the birth of an oppressive man or tyrannical thought. He told me that he did not want his children or grandchildren to be exposed to civil or regional wars or to the adventures of the small malicious armies.
He told me about the new politicians in his country… about the corrupt, the adventurous, the fanatic, the liberal and the moderate. The daily breakdowns, the deterioration of services and the fragility of institutions… about citizens’ concern about their bread, their life and their future.
The decision is no longer difficult. He will remain in his new country. He concluded his conversation by saying: “Our countries are frightening and difficult to handover to our children. I will not put them in the original trap from which I fled.”
Ghassan Charbel is the Editor-in-Chief of London-based Al Sharq al-Awsat newspaper. Ghassan's Twitter handle is @GhasanCharbel.