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.  

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Tales of the Phonix City – Chapter 6

Ziad lit his cigarette and inhaled deeply. He had spent the whole night working on a new song and was pretty happy with the results. Sometimes, he felt he needed nothing more than his guitar, the diesel scented air of Beirut, his beloved sister Nina and his friends to be completely, utterly happy.
He was sitting on a rickety chair at his favorite cafe in Hamra, Bread Republic, a pot of freshly brewed coffee on his right, his favourite book on his left. His nose in the hair, he was for the moment idly watching the world go by, letting the rhythm of the hustle bustle of his city rock him softly, as if all the noises of the city merged into a unique lullaby specially designed to soothe him. His freshly washed hair glistening in the sun, his three days beard giving him a rougher air than usual, he really was handsome, even though he seemed completely oblivious of it. Except maybe when a particularly beautiful woman passed by, quickly glancing at him. There, he could read in her eyes, mirroring his, the bolt of desire, the sudden, fleeting spark that for a quick second would unite two perfect strangers. To Ziad, beautiful was not sleek hair, inflated breasts and bee-stung lips. His artist’s sensitivity would quite forbid it, and shied away from such plastic. His trained eye could see perfection in the aquiline shape of a nose, in the delicious pear shape of a body, in the drops of hazel in black eyes. Why the obsession with removing what was perceived as faults? Why the obsession, the need to look like everyone else? He had spent his life musing on the concept of perfection, on why it was so important to be perfect, to leave everything spotless, to have everything well and in order. Straight hair, straight nose, straight body, and no room for glorious curves, fizzy curls and crooked noses. He avoided the images of perfection like the plague: too much straightness was only almost always a facade for neurosis. In abundance. Put quite simply, It scared the hell out of him.
This is partly why he loved Beirut so much. In Beirut, the exuberance of life somehow managed to always give colours to the grayest areas, the shocking yellows, greens and reds of taxis merged with the ochres of the Potemkin like city center, the ruins of the Civil War acted like a reminder of atrocities that could still flare up at the drop of hat while the elegant grandeur of empty old town houses reminded the city of a glory past, something that could never be retrieved, the bitter sweet taste of having had, and lost, so much, so quickly. He liked the feeling that anything was still possible, even if the worst had been known and was still lurking in some corner, somewhere. A city on the edge, trying to live while keeping evil at bay: that was his Beirut, for better, or for worse.
God but this city could be paradise on earth sometimes. You could feel that Beirut was just a slab of concrete smashed on the Face of the earth, and all of a sudden, it looked like the screen was scrubbed clean and the horrible fog would lift and there it was, life itself, pure, unadulterated energy.
He always became quite philosophical, waxing lyrical when he was tired.
Tearing his eyes from the scene before him, he opened his book. The Catcher in the Rye had always been a subject of controversy between him and his sister.
– I don’t know why everyone, and you, Ziad, who after all should know better what with your degrees in English literature and all, is amaaaaaazed by this book. Honestly, it’s just the stupid story of a a teenager, or a sociopath in the making, who’s so bored and boring You just feel you want to slash your wrists with an envelope just to make the story go faster.
-Ente okhte you’ve always had an issue with teenagers. Anything you want to talk about? Then Ziad would always play the talk show host getting trying to get the truth out of his guests.
– Today, ladies and gentlemen, we receive Nina Haddad, famous designer and Catcher in the Rye Professional Hater. Nina, could you tell us what happened to you for you to despise so much J.D Salinger and his history of alienation?
He’d be perfect, getting everything right, the fake concerned intonation, the little nods indicating he was paying attention to the story, everything.
Nina would always end up bursting out laughing, telling him he was as much of a natural born actor that he was of a natural born musician.
Sipping his coffee, Ziad laughed to himself, playing the conversation in his head, when a movement caught his eye.
He lifted his head and tried to get a good look at who was the woman who was sitting next to him.
Was it?
Could it be?
The woman turned her head and Ziad bowed his again.
No, it was not Lili.
For all his song and dance about loving Bread Republic because of its organic products and locally sourced zaatar, the real reason behind Ziad infatuation with the place was that because it was right next to Lili’s house, and that it was a shrine for happy memories.
Which was why he kept coming back to it.
Which was why she probably kept avoiding it.
What is it that he wanted? The disappointment in not seeing her when he so wanted to run into her was just an indicator of how much of a selfish prick he could be sometimes. Arguing with himself, he berated his cowardice: he loved her, no question, otherwise why would he keep chasing her shadow? Yet he couldn’t be with her, couldn’t commit when he didn’t want to settle, couldn’t leave his music, his political activities, all for the love of a woman.
Suddenly, his guitar seemed hollow, his activities, childish, and a sentence, emerging from years of Marxism that had tried to conceal his Christian education resurfaced violently in his mind:
If I shall speak with every human and Angelic language and have no love in me, I shall be clanging brass or a noise-making cymbal.
Corinthians, 13:1.
He wasn’t particularly keen on drums but fair enough, he got the point. So he was a leftist, musician, noise-making cymbal that was nursing a heart ache of his own making.
In short, not much to be proud of.
He went back to his book, grateful to merge his feeling of alienation with Holden’s, when of course, who had to come with his sister and her friend Gabrielle?
Lili.
With an unidentified man.
Ziad wasn’t sure, but it seemed to him that the noisy cymbal that was his heart went something along the lines of fuck, fuck, fuckety fucker fuck.
At that precise moment, a car chose to drive by, all windows open, the rasping voice of Ziad Rahbani blaring from the speakers: 3aaayyyccchhhe wa7da balaaaakkk, wou bala 7obbak ya walad
Oh shut up Ziad! Screamed Ziad, and for one split second, Ziad wasn’t sure if he were admonishing the grumpy singer in the radio or the grumpy guitarist on the prickety chair.
One thing was sure: his name didn’t seem to be made for happiness and bliss.

Portrait: John-Rabih

Sometimes, when John-Rabih looks at himself in the mirror, he can’t help but feel a twinge of pride. Such charisma! Such good looks! Such composure, posture, class! 

John-Rabih is a “social-entrepreneur” you see, something very akin to a regular entrepreneur, except that a social twist gives it a revolutionary cachet that’s proving to be very trendy and marketable. John-Rabih never leaves his house before making sure he’s wearing his uniform (shabby chic, if you must know): frayed jeans that look old except they’ve cost an absolute bomb, slim fitted shirt and vintage sneakers. Fashionable yet approachable. All in all, quite a good look for a “social entrepreneur”. 

John-Rabih has tried to be a little more discreet these days, as some people, no doubt ill-informed, have started talking about his possible affiliations with the CIA and the likes. Him! How dare they! Just because he’s received ALL his funding from USAID, and funding, really, it was merely 2 million USD, nothing to cry about, and then, pfffft, people start whispering behind his D-Squared back. I tell you, Beirut can be so hard sometimes. 

No, of course not, John-Rabih isn’t an imperialist of any kind, he just wants to peacefully make a living while developing his beautiful country Lebanon, and that’s that. 

Truth is, no one really knows where John-Rabih came from. What he says is that his Dad is American (hence the John) and his mother is Lebanese (hence the Rabih). No one knows him from before the day he decided he wanted to go and live in now trendy Lebanon (I mean, he couldn’t really come in the 90’s now could he? All this mess and this rumble and this stinking post-war stench, what good would have come out of it? Lebanon couldn’t be associated with at that time), and all of a sudden, there he comes, friends with everyone, heading a blossoming social business (whatever that means), acquainted with every grant officer this city has to offer. 

While it might have been a tad suspicious, John-Rabih resents the accusations that are being held against him. I mean, what do people make of all these pseudo AUB summer students who cram the rooms of the Middle Eastern politics class, those Jurgen and Françoise and Sven and Chad? Uh? And the ones who suddenly became French or US citizens while doing their PhDs on Hezbollah? And those random foreign people navigating Hamra for months, without any real job or occupation in Lebanon?

What? People know they have ties with their home countries secret services and intelligence too? Really? And they laugh at them too? 

John-Rabih should really tell the Agency to update those briefing notes.

Lebanese aren’t stupid after all. 

For Abzzyy and Lebanonesia, with gratitude for the laughs