I travelled to Lebanon many years ago to see my family - Palestinian refugees living in the Nahr el-Bared refugee camp. The camp, known as mokhayem in Arabic, is located in the north of Lebanon, not too far from Tripoli city. Despite going to Lebanon at a young age (just before I started Kindergarten), I'm still able to recall many stories. Certain moments remain sharp in my mind. I remember the 90s better than I remember what I had for breakfast this morning.
As you might expect, I was mischievous and always up to no good. I purposely stirred those around me, always pushed boundaries, always plotted. I was challenging, rogue, but easily forgiven.
Our old back yard in Australia seemed to expand like the universe. The front yard was huge too. Our small fibro home sat smack-bang in the middle of a football field, as far as I was concerned. The lawn was always neatly mown, I routinely picked dandelions we had, I twirled and jumped around, delighting in the space we had, and I watched the world unfold behind the front fence.
Not really ideal for a wild child.
Lebanon was different to everything I had ever known. It's a place I adore, a place that took me in with open arms, a place that made sure that I was always happy. Nahr el-Bared, the mokhayem, where I spent most of my time, was extraordinary and fantastical, yet, in hindsight, very raw. Even in the darkest of alleyways and narrowest of streets, there was something so positively beautiful about it. The mokhayem was a labyrinth I was able to navigate my way around. It was a place I slowly pieced together when one of my cousins or my grandmother, may she rest in peace, took me for a walk. I remember it being busy and cramped with people - the streets and pathways were never empty. It smelt funny, strangers spoke to each other like old friends, my family showered with me with more love than I could handle (and gave me pocket money every day), nobody wore their seatbelts (which scared me at first), and I could watch and look out at the little city from my grandparent's rooftop.
I ate hot chips almost every single day, even though traditional Palestinian and Arab food was laid out daily by my grandmother (we sat around in a circle on the floor to eat, which I found so much more exciting than being glued to a chair at a dining table). If I wasn't eating hot chips, I was eating my own concoction of rice and Tabasco sauce (I really, really loved chilli). It also seemed as though there was music always floating in the background - even if nothing was playing nearby at all. I miss the mokhayem. And at times, I miss my naivety - not knowing anything about the reality of the situation, the statelessness, the displacement and the hardships that are faced. But I realise now, even if one did know about the struggles, the spirit of the people and the charm of the place would make you forget it all.
Lebanon, I miss you. I miss eating Neapolitan ice cream with my uncle and cousins regularly in Tripoli. I miss taking the Lebanese flag-on-a-toothpick out of my ice cream, throwing it off the ice cream parlour's balcony, then asking my uncle to give me his. I miss singing along to Arabic pop songs on our way to the beach. I miss my grandmother telling me stories that she would make up along the way, about animals and creatures who went on all sorts of adventures. I miss hiding everyone's shoes or throwing them over the rooftop (I clearly enjoyed throwing things) onto other rooftops, never to be seen again. I miss running around the house and flashing a torch in my grandfather's eyes, who warned me to stop but never did much about it. I miss being spun around and being transferred from one uncle's shoulders to another. I miss driving to the mountains and getting out of the car to breathe in the landscape and scenery. I miss pulling open the cupboard curtains in the kitchen, which replaced doors, and moving everything around. I miss walking through the markets, stopping every once in a while to covet something that fancied my eye. I miss visiting friends of our family and twirling around with other little girls at parties and weddings. I miss the tiny one-room home of my grandmother's friend - who once insisted about six or seven of us join her for tea in the tiny space, while a game of football played on a small TV in the background. I miss the courtyard and the vine leaves. I miss swinging on the lemon trees and the olive trees. I miss having 'adult-like' conversations with 'big people', who were fascinated by my young insightfulness and know-it-all attitude. I miss playing tag with the neighbourhood kids and pranking my cousins. I miss when my aunties would play with my hair and style it, using a million bobby pins to hold back my wild curls. I really do miss the mokhayem...