Tales of the Phoenix City – Chapter 28

Lily loved the atmosphere at Em Nazih.
She’d come in the afternoons, when the hustle bustle of Beirut was kept to a minimum, shielded from the craziness by the small stone terrace tucked away in a tiny alley off Gemmayzeh.
She came to write in peace, the soft humming of the distant noise rocking her into concentration, her thoughts and agile fingers on her keyboard only interrupted by the sweet clinking of glasses and arguileh being cleaned. She felt at home, working away and taking her time to talk to Ali, one of the staff members, or with one of the daughters of the owners who taught Arabic to the plethora of alternative youth and possible secret services undercovers calling Beirut home for about three months. Rana, Nada and Nivine were all equally delightful and funny and Lily relished the moments she spent with them, all the while stuffing her face with the delicious batata harra made by their mother. The spices and coriander tickled her tongue while she laughed at Nivine’s latest tale of her pupils who often seemed puzzled to say the least by Lebanon in general and Beirut in particular. During these moments, she always felt incredibly lucky to live here, flaws and all. She had started to train herself in seeing beauty in the littlest things and it hit her hard just how much beauty there was going around.
Em Nazih’s tenants and patrons were a mix of Lebanese taking a breather from a city that could be overwhelming at the best of times and Western and Arab tourists and students learning Arabic and getting to know a country they only knew through the vilifying lens of their media back home. The bewildered looks on their face showed just how much they had trouble processing the clash between representation and reality. Em Nazih’s crowd was a melting pot of artists, secret agents, declared and underground revolutionaries, students, researchers, tourists, family and friends of the owners and staff. It was a place where good food met serious whispers, where laughter died in the fragrant smoke of the Arageel and where the cries of triumph of lucky backgammon players melted away in the frenetic honking that was Beirut’s regular soundtrack.

However, Lily had no time today to enjoy the peaceful atmosphere. Today, she was writing a piece on a new young woman author whom Gabrielle knew through her gazillion networks. The author had just launched her latest novel which dealt with two women in Aleppo trying to forget their damaged past and forge a future for themselves (these feminists, thought Lily, you can’t ask them the time of day without them writing a novel on women’s paths and oppression and stereotyping and whatnots). She had enjoyed the book nonetheless, and thought featuring the author in her column along with a photoshoot by Gabrielle could make a nice little piece.

And so there she was, taking notes for her article while Gaby’s voice in the back garden resonated against the stone walls. Grace was also there to assist Gabrielle, and perhaps, just perhaps, to soften the blow that could be Gabrielle’s personality. Poor little author.
Except the author seemed to be taking a great liking in Gaby, sharing the same vision as her friend and furthering her suggestions.

– Right, sit down in front of this door! Great, show me your hand with the rings! Grace, habibi, where is the cherry lip gloss? We could really work with some colors here!

Lily watched as the author put on more make up. Gabrielle really had a good eye: the author was wearing a deep mint green midi dress with matching green open toed ballet flats adorned with golden butterflies, topped with a lavender belt. The deep pink lipstick made her black eyes and hair stand out. Gaby had her pose in front of a pinkish door, her back to a weather beaten wall. The overall effect was urban, a tad melancholic and romantic with an edge, which suited the atmosphere of her book just fine.

– Tayb, now try and climb on this ledge.
The author’s eyebrows went up to her hairline.
– Listen Gaby, I do not climb ledges. As a matter of fact, I am not known for my climbing, or for my motor skills for that matters, so excuse me, but I think I will not go anywhere near that ledge.
Gabrielle looked a little discomfited while Lily and Grace stifled a laugh. Gaby didn’t seem to know what to do with this highly unusual opposition. A look to Grace who was busying herself with the make up bag to mask her hilarity had her frown, then laugh as well.

– Fine, no ledge. Jesus Fucking Christ, I hate divas. Yalla, sit down in front of this derelict door and turn your head this way!
– Much obliged, piped the author with a playful smile.

Lily was enjoying this column more than she had thought. The clicking of Gabrielle’s camera to her back, she started gathering the notes of her earlier interview with the author, making it into a coherent, witty and informative text. At some point, she had asked the author if she, like one of her characters, had a way too keep on fighting when life threw hardships at her. The author had this quirky response Lily had not paid attention to before.

Yes I do. It’s going to sound supremely stupid and cheesy, but it helps me nonetheless. When I feel like I can’t cope with life anymore, I shake myself and ask myself ‘what would Beyonce do?’. Seriously, can you imagine this woman being depressed or taking crap from anything or anyone? She’d sass them into oblivion. Now as a feminist, I see clearly how she participates to an industry that oppresses women in many ways but regardless of that. She exudes force and control and just sheer vibe of life. So I instantly picture myself like Beyonce in an impossible headdress, sky-scrapers heels clicking away as I pound the floor looking at life and shaking my head like ‘Oh no no no, this ain’t how it’s going to happen’. And yes I feel better’.

Writing this, Lily paused and took a sip of her Turkish coffee.

What would Beyonce do?
Huh.

Tales of The Phoenix City – Chapter 21

The door remained stubbornly closed.

– Nina! Nina open that door! I know you’re in there! You’re not a Prima Donna before a representation!

The lock bolted and he was faced with the blotched, reddish, disheveled face of his sister.

– Ok, now you’re going to tell me why you’ve been avoiding me this way. Is it because of Lily, who, by the way, is ignoring me as well? What’s wrong with you, you’ve never done that to me before.

Nina banged the glass of ginger tea she had been drinking on the wooden table.

– Ziad! Contrary to everything you seem to believe, the world doesn’t revolve around your little person! Neither me nor Lily have given you much thought lately to be honest. Pardon us for having lives besides of you.

The harsh tone shocked him. Nina had almost never snapped at him: she teased him, made fun of him, laughed at him and scolded him, but was never grumpy and snappy, deliberately pushing him out of her world. They were as close as siblings could be, Ziad sometimes composing music for Nina’s shows, each other being the recipients of their own innermost secrets. His sister’s silence hurt and alarmed him at the same time. What could be so wrong that she would hide away from him? What had happened to her?

– Well, that’s always nice to hear anyway. So what’s your excuse for pretending you’re an only child?

Nina winced at the mere word. Child. A Child. Jesus, was she going to be a mother?

Ziad saw his sister blanch and proceeded to panic in due form.

– Khalas, that’s enough! You’re pale. You’re elusive. Your answers are vague. You’ve been avoiding me. What is wrong with you? Nina! It’s me! Your brother, Ziad, me! I know I haven’t been perfect and always available to you lately, but I’m still, well, me! What’s up?

Suddenly Nina felt very weary, as if all the fight had gone out from her. She had felt immensely tired lately, making her bless the day she had hired Yasmine as a PR/ assistant as she was the one making the workshop run.

She plonked herself on her beloved club armchair with a sigh and started crying. Ziad, always the last person to know how to react when faced with tears, let his panic levels shoot out of the roof.

 – You’re sick? Are you sick? You’re sick! I know it! What’s wrong with you, what, is it cancer? Is it? I told you to go and do all the tests you were supposed to take! But did you listen? Nooooo Miss Nina Haddad never ever listens to anyone! And what am I supposed to do then? Huh? Mom is in Canada at Auntie Rania’s, so I can’t even summon her here. She’s always been right of course, you’re so stubborn it’s not even funny. And, it’s too hot in your flat, just open a fucking window will you, it’s like the fucking House of Usher in here.

Nina took a look at her brother’s worried face, waving and gesturing frantically in her small apartment and felt a sudden urge to laugh.

Outside, the night had started to fall. The sun had begun its descent towards the sea, plummeting in the deep blues and greens as if for a kiss. It was one of these common yet ever so graceful Beirut sunset, all sanguine oranges and pink hues, the sky inflamed with blood against the icy blue of the water. The view worked its magic and helped her calm down a bit. Very softly, almost as a whisper, she asked Ziad to sit down, showing him an empty pouf in front of her. Rather, he sat down at her feet, his big black eyes humid with worry, looking up at her, his gaze never letting go of her face. My beloved brother, she thought. Like this, he almost looked like her baby brother again, the same that had so violently rebelled against their father’s death, not understanding it, not wanting to accept it. Then again, it was not possibly human to ask a fifteen year old to accept serenely that he won’t grow up with his father by his side.

Oh Baba. He was yet another victim of 15 years of civil war: he might not have been shot by a bullet, he might not have been executed, but the years in the shelter, worrying over his family, trying to make them survive in the mess and horror had taken their toll on him, weakening his heart until one day, at 53, it just stopped working. He had dropped by his sisters, brought them labneh and cheese, came home and dropped dead on the couch. And that was it, really. The tears and the cries and the frantic calls to the ambulance were all drowned in a blurry mix in her memory. Only one thought had hung on: she was not to see her father again.

And now she was pregnant with a child she was not so sure she’d want to keep.

 – I’m pregant.

– I swear, for a second, my heart stopped beating.

– Yeah well, make it work again, and listen to me. I’m pregnant, it’s still early stages, I’m completely freaked out, haven’t told the father yet, he too keeps calling me and knocking on my door and I pretend not to be home.

– Who IS the father?

– You’re not gonna like it.

– Because I’m liking the rest?

– Do you remember that guy who came about three months ago, asking to potentially buy Nina Haddad Creations and split the shares?

– That God-awful capitalist?

– That God-awful capitalist.

– Well apparently I don’t have such a problem with capitalists, as I seem to go out for coffees with them, then lunch, then dinners, then to bed, then to carry their children, then looking for hospitals to have an abortion.

Ziad looked up at Nina, at her distressed face.

– Nina. It’s gonna be ok. It’ll be ok. I’m here. Your crazy friends are here.

– You bet we are, hollered a voice, banging the door open. Well, if this isn’t the AntiChrist.

Nina lowered herself down to Ziad: remind me to take my spare key from Gabrielle.

– Jesus Fucking Christ, you think Beiruti Princess doesn’t have one? She’ll give it to me.

– No I won’t.

– Yes you will.

Grace hugged Nina fiercely and dropped a lemon pie on her lap.

– Gabrielle, stop swearing and bring napkins. We have decisions to take.

Nina couldn’t decide if it were the situation, or the hormones, or her friends’ kindness, but soon she was in tears again.

– Oh for fuck’s sake. Easy there waterworks!

I will be at the Salon du Livre de Beyrouth!

I’m coming to Beirut to present and sign my new novel at the Tamyras booth, Oublier Alep!

I’ll keep you posted on the time it takes place and on updates about the event! Hope to meet  you there!

You can check a summary of my author profile for the Salon here

Tales of the Phoenix City – 17

The creature looked pale and panicked.

She also looked like she had been through a war.

Wearing a wedding gown, that is.

– I left.
– I can see that. Good timing, Yasmine. Really, you couldn’t have done better. What did you do, jumped off the white Merc?
– Oh shut up, would you, and let me in.

For once, Nina was not offended by Yasmine’s peremptory tone. The little resident devil in her mind was doing a little victory dance, while the resident angel already felt guilty at the thought of having instilled doubt in her young client’s mind.

Yasmine past through the door, the ruffles of her dress enveloping her in a sea of caring, soft silk and lace. It seemed to Nina that the once dry, tense woman had a new suppleness about her that seemed to increase at every step she took, as if the shackles that had been binding her up until now were slowly unknotting themselves.

When she barged in, Nina had been sketching a new collection of dresses. They partly were inspired by the Palestinian embroidery and were all the shapes of caftans. She had added special details to the shape of the sleeves for the winter dresses, something akin to lady dresses in the European Middle Ages. The long sleeves matched the caftan shape: each detail completed one another perfectly, making the dresses well balanced, nicely fitting and very original, as they were going against the trend of strapless bodices everyone seemed to be producing right now. The summer dresses were all light as feathers, heavily inspired by Ancient Greece and Egypt, all draped gauze, their sexiness the result of their sheerness, revealing by hiding. Nina, as always when she was creating, had been utterly happy, immersed in her own world. She was supposed to draft business plans and loan applications, but somehow the figures had turned into shapes and drawings and three cups of tea later, she was already imagining how the models would look in her dusty-golden colored dresses.

Then Yasmine had knocked on her door and brought with her mayhem, as seemed to be her habit.

She was currently perched above Nina’s drawings, as if appraising them. Nina let her peer through her swollen, red eyes, thinking seeing some art and calming down her thoughts might help her. She busied herself making strong black coffee, and sat on the couch between the two fitting rooms she had. She spread toffees and macaroons before her, and patiently waited.

And waited.

Yasmine seemed to have gone mute.

– Feel like explaining why you’re here looking at my drawings, casually dressed in your wedding gown on what should have been your wedding day, instead of actually being at your wedding day?
– I told you, I left.
– Sweetheart, I’m going to need a tiny little more than that.
– Well, at first I had completely dismissed your advice and all your blabbing about not needing to get married and all.
– Why thank you, I love it when people drop by to insult my judgement.
– But then, Yasmine ploughed on, then, now and again I’d get an icy cold feeling of impeding doom. An anxiety I could not really define, a blurry, shadowy feeling that something was not quite right, a feeling that would jerk me awake at night, my heart racing and my temples pounding. I felt than my stomach was going through a washer and drier, I don’t know… So I kept smoking and not eating and my mother started noticing something was wrong. Not that she’s a good listener, my mother, but you know, between two important lunches she started noticing her daughter was wasting to nothing. So I took a leap of faith and tried explaining to her that I did not love my fiancé and was having second thoughts about the wedding. She looked at me as if I had hit her with a spade. She started off with a kind of contained rage, she said that often love harmed a marriage more than anything else and that I’d grow into loving my husband. She mentioned children and affection and all these concepts that meant I was signing up for a loveless life, being bored until I died. I must have looked what I thought, because Then she went ape-shit.
– Ape-shit?
– Kinda crazy.
– Thank You.
– She screamed, saying I simply could not humiliate her and my family this way by calling off the wedding at this stage, that I was being selfish and spoiled and a brat, after all the money she and my father had spent on me and on that wedding. I told her the money she had spent was more to make her look good in front of her friends than to really make me happy and that sometimes I looked at her and saw myself in a couple of years and that made me want to scream and kill myself.
– Ouch.
– Yeah, she did not take it well.
– Ya think?
– She had a kind of mirthless laughter And told me I was already like her, obsessed by spending and what people would say about me and my looks and that if anything, I’d be worse than her in a couple of years. Them she stormed out.
– I’m sorry. I feel if I hadn’t put these ideas into your head you wouldn’t have had to listen to these things.
– No it’s not your fault. It’s not even my mother’s. She was raised to be this way, just like I was. I think what she’s told me jolted me out of my apathy. On the day of my wedding, today, God, I feel like it was a million years ago, as they were dressing me in the hotel room, and joking and laughing, I felt very, very empty. I felt as if I were drained, emotionally and physically. I realized I wanted much more for myself than being married and spending money and having children and live vicariously through them. I discovered ambition. These ideas are still confused in my head, but I did know I did not want to go through the whole ordeal of the wedding. So I pretended I wanted to have a few moments to pray before going. They all looked at me a little oddly, but I think they thought I was being jittery because of the wedding night. They all think I’m still a virgin of course, the poor things. They re delusional. Anyway, I waited until everyone went out of my room. I called a taxi and told him to wait for me in front of Goodies in verdun. Then I grabbed whatever money I had, some clothes, and took the service elevator down, paying everyone on my way to shut up. And I took the cab.
– And you came here.
– And I came here. I did not know where else to go, and they won’t come straight to you looking for me.
– Ok. You do realize I can’t hide you here ad vitam eternam. You’re gonna have to deal with the family mayhem eventually, it s part of the process. However I can provide you with a safe bolt hole here until you decide what you want to do. And don’t forget, I have a business offer to take up with you once the craziness had calmed down.

Nina took in the sad little face, the anxiety and fears before her, and impulsively hugged her like a mother consoling her child. Yasmine gave out a wail under the tender touch of Nina, tears she felt she had repressed for a very, very long time.

– Jesus Fucking Christ, who’s the Weeping Widow here?

Gabi had come.

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!

My Next Novel…. On Its Way

I’m VERY VERY VERY happy to share with you the superb news that my second novel will be out at the end of this summer. It’s being published by Tamyras Editions, whose editorial line I love. I hope you’ll like the book! 

Tales of the Phoenix City – chapter 13

The city was her haven, the slabs of concrete felt moist and tender beneath her feet, the piercing noises of every day life were the perfect symphony to her dreams. Gabrielle had taken to ramble through the streets whenever the political climate felt unstable and volatile, acting just the opposite of what everyone was doing. Instead of retreating home, she confronted the insecurity heads on, with the suicidal bravado of fools and heroes, going further deep within herself rather than within the closed four walls of a womb-like house where the feeling of safety was nothing more than an illusion. Thanks to the living hell that was her home when she was growing up, she knew full well that sometimes, houses and bricks can be the shield behind which oppressors operate. Her childhood house still haunted her to this day, and she knew very well that even people who knew her inside and out and since forever could not really understand what had happened there to leave such an imprint on her. In truth, no one had ever heard screams coming out from the cream colored rooms of her youth, her mother never had to invent some far-fetched story to explain blues and bruises. There was no open, visible case of violence to study.
But the violence was there, ensconced in the silence, in the tension of her two parents waging each other a mute war of wills, in the repressed movements of anger from her father, in his demeaning demeanor, in his outright indifference to his children. The violence was there in her mother’s Valium, in her sighs, in her elegant ennui, in her short temper and in her glaring unhappiness. Gabrielle had spent her childhood years trying to dodge imaginary and real bullets, not knowing where to turn, torn between the out in the open conflict outside of her doors and the war that wouldn’t tell its name within them. She had started taking pictures of everything she saw when she was thirteen even though she could not always have them developed because of the bombings, when the need to do something with her own skin got too scalding hot, turning to taking photos of herself and her body so that she could create a stare, an external pair of eyes through the camera, to mirror who she was, as no one around her seemed to be bothered. The old Leica soon became her best friend and the witness of an adolescent’s changing body, a change Gabrielle was very careful not to welcome by keeping extra slim. If becoming a woman meant becoming her mother, she’s pass on all the kebbe in the world.

At the time, she used to think it was either that or turning to drugs.

Thankfully, she grew up, and left this house of despair. She had now manage to create a safe golden peaceful home of her own that smelt of the delicious recipes of her lover, filling the walls with cinnamon, sugar and honey, replacing the acrid smell of tensions: however, the hint of the feeling of claustrophobia remained and was hard to shake.

As much as she loved Grace, she still had times where she could only bear being outside, by herself, something her partner understood and never questioned. She would leave early in the morning, her satchel safely strapped across her shoulder, her camera completing her hand, her phone switched to silent.
She entrusted the city with her head, and pleaded with Beirut to replace the racing thoughts and worries with bits and pieces of beauty gleaned here and there.
– Bonjour habibi!
Abou Brahim, her lovely neighbour who kept watch of everything happening in their alley, always greeted her in this French fashion, no matter how many times she would answer a hearty Marhaba Abou Brahim. A 3arouss picon in one hand, he would then proceed with asking her how she was, also in French, as if to demonstrate his various skills.
Gaby had shot him many times over, the fine lines on his worn out face the map of loss, pain and joy that had happened to the country, his droopy eyes always twinkling. Abou Brahim seemed to be always living in a state of perpetual relief, as if he felt happy and content since 1990, while Gaby, when she was in her exploratory moods, seemed unable to project herself in anything else than a dark pit of more conflict.

Which, in all fairness, was not far from reality, the way things were going.

Roaming the streets, she descended in her own self, her sharp trained eyes spotting every scenes, worried expressions of mothers going about their business, their joyful children hip hopping behind them, pensive, serious faces of older men reading the newspapers with the look of people smelling trouble a-coming. She tried capturing the essence of her Beirut, if in fact it even existed, as she seemed to doubt it lately. What if Beirut was nothing more than a mosaic of realities never colliding with one another? Until now, she had always pictured her beloved city as layers: the shiny, outrageous, in your face bling of the nouveaux riches downing Cristal while shaking fake breasts in front of an overweight Saudi being the first thing people and tourists would notice, with real, Beiruti people trying to make ends meet by working 14 hours a day on dire conditions, several layers below.

She had come to learn, through her lens, than reality was much, much more complex.

Losing herself in the graffitis adorning the walls of her city, passing the Phat and Ashekman art, walking further up to Hamra street, she noticed a tiny one hidden next to a parking lot, close to the Dunkin Donuts. She bent down closer and magnified it.

It read: if graffiti was useful, it would be illegal.

Pondering on this statement, and intrigued, she carried on, the smog of the outdated cars engulfing her lovingly in their cancerous mist.

Melancholy, that old friend, held her in her grip, and Beirut herself seemed so sad and lost, she could not do anything for her.

– habibti, there can’t be to Weeping Willows within your walls, one of us has to cheer up.

Tales of the Phoenix City – Chapter 7

Lili felt Ziad even before she was even in the vicinity of the coffee place, the way you feel a storm coming. She had a very sharp sixth sense: when she thought of someone, she’d usually hear of that person in the coming hours, and given the fact that she was always thinking of Ziad, it was only a matter of days before she ran into him. 

She had woken late that day, having stayed up all night to finish up a report on the women’s cooperative she had visited the day before. Going up to the Bekaa valley to talk to these women made her realise why Nina loved so much driving by herself to all parts of Lebanon to find the best fig jam, and if she was in luck, the best embroiderer. There was something truly exhilarating to arriving to Dahr el Baidar and seeing the soft curves of the sandy mountains spread before her, just as there was something very comforting about having the women of the villages fuss about her, tsking that she was too thin, feeding her labneh mka3zaleh and zaatar, her favourite thing in the world. On her way back, speeding along on the wide Sahel road, passing by farm workers finishing up their day, she felt light, content to have seen women proud of their work, showcasing what they did with great professionalism, explaining to her how they had set up the cooperative and how they had managed to have access to markets in Beirut and Saida. She had gone to Saghbin, AiTanit and Mashgharah, leaving late to get back to the noisy realms of Beirut in the afternoon with enough material and food to keep her awake all night and feed a small country. 

Nina’s phone call had awoken her. 

– For the love of God, do not, simply do not tell me you’re still sleeping, or worse, buried under the covers, listening to that dreary music of yours, pining after my stupid brother. There’s only so much Radiohead a normal person can listen to you know.

– Not even a bit. I was sound asleep, recovering from all the labneh 3al saj I have eaten yesterday. She stifled a yawn, feeling her chest as heavy as ever, a feeling she always had when she woke up. She sometimes thought she suffered from low level depression, which she probably was anyway. Or maybe her years of smoking had finally caught up with her. After all, she was 30 and a half. She didn’t know why she kept counting the halves of her birthdays. It wasn’t like she was six anymore, rushing to get to seven.

– How’s Fatmeh? How’s Wafa? How are they all? Listen, carried on her tireless friend without letting Lili answer, I don’t want to talk about everything over the phone. I have a million and one things to tell you, including some serious drama at the workshop with a desperate bride. And that stupid guy has phone me again, “expressing interest in buying shares in my brand”. I’ll give him shares where he can feel it. Anyway, can you meet me and Gaby at Bread Republic in about half an hour? 

-No. No no no no no no no. I know your schemes. You and Gaby are only trying to get me out under false pretence so you can harass me about being sad about Ziad. I’m very happy being sad over Ziad, I don’t ever want to stop being sad about Ziad, I want to be sad and desperate so I can keep thinking about Ziad. Ziad is gorgeous and he was the love of my life and I’d rather be lonely than happy with somebody else.

Nina sighed. She knew the tune.

– You’re pathetic and self centered and most of all, Lili, you are NOT Nina Simone, so just stop quoting her songs. Gaby wants to introduce us to her studio partner, you know, Ali, that computer genius she’s working with? Remember your friend Gabrielle? The talented photographer/graphic designer who has just opened her own business? Well she misses you, and so do I, so get out of Purdah, don your sparkling attire, and join us. I mean it Lili, we haven’t seen you in like forever and I have a new brilliant idea my desperate bride has given me without even realising it. Come on! What’s the worst that could happen anyway?

The worst had happened of course. She ended up running into Ziad, as luck would have it, while she was wearing her feelings on her face, something no amount of make up could ever conceal. Not that she tried anyway, the only make up she could bear being an old Bordeaux Lancôme lipstick whose shade was the exact match to her favourite wine. She saw him and she blanched. He saw her and reddened. And muttered something. Perhaps he was going crazy? Well, that’d make two of them. 

She saw him and it was like all the piercing, screeching noises of Beirut went muffled all of a sudden, as is she was swimming in deep, deep waters. She could hear in the distance Ziad Rahbani’s voice drawling that she was living alone without you, and without your love kid. She liked this song, she loved Ziad Rahbani, who didn’t and what’s not to love, Nina used to say, but right now, Lili felt her brain could only register the presence of one Ziad, and that was the nervous, red-faced Ziad sitting on a rickety chair, a copy of his beloved Catcher in the Rye next to him.

– Don’t you dare walk up to him, Lili come back, come back now hissed Nina, he’s my brother and so I can tell you he’s bad news and a lost soul and I’ll thump him. Lili!

Lili, however, was marching over to Ziad, barely aware of her friend’s warning, dimly listening to Gabrielle swearing (For fuck’s sake why can’t we ever have a normal coffee between friends? It’s either a crying doll in the middle of your studio or your apocalyptic brother! Nina! You’re a magnet for disasters!)

– I thought I had kept custody of this place, she grinned in spite of herself, the slab of concrete in her chest dissolving into warm albeit poisonous honey. 

– I love their coffee, stammered Ziad. So, tell me, am I the Antichrist now or is it normal that sister is signalling me to either go or die a slow painful death by hanging? I can’t really decipher all the miming she’s doing.

– Oh no, you’re the AntiChrist.

– I guess that’s why you felt the need to come here, our place, with a guy with you, spat Ziad with venom.

Jealousy suited him. Everything suited him. And then Lili did something both very stupid, and very un-Lili like.

She bent over.

And she kissed him.

Not even Nina’s gasp and Gabrielle Oh Jesus Fucking Christ could cover the elated whooping of her soul. 

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.