Tales of the Phoenix City – Chapter 3

Ziad had called Lili. Again. Yet again. As soon as he heard her voice he felt a catch in his heart, a catch he tried to conceal by adopting an extra business-like tone with her. He could not help it: he could not be with her, yet he had to hear her voice, if only to prove to himself she still existed, that he only needed to reach out to her to open once again the door to a never ending dialogue he had chosen to close. 

Ziad, needless to say, was arrogant, the special kind of forgetful arrogance that comes with the privilege of being a man: the fact that Lili might not want to reopen anything had not even occured to him. 

– Hi, Lili, I hope you’re keeping well, he heard himself ask in clipped tones as soon as she picked up. 
He could almost have hit himself for being so condescending towards her. Knowing Lili, she’d probably reply soflty, all the while nevertheless thinking about what an utter prick he was. He knew she hated confrontation, and he was ashamed to admit that suited him sometimes, if only because he knew she was no woman to give him a hard time yelling into the phone. She didn’t know the power she had over him, and he never felt compelled to telling her. Cowardice can creep up uninvited, at any given moment, after all he was only human, he liked to think. Just another way of justifying himself in his own eyes, and not very successfully at that.
– Hello Ziad, I’m good thanks, came Lili’s caramel-like voice. 
She sounded good. Somehow that annoyed him. Wasn’t she supposed to be drowning in sorrow, listening to REM? 
– Well, you sound good, he replied, his voice a little too acrimonious to his liking, betraying his feelings. What are you doing?, he bit. 
– Working, I’ve got a deadline. The abrupt answer made him cringe, but hadn’t he deserved It, After all he put her through?
He knew a  dismissal when he heard one. He had to come up with a good, reasonable excuse to justify his phone call, and somehow he thought: “I only wanted to hear your voice”, was not gonna make the cut. 
– Oh well, if you’re working, I shan’t bother the great magic of the writing genius, he replied, each syllabe resonating with the venom of jealousy, how dare she have a life outside of them? Them, Ziad and Lili! 
Yaaaay Ziad, score ya akhi! Go on, be aggressive, that’s the way to go! Why? Why did he need to be so stupid? Lili hated confrontation but she was neither weak nor a push over: she respected herself too much for that and would make sure, with her tone equal, her well modulated caramel like voice not raising above her usual tune, that the conversation stopped at that point. 
And true to form, his punishment came: 
– Well Ziad, if you’re calling me to aggress me, waste my time and be generally unpleasant, I think i ll just hang up now shall I? Have a nice day. 
Ziad stayed a long time with the receiver pressed to his ear, listening to it beeping, each beeping noise creating the rythm of that acute, universal yet unbearable, insanely inhuman feeling: loss. 
Later, he would use that noise in a song, he would try and put his confusion over himself and her into words and music, well organised music that made sense. But for now, he would keep on sitting at his desk, the receiver pressed to his handsome face, sorrow creasing his brow, his aquilin nose chiseled against the window like Chinese shadows, his black curls an entangled web encircling his face like a dark shadow.
Ziad broke up with Lili for no reason really, except that he felt he needed to be alone for a while, to ponder and reflect on where he wanted to go, what he wanted to do, and with whom. He liked to think of himself as an artist, he loved the tortured musician figure, his scraggly beard and appearance, the late nights with the boys, composing, drinking, smoking, the beauty of new music giving a background to the Beiruti powder pink dawn. Was he ready to kiss his fantasy goodbye for the commitment of a steady relationship with a woman, who, let’s be honest, he loved? 
Lighting a cigarette, he blew off the smoke, his heart beating fast, his brain working non stop. He couldn’t figure things out for himself. But he knew someone who could help. 
Grabbing his leather jacket (what else?), putting out his cigarette, he dialled the number of his sister Nina, running to her for comfort, and maybe, advice. 
Hope, yet again, had knocked on his door. 

Tales of the Phoenix City – Chapter 2

This was turning to be a most unpleasant day.

First the order of lace she had placed did not come through, then that God awful bride who called in at least four times this morning to ask if her veil would be ready for her to try on by tomorrrow. Nina could almost hear her shrill voice piercing through the telephone: And remember who my father is! If the veil and dress I have ordered are not ready on time, your career in Beirut, no wait, your career in the WORLD will be over, finished, TERMINEE even before it started! Do you hear me??!!!!! Do you understand?

What Nina understood most was that she was dealing with the particularly unpleasant breed of Beiruti Princesses (BP) who drove their Hummers as if they owned the streets and could really destroy anyone’s reputation with a raise of their perfectly arched and defined eyebrow. These women turned the art of contempt into perfection, disdainfully discarding with a flick of their sleek hair anyone and anything that was not lucky enough to have bestowed upon them their grace and approval. Nina also knew that the bride to be, Yasmine, would not and could not withdraw her order now. Nina was the new up and coming designer: her work had already been featured and many magazines (these girls’ Bible) and newspapers, and praised by many Fashion editors whom the BP followed as the herd they were. Yasmine, she sensed, cared more about making her friends turn green with envy with her original dress and attire than about the groom himself, hence the extreme pressure she was currently putting on her. The dress needed to be perfect, the veil, breathtaking: the bride needed to turn heads, if not for the qualities she did not possess, at least for the magical effect of the lace and tulle intertwined with mother of pearl drops dress she was wearing.  

But Nina took her own sweet time with her. Oh the dress would be ready all right, as a matter of fact it already was, waiting in the studio on the wooden mannequin, softly sparkling, carefully shielded from the sun to keep its pearly white colour, but she figured it would do Yasmine the world of good to, once in her life, wait. No matter who she was. Especially to teach her she was no better than anyone because her father compromised himself to reach the heights of political life or stole from the people to pamper in excess his little girl, who, let’s face it, was twenty six and was pampered enough for life. 

Nina’s dresses were expensive, they had to be: she paid well her petites mains, the women whom she taught and who taught her and worked with, and made her dresses from the best material and fabric she could find. Twice a month, she would go and travel all over the region to get inspired and learn a new way of weaving, sewing, or adorning garments that she did not know about. Sometimes, she would come back to Beirut with her teachers, women she got to know over time and and have them work on her pieces. She insisted they sign their creation with their names and reap the profits of the sale. At first, people were surprised by seeing dresses from Um Fadeela for Nina Haddad in the pages of their glossy magazines, but the quality and uniqueness of the products soon made them forget about the name of the designer, and Nina and her bees soon enough earned quite the reputation in the city. Nina loved it all, she loved the looks of pride she saw in herself and in her team when a dress was achieved, she loved the late nights spent sewing and talking, she loved the camaraderie and strong ties that united her with the women who worked with her: she loved it all, and felt incredibly lucky and grateful to be able to love her job. Most of all, Nina loved being economically independent, she loved the fact that she was doing something by herself for herself: this is what chunks of freedom feel like, she thought.

Nina worked hard, in her mind when she was not in her studio, always imagining new shapes and colours and styles, writing the things that got her thinking or inspired in a pink Moleskine notebook, one of the many notebooks she carried around in her enormous handbag, almost always overflowing with papers and pieces of fabric. She needed the Beiruti Princesses to be able to live off her art, to be able to pay well her staff, to be able to keep on creating, but her ultimate dream was to be able to create dresses for all women, not just the ones who could afford them. She already made dresses for her staff and their daughters, refusing to get paid, but that was not enough. Sitting on the high chair facing the floor to ceiling window, she was thinking of ways to make her productions more affordable while maintaining the same quality, while her Turkish coffee was getting slowly colder and colder in the tiny little cup that had belonged to her grandfather. 

Business plans were not her forte, and she plainly refused to be bought by one of these saber-toothed sharks that had already started lurking around her after the couple of whopping reviews she got. No, there had to be another way, and she would find it! 

A gentle tapping on the door awoke her from her daydreaming. She got up to open the creaking wooden door, and there appeared Hamid, the delivery boy who spent his days zigzagging through the web of Beiruti traffic to deliver his parcels. Watching his sweaty face while he handed her the delivery of lace, Nina wondered what it must feel like to live in a country where a proper post office service actually worked and where parcel were delivered by workers who got benefits and salaries and days off. Unlike Hamid. 

– Here Hamid, come in, have a Pepsi or something you’re gonna die from dehydration at the threshold of my studio and habibi this isn’t a good look for me

Hamid smiled, and answered in his usual cheeky fashion:

– Come on Nina, you know full well that a simple smile from you and I should be arise from the dead! I can’t stay for a Pepsi, I’m late enough as it is, but thanks anyway! 

– Allah Ma3ak, you weird new version of Jesus! Arise from the dead indeed! 

Still smiling, she looked at him zap the distance on his bike, then opened her parcel, freeing the lace. 

– Now let’s see what we’re going to do with you! 


Travel Through Lenses: Geneva Meets Siberia

Link: Travel Through Lenses: Geneva Meets Siberia


By now, you’ve probably heard of the extremely low temperatures we’ve been having in Geneva. Here are some pictures of the frozen lakeside and some personal tips on where to get a heart warming hot chocolate or delicious coffee in the City of Calvin and its surroundings:

1) Le Pain Quotidien,

Amazing blog post on my hometown!

Tales of the Phoenix City – Chapter I

A great admirer of the Tales of the City from American author Armistead Maupin, I love the serialized version the books were initially published in. I am therefore trying a little experiment here, publishing a new story (I don’t know where it will take me, but come along with me for the ride!) in a series version. Hope you Enjoy!

Lili looked up from her article to gaze at the bustling street below her. Hamra never seemed to get any rest or sleep, always a mixture of hip and trendy youth working for social media startups, artists, students trying to recapture the leftist revolutionary flavor the neighbourhood had once been home of, tourists and foreigners reveling in the Beiruti eclectic uniqueness between two Arabic classes, women efficiently going on about their business, taxi drivers waiting for naive pockets to empty and hapless street vendors watching the world go by. The 9awmiyyeh flags waved softly in the diesel scented breeze, sporting a symbol singularly akin to a fascist one, as if marking their territory: here shall no enemy enter.

Or beware of the dreadful consequences, thought Lili, remembering how she’d heard some acquaintances declare they were purely and simply afraid to go to Hamra, following the beatings they received at the hands of the 9awmiyyeh shabeb during a demonstration.

The flags were the only thing that bothered Lili in the microcosm of a street she had learned to call home. She loved her neighborhood, the way she loved Beirut, with a kind of absurd forgetfulness about all the things that went usually wrong in it, cursing one minute only to get a feeling of absolute adoration the next, vowing eternal fidelity to the decrepit buildings and entangled webs of electricity cables.

Lili had first come to Beirut 3 years ago, on a research trip that was originally scheduled to last six months. She had come at a point in her life where she had virtually no anchorage, nothing and no one to hold on to, to make her feel safe. Her mothers, a successful photographer, was always booked on shoots on the other side of the world, while her father had long deserted her and her mother and was now building orphanages in Cambodia. Lili often wondered where the humanity lied on saving everyone’s children except his, but never voiced it out loud, because to her open conflict was like poison that would seep into her veins, setting down deeply in her bones. She therefore swallowed her anger and pain, sublimating them in tortured verses that she found so ridiculous she hid in a locked folder of her computer.  She came to Beirut while conducting a research on Middle Eastern politics for her Masters thesis. What she had thought to be a short term stay turned out into a love story with the whole country. She had come to immerse herself in another world: three years later, she felt she was still learning things everyday.

Now a journalist for an English language newspaper, she felt her life needed a change, yet another one, but she had no clear direction on where she wanted to go. Sitting at her desk in her high ceiled flat inundated by the citrus bright sun, she felt a gray taste in her mouth, the taste of things that were taking way too long to come, the taste of frustration and bereavement. Something inside of her deeply resented the sadness that Ziad’s departure from her life caused, and so she had learned to suppress any negative feeling. True to form, once she realized where her thoughts had drifted she forced herself to wake up from her daydreaming and return to concentrating on her article.

She was responsible for the Style and Living section of the newspaper, very far away from her degree and interest as a political analyst, but she preferred to be paid to write about lifestyle than for her political opinions to be constrained and dictated by the editorial line of a newspaper. She therefore divided her time between interviewing plastic over made up wedding planners during the week and going on road trips to remote areas of Lebanon to talk to villagers, refugees and political figures. This duality suited her, it made her feel whole.

She was in the middle of her article on a hot new Lebanese designer who was getting excellent reviews for her embroidery work when her phone rang, breaking the serene atmosphere of her afternoon. A shiver ran down her spine when she read the name on the blaring screen.

The Fear Factor Or How I Shall Never Be Super Woman

I often wonder about what I’m finding to be the biggest taboo in being an activist: the Fear factor. When you’re advocating and struggling for a more egalitarian society, when you’re putting yourself out there in solidarity with people oppressed everywhere, it is inevitable you make some enemies along the way, the first in line of course being the governments you’re criticizing and their supporters.

What baffles me is that very few activists around me seem to show any fear. Is that just me, or is admitting fear a sign of a weakness or of some sort of bourgeois paranoia? Because when I dare to utter that yes, sometimes, I get scared, mostly not for me but for others close to me I’m most often met with very judgmental stares, as in: you’re just a coward.

To which I feel inclined to answer: kindly stop judging, for if I’m a coward, you can very well be considered reckless.

I honestly don’t consider myself a coward (who would anyway), I say loud and clear what I think, but doing so doesn’t prevent me from getting that pang of stress, nurtured with what ifs? What if we get arrested? What if things turn ugly?

I guess this is just something every activist and active citizen in our region needs to take into account and come to terms with because, well, it is part of our life. The issue I find the most difficult to deal with, however, is the anxiety I feel for other people. In a weird twist of my brain (just one more) I get more anxious about what could happen to friends and family than what could happen to me.  And that really, does my head in.

The issue there is that I don’t really feel I can be open about fears to other activists, as, given the previous reactions I have received; I always feel I’d be looked down on. Some of them want you to be more radical and see any (and I mean it, any) precautions you take as a felony, and just like that, you’re written off as a traitor to the cause while others seem kind of sorry for you that you’re not that good an activist. I wonder, who ever said all activists should be the same, who ever said that the level of risks you’re willing to take is the measure against which your commitment will be measured?

I find it mind boggling, the pressure that is on us to be SuperWoman and Super Man at all times. Not everyone can be SuperActivist, the person who shows and feels no fear, It takes special qualities and special skills to do that, and I think it’s safe to say that I don’t have them and that yes, sometimes I yearn for a life where I wouldn’t be stressed all the time, where what’s happening around me doesn’t affect me so much, where I’m not anxious and worried and stressed even in the dreams I have (Last one: my husband was showing me a guy, telling me he was a great Tunisian revolutionary, all of this in my sleep). Sometimes, I yearn for a life where there are no knots in my belly, keeping me awake and preventing me to eat. And yes, I know the people we stand in solidarity with are in a much worse place, I have 1st world problems, yes. Don’t worry I have heard the contemptuous comments before, I know them by heart now.

Nevertheless, I still feel afraid sometimes, I’m a human and I have weaknesses. This is one of them. My fears will drive me sometimes to be careful, if only not to put other people on the line.

Nevertheless, I shall never stop saying loud and clear what I think, for despite my fears, I’m fully conscious that playing on fears is an excellent oppressor’s strategy to prevent people from voicing their discontent and anger.

Nevertheless, I shall try and break that taboo: if you’re scared sometimes, It’s normal, and healthy and don’t listen to others who pretend it never happens to them. Let them be superheroes, and carry on with your life.