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 23

This city.

This city gets under your skin, invades your bloodstream. You can’t ever leave it, even if you travel, emigrate, destroy your passport and burn down your house.

This city stays. It leaves an unshakable bond, an imprint on your forehead, like the most vociferous mistress, stronger than passion, fiercer than tenderness. Love.

This is what Gabrielle had told Grace. She could never leave it, not with what was happening, not with Nina needing her, not with her own self needing the air of Beirut now more than ever. Sulphur, Diesel, Jasmin, Magnolia and Oud. She would not, could not leave this air, she’d suffocate. Intolerance, prejudice, harassment, she’d face it all, she’d fight it all, but she was not to leave.

Grace had only asked one question. The most terrible she could ever have asked.

– Do you love this city and your life in it more than you love me?

Gabrielle had not believed what she’d heard. Grace was not usually like this, she and her, they epitomized the modern couple, free from the shackles of jealousy and possessiveness. Perhaps Grace’s vulnerability was triggered by Gabrielle’s iron will, by the gleam of absolute decision she had seen shine in her lover’s dark eyes. No prevarication, no hesitation. She would stay.

– There is nothing or no one that I love more than you on this earth. But if I leave, Grace, I’ll die. Misery will consume me whole. The Guilt, the horrid guilt of my comfort overseas would eat me whole. I know myself. I won’t be able to cope. It’ll be the end of me. I will stay but I want you to think about what is it that you want.

– I want you.

– And I want you. But if you stay for me, then one day, if and when something happens, you will resent me, and I could not bear it. Simply could not.

It was Grace’s turn to show her will.

– Listen. I love Beirut as much as you do. I wanted to leave because the climate of hatred we have to live under is unbearable. Do you know why I always wake up at 04:30? Because 04:30 is the blessed hour where everyone just shuts up. People are slowly stirring in their beds, some are praying, others are dreaming. Coffee is on the way, and everyone is still too suspended between wake and sleep to think of hating. I wake up while you’re still deep in slumber, and I look at the pink dawn over the crumbled gray buildings, I look at Beirut and an insane feeling of love, deep, deep love for every bullet hole, for every teeny tiny rock shakes me whole, like if I could hold the city tight against my chest in an eternal embrace, I would. I would be staying for my own happiness, which is be with you, here. But you will have to get used to the fact that sometimes, when I’ll be overwhelmed, I will want to leave. It doesn’t mean I will actually do it. It just means I’m human, I get weak, and I don’t see why I should keep silent about it. Is that too much to bear?

Gabrielle was speechless. Five years, and through and through these five years, Grace still knew how to amaze her. Petite, soft spoken Grace, sitting on her velvet armchair, looking straight into her eyes. From the outside, it looked like she was the calmest, quietest person currently having the calmest, quietest conversation. But her eyes gave it all away.

There was nothing left for Gabrielle than to walk up to her, cup her face in her hands, and kiss her.

Later, Gabrielle would go for a walk, her rib cage a little looser, her breath, a little less shallow, relieved to have straighten out the hollowing decision that had been hanging over them for the past month, poisoning each of their caress, looming over their heads like a malevolent bird.

Later, Gabrielle would roam the streets of the city she was almost ready to sacrifice so much for. She would go and talk to the mothers, sisters, and wives of the 17 000 disappeared in Syrian prisons who were holding their daily sit in in front of the UN, asking for a tiny bit if peace of mind. ‘It’s the not knowing that kills you’ said a Stereophonics song. It’s the not knowing what happened to their lives, their hopes, their loves, and there they were, sitting in front of people and institutions that could not care less about their shattered lives, that only demanded forgetfulness of people, that only demanded obedience and quiet. Gabrielle would whip out her camera and start taking pictures of these women and of the pictures they were holding, because after all these years, after all these words, the only things they were left with were pictures. All the while she would be playing in her head a song she liked by Shadi Zaqtan , a song which spoke about 11 000 empty places. 17000 here, 11000 there, and God knew only how much everywhere else. Empty places filling thousands of hearts with sorrow.

She would come and sit and talk. Then she would pack her bags, her heart a little bit heavier, so much sadness, so much unbearable suffering, the torture of not knowing what had happened to the person you loved the most. She would pack her bags, and a decorated staircase would appear in all its multicolored glory, an older woman sitting on her balcony would see her pass by and would ask her to come and have coffee with her.

Gabrielle would shoot and shoot and shoot, images to replace bullets, life to replace death, excerpts of life and hope, because Beirut, no matter what, always gave you a reason to hope. Yet another. Reason to hope.

In another life, in another apartment, Nina, a hand on her womb and another on the phone, was preparing herself to have the toughest conversation she would ever have in her whole life.

The line crackled a bit. One, two, three rings. Then the receiver was picked up.

– Hi Mama!

Prisoner’s Mother

She stays still like a rock amidst the chaos, mineral and cold in the scorching sun. She stays and sits still, oh so still, she stays and gazes at the stars in the pitch blackness of night, searching for them, trying to find strength in their incandescence. She sits and stays and she gazes at passers by, watching the dead go by. She stopped eating and talking, she has neither time nor interest in the mundanity of her own life, people think she has gone mute with despair, they just don’t understand her whole being is focused on keeping her child alive, for the tinniest move might kill her life. Folding on and within herself, she stares at the streets, surprised that other people could still come and go while her child was well locked up in a hellish hole, enduring and suffering things she dares not name, things beyond inhumanity. Each and every day is a battle against thinking what they’re doing to people’s children. She’s like an arrow on a mission, the mission of keeping her child alive by sitting still, oh so still, only her lips slightly moving, whispering prayers and pleas with God: if you give me my child back I shall go on an endless pilgrimage, I shall speak your name and yours only, I shall spread your Word. I shall even try and believe in you. Anything, just to feel once again the honeyed warmth of the tender filial embrace, to get a whiff of her own blood: her child.
Vague murmurs among stifled sobs come to her, yet she doesn’t cry, only waking up from her trance to scold those who do: shut up, she says to the flabbergasted crowd of mourners, shut up right this minute. Freedom comes at a cost, and our child is paying its tribute to it.
She swivels back, eyes ablaze, the burning feeling inside of her building and swelling until it envelops her is a halo of electric rage.
They may have taken you, but they made a bolt of lightning out of me.
Freedom comes at a cost mama, her child had said before leaving for never coming back.
A price I m willing to pay.
A price I m paying right now.
And with that she put on her black dress and dignity, and marched down to join the pounding crowds below her.
Ever growing.
Never ending.

You Say Goodbye and I Say Hello

Saying good bye s a bitch. And I should know, I’ve been doing it for the last 20 years. You see, it all started when it became apparent that I were a Lebanese living abroad but regularly going back to Lebanon. That usually pretty much entails a lot of going back and forth, of hellos and good byes, of tears of joys and sadness and let me tell you something, learning heartache at such a young age just can’t be good for your soul. Growing up, things improved a little in the sense that I taught myself not to be In shambles each time I left Beirut ( and that was a good thing, I just couldn’t be looking like a panda twice a year, it was just not on), but I couldn’t prevent little cracks in my heart from happening nonetheless. At that time, I made a promise to myself: I will go and live in Lebanon one day.
Which brings me to now, as this is exactly what I’m doing. The only tiny, teeny, oh, barely apparent itch was that I had kind of overlooked the good bye component of relocating in Cedar Land. I was living the dream! Going back where I belonged! It was fantastic!

Until my niece came along and played with me and chased me yelling PatAAAAA at the top of her lungs, making me realise I wouldn’t be seeing her every week like I do now. Oh. Not to mention my sister looking at me, tear-stricken, as if I were going to live in Zimbabwe in a wild savannah full of lions and cheetahs, never to come back. We’ve always been something very akin to drama queens in the family.

So apparently, here comes the hello good bye ballet again. Now I know this is ridiculous, I know everyone nowadays have their hearts fragmented in all parts of the world, I know I have Skype and email and texting and phone calls. No, really, I know. I’m just a selfish cow, I like all the people I love right there in front of me, where I can see them.
So I’ll say good bye in 2 days, then they’ll come visit in a month or so, then I’ll go and visit them. In the meantime, I’ll build strong ties and bonds in Lebanon, and then will come the time to say good bye to them too.

AAaaaaaaaaaaRrrrrGggghhhhh. Now don’t ask why people’s heart fail sometimes.

On Being A Hypochondriac

Tout bien portant est un malade qui s’ignore.

Jules Romains, Knock

Hi, my name is Paola and I’m a hypochondriac. 

I think it just needed to be said. You see, most people would think it’s not normal to be calling the French SAMU for an indigestion, but that’s the kind of thing me and my best friend Ludivine would do in a heart beat. 

Now please don’t get me wrong: we really, truly, are lovely girls who’d give you the shirt off our backs and everything. It’s just that when we have a headache, we automatically think we have a brain tumour. 

The worst part of it all is the amount of bad faith we can show. Let’s take situation one: I feel queasy, with a strong headache. I go and complain towards a normal person, who will tell me, naturally enough, that it’s probably something I’ve eaten and that it’ll pass. My answer to this perfectly sane and sound piece of advice? One, Cry: and what do you know? Are you a doctor? I don’t think so! Two, carve the worst possible scenario ever: I have meningitis and you just don’t care! Three, huff and puff and go on Google: “meningitis symptoms”, “Doctissimo” “”. 

Then, when it’s all over, when, after calling about 23 different doctors who repeatedly tell me it is NOT meningitis, that I should STOP going on Wikipedia to make my own diagnosis, that it IS something bad I’ve eaten, I’ll go back to the normal person, all smug and happy, and tell he or she: you see? There was absolutely no need to worry like you did. You can be so nervous for nothing sometimes. Which often times seems to spark murderous thoughts in the mind of my interlocutor. Funnily enough, even though the probability of dying at the hands of a friend or parent I’ve driven mad is probably much higher than me getting meningitis, I never worry about that. For those of you who like me are Big Bang Theory Sheldon Cooper worshippers, just picture a gassy Sheldon knocking on Leonard’s door, thinking he might have Ebola when really, he’s just eaten way too many Brussels sprouts. There, picture clear enough?

Us Hypochondriacs just love each other’s company. No, really, we relish it. Why, you ask? Well because we can ask and probe and reassure one another until blue in the face, and no one can tell us to stop and come back to the lovely fields of sanity, because, well, we’re all as bas as each other, like: “Do you feel the same lump I’m feeling here? Here, I’m telling you, you’re not touching properly!” or “I’ve been feeling tired. I might have lymphoma.” or the best of the worst “I’ve bumped my head. I have a brain haemorrhage now”. 

The saddest part of it all is that, when we’re having a crisis, we truly, really believe that our fantasies are true and that we’re on our way to eternal sleep. Non hypochondriacs might think we’re just drama queens and kings, which I strongly resent. Hypochondria is like a compulsion, and no matter how many doctors you see or exams you take, you don’t feel reassured more than half a day. Then, you just go back to wanting to live in a hospital in case you might need a CAT scan. 

But why are we wired this way, one might ask? Some people argue it’s because of a tough medical family history, some think it’s the fear of dying. Other simply think we’re Molière’s Imaginary Invalid. 

I choose to blame the media, who tell us to worry about our health: we’re just over-achieving students.