I’ll take you with me

I’ll take you with me. To all the places you wanted to see, to all the streets you wanted to walk, sunsets you wanted to catch and salty air you wanted to breathe.
I’ll take you with me. 
No matter how short your life was cut, no matter how little time we had together, I’ll tuck you safely in the folds of my heart and carry you with me wherever I go. 
From the rocky shores of Sardinia to the throbbing bazaar of Istanbul, from the dusty corners of Jerusalem to the pristine beaches of remote islands, I’ll go and kiss each of these places for you, I’ll bow my head to their mighty suns. I’ll take you with me. 

When the enormity of all that has been lost hits me with the deadening weight of finality, when my lungs fill with the lead of grief, when I feel myself falling in a never ending pit of pure sadness, I’ll dust myself up and summon your light, the unextinguishible flicker you’ve left in me. 

For you see, to me you’ve never really left, you only shed a painful shroud that was binding you to this place, and are free as can be, free to come with me, to be with me in every drop of salty water and every corner of dusty buildings, free to kiss away that salty water running down my face, your radiant love warming me from inside. 

Bind me with that love. Just once more.

And I’ll take you with me. 

Loss

I’ve been told to write about what I know.

Well at the moment, what I seem to know is loss. The bewildering emptiness that comes with that phone call in the middle of the night. Why is it always at night? Is death afraid of the brightness of the sun?

You feel what that phone call will be about, a few split seconds before anyone tells you anything, you know.

Then you hear, and it’s like crashing in a wall of cotton, everything just goes silent at your core for a while, as in your whole body was folding in a ball of darkness.

They call it shock. Apparently, you go into shock. That’s a nice word to say that you can’t wrap your head around the fact that you will never see that person you love again, never hear their voice, never see their smile again, except in your sleep.

It’s a nice word to say that your whole body, mind and spirit are fighting against the dreary stillness of death, its definite inexorability, the slashing cut it makes on your soul.

And yet you try to keep hope. You try to believe, really believe, that when it’s time for you to go they will be waiting for you on the other side, whole and happy, their spirit alive and blooming, having tea with John Lennon and Karl Marx, as if these years you were apart never happened, and never mattered.

But until then, you sit down, and you cry, you smoke and your drink, you look for some light in that ball of darkness, and you carry on living, because life, and love, and light are your best weapons against the revolting stillness of death.  You choose to carry on with your life, because that’s one life that death has yet to claim.

You choose to carry on with your life, because the people you lost were fighters, and the only way to honour them is to keep up the fight.

After all, you don’t want them to shame you when you’re having that tea with Marx.

For Nicolas and Bassem, may your shining souls keep leading our way

Qamar

Here in the dead of time, buried deep into the falling night, I sit with the moon.
When all is quiet and peaceful at last, when fluffy dreams enter you mind, making your beautiful eyes flutter, I sit by the moon, her half orb shining upon my words and guarding your angel sleep.

The moon and I, we’re neighbors, or so says the song. Regardless of where I’m sitting, it’s the same moon that my people can see, the same moon that guards children’s dreams.

And nightmares.

You see, while our night is peaceful, only disturbed by the whisper of the wind softly caressing the lush leaves of the surrounding trees, while I sit here, the smoke of my cigarette drawing arabesques above me, others can not find enough peace to sleep, or finally exhale at the end of a long day.

But they, they are children of the moon, like you and me, and they deserve the same oblivion that we take for granted. When sleep eludes them, while we sit comfortably in a never ending dialogue with the sky, they keep hearing the sound of screams, the sound of death pounding at their door.

And it isn’t fair, and it isn’t pretty, and while the moon orbits around us, we stay silent to their plea, as guilty as the culprits bringing deaths and destruction at their doors.

Everyone deserves solace and comfort, not just you and me, but a guilty conscience or appeals to the heavens have never brought anyone any respite.

And so we close our eyes for these blissful hours, rendering our hearts and souls to the stars, but while we do so, let us not forget to fight.

For those who are stranded on the verge of humanity never give up on themselves. And they teach us a lesson.
The biggest there is, the lesson of life.

And so let us kiss the moon, let us keep our eyes open to the children of the moon, and fight, as they do, fight for a moon that shines above children’s dreams.

And stops the nightmare.

Family

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!

Tales of the Phoenix City – Chapter 22

 

 

We forget, she said. That’s our problem, we lure ourselves into thinking we’re leading perfectly normal lives, we do it so well, we forget we’re standing on red hot lava, threatening to drown us at any given moment.

 

The pile was betting taller and bigger. Another suitcase was needed. Nina gestured to Lili to bring her the blue one with the encrusted copper embellishment. Below, Ziad was at the dekken, buying primary necessity supplies, getting diapers and toothbrushes, his cheeks a bit flushed when getting lady pads.

 

Nina was leading the operations from her armchair. The blast had been so violent and unexpected, she had started bleeding and almost lost the baby she wasn’t so sure she wanted to keep. Although now she was. Feeling the warm, thick liquid running down her legs and the panic that followed were enough signs that she wanted this child, no matter what. She just had to inform the father. Which would have to wait.

 

Someone buried behind several stores of groceries who appeared to be Ziad entered her flat, followed closely by Hamdi from the dekken who was lending a hand. Lily was sorting out clothes, Gabrielle was organizing food and toiletries,  Ziad was running errands and Nina was barking at the TV and orders to her audience, not necessarily in that order.

 

– Shut the fuck up! Can someone please, please kill me now? Someone, anyone!

– Well if you keep yelling like that at everyone, it shouldn’t be too difficult to find someone to volunteer putting you out of your misery, and ours.

 

Gabrielle had been shocked into a stupor by the attack and the shootings, burning of tyres and cheap political manipulation that followed, as if they had taken all of Lebanon’s magic and sweetness with the flick of a detonator.

They had all tried contacting each other, running around like mad cows everywhere, trying to get reception. Lili had been in bed with Ziad, the intensity of their physical relation only rivaled by the distance filled with things left unsaid between us. What they could not say in words, they put in sex, tearing each other apart to try and find the meaning of what they felt, of who they were, and who they could be. Nina’s voice bearing the horrible news stopped everything around them, as if the crumbling of buildings in Ashrafieh was mirrored in the crumbling of their very souls. Lily had cried and cried and cried, over the fragility of life anywhere in general and in Lebanon in particular, over the ever elusive nature of what we foolishly take for granted.

 

Ziad took a look at her and he knew. But it would have to wait, too.

 

Grace had taken the news with the quiet strength that came upon her whenever the crisis was so severe she considered she had no other choice. She put on a coat, and went to cook for people. For the survivors, for the volunteers of Ashrafieh for All, for anyone who needed something warm in their stomachs to take the horrible feelings of pain, loss, grieving and despair away. Gabrielle had taken off to give blood, her O+ group being so highly requested.

 

They had all watched on Sunday the funeral of Wissam Al Hassan, and had all threatened to break the TV when March 14 thugs came on storming the Serail, when Nadime Koteich decided his despicable moment of fame had come. A various chorus of ‘Fuck me!’ ‘Fuck you shut up you stupid fuck!’ and other flattering epithets were thrown at the various dirty corrupted politicians who egged their followers towards violence and hatred. When Saad el Hariri came on urging for peace and calm, Lili started laughing uncontrollably, seriously verging on a nervous breakdown and had to be taken out and given water by the others so she could come to her senses.

 

Now they felt like the blood of the martyrs was theirs, that with each deaths and injuries, veins and arteries of Beirut and of the whole of Lebanon had been cut out too, and the hemorrhage would be difficult to quell. Beirut was bleeding heavily and it came to a point where watching her agonize reached intolerable levels of pain.

 

This is when Nina slammed her hand on her table, making cutlery rattle and her neighbour start.

– Wake up! Wake up! What’s wrong with you? Move, yalla, get a move on, let’s go help.

 

And so they had gone. Yasmine, Nina, Lily, Gabrielle, Grace and Ziad, soon followed by their friends, families and acquaintances. They went to Nasawiya to gather food and supplies, they had gone to help. While the political evils were hiding behind their shades of cowardice and calculations, trying to get a vote here and there, a death here and there, curiously oblivious of all the hatred and contempt they inspired to the population, they, the youth of Lebanon, rolled up their sleeves and got to work.

 

For Georgette and Jana and for all the victims of the insanity of conflict and war.

For themselves, to keep ice cold fear at bay and the scraps of normality they still retained.

For the injured, the neglected, the outcasts.

 

But mostly, because there was no other choice. Life, in all its terrifying simplicity, had to go on.

 

Nina, sitting in a corner, was sewing white blouses.

–       For the white march tomorrow, she answered to those who asked. For we’re marching, as Beirut has always done, we’re marching.

 

 

Our Destiny is to Fight

Our destiny is death and destruction she said. Just because we’re from this land, they call it Holy, I don’t see the holiness in all this helplessness, our destiny is death and destruction and warplanes above us she said, from the sandy Sinai to the blue immensity of Lattakieh, from the fertile plains of the Bekaa to the ever resistant Palestine, our destiny is death she said.

Our destiny is tears she said, all of us under that blackened sky, from below the exquisite mosaic of the Qom Mosques, to up above the white Mount Sannine, to the green valleys of Kurdistan to the hot sand storms of Iraq, our destiny is tears she said.

And she kept imploring a God she wasn’t so sure she believed in, imploring to know why it was our destiny to die our faces crushed in the cracked mud, imploring to know why our people were becursed, trying to find answers and logic in the dissolution of her world, trying to impart blame, Oh God, let me make divine bargains with you, protect me from evils and I shall put my faith in you.

Our destiny is death and destruction and the tears for our martyrs she said.

And so I picked up a stone left astray in the rubbles by a previous battle, and put it in front of her.

We choose our destiny, and our destiny is to fight I said.

Our destiny. Is. To. Fight.

This post is for all my beloved people from Aleppo, friends and family and husband and stangers I do not know whose hearts are slowly bleeding for their beloved city and country. We shall overcome. We will be back to rebuild Aleppo. 

A Letter to Beirut

Dear Beirut,

Writing this letter is no easy task, believe me.
I came to you all arrogant and sure of myself, thinking you will fulfill the idea I had forged of you: I had romanticized you to death, my head full of frangipani trees in full bloom, a festival of life and colors, the hope and sheer force of life of your inhabitants conquering all.

You seemed in a huff to have been reduced to this post card. It’s like you couldn’t wait to show me your darker face.

At first, I let you rock me softly to the rhythm of your summer vibe. It was nice. It felt familiar, I was used to you this way.

You were only gearing up your weapons.

We became more acquainted. Like in all relationships, came a time where I started noticing your flaws. The process was painful, you see, I so wanted you to be perfect. I soon realized I had to refrain myself from giving the finger three times a day to your unconscious drivers, your chaos unnerved me, it was no longer happy and somehow functional. You became unpredictable and moody, or maybe that’s how you’ve always been but my loving heart had chosen to ignore it for so long. Distance has this kind of power.
The lights on you were dimmed by the injustice,by the shocking inequalities. I was, and still am, upset by you, by how you let yourself be looted and disfigured and weakened by people, your own sons and daughters, who regularly chose money, greed and profit against you. I thought you had more strength. I thought you had more integrity.

I was very upset indeed, I didn’t want you to disappoint me.

You shrugged. You seemed to scold me for being such a fool, for thinking you had nothing better to do than fulfill gratuitously my expectations. It was like you screaming at me to get a move on: if I didn’t like what I saw, I was welcome to try and change it.

So I pulled up my sleeves.

And started believing in you again. I believed in you when I heard Nadine speak, I believed in you when I shared a cigarette with Farah on Martyr’s Square while our hearts were tighten with anxiety for you. I believed in you while working with Tamara and Sara, I believed in you through Abir’s pictures. I believed in you when I walked through your streets, asking for the martyrs of your wars not to have died in vain, while rice was being showered over us. I believed in you when over a thousand of us screamed against violence against women, I believed in you whenever I noticed an act of kindness, whenever the old woman in my office building calls out to me a warm “tfaddaleh” just because i am passing in front of her flat.

I see your flaws clearly now. They regularly make my blood boil. They make me want to scream. They’re there, and Beirut, my love, I don’t like them.

But I choose to believe. I have no other choice, you’re under my skin and it looks like you’re staying there.

It seems you and I are in a more honest place right now. I see you for what you are. You seem to be content of it, you seem satisfied.

I know, because now that I’m leaving you again, you set all the frangipani trees in full bloom.

Tales of the Phoenix City – 16

Dignity.

The word had a beautiful tone to it, a sound so rich and profound it felt like it was pounding streets by itself.

After the whole drama with Ziad, Lily had stayed up all night, tossing and turning, asking herself a hundred and one questions. Oddly, the questions pertaining to Ziad were not the most difficult ones: yes she loved him, but she was no fool, and she was not going to run back to his arms just because he had a kind of epiphany while roaming the streets of Istanbul. She needed time. They needed time. They could see each other, spend time together, and see where it would take them.
She had told Ziad as much while on the phone with him at Nina’s office. Nina had looked at her with something very akin to admiration and contentment. The unspoken approval of her friend had convinced her she was making the right decision.
It was odd, that after so many tears and questions, she had held back when he had come back. Something she forgot she had had knocked on her door, and that was her own will. And a little of self respect too.
Ziad seemed sheepish on the phone. He knew her well, he knew she was not one to take decisions lightly. He knew her serious nature, he knew she was not being coquettish or pretending to make him wait in vain. Lily had integrity, and that prevented her from being manipulative. Oh no Ziad only knew her too well, and in his mind she must have looked like some modern day Jane Eyre, a woman who could be passionately in love yet restrain herself if she thought it was not the best for her.
Good.
Her mood was anxious but not sad: the interrogations that inhabited her head were no melancholic soliloquies. The racing thoughts attempted a grasp at her life. She had been in Beirut for over three years now, writing aimlessly at her newspaper on life and style. Her last piece had almost made her throw up, as she went interviewing a famous party organizer who regularly threw half a million weddings and engagement parties, the pearls and gems on the vases full of extravagant, flashy flowers almost blinding her.

On her way back, she had seen the guy who always stands at the end of the Accaoui steep street, selling Chiclets. He was wearing his usual surgical mask, purportedly to shield him from the Beirut deathly fumes.

The sight sickened her. The inequalities tightened her chest. She felt worthless. What she had once thought to be the perfect easy job that would enable her to carry on her own research and writings on the side was beginning to feel like an ongoing advertisement for a system she only felt contempt for. When did style had stopped being a detail, a moment of grace in one’s appearance, manners or lifestyle and had started becoming the price tags on things and events people did not need? She was supposed to be writing about life, God damn it, and yet, life, real life, and not it’s reproduction on glossy papers, seemed absent from the pieces she wrote so dispassionately.

That night, Lily picked up her phone.
– Jesus Fucking Christ, for the Lord’s sake, whoever the fuck you are, just go and sleep and call me in about ten hours. Jesus!
Gabrielle was no woman to be awakened at the crack of dawn. Lily smiled in spite of her mortification at awakening her friend’s language and cranky mood.
– Ahem, habibti Gaby, don’t scream, it’s me. Lily.
– I swear, don’t habibi me, I swear, if you’ve woken me up to blab about Ziad for the umpteenth time, I shall be very rude to you, very, very rude indeed.
– But you’re rude anyway! Anyway, this is not about Ziad, and stop yelling you’ll wake Grace up and I only meant to wake you!
– You seem in an awfully good mood for someone who’s awake at this hour of day! Or is it night? I’m not quite sure. Gracie is still sleeping like the angel that she is, thanks to her earplugs. She’s a smart one, that girl, I should follow her lead.
– You can’t. You’ve taken an oath to be always on call, just like me and Nina, so shut up and stop complaining for about two seconds, so I can tell you while I’ve taken the risk to awaken the beast.
Lily heard the flick of a lighter and Gaby inhaling on her cigarette. She dived in.
– Look, I would like to give a new twist to my column…
– What, you’d like to interview rich old codgers on top of their wives?
– I remember distinctly to have asked you to shut up. Anyway, I’ll have you known that I precisely want to stop interviewing these people, and start giving a space for the people who actually bring the life and style to this city. You know, like the penniless student who’s dressed so flawlessly with her mom’s vintage clothes, or the old dekken bringing food to his older neighbors with his basket, or the group of friends smoking arguileh and diving into the sea on The Corniche. I want to see less fake noses Gaby, it’s making me lose a little bit if my soul, I feel like I’m selling myself and my skills to the people who can buy pages in our newspapers.
– Yeah Lily, of course, YOU’re an evil capitalist bitch.
– Laugh all you want, this is how I feel anyway, and I need your help. I need you to take splendid photos of my subjects. The paper might go with the new pitch easier if it looks immaculate and nice, even though they’ll push me to carry on with the old stuff. What do you think?
– I’m in, of course I’m in, now can I please go back to sleep? I’ll still be in in a couple of hours, and I might even be friendly.
– Go habibti, go. Thank you.

Sitting down in front of her window, the dove grey of the Beirut dawn sky blushing its pink hue, Lily turned on her computer.

– Now let’s see what we make of you, Beirut!

Tales of the Phoenix City, All in one places on Storify

Link: Tales of the Phoenix City, All in one places on Storify

Follow the stories of Nina, Ziad, Yasmin, Lili and the others and read the first 5 chapters of the Tales on Storify. The page will be updated like the blog, every Friday. 

Hope you enjoy!