A few weeks ago, my online chat with a friend in Beirut was cut short when he disappeared without warning for the better part of half an hour. He explained nonchalantly when he signed in again that he had been distracted by the sound of gunfire outside. Apparently, a prominent political party leader had been holding a press conference, and as sometimes happens in Lebanon, overzealous supporters would take to the streets and fire celebratory gunshots after the fact. My friend then signed off, saying that since the shots seemed to have died down, he was joining some of his friends downtown for a bite to eat. People who don't live in Lebanon might find such a flippant comment strange, but I wasn't surprised. Just before I moved to London a couple of months ago, my friends and I would even time our outings around these press conferences, making sure to get home before any potential clashes could break out between opposing political parties.
For a lot of twenty- to thirty-somethings living in Lebanon today, adapting to the unexpected is part of daily life. In fact, since the assassination of former PM, Rafik Hariri, over 3 years ago on 14 February 2005, the Lebanese have had their fair share of unexpected turmoil. Violent manifestations of political tension have peppered the calendar, exploding on random days and bringing things to a standstill, but only for a while, thanks to a resilience developed over decades and further strengthened over the past few years. With each bomb blast or incidence of conflict, the rebound time has grown shorter, culminating in a mad scramble to check up on friends and family, after which work/play are resumed and life (for most) goes back to some semblance of normalcy.
There has been that paradoxical image of Lebanon lately, of young Beirut-dwellers especially, with pictures plastered across cyberspace of rooftop revelry juxtaposed with news bites about political unrest. In many of these pictures, Beirut seems to be bustling with a vibrant and lively youth determined to enjoy themselves against all odds. But beyond that also lies the realization, for a generation of well-educated ambitious young Lebanese, that the incidents of the past few years aren't just bumps in the road, but a recurring pattern that can destabilize a promising career.
Consequently, much of the young workforce in Lebanon today is faced with the 'should I stay or should I go?' dilemma. From experience, I can recount the frustration of numerous lost workdays, of friends' business endeavors folding, of career paths reaching a plateau instead of taking off. It's a difficult decision, but one that a number of twenty- and thirty-somethings are contemplating, even those that never left throughout the civil war. Uprooting is not a viable option for everyone, but many young people are taking that plunge, even if only for a few years, creating a new breed of Lebanese 'residents': the student at a college abroad, sometimes pursuing a second or third degree, the fresh graduate recruited to an international firm in London, the young entrepreneur opening up a second office in Dubai; all shuttling back and forth, never away for more than a few months at time.
Generous pay packages and the prospect of peaceful living abroad may be luring away some of Lebanon's bright young minds, but with a new president and a newly formed government, things are looking brighter for those who choose to stay. The ones who leave tend to do so reluctantly and they never stray too far; the hordes of people who come back every major holiday are a testament the draw of Beirut. It will always be a safe harbour for many no matter how difficult things get, and for this writer it is still home, even if only for a couple of months a year.
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