As the General Security headquarters appear through my taxi’s windows, I am faced with the reality that all my prior mental preparation for this moment will not save me. I am familiar with its gates and barbed wires more than I am familiar with some friend’s homes, it’s lined sandbags engraved in my mind with the clarity of a traumatic flashback.
The soldiers in uniform target their repulsed gaze towards me as soon as I am in their line of vision, for they are highly trained in the field of dehumanizing, and their predatory senses begin to tingle as I, a young Syrian woman approach the entrance.
I’d handed in my paperwork five months prior to this visit, checking in on my residency procedure every week for the last couple of months. The country’s public administration sector hit a giant pause on its already minimal labor, due to the Coronavirus epidemic sweeping the nation, not that my residency took any less time to be dispensed to me in the previous years. With every visit my anxiety would compound, knowing that the soldiers behind the counter dealing with my paperwork probably knew less than I did about my residency’s whereabouts. My unease would skyrocket further as they sifted through the stacks of identification cards in front of them, four at a time with limited focus, as if to put on a performance of due diligence. I’d decided that day to hold my ground, and ask more questions when they told me, for the eighth time in a row, to return in a week.
The nausea that accompanies the general security experience, is often a major consequence of the exposure of the fickleness of your future there; within every stretch engulfed in its walls, the bureaucracy reveals itself to be more individual greed than efficient paperwork procedure. The discomfort presents itself with the ambiguity of your fate, for a single additional word in your phrasing could officially move your procedure along, or the dreaded vice versa.
This time, my questioning led the soldiers to perform some more superficial searching, before they sent me towards some other unknown’s office. After a journey through the empty building from one uninterested soldier to the other, competing on who could avoid more eye contact with me, I am dropped off with no explanation back to where I’d handed in my paperwork five months prior. It is apparent I have to restart the process, and I am met with total silence when I try to question why. Finally, the woman repeating the registration of my fingerprints responds with a snarky laugh, “No one knows why you have to repeat the process. Anyway, you’re stuck here for now so you shouldn’t care.”
“Of course I care. It’s almost Eid and it’s summer. I want to take any chance I can get to visit my parents. I haven’t seen them in months. What if they open up the borders?”
“They won’t, don’t worry.”
It was painful to hear her inform me to come back and pick it up in 20 more days, and even less surprising when only a mere few steps away a soldier at a different paperwork checkpoint told me to come back in 25.
This year marks my eighth in Lebanon, having arrived in the summer of 2012. I left my family behind and came here for university, a sort of cliche storyline for many Syrians during those vital years. Things weren’t always this complicated, and thankfully so; I don’t know if my 17-year-old self would have been capable of handling the responsibility of the intricate official-document treasure hunt around the country, as a young freshman recently out of high school. At the time, they’d stamp my passport at the airport, offering me six months of free frolicking in their territory, before I had to exit and return to renew my generous grant. I didn’t think much of it back then, not because it seemed fair, but because I still hadn’t fully understood my positionality on this land, a lesson Lebanon has done well to gradually inscribe into my being since my arrival.
Every year since they changed the policies and enforced the residency on Syrians, I’d dread the onset of a specific four months, in which I knew I would have to endure the arduous experience they’d set in place. I would attempt to feel grateful, that I am attaining a residency because I am a student, and often wondered about the horrors the Syrians in the agriculture or construction sectors had to sustain under the sponsorship system. Collecting the many papers proving my legitimacy and innocence around Lebanon is a tedious process, especially when fees are extracted from your fatigued arms every step of the way. My least favorite document was one I’d ironically pay 50,000 Lebanese liras for, irately signed at the notary, entitled “A Pledge to Not Work.” How serious, a pledge! God forbid, I attain a job that would cover my excruciatingly costly rent, to offset the millions of dollars I and others like me have poured into the Lebanese economy; for that would be a sin, and would put a dent in the perfectly assembled humiliation mechanism premeditated for us. Still, touring the country in search of these documents is no match, for the one-of-a-kind experience within the walls of the General Security.
Many of my Lebanese peers have attempted to console me over the years, after bearing with my many rants about how I was treated at the general security; “everybody hates the general security, even the Lebanese dread going there.” It is grueling to elucidate, that to comprehend my experience you have to mix in with the accustomed pain of a tedious bureaucratic dish, a sprinkle of regimented dehumanization and disgrace, a spice added into every step of the residency obtaining/renewal procedure. It is often as if they had been encouraged, prior to our arrival, to make mistakes and take longer to notice the glitches with our procedures.
I’ve learned to expect the involuntary shedding of my worth as I am interrogated at the gates and yelled at in queues. It is heart wrenching, witnessing my male counterparts shoved around into submission like a herd of farm animals, with not so much as a defiant breath. They know their lives are obligatorily and holistically reliant on the moods of these soldiers, who have proven to not need much motivation to permanently dishevel Syrian livelihoods with the blink of an eye. The soldiers know this too… and they bask in it. I would often look into their eyes as they sloppily sent me from office to office, clutching a bundle of words on paper that represents the space between me and prison. Who were these soldiers? Is an inherent lack of human sympathy a prerequisite to attaining this job? Or were they trained to lose their humanity upon their arrival to the General Security? Were their shooting ranges customized with Syrian refugee targets, at which they shot as part of their General Security drills?
I used to describe the experience as entering its gates a human, and exiting half a human, but later found it more fitting to depict it as a transformation into a cockroach, amongst a colony, whose validity is stamped on papers floating around behind walls in vintage metal closets and rusty wooden drawers.
My mother attempts to reassure me with a quick history lesson, as I customarily cry to her on the phone on my way home. “It’s revenge for what the Syrian army has done in the past. Now they enact vengeance on us because of how we treated them before when we took over their streets. The Lebanese hate us, the Syrians, I am so sorry you are dealing with this.” These words have never managed to comfort me. Who are these abstract Lebanese and Syrians who are at war with one another, and where do I fit into these binaries?
What should these words do for me, faced with the narrative of racist Lebanese policies that govern my existence, that happen to be a reaction to authoritarian dictatorial measures enacted by my country’s government, before I’d turned 10 years old? How do I reconcile this oppression and trauma, when neither government represents me, but when they both have an ultimate say in the mobility of my body on this earth?