Monthly Archives: December 2020

Our Christmas without a tree

This year my family decided to forgo the traditional, natural Christmas tree we put up every year in December. It didn’t seem to make sense to pay what would feed a Lebanese family for a month over a plant we would put up for two weeks. It also didn’t make sense to place it right next to our broken cabinet. After the explosion this summer, we’d just about put back our windows in time for Christmas but some of the furniture was still broken. As were our hearts. 

So much has happened this year. As Lebanese, we battled an unknown, invisible yet powerful enemy with the rest of the world, but we also battled with our own. Our beautiful country, which had started a slow, downward spiral since its inception, continued on a steeper slope in 2020 as more and more people were separated from their dreams, their livelihoods, their loved ones and in August, from their homes. The August explosion was, in the words of a dear friend, just the watermelon on the cake.

So it seemed wrong to celebrate. Wrong to bring back the tree as if nothing had happened. Wrong to spend what would feed a family for a month on a plant. And yet, not having a tree of my own to admire made me notice and appreciate all the others. In the darkness of the country, the few lights on the trees shone even brighter. In the absence of traffic lights, the Santas hanging on the street poles lit the way.

My mother did not put up a tree either. We usually buy them together. She didn’t put up a tree because she was not having the huge family gathering she traditionally has on Christmas Eve. No children, no grandchildren and no Christmas photos. But she still made and distributed Christmas cake and has offered to make and stuff a turkey for each of her children celebrating alone, or in smaller gatherings.

It felt wrong to buy a tree on my own.

I almost lost my eldest son in the August explosion. Miraculously he wasn’t even hurt. He was in the wrong place at the right time. Many whom I know were not so lucky. Many whom I know lost loved ones or are now having to tend to their injuries. 

It felt wrong to buy a tree when so many were hurt and others were mourning.

And yet, in the absence of a tree, I have felt Christmas more than ever this year. This may not be a time for loud celebration but it was a time for gratitude. Gratitude for being in good health, gratitude to be surrounded by loved ones, even if virtually in some cases. Gratitude for having choices. Gratitude for being able to admire other Christmas trees. Our gifts this year are not under the Christmas tree, they are all around and they have come in many shapes and sizes.

For years, worried about the material trumping the spiritual, I have been trying to explain to my boys that Christmas was not about gifts and stress and running around, it was not about parties and clothes, but about togetherness, music, love and taking care of one another. I think now they understand. The use of trees for decoration apparently started in pagan times with Europeans bringing in branches of fir and holly and mistletoe to decorate their homes and brighten their spirits during the bleak winter. In Lebanon, despite the surrounding gloom, the sun still shines quite brightly. Maybe this year, to celebrate, we’ll buy a lemon tree after Christmas.

Because, because.

In 1999 I went back to live in Lebanon after sixteen years abroad. I missed my family, I missed hummus, and I missed the mild winters and cool springs. Plus, I’d already been married a few years and had started thinking of starting a family, which was an impossible feat in my 40 sq.m. apartment in central London and Milton Keynes was out of the question.

In Lebanon you feel something is off the moment you land. Maybe it’s the grey soldiers in grey suits and grey berets. Maybe they’re grey because they chain-smoke. Maybe it’s because of the pollution, or maybe grey is the colour of giving up. Whatever it is, they are somehow the first things you notice at Beirut airport. But, you persist. You persist because this is home and you miss your family and you miss hummus and you miss the weather. 

Driving through the city, the second thing you notice is the contrast. These are so striking and so widespread that they are too long to enumerate, be they language, dress sense, radio stations, whole neighbourhoods even. At some point in my neighbourhood there were donkeys chained to lampposts and chicken on the roads. If, at the time, you’d wanted to research why the chicken crossed the road, Lebanon was your best bet. It felt as if different species were occupying the same space and driving through the city was not too dissimilar to Luke Skywalker and Obi-Wan Kenobi walking through the cantina in Mos Eisley, as they did in Star Wars. Yet you persist, because this is home and you miss your family and you miss hummus and you miss the weather.

A few weeks, or maybe months, after arriving—who remembers that long ago after all the trauma we’ve been through—my container with my car arrived and I had the pleasure of dealing with the people at the Port R.I.P. There were two kinds of people at the port R.I.P.: those who wanted to help you and those who wanted to fleece you. They co-existed thanks to Prime Minister Hariri Sr.’s then brilliant plan of keeping the old guard while bringing in his own team of technocrats. He had to get going and there were people in the way. If you can’t beat them, keep paying them and sweep them under the carpet. But there were no carpets at the Port R.I.P. at the time and everyone just mingled, a situation that, I imagine, persisted. At the time I did not know who was whom but I could guess, mostly by the colour, some were grey and some were not. I refused to pay up. I was young and stupid and mostly poor and it took me two painful weeks to separate my car from its container.

Like I said, you feel something is off the moment you land in Lebanon. The longer you stay, the more it stinks. But you persist. You persist because, because. It was during my adventure at the Port R.I.P. that I came up with the idea of a weekly column entitled Trials and Tribulations of an Honest Citizen. I was suffering and I wanted the world to suffer with me. But this was the early 2000s still. Euphemisms still ruled. A spade was still being called an implement to dig the earth with. The title of my column was deemed too politically incorrect and unpublishable. Surely, I couldn’t claim to be honest while accusing the government of theft and larceny, corruption, craftiness and deviousness.

Well, guess what?

Next post: I have the solutions to Lebanon’s problems