Stories by genre, location
Sign up
Can't display this module in this section.
« Rising Temperatures: On Maggie O'Farrell's "Instructions for a Heatwave" | Main | America by the Yard »

One man's journey from the Middle East to the Midwest 


Ten thousand miles from the chaos of Lebanon and Syria, I'm riding a dead man’s bike along Illinois’s Sangamon River, where, some years, floodwaters cover everything, sending black fingers searching among dirt and oaks and cottonwood trees. They say you can't really live in the flood plain, that it's unsafe. But here I am, having fled the Middle East, wondering, “What's the point of being safe if you don't feel fully alive?”

A few days earlier, my wife — then the Beirut bureau chief for NPR — had returned one final time to cover a protest in Cairo, which turned into a mass shooting. When I got her on the phone, her voice was shaky, but threaded with exhilaration. Another afternoon, hoping for good word from my wife, I paced a carpeted room, clutching a cordless phone, and then realized how much I, too, miss it: the violence, the chaos, the urgency of life on the edge.

In the last year, we had decided it was time for something new. After half a decade in some of the world's craziest places — Beirut, Baghdad, Cairo, Sana’a, Riyadh — we'd agreed to leave, that it was someone else's turn.

Saying goodbye wasn't easy; with the deteriorating situation in Syria, staying might have been harder.

My first stop in our new life was with family in Petersburg, Illinois, where I'm caring for our four-year-old daughter and researching schools.


When I open my eyes, I look out the window, and it's all corn, rolling hills, tall pines and the soft sights of an American summer — a world away from Beirut or even Miami, where I grew up.

I might have stayed forever on the East Coast. Only by marriage, really, have I come to know these Middles — the East or West.

A decade ago, I started coming to Illinois, where my wife's family lives on a lake. After a few years, my own parents started coming, too, and the six of us spent easy weekends drinking canned beer, eating long swords of pork and cruising around on a pontoon boat.


Then, in 2008, I moved with my wife to Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, where she worked as a reporter. Two years later, during a short visit to Yemen, I learned, over a scratchy line, that my dad was sick with cancer. Within six weeks, he was dead, at the age of 59. To add to the turmoil back home, my wife took a new job in Iraq and I moved to Turkey with our one-year-old daughter.

Without my dad tethering her to Miami, my mom came to Turkey for a few months. We did our best together, missing our spouses, wallowing in grief. Back in Miami, the empty house echoed. Soon after, she bought a place in Petersburg.


My mother has found happiness in Illinois, and I supposed we could, too. In the gloom of one of her storage sheds are boxes from various lives: Miami, Riyadh, Istanbul. I try to lift one, but it's too heavy. In a corner, I find my dad's sleek old Raleigh bicycle. I hop on, pump the pedals, roar down the driveway and sail down a black-top road.

The miles fly by, and I think about Beirut, before it all went to hell. Good wine, great friends, stories to tell, the mountains, the sea. Then there was a shootout on our block, followed by a massive car bomb, and always, incessantly, the refugees from Syria. Each week, it seemed, was a new lesson in how badly human beings could behave.

Heading for higher ground, I fly up and down sun-dappled hills, trying to recall that feeling each time a bomb went off, that mix of excitement from the adrenaline and the pounding regret for those who had been killed, followed by the fear of what might come next. Of course, there was a time we felt invincible. But 2012 was the deadliest year on record for journalists. And 2013 isn't looking much better.

On the bike, amazed at how fast I can go, I come upon a doe partially hidden in the forest. She holds my gaze, then shoots up her tail, rigid and white, and is gone in a flash. In the face of danger, I suppose it's natural to want to flee.

But the alternative, to settle down, isn't always inspiring. A few miles down the road, there's a row of single-wide trailers, each with its own half-acre parcel of land. One of them, with cracked windows, sits on grass that needs mowing; it also has two horses, sleek and rippled with muscle. A little boy our daughter’s age digs in the dirt, working a toy construction machine over and over.

There is a blue bird in the middle of the road. It cocks its head. With the sun pounding down and leaves shimmering in the wind, I'm ready to make some sort of conclusion about the merit of slowing down or the peace of enjoying a quiet moment. But it's hard not to feel like we exited our old lives too abruptly, that there was business left undone. How long had we waited for action by the U.S. military? The bird flies away, interrupting my thoughts, soaring into the air.


Eventually we'll settle somewhere. Our daughter will go to school, my wife will work in an office. As a freelance writer and teaching of writing, I'll cobble together enough work to get by. Together, we'll try to keep our windows from cracking.

A big farm truck roars around the corner, coming up close behind me, so I hop on the bike and start to pedal hard, hugging the shoulder. I’m going as fast as I can, hoping to outrun what's coming, or catch up to what's already gone, scissoring my legs, trying to go faster than ever. Just when I think I've got it right, the chain pops off, the pedals lock into place and I roll to a stop.

In the dirt beside the railroad tracks, I throw down the bike in disgust. Walking the rails, feeling trapped, I calculate how long it would take to fly back to Beirut. After a while, the ordinary penetrates. I notice, among the rocks, knots of brittle metal, rusted railroad spikes, an old beer can and the bones of a shattered fawn.

Sensing something, I look up to the sky. High above, a vulture circles. Every day since we left the Middle East, I've been trying to believe everything will work out — here, and in the crazy places we left behind. In the haze of another afternoon in America, I slap at my neck and arms. The bugs won't leave me alone.


This piece was published by Al Jazeera America. Read the original here