Tales of the Phoenix City, or Beirut and Other Tribulations

Tales of the Phoenix City – Chapter 10

These three girls were acutely getting on Yasmine’s nerves. The Atmosphere was heavy as she put on her wedding gown for the last time before her big day. She looked at herself in the mirror, who was that fledging bird floating in the big white dress, who had she become? Was she about to make the biggest mistake of her life? The three witches were whispering things behind the velvet curtain, making her even more nervous. For the umpteenth time today she had the urge to dive into her bag (Balenciaga, had cost her father a fortune, good, that’ll teach him to regulate her life) to retrieve her cigarettes and start her usual chain smoking, but Nina had made it extremely clear that no smoke of any kind was allowed anywhere near her beloved fabrics. Ufffff. Designers and and their neurosis.

She tittered outside, knowing she looked stunning, pride coloring her hollow cheeks.

– Jesus Fucking Christ, interjected the thin tall girl, you look like shit. It’s the first time I ever see Nina’s magic dimmed by sadness. You might as well go in a denim overall, you’d look better.

That rattled Yasmine. How dare she! That little! That bitch! Would you look at her! All cheekbones and angles and and I don’t know what!

Holding her rage in, Yasmine barely answered:

– For the price your friend here is charging, people’s reaction better be different from yours.

The look of contempt the three women shot her made her lower her eyes in shame: couldn’t she depart herself once, just for once, of her role as the Beiruti princess, always bitchy, always pushy, throwing money at everything as if small sheets of paper were the answer to everything, including happiness?

Suddenly, she felt really, really tired. She’d have loved to disappear somewhere, and never come back to her farce of a make believe world, the world that had entangled her in a web she could not, or did not know how, disentangle herself from. How cast in stone, iron-wrought do prejudices and beliefs look when one is born and raised in them!

The tall girl started shooting with her long lens camera, which, under normal circumstances, would have gotten Yasmine all proud and excited. That is, under normal circumstances and not exactly when one, she was being insulted, or her beauty, at any rate, something she had always taken for granted, so many were the times she had seen and heard it being celebrated, and two, when this was not a particularly happy occasion, given the fact that she did not love the groom and positively loathed his family, the family she was supposed to be making hers soon.

What a lovely situation. The muted cream tones of Nina’s workshop, the delicious Russian Earl Grey tea, the scrumptious biscuits from the cooperatives did not suit Yasmine’s state of mind: she needed black, lots and lots of it, to match her funeral mood.

– Look at me! Urged the thin girl. Yeah, look into that lens, I want you to remember how utterly miserable you looked on a day that should have been nothing short of joyful!

Yasmine cleared her throat. She hated the clipped tones and the dry words that came out of her mouth, but she did not know another way of dealing with confrontation and honesty, she had been raised in a world of lies, of appearances, where what you drove and the brands you wore were miles more important than the person underneath.

– Nina, I do not know what is it that you’re getting at, but it seems to me that you could, and you should, have asked me before inviting your friends over for my final fitting. What’s more, I did not ask for that person’s opinion, she said, gesturing to Gabrielle, barely looking up. I would like you to ask them to leave.

– Yasmine, I have put up with your attitude for so long because I hold in great value people who love. I figure, in the words of Amelie Nothomb, a novelist you of all people probably don’t know, that all those who love deserve to be saved. The thing is, my dear Yasmine, that you’re impossible, not because you love, but because you don’t. I think you’re no more of an awful person that my friend Gaby, who you don’t seem to be particularly fond of. You’re spoiled, yes, you’re way too pampered, for sure, and it wouldn’t hurt you to work a tad more, but in you, I see many other things. I see passion, ambition, cleverness. I see will, I see a hint of laughter that would be clearer if only you were no imprisoned in a societal jail. I see so much more than just a wedding with a person you hate. What I told you last time remains: I refuse to sell you the dress in that condition.

Yasmine’s tears were flowing, not because of Nina’s galvanizing speech, but because no one, not even her parents, no one in her whole life had ever called her clever.

– But what should I do? I can’t just drop everything.

– Yes you can, piped a small voice coming from the tiny blond girl who had kept silent up until now. If I was able to distance myself from the love of my life because he was just not putting me as a priority and because he seemed more interested by himself and his Constant internal demons than by what we could have achieved together, then yes, I think you can leave a stupid fils à papa that probably doesn’t even love you and who will probably find another match in less than a month, thanks to his mommy.

– And the world can stick it!

– Thank you, Gabrielle, for this highly valued contribution, Nina shot her friend a dirty look. Gaby would never ever learn to speak properly.

But Yasmine was smiling.

– Keep the smile Beiruti Princess! Urged the thin girl, Gaby, while shooting like there was not tomorrow, I Like the mix of tears and laughter, it’s mirrored in our Beirut.

Outside, it had started to rain. Those heavy, gorgeous Beiruti showers where the sun caressed the clouds, where the air smelt of baked dust and dry earth. Big drops, buckets of waters cleansing the city from all its numerous sins, with tiny rays of suns piercing through the sky, a promise of redemption.

Nina knew an opportunity when she saw one.

– Besides, I have a business proposal to discuss with you. 

On the dangers of standing on a street in Lebanon

So there I was, innocently standing on a street after work, waiting for a pick up, when a car stopped in front of me.
– A question please Miss, he said.
So I walked to his car, obliging, thinking he needed directions ( that’ll teach my civic sense to shut the fuck up and now give the finger to every living soul I don’t know that talks to me).
– what do you do? He said, I always see you here.
I looked at him, puzzled and bewildered. Why was he asking? Dif he need to find my organization for something or the other? I decided on vagueness.
– I work in the neighborhood, why?
– I always see you I told you, so where do you work? Tell me! What do you do? What type of job you have?
There and then, I knew he was not looking for information, but perhaps, for a suitable bride with good money that comes with, or a quick fuck, of God knows what. So I just told him, Ma khassak. This is none of your business.
-So if someone talks to you what do you do, you hit him? Byekol 2taleh? He yelled, bristling with aggression.
– I’m married and all…
As soon as I said that, he said: oh, that’s different then, and just left in a hurry. He was right to leave, not because my husband is 1m88 and could easily kick his ass, but because I was 1m66 of pure, pure unadultered sheer rage and would have made him EAT his stupid car.

But I hate myself a little for having had the knee jerk, automatic reaction of telling him straight away I was married. I shouldn’t have, and will never ever say it again should a similar situation arise, for what is this society that barely respects a woman only if she’s a mother and a wife? Aren’t single girls worthy of respect? So let me get this straight: he has the utter sense of entitlement to stop and invade my privacy and ask all kinds of questions, and when I refuse to answer and tell him it isn’t any of his business (not to mention it’s for my own safety, the last thing I need being a stalker), he’s all offended and aggressive, demanding to know, making me pass for a hysterical woman who beats the crap out of every person talking to her (how i wish it were true).
However, I tell him I’m married and all of a sudden he feels shameful and drives off. In one event, I was able to witness the condensed patriarchy of Lebanese society. Single women suffer from a paradox: their honor lies in their virginity and they are to be sheltered and watched, but at the same time it’s like, in the eyes of society, they don’t belong to anyone yet, so they’re sort of up for grabs, making it ok to harass them. Married women and mothers are sacralised, their union having been blessed by a religious, patriarchal, authority.

All women out there in the public sphere, trying to play a role in their communities, run the risk of being harassed on the streets just because they are women.

This is precisely why we should be even more visible, why I will never ever say my marital status again because it is no one’s business, because I deserve respect, not because I am married to a man, but because I am a woman, a human being.

Social Media for Social Change

It’s now official, I tweet so much, I feel like I’m about to start talking in hashtags.

First of all, let me share with you a very concrete example on how to use social media to bring forward our collective voice and power. On Friday evening at midnight, two Lebanese activists, Khodor Salemeh and Ali Fakhry, were arrested for tagging a wall of Beirut, under the claim that they were “disrupting public order”, while they were only exercising their right to freedom of speech. As soon as the news came out, activists and civil society mobilized both offline and online: a sit in was organized in front of where the two men were being held while people were tweeting, using the same hashtags, creating graphics, creating Facebook pages, spreading news, information and messages of solidarity and support from all over the world, and by this, I really mean all over the world, as the Prime Minister of Lebanon received calls for the liberation of the men from Chile. Our tweets to Lebanese Prime Minister Nagib Mikati were so pressing and persistent, asking for news of Khodor and Ali and calling for their immediate release that Mikati kept tweeting “Patience, Patience, I’m working on it”. Yesterday in the Early evening, the two activists were released.

This example of using social media to attract the attention of public officials for a specific cause and to mobilize and inform people came right after the Women’s Learning Partnership session at the AWID Forum on using social media for women’s empowerment showcased the various ways in which one can use Twitter to link up with partners, be part of a global conversation with like minded people and organisations, advocate for women’s rights and gender equality and build a constituency.
Many participants shared their stories of social media use and all were relevant and inspiring, but one in particular resonated with me in a strong way: a young woman member of Parliament from Kyrgyzstan, in disagreement with the policy of closed doors that the session she was attending followed, starting tweeting about it, thus putting herself up for trouble, refusing to give her phone to the authorities who wanted to take it away from her. Her action caused a sudden surge in Twitter Utilization in her country, which had a low rate of tweeple, thus broadening the scope and possibilities of free speech.

While social media can’t achieve anything without on the ground mobilization there is no denying that it has helped creating virtual ties and solidarity networks that can be useful to attract and retain attention on an issue, then possibly translate into further on the ground action.
This third day has also been a very fulfilling day on a personal level, as I was on a panel at the Education Space on sharing of experiences on capacity building in economic rights, in which I learnt more about the SEWA Radio (http://www.radiosewa.org/) in India and about the power of popular education and of women’s sharing of experiences and stories as a way of learning.
Finally, I decided today to choose a session blindly, to go attend something that was not related to the Middle East, or women’s economic empowerment and rights or better yet, to the economic rights of women in the Middle East. My mind was drawn to the session on the power of pleasure, and indeed, it was a real pleasure: the room was packed with women discussing sex work, the intersections between sexual rights and reproductive health, and the taboos of society while sharing appreciation and joy at being able to hold these conversations in such a unique space. While we explored the definition of what constitutes a “good woman” according to patriarchal rules and values, I realized it was probably too late for me to qualify for the position of good woman.
Rather, I’de like to settle for the position of feminist. At least with Feminism My body and I exist in and within ourselve And are not controlled by anyone.

Collective analysis for radical change, or how I discovered (and applied) popular education

Day 2 of my AWID Forum Chronicles

As human beings, in this day and age of technology, we are constantly bombarded by information, data, facts and figures. This is why it is important to sometimes stop, and take the time to reflect on a certain topic. In and within itself, the AWID Forum is a place for learning, a place where knowledge, all kinds of it, is shared, be it through sessions, capacity building workshops, or simply talking to your neighbour, so you can for example learn that violence against women rates are sky rocketing in Fidji or that militarization is an extreme form of institutionalized patriarchy.
The in-depth sessions the forum is piloting in its 2012 edition allow for a strong focus on a certain topic, running for three hours and a half every day of the forum, a bit like an intensive lecture/participatory session. Being the Middle Eastern obsessed person that I am, I’m currently following the in-depth session on women’s rights and transition democracy in the MENA region.

After a plenary in which Rabea Naciri from Morocco and Asma Khader from Jordan spoke about the constitutional processes and changes in the region, participants broke into groups to discuss constitutional reforms, the role of media and social media in making women’s claims visible and processes on transitional justice. I was lucky to be part of the group on constitutional reforms: it felt incredibly empowering sitting at the heart of a women’s cluster, reflecting and suggesting strategies on the core laws and processes of the countries of the region. Women’s invisibility and the lack of gender perspective in the current constitutional assemblies (notably in Tunisia and Egypt) lead us to emphasize the need first of all of popular education on the importance of constitutional reforms and second of all, on the absolute necessity to have assemblies of women drafting their own version of the Constitution.

The issue of negotiations with conservative powers came up: as feminists, where should we draw the line? What are the non negotiables? Should we have a long term vision and keep our radical agenda and invest on education and awareness raising or should we cede on some points in the short to mid-term to insert ourselves in the debates and decisions? But if we do, would that keep the integrity of our thoughts and vision or who would be compromising the aims of our struggle? There are no clear cut, one size-fits-all answer to these questions, they take in-depth research, historical perspective, thinking and anticipation, input from different experiences and expertise to have a clearer picture of how to influence and shape the society we hope to see and want. We are still working on what the ideal gender sensitive constitution would be, but Rabea Naciri outlined some relevant, core points that Constitutions in post revolution countries should include, such as clarity of language and terminology so as to prevent any harmful-to-women interpretations and explicit prohibition of any type of discrimination based on gender on top of calling for substantive gender equality. Constitutions should also specifically speak to the rights of political opposition and mention and include civil society and its contribution to society as a whole.

Learning doesn’t specifically require in-depth sessions: it was incredible to also learn new concepts and methodologies during break out sessions. Today, I have learnt more about the topic of popular education and how it can have a strong impact on economic education for women’s economic empowerment. This session prompted a lot of reflections for me as it helped me put a very concrete strategy on the concept of collective power of women. Indeed, popular education being collective analysis and action for social transformation, it is nothing more than what we do when we sit down on the floor of the Halic Auditorium, creating our collective analysis to participate in the social transformations Middle Eastern countries are currently facing.

Talking about our collective power and our collective voice goes beyond mere words: by uttering these very ideas, we already start to shape the changes we want to see in our world.

On a Feminist International – Blogging at the AWID Forum

I’ll be blogging for the young feminist wire at the AWID Forum, check my first post below. Here’s the link on the Wire! http://yfa.awid.org/2012/04/impressions-from-a-young-feminist-on-day-1-of-the-2012-awid-forum/

Looking at the AWID Forum programme, I felt like a little girl in a sweet shop: i want to go to this session! No, is one! Finally, I sadly had to pick several of them, wishing my superpowers included duplicating myself.
This Edition of the AWID Forum focuses on transforming economic power to achieve social justice and gender equality. Right from the opening session, the tone was set: as feminist, we focus on relationships of power, and on how power dynamics affect our lives, our rights and bodies. The financial and economic crisis has brought tremendous pressure on peoples in general and women in particular, as women are more at risk to find themselves in situation of poverty, unemployment and precarious working conditions in the informal sector of the economy. Austerity measures lead to significant cuts in social spending such as health and education, increasing women’s vulnerability as women’s health is put in jeopardy and possibilities of education are reduced; yet banks are bailed out and saved and multinational corporations carry on exhausting the earth’s resources and making huge profits. As Gitta Sen put it at the opening session, the end has become money, growth and profit while the means are the human beings.
Faced with this situation, we as feminists do have an opportunity: an opportunity to mobilize, organize and influence public policies with alternative interpretations of the economy. In other words, it is high time we shake the orthodox mathematical paradigm of current economics to build new concepts to be used in gendered economics. Such transformative economics include feminist interpretation of the economy where women’s work in the informal sector is taken into account and where the reproductive role of women and the gendered economy of care is valued and recognized, as social organization usually put domestic and care work on women’s shoulders.
Economic power dynamics are not the only relationships that will be discussed over the upcoming four days, as issues of body image, sexual and reproductive health and rights and political phenomenon and militarization will be tackled.
The Forum also introduces in-depth session, longer sessions focusing on a specific theme. Among them, the session on democratic transitions and women in the Arab world was extremely intense and interesting, both online and offline. Offline, because women from Tunisia, Morocco, Egypt and Iran shared first and foremost their stories of hope: as Thoraya Obaid clearly stated at the beginning of the sessions, there is no denying that revolutions brought dynamics of change. Ahlem Bel Haj from the Association Démocratique des Femmes Tunisiennes stated that not only were Arab countries in a transitional democratic process, but that they were first and foremost engaged in a revolutionary process: words have their importance, as emphasizing the revolutionary process keeps social justice and labor rights demands, key demands of the revolutions, in the picture.
Talking about words brings me to the online debate: when tweeting about comments made by panelists and participants that feminists needed to remain vigilant when facing political Islam groups as they could represent threats to women’s rights, some tweeple told me that such a language could be perceived as the language of counter-revolution and that now would be the time to be optimistic about the opportunities ahead. The conversations and work groups during the sessions today and this online debate lead me to this conclusion: as feminists, we are part of a progressive, subversive mouvement, which organically implies always remaining vigilant of conservative forces. The previous regimes in revolutionary countries in the regions were in no way women’s rights champions: it doesn’t however mean that we should turn a blind eye to the situation currently unfolding. We not only need to remain vigilant and alert in developments, as we have always been, but we also need to draw parallels with other countries and learn lessons from the past, as has been mentioned by Sudanese and Iranian feminists at the forum, to try and build a global feminist solidarity network that is enshrined in the universality of women’s rights.

Talking about solidarity and a Feminist International really nails down what this Forum is about: bringing out and mobilizing the forceful, inspiring, so-strong-it-could-move-mountains collective power of women.

Happy AWID Forum!

The Collective for Research and Training on Development.Action will be at the AWID Forum in Istanbul on Transforming Economic Power to Advance Women’s Rights and Justice. I’ll be speaking during the session at the Education Space, drop by and say hi if you;re around! 

On Stitching Beirut Back Together or Another 13th of April Story

This week end was the commemoration of the start of the Lebanese civil war that lasted from 1975 to 1990. I’d refer you to a history book to get all the details of how it started, what happened, how alliances were made and broken, except that us Lebanese may have cooked the biggest Hummus ever, we’re still not able to agree on the same version as to why and how the war happened. So officially, there is no lebanese history taught in schools from 1975 on. 

I could go on and on about the massacres that were perpetrated, about the history of blood, and loss, and hate and pain that characterized that era, for there were quite an impressive amount of them, all more horrifying than the other, except that I wouldn’t quite know where to begin. 

One of my first memory of Lebanon is how the city center was utterly, completely and irremediably destroyed. I remember the first time I saw it, as well as the first time I passed by Galerie Semaan, I remember thinking: what utter horror. I was six, I think it must have scared me like a horror house or something. I couldn’t quite fathom it. 

Have you been to the city center lately? Could you ever tell that shiny, happy, Khaleeji-friendly place was, not so long ago, the horror of its inhabitants own making? No one could ever guess it by looking at this Potemkin village. Some call it resilience, I call it amnesia. Capitalist Beirut did not try to give its city center back to its inhabitant, a place they could reoccupy and reinvent, with new activity and new contacts with one another, it tried to gloss over the horror with mock pre-war architecture, pretending it was the new and improved Beirut when in fact it is nothing more than a place for others, a place for tourists where Lebanese do not communicate or build ties. Post war, it was a no man’s land, post post war, it’s still a no man’s land, and no amount of sparkly shops can ever change that. My friend and writer Sara Abu Ghazal says it really well in her last article “Politics of Closeness and Alienation[1]” ,

Beirut is a city that represents short memory, with an outstanding privatized downtown that screams in your face: nothing happened here. 

Except that things, terrible things, did happen here, and that we’re still stuck with the system that allowed them to happen. We’re still stuck in a sectarian paradigm that has brought us nothing but chaos: yet we’re still quite happily carrying on with it. 

Among the many things that shock me when talking about the civil war is how all those warlords, all those corrupt, disgusting murderers got together in Saudi Arabia, gave each other a pat on the back, declared amnesty to one another, then came back, told the people, yalla, 3a byoutkon, go home, the war is over, leaving only a skeleton of a country licking its wounds, a devastated population while they had made more money out of death and destruction than decency would allow me to mention. 

150 000 people dead. 17 000 disappeared. A handful of power hungry corrupt warlords still ruling the country, not really giving a shit about the people that actually paid the high price for their lies. 

This is what we have to show for the war.

So today, the coalition for Social Justice, Equality and Secularism had invited different groups to march throughout symbolic parts of Beirut, where the infamous demarcation line used to be drawn during the war, a line that is still very much drawn in the Lebanese’ collective subconscient. 

And on we marched, from Chiah, through Ain el Remmaneh, to Adlieh screaming that we should never forget what happened in our country, chanting that those people, the 150 000 people who died, were not rocks or pebbles on the streets, they were people, human beings, that deserve to be remembered, and respected, that the 17 000 disappeared were not insignificant, that we could allow ourselves to forget them and move on, that they too, need to be remembered, their fate, elucidated. 

And on we marched, singing that we will never, ever let a civil war happen again. People’s faces were grave, they were watching us as we blamed the parliament and the current ruling political elite, some, mostly older women, threw rice on us, as a blessing, as a way of wishing us well, others openly told us, bravo, bravo, some looked at us with weariness, some kept silent, others said Allay y2awwikon. They looked at us, as we were forcing them, by our presence, to reflect on our shared history. 

We were not many, in fact we were disappointed we were not more, but as I was marching, I was deeply listening to the chants around me, especially one: They created the demarcation line, us the people, we are erasing it. 

And as I was marching, I had the image of the line as an open wound, and that each of our step were the stitches that were going to close the wound together. 

Yes, we were not many, but if several of us carry on the stitching, then maybe one day the wound will only become a scar, something we would look at and say about: see that scar? I got it doing something really stupid.

I’ll never do it again. 

[1] http://www.sawtalniswa.com/2012/04/politics-of-closeness-and-alienation/

My Beirut

My Beirut is a battlefield, a permanent fight of honking cars and suicidal pedestrians, lost in the hustle bustle of the city. My Beirut is an inextricable web of fantasies and myths and weird ideas, of apparent dangers and hidden kindness. 

My Beirut has been diabolised and insulted and torn apart and trampled, yet it kept going, blackened and bruised yet never defeated. 

My Beirut is the beating heart of a million people, all linked to her from a certain place under their left ribs, the cord so strong it can be frayed but never broken. 

My Beirut is the colourful place of half hidden memories, she’s alive and kicking like a spoilt child, she’s restless and bothered, hot and impatient, quick witted and forceful.

My Beirut is capable of the worst, parading its bullet holes like a sequin dress, carrying the bravado of fools looking for death amidst the chaos, leaving her legs open for murderers to loot her, allowing herself to sink so low the innoncence can never be retrieved, for we all know now the squalor beneath the glitter. 

My Beirut is trying to make amends, wearing her new buildings like a dead corpse special make up, forgetting that it doesn’t do to cover up pain, anger and misery with marble slate and mock Dubai sky scrappers. My Beirut is no good at wearing truth on her sleeve, she’s no good at admitting to anything, she prefers to hide behind distorted explanations and constant bickering, it saves her the trouble of looking into the abyss that has been her life up till now.

My Beirut is to be found now in the smile of a stranger, in the crumbling beauty of an abandoned house in a zaroube in Ashrafieh, in a table of different generations of men playing cards on the sidewalk in front of their dekken, their game rocked by the humming of traffic next to them. 

My Beirut can be encountered in the smell of gardenia at the entrance of my old building, at the soft sand in Ramleh el Bayda, in the laughter of uniformed school girls, in the clamour of demonstrations, in the voices of citizens fed up with the icing on the rotten cake, eager to shake the city back to genuine life. 

My Beirut is in the eyes of boys and girls who still believe in her magic, however much people try to format and label her, she will always reinvent herself, escaping the bell jars she’s being forced into. 

My Beirut is a work in progress, a future to be unraveled, a window to be scrubbed clean. My Beirut isn’t one: it is thousands, and in each of them I see a little bit of myself. 

Tales of the Phoenix City – Chapter 9

Gabrielle felt incredibly happy. Getting ready to drop by Lili’s, she was thinking about the business she had just started, her very own hybrid graphic design/ photography lab. She had done It for herself, but also for Grace, her beloved girlfriend of five years. Theirs has been a tortuous path, one that was lined with obstacles:hatred from society, incomprehension and guilt from their families, and ultimately, love for each other and acceptance from their true friends. Five years of emotional lifts to finally arrive at a plateau of relative calm and serenity, feeling like a lovely quiet home after a gruelling day.

She wished Lili could feel the same, but knew better than to interfere too much in her friend’s innermost feelings. Unlike Nina, who could behave like the most obnoxious Lebanese mother with her friends and still get away with it, Gabrielle dealt more easily with concrete actions, purposefulness and rational decisions. She was not born this way, but life, with its unexpected twists and turns, had wired her to only be able to swear and curse and come across as strong and hard as nails. Sometimes, she even felt it was true, that she had had to fight so many difficult battles, she couldn’t possibly be bothered any more by the never ending autopsies of hurt feelings over coffee. Try and come out to your Lebanese family while studying, working, and trying to keep your relationship together and then come back and see if the indecisiveness of a spoilt brat such as Ziad had the same impact on you.  

Yet Gabrielle felt Lili’s pain acutely and would have gleefully told Ziad what she thought of him had he not be Nina’s brother and her friend’s great love. Perhaps she’d be more useful to Lili when Lili decided she wanted to get over Ziad once and for all: for now, her pain was too raw for anyone to be able to do anything.

Putting on her jacket, she opened the kitchen door where Grace was experimenting new recipes. Living with Grace, or so she felt, was like living with a deliciously fragrant ray of sunshine. A chef, Grace loved to let her creativity loose by reinventing traditional recipes, adding spices here and a little less sugar there, creating odes to the country they both loved dearly despite and in spite of its numerous thorns. She had always hated the “love it or leave it’ mentality. Who had declared that weird notion that if you loved something you shouldn’t and weren’t even allowed to criticize it? Lebanon had a million and one things wrong with it, and not mentioning them would not be a sign of love, but rather, of acute hypocrisy and blindness.

Entering the kitchen, she felt the wonderful smells fill her nostrils, and amidst them all, her beloved, her hair tied back covered by a keffieh, her apron neatly tied behind her back, looking as if she was in trance over a steaming pot.

– Oh devilish witch, what pagan mixture are you brewing?

Grace gave a chuckles and a start. She loved it when Gaby pretended she was a witch enthralling people with her tantalizing blends.

– I, beloved child, am rediscovering the well known desert of Mhalabbiyyeh, measuring orange blossom water and a hint of rose water, debating if a pinch of cinnamon is advisable, leaving the condensed milk to brew with the Maizena, but, no! Oh No! Don’t even think for a moment that you shall be allowed to taste it before it is neatly sitting in my gorgeous mismatched cups covered in ground pistachios and raisins!

Grace’s quick hand swiftly hit Gabrielle’s own hand that had wandered a little too close to her precious desert.

– Behave yourself! If this version of Mhalabiyyeh is successful and as delicious as I’m suspecting it will be we will have to include it in the book!

– I will take the most beautiful pictures to glorify the most wonderful food Lebanon has ever seen, of this you can rest assured, smiled Gabrielle.

– Where are you off to?

– Nina has gotten in her head to have that customer of hers, Yasmin, renounce her upcoming wedding with that dreadful, incredibly rich fiancé she thinks she absolutely needs to marry not to wind up alone and suicidal. Believe me I’d rather work with you on the cookbook so we can progress design wise and choose the color palette, but our sweet crazy friend seems to deem  it necessary that she offers as many examples of the Great Diversity of Love, in all caps if you may, to that Beiruti Princess, so that she can see one can be happy outside society’s normative box.

Grace beamed at her.

– Nina can’t help herself, she has to be a protective mother to everyone except to herself, beamed Grace. I do love her for it. Go, do your intervention, then we’ll have plenty of time to work. Yalla! Go save that poor girl from the claws of society, or from Nina’s embrace, I don’t know what’s worse!

With a slight movement, Gabrielle pecked her girlfriend, stole a freshly baked almond-hazelnut coffee, avoided another pat on her guilty fingers and dashed outside, taking another helmet for Lili to ride her motorcycle with her.

Lili was waiting for her in front of the old fashioned blue door of her building, the beautiful gardenia tree blossoming above her, generously shielding Lili’s thin frame from the sun while filling the air around her with its sweet pungent smell.

– You look like death, boomed Gabrielle by way of greeting.

– That’s probably because I feel like it, retorted Lili grabbing the helmet from her friend. I’m never ever approaching alcohol ever again. From now on, just call me Lili Rose Water Drinker.

– Just stop kissing twisted bastards, you’ll be just fine.

By the wobbly smile and watery eyes she made out behind the helmet, Gabrielle understood full well it wasn’t one, but two interventions that were needed that day.