Culture

The Country That Doesn’t Call You Home


When we first meet Roula, she is at home, in Batroun, Lebanon, reclining in bed and gazing softly at her husband as he gets ready for work. Her look is unhurried, both appraising and satisfied. She appears not expectant so much as free from disappointment—things have gone according to plan, or maybe just as ordained. Mild winter light slanting through the windows reveals an elegantly decorated room. It takes about twenty seconds of Isabelle Mecattaf’s short film “Beity” to realize that Roula lives in splendid comfort. It takes twenty seconds more to see the flutterings of her unhappiness.
who she eagerly wishes would return but who never does
The chief cause of Roula’s cheerlessness is a daughter who she eagerly wishes would return but who never does. Every time there’s a knock on the door or the phone rings, Roula’s hopes are rekindled, only to be extinguished once more. Her vexation starts the minute she gets out of bed and remains with her throughout the day. When she sees her housekeeper, Alya, going into her daughter’s room with fresh blankets to prepare for her return, she tells Alya not to bother—but Roula bothers all day. The only distraction from her inner soliloquies seems to be pestering her household staff. She forces a reluctant Alya to sit and chat and snaps at Alya’s husband, the groundskeeper, for not making the flowers bloom in winter.

A profound difference between the families emerges. Alya and her husband, too, have a daughter, but one who returns home. “I definitely wanted to talk about class and privilege, but I also wanted to talk about jealousy,” Mecattaf told me. “Some people come home, some people don’t.” She added, referring to Roula, “I needed to show what she was missing.” Roula’s story is in many ways a universal one: a difficult mother-daughter relationship, an empty nester missing the child who brought their life meaning for years. But “Beity” also has distinct Lebanese inflections. Mecattaf was born and raised in Beirut, where it is not unusual to have domestic help who spend their whole lives working for one family. There is a friendliness that sometimes arises from this arrangement, moments of true friendship even, but such moments are inevitably stamped out by the realities of employer-employee relationships—condescension is the enemy of friendship.

Roula confides freely in Alya, and Roula’s daughter confides in Alya’s daughter, but we don’t get the sense that either Alya or her daughter confides in the others, except perhaps to manage their moods. When Roula nags Alya into disclosing something about herself, it becomes clear that Roula never listens. “My sister’s getting a divorce in Canada,” Alya begins. “I told her, ‘Come back to Lebanon.’ She said, ‘Lebanon is in my blood. But my children are Canadian. I can’t leave them.’ ” Roula sits quietly. “I forgot that you had a sister,” she finally says. “You sent her money when she left without a cent,” Alya reminds her patiently, betraying no surprise at her employer’s lack of recall.

Children grow up and leave home, but in Lebanon more of them leave than in other countries, and they go farther away. Lebanese people like to remind others that there are more of them living outside the country than inside. Families, including Mecattaf’s, are spread thin all over the world. She lives in New York, with a sister in Boston and a brother in Basel. Her parents both left for France, her mother during the Lebanese civil war, which broke out in 1975, and her father following it. They met and decided to return to Lebanon to raise a family, only for their children to leave. Hope glimmered in Lebanon in the years following the war, then quickly flickered out.

Lebanon has had frequent bouts of unsteadiness, and three years ago its economy collapsed. The country’s currency lost ninety per cent of its value, and now blackouts, which had always been frequent, can last for days. Medicines have disappeared from shelves, and gas lines snake around blocks. Despite their close relationship, Mecattaf’s mother doesn’t ask her to come back. “She’s, like, ‘You’re going to come stay and do what? Be tired with me? Be depressed with me? Stay where you are.’ ” Mecataff’s film doesn’t get into any of this context—“I didn’t want to give anybody a history lesson,” she told me—but it nods to all those who have left and are reluctant to come back. “The youth is fleeing, and so I wanted to talk about that,” she told me. “What happens to the parents who are left behind?”



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