And then one day, they return to Lebanon

And then one day, they return to Lebanon

Arrival of an emigrant boat in Beirut in the 1920s. (Photo courtesy of Georges Boustany)

They left on a moonless night, fleeing a land they no longer recognized which ended up devouring its own children. A land under siege by an enraged occupier. A land given over to famine.

Elsewhere in the world, war was raging; elsewhere, people were looking the other way while here the weak were dying of hunger. So, the most daring caught the last boats of exile, before the jaws of history closed on them.

At the very last moment, they managed to set sail, without really knowing where they were going: Alexandria? Marseilles? Dakar? Rio? New York? Buenos Aires?

Compared to the death rattle of the hungry, all these destinations were like a dream. They swore to be happy wherever they were thrown, even in hell.

Everything, but not the death rattle of the hungry.

On the boat, they discovered the sea and its evils, but one gets used to everything. They tried to keep themselves busy, as crossing the sea took endless days and nights.

Some of them were lying on the deckchairs, others were sitting around a game table.

The lucky ones who knew how to read had something to occupy themselves with the few books they had been able to bring along. The rest told each other stories about the village — stories that would make one want to cry. This would later be called homesickness.

But it was frowned upon to pour out one’s heart, even to cry, in that world and at that time. So, they rubbed their eyes with their thumb and forefinger, pretending to be sleepy, crushing shameful tears on the bridge of their nose.

One never leaves one’s land without despair and without the bitterness of a child denied by their own mother.

As the days went by, they made friends. Making friendships with the sons of misfortune, between people who have suffered the same misfortune is no mean feat.

These friendships can change one’s destiny and one’s descendants.

These friendships can take you to French-speaking West African countries, for example, because a brother or an uncle or an aunt there runs a palm oil or cassava factory, a timber farm or a haberdashery. There, you will have to face the muggy heat, exotic diseases, yellow fever, malaria and the mosquitoes that go with it.

At each destination, a possible destiny takes shape, you just have to slip into it like a fun fair costume and hope that it fits. Each destination comes with its share of bad surprises — and not so bad ones.

These villagers who had no horizon but the acres of their agricultural land and the work of their fathers; who should have, like their ancestors for centuries before, grown old and tired, losing their reason but in the midst of their own; these villagers who had only known the stone terraces of the Lebanon’s valleys, found themselves on the high seas, in the middle of nowhere, with infinite possibilities where one has all the time to meditate and to be afraid.

When they arrived at their destination, they had to find a niche for themselves or face death. At night, they had to share their bed with memories, anguish, and pain, physically and mentally.

In the morning, they had to be ready to do anything, even the most ungrateful jobs, the same jobs as locals, lead the same lives as locals.

How strong one’s morale had to be to push so far from one’s roots.

The uncles and the aunts were welcoming, but there were limits. This was not a vacation or a visit.

Above all, don’t think about your brothers and sisters. Certainly, do not think about the youngest one with her big brown eyes and her curly hair who couldn’t live far from your arms. You were her favorite, her protector, who would take care of her now?

You must also send your news to those at home. What a hassle when one cannot write. A relative or a public writer would transcribe your racing thoughts as excitement followed by solitude and nostalgia overwhelmed you.

You hoped that your letter would arrive in time for the holidays, that the family would find someone to decipher those words, someone to answer them. The process took weeks, months, during which you would wonder whether your letter had reached its destination or not, or if in the meantime someone had fallen ill or died.

You’d know by hearsay that things were not going well in the country, that the famine was still ravaging. Sometimes you’d learn of the atrocious news that an entire family had perished on the outskirts of a wheat field because they had not had the strength to steal grains.

At that moment, you found yourself alone in the world, in the night of Caracas or Conakry, an orphan looking at the ceiling as if buried alive.

Back at home, they were envied

And the worst part? The worst thing is that back home, those who left were envied by everyone.

People envied them for having had the chance to get out of hell, being able to free themselves from the servitude of the occupier and from poverty, being able to get rich, to start a family, a dynasty, to save their descendants from inherited misery.

People envied them. They waited for them. They hoped that they would return as saviors, hoping that a cousin who stayed in the country would make a perfect wife, or a young brother could leave with them, a roof would be repaired, a piece of land be sold, a golden opportunity to build a nursing home for when they get old.

Because they would certainly return to die in the country. It was inconceivable to have it any other way.

And then one day, they come back. Success and prosperity is written all over their relaxed faces, western clothes, especially the women’s, the way they hold themselves, in the color of their skin, in every detail of their being.

Upon looking at them, one would forget everything they had lived through, the blows they had suffered, the hardships that had faced.

The others, those who died of disease, exhaustion, poverty, or depression; those who never gave any news because they lost everything, slipped into oblivion.

They are back, the emigrants, with their beautiful wives.

People couldn’t wait for them to set foot on land. They were even welcomed upon docking the boat.

The photographer memorialized the scene, the laughter, the tears, the bouquets of flowers.

It was the mid-1920s, known as the “Roaring Twenties.” The years of happiness after all the horrors of the Great War.

For one summer, for one season, these former children, disowned by their land, will offer it what it had denied them.

They would forget all their sufferings in the smiles of their parents, in the shy look of the young girl they had courted and who waited for them all this time without having any news, in the joy of relatives who have the merit to have watched over the country.

One day, they come back, but they know they will have to leave: They will never feel at home here again. They come back, but the nostalgia has changed the country. They come back but will soon return home.

And this is how it has been from one generation to the next: The homeland offering its offsprings to the world because it could not feed them.

Author of “Avant d'oublier” (Before we forget) (Les éditions L'Orient-Le Jour), Georges Boustany takes you on a bi-weekly tour of Lebanon in the last century through photographs from his collection, to discover a country that has disappeared.

The book is available worldwide on and in Lebanon through orders on WhatsApp +961 3 685 968.

This article was originally published in French on L'Orient-Le Jour. Translation by Sahar Ghoussoub.

They left on a moonless night, fleeing a land they no longer recognized which ended up devouring its own children. A land under siege by an enraged occupier. A land given over to famine.Elsewhere in the world, war was raging; elsewhere, people were looking the other way while here the weak were dying of hunger. So, the most daring caught the last boats of exile, before the jaws of history closed...