“But what about your sisters?” his words float on the screen but don’t really sink in. And after letting them hang in cyber space for a couple of minutes I reply: “What about them?” I can see the person talking to me type and erase his answer a couple of times before finally sending: “Aren’t you going to miss them?”.
Now before I tell you the rest of the story, let’s rewind a little.
I am a 24-year-old Lebanese expat who has been living in Doha for the past year and a half. And if you are one of those, a Lebanese expat that is, by now you have probably acquired a set of essential survival “skills” just like I have.
Upon relocating to the Gulf, several transitional phases should be expected before feeling fully settled. Some of them are mental, others emotional and sometimes even physiological changes might occur. Not all of them are pleasant but if you do manage to live with most of the symptoms, adaptation will eventually occur, and so is the emergence of a new and improved “you”. And while going through these phases, ferociously fighting against the winds of change, a “survival mode” will naturally self-activate. And this is how you end up with the above mentioned set of “skills”.
Let’s start with the one that is the hardest to acquire, “distancing yourself from your family”. Although tough to perfect, once you have it there’s no end to the emotions you can suppress. In almost no time, you learn how to replace feelings with other things, like actual things. For instance, you try to make up for all the birthdays you’ve missed by sending high-end gifts that your loved ones probably don’t need. That also includes all the holidays you couldn’t spend with them because your company was pitching for new business. And the thing is, you can’t help it. The act of giving turns into a coping mechanism, it’s how you deal with all the guilt. But it’s fine, really. That overpriced Burberry scarf will definitely help your mother miss you less on Christmas.
Another skill comes naturally to most Lebanese, but amplifies when you’re away. If you are ever approached by someone from a different nationality with questions about your home, as if by instinct, you suddenly forget all the crappy things about your country (which are undeniably many) and somehow manage to paint a perfect picture of a place that is anything but perfect. Sometimes when listening to yourself, you begin to wonder why you left in the first place. But as soon as you start packing your virtual suitcases, you are reminded by the notion of a fresh bombing or a ghastly social scandal that you’ve probably done the right thing by leaving. Returning, at least in the foreseeable future, is not a wise option.
You also learn the art of “not missing”. No, you don’t miss your childhood friends or the house you grew up in. You definitely don’t miss the beautiful weather and the fact that you can take a walk any time of the year. And yes, burning in 50 degrees celsius under the scorching desert sun is totally worth it. Your friends are idiots, what is there to stay for in that good-for-nothing country anyway?
The art of not missing , however, should not be mistaken for “denial”; the most essential skill of all. Denial is important because it’s what keeps you going. It’s your heroin. And to prove my point, let me present you with the following scenario:
Your initial plan was to work in Dubai for a year or two. Maybe you wanted to save up for a masters degree, or gain enough experience before moving to Canada, Australia or whatever other happy place you had in mind. But it’s been four years now and you don’t have an exit plan. You keep telling your friends back home that it’s simply not the right time for you, you haven’t saved enough money yet or the economy is about to crash or whatever. The fact that you hate your job so much that you’d rather sit on a couch and do nothing, or the fact that your anxiety attacks are standing in the way of running simple errands, do not seem alerting enough. It’s all part of the process, isn’t it?
So having acquired most, if not all of the above skills, my natural reaction once confronted by my friend was to brag about how enduring I’ve become. And that although I will miss them a little, it’s fine, really, I’ve been away for almost two years now so I’ve gotten used to all the usual drama. It’s all part of the process, isn’t it? What a couple of extra miles, a different residency card and a new address going to change anyway?