Tales of the Phoenix City – Chapter 20

That must have been her thousandth cigarette.

Fine, so she was smoking like a chimney. So who cared? You had to die from something didn’t you?

Granted, you were not forced to do so agonizing with your blackened lungs, but still. And in any case, smoking was the only thing that kept her balanced at the moment. You know, the usual addict excuse.

Jesus Fucking Christ, did these chairs need to be so rickety? Bread republic really was too shabby for its own good. Sacrificing comfort for some Old World Bourgois Boheme was not worth it. She tried to convey waves of aggression to the oblivious waitress, Melat, who always seemed to float several meters above the ground. Her slender figure seemed to gracefully slalom between tables, while her stare went beyond everyone’s head. Gabrielle sometimes thought that looking at her was like looking in a mirror: slim, sharp and eyes closed for no one to see what was behind.

Today, she quite simply hated everything. And everyone. But most importantly, herself.

Nina came, that dreadful Beirut Princess in tow, closely followed by a Lily who was looking quite disheveled. Quite a bit like someone who had just stumbled out of bed. With someone, that is, not from a deep slumber with Orpheus.

– Habibi, you look like shit.

Nina stated the unnecessary obvious.

– You should see how I feel inside.
– No need. It’s all there on your face.
– Thanks Nina my love, always a relief to see you. How’s the fucked up life of Little Yas?

– So i’m not stupid BP any longer? It’s so good to feel like I’m finally turning into a human being with you Gaby.

Lily was not joining the usual greeting banter.

– Lil! What’s up 3omri? Even looking and feeling like shit I indulge in our little uplifing dance. What’s wrong?

– Nothing.

– You’re like the worst liar there ever was, said Nina rummaging into her huge bag for God Knows What. AND, my delirious brother has stopped answering my calls altogether, so I’m doing an intervention at his place after our brunch here. I’m not overly worried, mind you, he’s probably deep in his existential angst, asking himself whether Trotsky really was right.

– I slept with him!

– Who,Trostky?

– VERY Funny Gabrielle! Ziad! I slept with Ziad! Nina! Say something, don’t sit there looking as if you saw a ghost!

– Gabrielle. Give me a cigarette, no but and don’t object, give me a cigarette right fucking now I need it.

Gabrielle obeyed. She knew when not to upset Mother Nina.

– Lily. Nina’s voice was dangerously low. It was the Icy Queen Tone she used with her friends, family and clients when they were being particularly unreasonable. Lily. My brother means the world to me you know that. And you mean the universe. But my brother is a stupid immature dickhead who still needs to find out who he is and he’s bad for you.

– I love him.

– Great, we’ll bring the violins some other time if you don’t mind, I’m not finished yet.

– Oh Goodie.

– Nina, let her speak. You’ll have all the time in the world to lay down your judgment and tell her what she should do.

Nina looked at Gabrielle as if she had lost an ally. Seriously, where was the world coming to if people didn’t listen to the voice of reason, aka, herself?

– Fine, she conceded curtly.

Lily sighed. This was not going to be easy.

– So, after I had taken the high road and decided I would wait and see, the events carried me away, if I may say so. He kept calling me,playing me music, stupid things really. Said his life was meaningless if I wasn’t in it. He said a lot of things, mouhem, he said that I was the only one that mattered. But I wouldn’t listen, or I would, but wouldn’t answer. And so. So he showed up one evening. He looked at me Nina, he just had to look at me, and something melted, deep inside. Next thing I know we’re kissing and clinging on to each other as if we were drowning. He carries me, he carries me and I let him, one look and I’m gone and honestly I kind of lost track of time, and space and everything. Just his skin is enough.

– Ewww that’s my brother we’re talking about ewwww

– And it has been like that since then. He comes, we have, yes Nina cover up your chaste ears, we have mind blowing sex, we share a cigarette, he looks at me, he opens his mouth to speak and I shut him up, with a kiss or my finger on his mouth.

– But why? The Beiruti Princess seemed puzzled. Mesmerized, moved, and very, very puzzled.

– Because I don’t want to spoil it with words. I know words. I work with them. I know they can spoil everything, they have that power.

– Speaking of words, I read the new and improved version of your column, it’s brilliant.

– Yes yes, thank you Nina, but for now my brain is frozen, I can’t think of anything else than your brother.

– That’s because of all the sex, volunteered Gabrielle.

The waitress was waiting for them to order, poised with her pen in her hand. God knows for how long she’d been there. She probably did not know it herself. All 5 women in a circle, none of their minds within.

– I’ll have a ginger juice please, thank you

– An raqwe please, no cardamom no sugar no nothing. I want it black please

– A double espresso

– A latte with extra milk and sugar

– This is disguting Yasmine, this isn’t coffee.

– Thank you for your input Gabrielle. I’ll have a double latte with extra extra milk and sugar please.

– D’you know darling, perhaps we might very well be able to do something with you

Melat floated away, leaving the four girls deep into their shared silence.

– I’m in love with a man who doesn’t want to become one.

– I’ve never really been in love.

– Shut up Yasmine, you’re like 12, you have all the time in the world.

– Fuck off Gabrielle I was almost married.

– Good girl, you’re learning to fend for yourself.

– And why were you looking ashen when we came?

– Grace wants us to leave Lebanon.

– WHAT?

Lily’s outcry was overpowered by something none of them had seen before.

Nina was crying. In itself a sight more distressing than the last visit of the Pope, which, let’s face it, was extremely disturbing.

– Nina, Nina stop this, stop this this minute, Jesus Fucking Christ, Lily do something, Yasmin, bring her water, Nina I’m not going anywhere, khalas, I’m just fighting with Grace at the moment We’re not leaving, khalas habibti dakheelik if you stop crying I’ll even be nice to Beiruti Princess over here, shou fi, lek shou fi, redde! Is it the shop?

Nina smiled between her tears.

No the shop is good, I wanted to tell you about this, but no, it’s silly, I just, I met someone.

The girls took a collective intake of breath. Nina’s private life was usually kept very private, as in, she worked all day all night and did not seem interested in anyone, even though lots of men, and women, seemed very interested indeed.

– And I think I’m pregnant. Except I’m so scared I’m in complete denial and don’t want to take neither the test, nor his calls and I’m petrified and this is why I’m not smoking this cigarette you gave me, that’s because I’m so scared, and I’m not sure I want it if I really am pregnant. My mother will die.

They all looked stunned.

– What?

– The Fuck?

– Jesus. Jesus.

Gabrielle couldn’t bring herself to finish off with Fucking Christ. A couple of meters away, sitting at a nearby table, Hamed from Mashrou3 Leila was writing down lyrics for a new song while humming Imm el Jacket. Beirut lived on, its noise filling the deathly silence of their table.

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BFF

Yesterday, I was browsing some pictures on Facebook (it’s called procrastination), when I stumbled upon a photo of my civil wedding. It’s a simple picture of my maid of honour, laughing, and I, amused, looking at her, smiling. 

The thing is, you see, she has been my friend for the past 24 years, and perhaps I was too immersed in the crazy wedding fog (not that I was Bridezilla, I simply have a Lebanese mother) to fully realise how much of a blessing it was to have your friend of 24 years stand next to you in such an important moment. 

There are many love stories, the strongest bonds not necessarily being the ones you build when you fall in love. My friend Ludivine and I know each other inside and out but never bore each other. We live thousands of miles apart, yet as soon as we see each other, it’s like our never ending conversation had never been stopped by distance, and we quite joyfully slot back into our routines, sharing our news, our jokes, our secrets. True friendships are like your best pair of jeans, the ones you’ve wore a gazillion times, yet they still fit perfectly and you never throw them away. I’m struggling to find the right words to describe what she means to me: we’ve been to hell and back together, we’ve been together in joy and sadness, like any other friends really. We’ve laughed and bickered and cried and fought and been pissy at one another, we’ve reconciled and forgot about it all, we’ve agonised over the come back of the denim shirt (so 90’s), we’ve dissected break ups over teas that were getting cold as our never ending conversations went along. 

On the day of my civil wedding, she was there, next to me, laughing and making me laugh, my sister in arms, and in itself it was a gift of life, to have two love stories around me, to feel hearts connected in time. 

On the evening of my religious wedding, she got up, her hands slightly shaking, she got up to make the traditional maid of honour speech. I kept looking at her, tears pouring down my face, half laughing, my heart overwhelmed, she got up, ever so pretty in her black bohemian dress, I looked at my friend of 24 years say her words of love and friendship to me, her words, the perfect embodiement of the mix of fun and serious moments we’ve had together, her words, en elegy of our past together, her presence, right there, the seal of all the wonderful things to come. 

I probably didn’t get the chance to tell her that night that I might have signed an unshakable bond with my husband that night, but that the one her and I have and nurtured is just as unfaltering, the way we probably intended it when we were exchanging black khol and blue gloss when we were 15, smoking our Marlboro Lights, thinking we were IT. 

Portrait: Lola and Rita

Lola and Rita could make you think of Farha and Marha: always together, the one doesn’t go anywhere without the other. Don’t be fooled: unlike the proverbial pair, Lola and Rita are classic frenemies.

Frenemy: your worst enemy, decked out in her finest BFF attire.

Frenemies are not friends to each other: they only wear this label so they can tell you the worst things and possibly get away with it. Lola and Rita call each other lovely, syrupy nicknames like Hayete and Habibi while assessing the other with sideway glances which could rival with the ones given by some Victorian heroine to Heathcliff-like brooding men. As soon as they clasp eyes on each other, the competition game starts: what is she wearing today? Oh Jesus, she should NOT be wearing this! She’s gained weight? Oh No! the bitch looks like she’s lost some! Drowning in their internal bile and jealousy, snide comments will start fusing right, left and center: you really look pale and sick today, maybe you should start eating something, are you really going to eat that cupcake? Oh I was just asking, you know *meaningful stare at thighs*.    

As much as Lola and Rita claim that they are friends, the fact is that they simply don’t seem to be genetically able to act the friend part: each of them keeps talking about herself without as much as pretending to care about what the other one has to say, Lola gets a kick out of bringing Rita down while Rita smiled and nodded and cheered with the rest of their friends when Lola got promoted, except that at the end of the evening she could not take it anymore and simply dropped – oh so innocently- that Lola’s lovely cleavage came as handy in the whole recruitment process, all said with a fake sickly sweet smile stapled upon her face, as if she hadn’t said anything hurtful or undermining.

It seems Lola and Rita simply can’t hack the fact that the other one, and more generally, that people, can be happy and will insist on try and ruin the all round happiness because apparently, well, if they’re insecure and miserable, everyone else has to be, and preferably immediately if not sooner.

The thing is, Lola and Rita are becoming more and more isolated, as most of their friends see them for what they are: a proper nuisance. ‘They’re just so tiring, they say, I’m so tired of having to justify myself all the time that last time I saw them, I just couldn’t take it anymore, and I exploded” were conversations often heard in their group of friends. ‘I am HAPPY! Stop BADGERING me with “Oh, you’ll see, you’ll change your mind and realize that what makes you happy actually sucks’ JUST shut up!” were words that the pair had started to hear more than they cared to mention. ”

Nevermind them, they think, as long as they have each other to bitch about, knife in the back and hurt, someone will be in their competitive race, and that’s all that matters. Lola carries on badmouthing Rita every chance she gets while Rita is currently perfecting her patronizing tone and attitude whenever she speaks to her frenemy.

Sadly for Lola, Rita seems to have lost interest recently, all because of different friends she made, and discovered the delights of proper friendship: no snide comments, honest conversations, sincere celebrations of each others’ successes, rows handled like normal human beings and people moving on from them, growing closer. At first she was keen on replicating the same type of relationship than she had with Lola. Then, when no one was interested, she discovered it was actually easier to be open and honest and caring, Then she shed her previous skin.

Lola had no one to play with anymore, she was like a drowning woman gasping for air, going as far as telling Rita when she got engaged that “she was really happy for her as she’d always put relationships before careers”, making her sound as a dumb half wit flashing guys at uni in order to get a husband.

That jealousy of yours, replied Rita with dignity, you really should get that checked. And with that she was gone, leaving Lola, the center of a void circle, eaten by her own unhappiness, deflated, and more green with jealousy than ever.  

It’s a Sister Thing

An evening like so many others at a random Geneva party on a wooden boat a couple of years ago. I remember a guy asking my friend and I who was the eldest of us two, thinking we were sisters.

Let me get this straight.

My friend Myriam is Moroccan, she’s slender, has hazel eyes and her legs go all the way up to her armpits (Yes, I know, I should hate her, but somehow I can’t seem to be able to bring myself to it).

I’m Lebanese, slender is not a word I would use to describe myself, have deep pitch black eyes and legs, which, oh well, go more or less up to where people’s ankles seem to be (Mind you, I’m not really complaining, after all women DO come in all shapes and sizes).

The only resemblance Myriam and I might bear is our semitic nose (I might start complaingning here) and our common struggle for hair ( Moan Moan Moan).

Not really twins then.

Faced with our bewilderment, the poor (Syrian) guy went on to explain that we had a very “oriental” friendship, which apparently is supposed to mean that we act and seem very close to one another, linking arms whispering secrets, adjusting each other’s hair (essential when you’re an Arab, the frizziness being so all over the place it might actually block people on their way), in a word behaving like sisters might.Off he went, but the thought stayed with me, all the more because he same comment befell me again at university, when our international criminal law teacher took to calling another (tunisian) friend and I “The Two Sisters”.

Is it? I mean, Is building friendships on the model of sisterhoods really an oriental trait, or is more of a womanly thing to do, or is it simply something to do with specific personnalities?

The Middle East calls her friends habibti, the French have the glorious Ma Chérie, the North Americans will cajole with Honey or Darling, so no big difference here. The one thing I’ve noticed that might defferentiate oriental friendships from European ones is that we all seem to be members of the “We Like Fussing” gang.

I fuss over Emna’s weight, she fusses over my hypochondria. I badger the nurse (wou yaret the nurse, the receptionist at Myriam’s doctor) with ten thousand different questions about Myriam’s results, health and general state of well being while Samia grows white hair over all of us. Dina pretends she doesn’t fuss, but will call, Gtalk, sms, e-mail and facebook you at the slightest trace of tiredness or sadness or whatever in your voice, all the while pretending she’s not worried. Have you eaten enough habibti? Are you ok habibti? Yalla don’t worry habibti, it will pass. We can’t seem to be able to rest until we’ve habibtied each other’s blue in the face.

Acute shared anxiety disorders or extreme affection? Let us not answer that (ok yeah, probably both).

Thinking on our friendships, I realise we really are like sisters, but the nice ones you know, not the kind that grows green with envy watching your new pair of boots that you probably didn’t need (everyone knowing the sane attitude to binge shopping is encouraging it, the person indulging probably having her own reasons). Us? We’d probably go: Oh habibti I got them on Asos, did you like them, khalas next time I’m online I’ll get a pair for you, or even better d’you want me to send you the link now? We’re not saints, take it from me, we can be unpleasant to lots of people, we just love each other very, very much, to the point where we can have endless dinner conversations swapping subjects from new shades of lipstick, to clothes, to personal issues to shaping eyebrows to the quest of the ultimate anti frizz serum to Dina’s job in a security Think Tank to empowerment sessions to new finance products at Thomson Reuters to female condoms to the International Criminal Court and the last Lumumba’s case.

However, I don’t think it’s an Oriental thing, I don’t even think it’s a women’s thing. I think this is only about several people eyeing one another in a classroom at 9 years old or at 20, looking at each eyebrows, caps (seriously, Dina), crazy skirts, blue coloured lenses, lime and purple Vans, and something in our heads going “Ding Ding Ding Kinship”. How could we not end up like sisters?

– For Samia, who’s probably illuminating Morocco at this very moment with her Grace and Smile