Tales of the Phoenix City – 29

Gaby was watching the ever expanding frame of her friend, taking pictures of her as she moved bare foot on her tiled floor, draped in a large lacy poplin white nightshirt. Nina was looking tired in the Beirut sinking sun, the sweet autumn wind finding its way into the apartment through the half closed green shutters, gently caressing people and furniture, reminding them that there were good reasons to stay, too. In spite of everything. Nina was arranging on her tray the delicious looking fig jam and homemade sweet anise kaak Lily had brought back from the Bekaa valley, pondering if her hunger was greater than the nagging nausea that had plagued her throughout the 36 weeks of her pregnancy.

– Jesus Fucking Christ, for the love of all that is good and holy, how, just tell me how, does your body manage to accommodate that alien in your belly?
Nina smiled patiently. After all, this was a question she kept asking herself, about four hundred times a day.
– Well, I’m not even sure myself. Sometimes I stare at my body in utter wonder, thinking it’s the most perfect, clever thing in the world…
– Please spare us all the hippy talk I am begging you, interrupted Gabrielle, all this hoopla about your body and its abilities yawn yawn yawn
– Ma hek, if you left me finish. So I was saying, sometimes I am amazed by what I can do, and other times I just feel so, well, full, so heavy, and achy, and moody…
– Are you naming the seven dwarves?
– No seriously, that whole pregnancy thing is no walk in the park. I will never understand the women who claim to have never felt better than when they were pregnant. It’s a huge strain on yourself, on your body and emotions, it’s like this tidal wave of change, you don’t recognize yourself. Everything swells to accommodate a person you’re creating, a person you feel jab and poke at your insides and punch and kick you. Sometimes I’d be sitting down and it’s like my bump has already a life of its own, it goes crazy from one side to another. How odd is that? It’s happening to me yet I can’t wrap my head around it.
– Well, you’d better start wrapping your head around it, seeing as you’re giving birth in about four weeks.
– Yeah no, i’m not.
Gaby started and looked up from her objective, trying to assess her friend’s tone.
– You’re not?
– I’m not.
– Okay then. What do you propose will happen? Will you keep that child inside your womb for all eternity, kangaroo style?
– No no,they shall take that child out of me, but I do not plan on ‘giving birth’ and ‘laboring’ and participating or cooperating in any way to the delivery of that baby. I’ll just let modern medicine do what it does best: fix things.
– You scared?
– To fucking death. The pain, Gaby, how does one bear the pain? I hear all that talk by the midwives about how beautiful and manageable everything is through breathing but i’m like, ‘quit lying to me, if breathing magically made the pain go away, women would not beg for epidurals and oxygen and the shit loads of drugs they ask for, half crying’. I’m not gonna lie Gaby, i am seriously wondering about how people deal with the fucking pain. I demand to know.
– Wait, I’ll go back to my extensive experience in giving birth to 14 children. How the fuck do I know? The whole process seems so foreign and remote to me. A bit like China.
– Nina chuckled, trying to get comfortable in her vintage upholstered wicker chair, putting her swollen feet up. Gaby resumed her frantic picture taking.
– May I ask why you’re all over me with your camera? You look like a paparazzi chasing Kim Kardashian.
– Who?
– Never mind. Just stop taking pictures of the sorry mess that I have become. And since we’re on the subject, please stop likening my vagina and its upcoming torture to China.
– Oh for fuck’s sake, can we please stop with the whole pity party? I am told many, many women have done what you’re about to do before. Apparently it’s even very probable that your body will know what to do by itself. So breathe. Didn’t they teach you anything in that drab, God forsaken prenatal classes of yours? Grace came with you and she bored me into a proper stupor with talk of dilatation and effacement and perineum and pushing and ‘managing the pain’ by breathing and whatnots. Seriously, if you could handle the pain of the preparation to the whole ordeal, you’ll do just fine at the event itself. Oh and by the by, I take pictures because you’ve never been so beautiful and I want to frame a couple of those for your child to see how perfect her mother was while carrying her.
– I didn’t know you were such a thoughtful, kind poet.
– Well, there I fucking go, the sensitivity of Verlaine trapped in the body of Patti Smith
Nina planted her eyes in her friends’. The intense gaze rattled Gaby, who stopped being flippant and held Nina’s gaze with the same intensity and gravity. Now was not the time for jokes.
– Seriously, Gabrielle. What am I doing? Did you see the state of the country and the world I am bringing that child in? Am I doing the ultimate selfish thing? I don’t really care about my child not really having a ‘father’ figure…
– Yes she will, she’ll have me!
– Seriously, ‘father figure’ simply doesn’t mean anything anyway, except maybe patriarchal oppressor. But I feel like I am under so much pressure. My body is definitely not my own anymore, by nature’s design and by people’s will, by the constant stream of ‘well wishers’, telling me I should give birth without medication, telling me I should breastfeed because it’s better, and don’t even get me started on all the parenting advice perfect strangers are showering on me. Sometimes i just feel like escaping but It’s like I’m stuck. I just would like to be able to claim my life and body back, but people are trying to sell to me the sacrificing, long suffering mother stereotype as the ultimate and best mother figure that could ever exist and I just don’t want this for myself, and i don’t want my child growing up thinking it’s ok and normal to be a slave to motherhood.
– Your tangled web of questions has confused me,not the least because i think, of all your organs, the most fucked up as of now, is your brain. Since when did you start caring about what people say? Seriously, you’ve been renting your body for the past nine months, bloody do what you want to do with it when it’s over. You’ve always been your own person, I don’t see why that should change. Raise your child the way you want to, telling her what you think is right and then let her make her own experiences. The way I see it, just let people’s remarks and comments slide off your back and carry on.
– You know, you’re a good cheerleader…
Gabrielle saw where this was going.
– No, please, no
– And as a good cheerleader and my best friend, I’d like you to come with me the day I give birth
– OOooh for fuck’s sake, Jesus Fucking Christ, no, fuck, no, don’t do this to me, Jesus, no, can you imagine me with the blood and the cutting of things, and the whole butchering, no, I’ll probably be taking pictures for my gore collection instead of helping you anyway, seriously, take Grace, she’s strong and responsible and lovely and has been to the classes, or Lily, she’ll sing hippy welcoming songs to your child, don’t take me, please
– I want you. You won’t let them bullshit me when i’m vulnerable.
– But
– I want you. Gabrielle, will you be my ‘birthing partner’?
– Oh Jesus Fucking Christ, yes i will but don’t ever, ever refer to me again as birthing partner. Ever.
– Good, said Nina, closing her eyes and relaxing. You were not hard to convince after all.
– I feel like i’ve been manipulated in some way, mumbled Gabrielle, fixing her filter yet again. Fuck.


Tales of the Phoenix City – Chapter 26

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

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

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

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

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

Tales of the Phoenix City – Chapter 18

The noise was getting stronger as she drew nearer to the entrance. From afar, It seemed like there was a fair amount of bumping and thumping and rattling being made, which slightly alarmed her. She quickened her pace. As usual, there was no electricity so she had to run up the three flights of stairs that separated her from the mayhem. 

She found Grace in the kitchen, flour up her lovely aquiline nose, crying into her signature orange blossom water and pistachio baclava while a cake was being baked, filling the kitchen with a delicious chocolate smell, screaming insults at the TV. 

Gabrielle knew something was extremely wrong. Grace almost never screamed, let alone cry, especially when she was cooking, which was basically the time where she felt the happiest. Gabrielle sighed. As much as she loved Grace, today was not the day for more drama. She had spent the previous evening helping nurse the Beiruti Princess’s heart and shattered life, and had spent the whole day working with Ali and Ghassan on her upcoming exhibition. The quiet peaceful evening with her beloved, followed by some work on Lili’s book project seem to disintegrate before her eyes. 

– Wou kess ekhtkon, you stupid fuckers, you bajam! 

– Grace? Habibti? Care to tell me why All hell has broken lose in our home? 

– Didn’t you hear? There have been more arrests of men “suspected of sodomy”! Look! Look! 

Grace was motioning rather manically to the shining box before them, where an over made up ageless and emotion less woman was delivering the news. 

Gabrielle blanched. As if the 36 men arrested in that Burj Hammoud cinema were not enough. As if Joe Maalouf’s hypocritical moral so called high ground was not enough. As if virginity tests and anal tests were not enough. As if torture and harassment had become so random and normalized a plastic bitch could afford to announce them on the eight o’clock news without as much as batting an eyelash.

Grace was blowing her nose noisily. Gabrielle felt she was swimming in lead, in deep, dark, heavy waters that threaten to swallow her whole. She couldn’t breathe. Anger, frustration, humiliation and pure, unadulterated, white hot hatred for an establishment that allowed for this to happen were bubbling in her heart and mind, threatening to make her implode. She suddenly remembered the words of a Syrian gay friend of hers: I love my country, but my country doesn’t love me.

This is how she felt, except that the love she once held for said country was dangerously being jeopardized by stories like this, by the guilty silence of everyone when it came to respect each others’ rights, by the over indulgence warlords turned ‘respectable’ political figures benefited from.

The disgust was too much.

Grace was on a mission: contrary to Gabrielle, she knew what to make of her emotions so they were never on the brink of swallowing her and hurting her.

– Can you believe it? Thugs roaming the country, each family getting their weapons and applying their own brand of the law! Kidnappings! Blackmailing! Catastrophic economic situation! Nobody has any rights, workers need to shut up otherwise they unleash more thugs on them while the general security turns a fucking blind eye! No electricity, no public service, no order no nothing, yet they spend hours and resources chasing up gay men, violating more people! Khalas! Khalas Gabrielle, I can’t take it any more!

Gabrielle was rendered speechless by the shrill screams of her lover. She knew what Grace meant. In Lebanon, as things were and seemed to be shaping up, they could never have the lives they’d want: they would have to carry on with the lies they were feeding everyone. Grace and Gabrielle could never share with the people they loved the most, their parents and families, that they were in love, that they made each other happier than they could have ever hoped to be.

They would have to pretend they were each others’ roommates, to protect everyone except themselves, to respect the tacit contract of not rocking everyone’s boat. They would have to respect the ever sacred Code of Appearances. Sometimes they used to think that it was the same for everyone: after all their straight friends had to pretend they were virgins and lied too when they pretended they were “sleeping over at a friends’ house”. However, the recent events had illustrated the fundamental differences: their straight friends could get married, they could have children, theirs was a union society celebrated, while Gabrielle and Grace would never be able to do so, even if they had wished to.

The fact that they did not particularly wanted to get married and were unsure about having children was irrelevant: they too, deserved to have that choice, just like everybody else.

So what do you propose we do?

Gabrielle did not recognize her own voice. Were these deep, choked up vowels really hers? It seemed like she had gotten too comfortable lately: her parents had been traveling so she could spend as much time as she wanted with whomever she pleased without that nagging feeling of guilt she felt sometimes when they were there, as if she should always spend more time with them. Her job and projects were going well, and she had convinced herself that even though archaic laws were still in place in Lebanon, they were seldom being applied. The recent events had proved her wrong: she still lived in an intolerant, homophobic, classist society.

Grace looked at her.

We leave.

Gabrielle did not know if that were possible, but suddenly it seemed her insides had turned into a crumbling building in the midst of an earthquake. How impossibly cruel, that one should disintegrate after hearing two words.