Before I begin, I have to explain: “Hi, kifak, ça va?” Translation: Hi, how are you, good? These simple three words are the backbone of every Lebanese greeting. Old relatives, distant friends, busy waiters—practically everyone in the country uses this trilingual salute. It is a phrase that I have asked and have been asked many times. About twenty years ago, this phrase emerged from the educated elites living in big cities and then trickled down to small villages. Before people would use a more formal Arabic word, marhaba, to greet each other. Today this word is more likely to be used by older generations. “Hi, kifak, ça va” rolls English, French, and Arabic all into one, easy-to-pronounce, modern hello. And it only costs two seconds of your time—what a deal!
Each summer I travel to Lebanon with my family to visit our relatives (mostly on my mom’s side). As soon as I step foot in the Beirut airport I feel the thick humid air cling to my skin.
“Hi, kifkon, ça va?” my aunt Rima greets us immediately.
She drives my sister and I to our grandparents’ while my mom and other siblings take a taxi. “How was your flight?” Rima asks us. She speaks the most English of all six siblings. Sprinkles of conversation emerge during the long car ride, but I’m too tired to talk. Rima turns on the radio to some classic Arabic songs. She understands. We weave in and out of lanes trying to escape the evening rush-hour traffic and come within four inches of being eaten by an eighteen-wheeler.
We survive long enough to make it to my grandparents’ house located in the old port city of Byblos. Roman ruins scatter the city, reminiscent of the old empire and historical conquerors. Traditional stone houses with arches and red roofs dot the hilly terrain. The port is lined with small fishermen boats bobbing up and down in the water. The city gets ready for the Byblos International Festival. Restaurant hosts try to lure unsuspecting tourists, old women sell jasmine flower necklaces, and teenagers haggle over concert tickets. I rewind to 7,000 years ago and imagine how the Phoenicians traded cedar-wood with the Egyptians at this exact port, communicating in different dialects. I snap back to real time and listen to all the different languages: Arabic, English, French, and what I suspect is Russian (they come here for the beaches). The sweet smoky smell of hookah wafts from the open-air restaurants while techno music blares from the outdoor bars. The water glimmers orange-purple from the lights of the nearby concert stadium. What was once an important trading spot for merchants is now a scenic photo for Instagram.
Before I can take two steps into my grandparents’ house, I am immediately swarmed with hugs and kisses from family members. The famous three-word greeting is repeated throughout the pandemonium. While everyone chats in the living room, I head over to the heart of the house: the kitchen. This is not just a place where you prepare meals. This is a place where you talk to people over lemonade and leftover sweets. This is where you really find out about them. The stove hums in the background of my aunts bustling around the kitchen to prepare our arrival meal. We somehow all manage to squeeze around the dining room table and trade stories of everything that’s happened since the previous summer.
The extent of my grandparents’ English vocabulary is “thank you” so we only communicate in Arabic. We usually talk while my sitee (grandmother) prepares lunch in the kitchen. Lunch is the pivotal point in the day. Everyone comes home from work in the late afternoon and we all sit together for a big meal. My sitee stands over the stove with one hand on her hip, slowly stirring lentils. She pinches the top of her shirt and flaps it back and forth fanning herself. I sit nearby, my thighs sticking to the plastic chair amidst the summer heat. She ends up telling me the same thing that she does every year, “Work hard, become educated, listen to God.”
I tell her I will.
“And don’t forget us. Don’t forget Lebanon. Maybe one day you will come back and help. Also, I barely hear from you. Don’t forget to FaceTime us.”
I promise her that I won’t forget, only to do so many months later. Every other Sunday my mom FaceTimes my family in Lebanon, having all of my siblings say their obligatory “Hi, kifak, ça va’s.” It’s not that I don’t like talking to my family in the old country. Before Skype, FaceTime, and WhatsApp, my family would be unable to communicate (except through expensive phone calls) with our overseas relatives until the upcoming summer. Yet honestly, I prefer waiting until the summer to see them. If we FaceTime every other week, we all know everything that’s happened to each other by the time summer rolls around.. At the arrival meal, instead of trading stories, I would regurgitate the same lines that I had said to them three months ago over video chat. No surprises, no excitement, no anticipation.
I make one exception: my aunt Rima. Whether face-to-face or digital screen-to-digital screen, I maintain my special relationship with her year-round. Each summer in Lebanon, our reunion marks the start of a new season filled with sunset hikes and cinema scouting. “My consultant,” my aunt Rima calls me, “I need your advice. Which movie should we see?” Rima is probably the most “westernized” of all the sisters and brothers. She is the tomboy of the sisters, the liveliest of the aunts, and the worst cook in the whole family. I count on seeing her every year at the airport welcome gate, eagerly shouting for us while waving balloons.
After the two-hour-too-long car ride to Byblos, all I want to do is collapse on the bed in Rima’s room, soaking up every ounce of air-conditioning. Every summer my siblings and I debate who gets to sleep in her room (the only bedroom with A.C.) and every summer they end up crammed into a single room with all the windows wide open. It practically became routine for me to bunk with Rima each year, along with our ritual late-night bedside chats, which are usually interrupted by my cousin telling us to mute our giggles. We both lie facing each other on a twin bed, separated by a nightstand with a small lamp that barely shines light. She tells me her stories of how the family stayed in the mountains during the summer, how she built a wooden car when she was nine, how they picked blackberries right off the tree and ate them.
Sometimes my aunt Rima and I don’t even talk. We just send each other silly emojis on WhatsApp while lying in our beds two feet apart. We’ll have a whole conversation based entirely on random emoticons and be able to understand each other perfectly –– if that’s not CIA-worthy then I don’t know what is. My aunt Rima and I have grown up in different generations and lifestyles, but we can understand, or at least, respect one another’s outlook on life. My old-fashioned demeanor and her modern vitality intersect to create a mutual understanding. A slight change in my attitude or facial expression and Rima knows that something is wrong, even if she’s looking at me through a phone screen. There is rarely a silent moment between us. We talk about bad movies, good songs, old inside jokes; we talk about bad politicians, good faith, old internal problems. I tell her about the books I want to read.
“Did you read Le Petit Prince?” she asks.
“You gave it to me to read last year.”
“You know what my favorite passage is?”
“Isn’t it something to do with the fox and friendship?”
“Chapter 21. I love that passage. The fox asks the little prince to tame him so that he can become his friend, yes? Listen to what the fox tells the prince: ‘If you come at four o’clock in the afternoon, then at three o’clock I shall begin to be happy. I shall feel happier and happier as the hour advances.’ I love that. The fox is anticipating for the prince to come at that time. He’s so joyful and excited to see his new friend. I mean, isn’t that beautiful, that type of friendship?”
I used to think that aunt Rima was the fox because she waits for me all year to come to Lebanon. As summer approaches, she begins to arrange the bedrooms, make room in her closet for my clothes, and plan vacation days from work so we can spend time together. Now I realize that we are both the fox. While she prepares for me over there, I anticipate the hours until I can see her goofy smile and laugh at our corny inside jokes. I anxiously sit on the plane and look out the window until the clouds dissipate, revealing tiny highways and buildings down below. I check the monitor to see how much flight time has passed, how soon until we arrive. Every time I’m on the plane to Lebanon, I’m conquered by the same rush of excitement to see my relatives. The flurry of anticipation does not diminish despite the repetition of each year’s trip. While time and distance is a test on friendship, I’ve always been a good student.
My family has just come home from Sunday mass. Parents are ready to relax and kids need to do last minute homework. Patches of icy snow pitifully remain on the grass. It is time to FaceTime the relatives. My mom calls all of my siblings to gather in the living room so we can say our dutiful “Hi, kifak, ça va’s.” I lounge on the couch, patiently waiting my turn. Without breaking eye contact from the screen, my sister hands me the phone saying, “She’s right here.” I take the phone from her and see Rima staring back from 5,431 miles away. “How are you, my consultant?”