A Ribbon Around a Bomb

We are currently at Nasawiya working on a book on the women who inspire us, interviewing “regular” women whose stories reveal their strength, trying to showcase alternative forms of leadership.

This got me thinking about what strength is, to how the mere concept of strength is riddled with misconceptions and stereotypes. Is keeping quiet and holding in every feeling or negative emotion a form of strength? Is enduring abuse and misery for all eternity a form of strength or is having the courage to recognize and leave certain situations that define us as strong? What is feminist leadership? I don’t buy into this whole “women’s leadership style is softer than men’s bla bla bla” because it simply replicates and reorganises gender stereotypes and prejudices, so what are we talking about when we’re trying to illustrate feminist and women’s leadership? Rest assured, we’re not talking about women in power suits, buying into patriarchal beliefs and attitudes, denying their fellow females employees the right to maternity leave because they want to play “the big boys game”. We’re talking about the unsung heroes of our every day lives who manage to realise what they want for and by themselves. We’re talking about women who may not have the economic power, the connections or the privileges to help them realise and fulfil themselves and move mountains, yet women who do it anyway. We’re also talking about women who might have had all that, yet chose a path that was truly theirs, questioning the very essence of their privileges along the way.

These debates prompted several images to me. Sometimes your brain is a kaledeiscope you can’t control. I remembered that older Egyptian woman yelling at a startled policeman with all her might during the 25th of January revolution. I remembered the Palestinian mothers crying while Israeli soldiers were arresting her son for no reason at all except that he was Palestinian. I remembered that woman joking after her radiotherapy sessions, and so what if they had just removed that tumour from her breast. At least it was not there anymore. And for some reason, I had the image of Frida Kahlo pop up in my mind.

I am not an art critic, but some paintings have always resonated in me: amongst them, Frida Kahlo’s paintings strike a chord in me that triggers an irrepressible sentiment of feeling so impossibly alive, in all the tragic vivid sorrowful joy of the term. And yes I have written vivid sorrowful joy. Her brush strokes manage to conjure up love, pain, change, transformation, death and revolution. Her paintings are life itself, and they invite the onlooker to a feast of colours and questions.

Frida Kahlo has become somewhat of a feminist icon, and how could she not? We’re talking here about a woman who was born in 1907 yet changed her birth day to 1910 to make it coincide with the start of the Mexican revolution. A woman who chose not to comply by social gendered norms by sporting a uni-brow and not shaving under her arms. A woman who by the age of 6 had polio, making sure she would limp her whole life. A woman who at the age of 18 was in a terrible bus accident that left her almost dead, her whole body badly bruised and broken, unable to have children. A woman who questioned every label that people gave her, trying to make her paintings fit into a certain category. A woman who married and divorced and married again the same man, Diego Rivera, to which she used to tell “I had two big accidents in my life Diego, the trolley and you… You are by far the worse”. A Communist woman who happened to stumble into a passionate love affair with Leo Trotsky. A woman who was deeply in love with her husband yet had affairs with women. A woman who you so obviously can’t classify, she sends us all back to the own labels we accept without any form of protest.

Maybe this is what feminist leadership is: protesting labels affixed to us on a daily basis. You over there, you’re such a girl! And you over there, that was such an Arab thing to say! Most of the time, we smile tensely while punching in our mind the little comic ingratiating us with these remarks. Perhaps it is time we pull a Frida.

Kahlo’s most interesting feature (at least to me and since this is my blog I’ll happily go along) is her relationship to her body, a relationship she translated so outrageously in her paintings. I say outrageous because it’s the appropriate word. Frida’s paintings could not suffer the word “beautiful”. Seriously, beautiful is a word you use to describe the painting of a lotus flower on a pond of ylang-ylang essence. Put a Kahlo in your living room and be assured no one will exclaim “How beautifully quaint!” but rather “where should I put my eyes her boobs are looking at me”. But I digress. That body of hers was her own private little torture room (sounds familiar?): she had polio, she had that accident that broke her spine and about all her bones, she got pregnant, she miscarried every time. She stated herself that she felt terribly alone each time she had to go back to a hospital, alone in that body that was betraying her so blatantly. Yet she never gave up on it: she drew it metaphorically, her spine becoming a crumbling column riddling her body with pain so intense it felt like nails in her flesh. When she had to wear a cast she drew on it the sickle and hammer of the Communist party and a foetus. What she could not create, a flesh and blood baby, she created nonetheless.

Do you get that? She replaced seemingly impossibility to create by creation. Perhaps we should remember than when we destroy out bodies, wishing for them to be the copy of airbrushed things that don’t exist. And perhaps we should remember the Fridas we know, and ponder a bit more on feminist leadership.

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Tales of the Phoenix City – Chapter 18

The noise was getting stronger as she drew nearer to the entrance. From afar, It seemed like there was a fair amount of bumping and thumping and rattling being made, which slightly alarmed her. She quickened her pace. As usual, there was no electricity so she had to run up the three flights of stairs that separated her from the mayhem. 

She found Grace in the kitchen, flour up her lovely aquiline nose, crying into her signature orange blossom water and pistachio baclava while a cake was being baked, filling the kitchen with a delicious chocolate smell, screaming insults at the TV. 

Gabrielle knew something was extremely wrong. Grace almost never screamed, let alone cry, especially when she was cooking, which was basically the time where she felt the happiest. Gabrielle sighed. As much as she loved Grace, today was not the day for more drama. She had spent the previous evening helping nurse the Beiruti Princess’s heart and shattered life, and had spent the whole day working with Ali and Ghassan on her upcoming exhibition. The quiet peaceful evening with her beloved, followed by some work on Lili’s book project seem to disintegrate before her eyes. 

– Wou kess ekhtkon, you stupid fuckers, you bajam! 

– Grace? Habibti? Care to tell me why All hell has broken lose in our home? 

– Didn’t you hear? There have been more arrests of men “suspected of sodomy”! Look! Look! 

Grace was motioning rather manically to the shining box before them, where an over made up ageless and emotion less woman was delivering the news. 

Gabrielle blanched. As if the 36 men arrested in that Burj Hammoud cinema were not enough. As if Joe Maalouf’s hypocritical moral so called high ground was not enough. As if virginity tests and anal tests were not enough. As if torture and harassment had become so random and normalized a plastic bitch could afford to announce them on the eight o’clock news without as much as batting an eyelash.

Grace was blowing her nose noisily. Gabrielle felt she was swimming in lead, in deep, dark, heavy waters that threaten to swallow her whole. She couldn’t breathe. Anger, frustration, humiliation and pure, unadulterated, white hot hatred for an establishment that allowed for this to happen were bubbling in her heart and mind, threatening to make her implode. She suddenly remembered the words of a Syrian gay friend of hers: I love my country, but my country doesn’t love me.

This is how she felt, except that the love she once held for said country was dangerously being jeopardized by stories like this, by the guilty silence of everyone when it came to respect each others’ rights, by the over indulgence warlords turned ‘respectable’ political figures benefited from.

The disgust was too much.

Grace was on a mission: contrary to Gabrielle, she knew what to make of her emotions so they were never on the brink of swallowing her and hurting her.

– Can you believe it? Thugs roaming the country, each family getting their weapons and applying their own brand of the law! Kidnappings! Blackmailing! Catastrophic economic situation! Nobody has any rights, workers need to shut up otherwise they unleash more thugs on them while the general security turns a fucking blind eye! No electricity, no public service, no order no nothing, yet they spend hours and resources chasing up gay men, violating more people! Khalas! Khalas Gabrielle, I can’t take it any more!

Gabrielle was rendered speechless by the shrill screams of her lover. She knew what Grace meant. In Lebanon, as things were and seemed to be shaping up, they could never have the lives they’d want: they would have to carry on with the lies they were feeding everyone. Grace and Gabrielle could never share with the people they loved the most, their parents and families, that they were in love, that they made each other happier than they could have ever hoped to be.

They would have to pretend they were each others’ roommates, to protect everyone except themselves, to respect the tacit contract of not rocking everyone’s boat. They would have to respect the ever sacred Code of Appearances. Sometimes they used to think that it was the same for everyone: after all their straight friends had to pretend they were virgins and lied too when they pretended they were “sleeping over at a friends’ house”. However, the recent events had illustrated the fundamental differences: their straight friends could get married, they could have children, theirs was a union society celebrated, while Gabrielle and Grace would never be able to do so, even if they had wished to.

The fact that they did not particularly wanted to get married and were unsure about having children was irrelevant: they too, deserved to have that choice, just like everybody else.

So what do you propose we do?

Gabrielle did not recognize her own voice. Were these deep, choked up vowels really hers? It seemed like she had gotten too comfortable lately: her parents had been traveling so she could spend as much time as she wanted with whomever she pleased without that nagging feeling of guilt she felt sometimes when they were there, as if she should always spend more time with them. Her job and projects were going well, and she had convinced herself that even though archaic laws were still in place in Lebanon, they were seldom being applied. The recent events had proved her wrong: she still lived in an intolerant, homophobic, classist society.

Grace looked at her.

We leave.

Gabrielle did not know if that were possible, but suddenly it seemed her insides had turned into a crumbling building in the midst of an earthquake. How impossibly cruel, that one should disintegrate after hearing two words.

Letter to a Revolutionary

Ya Qalbi,

Yesterday I read a letter from Mashrou3 Leila:

“Today I found myself walking down Hamra Street, humming Abdul-Halim Hafez’s ‘Ana Leik Ala Tool’ to myself, and I could swear I heard you singing the harmony into my ear. It made me giggle a little burn into my chest. I worry you might get caught in a protest, imprisoned, kidnapped, missing, gone. But I know you need to do what you need to do; I wouldn’t ask you not to, but please be safe. Someday, I promise, worry will be a sentiment completely alien to us.”

These words spoke to me, they spoke to the little demon worrier that seems to have taken residence up in my head. The letter spoke of fears of loss, it spoke of courage and of strength. It spoke of accepting the evidence of the need to fight, despite the dangers and the intimidation, despite the worry and the dread. You know this is what I struggle with the most, you know I couldn’t bear to lose you to the claws of an absurd regime. You know me, inside and out.

Leila’s story is fictional but for us it is all too real, or maybe she’s just a projection of a million fears experienced by a million hearts, making her more real than we could ever be.

You and I my friend are the children of the demise and disappointment of all our comrades before us, and the parents of an angry movement of hope : we tried and are still trying to revive the spark of contestation and revolution , and we’ve managed to a certain extent, or so I would like to believe. We’re marching for our present, yes, for our future, certainly, but we are also marching for our fallen friends, the ones who got killed and crushed and harassed and silenced. The ones who are still alive, They’re older now, they’re bitter, too, they don’t seem like they still can find the strength in them to carry on, yet you can find them next to us, their eyes barely daring to believe again, carrying in their hearts the memory of all they have lost, just like we carry in ours the smiles of those of whom we’re separated from by the inexorability of death or by the atrocity of prison walls and tortures.

My love, it seems like we have lost the innocence of youth and with it the ability to enjoy things in their superficiality. We can not be fooled anymore, and perhaps some days this realization is too painful for us to bear. My love, we are too dangerous for them to avoid us, they will hunt us down, we shall be prepared.

I keep hearing people comfortably sitting on plush chairs pompously labeling what we do: the Iranian “Green Movement” or the “Twitter Revolution”, as if Evin had never existed, as if the Iranians had never risen before the invention of social media. “The Arab Spring” now being replaced by the “Arab Autumn” or even “Winter”, as if revolutions could ever be expressed in terms of fucking seasons, as if we were sleeping and awoke like some sort of natural process, what are we, fruits or something? Pardon my language my sweet friend, but condescension irks me and I’ve never been one to shut up.

It has been a long time since we’ve started my beloved, and we are tired, yet the road up ahead seems even more tortuous and long, paved with too many traps for us to comprehend. Some of us decide to retreat, others become suicidal, we lose a few along the way, the sufferings are too much for anyone to bear.

Yet there we still are, despite the tears and the frustration and the tension and the deaths and the threats. Yet we continue, doing what we can, each at its own level, because we owe it to ourselves, to those who died, to those who fight, to those who lost, to those who are too deprived of privilege to attract wide attention to their cases.

This isn’t a Winter, this isn’t a season, this isn’t a moment that shall pass. This is a Revolution, a process, and it shall take its own sweet time.

We’re ready for it.