Disgust and Despair, or Yet Another Rant on Lebanon

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I used to write I wanted to go back to Lebanon, live there permanently and all that. I used to be so blinded by love for that country that I romanticized it to death, brushing over the bad aspects as if they were nothing.

Then I came back, and the romantic dream died. I still loved Lebanon though. A more honest love, perhaps, but it still had a special place in my heart.

But now I am done. Don’t get me wrong, many things I still love, many things still make my heart beat. I’ll probably never be over Beirut. How can one be over Beirut? But I digress.

I am, however, over the Lebanese political elite. I am tired of screaming arraftouna. I am tired of sending letters and tweets and marching and yelling and advocating for change while it is very clear that the political class couldn’t give two fucks about what it is we’re asking for. I’m tired of being disgusted to the core by the aggressive corruption, I’m tired of begging for rights that are rightfully mine, I am tired of consultations, meetings, discussions, projects funded by organisations and countries with their own agendas and their own priorities, who really, actually, don’t really give two fucks either about what it is you’re asking for. I am tired of pretending something can be done in the current system we’re in.

I am tired of pretending we’re not at war when Tripoli is counting its dead, and has been for a while. I am tired of looking at discrimination in the face every day I spend in Lebanon and not knowing where to start to eradicate it. I am tired of being considered by law and by society as a second class citizen who should stay at home to raise children born within wedlock, a religious wedlock if you please. I am tired of the mind-numbing hypocrisy of the religious, the politician and business classes alike, all united to stomp on equality, justice and freedom.

The truth is my heart is aching with the mothers still looking for their children decades after they have been abducted or disappeared during the war, the truth is I can’t stand that my friends need two jobs just to barely make ends meet while they have degrees and experience whereas a family name can open the doors of heaven to others.

I’m tired of Lebanon. Because this is Lebanon, whether we like it or not. Today Lebanon is a country where abused women have no law protecting them, where women can’t pass on their citizenship to their family, where rape is legal if the rapist marries you, where maternity leave is so short and childcare so expensive you’re virtually left with no choice but to drop your kids at your mothers and take a job that finishes at 2. If you’re lucky. Today Lebanon is a Parliament giving itself the authority to extend its own mandate, today Lebanon is a country where political lines are drawn according to sectarian allegiances, where so called parties are nothing more than families repeating the same lies for decades. Today Lebanon is a country where you can’t even get a civil marriage, where modern slavery is seen as a normal part of every day life, as if there were nothing wrong in putting a human being under the authority and responsibility of another. Today Lebanon is a country where the vast majority of the workforce is unaccounted for, informal, where social security is a Graal only the lucky can get. Today Lebanon is a country where all woes are blamed on the Other, the refugee, the member of a different sect, the poor, without ever looking within to see the rot.

This is the Lebanon our political and administrative sectarian system gave us. Do you like it? Is there anything to be proud of?

Now is the time for radical action, for general strikes and paralyzing actions of the system. Now is the time to strike back, to name and shame, to stop voting, to stage constant protest.

The time for compromise and participation has gone, and we’re only left with confrontation. It is our only hope.

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.

Join the Jinsiyati Campaign tomorrow for a Sit In in Beirut in front of the Saraya, at Riad el Solh Square to call on the government to: 

– Indicate a clear timeline for the Ministerial Committee supposed to be examining the law 

– Draft clear terms of reference for said Committee 

– Take into consideration civil society organisations’ demands to give women full citizenship rights with NO CONDITIONS attached 

Join us, and if you can’t, SHARE, BLOG about it, Tweet using #Jinsiyati. Speak Up for women’s rights. 

Are you tired of feeling unsafe on the streets of Beirut? Of being submitted to harassment, abuse and violence? It’s time to make our voices heard! Join us on the 14th of January for a march to claim our right to live free from violence, rape and abuse! Let each of us bring 3 friends. The more we are, the bigger our impact. Share share share and tell your friends, your mother, your brothers, sisters, cousins and their mothers!

PURPLE HAZE – Short Story

This short story has been written for the exhibition Good Sex/Bad Sex/No Sex/Your Sex for World Health Sexual Day organised by AltCity in Lebanon. Pics available on Facebook page https://www.facebook.com/pages/Paola-Salwan-Lebanese-Author/194530360576882 

Schizophrenic.

This is how I felt, drawing the lines of my lips a shocking red in Tara’s overflowing bathroom. The things that girl kept, I tell you: sparkling oil that made her legs shimmer in the already bling Beiruti nights, all shades of eyeshadows known to mankind, moisturizers of all shapes and sizes, the whole lot. A splendid collection of potions and ointments designed and used for the sole purpose of Tara’s biggest hobby: the pursuit of (suitable) men. Tara had her own definition of suitable: the ones that would fuck her without getting too attached and clingy and the ones that would make the hair of her mother’s forearms stand in horror; and if she could put the two together, all the better. She was in full rebellion mode against what she considered was our two-faced, hypocritical society, and seemed to consider each name added to her ever expanding list of conquests her very own personal revolutionary victory. She therefore routinely had sex at the back of fleeting men’s cars, in bar restrooms, in chalets by the sea, in Faraya, in emptied apartments, everywhere except in her lovers’ bed, or in her own for that matter, for it was simply unthinkable that she would just wake up and share the family’s breakfast after a night of ravenous carnal feast with the household son.

Her attitude towards sex was in many ways much more open than any of the girls we knew: with Tara, there was no fake blushes, no eyes lowered in a gesture of false modesty, no game playing and obscure manoeuvres aiming at ravishing a man’s heart to convince him we were “the good girls”, aka, the ones you marry. No ornaments required: she only needed to be, and in less than half an hour, she’d have half of the club longing for her, desperately wanting to pierce her aura of flawless self confidence. It’s all in the attitude baby, and she had plenty of that, plus a generous supply of reservoir condoms. “I can have the guy perform all he wants on me, as long as he’s wearing a condom. If he won’t wear it habibti, he can go fuck himself for all I care”. See what I mean? An iron wrought will in a velvet setting, impossible to resist to, and lethal for those who thought they could understand her.

Needless to say, I envied her to no end.

She was honest to her body and to who she was, and that, in our Lebanon, was a luxury, an act of bravery as well as pure foolishness.

Unlike me, the schizophrenic gal who couldn’t decide whether she wanted to be a rare item, one of the braves, a fool, or just a regular young woman torn between what she wanted to do and what people expected her (not) to do.

I grab one of Tara’s “Midnight Blue” sparkling eyeshadow and start applying it furiously, trying to conceal the last remnants of my earlier fight with my dearest mother. In her bedroom, Tara’s probably taking a snooze to help her face her endless night, her delicate purple chiffon dress lovingly spread next to her.

There is something I simply don’t get about Lebanese parents: they want you to get married, but wouldn’t want you to openly date men. My mother didn’t take it too well when I pointed out to her the sheer absurdity of that reasoning, which led to our fight, that more or less went along these lines:

Her: I don’t like you hanging out that much with that Tara friend of yours. She has a bad reputation and is always seen with different guys. You have to look after yourself and make sure your reputation is immaculate if you want to meet and marry a suitable man.

Me: One, I’m 24, you don’t get to decide who I can or can not see, and two, you’re always on about how I should start thinking about marriage. Tara is introducing me to many men, that should please you no? How can I get married if I’m not allowed to go and choose from a wide variety?

Cue apoplectic rage on my mother’s part, exchange of pleasantries along the lines of me being a whore, taking of some clothes and toiletries and slamming of door of paternal house, although my father is so seldom at home I should call it the No Man’s Land of my Mother’s Broken Heart. Talk about whores. My dad’s probably serenading one right now. I guess Tara is right after all: the hypocrisy is every where. Here I was, living in a house whose supposed master was a notorious womanizer, who had his entries in clubs even I didn’t know existed, and I was being given a hard time by my frustrated mother because of my alleged serial dating. And wrongly, to top it all.

For I longed to be a serial dater: I just didn’t have the guts to do it, not in Lebanon anyway. My mother’s sap digging had been fruitful.

Just thinking about it, my eyes start welling up, threatening to ruin my whole make up. So I just add on a bit more foundation, and another layer of blusher for good measure, before starting on my hair.

My poor face seems to be taking the full blow of my rage, a rage I wouldn’t know where to direct to except on myself. I therefore pluck and straighten and pull and cover as if my life depended on it. I know my social life certainly did, and in Lebanon, it’s never quite sure where one stops and the other one begins.

My problem, you see, is that I only ever wanted two strong arms to hold my body. That’s all I want, and I haven’t found it and will never do if I don’t start actively looking for it. For the moment, I am the Maid of Beirut, but can’t help to be on the look out for that pair of arms.

But please let us be clear: this isn’t hopeless romance. I’m just obsessed by an image that seems to be carved in my retina since the day I saw it. It’s a photograph from Rasha Kahil, the third of her Untitled Triptych. It figures a couple, the woman has a beautiful, full, healthy, alive body. I don’t know why my attention was attracted to the whole serie in the first place, but there you go, maybe seeing a normal, vibrant body represented a nice change from the stereotypical lancet-style shapes that I’m used to seeing, bodies so unreal you’d think they’ve been live photoshoped. Anyway, the woman in the picture is wrapping her legs around a man, whom we can’t see, except for his arms and legs. And since the day I saw that picture, I can’t get it out of my head: the way he holds that woman, with elegance and grace and strength and tenderness.

Just like I want to be held, for all eternity.

But as I said, as I’m clipping my too long for words hair, nothing seems to happen, because, although I would love to at least try to find the perfect pair of arms to clasp me around the waist, each time I’m close, I can’t bring myself to go through it.

It’s as if the murmurs of judgement of this city and of this society had woven an invisible web, an unyielding fence that keep electrocuting me each time I try to break free.

I have society’s rules and regulations tattooed in my psyche and programmed in my brain.

And I’m starting to hate myself for it.

Looking at myself in the mirror, finally ready, I hear Tara’s high heels clicking in the apartment, on their way to another night of ecstasy, and can’t help but wonder if we’re both prisoners of our internal judge and prejudices; for what is the difference between too much and not enough? In a city where finding a balance that would be in accordance with what we truly, really want, having fulfilling, safe, satisfying sex seems to be like looking for the Graal: a beautiful mirage.

No wonder we’re friends: looking at one another is like looking in a mirror. Me in reverse, and no amount of make up would change that.

  • Dara, Are you ready? She finally says, joyfully opening her bathroom door, revealing herself in all her deep purple glory.

  • I am, yes, thanks for letting me use your space for so long. You look lovely, by the way. Did you know purple was the colour of wisdom and episcopacy?

  • Oh habibti, don’t kid yourself. It’s also, and first and foremost, the colour of passion and poison.

And with that, Too Much and Not Enough were out on the town again, looking for their Graal. 

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Er7al!

My fist clenched around a rock, sweat dripping from my brow I know no foe.  The only thing that matters is the rhythm of my heart slowly telling me I’m not dead yet, that I’m there, truly alive, each pulsation quietly reminding me that their time has not come yet, their time to play God with me and decide when  I shall depart my sacred land.

Er7al!

At that very moment nothing exists except the pure trajectory of my arm slowly drawing arabesques above my head, of my whole being folding on itself, my hand alone stretched out, reaching out to the sun, to the glorious victory of freedom. I count seconds and release the rock, leaving it to deliver my message of despair and hope and as I do so, my shirt is lifted, revealing my thin frame, my ribs apparent, my rage, intact and corrosive.

Er7al!

For a split second, noises become liquid and I drown into them, plunging into my fate, happily. My rock still in the air, I fully stand up, releasing my body from years of tyranny, giving it back its long lost humanity, I want to stand up straight for once and see what I’ve hit, see the dent my small act has made on the concrete walls around me.

Er7al!

The feet of the seemingly unmovable iron idol with clay feet absorbs the tiny projectile but as I look up and emerge from within myself I see hundreds and thousands tiny rocks attacking it, relentlessly bringing it down.  Thousands of hands outstretched, and screams and demands, our rights, we want nothing more than what is rightly ours, our rights, and we won’t be waiting in a corner until you decide to give us scraps of your feast, until you decide that we’d rather be fed than freed.

Er7al!

What you don’t give us we will take. When you silence us we will speak, kill one, see hundreds bloom, torture one, hear thousands scream.

Er7al!

And here I am, while some of us fall as I carry on, wearing my flag and clenching my fists, here I am shouting out to the sun that one day, yes one day, we will be enough, that one day, yes one day, I’ll throw flowers instead of rocks, waving my flag high in the sky instead of wrapping it so closely to my body, as if to protect it from all the insults it has already borne.

Er7al!

 

 

Dear Bob,

                               

You don’t know me, but many were the times when you saved me from insanity and inanity.

Let us rewind, if you’d allow me. I was a teenager, firmly believing that Noel Gallagher was the height of musical genius, convinced that Oasis was the answer to the grim-faced middle aged people who assured me rock’n’roll was dead. Those were the days when I wore oh so proudly my Che Guevara t-shirts, when I had paint up to my hair, when I used to say that I was born way too late. I wanted “music in the cafés at night and revolution in the air” (allow me to quote you, My dear, dear Bob, your songs have entered my blood stream a long time ago, and Tangled up in Blue is just one of my many you-related obsession).

Then someone (whom I will never be able to thank enough) introduced you to me, and something shifted. Quite literally. I could never get over your lyrics, your out of key voice, your mystic touch, your political stance, your love letters, your pure joy, your out of this world melancholy.  The sad thing in life is that you never know when something important is happening to you, you go along quite happily along the lines of your day, thinking this is just another normal moment in my normal life, you go along and you just don’t pay attention, only to blame this forgetfulness and lack of focus, as I’m blaming my own carelessness at this very moment, cursing myself for not paying attention to your first song that was ever played to me. As things go, I can’t say, my dear Bob, if it was Never Say Goodbye (“you’re beautiful beyond words, you’re beautiful to me, you can make me cry, never say good bye), or Mr. Tambourine Man, or one of your hundreds of amazing songs.

However, what I do remember, is my everlasting emotion when listening to Tomorrow is a long time, my feverish enthusiasm to the Times They Are A-Changing, my giggles when listening to your young, fresh, so out of tune voice on All I Really Want to Do. What I do remember is how I thought for a very long time that Just Like a Woman was the sexiest song that was ever written, your voice caressing the words, turning them into a sugary lullaby.

What I do remember are A Hard Way’s Gonna Fall lyrics. I’m sure you remember them too:

And what did you hear, my blue-eyed son?
And what did you hear, my darling young one?
I heard the sound of a thunder, it roared out a warnin’,
Heard the roar of a wave that could drown the whole world,
Heard one hundred drummers whose hands were a-blazin’,
Heard ten thousand whisperin’ and nobody listenin’,
Heard one person starve, I heard many people laughin’,
Heard the song of a poet who died in the gutter,
Heard the sound of a clown who cried in the alley,
And it’s a hard, and it’s a hard, it’s a hard, it’s a hard,
And it’s a hard rain’s a-gonna fall.

Today in Palestine, my dear Bob, and around the world, hundreds of thousands are whispering, their plea growing louder: Please, do not go and play in Israel in June. Please, like Elvis Costello and Gil Scott-Heron, take one last stand against an oppressive regime that is, everyday, killing, starving, discriminating, threatening and scaring an entire population. Israel has and still is violating Human Rights and Humanitarian Law, its executionneer’s face well hidden by the complacency of the International Community.

Civil society, on the other hand my dear Bob, is no fool and a whole movement is standing up against oppression.Thousands of people will be asking you on your birthday not to go and play in Tel Aviv, not until the Separation Wall (deemed unlawful by the International Court of Justice in 2004) is taken down, not until your palestinian fans are allowed to come and see your concert without passing through dozens of checkpoints, if they make it at all.

So join us. And tell it and think it and speak it and breathe it.

Thank you.

For more info: https://www.facebook.com/group.php?gid=116628888365109&ref=ts

Half of Humanity

I am half of humanity.

I am half of humanity, yet I’m very often treated like a second class citizen, if that. It seems as soon as I am born my fate is sealed by powers I don’t even know.

I’m half of humanity, I have a special day created for me, they say it’s enough, they say I should stop demanding more from my life that the crumbs I’m being given, they say I have enough rights, and what more do I want?They scold me for being too assertive, they scold me for being too weak, too vain, too fragile, I’m never just right, I’m never just enough, I’m a woman, and apparently my condition comes with irredeemable sins and faults.

And so I wondered, you see, I wondered if that were true.

My African sister did not have the time to answer my questions, so busy was she caring for orphans, working in the fields, walking unbelievably long distances to get water, running the risk of being raped somewhere along her path. She was too busy supporting her family, village and community, she was too busy having children and burying the dead, she was too busy campaigning for the war lords to stop their atrocities, marching up and down the streets of her towns, refusing to be a victim, standing strong in the face of adversity, she was too busy forgetting herself in the process, oblivious of the mutilations she’s gone through, oblivious to the constant ache of being alive.

My sister up in the North did not have the time to answer my questions, she was too busy juggling with her career and private life, feeling guilty and inadequate all the time, thinking she should spend more time with her children, feeling guilty for wanting to work, feeling angry at her bosses’s attitude towards her work, at her inferior salary, at the macho attitude her colleagues are giving her,tired of being taken for granted, tired of being the woman token in all her meetings, worrying she was too fat, too thin, neglecting her relationship, and what did Cosmo said on the matter again in last’s month issue?

My Arab sister did not have the time to answer my questions, she was too busy resisting against  occupation and political oppression, while minding her home, children and husband, her fists were too busy kicking the air she breathes, asking to be taken into account by her governments, she was too busy lobbying for the laws to change at last, too busy asking why, by the way, she could not give her own nationality to her own children, remember, the ones she’s lost half her weight in blood trying to bring into this world, she was too busy getting married because she just had to, she was too busy trying to go to university to study whatever she wanted, she was too busy facing constant patriarchy, patriarchy who loved to remind her where it thought was her place. At home, by the way, wearing the jewels it had brought her, keeping the house neat and the children clean.

I’ve asked my sisters in the whole wide world and they just did not have the time to get back to me, they were deeply sorry, guilt once more, but second class citizens have to work harder, try harder, twice as much, all the time, to justify their lives and the space they’re occupying, that space  you so wished were occupied by a man.

I am half of humanity, I’ve been around the world, and could not see the equal rights or the equal treatment.

So I’ve decided, I’ll be half of humanity, without me it’ll be the end of humanity, and I refuse to settle for crumbs.