The city was her haven, the slabs of concrete felt moist and tender beneath her feet, the piercing noises of every day life were the perfect symphony to her dreams. Gabrielle had taken to ramble through the streets whenever the political climate felt unstable and volatile, acting just the opposite of what everyone was doing. Instead of retreating home, she confronted the insecurity heads on, with the suicidal bravado of fools and heroes, going further deep within herself rather than within the closed four walls of a womb-like house where the feeling of safety was nothing more than an illusion. Thanks to the living hell that was her home when she was growing up, she knew full well that sometimes, houses and bricks can be the shield behind which oppressors operate. Her childhood house still haunted her to this day, and she knew very well that even people who knew her inside and out and since forever could not really understand what had happened there to leave such an imprint on her. In truth, no one had ever heard screams coming out from the cream colored rooms of her youth, her mother never had to invent some far-fetched story to explain blues and bruises. There was no open, visible case of violence to study.
But the violence was there, ensconced in the silence, in the tension of her two parents waging each other a mute war of wills, in the repressed movements of anger from her father, in his demeaning demeanor, in his outright indifference to his children. The violence was there in her mother’s Valium, in her sighs, in her elegant ennui, in her short temper and in her glaring unhappiness. Gabrielle had spent her childhood years trying to dodge imaginary and real bullets, not knowing where to turn, torn between the out in the open conflict outside of her doors and the war that wouldn’t tell its name within them. She had started taking pictures of everything she saw when she was thirteen even though she could not always have them developed because of the bombings, when the need to do something with her own skin got too scalding hot, turning to taking photos of herself and her body so that she could create a stare, an external pair of eyes through the camera, to mirror who she was, as no one around her seemed to be bothered. The old Leica soon became her best friend and the witness of an adolescent’s changing body, a change Gabrielle was very careful not to welcome by keeping extra slim. If becoming a woman meant becoming her mother, she’s pass on all the kebbe in the world.
At the time, she used to think it was either that or turning to drugs.
Thankfully, she grew up, and left this house of despair. She had now manage to create a safe golden peaceful home of her own that smelt of the delicious recipes of her lover, filling the walls with cinnamon, sugar and honey, replacing the acrid smell of tensions: however, the hint of the feeling of claustrophobia remained and was hard to shake.
As much as she loved Grace, she still had times where she could only bear being outside, by herself, something her partner understood and never questioned. She would leave early in the morning, her satchel safely strapped across her shoulder, her camera completing her hand, her phone switched to silent.
She entrusted the city with her head, and pleaded with Beirut to replace the racing thoughts and worries with bits and pieces of beauty gleaned here and there.
– Bonjour habibi!
Abou Brahim, her lovely neighbour who kept watch of everything happening in their alley, always greeted her in this French fashion, no matter how many times she would answer a hearty Marhaba Abou Brahim. A 3arouss picon in one hand, he would then proceed with asking her how she was, also in French, as if to demonstrate his various skills.
Gaby had shot him many times over, the fine lines on his worn out face the map of loss, pain and joy that had happened to the country, his droopy eyes always twinkling. Abou Brahim seemed to be always living in a state of perpetual relief, as if he felt happy and content since 1990, while Gaby, when she was in her exploratory moods, seemed unable to project herself in anything else than a dark pit of more conflict.
Which, in all fairness, was not far from reality, the way things were going.
Roaming the streets, she descended in her own self, her sharp trained eyes spotting every scenes, worried expressions of mothers going about their business, their joyful children hip hopping behind them, pensive, serious faces of older men reading the newspapers with the look of people smelling trouble a-coming. She tried capturing the essence of her Beirut, if in fact it even existed, as she seemed to doubt it lately. What if Beirut was nothing more than a mosaic of realities never colliding with one another? Until now, she had always pictured her beloved city as layers: the shiny, outrageous, in your face bling of the nouveaux riches downing Cristal while shaking fake breasts in front of an overweight Saudi being the first thing people and tourists would notice, with real, Beiruti people trying to make ends meet by working 14 hours a day on dire conditions, several layers below.
She had come to learn, through her lens, than reality was much, much more complex.
Losing herself in the graffitis adorning the walls of her city, passing the Phat and Ashekman art, walking further up to Hamra street, she noticed a tiny one hidden next to a parking lot, close to the Dunkin Donuts. She bent down closer and magnified it.
It read: if graffiti was useful, it would be illegal.
Pondering on this statement, and intrigued, she carried on, the smog of the outdated cars engulfing her lovingly in their cancerous mist.
Melancholy, that old friend, held her in her grip, and Beirut herself seemed so sad and lost, she could not do anything for her.
– habibti, there can’t be to Weeping Willows within your walls, one of us has to cheer up.