It all begins with a haircut. I remember very well that day. It was the beginning of summer, it was in ’95 and I was twelve years old merrily living in Greece. Change was in the air and with it, I suppose, the desire for change.
I sat very still on the little stool in the bathroom and avoided the mirror at all costs. I would not take a final look at my long hair waiting to be cut off as taking last look could only mean I was making room for a memory to reminisce about. It was definitely a change for the better, I told myself. Nobody needs a memory to reminisce about when things are changing for the better.
And if I could pinpoint the one domino piece that launched the downfall of everything familiar at that point in my life, I would blame it on my sudden decision to cut my hair. Yes, I blame it all on my sudden desire to have a makeover that I did not think much about.
Desire is dangerous. It can push you to wander in the fields of imagination, promising you much deserved rewards and cheat you in the end out of much more than you had bargained with. Alas, these kinds of revelations only come late. When the hair has been cut and you do not recognize the person staring at you in the mirror.
I was not born in Greece, but I might as well have been, for we moved there when I was still a baby. I was born in Lebanon which at that point in my life was as a whole a big ghost town for me. I was told it was a place where a lot of bad things had happened. In my imagination it was all a war front where children still cried, women ran, and men died.
We used to have a house there, my parents would tell me, but it had burned down. Seven bombs fell on it and nothing would be salvaged. Yes, not one or two but seven and as they had told me the story a lot of times and ended it with “thank God we were not there,” I thanked God we were in Greece. It would not be for much longer.
I realize it must be difficult for any human being to leave his home country behind for the first time and not know when one’s coming back, but it must be much worse for a Greek sixth grade student with Mr. Stathis as his or her teacher for the past 3 years.
Mr. Stathis had so much passion for Greece’s culture, history and art that he was able to make patriots not only of us his students, I believed, but of every chair, desk, pencil or chalk present in the classroom.
He must have been in his thirties back then. He had very straight light brown hair that always sort of fell on his forehead no matter how many times he pulled it back. He wore glasses, and I think I remember he had blue eyes. His lips had the same color as his face, and a few times I found myself wondering in class if it was that his face too pink, or were his lips too pale.
I remember him a lot in jeans and a white shirt and always moving around, always excited to teach. His voice always slightly raised and he gestured a little bit with his hands when he said things he was passionate about, especially in history class.
“The Greeks had invented a writing system for writing a long time before Phoenicians invented it,” my eyes opened in amazement thinking those bloody Phoenicians took all the glory in history. I remember this part very well. I did not know at the time I was half a Phoenician.
“By the time history recorded that the Greeks took the alphabet from the Phoenicians, we had invented it, used it and lost it.” I was really proud to be Greek.
Oddly I do not remember how they first broke the news to me that we were going back to Lebanon. I definitely know why I do not remember though. I must not have taken them seriously. Iprobably said that I was not going and that would have been the end of the affair to me.
Only when my bed was given away, when the couch went missing, when my dolls, toys and books were taken, did I realize that my parents were serious about the move.
When all the furniture of the house was replaced with boxes and the walls grew silent, I stood defeated, alone, with no power to matter. What could I say to stop this from happening? What could I do? Could I run away and get lost somewhere in Greece? No, I did not have the guts. Instead I watched as the rooms became unfamiliar: so much smaller and echo-y. I wondered where how the staff had fitted in the first place. How could my home stop being mine and become someone else’s home?
I did not cry as strange men took the last boxes away, but I must have looked quite pitiful. One of the strange men told me with a smile not to worry, and that I’d find all my stuff where I was going. I did not answer him and I resented his patronizing tone. I was not being worried about the safety of my things, did he not know? Did he not understand? What about my home, my cousins, my friends? Would I find them packed among the boxes? No. This is what I would have said to them and my parents… Although I might have been a little worried about my stuff as well.
We had a lot of relatives in Greece, most Greco-Lebanese like us. When they learnt of the news of us traveling, they took it upon themselves to come up with every reason this was a bad idea. Some of their reasons, I admit were ridiculous, but some I found reasonable. The Lebanon my parents grew up in was dead, they said. There was nothing there awaiting us, at least not yet. Greece was now our home, no matter how bad it gets in Greece it would be far better than where we were going.
I agreed silently and prayed my parents would listen, but their response to these criticisms always was, “We are going back home,” and that it had always been the plan to go back to where they grew up and that times was as good a time as any.
They kept saying “we are going home” but for me only the two of them were the ones going back to a home. My parents failed to see that while they were expatriates in Greece, I was not. I was already home. There was no other place I knew that could be my home.
I remember the day I parted with my cousins who were more like sisters to me. They had to go to school and I was unwilling to say goodbye. I pretended to sleep until my mom made me get up. I kissed each one on the cheek said goodbye and ran back to bed. They did not say a word other than goodbye. When I heard them leaving I cried in my pillow, though I did not yet start to understand the meaning of missing someone you cannot get to.
I did not only leave my cousins behind but a whole culture I was very attached to. I would not hear people speak Greek again on the streets. I would not write or speak Greek anymore. I would miss it as much as I missed a part of myself.
What’s familiar? I did not look much familiar after I had that fateful haircut. Nor would I be familiar to my old self long after my hair grew back.