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Joy N. Ismail   |   4/ 13/ 2021   |   Reading Time: 5 Minutes

End of a Chapter, Beginning Of a Book

Lebanon, where Joy comes from, lies right by the Mediterranean Sea. This is the first spot where Joy went to when she returned to visit and the last place she went to on her last night. (Courtesy of Joy Ismail)

When I was younger, I used to fantasize about moving to a new city.


I imagined biking to work, wandering around charming old alleys, and learning a new language. I dreamed of lying around in a lush park, reading all afternoon. These were things I wasn’t able to experience in the city I lived in most of my life – Beirut.


Today, I live in a city that is almost an exact replica of the one in my childhood dreams. Ironically, the one thing that is missing is happiness. Things may be picture-perfect on the outside and I may technically have achieved what I thought I so desired, but nothing is as it seems. Ironically, I want nothing more than to go back home. I suppose it is true what they say about not knowing what you have until it’s gone because it took leaving Lebanon to truly understand how much I love it and what it means to me. My attachment to Beirut was amplified beyond anything I could have imagined.


Perhaps this is the way I am meant to live the rest of my life; never really there, but never really here. Maybe I am destined to be a nomad, a wandering soul, grasping desperately at some place that can fill the outline of the hole in my heart. Perhaps I am meant to roam, until the homesickness kills me, or I give up and go back home, which is a death sentence, but is also the sweetest suicide. I love you Lebanon. I feel you every second of every day. You are in my veins and no matter what I do, I can’t get you out. I don’t even want to try.

When I moved to this new city on my own six months ago, I fell into a black hole of depression so unlike me that I could no longer recognize myself. I felt completely untethered – which happens to be the title of my book of poems. I am typically good at helping myself when I am struggling mentally, but this time, I was not willing to help myself. I’m an avid reader, but I wasn’t able to pick up a book for two months. I used to exercise four times a week, but for weeks I couldn’t even get myself off the couch. I spent entire nights staring at the walls in my apartment, sometimes in tears and others numb and exhausted.


I was forced to venture out,

An alien in a new city,

I explored it begrudgingly,

Unwillingly.

I marked my territory across every corner,

With tears.

I cried on park benches,

In empty streets,

In bustling cafes.


Weeks came and went as I was on autopilot until I started writing. Writing has always been an intense passion and hobby for me, but, like most things in my life, it was put on hold during my Ph.D. Every time I had a breakdown or panic attack, I wrote a poem. Sometimes I wrote five at a time. My pen never stopped scribbling after that. I was never much of a poet, but short lines and phrases were the best way to get my feelings out. I wrote down on paper everything I was unable to express out loud, everything that I felt no one around me could understand, let alone help with. Months later, I accumulated a lot of poems, all about leaving home and experiencing a dark and stubborn kind of homesickness. I chose not to sugarcoat my experience, so many of the poems are quite dark. I decided to put them together in a book of poems and publish them with the leading publishing house in Lebanon. There is good that came out of all this because I’ve been dreaming about publishing a book and becoming an author since I was 14. Now, it’s finally happening. Although some poems recount the Lebanese experience and why it is uniquely challenging, the book as a whole will undoubtedly reach any ex-pat or immigrant who struggles with homesickness and feelings of yearning or nostalgia.



Joy poses in Leuven, Belgium, when she was finally feeling better and starting to explore and appreciate the city around her. (Courtesy of Joy Ismail)


Today, I am in a somewhat different place: somewhere between acceptance and adaptation. The depression I witnessed has evolved, at times growing and at others receding, but it is still ever-present. It has made me question everything, from the meaning of life, to what I truly want, to whether I even want to exist in the world.


Your heart goes numb,

The hunger in the pit of your belly,

The ache in your heart that sometimes stuns you into paralysis,

They go away.

They don’t disappear,

But they are hidden in some obscure part of your soul,

Where you can’t reach them,

Where they can’t hurt you.


I have gained a little bit of retrospect and distance from the hole I was in, so I can now say that there have been positive aspects to my experience. I have grown as a person and learned valuable lessons about human nature. I’ve reached out to others more than ever before and actively pursued new connections and friendships. I’ve also made some conclusions about the world that we live in and the way we are told our lives should look like.


We’re expected to leave everything and move for a job. For some it’s a personal choice; for me as a Lebanese ex-pat, though, this was a given, because of the instability and lack of opportunities back home. I really tried. But in general, if you think about it, it’s a little bit ridiculous: Why even put down roots if you’re going to yank them out of the ground every time a better opportunity comes along? A lot of people might be okay with that, but I now understand that I am not one of those people. That being said, I know that I may be seen as overly emotional or weak for choosing my heart over my mind or my career. In all honesty, I have been through too much to choose anything else at this point. I refuse to prioritize anything other than my happiness.


I boarded a train that I can no longer leave,

I’m waiting to see where it takes me.

I imagined I would be in control of my life,

As an adult, I would decide what happens.

I would decide my present and my future,

What I do and who I do it with,

How I spend my days.


Anyone who chooses to stay in their comfort zone is ridiculed. What’s so wrong with building a comfort zone and finding joy in it every day? What is so noble about sacrificing happiness? There are other ways to expand your horizons and push yourself without breaking yourself. Bend, but not break. I know now that for me, my life beyond my career is even more important. I am a whole person outside of who I am as a scientist.






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Joy N. Ismail

From Beirut, Lebanon, Joy graduated from the American University of Beirut (AUB) with a B.S. in Nutrition Sciences. She then moved to Boston University to complete an M.S. in Neuroscience and later returned to AUB for a Ph.D. in Biomedical Science. Her research focuses on the genetic and epigenetic regulation during brain development in Drosophila melanogaster. Now working in the Laboratory of Computational Biology at KU Leuven in Belgium, Joy is a classically trained singer and pianist; she is getting her poetry collection published in Summer 2021.

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