Mohajjar narrative: being Lebanese, living French
Written by Mo Maria
Some Lebanese women having escaped the civil war, internal ethnic strife and gender inequalities back home, share personal experiences of cultural integration, racism, and professional opportunities in France.
Paris: Lebanon has been the theatre of violence and devastation for decades. The 1975 Lebanese Civil War stretched on for over 15 years. Those years were also marked by violent wars with Israel in addition to internal ethnic strife. In July 2006, there was the Israeli bombardment of Lebanon; and since then there have been several political upheavals as well.
All the resultant and widespread economic insecurity, death and destruction have acted as factors that have pushed innumerable Lebanese nationals to emigrate out of their country. According to some estimates, around half the population of Lebanon eventually moved abroad.
Interestingly, a large number of those moving out considered their migration as a temporary one. They intended to return home once circumstances had turned favourable. For the wealthy and educated Lebanese, comfortable with the French language and frequenting the posh areas of Paris and Cote d'azur, France was the right place to seek such temporary shelter.
According to reports, France has around 100,000 Lebanese immigrants. Keeping in mind that they are Mohajjars, or forced and temporary immigrants, rather than Mohajirs, migrating for good (Middle East expert Percy Kemp, 1992), many have spent their lives abroad waiting to return to their homeland.
Having escaped the turmoil and gender inequalities back home, some Lebanese women presently living in France reflect on their lives and their assimilation into the culture of their adopted country. As they talk of their experiences of cultural integration, racism, and professional opportunities, some express a desire to return to their motherland and share the benefits of their learning with women there.
“The war determined the departure of my family. The situation was to be temporary and the temporary has remained so since the last 25 years,” sighs Lara S., a young management assistant with a Lebanese bank in Paris. Having grown up in Paris, Lara - who came to the country when she was a one-and-a-half-year-old toddler, says that she had “no real difficulties of integration unlike my parents, who never stop yearning to return to their life in Lebanon.”
With her parents following Lebanese customs at home in Paris, Lara, who is around 20 years old, has grown up feeling that she is both Lebanese and French. “I have always participated in the traditions of both countries,” asserts the young woman, who grew up listening to nostalgia-laden stories about life "back home.”
Comparing the people of the land of her origin to that of her adopted country, Lara finds the Lebanese to be more passionate about their beliefs and more romantic at heart. But would she return to Lebanon given the choice? Lara mulls over the question and says, “Life there seems a little complicated from the point of view of integration.” She also explains that by integrating into French society, immigrants have benefited from a good education and other opportunities.
Nour D. elaborates on the benefits that her adopted country - that she calls “competitive and fast”-offers her. A student of computer sciences in Paris, this 20-something youngster points out that life in France has been a "learning experience." Yet, she wishes to return to Lebanon, despite all its problems and constricting ways of life. Nour is optimistic about the future, and does not foresee obstacles in the setting up of a business venture in Lebanon. She intends to use her skills to pave the way for other Lebanese women to find their feet. “In this way I can inspire other women,” she said.
Randa T., 29, is in a transition of a different kind. Like Nour, she is emotionally attached to her roots as well. "Personally, I haven't yet realised whether I am French or Lebanese: I am still discovering who I am. My home is France now, but I cannot help but miss Lebanon during the holidays," asserts Randa, who came to France to pursue her higher education. She has had her tough moments and racism is a challenge. “The French culture is not the cherry on the cake... there's too much racism here and it is not family-oriented,” she observed.
Not everyone with Lebanese origins would agree with Randa or share her grievances. Valine S., 41, who now lives in Vendée, did not have to struggle to bridge the divide between the two cultures. Valine was adopted in France when she was nearly three years old. She is aware that she has been better off than immigrant children of her age during the school years as her "integration was easy." However, she has encountered her share of racist remarks as a student and at the workplace. Interestingly, though, even though the warmth of the Lebanese people tugs at her heartstrings, Valine would not like to return to Lebanon. As she put it matter-of-factly, “I grew to realise that my life has changed for the better by being adopted in France.”
These are all women who are in some way or other caught between the country they left and the country they live in. Even though many of them are liberated, young immigrant women who have spread their wings in France, they continue to nurture dreams of returning to their homeland and contribute to its society-this, despite knowing that they will have to abide by the constraining and unequal gender laws prevalent in Lebanon should they return, as May K.-who has been a practicing nurse in France for the past nine years-observed.
May, who is around 30 years old, puts it this way,“The road is still long. While some Lebanese immigrant women have been able to transcend their own history while living in Paris, they are unfortunately only a minority.”