I belong to a group of musicians of my generation who were fortunate enough to be able to leave Lebanon for a while in order to study abroad for a few years before coming back and resuming their careers. We, the ones who’ve returned, have some things in common. For one, we have a demystified view of Europe/America, because we have lived there and have seen that it is not the paradise that those who have not lived there claim it is. That is not to say that living abroad is terrible, but just that it comes with its own problems, quite different from the ones we face here, but as serious. We lived there, we built ourselves up, we gathered a lot of knowledge and experience, and we’ve touched what it is like to be in a music school community. And, now we are back where we were initially, but with a different set of skills and a much broader mindset (hopefully) which we all seem to be willing to share with our peers and students. I think this is why I am writing this essay, to share some insights with you who have travelled, who wish to travel, and who are currently living abroad and considering the possibility of coming back.

This country has always been generous to me as a musician and otherwise. It was generous before I left, and when I came back after completing my studies, still unsure whether I would stay or leave, it was even more generous. So, I feel a certain ‘grateful responsibility’ towards it.

When I was considering the possibility of leaving between 2013 and 2014, some people were encouraging, others discouraging. I’ll divide the encouraging ones into two attitudes. The first attitude is that of Yes, do it! You’ll learn a lot. The second attitude You’re still here? Get out as soon as you can, this place is dead and has nothing to offer. Those discouraging me were very few, but the person who was my “mentor” back then, had a very fearful attitude in general. He was someone very afraid of change, who thinks the worst about people all the time, and who had a strong self-righteous attitude always thinking that his wisdom was absolute and must never be questioned, little did I know how toxic his world-view was as I was a young, easily influenced man. I isolated this person in particular, because his judgments had more weight in my consciousness that most other people. Why? Because he was my “mentor”.

What I’m saying is that sometimes the person whose opinion we value the most, can have the worst effect on us. This person was completely against anyone of us, his students/colleagues, leaving the country. “What for? You will not have better conditions than here, I can teach you everything, they don’t have anything to offer you” and many more bitter assertive statements. It took me a while to question where he got these judgments from… the guy barely traveled anywhere! The thing is, there are two kinds of people in this matter: The ones who haven’t been blessed with opportunity and hope that no one else receives it (especially someone from their circle). And the ones who weren’t blessed with opportunity but do their best to support their friends when presented with such opportunity, because they understand that their friends’ growth is their own growth.

I decided that I’ll go out and do it anyhow, and in September 2014, I found myself with my bass and suitcase in a tiny room on a Boat-hotel parked on some canal in a little provincial town in Holland. That first day, I went out to get some toiletries, and when I was setting up the bathroom, I banged my head against the faucet and I started bleeding a lot. I went out to the lobby to ask where I could go to fix the wound on my forehead, but nobody knew. Other people living on the boat were too shy to help because we had all just arrived and we were mostly foreigners in this town. Except one girl who saw me, and rushed me to her room where she had a first-aid kit and took care of my wound, sterilized and closed it, and we became good friends since. A powerful experience like this one, on your first day of living abroad, where you’d think you’d be alone and not cared for, is something that will open up your head (literally).

Next day, I went out to visit the Conservatory where I’d spend most of my time learning and practicing. Day after day, I’d go there to attend classes, make friends, form bands, share musical ideas and sometimes just be completely goofy with someone from a totally different background. I learned how to arrange parts for different music ensembles, from big bands to trios with a very funny but highly knowledgeable man who had left the United States to live and teach in this little town called Groningen. I learned creative music composition from another man who was also an American who had left the U.S. and who became a good friend, and a strong inspiration to this day. I learned research techniques with a professor who was about to retire but who took me in because his PhD subject was about the Psychology of Music, which was the subject of my thesis. I met a group of African drummers who lived in Groningen, and played with them a few times, there I learned a lot about communal music making and how each part is important in the construction of the whole. I played a bunch of my friends’ compositions and we spent a lot of time in practice rooms together brain-storming how to play this and how not to play that. I got to hear my own music being played by others and had a better idea which direction I want to take with my art.

I went on tour to Lithuania and Latvia with some friends from university for about 10 days, where we’d stay a couple of night in a different city, play out a couple of concerts of our music and crash on someone’s kitchen floor. I spent an entire semester in New York City, where I learned so much about who I wanted to be, and more importantly what I didn’t want to be. I met so many different characters in those two years from all over the world and formed bonds with them. I barely spoke my mother tongue during my stay abroad, I was so culturally far from Lebanon… but I was still me.

I wouldn’t have imagined that my best friend in New York would be a retired physiotherapist who was also a great American Folk musician. I didn’t think I could share and develop a very burlesque sense of humor with a Lithuanian pianist and regard him as a brother. I didn’t think I’d go out and play pool, drive around Holland in a minivan with a Dutch guitarist. I had no idea that I’d play in the ELB Jazz festival in Hamburg with a Russian/Armenian singer who ended up being like a little sister, and who had incredible musical skills. I didn’t even know that one day I’d be working out in the park and turn around to see a little boy mimicking my movements and a bunch of older Dutch people shooting the whole thing on their phones with a lot of joy. I didn’t think the sight of so many homeless people in New York would break my heart so often. I never imagined I’d be so lonely in the world’s busiest city, regardless of all the friends and acquaintances I made. I didn’t know that I’d develop a strong friendship with a Spanish girl and spend a night at her parents cabin in some forest in the Basque country, and that I’d be conversing with her mother about our cultures as Maria would act as our translator.

That’s not even half of what I could tell you, but I’ve already used too many words. You have no idea what you’re in for. You cannot come close to imagining it if you’re sitting here considering the possibility of leaving and studying abroad. Your experiences will be much more different than mine. Your character determines the quality of experiences you live, and your experiences also shape the quality of your character. But, you will grow, if that’s what you’re considering leaving for. You’ll learn a lot more than what you originally signed-up for. Your life will change for the better and don’t think for a minute that my life abroad was more interesting than the life I live here. You see, living all these experiences proved one thing to me, that life is so immense and so generous and full of endless possibilities. It doesn’t really matter where I am now, because I learned this attitude from living alone in Holland and New York, I now know how to make the best of what is offered to me, because when you’re abroad you have no choice but to learn that skill. Go out and do it if you can, but don’t rule out the possibility of coming back here after a while.

I think this country can use people like us, who have lived abroad and understood that they could be friends with anyone and that all people can be kind or unkind, regardless of their background. This place needs people who have grown out of their shell and who are eager to invest in its development.