Tales of the Phoenix City – Chapter 14

The boat was a bit rocky, the crowd, a mix of citizens going about their usual business and tourists exploring the city, all smiles, the flashes of their camera creating memories they will replay on rainy days to cheer them up.
Amongst them, a tall, skinny, dark haired man bearing an air of deep ennui. Ziad had spent a bitter sweet ten days, torn between discovering Istanbul and marveling at every little corner and the continual anxiety he felt for Lebanon and his friends and family upon hearing news that did not bode well.
By that time, he felt he was a Master at existential angst: come on over, Jean-Paul Sartre, and I’ll give you a run for your money. Thinking of Jean-Paul Sartre, he thought of Jean-Sol Partre, the imaginary alter ego of the famous philosopher imagined by Boris Vian, which invariably lead him to think of that terribly cruelly beautiful novel, l’Ecume des Jours, a love story so funnily painful Ziad felt he bled a little each time the read it.
Not that he would ever admit it: after all, he had a reputation to live up to, a hard shell to sustain. The musician in him tended to lend a specific song to each of this reaction and life events, and he sometimes felt he needed the “You’re so Vain” treatment.

His hotel bore the delightful name of Anemon and was located at the feet of the Galata Tower, in a lively neighborhood called Beyoglu. Every morning, Ziad forced himself out of the plush bed and dragged his lead body to the roof top terrace overlooking the city, where he could have his strong, black Turkish Coffee while watching boats passing by on the Bosphorus. He had a unique view on the Blue Mosque and the Agha Sophia, while he for once allowed his mind to wander at the slow rhythm of the boats before him.
At first, he thought his looming depression would keep him pinned to his bed and that he would only get up to open and raid his mini bar, but Istanbul, just like his beloved Beirut, seemed to have a mind of her own and not bend to anyone’s will, rather making people abide by her rules.
So on he went, slowly at first, exploring the neighborhood and going as far as the Istiklal Caddesi, where he sustained himself on Mante and Cimit, then realizing he was actually enjoying himself and pretty soon, started walking around everywhere. Down from Beyoglu, passing the little Turkish designers boutiques and buying a green jacket for Nina, sure that the cut and fabric would pass her almost unattainable standards, to the Galata bridge, where he actually stayed for almost a day, talking to fishermen and fishmongers, lost in the deep Turquoise shade of the sea, to Eminonu, where the violent colors of boats and ferries waiting for their passengers cheered him up to no end.

Upon crossing the Galata bridge, he was faced with the exquisite beauty of the “new mosque”, that was nonetheless several centuries old, the multi-dome architecture making him think of a slate blue wedding cake.

On and on he walked, and each of his steps screamed and ached for Lily. He wanted to show her the little streets he had discovered off Istiklal Street, an incongruous path made of restaurants and bars, with colorful lanterns giving it a warm redish glow. He wanted her to be there when he improvised a mini concert in one of the restaurants with local musicians. He wanted to make love to her in the pink Istanbul dawn, he wanted to wake up with her rolling her hair around his fingers, the out of key voice of Bob Dylan singing that there was music in the cafes at night and revolution in the air. He wanted not only to be tangled up in Blue, he wanted to be tangled up in the blue of her eyes. He wanted to be stupid and romantic and in love.

When the sad news of death and destruction in Tripoli and Beirut came on his TV and in his newspapers, he had rushed to the phone, only to be greeted by the disheartened voice of Nina:
– We’re all ok habibi, don’t worry about us and have fun in Istanbul.
If Nina was calling him habibi without a hint of irony and if she did not nake fun of him or scold him for one thing or another, then something had to be very, very wrong.

He pondered on calling Lily. You know, just to make sure she was fine and ask her to look after his sister. For once, he kind of had a good reason to actually call her.
But his courage failed him, and rather, he had organized a teleconference on Skype with his political alliance to decide which position to adopt. The comrades had organized a candle light vigil to signify that they were firmly standing against the oppression of war, an event that was sparsely attended. Nevermind, he thought, better small attendance than not organizing anything, even if there is three of us, it’s better to show we are there, we exist, us the opposition to the whole system.

He knew Lily must have gone to the vigil, he knew she was as concerned as he was, and suddenly, he asked himself if she hadn’t been right from the beginning. When they broke up, she had told him it would be easier if they stuck together, united in love and in principles, but he felt as if she were an added responsibility at a time where he was arrogant enough to think he had the Revolution, capital R, to think of, and blind enough to miss the fact that it would indeed be easier to share his worries and thoughts with her. She’s so clever and you’re such an animal,he admonished himself. 7ayawein, 7ayaweinm he kept echoing in his mind, God but I’m a little fucker.

The phone kept on ringing, his heart beating to its rhythm.
There a click, a pause, then a caramel like voice answered: hello?
A gulp.
An intake of breath.
A plunge taken.
“Lily.”
A pause.
” I’m a 7ayawein”.

Exile

I see them in your eyes, every day, the little questions eating away at your soul.
I see them, the little icicles of worry and despair, the never ending feeling of guilt, threatening to destroy you.
You smile and you laugh and you live, yet your heart is someplace else, with the thousands of brothers and sisters being tortured in God-forsaken prisons, their cries only echoing the screams of others. You smile and you laugh and you live, yet your mind is someplace else, trying to do something, trying to help, trying to relay information, trying.
You sit there, with your face in your hands, feeling guilty for being here and not there, unable to reach out to them, unable to join them as we plead and beg you to stay, where we can feel and touch you, where our selfish fear roots you to the spot, binds you to our love.
You sit there, endlessly talking to Comrades, debating until the little hours of morning on which position you should adopt, what you should do, endless, endless questions lining your heart with iron pins, the flavor of loss and sadness poisoning everything you taste. You can’t go, because you know what will be expecting you if you do, because you’ve been barred the gates of your home.
And I sit here, hurting because you are, bleeding for you, unable to soothe you, our minds and hearts with the sufferings happening beyond comprehension, and I sit there, the feeling of helplessness excruciating.
Then you find the strength in you to smile at me, and with that only beam resuscitate a glimmer of that old friend.
Hope.

Tales of the Phoenix City – chapter 13

The city was her haven, the slabs of concrete felt moist and tender beneath her feet, the piercing noises of every day life were the perfect symphony to her dreams. Gabrielle had taken to ramble through the streets whenever the political climate felt unstable and volatile, acting just the opposite of what everyone was doing. Instead of retreating home, she confronted the insecurity heads on, with the suicidal bravado of fools and heroes, going further deep within herself rather than within the closed four walls of a womb-like house where the feeling of safety was nothing more than an illusion. Thanks to the living hell that was her home when she was growing up, she knew full well that sometimes, houses and bricks can be the shield behind which oppressors operate. Her childhood house still haunted her to this day, and she knew very well that even people who knew her inside and out and since forever could not really understand what had happened there to leave such an imprint on her. In truth, no one had ever heard screams coming out from the cream colored rooms of her youth, her mother never had to invent some far-fetched story to explain blues and bruises. There was no open, visible case of violence to study.
But the violence was there, ensconced in the silence, in the tension of her two parents waging each other a mute war of wills, in the repressed movements of anger from her father, in his demeaning demeanor, in his outright indifference to his children. The violence was there in her mother’s Valium, in her sighs, in her elegant ennui, in her short temper and in her glaring unhappiness. Gabrielle had spent her childhood years trying to dodge imaginary and real bullets, not knowing where to turn, torn between the out in the open conflict outside of her doors and the war that wouldn’t tell its name within them. She had started taking pictures of everything she saw when she was thirteen even though she could not always have them developed because of the bombings, when the need to do something with her own skin got too scalding hot, turning to taking photos of herself and her body so that she could create a stare, an external pair of eyes through the camera, to mirror who she was, as no one around her seemed to be bothered. The old Leica soon became her best friend and the witness of an adolescent’s changing body, a change Gabrielle was very careful not to welcome by keeping extra slim. If becoming a woman meant becoming her mother, she’s pass on all the kebbe in the world.

At the time, she used to think it was either that or turning to drugs.

Thankfully, she grew up, and left this house of despair. She had now manage to create a safe golden peaceful home of her own that smelt of the delicious recipes of her lover, filling the walls with cinnamon, sugar and honey, replacing the acrid smell of tensions: however, the hint of the feeling of claustrophobia remained and was hard to shake.

As much as she loved Grace, she still had times where she could only bear being outside, by herself, something her partner understood and never questioned. She would leave early in the morning, her satchel safely strapped across her shoulder, her camera completing her hand, her phone switched to silent.
She entrusted the city with her head, and pleaded with Beirut to replace the racing thoughts and worries with bits and pieces of beauty gleaned here and there.
– Bonjour habibi!
Abou Brahim, her lovely neighbour who kept watch of everything happening in their alley, always greeted her in this French fashion, no matter how many times she would answer a hearty Marhaba Abou Brahim. A 3arouss picon in one hand, he would then proceed with asking her how she was, also in French, as if to demonstrate his various skills.
Gaby had shot him many times over, the fine lines on his worn out face the map of loss, pain and joy that had happened to the country, his droopy eyes always twinkling. Abou Brahim seemed to be always living in a state of perpetual relief, as if he felt happy and content since 1990, while Gaby, when she was in her exploratory moods, seemed unable to project herself in anything else than a dark pit of more conflict.

Which, in all fairness, was not far from reality, the way things were going.

Roaming the streets, she descended in her own self, her sharp trained eyes spotting every scenes, worried expressions of mothers going about their business, their joyful children hip hopping behind them, pensive, serious faces of older men reading the newspapers with the look of people smelling trouble a-coming. She tried capturing the essence of her Beirut, if in fact it even existed, as she seemed to doubt it lately. What if Beirut was nothing more than a mosaic of realities never colliding with one another? Until now, she had always pictured her beloved city as layers: the shiny, outrageous, in your face bling of the nouveaux riches downing Cristal while shaking fake breasts in front of an overweight Saudi being the first thing people and tourists would notice, with real, Beiruti people trying to make ends meet by working 14 hours a day on dire conditions, several layers below.

She had come to learn, through her lens, than reality was much, much more complex.

Losing herself in the graffitis adorning the walls of her city, passing the Phat and Ashekman art, walking further up to Hamra street, she noticed a tiny one hidden next to a parking lot, close to the Dunkin Donuts. She bent down closer and magnified it.

It read: if graffiti was useful, it would be illegal.

Pondering on this statement, and intrigued, she carried on, the smog of the outdated cars engulfing her lovingly in their cancerous mist.

Melancholy, that old friend, held her in her grip, and Beirut herself seemed so sad and lost, she could not do anything for her.

– habibti, there can’t be to Weeping Willows within your walls, one of us has to cheer up.

Tales of the Phoenix City – Chapter 12

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yours

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

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

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

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