Honor and Fight

We carry our parents’ and ancestors’ trauma.

Like an underlayer of skin neatly stored below the surface of who we are, we carry with us stories of violence and oppression, deep-seated fears that come to haunt us for generations. Everyone has traumatic stories, because everyone has to face the reality and finality of death and contemplate their own mortality at some point in their life, but inter-generational trauma runs deeper than that. It speaks to upheavals and violent events that permanently leave a mark on us and, through our reactions, on our offspring. And hence starts the cycle of inter-generation trauma, the poisonous gift we hand down like treasured heirlooms, made of hidden boxes and stifled emotions.

Such trauma is difficult to articulate to those who do not harbor millions of little cells coated with anguish and sorrow. I’ve battled anxiety my whole life, and I’ve received more advice to get rid of it than I care to mention. I’ve tried them all too, or almost all. One needs to keep a few additional cards up one’s sleeve in case the old tricks stop working. And more often than not, these pieces of advices and nuggets of wisdom come accompanied with a bonus advice on how I ‘need to change my outlook on life’ and ‘think more positively’.

But, see, Karen, you and I do not have the same history. We are not starting from the same starting blocks.  You have not been taught by your parents that each phone call that comes after 9PM automatically means it’s your family back home calling to inform you someone has died. You do not have a history of war displacing your family and loved ones, of ill-adaptation to a foreign land, of tongues that hurl racist insults at you and of eyes that look at you with contempt, conveying loud and clear the message that your shape, your eyes, your hair simply do not belong and that you probably should go back where you came from. You belong Karen, you have always belonged, and who knows, maybe I too would have been aligned and at one with the universe had I not been influenced by my country’s history, had I been on your side of the fence, content and carefree, comfortable in a body that doesn’t feel like a constant riot.

I can not go back, and neither could my parents. What happens to our bodies when home rejects you? What happens to our brains when we witness unspeakable violence, when we feel the liquid air thick with hate and fear drowning our lungs? What happens to us when everything and everyone we had ever held dear disintegrates before our very eyes, yet we know we have to go on, because we have no other choice, because we need to support others, because, in spite of it all, our impulse for life overcomes our despair?

And most importantly, what do we do with all these emotions in moments where ‘process emotions’ is not at the top of our to-do list?

I know health professionals are poring over the topic of intergenerational trauma, trying to figure out if and how traumas inscribe themselves in our DNA and shape the existence of those that come after us. I know there must be scientific explanations that make sense of the mess of emotions that come with that kind of trauma. The literature is out there and I invite us all to read it. What I am more interested in, is to know when pain becomes so unbearable that you can not speak about a topic anymore. When the wounds you carry run so deep you can still feel the blood gushing from them. I want to hear the stories of people who crawl halfway through hell to make sure their family reaches safety. I want to hear their stories because their stories matter, because I desperately want them to voice these emotions they have stored up on their way to what they could only hope was better days. I want them to heal. And healing can not be done in silence. And healing can not be done when you are invited to tell your story as a performative act designed to make white saviors feel better about themselves as they’re building their careers off your suffering. And healing can not be done without justice and accountability, and these two are so often missing that their absence only compound trauma with despair.

I want to hear their stories because I didn’t really hear my parents’ stories on what happened to them, how they decided to leave home, that home which was suffocating and imploding in a cloud of grey smoke. I want to hear how they felt, I want to hear what went through my mother’s head when she was speeding from the airport under sniper fire. I want to hear my father grieve his shattered projects. On a boat to safety, my mother witnessed someone die from a heart attack. They had to continue to their next stop with a corpse aboard. When she came to her host country my aunt could not step out of the house without a suitcase packed with basic necessities in case she could not go home. My father had to jokingly tell her the Mourabitoun didn’t have checkpoints in the Swiss countryside.

Please Karen, do let me know how I need to change my outlook on life and how life is too short to be worrying constantly. And while you’re at it, you can ask yourself if transformative reparations would not be doing me and the other people who are suffering and have suffered a resemblance of peace that your yoga class can not offer?

That kind of trauma nestled itself if my parents’ hearts and minds, and they passed it on to me. I recognize it now in each of my jumpy reactions, in my state of constant alert. It can manifest as severe anxiety, a perpetual need to know that all the people I love are actually ok, in catastrophic thinking, in a severe aversion to negative emotions and in a propensity to try and process them alone. It manifests as an obsession with death, to the point where I wonder how people who do not constantly think about death actually live.

Trying to break that circle is the only way to heal. But healing doesn’t mean forgetting or erasing: it means honoring our parents’ and ancestors’ suffering and putting it to rest, laying a wreath of holly and lilies on so they too can rest, and you can live, and fight so that the cycle is broken for good, until the people who come after you don’t have to live with this weight.

The heart is full of cracks and I don’t know how to fill them

My friend often says that she is ‘grumpy, politically so’, which has to be one of the most wonderful sentence I have ever heard, and one that conveys perfectly the type of political disappointment we often experience by simply looking around us and thinking ‘well, shit’.

I usually like to do the apology of joy in struggle. I speak enthusiastically about political love, the one you grow for your comrades, I want to highlight how, in a world and global political system that are designed to divide, fragment and crush us, we have found ways to resist in love and joy. Precisely because if and when divided, it is easier for capitalism to make us insensitive to its abuses, to turn us into consumers only, instead of being politically conscious and aware beings, beings that can spot the dire flaws in the system and revolt against it.  I want to show how capitalism has not managed to commodify of all our interactions, that we are still finding comfort and solace not only in each other as individuals, but also in each other as collectives, as mobilized groups, as a powerful force built to reverse and dismantle every systemic oppression we were born under. Solidarity finds its meaning in the collective, in this radical notion that the individual is not everything, and that personal freedoms mean nothing if they are granted to the detriment of others.

That’s what I love to do, because I truly believe that it is this love that we decide to create and sustain that hold our movements together. That it is this joy in togetherness that we find that helps ignite the sparks of revolution. That we can manage to turn our traumatic experiences of oppression and discrimination into something radically beautiful, for what feels more wonderful than the touch of another human being letting you know they’ve got you? There is a lot of frustration in political organizing, a lot toxic dynamics, a lot of egos to manage, so much so that we might forget the outbursts of joy we are still able to create while imagining what an alternative world could look like. A world that has not been conquered by racialized, patriarchal, heteronormative capitalist regimes.

I’m also a big proponent of anger, especially in women, for our anger has been silenced for too long, seen as ‘hysteria’ for too long, derided and undermined for too long, instead of seeing it for what it was: a legitimate rebellion against the centuries of oppression we have been forced to live under.

Joy, love, anger, all emotions I can deal with. All emotions I’ll happily defend, with the underlying assumption that political work is emotional work. It is patriarchy and capitalism that have decided a long time ago that being ‘emotional’ was a slur, that to be taken seriously you needed to appear ‘reasonable’ and ‘detached’. Guess which of these terms form an integral part of the socialization of cismen, and which have been attributed to women. But I maintain that political work is a labor of love, that without passion you can not move people, that without passion you can not even move yourself. It’s because women traditionally do all of the emotional work – in relationships, politically, at work- that this work has been historically invisibilized and undermined.

To do political work, social justice, economic justice, reproductive justice work, work that directly deals with people’s material conditions, with their lives, with their health, with everything that sustains them, is emotional: the moment we can watch people suffer and die and feel nothing is the moment we have to start worrying about why we’re doing this work in the first place.

There is however an emotion I don’t know what to make of, however ubiquitous, and this emotion is heartbreak. What do you do when a certain situation inspires you nothing but deep, infinite sadness? Joy and anger move you into action, love sustains you. But sadness? Sadness does nothing but weigh you down. Sadness makes you feel disempowered, it prevents you from moving forward, it is unable to propel you into building something.

Watching Lebanon over the past couple of weeks has brought me nothing but heartbreak and worry, an anxiety I had not felt for it in a long time, a sort of constant muted fear gnawing at my heart, a dull ache I didn’t want to look at for fear of it eating me whole. Looking at it didn’t help, it just brought on more hopelessness and heartbreak.

There’s actually no other word for it than this one: heartbreak. When you can feel the cracks all over your heart widen and lengthen, when your traditional defenses no longer work and when all that is left is an overflowing sorrow. To belong to the diaspora also means feeling this sadness laced with guilt and an overwhelming sense of powerlessness. Guilt has never helped anyone though, it’s probably a relic of one religion or the other, and you can happily do away with it.

What can I do? What is there to be done? You frantically look for things to keep yourself occupied  so you don’t have to feel. Doing is always a nice distraction from feeling.

That’s the thing about sadness though. It doesn’t dislodge from your throat until it has forced you down and made you feel it. Until you have properly sat down with it, pored over it and allowed it to fill you to the brim, until there is none left to feel anymore.

Sadness is humbling, it forces you to recognize that sometimes, there is quite literally nothing you can do, at that point of time, at that particular moment. The time for doing will come back, once you have allowed yourself to feel, once you have sat in the pure stillness and silence of heartbreak, only then will you be able to start doing again.

Until then, be the kind hand that rests on a tired shoulder. Offer love, and kindness, and compassion. Keep your anger folded and filed for later. It’ll be needed when you organize, in joy and in love, to burn down and uproot the causes for sadness.

Compromise

How much do we compromise as activists living in a patriarchal, homophobic, transphobic, racist, ableist, capitalist world?

We inhabit this world and therefore have to engage with it as it is while trying to change it. If you’re anything like me, this is an exhausting exercise of feeling guilty, of feeling like you’re not doing enough, reading enough, participating and mobilizing enough, working enough for systemic and sustainable change.

There is always an underlying feeling that somehow you could do more, and better. You feel guilty that you’re still buying from the big supermarket, guilty that you’re living within and side by side with a capitalist system which nefarious impacts are familiar to you. Guilt is my daily companion, apparently you can take the girl out of Catholicism but you can never take Catholicism out of the girl. I am not being flippant, I genuinely grieve the woman I could have been had organized religion stayed the fuck out of my way.

Then I remind myself that guilt is an over-indulgence, and that the issue is not necessarily with individuals trying to navigate this world in the state that it is, but rather with the systems in place that leave very little choice but to resist and struggle for change.

I do human rights advocacy. That’s my job. I work with the intricacies of international human rights law, and more often than not, I do find them beautiful. I do like the law, it soothes my anxiety-ridden brain. There is beauty in its rules, beauty in its potential to expand or be shrunk, beauty in the possibilities it contains. International human rights law is a construct borne out of a plethora of power dynamics and struggles between oppressed people against their oppressors, but also between the two blocs during the Cold War. It is the result of perpetual compromises always renewed and is constantly subject to change.

I’m also a Marxist feminist. That is my identity. Actually, strike that, that is my home. Marxist feminism is my shelter, a thought that makes me feel safe, a way of seeing the world that equally soothes my aforementioned anxiety-ridden brain. Marxism feminism is home because it is where all of the people that mean the most to me reside, it’s where I was taught political love, feminist love, where I was taught that comrade could mean family, that the collective was stronger than the individual, that the individual mattered but could not be divorced from the power dynamics that shaped them. And as a Marxist feminist, I also know that the human rights architecture is a neo-liberal construct designed to depoliticize resistance and social movements. I also know that this shroud of so-called neutrality of the law actually masks power dynamics that protect and uphold the bourgeois capitalist order.

I therefore exist in a perpetual state of contradictions and compromise. Sometimes I think that I am infiltrating the system from within, making it a tiny bit less horrible and doing what some of our comrades would consider as ‘entryism’ (Tried and tested by Trotsky, poor review, does not recommend). Sometimes I think that this job can not be done without some level of pragmatism. Then I remember I absolutely fucking hate that word and berate myself for even thinking it. Other times, a lot of the times, I ask myself how much more compromise I can make. I ask myself if I’m a sell-out. Repeatedly. I ask other people if they think I’m a sell-out. I still do not have an answer I can firmly grasp. I hold on to my feminist comrades and take heart in their support, yet still wonder how much longer I can speak to people whose colleagues have jailed, beaten up, tortured and harassed my friends, and stay polite.

How much longer I can work out strategies for progress, all the while asking myself if this is where progress should take place.

How much longer I can elegantly navigate a system that has been designed to neutralize the subversive power of progressive movements.

This week I was incredibly fortunate to dive into some of these issues with brilliant feminists on Hammam Radio (you can find the podcast here). In the course of the conversations, the same contradictions, or rather, multitudes, appeared: yes, some spaces we occupy are painful. Yes, they are difficult to navigate. Should we leave them for that? What would they become without the grumpy, political, fierce activists that are willing to exist on the fence, at the borders of their comfort zones, sitting rather uncomfortably on the edges of their own activism that need to be toned down and polished to make room for the formalized settings we engage in?

We didn’t have any revelations in the course of the conversation, but we do know instinctively and by experience that we still need to occupy these advocacy spaces. However, we should not consider them as the goal in and of themselves. They are spaces where feminists meet and plot, on the margins. Feminists like margins, they provide us with quiet blank slates we are happy to fill, and from there, spill over to the mainstream.  They are nothing more than a tool in our ever changing, ever expanding toolbox for structural change.

And so we will be in the streets, we will be in U.N. corridors, we will be in courts, we will be in arts and culture, we will occupy every nook and cranny that can accommodate our presence, and we will keep chipping away at the current order until the cracks are so deep the whole edifice crumbles. We will be there and everywhere, with our imperfect activism that could use some improvement, with our willingness to do better, with our feeble reminders for self-care, with our anger against the way things are, with our drama, and glitter, and love for each other and ridiculous beliefs in solidarity put in practice.

We’ll hold space for each other, let each other exhale and breathe for a while, and get ready to do it all over again.

One more reason

Some days are difficult. Difficult as in give-me-one-more-reason-to-keep-fighting.

Difficult as in, I’m tired of the fight, I’m tired of having to explain things like sexism and racism, I’m tired of having to try and make the world, this world created for white affluent straight cis-men, see everyone else’s humanity.

Some days are difficult, and even the anger that usually carries me feels like a drag. Some days you need reasons to believe, and some days you need reasons to keep on fighting. To remind yourself of why you are doing this work, why you have chosen to be constantly angry as a lifestyle, why you need to wake up and do it all over again. Some days the temptation to quit and let it all go is strong.

These are the days when you need self-care, when you need to take a step back and create some quietness in your mind. On these days, I know I need my feminist comrades close by, and I know I need to summon the spirits of the living and dead to help me cope.

I need to keep on fighting because Breonna Taylor was murdered in her sleep and her three killers are still running free.

I need to keep on fighting because Sarah Hegazi was killed by a monstrous system of heteronormativity, authoritarianism and bigotry that can not bear differences and fears the extraordinary power of a communist queer young woman who dared to exist as she was.

I need to keep on fighting because sisters and comrades are putting their lives and bodies on the line, taking to the streets to demand justice and changing the world, despite violent repression, arbitrary arrest, police brutality and threats to their families.

I need to keep on fighting because friends and comrades still have family members in prisons for daring to want and act for a better world.

I need to keep on fighting because the powers that be are hypocritical and deceitful and geared towards our exploitation.

I need to keep on fighting because our bodies are still not our own, because they have been appropriated by religion, patriarchy and capitalism, and because I will not rest until we can look at ourselves with love and tenderness, and feel that this skin which we inhabit belongs to us, and only us, and that we can make our own choices. You know, the way cis straight men can.

I need to keep on fighting because I still and will always believe in beauty in this world. In the beauty that is borne out of political love, and solidarity and shared struggles and visions.

I need to keep on fighting because I want to. Because no matter how tired and frustrated and angry and sad I might feel, I want to do this work.

Today was a rough day, but it was saved by comrades being there and fighting next to me. That feeling is indescribable, that feeling is love, it sustains, nurtures, comforts and energizes. It casts away the loneliness of fighting, it creates bonds of solidarity, it brings laughter and kindness to the most arid of places.

This system is designed to bring us down and wear us out. Capitalism’s survival hinges upon the division of workers, patriarchy hinges upon the division of women, and so one until we are unable to rely on one another for solidarity, and most importantly unable to mass mobilize against these systems. I will continue fighting. So that Sarah’s smile still shines upon us. So that Bassem’s intelligence and kindness still comfort us. So that Juli’s perseverance keeps us steadfast. So that my sisters’ anger and joy and pugnacity are supported.

Society Of The Grieving Sisters

For N.

I am now part of a sorority I would have gladly passed on. The sorority of women who have lost their mother. There seems to be a growing number of friends losing their mother around me, more than it seems that our hearts can take.

In this sorority, we neither wear nor want badges of honor. You can recognize us by our ability to have our eyes brimming with tears in under a second and our equal ability to choke them back in under half a second. We look a little lost too, like we don’t know what to do with ourselves. Like we’d like someone to tell us, but we can’t quite place that someone.

I’ve lost mine five years ago. My therapist wants me to write about her. Yes, I have a therapist. Yes, she wants me to do things. One of them is feel and stuff. Blagh. Blagh is how I feel about this particular assignment. I’ve sent a long time teaching myself not to feel after my mother passed away, and when everything I had pushed back so deep pretty much exploded back in my face I found myself in need of help to re-learn how to feel properly. I’m still re-learning. It’s a lot of work and tedious and overwhelming and at times it feels like my heart has become a puzzle I need to put back together, except I’ve always been shit at puzzles. J’ai pas la patience albe.

What I got from that exercise however is that asking for help when you need it is good. That there are people willing and able to help, people who gladly want to if you let them in. It took me years and it still bothers me to do it. Breaking down walls you create around you takes time. (Rereading this paragraph makes me want to cringe. Do I sound like a white woman in yoga pants posting Rûmi quotes taken out of their context? If I do, please forgive me and rest assured that I’m my usual Arab self still in her night t-shirt, writing before getting to work and knocking back Lebanese coffee like the sleep-deprived person I am).

When she passed I felt numb, a huge hole of nothingness I lost myself in. I do not recommend, but that’s how I coped, and everyone copes differently. Five years later and a lot of feeling everything and its opposite under the sun, it seems that I have learnt to live with it. Tentatively.

It’s interesting, how I can talk about grief at length, but can’t seem to be able to write about her. Grief is something I’ve become familiar with, I can rationalize it, I can intellectualize it. I like classifying things in my brain, I like studying things from a distance. Hearts are too complicated and fragile and they break and who needs that negativity in their lives.

My therapist usually patiently answers ‘everyone’. Apparently, we all need to learn to process negative emotions, whatever they may be. My usual answer is ‘ok but how about no?’. My therapist is a patient woman.

I don’t know if the relationship you had with your mother determines how easy or difficult the grieving process will be. I don’t think it’s ever easy though. I had a complicated yet close and loving relationship with mine. I was her second and last baby, we both had personalities comfortably big and came at heads a lot, we reconciled equally quickly. It was tumultuous and hilarious and painful and tiring at the same time. When she got sick, I became her warrior and read everything I could get my hands on to alleviate a bit her suffering.

Sometimes you go to war and lose and don’t want to admit defeat.

My therapist wants me to write about her because she says that’s how you accept and come to terms with the person passing away. She also stresses the importance of letting yourself go and cry in a circle of friends and/or family. Of letting people embrace you and take care of you and make room for your pain (I don’t do that or very rarely, which might explain why I’m still stuck five years on so please don’t do what I did and go with the trained professional’s advice. I got great tattoos to channel the pain though, so you win some you lose some).

Anyway, here goes. My mother was kind and completely hilarious, and no-nonsense. She had great style, so much humor, called out my drama queen shit every time it was needed (a lot, trust me), she had a sharp intelligence, she loved life and life suited her wonderfully. I can tell you all of that, and more, what I don’t have words for is to express the love we had for each other. They have not invented words for it, it something you just have to feel. No matter how complicated the relationship, that feeling was there, that feeling of deep, deep love, that is made of memories of fights and shared laughter, of small gestures of care that were completely normal to her and have been made so special by her absence. Like making my favourite dish, listening to me when I needed it, telling me I was bala marba a thousand times a day even though she is the one who raised me (I have a slightly rebellious streak sometimes).

They say there’s a tendency to erase and idealize people who have passed away. I like to think of it as a nugget of wisdom from the people who stay on: we know the people we lost were not perfect, we know they drove us up the fucking wall so often, but we also know that when all is said and done, the only thing that remains is how much love you give, how you give it, and how careful you were of other people’s feelings. And if the relationship was fraught and the love was not there, or not shared respectfully, my heart goes out to you: grieving someone you still want to scream at must be a tough, tough thing to do.

I’ve learnt to carry my mother within me everywhere I go. I recognize myself in her so much. She is right there on my face, and I also always wear something of hers. Not because I want to remember her, I do but I don’t need that, more because keeping something of hers on my feels like the ultimate protective amulet.

She is still here, in some shape or form, her energy transferred on to me, and she and I continue our relationship. I know she is there when I need her, she made sure of that.

The way we treat each other

I don’t like analyses that center on the individual as a means to explain political phenomenon.

As in, if you talk to me about the ecology from an individual responsibility perspective, there’s a great chance I’ll call you an eco-fascist (I’m harsh and in a bad mood a lot. I’m a working Arab mother of two daughters with personalities bigger than mine, come at me). I’ll ask you why you’re trying to guilt-trip struggling workers for not recycling or buying hand-picked local produce that cost half their salary while you remain silent about the states and corporations that consciously destroy the planet. I don’t really believe in mantras that’ll have you ‘heal the world through healing yourself’ or that insist that ‘life is what you make of it’, as if people existed in a vacuum, un-impacted by the realities formed by the material conditions within which they exist.

I have issues with call-out culture, I abhor privilege theory: to me, they do not particularly help securing accountability for harm that has been done and do nothing by way of societal transformation to guarantee non-recurrence. Also more often that not, these analyses fail to meaningfully engage with class exploitation under capitalism, and please, can we really pretend to be talking about dismantling systemics forms of oppression if we’re not addressing the impacts of capitalism and how it needs and sustains and interacts with racism, sexism and other forms of oppression? (Hint and shocker, the answer’s a no).

Any overfocus on the individual level instead of interrogating broader institutionalized patterns of discrimination and systems of oppression is to me synonymous with depoliticization of struggles. Instead of fighting the systems that create and sustain oppression and dismantle power dynamics that enabled said oppression and discrimination to happen in the first place, political struggles get reduced to a set of arbitrarily defined behaviours used as performative tools for activism.

Neo-liberalism loves that by the way: this approach enables it to co-opt messages and remove them from the realm of collective action and political contestation to make individuals responsible instead of the powers that be.

Call me a grumpy communist, call me a feminist kill joy, what can I say, I like changing systems and addressing root causes.

And yet.

And yet there is definitely something to be said for ensuring that our individual behaviours reflect what we fight for collectively, to the extent possible and bearing in mind that our lives are molded by our material conditions and by broader systems within which we exist. Is there truly a point in devoting your life to dismantling systems of oppression if you trample on everyone in doing so?

Within these margins lie our individual responsibility to practice what we preach and our collective responsibility to prevent harmful behaviours, our own and that of others’, from impacting others within our movements.

I find this last point extremely difficult. How do we create accountability mechanisms within our movements to ensure that people who have been harmed get justice from a space that they had considered as safe? How do we politically grow by opening up space for difficult conversations? Not conversations that pertain to political strategies and tactics, but conversations that need to center how we treat each other? How do we discuss problematic behaviours, keeping in mind power dynamics and avoiding policing?

I had started this piece really wanting to once again talk about radical political love, about how to consciously make our activism a labor of love, where we practice solidarity in a very concrete way, showing up for comrades embodying feminist values. And I believe in this like it’s my job, and I try to extend love and care whenever I can, to use my anger to move things forward, to be there for other women and girls, to look at solidarity from up close and unpeel all of its layers until I get to the core of it. Solidarity exists in multitudes, just like us, and there is not a single way of standing in solidarity with groups leading their way through liberation, but a myriad of them.

And sometimes it comes easily to me: after all, it’s easy to materialize and be present for the comrades you love, it’s easy to meet women and lift them up. It’s not work, or at least it doesn’t feel like it, and it feels great because you feel aligned with what your core values are. Embracing and holding space for each other, inside or outside of political and social movements, isn’t the hard part.

Things become tough when you’re confronted with behaviours that contradict these values, whether from within or from others. Suddenly radical love, including radical self-love, becomes difficult to practice: political debates and disagreement are one thing, and they are more than healthy and needed and allow us to grow, both as individuals and movements, but harmful behaviours, personal antipathies and other negative dynamics are something else entirely and don’t always call for accountability mechanisms. What are the implications of these inevitable dynamics on our movements?

People are multilayered, relationships are complex, and once again the success or failure of organizations and movements should not be left up to individual relationships: rather, we need democratic structures and institutions within them that provide a buffer against negative elements that can be nefarious to movements and trans-movement solidarity.

Despite commitments to radical love, we must also admit that we simply can not love everyone, and that rooting our activism in love is different than wanting to love every individual we meet.  One is a political act, the other is simply impossible, and we need to be ok with that.

Be Punk As Fuck

I read an article yesterday that stayed with me all night (my sleeping patterns are erratic at the best of times, which gives me plenty of time to think about light things like what’s my life purpose, is death constantly hovering above us, that kind of things).

This article is entitled ‘My mother was born on this day, and reborn in the Black Panther Party. We are her cubs’ and written by Malkia Devich Cyril. You can read it here.

A beautiful and poignant homage to his mother, the author also highlights what his mother taught him about the meaning of being part of a social justice movement, about the inherent politics of it, and about the ethics of engaging with one. One paragraph particularly struck a chord:

‘Organized social movements can both wound and heal, they often do both at the same time because true change is a turbulent process. Power is never wrestled without a defense or without a demand. To weather the pain of both change and those that would counter it with their own organized violence, we must become as compassionate, as tender, as forgiving, as insightful, as kind, as gentle, as fair, as thoughtful, as respectful and as accountable as we possibly can. From stillness comes action. From suffering, kindness.

It felt as if every sentence captured part of my experiences in engaging with feminist and leftist movements, and I am still processing many of the implications these words entail.

I read this article right after finishing up our weekly radio show ‘Three Feminists Walk Into a Bar’, that I co-host with my sisters and comrades Lina Abou Habib and Maya El Helou on Hammam Radio, where our conversation on gender stereotyping turned into praising the sisterhood we encountered in feminist movements, and into us deciding to do next week’s show on feminist love.

One of Maya’s most powerful quotes (and they are legion), is ‘feminist solidarity saves lives’. And to me, here lies the inherent healing power feminist movements have. Feminist solidarity and feminist love have healed me from a lot of misconceptions about myself and others and from internalized misogyny I had absorbed growing up in a patriarchal society (notes: all societies are). Engaging with feminist movements, at the global, regional or national level, feels like stepping into a crowd that feels like you do, whose wounds looks like yours, whose scars feel like yours. There’s a level of understanding and acceptance you seldom encounter elsewhere. Feminist movements are also places where you realize that love can be a political, conscious choice, that love can be revolutionary, that love can be hard work, can be intense, can exist outside of the traditional framings of what it ought to be, can be platonic, romantic, sexual, and everything in between.

Feminist movements are healing because they make space for emotions and build on emotions: anger moves you into action, love moves you into kindness and compassion, solidarity dismantles power dynamics. Feminist movements force you to see these emotions, make something out of them and accept them and deal with them.

These movements are healing because they show you that building political alternatives is possible, that you’re doing it right there in this space you have created with nothing except brains and hearts and guts. Spaces that you never had and that were designed out of sheer will to carve a place for yourself and for anyone else that might need them. That palpable hope created in the midst of chaos, oppression and discouragement is what keeps you going.

But feminist and leftist movements can also wound you, and the wounds you bear from interacting with them is proportional to the love and commitment you pour into them. Because we believe so hard in them and because we are so heavily invested in them, we sometimes tend to forget that they do not exist in a vacuum, that we are, and they are, a product of societies rife with power dynamics, systems of oppression and patterns of discrimination. Yes, your flat feminist organization that wants to undo hierarchies might lead to an accountability deficit that might ultimately hurt you as an individual and hurt the movement globally. Yes, you might (oh and habibi you will) encounter sexism in leftist movements, where the comrades will do anything from trying to silence you, to undermine your ideas, to sexually harass and abuse you. How do you then heal from sustaining wounds inflicted by and in your healing place? Dealing with this kind of pain and trauma has been and is, for a lot of comrades and for myself, one of the most trying experience we’ve ever had to face. The realization that we’re not immune to oppressive dynamics just because we feel magic whenever we take up public spaces and feel united in our purpose, the disappointment, the injustice, the lack of accountability, the anger (not the kind that propels you forward, but rather, the kind that drags you down), all of these conspire to make you want to leave these movements, never to return. How come we don’t though? And how do we heal?

The response the author offers in his article is probably what resonated the most in me: ‘To weather the pain of both change and those that would counter it with their own organized violence, we must become as compassionate, as tender, as forgiving, as insightful, as kind, as gentle, as fair, as thoughtful, as respectful and as accountable as we possibly can. From stillness comes action. From suffering, kindness.’

Now don’t get me wrong, no one is applying for sainthood here: perpetrators of violations and violence will be held accountable. Voices will be raised against whatever oppression and discrimination that take place in our movements, investigations will be carried, accountability mechanisms will be put in place. There should be no doubt that when we mean the dismantlement of power dynamics, we mean it everywhere.

But this idea of using radical love, including radical self-love, as a political, revolutionary tool one chooses consciously to undo systems of oppression and ultimately reinforce movements is deeply appealing to me. Not because I see it as an opportunity for growth on an individual level (although that can be an interesting by product), but because to deliberately choose love and kindness in societies that demand cynicism, individualism and competition of us, to deliberately choose political love and solidarity in societies that demand of us to only see love as a narrow concept of romantic love in a heterosexual relationship, feels like a powerful antidote to toxic dynamics and behaviours.

Another favourite quote of mine is: In an age of performative cruelty, kindness is punk as fuck. Be punk as fuck.

At this time of year last year I was in Nepal for work. There, I met an incredible group of South Asian feminists that were strategizing together. The sheer energy, the debates, the strategies, the sharing of feelings about the contexts they were active in brought me back to a small, poorly lit room in Ashrafieh where I was doing the same with comrades and sisters that felt the same.

With this comes the realization that home is wherever and whoever wants to make this world more just, more accepting, more equal: these people are my home, and I vow to be home to them.

At the time, my colleague told me: ‘it was really nice to see you interact with the group this way, you seem to be home’.

I remember smiling, sitting beside her for the group photo: ‘Payal, I am home’.

 

Each Other

‘The old world is dying, and the new world struggles to be born: now is the time of monsters.’

Antonio Gramsci

I let her pass and she smiled at me, giving me the thumbs up.

I smiled back.

All we have is each other.

These words have been going on in my head for a while. Since we have been ordered to remain in the confines of our homes (those of us lucky enough to have a place to call home, those of us lucky enough to have a place to call home that is not violent and abusive), I’ve been thinking about what our after will look like. Those of us lucky enough to have an after.

All we have is each other.

Another favourite of mine is ‘Only the people save the people’, which I think I even prefer. ‘All we have is each other’, against the deathly individualistic ideology of neo-liberalism. And I’m sick and tired of the emphasis on just the one person, sick and tired of the cult of the individual, of the myth surrounding self-made men (and sometimes women, because you know, feminism LITE TM) , removed from the dynamics of oppressive systems, usually a white straight cis-gender person, the universal metric against which we are all measured. That one person, who had the right amount of hustle and grit to ‘pull themselves by the bootstraps’. That one person, who more often than not, had a safety net. And not a public one.

Sick and tired of what capitalism has done to us: having us focused on individual responsibility, leading to the criminalization and moralization of poverty, sexuality, disability, otherness. Sick and tired of this lie that if you’re struggling, one way or another, you are somehow lacking. That there is something you’re fundamentally doing wrong. That you’re doing life wrong, because the market doesn’t lie and that it does you no good to go against stereotypes conveniently and neatly waiting to rule your life so you don’t have to think. We have seen a lot of individual responsibility discourse lately, and it has almost always come with repression and punishment against those who were already marginalized way before COVID-19 ever appeared, and who now have to face the instrumentalization of a pandemic geared towards the increase of this repression.

‘Only the people save the people’ conveys the idea of solidarity. The idea of collective power and action. Of unshakable bonds built between individuals united in their decision, in their political choice, to support each other against the assaults of the ruling classes and their systems of oppression. Solidarity is the beautiful battle cry of those who refuse fashionable cynicism, of those who agitate, educate and organize, of those who refuse point blank to consider poverty a moral failing, gender a destiny assigned at birth and race anything else than a social construct.

Solidarity is subversive and beautifully dangerous: it defies the frames of charity and performative support devised by neo-liberalism to depoliticize struggles. Solidarity asks uncomfortable questions about patterns of discrimination, public spending, corporate responsibility, impact of austerity measures and neo-liberal policies on the lives of people and of workers, it asks to speak to the manager to hold them accountable. It is obsessed with justice and accountability. Solidarity is thousands upon thousands of hearts beating in unison, realizing their collective power. Solidarity is a fist raised, ready to support, embrace, build. Re-build.

Re-build lives and bodies, not the economy. Re-build them in sustainable communities. Now that confinement measures are slowly being lifted in some parts of the world, even though the virus is still circulating amongst us, aren’t we all silently asking ourselves a thousand questions? (or maybe, indeed, it is just me and my ever-present friend anxiety). Where will we park our fears? What to do now after having heard of, witnessed or existed next to so much death? What to do when mental health care is stigmatized, deprioritized, inaccessible for so many? What to do when you have seen the devastation caused, not by the virus in and of itself, but by the result of years and years of defunding and neglect of public health and hospitals, of unaddressed racial and gender-based discrimination, of rampant ableism and ageism, of criminal classism? When those who die are seen as expendable anyway, because they lived in poverty, because they were women who stayed in abusive households for lack of support of any kind, because they were old or had underlying conditions and were seen as a weakling anyway by a neo-liberal society that only assigns value to productivity. Productive bodies are worth saving, others, not so much.

This is where we need solidarity, in its most radical, political form. This is when political choices, from votes, to mobilization for social, gender and reproductive justice, to online activism, to organizing support for the most marginalized become a manifestation of a refusal to exclude and other, and become the foundation of a society outside of the neo-liberal paradigm.

One thing is clear: we should not go back to the way things were, not because of some romanticization of ‘the day after’, but because the way things were proved to be, quite simply, deathly.

Imagine for a second if we brought together that righteous, pure, unadulterated outrage and grief, and solidarity, and let the world explode in collective action and calls for accountability and the dismantlement of the systems that accepted all of these deaths, and so many more that are not COVID-19 related.  We should expect higher levels of repression, surveillance and punishment still: the old world has smelled the threat and will not go down without a fight.

All we have is each other. Only the people save the people. We might not be able to touch, or hug, or hold each other just yet, but we can still organize and resist.

Five

I was wearing a red top and grey jeans.

My hair tied back in a ponytail.

I remember exactly what I was wearing, but could not tell you what I felt. My brain had to concentrate hard on external details to prevent me from falling apart entirely.

I kept that top.

I’ve never worn it again.

It’s folded in the limbos of my wardrobe, neatly waiting for me to decide its fate.

I will never throw it away, nor will I ever wear it again. It’ll have to stand the test of time alone, buried in the darkness of my closet.

I feel it’s important to remember what you were wearing when your world ended. How you thought it was going to be a normal day. How you thought you would be able to make it unscathed.

When it happened everything around me just melted away and liquefied. I wasn’t walking or talking or breathing. Swimming would be more like it. Swimming, gasping for air, trying to make sense of basic information.

I cried. Tears to match the sea around me. I felt my sister’s arms around me, trying to tether me to life. That angel whose initial response to her own grief was to reach out to protect me.

And still I wasn’t feeling anything. Not then. Not really.

I drove. I don’t know how. I think I spoke to myself the whole ride, splitting into many trying to keep me just sane enough so I would not drive into a tree. I ate. I don’t know how either. I went to pick up my child from daycare and her teacher thought I either was a monster or the strongest woman that ever lived because I wasn’t crying.

I picked up my child and went home. Took care of her and put her to bed.

Took off the red top. Folded it neatly. Left my heart in its folds. Buried my feelings and myself so deeply within me I am barely able to find them again.

And I kept going.

I was back at work five days later. Tears from colleagues fell on my stone cold silence and ‘I’m okays’. More assumptions of me being a monster. Or demented by grief.

That one was correct.

It wasn’t strength. Or me being a monster. Or having an iron will.

It was self-preservation, my mind mercifully shielding me from the cataclysmic loss I had just endured. Had I felt then, I would have died. I needed to ration that grief. Cut it up into bite sizes I could swallow.

I still can’t swallow properly. There’s something in my throat that just won’t go away.

It’s five years later. I had to look at these feelings. I had to extricate them from within the wall I had buried them in.

It is excruciatingly painful. To pull at that thread and unravel it. To untangle these knots and plant news things in their stead.

It’s a labor of love mostly, and self-love is hard to come by. I am ever so grateful to the hands that came to help, soothe and carry.

For the hands that wiped out the tears, for the arms that held, for the lips that kissed.

It’s been five years.

The top is still folded.

My heart is no longer in it.

Love

My friend Abir seems to be a permanent fixture in my writings. There is so much of her in one of my characters in the Tales of the Phoenix City, she’s been featured in articles I wrote, and here she is again, her name intertwined in my words.

That’s because Abir and I have built and nurtured a feminist friendship that has spanned for over ten years now. A friendship built in the streets of Beirut, around late coffees and meetings at feminist collectives, evenings spent designing infographics on violence against women (she’s good as design I’m good with words we both have a profound contempt for patriarchal violence) a friendship made of love, of understanding, absence of judgement, knowledge that we are there for each other regardless of where we live. A friendship made of honesty, and laughter, and joy (presently mentally adorning these sentences with blue eyes and khamsas to ward off the evil eye, yes I’m superstitious, what can I say, I’m an old woman and unlikely to change).

Lately, Abir’s brain produced the wonderful idea of co-creating Hammam Radio, a participatory feminist radio open to women and girls in all their diversities. If you think Abir’s brain is some next level brilliance, wait till you see her heart. She invited me over to contribute and co-create, along with the multiple wonderfulness that are Rasha, Marwa and Jojo. So far we’ve uploaded a heroic amount of music, have hosted different shows, but mostly had about a ton of fun.

This morning Marwa told us ‘I’ve never heard so many brilliant women in under two weeks’. The brilliant women are everywhere, it’s just that mainstream media is too busy showcasing The Men.

To me, the initiative brought me so much hope and love and joy, scarce feelings in these surreal times. Emotions that I have come to strongly associate with feminist love.

Several disclaimers are needed. From here onward, I’ll be speaking about healthy relationships, bearing in mind that they require constant work and care, and that toxicity can happen in all relationships, romantic or otherwise.

I’ve never been a fan of the (patriarchal, heteronormative) cult around the One and Only Romantic Love Meant to Fulfill All Of Your Needs. First of all, I think it’s incredibly selfish to ask of just the one person to be everything to you all the time. No one can be, nor should be, everything to you all the time always. Secondly, what’s this hierarchy of loves we live in? Society greatly values romantic love, makes a ton of music and movies about it, has special holidays around it, and women and girls especially are raised with the belief that the most important love they’ll ever find is romantic love, and that everything else is just an add-on. Very seldom are we taught that sometimes the ‘home’ you create with a romantic partner can be the most dangerous place for your to be in. Very seldom do we hear the warning that ‘the family’ can be your place of despair, violence and torture.

I fucking hate that.

I believe that there is constellation of forms of love out there, and that they are all equal. That intensity can be felt in relationships that are not necessarily meant to become romantic, that we should tell the people we love that we love them, period, and not just your partners or your family or your dog, but also your friends, especially your friends, and your comrades. I think there should be societal recognition of how crucial and core these relationships are to us, to our mental health and well-being. Kiss your friends more (once we’re out of quarantine), hold on to them, show you trust them and show them that they are not accessories in a play where the main character is your romantic partner.

There are different types of love, the political love you build with comrades (solidarity in struggle is a thing of beauty), the friendships you cherish, the situations you don’t quite have a name for yet (you know the ones, the relationships you can’t and don’t want to categorize), the love you feel for your children, the love you feel for your siblings’ and friends’ children (I’m an auntie, and a proud quasi auntie to many children, and let me tell you, is there anything more delightful than giggling with the offspring of the people you love with very minimal responsibility?), there is an infinity of persons out there that will be tugging at your heart one way or another. Don’t box love to certain types of situations or link it exclusively to certain people. The heart expands to more you let people in.

Among these loves, lies feminist love. The kind of love you build with feminist comrades who become your backbone, like a chain of wonders who prop and hold you up and will break your fall if they need to.  Feminist love makes space for your anger and legitimizes it, but stops you from being consumed by it. Feminist love is fierce, and full, and sincere, and stoked by the logs of struggle, solidarity and recognition. Feminist love has kept my head above water at times where even breathing was painful. Feminist love has taught me how to process grief, it has kept silent so my emotions could roar, it has made noise to drown out the violence and awfulness, it has stood like a wall of steel against the assault of societies that didn’t want us there. Feminist love rejoices in difference, creates invisible indestructible links between the people who form this bond, and above all, feminist love teaches life and courage. The courage to exist as we are, the courage to live our truth, safe in the knowledge that we are surrounded by the love of our chosen family.

To love, and be loved with that kind of deliberate fierceness, is a gift and a privilege beyond measure.

To create a platform where women* raise their voice and share their thoughts and laughter is a gift and a privilege beyond measure.

To retain the ability to love beyond what is socially sanctioned, to make the conscious choice to remain soft in an environment that will do anything to harden you, to choose solidarity and openness and inclusivity, to put one’s trust in the immense power of collective action and struggle, are all gifts and privileges beyond measure, but are also necessities.

Feminist love is needed. I’m happy to extend it to you.