Tales of the Phoenix City – Chapter 12

The sun shone a little too brightly, the noises outside were a little too shrill. She closed the shutters and went back to the uneasy sleep that had been hers for the past week.

The damp sheets were clinging to her body, draped around her like a shroud. Very still, she just lied there on her white wrought iron bed, trying to control her breathing and follow her racing thoughts.

It started off with Tripoli, then it spread, violence taking a life of its own, invading homes and minds, annihilating reason.

One person killed in Jdeideh for some obscure reason, bullets drenching a man’s body because of the cost of a motorcycle. Three killed on Tariq El Jdideh, where old rivalries lit up again at the smallest of pretexts. Shootings in Caracas for God only knows what.

Blood, pain, despair and more blood seemed to be the daily bread of her country, and the frustration nearly sent her hurling things at wall, screaming at the inanity of politicians who were doing everything they could to keep the situation and hatred simmering at the surface, then came whimpering about peace when the fires they had started seemed to grow too big for them.

What she could not understand was why the people had not rebelled against their ill-advised, vile and malicious control over their lives, why the mind boggling levels of corruption had not sent everyone she knew into an orbit of anger and revolution.

She had gone very still with anxiety, fear and boiling rage. It seemed her body simply could not stomach the tension that was very palpable in her ever so lively Beirut, it seemed like these emotions kept tossing and turning in her frame, only to come back and turn against her heart and mind.

Making wedding dresses in such a context seemed like an insult to the people who had lost loved ones, it seemed improper, almost obscene, so she just closed her workshop in an impulsive gesture that was very un-Nina like, shut her phone down, and retreated to the fresh haven of her home, only going out to participate in sit ins and candle light vigils to protest against war and bloodshed, here and everywhere.

Yet it didn’t seem enough, yet she couldn’t feel whole again, or shed the guilt of being privileged and being able to get away with much more than people who did not have the privileges she enjoyed. Staying at home seemed so useless and meek, yet it took almost all her will power to even get out of bed. She knew Gaby was out and about, shooting their city and the bullet holes that were cutting through the air and into concrete and flesh, their sounds a grim reminder that death kept hovering over everyone’s head like a malevolent ghost. She wished she could do something, anything, but kept asking herself if her longing for action was to make herself feel better or really was out of concern for her country and its people.

She decided it had to be a bit of both, in any case, what did it matter, since depression pinned her to her bed like a moth stuck in glue.

Today she had found it in herself to turn off the news that had continually been playing the soundtrack to her angst and distance herself from the lies of the yet another politician claiming to know exactly where the 11 men who were abducted were and at what time, and left her apartment to take a walk to her workshop. “You can’t take everything so at heart”, Gabrielle’s voice kept coming back to her, “here and now, you’ll only drive yourself crazy”.

Where was the craziness? To take everything so at heart the events nearly floored you, or to become so accustomed to violence the mere mention and existence of it doesn’t shake you to the core? Since when bullets had lost their terrifying power and since when life had become so disposable?

She had devoted herself to celebrate new beginnings, and had only just started to realise that beginnings and pain often go together, giving birth being the most striking example of it.

These days the words of Fairuz often came back to her “they asked me what was happening in my country, I told them it is being born again”, but how many times does a country have to be born again or reinvent itself if it keeps running to the same death?

In the shed that was her workshop, the unfinished dresses softly gleamed in the semi darkened room, reminding her of ghost past, and more to come.  

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The tension, the frantic phone calls to make sure your loved ones are safe, the sleepless nights, the apnea feeling of barely being able to breathe, the staying up late for no obvious reason other than the fact that your mind is resisting sleep, the liquid air filled with the stillness of death, the outbursts of violence, the constant news, the stretched nerves and hysterical laughs, the helplessness, the anger, the frustration, the muted life in everyone’s eyes, all of this becomes yours overnight, whether you like it or not, whether you can stomach it or not.

The gut wrenching feeling of all that could have been achieved and will never be, the throbbing pulse of your heart beating too fast, the never ending prayers that this is all a dream, a bad dream, a nightmare, that you’re due to wake up anytime soon, the impatient hope of believers, the resigned gazes of those who have already been there, who have already done that, and who just wanted a tiny patch of peace and quiet before they depart from this world, all of this becomes yours overnight, whether you like it or not, whether you can stomach it or not.

The conscience that your situation could be worse, that other people are suffering much more than you are, the conscience that this doesn’t make you feel any better, but rather much, much worse, the tiny parts of you that wither and die each time you look at a picture too long, each time you hear that additional piece of information, the proverbial drop that opens the floodgates in your eyes, the intense fatigue that holds you in its grip with no chance of release, the shocking desire to lie down on blond sand and let yourself go, all of this becomes yours overnight, whether you like it or not, whether you can stomach it or not.

The realization that no matter what, life has to go on, that you can’t stay frozen in anxiety waiting for the penny to drop, waiting and hoping, the strength and the force that keeps you going no matter what, because you have to, because you want to, because there is simply no other way, the fact that it is not courage but rather the will of life itself reigning over you, the intense power of a friend’s hand on your shoulder, telling you that you’re chipping away at the sinister forces behind death and destruction, the tiny glimmer of hope as you picture yourself as a little bird, eating away at the darkness, all of this is yours, yours, and changing what’s yours, becomes your concern.

Move Over! We Don’t Need Your Feminism Now!

 Amidst the tension and clashes recently happening in Lebanon, I got to thinking about a million and one things, like, why do I feel so helpless? What is it that I can do? What is it that I’m willing to do?

A thought crossed my mind, among the chaos of these never ending questionings: now is the time when our detractors will enter the scene, soberly telling feminists that “now is not the time to focus on women’s rights when the security of the country is challenged, we have more pressing matters to deal with”.

This claim is not new and regularly comes back about three times a week under normal circumstances, but now that the country is on the brink of something much more sinister than the daily chaos and incompetence of politicians, I have a feeling we’ll be hearing a whole lot more of that rhetoric.

Which is precisely why we should be prepared and ready to answer, in a very clear, confident, and powerful way.

I don’t think my thoughts here will be clear or confident or powerful, I’m just trying to organise on paper what won’t seem to settle in my head, and contribute to the ongoing conversation feminists have had and still have to face.

Proponents of the “We don’t have time for human rights in times of militarized strife” only focus on the traditional definition of security, that is, defending the nation-state from external threats: this is why they’re quick to over-simplify what is currently happening in Lebanon and blame it all on the Syrian crisis spillover. What they seem to be missing is that the nature of conflicts has shifted and now happen more within states than between them and that therefore, the concept of security has evolved. Since the ground breaking UNDP report of 1994 broadening and deepening the concept of security, challenging the traditional understanding of the term, there is a trend, and a dire need, to understand security under the realm of “human security”, a concept putting the individual back at the center of concerns, stating that human beings should live under “freedom of fear” and “freedom of want” and covering all aspects of human lives: socio-economic factors, health, environmental conditions, food, political security, community security, stating that: “For most people today, a feeling of insecurity arises more from worries about daily life than from the dread of a cataclysmic

world event. Job security, income security, health security, environmental security, security from crime – these are the emerging concerns of human security all over the world.”

The latest events in Lebanon do not only take their roots in the Syrian crisis, as excellently explained by Patrick Galey in his article Don’t Blame Syria – Lebanon Leader’s are fuelling the fighting in Tripoli. Rather, they are the result of a combination of factors having the neglect of human security at their core, and most importantly, they are the result of the perverse effects of the sectarian system and of patriarchal beliefs.

Indeed, sectarian leaders have made it a point not to have any kind of national dialogue with regards to the civil war, creating a country of heavily traumatized and militarized amnesiacs quick to draw out their guns at the smallest excuse. This legacy of violence is coupled with the nepotism and clientelist ties without which the sectarian system could not survive and which hinders the proper development and improvement of the Lebanese population’s socio-economic conditions. The diversion of resources from Human Rights such as education and health towards corrupted real estate projects and vote-catching bribes, mixed with the neo-liberal policies Lebanon has been following for decades, have increased social injustice and disparities, reduced the level and quality of education, and hence created an enabling environment for unemployment, precarious working conditions, and violence, as several studies have shown that low levels of education and important socio-economic gaps have an impact on any given society’s stability.

Patriarchal beliefs and gender stereotypes create societies where male’s privileges and sense of entitlement blossom and thrive and where carrying a gun, swaggering and prancing in the streets of cities in Lebanon sporting a “Shou Bek Wleh?” attitude and getting into fights are seen as signs of virility.

Which brings me back to answering the “we don’t have time for feminism” claim.

Feminism is not only about wanting equal rights for men and women. As a revolutionary movement, feminism aims at shifting gender stereotypes, guaranteeing social justice and high quality, free education and health for all, fighting against oppression of all kinds, and making sure women and men live free from violence.

If that’s not trying to guarantee human security for all for the sake of society and its stability, then I don’t know what is.

Sounds to me that we need feminism now more than ever.

References:

This Morning, I woke up in Lebanon

“We Will Never Learn” – Picture by @Z_iad of the devastation caused by this morning clashes. No amount of words can speak more loudly. 

I woke up this morning cursing. Tfeh! Wou Tfeh! Shi be arref! 

I woke up this morning in Lebanon.

When my friend asked me how come I could stuff my face with jelly beans while the country was burning, and what I was on, I soberly answered, denial. 

I was happy in my little chemical bubble of jelly beans, keeping the fear and the anger at bay, utterly resisting the urge to wildly scream: FOR FUCK’S SAKE NOT FUCKING AGAIN. 

Alas, I did it this morning, after 3 people had died on Tarik el Jdide, after dozens of people had died in Tripoli, after the acrid smell of burning tyres had mixed with the coconut oil of the happy beach goers. The heavy fighting come after the arrest of a Salafist, Shadi Mawlawi, and the shooting, yesterday, of a Cheikh and his bodyguards by the Lebanese Army (http://www.dailystar.com.lb/News/Politics/2012/May-21/174096-lebanon-boils-after-sheikh-killing.ashx#axzz1vQw6bTjG). The institution said it would open a thorough investigation to elucidate the conditions of the shooting. 

Now I get perfectly that some certain gentlemen strive on war: they can revel in their warlord glory again, something they had been missing since 1990, they can play God with their followers, they can distribute arms and death at their will. 

Sectarianism is a system designed, custom-made for war: it absolves the state of all its important duties, such as respecting, protecting and fulfilling the Human Rights of its people, yet it creates ties and loyalties that ensure the perpetuation of family dynasties who control communities and infiltrate every aspect of political, administrative and social life. The ruling elite benefits from it, the collaborators benefit from it, the people quietly drown in that special corner I like to call “No One Gives a Shit”. It is not only because Tripoli is so close to Syria that it faces continuous unrest: it is first and foremost because it’s one of the most neglected city in Lebanon, at all levels, education-wise, socially and economically, and where public efforts have scarcely been made while weapons have gently poured over people’s heads and therefore sectarian groups have taken advantage and contributed to that situation. 

What makes me want to clutch my hair in despair is the so called calls of stability and calm issued by sectarian and religious leaders: they remind me of those pyromaniacs who set places ablaze then come back to the scene of their crimes, grinning. 

Well, maybe it is high time for us to stop bowing our heads to these corrupt, power hungry thugs and put our foot down: WE are the people, WE do not want war and WE will not be manipulated. Because we’re not stupid, and because loving one’s country, you idiotic baboons, doesn’t go through destroying it. 

Join us tonight at 06:00 PM for a candlelight in se7et el shohada. https://www.facebook.com/events/238605289582045/

Tales of the Phoenix City, or Beirut and Other Tribulations

Tales of the Phoenix City, Chapter 11

Airport halls are all the same. Rows of humans treated like cattle, trying to bear the excruciating tedium that is waiting in line for an hour behind families of screaming children, haggard travelers harassed from waking up at the break of dawn to catch a flight schedule at an ungodly hour, excitement and laughters, a condensed sample of humanity stocked up under the same roof while waiting to be shipped someplace again.
Ziad could see all of this, and yet, couldn’t bring himself to feel part of any of it. He had become increasingly private these days, even more so than his naturally shy disposition. He sat for hours on ends, chain smoking,a medical note having absolved him from going to work, a burn out, they said, thinking about what is it that he wanted to do, and who he wanted to be, in his life. A whirlwind of questions tormented him. Outside, Beirut seemed to mute her usually buoyant self to allow the rickety racket of his thoughts bumping against one another. He often missed the delicious hour of dusk, realizing he had forgotten to eat at dawn, while the pomegranate sun drenched the concrete city in its ray of velvety, lava-like sunshine.
His sister had schedule an intervention.
Nina seemed very fond of interventions these days, and very worried about his disheveled state.
She was the one to blame for his mere presence at the airport.
“if you don’t book a vacation, I’ll tell Mom. It’ll upset her so much, knowing you all depressed, she’ll keep calling you all day everyday to make sure you’re not slashing your wrists somewhere in a dark corner, and next thing you know, you’ll be begging me to put a stop to it”.
Another thing Nina was very fond of was guilt-tripping, a trait inherited from their upbringing that his sister had perfected into art.
And so he went ahead and booked his ticket, choosing Istanbul, not really knowing why, hoping perhaps that the energy of the city would supply him with a renewed dose of optimism.
Waiting at the gate, his eyes shut from the mayhem of children and tired mothers around him , he allowed his mind to wander to Lili. Her hair, that delicious golden mane in which his fingers ran so freely not so long ago, her silky smooth skin, the three freckles she had on her shoulders, surprisingly mirroring his own trio of beauty marks at the exact same spot. Her quirky way of seeing the world, her slender fingers typing away on her computer, that hypnotic concentrated air she had when she was working on a story, her nose ruffled and her eyebrows knotted, her whole faced expressing intense thinking and reflection to find the right words, the right turn of phrase.
The longing for her was excruciating, and he asked himself for the umpteenth time if he had made the right decision, leaving her high and dry when things were getting serious.
Ziad had always fancied himself as some kind of bohemian, ready to pack his bags in under a second to participate to a Marxist conference, eager to take his guitar and stay up late until the little hours of the morning, smoking and composing, talking late into the night with the city that was his main inspiration, blessed by the semi silence of darkness. He was happy walking around everywhere, talking to idle people, taking pictures of everything and everyone, pictures that now adorned every inch of his apartment in a shabby building of Caracas. When Lili, serious, poised, strong-willed in a kind of quiet way Lili tumbled into his life, part of him wanted to run away, no matter how strong the love he felt for her. He was no white night in shining armor, he felt weak, and indecisive and lost, still trying to figure out who he was and where he was heading. He felt unfit and unwilling to take care of her the way he imagined she wanted to be taken care of.
That Lili never wanted a white knight in the first place, or could more than properly take care of her own self never occurred to him, and there he was, spinning his thread of golden prejudice and own complications until he could not see anything clearly anymore, blurring their powder blue romance into something much darker and foggy. Every day he felt more and more hemmed in by her and their relationship, and everyday he draft away from her, leaving her more and more confused and hurt, until there was nothing left between them but a ice cold awkward bundle of tensions that was begging to be pierced. He did it finally, after gathering up some scraps of courage, and she looked at him with the face of someone who has no clue about what went on in his head. She was no fool, and until that kiss she so unexpectedly gave him last time at Bread Republic, he had barely heard of her.
Now he was sitting in that airport hall, thinking that if only he had had the codes to navigate his life, if only he had be taught to open up and share his feeling and anxieties, then maybe, just maybe, he wouldn’t be waiting for that flight by himself, and that perhaps he would have someone to talk about this fears to, someone who understood and scolded and comforted him more than his sister or his best friend.
He felt a tiny hand on his lap, patting his knee: he opened up his eyes to a black eyed girl toddler who had used his leg to strengthen herself while precariously walking over to her mother. Gently leading her way, Ziad felt he could give the same comfort to the woman he loved, and be comforted by her in the same simple way.
Sighing, he picked up his back and entered the flight, half hoping his depression would lift along with the plane.

Hear us!

Hear us! Hear us! Hear the uproar of our silence, the 2000 banshee screams of our sealed mouths!
Feel us! Feel us! Feel the strength of our empty stomachs, the blade of our emaciated figures rip through the guilty bubble of your indifference, and neglect and ignorance.
If our destiny is submission, oppression, humiliation and injustice, then we choose death over that sliver of a life. We close our lips to liberate our souls, you can lock us up and bring us down but you can’t touch what is gloriously, utterly ours, our minds, our faith, our visceral attachment for our land, the vibes and acts of solidarity going above and beyond your crimes, the love of our families and friends.
You can lock us up and bring us down, yet we escape, we are everywhere, in the prayers in churches and mosques, in the raised fist of peoples throughout the world, in the existence and lives of our children, in the olive trees of Palestine.
You can lock us up and bring us down, yet we are everywhere, in your frantic attempts at covering up the horrors you perform, in all the sugar coating you need to do to at least try and appear human in your own eyes, yet we see clearly, yet we are not fooled, our starved bodies come knocking at your doors, you can lock us up and bring us down, yet each day that passes pushes you, not us, further down the hounds of hell.
Our silence speaks louder than your bullets, our dignity reaches higher than your violence, we may have an empty stomach but our heads are held high, your blows don’t make us bow.
Hear us! Hear us! Hear the uproar of our silence, the 2000 banshee screams of our sealed mouths!
Feel us! Feel us! Feel the strength of our empty stomachs, the blade of our emaciated figures rip through the guilty bubble of your indifference, and neglect and ignorance!

On Speaking Arabic and Other Identity Stories

So where do you come from? is a question I have heard more than I care to mention. Attending school in France, my hair intrigued people, crossing the borders between France and Switzerland, my name on a French passport intrigued people, at university, I’ve been told it was my nose (true story) that intrigued people, or one of them at any rate, probably not the most brilliant specimen of scholar, but anyway. 

Hence, the where do you come from? 

I didn’t take it badly, after all people feel sympathies, or curiosity or find you exotic, no real harm done, and besides, in a multicultural place like Geneva, the where do you come from merry-go-round is more of a game than anything else, as everyone competes to prove that they do not know a single Swiss person actually from Geneva in Geneva (I myself am struggling to find one). 

What I was less prepared for, anyway, was getting the where do you come from question in Lebanon. I mean, getting it in Europe was bad enough, but in Lebanon? I checked myself for spontaneous blond hair sprouting out of my skull or delighfully thought I had grown overnight 10 meters of legs, Norwegian style. 

Alas, I had kept my very tangled, curly, unruly black hair and stout body. 

You see, the question stemmed from my Arabic. It’s not perfect. In fact, it’s so broken, mkassar, that people find it “cute”, “sexy”,”adorable” as if I were a small child learning to speak. 

Which in a way, I am, I’ll grant you that. However, that doesn’t mean these comments don’t irk me. They do. Each little comment on my accent in Arabic is felt like a tiny slap in the face, as if a little devil was standing on my shoulder, dancing evil jigs and mocking me each time an “r” is not rolled properly or when I can’t pronounce the qaf in a word. I manage it by itself just fine, just don’t ask me to put it in a word. Sadly, I can’t go around demonstrating that skill around, as roaming the streets of Beirut going “qaf qaf qaf qaf qaf” would only earn me a trip to the 3asfouriyeh. 

And don’t get me started on reading. I can read Arabic, very basically, but asking me to read a whole report is like asking me to interpret a UN conference  from Russian to Swahili. Get it? I can’t read properly. Yet. I still have high hopes that might change. 

You see, my main issue is that, having always stood out as the only Arab in a classroom of 30 non-Arab people (truly traumatizing, go explain to other people why you’re having mjaddara because it’s Friday, start even explaining what mjaddara is), I learnt to define myself as a Lebanese born in France, which I still do. I feel Lebanese, whatever that means, through and through, I absurdely love that little country of mine, and therefore I would just LOVE speaking Arabic properly. (One) of my identities, that is, the one of an Arab citizen, is intimately linked to mastering the language, all the more because there is a need to reclaim it, to move away from the languages inherited by past or neo colonial powers. Sometimes, when no one is looking, I picture myself giving out long, Nasser-like speeches in flawless Arabic, before the phone rings and wakes me up from my reverie and I stutter something in an idiom vaguely resembling the Lebanese dialect.

That people find it cute is of little importance: I find it patronizing, it grazes my heart. No, strike that, it grazes my pride and it grazes the anti-imperialist in me. 

So what is there for me to do? Go on an intensive class? Or became a Teflon woman, upon whom the remarks cutie comments will have little impact? 

Or learn to accept the hybrid Lebanese that I am, a composite item of a myriad of identities and languages and stories? After all, wouldn’t that be better than remaining closeted in a certain community or a certain party? 

And I can pronounce the qaf.  I can. Go on. Ask me. 

Plastic Capitalist

Today, I was attending a Meeting on women’s leadership: men in suit moderators, outdated data, lack of content. The meeting was supposedly women’s leadership, yet the was not discussed and rather, the whole thing looked more like a company’s team building retreat, with moderators apparently on a mission to complete their template.
When my colleagues and I raised the issues, we were told to, in that order: take things with a pinch of salt, be more positive, that the best people were moderating the sessions, that we were aggressive and that finally we were welcomed to send all our suggestions and evaluation in the little form provided in the little folder.
It was strange to see that apparently there was no woman qualified enough to be part of the moderators, but beyond those specific issues, it was appalling to witness how much the issue of women’s rights has become commodified, treated via companies specialized in “leadership strategies”, within the framework of a conference so formatted the environment for leadership development was far from being provided. The worst part of it all might very well have been that organizers and moderators presented themselves as “feminists”. The same ones who told me to “take things with a pinch of salt”, presenting themselves as feminists.
This situation clearly reminded me how much feminism has been overused, recuperated and distorted, the way you see right wing neocons parading as feminists. Feminism is by definition a revolutionary current aiming at questioning power relations, whether they are economic power relations, gender power relations or political relations. As feminists, we must remain aware of what language is being used, what methods are being used, what images, what attitudes, everything. Remaining vigilant and speaking out against situations that strike us as insensitive gender wise, or oppressive to any social group, not just women , are part of our job, and if that makes us aggressive, then so be it. When we spoke out at that conference, many people blamed us from holding the agenda back, from being too offensive: I however can’t help but notice that our stir caused two women trainers to moderate one session, which was not previously factored in the programme, just like the acts of feminists demonstrators in the 70’s were perceived as aggressive, yet you wouldn’t have seen drastic changes in European laws pertaining to women and gender without them. Feminism, contrary to women’s rights currents, not only asks for gender equality within laws and practice: it aims at shifting societies upside down to challenge traditional conservative concepts of what it means to be a woman or a man, it aims at questioning and changing heteronormative and sexist beliefs and practices.
One of the aspects of the intrusion and recuperation of progressive ideologies by capitalism and neoliberal policies is how the emphasis has shifted from public duties to individual duties. While talking about women’s rights and empowerment, so many people kept pointing fingers at women, stating it was up to them to seize opportunities and not to wait on the state to give them anything. The success of capitalism is that it has managed to make people believe that asking anything from the government is acting as an assisted person. It’s the Nike philosophy, just do it, you can do it, etc, you you you and people who try to do it and fail are stigmatized. Reminder: governments ratify human rights law treaties, therefore, governments should be held accountable for respecting, protecting and implementing them. The State has a duty, in fact many of them, and part of the empowerment process is to remind the state of its obligations and put it back in front of them, and stating that in doing so, a citizen is being nothing short of a big whiny baby is. A. Lie.