Tales of the Phoenix City – Chapter 26

A worrier.
The word sounded so much like warrior, except their meaning was worlds apart. Did warriors ever worry? And if so, how did they manage to hide it?
As the bitter humid cold of the Beiruti winter seeped through her window, Lily rearranged the blanket around her shoulders and watched the fading lights of the Simmering City. Warriors did worry. Underneath. Like Beirut, always in a state of on edge expectation, waiting to see where the next bullet, the next bomb, the next power cut, will be coming from, yet undeniably a warrior, her bullet holes her battle scars, her survival, the accomplishment of heroes.
Several cars passed softly in her street, mostly services drivers roaming through the streets in their old rusty Mercedes, more comfortable in the quietness of night, hoping to catch early risers and late party goers staggering home mumbling and laughing in their inebriated state.
Ziad was asleep in her room, sleeping the sleep of lovers’ bliss, his tangled curly hair spread on the pillow, his pale skin even whiter against the soft grey of the sheets.
They had resolved nothing, they have dealt with nothing. He had gotten back to her and she had opened her door, however reluctant she might have been, she still could not kid herself.
She still had opened her door. And he still came back. For how long? And for what?

The pinkish hue of dawn took her away from her reverie for a moment, and she sat there, watching the pitch black night turn into indigo, watching Beirut waking up, the lights flickering in flats and apartments turning into the sleepy eyes of the city, half fluttering as if in a daze of a dream. How was it that such craziness could be so peaceful? How was it that the angry, boiling, deafening cacophony turned into a quiet, soft, magnolia scented, haven in the wee hours of day? The sea breeze caught her off guard and she closed her eyes.

Things had to change. Something, anything. It had nothing and it had everything to do with Ziad. He wanted a statu quo with her, some place where he could figure out what he wanted while benefiting from their relationship. They were so good together, yet Lily could not help but feel cheated, taken advantage of. He had demands. He had questions. What about her? What were her needs? What were her questions? She wanted everything but a statu quo. She wanted to feel her life in motion, like sand trickling through an open palm. She envied Gabrielle for being unapologetic, she envied Nina for her unborn child, for her strength. She envied everyone who seemed to have a rough idea of what they truly wanted and just went for it. She wanted to be like Beirut. She wanted to be a resistant. She wished for the pulse of life of the city to enter her heart and never leave, never let go of her.

She realized this desire for change had matured and matured in her head until she had decided to do something about it and had shifted the focus on her column. Finally something she was actually proud of.
She glanced at the open newspaper spread before her and felt a tiny glimmer of pride at the sight of her article on Alexandre Paulikevitch, a dancer and choreographer of such breathtaking talent his show had brought tears to her eyes. Not that she needed much at the moment, anything seemed to set her off. Watching alexandre’s graceful frame twirl into the spotlight, his crazy curly hair dancing a dance of their own, she had felt outside of her own body for once, her being taken away by the energy created on stage. If only I could be as free as his mane of hair.
Where did all this waterworks come from?
She could hear Ziad muttering in his sleep, oblivious of her internal turmoil.

In what seemed to become a pattern, she picked up the phone.
– For fuck’s sake.
– What happened to Jesus?
– He’s asleep as you should be. Why oh why do you always feel the need to call me at some ungodly hour? Why? It’s not because I always wear black that I m a tortured artist or some shit and don’t sleep you know. I do sleep. In fact, I very much like it.
– Are you done?
– Not even nearly done. What’s up?
– My life is at a stand still.
– Mabrouk
– I mean it. What do I do?
– Jesus Fucking Christ! Fuck! Lily! No wonder your life is at a standstill if you wait for other people to tell you what to do. You know what to do you just don’t have the guts to do it! Shake your life out! Lily?
– I’m listening.
Gabrielle’s voice came back softer.
– Tear your life apart and keep what you love.
– And let it kill me?
-You’re right. It’s a perfect time for Bukowski.
The silence in her phone only seemed to bolster her. She had a lot of courage to muster.
She had some fights to pick.

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Review of Oublier Alep in The Cube LB

The Cube

“Dans les rues poussiéreuses d’une Alep au bord de la révolution, Noha et Shirine s’observent à distance, perdues dans leur douleur et dans leurs souvenirs, sous le regard nostalgique d’Abou Nouwâs, noyé sous le poids de la perte de son amour et de sa terre. Entre ces deux femmes va naître une relation atypique, faite de conflits, de solidarité et d’espoir. De la Palestine à la Syrie en passant par le Liban, leurs histoires se mêlent à celles de ces peuples épris de liberté.”

Un roman doux, élégant, émouvant. Pour tous les amoureux de Beyrouth, Alep, Palestine, Fayrouz et Ziad Rahbani. Pour tous ceux qui détestent la guerre. Une centaine de pages à avaler d’une seule traite.

BIOGRAPHIE

Paola Salwan Daher est née en France de parents libanais. Après des études en droit international à Genève, elle entame sa vie professionnelle dans différentes ONG et devient membre du collectif féministe…

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How to Live with a Revolutionary (and your family) without losing your head (or defecting to North Korea)

When the Rev entered your life, some time around his Nahda period ( the turn of the 19th century Arab Nahda kind of Nahda not the Tunisian kind if Nahda, whom of course the Rev is highly suspicious of, what with them being an ersatz of the Muslim Brotherhood and what with all their awful neo-liberal policies), you did not think politics would come into play, nor were you much worried about him getting along with your family. I mean, you were young and in love, you did not think of these things.
As it transpired, perhaps you should have.
You see, You have a post Arab nationalist of a father who really, really wanted to believe in Michel Aflaq then got disappointed and who you believe has a secret admiration for Hassan Nasrallah and an apolitical mother for whom nothing and no one really existed after Bashir Gemayel ( I know. I’m not proud either). As for your sister, all she speaks about is refugees, especially children, welling up about them most of the times. As it happens, she barely reaches the Rev’s knees so most of the times he can’t even hear her anyway.
Well, and of course you have the Rev, a proud socialist revolutionary who can quote Comrade Trotsky, Comrade Lenin and Comrade Saïd in one go, muttering endlessly about neo-liberalism and orientalism and its cousin, orientalism in reverse.
When all your loved ones get together, it can indeed, get pretty, er, shall we say, interesting.
While the Rev would companionably sit down and eat my father’s hummus, for every revolutionary has common human needs, your mother would eye him suspiciously. Was he or was he not Christian? As it happens, the Rev is an atheist who only acknowledges the presence of Jesus Christ in the framework of the Theology of the Liberation, when Jesus becomes Comrade JC. You know your mother would ask questions. You know she would not like the answers. You know you want your peace of mind and Comrade JC simply won’t give it to you, so you lunge like Harry Potter reaching for the Snitch, get that piece of kebbe and unceremoniously shove it into the Rev’s face, gluing his lips together, giving you plenty of time to redirect the inquisitive stare of your mother towards you. Well done. Be proud. You’ve avoided the first land mine.
On to coffee, where the second landmine awaits, a much, much bigger one, namely, the revolutions in the Middle East North Africa region. You see, the clue is in the name. The Rev is, well, a revolutionary, who shall defend the legitimacy and righteousness of the revolution until his last breath. Your father is convinced every ills befalling the region is Israel/The US’s fault. The rev will say the revolutions are a product of a long term mass popular mobilization against the growing social inequalities coupled with oppressive, authoritarian states. Your father will say all of this is turning into an Islamist Fest and who does it benefit? Israel and its sinister ally, the US. To which the Rev would try and answer that Palestine is Immortal and that of course Israel is a colonial, oppressive state but that there are materialistic conditions to take into account when analyzing the revolutions. Your father: I’m telling you. It’s a conspiracy. The Americans have a plan. They always have.
To which the Rev usually can not answer much because by that time you’d flung your niece across the stairs just to create a diversion, leaving everyone to gather around her giggling self to make sure she’s ok (you didn’t fling her hard, your sister would rant even more about children).
As it happens, enough sparks of revolutions were emitted from the Rev for your parents to understand who they were dealing with. Your mother now knows he’s an atheist and she calls him every Sunday morning to try and entice him to at least watch the Sunday mass on the Telly. He gently explains to her the Theology of the Liberation, she asks God why she had to have an atheist, leftist Son-in-law while she was such a good Christian and these thins are sent to try us. And the Rev hangs up, watching tele foot (for football is the only acceptable alternative to reading Marx).
– Your mother called, we had a good chat, I think she really is coming around on the Theology of the Liberation.
You pick up the phone, sighing, to assess the damage while he grins at you, blissfully oblivious of the very obvious crisis on your hand. Your mother laughs on the phone. The rev can actually get away with what he wants.
You barricade yourself in your room. I mean. You’re lucky you have me. No one told ME living with a revolutionary was so exhausting.

Family

You’re all right here, in front of me.

You’re the first thing I see when I wake up, you keep watch over me when I drift away, deep in slumber, you greet me in the morning.

I taped you to my wall so that I feel surrounded by the love you hold for me, the endless force pumping love into my blood. You and you and you and you. My flesh, my blood, my circumstances, my life, rejoicing in the good fortune that made us relatives and friends and family.

Some of you are no longer the image in my pictures, I chose to keep you young and happy forever, I chose to cheat myself into believing you had never changed. And in a way, that’s more honest, for the faces in the pictures reflect more the real you than what life has made of you.

Others are inexorably the same, the tender version of steady rocks, your faces maybe a little more lined, your hair a little whiter, the essence of the goodness in you intact.

I spread you lovingly on my wall, letting your faces embrace me every morning and every night, when I join again the safe haven of my home. I chose your pictures carefully, I held your smiles tightly across my chest, I remembered moments of laughter and of emotions and I translated it into a wall of you. A wall of love.

Can pictures be used as a shield? Can love keep the monsters under my bed at bay? I’m not quite sure, yet I’ve chosen to build for myself an enchanted amulet, a charm in the shapes of pictures that would keep you in my heart and keep me safe.

On my wall, my mother, holding my sister as a baby, my father holding me only seconds after I was born. My friends of 20, 15 and 10 years hugging each other, their young faces turned at a camera, blissfully careless of anything that was not in the now and then, our shared laughter still ringing into my ears. My love and myself, looking at the photographer, smiling our grave smiles, the smiles of people embarking on a perilous adventure together. Aunts, nieces, fathers, daughters, cousins, friends, people we chose, people who chose us, all in one place, swirling and melting into a slab of love concrete.

You’re all right there, in front of me.

You’re all right here, within me.

 

Tales of the Phoenix City – Chapter 25

 The rain seemed to provide the right soundtrack to the heavy silence between the three people seated on the plush poufs and couches Nina had had especially made from Barjis. Bucketloads of fat droplets pouring over the warm grayness of Beirut, drenching the dusty city, giving it an air of sharp cleanness, an aura of fresh start. As streams of water scrubbed Beirut from its lies and dishonesty, Nina felt the conversation she was having with her mother under the benevolent presence of Ziad was doing much of the same: wiping away the pretense to reveal only the essential, the pure light of what matters, feeble attempts at the truth.

Her bump was now slightly showing, and she closed her hands on it, scooping the pulsating life in her embrace, giving it warmth as it was giving her strength. The ashen face of her mother would have defeated a lesser woman, but Nina soldiered on with the stubbornness of someone whose decision is final.

  • Mama, I’m not doing this to spite you.

Her mother took another gulp of coffee. It was remarkable how thin her mouth could become, how the soft plumpness of her features could harden this much. A tiny part of Nina felt incredibly guilty for the ordeal she knew she was putting her through, while the freedom monster she harbored and that had led her to take her own decisions from an early age on, confronting stupid prejudice and society’s raised eyebrows at her actions, was roaring that this was her life and her body and that very few people were actually concerned by the choices she chose to make, ie, when it came down to it, no one but herself.

  • Mama, please say something.

Ziad’s unusually soft voice made their mother let out a deep guttural sigh and acted as a caress on Nina’s agitated soul. No matter how low she was, no matter how anguished, the presence and support of her brother were her treasured comfort. She had not wanted him to be there, yet he had come, rising above her somewhat childish urge to do things on her own, to rely on herself and herself only. ‘I am an autonomous being, and I don’t need my hand to be held, thank you very much’ had been her greeting when he entered her flat this morning, to which he had replied, in true Gabrielle fashion ‘ Jesus Fucking Christ, just because you can doesn’t mean you have to’. That had riveted her, and he had seized this moment to close the door behind him and started busying himself with making coffee. ‘You’ll see, she won’t be that bad, I mean, you already told her on the phone’. After repeating twenty times over that things were going to be fine, Ziad finally shut up and they had sat together in expectation of their mother heavy step on the threshold.

And now here they were, the three remnants of their family, sitting in a triangle of tension and reflection, their souls strained to their breaking point, the absence of their father and husband now more daunting and cruel than ever. Nina was sitting next to the semi opened window, unconsciously rocking her body to the sound of the storm, watching Beirut idly go by, oblivious of big and small tragedies and joys alike, carrying on with being equally a city of chaos and wonder, Ziad perched on the edge of the club armchair, his whole body leaning towards their mother, in a posture of anxious expectation and their mother, between the two of them, sitting on the edge of her seat as it to signify very clearly that this was not to be a long visit, that she was by no means staying.

  • You will have to get married.

Those six words set something off in Nina, as if her mother had detonated the hand grenade she had turned into.

  • No, I don’t. And I won’t.

The words were scarce and measured, sharp bullets fired at the wall of propriety her mother had built her world on. Ziad seemed to cower at the simmering anger slowly building up between the two of them. This was a war of wills whose outcome he wasn’t sure of.

  • What do you mean, you won’t? Do you think I will stand being shamed by my own daughter’s behaviour? Do you think I shall show my face to my friends after everyone has spoken about you until blue in the face? Pregnant and unwed! There is no glory in that you know, nothing to be proud of.

At this, Nina stood up, her delicate frame chiseled against the acid Beiruti light.

  • Mama. I love you, but if you think for one second that I give a damn about what your friends might think you’re cruelly mistaken. I will not be part of this circus you call good society, where the most evil of acts are hushed up, talked in low, muttering conversations behind closed doors, where pretense is the norm and hypocrisy is celebrated. I will not get married because I don’t want to. No need to look so shocked, I’m not done yet. Mama, please open your ears widely: yes, I have sex. Yes I had sex with this man who, frankly, I don’t know that well. I got pregnant, and I’ve made up my mind. I shall keep this baby because I have the privilege of deciding. The father doesn’t even know yet, I’ve decided to tell you before I tell him because honestly, after I’ve told you there’s no one I can’t take on anymore. I’ve made up my mind and it’s not for you, or him, or society to decide for me what I want and how I want it, it’s not for anyone to decide in my place what I choose to do with my body. And not mama, I won’t nor will I have you pretend that I’m going abroad or I don’t know what. I will give birth to this child in front of everyone in the smack banging middle of se7et el burj if I have to, but I shall not hide. Every day I see war criminals and crooks speak on my TV and they’re not hiding, while they should be covering their heads in shame. I’ve done nothing wrong. I’m telling you, not asking for your blessing, your advice or your opinion.

  • Then I’ll leave, now shall I?

Banging her coffee cup on the wooden table, their mother exited the flat, making the door bang while she went, leaving a gaping hole in Nina’s heart.

After what seemed like an eternity, Ziad’s voice brought Nina back to the shores of life, while she felt his hand on her shoulder, bringing her into a hug.

  • She’ll get over it. Give her time. Now, how would you like to arrange the birth on Sa7et el Burj? Should we put up a marquee with a sign ‘Unwed Designer Gives Birth to Child: 5000 LL to watch’?

From somewhere deep against her brother’s chest, Nina’s laughter met her tears.

Lebanon: This is How We Do Modern Day Slavery

Her name I won’t disclose. Let us just call her G. She told me her story because I asked her, it’s as simple as that. I told her she seemed down, she who is naturally so upbeat, and she launched into it, as if on cue, waiting to tell someone. So I gave her this space, and thought that her story deserved to be shared, if only to put a human face on all the statistics regarding migrant workers and the way they’re treated in Lebanon, if only to reveal the inhumanity with which so many people living in Lebanon are treated. Just to give you a bit of context, G. works in a beauty salon. So G., you’re on.

‘ I am so unhappy in my current job. I came to Lebanon under a woman’s sponsorship (Kefala), and when she stopped working they transferred me to my current employer. Last week end, my friend called me to invite me to a birthday party. I was pleased and wanted to look nice. Now, my previous employer worked in the same industry I’m in now, and used to let me borrow nail polish whenever I wanted for my personal use, especially if I had an occasion, provided I gave them back, which I always did. I just assumed my current boss would grant me the same permission, especially as it was the first time I did it while working for him, and was going to put the two nail polishes back first thing on Monday. I just wanted to to my own nails for once, so I packed the two little bottles in my bag. As I was exiting the salon, my boss started yelling at me, asking me to take everything out from my purse. It turned out the other girl working with me had gone and told our boss that I took two nail varnishes in my bag. My boss went ballistic, calling me names (thief, charmouta) and told me I had no right to take some products out. I told him my previous boss, whom he knows and has worked with, used to let me do it, and that I merely borrowed them in good faith. I started crying, but he took away my phone and was very angry with me. I was extremely sad as my cell phone was the easiest way for me to contact my daughter back home. I went to the phone center and called my daughter to tell her I wouldn’t be able to call her as much now that I didn’t have my phone anymore. I thought the whole thing was behind me when several days later my employer took me to the Maktab, the office that deals with migrant workers papers and affairs. There, the person in charge started yelling at me, telling me I was no good and had to obey my employer and ended his whole screaming match by slapping me twice. My boss was calmer with me afterwards, much nicer, he said soothingly the whole thing was over. It is not over for me.’

I asked her if she perhaps could work some place else. She answered she was looking into it but that it was so difficult in Lebanon because she was under the responsibility of her current employer, so that she was tied to him for papers.

Imagine yourself being unable to change your job if you wish to. Imagine being dependent on another person, being tied to this person to be able to continue working. Imagine being beaten up by people in power to force you into a certain behavior. Imagine having no freedom at all, doing all the thankless work while having to endure daily racism. It’s odd, isn’t it, that we would never dream in a million years to accept these conditions for ourselves, yet that we have no qualms about imposing them on other people. Aren’t these people equal human beings? Then why are they being treated so dramatically differently?

In her latest report to the 21st session of the Human Rights Council following her visit to Lebanon in October, the UN special rapporteur on modern forms of slavery stated what anyone who has lived in Lebanon has witnessed, that ‘many migrant domestic workers are not seen as equals to the Lebanese with the same rights, but as commodities, thereby further entrenching the idea that Lebanese employers own and have full control over their workers. Over the years, there have been reports of domestic servitude in Lebanon, whereby migrant domestic workers are economically, sexually and/or physically exploited, left totally dependent on others and unable to end the employer-employee relationship of their own volition. The victims continue to work under the threat of violence, or even experiencing violence, and may have restrictions placed on their freedom of movement and communication.’
The report also points out the dire injustice and oppression of the Sponsorship system: ‘under the Kafala system, a migrant domestic worker who leaves her employment without permission from both her employer and the Government, for whatever reason, is immediately classified as an irregular migrant and is subject to arrest, detention and deportation. The migrant domestic worker cannot end her contract and is legally tied to her employer.’

G.’s example is one among many others. We could all share many more stories we hear, like my neighbour in Lebanon who beats up the domestic worker working for him and locks her up down in the cellar, where the Syrian natour brings her food (otherwise she’d starve on top of being locked up). What is happening in Lebanon and in many other countries is modern day slavery, and the even more shocking thing is that it is happening with the blessing of the Lebanese government who still implements the Kefala system, refuses to see domestic workers who decide to leave their employer as victims but rather as criminals, takes virtually no steps to eradicate discrimination against migrant workers and allows its Labour Code to specifically exclude migrant workers from its provisions.

Join the anti-racism movement if you feel you can’t bear to live in a country where slavery is commonplace: http://www.antiracismmovement.com

The complete report of the UN special rapporteur on modern forms of slavery can be downloaded here http://daccess-dds-ny.un.org/doc/UNDOC/GEN/G12/149/40/PDF/G1214940.pdf?OpenElement