Troisième Roman, Première Page

“Ceci est une histoire vraie et fausse à la fois. C’est Beyrouth qui brûle, mais pour une fois pas de la manière dont vous l’imaginez. Je vous parle de la Beyrouth qui brûle la vie par les deux bouts, qui se brûle les doigts sur les joints qu’elle allume et les désirs qu’elle suscite. Nous sommes aisés ou pauvres,torturés parfois, bouleversés, souvent, paumés, toujours. On nous a laissé un pays à reconstruire en héritage, alors qu’on a déjà pas la moindre idée de ce que l’on va faire de notre peau. Certains se réfugient dans la drogue, d’autres dans le mariage, d’autres encore trouvent en Dieu leur salut, moi je n’ai pour nom que révolution, mettre un grand coup de pied dans tout ce bordel et repartir de zéro. Pour le moment, je fume, et je me console dans les volutes de brouillard poudré de l’aube Beyrouthine.”

C’est avec ces mots que le roman d’Amanda commence. C’est avec ces mots qu’elle extirpe un peu  de sa peine en la couchant – cliché s’il en est- sur des cahiers Moleskine. Elle aimerait écrire un roman qui parlerait d’autres gens, d’autres vies, mais elle ne sait écrire que sur elle-même et sur des interprétations de sa propre vie, elle ne sait pas s’exprimer autrement qu’à travers le “je”, elle ne parvient pas à créer de toutes pièces des personnages imaginaires, embourbée qu’elle est dans une ville et une vie tellement fausses qu’elle en est venue à ne même plus supporter les écrans protecteurs et les faux-semblants de la fiction. Ce sera donc “je” et rien d’autre, quitte à parler d’elle autant le faire jusqu’au bout. Elle est tombée dans l’écriture comme on tombe amoureuse, en trébuchant par hasard sur quelque chose ou quelqu’un qui vous devient vite aussi nécessaire que l’air que vous respirez. 

Lorsque l’air de Beyrouth lui est devenu irrespirable, Amanda a commencé à écrire pour enlever une à une les épines de souffrance qui lui piquaient corps et coeur, chaque lettre lui permettant de déloger petit à petit les aiguilles du souvenir, au prix d’innommables douleurs, certes, mais restons positifs, elle aurait pu, comme tant d’autres, noyer son blues Beyrouthin dans toutes sortes de drogues. A bien y réfléchir, se dit-elle souvent lorsqu’elle se trouve d’humeur contemplative (c’est-à-dire à peu près tout le temps), tous mes amis sont accros à quelque chose. Julie à Yasser, Rabih à la weed, Hakim à Léon Trotsky, Noor au shopping compulsif, et moi, à Ziad Rahbani et à Hakim, mais pas nécessairement dans cet ordre là. 

Amanda allume une énième cigarette dans l’encre constellée de sa nuit Libanaise et contemple sa ville, chérie et honnie à parts égales. L’attrait de ces lumières sur son corps se mâtine d’une douce mélancolie, et à cette heure précise, lorsque l’atmosphère devenue calme et languide de matin de Beyrouth l’enveloppe de ses bras sucrés et la berce, elle pourrait rester des heures lovée dans le giron de sa ville qui connaît la souffrance, qui sait ce que c’est d’aimer et de perdre, et elle a le sentiment qu’elle seule peut la comprendre. 

Et éventuellement, la consoler. 

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Portrait: Abou Georges

Abou Georges is a “Chauffeur Taxi”, and by this, please understand “Client’s Worst Nightmare Extraordinaire”. 

You see, people need him and his brotherhood of drivers linked by their ever powerful radio, so they have to put up with whatever he decides. 

And if that means making his (rusty old ‘72 Merc) engine roar at 120km/h on the Ashrafieh/Hazmieh autostrade while srcibbling down the phone number of his next patron and zigzaging in between cars, then so be it. And woe betides the fool who would timidly ask him to slow down a little! Ba3d na2ess heyde to come and teach him how to drive in this country! Leyke 3ayne, I’ve been driving for 40 years in this country, if you’re not happy, take the bus! Cue chuckles and mumbles under his chin. 

You see, Abou Georges knows full well there are no buses to speak of in Beirut, no one really knows where they go, or how to take them, and the bus stops seem so elusive looking for them is like looking for a warlord money: invisible until it pops up in front of you, as if by magic. Not to mention the fact that very few women risk themselves on the buses, for fear of having their boob or butt felt up. Abou Georges tried once, and still remembers the allmighty slap in the face he got, assorted with copious insults and threats. Not worth it, wou ba3den he felt bad, I mean he does have the whole collection of saints of Lebanon (Mar Charbel. 2dissetna Rafqa. Mar Hardini. Our Lady of Lebanon. Jesus Christ King of Kings) stuck in front of him, as well as the Holy Cross wrapped around his rear-view mirror. I mean, they can’t have them be the witnesses of his weaknesses.

No, no he is safe in the haven of his Markazieh, the taxi central, and please do not mistake him for a vulgar service that roam the streets of Beirut, looking for clients as if they were beggars: he is a proud member of the  Alonso Taxi fleet. Service! Pah! Can these people yell Markazieh, Markazieh! Tess3ira! Yalla Chabeb! Who can go from Verdun to Ashrafieh in under 2 mins? Yalla! Tayb Khod el tari2 3aks el serr Kheyye! Well can they? See, didn’t think so. The Markazieh makes all the difference. 

Abou Georges likes having clients around, so he can share bits of his life with them, and occasionnally start the odd mashkal. I mean, one does get a tad bored driving up and down Beirut like that. This is why Abou Georges usually plays pro-Lebanese Forces radio shows very loudly in his car, in the hope that a Tayyar-supporting client will jump in, listen to an apology of Hakim Samir Geagea and start a heated conversation with him (also known as fight) until he drops the little traitor in Da7ieh where he belongs now. Sadly, this only rarely happens. So sometimes Abou Georges calls his brother in law to discuss the plans of their joint business together, where it’s question of obscure investments that will leave the client wondering if Abou Georges is not, in fact, some kind of pimp. “There is a lot of money to be made in that business, kheyye”, certainly does nothing to reassure the poor, already horrified, client. 

No, Abou Georges definitely loves being a chauffeur taxi in Lebanon: the comradeship with his fellow taxi drivers remind him of the togetherness he felt with his fellow militia men during the war, even though those truly were the Halcyon Days of never being bored. Ah well, one does get old, and if he ever needs the adrenaline rush, he can always play with his life (and with whomever had the bad luck to be with him that day) on the Sanayeh roundabout. 

Portrait: Carole

Elle danse, Carole. 

Elle danse et ses pieds marquent la cadence du temps, de la fuite inébranlable d’un temps qui meurtrit. 

Elle danse, Carole. 

Elle danse pour un peuple que l’on oublie et que l’on égorge, elle tend sa main vers ceux qui tombent et elle s’étire, s’étire pour apporter un semblant de dernière grâce à ceux à qui l’on ferme les yeux. 

Elle danse, Carole, elle danse et elle mime l’agonie pour faire comprendre l’horreur, elle danse et ses cheveux s’affolent à mesure qu’elle tourbillonne, à mesure qu’elle se perd dans les méandres de la souffrance. 

Elle s’étend de tout son long pour bâtir un pont d’amour entre eux et nous, pour prendre un peu de leur douleur et envoyer de l’espoir, son corps vecteur de tendresse, raide comme la corde de l’arc, elle envoie ses flèches de solidarité aussi loin qu’elle le peut, par delà la barbarie et la honte, la portée de son archée plus grande et plus forte que les divisions factices. 

Elle danse, Carole, et ses pas martèlent le sol pour faire écho aux marches de la liberté, ses hanches se meuvent et clament leur arabité, Arabe, tu m’entends, tous Arabes, tues-en un vois-nous tous surgir! 

Elle danse, Carole, chaque filaments de nerfs et de coeur noués en une force souple et flexible, elle danse et chaque ondulation de son corps appelle au réveil des consciences, au lever de bouclier contre l’arrogance des tyrans et l’indifférence des hypocrites. 

Elle danse, Carole, les hurlements de haine du dehors ne l’atteignent pas. Elle a une mission: danser pour un peuple, utiliser son corps pour en sauver d’autres. 

Elle danse, Carole comme d’autres lèvent le poing, et avec un dernier rond de jambe elle quitte la scène, laissant chaque coeur vibrer au rythme du 3oud qui l’accompagne, chaque battement en parfaite harmonie, le concert de la liberté. 

Beirut

Sticky heat, heavy with the smells of frangipani tree flowers, jasmin, gardenia, diesel and something very akin to sulphur. 

Hustle and Bustle of a city that knows no rest, of people dancing to political and pop songs with equal mirth, laughing and drinking in a hidden garden, sharing slivers of their lives between two mouthfuls of mezza. 

Families living on their cramped balconies, arguing about politics, disagreeing with the TV commentator, with the neighbours, with each other, their voices covering the noises of the streets below, the cries of their children, the laughters of the women. 

Crazy suicidal drivers, oblivious of any other car or human being for that matter, wriggling their way to nowhere in particular, making their engines roar just for the sake of it, risking their lives because it’s theirs to play. 

Whispers of love and lust, hidden in between the sheets or behind shuttered windows, eternal words murmured one ephemeral night in a beloved one’s ears, lost in the vapours of liquor and sensuality and want, intertwined fingers leading to fleeting moments of happiness. 

Twinkling candles of fishermen ashore melting in the myriad of sparkling fireworks, billboards, lights of the city, bringing the stars on their knees before the greatness of a town that never resigns. 

Blocks of concrete pushing away remnants of beautiful old houses, Potemkin village masquerading as a City Center, cluster of luxury and high street shops hiding behind the overused term of Souk in a fit of Orientalism, scars of a war that is all but forgotten, divisions of a city that can’t realise that it’s gloriously One for all eternity. 

Faded faces of dead leaders, fading faces of still alive ones plastering every inch of every corner of every street, almost looking like the Campbell’s Soup of politics, graffitis amisdt the chaos,

 Stating the obvious

That Beirut Never Dies.

To my Ever Perfect in Her Imperfection Beirut. 

How to Live With A Revolutionary Without Losing Your Head on ILoubnan, Illustrations by Maya Zankoul

Link: How to Live With A Revolutionary Without Losing Your Head on ILoubnan, Illustrations by Maya Zankoul

Meet me and Maya Zankoul every Friday for your healthy dose of revolutionary stories!

Portrait: John-Rabih

Sometimes, when John-Rabih looks at himself in the mirror, he can’t help but feel a twinge of pride. Such charisma! Such good looks! Such composure, posture, class! 

John-Rabih is a “social-entrepreneur” you see, something very akin to a regular entrepreneur, except that a social twist gives it a revolutionary cachet that’s proving to be very trendy and marketable. John-Rabih never leaves his house before making sure he’s wearing his uniform (shabby chic, if you must know): frayed jeans that look old except they’ve cost an absolute bomb, slim fitted shirt and vintage sneakers. Fashionable yet approachable. All in all, quite a good look for a “social entrepreneur”. 

John-Rabih has tried to be a little more discreet these days, as some people, no doubt ill-informed, have started talking about his possible affiliations with the CIA and the likes. Him! How dare they! Just because he’s received ALL his funding from USAID, and funding, really, it was merely 2 million USD, nothing to cry about, and then, pfffft, people start whispering behind his D-Squared back. I tell you, Beirut can be so hard sometimes. 

No, of course not, John-Rabih isn’t an imperialist of any kind, he just wants to peacefully make a living while developing his beautiful country Lebanon, and that’s that. 

Truth is, no one really knows where John-Rabih came from. What he says is that his Dad is American (hence the John) and his mother is Lebanese (hence the Rabih). No one knows him from before the day he decided he wanted to go and live in now trendy Lebanon (I mean, he couldn’t really come in the 90’s now could he? All this mess and this rumble and this stinking post-war stench, what good would have come out of it? Lebanon couldn’t be associated with at that time), and all of a sudden, there he comes, friends with everyone, heading a blossoming social business (whatever that means), acquainted with every grant officer this city has to offer. 

While it might have been a tad suspicious, John-Rabih resents the accusations that are being held against him. I mean, what do people make of all these pseudo AUB summer students who cram the rooms of the Middle Eastern politics class, those Jurgen and Françoise and Sven and Chad? Uh? And the ones who suddenly became French or US citizens while doing their PhDs on Hezbollah? And those random foreign people navigating Hamra for months, without any real job or occupation in Lebanon?

What? People know they have ties with their home countries secret services and intelligence too? Really? And they laugh at them too? 

John-Rabih should really tell the Agency to update those briefing notes.

Lebanese aren’t stupid after all. 

For Abzzyy and Lebanonesia, with gratitude for the laughs

PURPLE HAZE – Short Story

This short story has been written for the exhibition Good Sex/Bad Sex/No Sex/Your Sex for World Health Sexual Day organised by AltCity in Lebanon. Pics available on Facebook page https://www.facebook.com/pages/Paola-Salwan-Lebanese-Author/194530360576882 

Schizophrenic.

This is how I felt, drawing the lines of my lips a shocking red in Tara’s overflowing bathroom. The things that girl kept, I tell you: sparkling oil that made her legs shimmer in the already bling Beiruti nights, all shades of eyeshadows known to mankind, moisturizers of all shapes and sizes, the whole lot. A splendid collection of potions and ointments designed and used for the sole purpose of Tara’s biggest hobby: the pursuit of (suitable) men. Tara had her own definition of suitable: the ones that would fuck her without getting too attached and clingy and the ones that would make the hair of her mother’s forearms stand in horror; and if she could put the two together, all the better. She was in full rebellion mode against what she considered was our two-faced, hypocritical society, and seemed to consider each name added to her ever expanding list of conquests her very own personal revolutionary victory. She therefore routinely had sex at the back of fleeting men’s cars, in bar restrooms, in chalets by the sea, in Faraya, in emptied apartments, everywhere except in her lovers’ bed, or in her own for that matter, for it was simply unthinkable that she would just wake up and share the family’s breakfast after a night of ravenous carnal feast with the household son.

Her attitude towards sex was in many ways much more open than any of the girls we knew: with Tara, there was no fake blushes, no eyes lowered in a gesture of false modesty, no game playing and obscure manoeuvres aiming at ravishing a man’s heart to convince him we were “the good girls”, aka, the ones you marry. No ornaments required: she only needed to be, and in less than half an hour, she’d have half of the club longing for her, desperately wanting to pierce her aura of flawless self confidence. It’s all in the attitude baby, and she had plenty of that, plus a generous supply of reservoir condoms. “I can have the guy perform all he wants on me, as long as he’s wearing a condom. If he won’t wear it habibti, he can go fuck himself for all I care”. See what I mean? An iron wrought will in a velvet setting, impossible to resist to, and lethal for those who thought they could understand her.

Needless to say, I envied her to no end.

She was honest to her body and to who she was, and that, in our Lebanon, was a luxury, an act of bravery as well as pure foolishness.

Unlike me, the schizophrenic gal who couldn’t decide whether she wanted to be a rare item, one of the braves, a fool, or just a regular young woman torn between what she wanted to do and what people expected her (not) to do.

I grab one of Tara’s “Midnight Blue” sparkling eyeshadow and start applying it furiously, trying to conceal the last remnants of my earlier fight with my dearest mother. In her bedroom, Tara’s probably taking a snooze to help her face her endless night, her delicate purple chiffon dress lovingly spread next to her.

There is something I simply don’t get about Lebanese parents: they want you to get married, but wouldn’t want you to openly date men. My mother didn’t take it too well when I pointed out to her the sheer absurdity of that reasoning, which led to our fight, that more or less went along these lines:

Her: I don’t like you hanging out that much with that Tara friend of yours. She has a bad reputation and is always seen with different guys. You have to look after yourself and make sure your reputation is immaculate if you want to meet and marry a suitable man.

Me: One, I’m 24, you don’t get to decide who I can or can not see, and two, you’re always on about how I should start thinking about marriage. Tara is introducing me to many men, that should please you no? How can I get married if I’m not allowed to go and choose from a wide variety?

Cue apoplectic rage on my mother’s part, exchange of pleasantries along the lines of me being a whore, taking of some clothes and toiletries and slamming of door of paternal house, although my father is so seldom at home I should call it the No Man’s Land of my Mother’s Broken Heart. Talk about whores. My dad’s probably serenading one right now. I guess Tara is right after all: the hypocrisy is every where. Here I was, living in a house whose supposed master was a notorious womanizer, who had his entries in clubs even I didn’t know existed, and I was being given a hard time by my frustrated mother because of my alleged serial dating. And wrongly, to top it all.

For I longed to be a serial dater: I just didn’t have the guts to do it, not in Lebanon anyway. My mother’s sap digging had been fruitful.

Just thinking about it, my eyes start welling up, threatening to ruin my whole make up. So I just add on a bit more foundation, and another layer of blusher for good measure, before starting on my hair.

My poor face seems to be taking the full blow of my rage, a rage I wouldn’t know where to direct to except on myself. I therefore pluck and straighten and pull and cover as if my life depended on it. I know my social life certainly did, and in Lebanon, it’s never quite sure where one stops and the other one begins.

My problem, you see, is that I only ever wanted two strong arms to hold my body. That’s all I want, and I haven’t found it and will never do if I don’t start actively looking for it. For the moment, I am the Maid of Beirut, but can’t help to be on the look out for that pair of arms.

But please let us be clear: this isn’t hopeless romance. I’m just obsessed by an image that seems to be carved in my retina since the day I saw it. It’s a photograph from Rasha Kahil, the third of her Untitled Triptych. It figures a couple, the woman has a beautiful, full, healthy, alive body. I don’t know why my attention was attracted to the whole serie in the first place, but there you go, maybe seeing a normal, vibrant body represented a nice change from the stereotypical lancet-style shapes that I’m used to seeing, bodies so unreal you’d think they’ve been live photoshoped. Anyway, the woman in the picture is wrapping her legs around a man, whom we can’t see, except for his arms and legs. And since the day I saw that picture, I can’t get it out of my head: the way he holds that woman, with elegance and grace and strength and tenderness.

Just like I want to be held, for all eternity.

But as I said, as I’m clipping my too long for words hair, nothing seems to happen, because, although I would love to at least try to find the perfect pair of arms to clasp me around the waist, each time I’m close, I can’t bring myself to go through it.

It’s as if the murmurs of judgement of this city and of this society had woven an invisible web, an unyielding fence that keep electrocuting me each time I try to break free.

I have society’s rules and regulations tattooed in my psyche and programmed in my brain.

And I’m starting to hate myself for it.

Looking at myself in the mirror, finally ready, I hear Tara’s high heels clicking in the apartment, on their way to another night of ecstasy, and can’t help but wonder if we’re both prisoners of our internal judge and prejudices; for what is the difference between too much and not enough? In a city where finding a balance that would be in accordance with what we truly, really want, having fulfilling, safe, satisfying sex seems to be like looking for the Graal: a beautiful mirage.

No wonder we’re friends: looking at one another is like looking in a mirror. Me in reverse, and no amount of make up would change that.

  • Dara, Are you ready? She finally says, joyfully opening her bathroom door, revealing herself in all her deep purple glory.

  • I am, yes, thanks for letting me use your space for so long. You look lovely, by the way. Did you know purple was the colour of wisdom and episcopacy?

  • Oh habibti, don’t kid yourself. It’s also, and first and foremost, the colour of passion and poison.

And with that, Too Much and Not Enough were out on the town again, looking for their Graal.