Being Reborn: An Immigrant’s Story
..by Yahia Lababidi
It was the end of the affair. Born and raised in Cairo, Egypt I came to realize, at the age 32, that I could not live, love and create there, any longer. I required new air and it was, finally, time to dare and take a leap… I would, later, notify only a handful of family and friends of ‘this audacious, purifying, elemental move’ – to borrow the words of poet, Philip Larkin, from his Poetry of Departures. But, first, I attempted to articulate this terrifying-liberating position to my boss at the United Nations, where I’d worked for nearly a decade. It’s not you, I respectfully suggested, it’s me. I desperately need to move on.
In turn, I appreciated his gracious unwillingness to immediately accept my resignation, his insistence to think it over, as well as his generous offer for a promotion. But I, politely, repeated that I needed to get out while I could and see if I might live differently. I felt I had, at least, a few books within me, fluttering wildly against the bars, and that if I did not act, now, I might never be able to set them free. Hard to describe this crucial turning point, in prose. In a poem I wrote, after the fact, I managed to put it this way:
There are hours when every thing creaks
when chairs stretch their arms, tables their legs
and closets crack their backs, incautiously
Fed up with the polite fantasy
of having to stay in one place
and stick to their stations
Humans too, at work, or in love
know such aches and growing pains
when inner furnishings defiantly shift
As decisively, and imperceptibly, as a continent
some thing will give, croak or come undone
so that everything else must be reconsidered
One restless dawn, unable to suppress the itch
of wanderlust, with a heavy door left ajar
semi-deliberately, and a new light teasing in
Some piece of immobility will finally quit
suddenly nimble on wooden limbs
as fast as a horse, fleeing the stable.
It dawned on me how utterly destabilizing this leap of faith was, and what it meant leaving behind the security of everything I knew: work, family, friends, familiarity. But, there was a woman I cared for at the other end (isn’t there always one, where seemingly-mad decisions are involved) and I had made up my mind to return to the United States, where I’d gone to college a decade earlier and met said lady friend.
Even though my lawyers, stateside, warned me it was a long shot, less than a year after applying for an artist visa, I was very lucky to be granted one for “Aliens of Extraordinary Ability” (O1) – which made me feel a little like ET, and that the tip of my index finger might glow when I write. In retrospect, I realize how especially fortunate I was to be bestowed this honor, considering that I was a young, single, Muslim, Arab male – a combination regarded with increasing suspicion, regrettably. Counting my blessings, I came to accept that I had also found a new Home and, feeling more confident, within the year I proposed to the sweet girl I’d met in college, who had, patiently, been by my side all along.
Nearly 11 years have passed since this fateful move. In all this time, I have not mustered the courage to visit Egypt. I watched, with my heart in my mouth, the rise and fall of the Arab Spring, as we collectively struggled for liberation and rebirth. Considering the dashed hopes of Egypt’s heroic 2011’s heroic people’s uprising, from this great distance, I admit that I found it demoralizing to see many of our once fearless freedom-fighters experience revolution-fatigue and allow themselves to become desensitized to the current military propaganda machine. Over time, I’ve come to regard my beloved Cairo as a joyous child whose confidence has been seriously shaken by repeated scolding and attempts at molding. We’re not quite ourselves at the moment, I tell myself, and are battling for our souls.
But, I also remind myself that we’re just experiencing what the French would call, un mauvais quart d’heure (a bad quarter of an hour, or a brief unpleasant experience). Our unfortunate present moment does not define us; it’s just a hiccup in time, viewed in the context of our long illustrious history. And I am heartened to hear echoes of our fabled wisdom and indomitable spirit in the noble slogan that circulated following our revolution: ‘Despair is betrayal, and Hope a responsibility.’
Examining my own present moment I recognize, with gratitude and wonder, how one unavoidable shift presented me with a new world of unforeseen possibilities. At 43, I find myself happily married for 9 years and, incredibly, with 6 critically-acclaimed books of poetry and prose to my name. Mysterious thing, Art, how if one is faithful to it (and fortunate), in time, it can alter the artist and recreate them in its own image.
Upon further reflection, I am beginning to realize the significance of having been raised in an Egyptian culture—where proverbs were viewed as both common utterance and a sort of magical invocation. I grew up with grandmothers, maternal and paternal who, at times, spoke almost exclusively in pithy sayings: a string of maxims, sing-songy, witty-wise remarks, for every occasion. Also, being half-Lebanese, meant that Gibran Khalil Gibran, celebrated poet and philosopher, was an early and inescapable influence. I even suspect that matters of literary heritage might have been written in blood, since I was named after my paternal grandfather (Yahia Lababidi), a musician and poet who passed away long before I was born, yet bequeathed me a love of song, intravenously. When, in my late teens, I found that I could unburden myself in verse and epigrams I felt that, for the first time, I was truly beginning to earn my Name.
Lately, I feel another sort of calling, and sense of purpose, in contemplating my momentous immigration to the United States. In this age of short attention spans and shot concentrations, there seems to be in the US, at least, a Renaissance of Aphorisms (pithy observations that contains a general truth) something I would never have imagined when I first started writing these brief arts – anachronistically, I felt – some two and a half decades ago. Late last year, I had the distinct honor to be featured in the first book of modern American aphorists, “Short Flights” (Schaffner Press, 2015) alongside some of the country’s finest thinkers and poets.
Living in the US at a historical phase when there is widespread suspicion and murderous ignorance in regards to the “Arab/Muslim world”, I also feel a kind of responsibility for my writing to serve as a kind of bridge, or peace offering, addressing our shared humanity. One way of doing this is to try and communicate, through my brief meditations, the beauty to be found in Sufism, the mystical branch of a little understood and much-maligned faith: Islam. “Ah, to be one of them! One of the poets whose song helps close the wound rather than open it!” —Juan Ramón Jiménez
Last year, marked a kind of mid-life milestone for me, both as a person and artist: 23 years of my marveling, questing and helplessly confessing in verse were bound in one book, and published by Press 53. The launch of Balancing Acts: New & Selected Poems (1993-2015) surpassed all my expectations, this Spring, when it debuted at #1 on Amazon’s Hot New Releases, under Middle Eastern poetry, ahead of heroes of mine, such as Rumi and Gibran. I had achieved far more than I imagined and, perhaps, the real work was only just beginning, for which all else was apprenticeship.