I was doing well back home in Beirut. I had what I thought was all I needed: a loving family, wonderful friends, a great job. Everything seemed perfect in my own little circle. But it was a circle that I had created, like many other Lebanese, to shield myself from the dysfunctional mess around me. Finally, I couldn’t keep the outside out anymore. So I tried my luck here in Amsterdam. And what a change it’s been.
Beirut was my city. It’s chaotic, and full of character. It blends the old with the new, the rich with the poor, the Arab world with the West. Its streets and suburbs are a colourful mess: shiny new sky scrapers mix with traditional two-story houses and pitiful shacks. It is on the Mediterranean, so with the smell of salt a feeling of freedom continually washes over the city. And it’s true: Beirut is open, tolerant, even liberal compared to the rest of the Arab world. At least, in my circle it is. Its character is fuelled by its people, talented, creative, smart, hip, original – but also deeply disturbed, to be honest.
I love Beirut like you love a destructive lover, who keeps you hanging on with hints of how it could be, how it should be. Until the moment you realise you have to leave, if only to maintain your health and sanity.
So here I am, taking a walk on a sunny Amsterdam day along the dozens of waterways and canals, heading toward Oost. I sit on a bench for a long time listening to the sound of the light breeze through the long trees, watching a couple of ducks float on the water, enjoying the summer sun as the tram bells echo in the background. Everything is so peaceful, so clean. I think of when I started learning Dutch in Lebanon and how surprisingly fun the classes were. Then I remember the day I learned my residency was in order, and how ready I felt to go.
Beirut does not have an easy past. After a 15-year long civil war which left so much destruction on its buildings and in the hearts of its population, its problems now are more mundane: lack of water, power cuts, pot-holed roads, suffocating traffic, and not a single publicly accessible park worth the name. An ongoing trash crisis – the result of incapable, corrupt, money-hungry politicians – has made the streets of Beirut smell like a garbage dump for the past year, with no solution in sight (despite creative and angry protests). And then there are the more than 1.5 million Syrian refugees (on a Lebanese population of 4 million), which is putting extreme pressure on the already weak local infrastructure and public services. Religious and political tensions, staggering economic and social inequality – it’s all widening the gap between the rich and poor.
It all seems so far away here, as if I’ve driven into a morning fog on a dark forest road and came out on the other side in daylight. Amsterdam feels magical, like a dream, with its incredibly beautiful architecture and lit canals. And the green; I can’t emphasise enough how great it is to be able to access parks for free, just sit there, read, spend time with friends or exercise in the morning in the fresh air. Nothing can beat a bicycle ride – no matter how challenging it may look with all the confused tourists around – through the endless small streets feeling the wind on your face. It’s ultimate freedom.
Everything works. While this may seem like a fact-of-life for those living in a developed country, it makes me realise the collective commitment and effort that have been put into it, to have a well-functioning society. Every detail has been thought of: the alignment of trees on the sides of the roads, bike lanes, parking spots, parks, where to stick posters (RIP, Johan Cruyff) and ads, where to post your mail, how to sort the trash, where people with disabilities can go, children, bus stops and the list goes on and on. I was even able to become a fiscally legal ZZP’er (self-employed person with no personnel) in less than a month. This is a miracle!
I love Beirut’s generosity, its hospitality, how it embraces you and makes you feel home, welcome. But after years of disappointment, I had to leave; because I want to build a stable life and make a new place home. So here’s my first post on the struggle to achieve that in Amsterdam. There are problems too – the hardness of society here is one. But more on that later. I’ll keep you posted, those of you going through the same process, or Dutch people interested in what it’s like to arrive here, while I wonder about my new life, in this new city. Hopefully, this one will make a better lover.