Grief, revisited

Eat. Or at least try. Sleep properly. Or at least try. Get some rest, read a book, escape in words to forget those lodging themselves in your head, unwilling to move.

I had these very words been said to me, by the very people who love me, their love their unique consolation to my pain. I’ve seen their eyes, pleading with me, willing me to be ok, willing me back to life, firmly anchored by their love.
Stay here with us, we’re losing you.
I know how they felt, as I have myself said those words to people I love, my love trying to bind them to life, refusing to let them go too deep in the pits of depression, and grief and sadness. I’ve urged loved ones to rest, to quell the never ending stream of suffering going through them. I pleaded, my eyes were the ones willing them to be ok.
Eat. Sleep. Rest. Is that all there is left when all is said and done, when you’ve been knocked off your balance so hard you feel the emptiness and the heaviness of the world deep within you, the anxiety coiled deep within your heart? Take out what and who made us who we are, take out the people who’ve helped build you and all you have left is a wounded animal who needs to eat, sleep and rest.
But no matter how coated in love these words are, no matter how well intentioned, they remain utterly useless, for grief doesn’t work that way. Once you’ve been hit by grief, it never leaves you, it makes a permanent mark on your skin, etching its passage in wrinkles, tears and frowns, as if it were carving the rocks of a conquered land. You expand to live with it, to accommodate it in your swollen heart.
Most of the time it is dormant, lurking at the surface, waiting for a smell, a song, a place to rear its ugly head and send your precarious balance off the tracks. Grief nestles itself in your chest and never lets go. You never forget. You learn to walk around with a neverending, incommensurable hole at your core, the shape of the person you miss. All these cracks on your once whole façade let in a lot of light, probably the ones who’ve made the final jump letting you know from now on they’ll be your light, your inner strength.
Grief is one of the few experiences where words don’t help, where they can’t break the barrier loss creates. You withdraw within a place buried so deep within yourself you end up wondering if you’ll ever be able to find your way back out.
But some things help. Some things get through you and bring you back to life, like ugly crying nestled in the shoulder of a lover, the indestructible power of women friendships, all of them building a protective wall around you to shelter you until the rawness subsides, each of them going out of their way to see a smile upon your face. This isn’t squad dynamics, this is the very particular understanding and acknowledging experience of pain women have, for better or worse.
Love and time and the iron clad belief that the people who left are loved, and thus still there, safely kept in your heart.

Gone

Every time
I think about this fateful day

My heart gives a jolt

Disbelief is still here

Lodged in my brain

Like a permanent bullet

Are you really gone?

It’s been a year, 

But the feeling is the same

A punch in my gut

A sharp tug at my heart

A quick draw of my breath 

Grief

That monstrous beast

Remains here

Curled up in me

Awaiting

A moment of weakness

To rear its ugly head 

Are you really gone? 

We dance

And so we dance, you and I, in the dead of night, when everything outside our window is nothing but a pitch black blend of sleepiness, when the leaves themselves do not dare move.
We dance, your tiny little hands
hugging me in an embrace I wish could be never ending, your long eyelashes fluttering to the rhythm of your sweet angel dreams.
We dance, and the love I thought I had for you when I was carrying you pales in comparison to the love I feel for you now, now that I know you, now that your big eyes stare at me with the seriousness only children can have, your stare an endless question I’m yet to answer, your eyes like two magnifying glasses peering into my very soul, leaving no place for pretence and lies, making room for honesty, forcing me into bearing my essence and presenting it to you. You, the only person that literally knows me inside and out.
We dance, and the world seems to stand still, to suspend its whirlwind of madness and violence, to hold its breath for one moment, one short moment, the moment of a dance between a mother and her child, the moment of a dance between any two people bound by love.
We dance, and as I rock you back to sleep, I feel the roots of unconditional love wrapping their stems around my wrists, forever binding me to you. And I kiss your beautiful face, softly, oh so softly to stop me from waking you from your deep slumber, and I will life to be good and kind to you, to spare you hardships and heartbreaks, feeling dizzy at the thought that no matter what I do, there will be things that I won’t be able to shield you from.
But for now, we dance, you and I, living in that moment of absolute tenderness. We dance, and with each step, we help carve the universal, never ending story of humanity.
The story of love.

How to live with a revolutionary without losing your head (or peace and lovin’ his)

At the risk of seeming ridiculous, let me say that the true revolutionary is guided by a great feeling of love. It is impossible to think of a genuine revolutionary lacking this quality… We must strive every day so that this love of living humanity will be transformed into actual deeds, into acts that serve as examples, as a moving force.
Comrade Che Guevara

The Rev is kind.
You are mean.
Do you kind of see where the problem is now?

The Rev, ever the humanist, sees the good in people, perceives judgment as the ultimate sin, and finds excuses to the wickedest behaviors through material reasons. ‘You have to try and UNDERSTAND why this person chose to behave that way! Stop judging! Who are we to judge? We’re all humans! Maybe their material circumstances do not permit them to behave in another way and in any case, this is all the faults of capitalism that has fucked up people’s lives and brains!”. The fact that the person whose attitude you’re judging has just performed some horrible act and behaved appallingly is irrelevant. The Rev uses kindness as the flag he will brandish when the revolution conquers.

In another life, the Rev was Jesus Christ. You tell him so repeatedly. That upsets him. His kindness doesn’t extend to questioning his atheism.
As previously said, you’re mean.

But beware! Being kind does not a hippie make, for the Rev is Not a Hippie. On the contrary, he doesn’t particularly likes hippies. Nothing major, his sweet, non judging, all accepting nature would never allow it, but in the privacy of his office, he will eventually mutter darkly at all that lovey-dovey, away with the fairies, let- us-braid-each-other’s-hair-with-wild-poppies hippie approach to collective action. Make no mistake: the Rev might be kind, but to be successful the revolution absolutely needs the hard core organized party preached by Comrade Trotsky. Minds can not be fogged by weed: you shall be alert at all times to fight the attacks of conservatism, patriarchy and neo-liberalism and to educate yourself and others on the politics of oppression.

The downside to the Rev’s kindness is that he kinds of expect people -you- to be as kind as him. And people-you- can not be arsed to do so. You just don’t have it in you, I mean, all this gentleness, Jesus Fucking CHRIST, it’s exhausting. You don’t know how he does it. He helps older people carrying heavy luggage at the airport. You curse them under your breath, wishing they would go AWAY so you can FINALLY advance in the line and go HOME. He plays with crying children on the train/plane/everywhere, cooing peekaboo like a soccer mom while you hide behind your book, cursing under your breath about over indulging parents and impolite children. He goes to every protests, nay, strike that, he organizes every protests known to mankind and arrives the first, lugs around props and materials for street actions, suffers never-ending, so-boring-you-want-to-slash-your-wrists-and-die-a-slow-painful-death conferences and still manages to come home with a smile. You go to work, you buy shoes, you’re exhausted, you make fun of him carrying his banner and still manage to go home with a frown.

In short, the Rev is impossible to live with. I mean, his saint-like behavior just reflects badly on you. You know you’re mean, you don’t need to look it in polite company while he’s saving a kitten or something and you’re yelling ‘To hell with the kitten! I’m cold!’.

You hate to say it, but sometimes you wonder if the Rev, with his positive outlook on life and expanding heart, isn’t your natural Prozac.
I mean, think of it this way: with him around, you don’t need a mood enhancer and think of the money you’ll save for shoes!

Tales of the Phoenix City – Chapter 26

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

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

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

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

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

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 24

It was always the food. Grace had noticed that during her early upbringing in Paris. The insistence of making food that reminded you of home. The comfort of smelling well known flavours, the pleasure of doing something that linked you with your homeland, the bitter sweet sensation of your heart tasting home yet unable to be there.

This is why she became a chef. She wanted to recreate this comforting sense, but she also wanted to add a bit of joy to the nostalgia, she wanted to be creative, to give hope.

Exile is the bitterest bile, the pain gnawing at your soul in the most corrosive manner. You leave your life behind, it’s as simple as that, you leave in a hurry, you forget half of your things, mostly because you think you’ll be back in no time, but also because you don’t want to take everything with you. No, that would make things definite.

Some left never to look back, to shield themselves from the pain. Others could not let go, just little enough to make life bearable again, and thus let themselves drown in a pool of guilt and regret. How could I leave? What did I just do? How is my family going to cope? Shouldn’t I be next to them, sharing their fate? Reclaiming one’s right to have a peaceful life never quite made it up for this insane feeling of foreboding and shame emigrants feel.

And so they cooked. The Lebanese would make large vats of hummus and tons of tabbouleh, the Palestinians would fry cauliflowers and aubergines until blue in the face for their makloubah and sprinkle their kitchen red with sumac for their msakhan, and now, now the Syrians. Grace was more and more invited to dinners where kebab bkaraz was lovingly made with special cherries from Aleppo, the last frozen remnants that people who left did not forget to pack, eating the muhammara with a knot in her stomach as she tasted such an acute sadness and longing for home she could barely swallow.

Gabrielle and herself had started a cookbook that was due for the end of the year, when her publisher wanted to release it for the holidays. The book was called Twisted: Creative Lebanese Cuisine where she would artistically present her rose water Muhallabieh sprinkled with almonds and raisins and Gaby would shoot it to make it look like an art piece rather than something that was meant to be eaten. The book was almost done and ready to be sent for printing but somehow Grace seemed dissatisfied with it.

– This is lovely and it will probably sell well and be very popular and keep me from having a day office job for a while.
– But?
After five years, Gabrielle knew where there was a ‘but’ in sight.
– But this doesn’t feel right. Something’s amiss. I feel it’s a bit pretentious, missing the point of what I had wanted to do in the first place. I don’t know if I’m making myself clear, but what I truly would want to do is sit down and cook with other people and talk and apply a balm to their wounds.
– With Olive oil or something?
– Mock all you want, this is what I feel.
– Well then do something about it!

Unlike Gabrielle, whose philosophy ran along the lines of ‘Jesus Fucking Christ, stop whining about it and bloody well do something about it’, Grace’s will was as strong but more reflective. She needed to ponder on things before throwing herself in them.
And so she thought about it. She thought about it when she was talking to her editor, she thought about when when she was cooking, each spices revealing their secrets to her, she thought about it when she was picking pictures with Gabrielle for their book.
And so one day, she found herself knocking on Nina’s door.

Her friend’s pregnancy had started to show and she had never looked so radiant. She told her as much, leaving Nina to look at her doubtfully.

– Radiant? Are you kidding me? Habibti, I throw up what seems to be a gazillion times a day, I feel pain in muscles I didn’t even know I had and most of the times I feel like sitting down with a one kilo pot of Nutella and eat myself through the remaining 7 months except I can’t because everything makes me nauseated. Radiant, my ass.

– I find it uncanny how pregnancy is almost channeling the inner Gabrielle in you. If you start yelling Jesus Fucking Christ every second, I’ll take you to a voodoo priest to lift the spell from you.

– I might let you. To what do I owe the pleasure of seeing you?
– I need you to put me in touch with the different women you work with, especially the Palestinians, and women from different parts of Lebanon. I’ve already spoken to my Syrian friends.
– Oh-Kay. May I ask why?
– I’m putting together a soul kitchen. I am calling it Cooking for Exile. The idea is to form a core group of people cooking together, mixing specialties from Lebanon, Syria and Palestine, and then sell what we do, but with no prices. People can come and buy their food at the price they deem just. All proceedings will go to women refugees and organisations that put in place gender friendly spaces, as I hear it’s been quite a catastrophe so far. This is why I need to speak with the people you work with. I know you pay them decently and they might be interested to participate even though it’s not going to bring then any money.

Grace finished her explanation feeling a little self-conscious and sheepish, bushing slightly while Nina exclaimed: brilliant! It’s fucking Brilliant! And they can bring and sell as well the pouches, collars and and clutches they make.

– So will you help me?
– Of course I will! And Lily can give you coverage on her newspapers, since she’s been subtly changing the focus of her column.

For the first time since she had formed her plan Grace exhaled.
She was determined to make exile sweeter, with what she could do, with what she knew what to do. Love, she found, even though directed to an indistinct mass, was a powerful drive.

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.

 

 

Tales of the Phoenix City – Chapter 20

That must have been her thousandth cigarette.

Fine, so she was smoking like a chimney. So who cared? You had to die from something didn’t you?

Granted, you were not forced to do so agonizing with your blackened lungs, but still. And in any case, smoking was the only thing that kept her balanced at the moment. You know, the usual addict excuse.

Jesus Fucking Christ, did these chairs need to be so rickety? Bread republic really was too shabby for its own good. Sacrificing comfort for some Old World Bourgois Boheme was not worth it. She tried to convey waves of aggression to the oblivious waitress, Melat, who always seemed to float several meters above the ground. Her slender figure seemed to gracefully slalom between tables, while her stare went beyond everyone’s head. Gabrielle sometimes thought that looking at her was like looking in a mirror: slim, sharp and eyes closed for no one to see what was behind.

Today, she quite simply hated everything. And everyone. But most importantly, herself.

Nina came, that dreadful Beirut Princess in tow, closely followed by a Lily who was looking quite disheveled. Quite a bit like someone who had just stumbled out of bed. With someone, that is, not from a deep slumber with Orpheus.

– Habibi, you look like shit.

Nina stated the unnecessary obvious.

– You should see how I feel inside.
– No need. It’s all there on your face.
– Thanks Nina my love, always a relief to see you. How’s the fucked up life of Little Yas?

– So i’m not stupid BP any longer? It’s so good to feel like I’m finally turning into a human being with you Gaby.

Lily was not joining the usual greeting banter.

– Lil! What’s up 3omri? Even looking and feeling like shit I indulge in our little uplifing dance. What’s wrong?

– Nothing.

– You’re like the worst liar there ever was, said Nina rummaging into her huge bag for God Knows What. AND, my delirious brother has stopped answering my calls altogether, so I’m doing an intervention at his place after our brunch here. I’m not overly worried, mind you, he’s probably deep in his existential angst, asking himself whether Trotsky really was right.

– I slept with him!

– Who,Trostky?

– VERY Funny Gabrielle! Ziad! I slept with Ziad! Nina! Say something, don’t sit there looking as if you saw a ghost!

– Gabrielle. Give me a cigarette, no but and don’t object, give me a cigarette right fucking now I need it.

Gabrielle obeyed. She knew when not to upset Mother Nina.

– Lily. Nina’s voice was dangerously low. It was the Icy Queen Tone she used with her friends, family and clients when they were being particularly unreasonable. Lily. My brother means the world to me you know that. And you mean the universe. But my brother is a stupid immature dickhead who still needs to find out who he is and he’s bad for you.

– I love him.

– Great, we’ll bring the violins some other time if you don’t mind, I’m not finished yet.

– Oh Goodie.

– Nina, let her speak. You’ll have all the time in the world to lay down your judgment and tell her what she should do.

Nina looked at Gabrielle as if she had lost an ally. Seriously, where was the world coming to if people didn’t listen to the voice of reason, aka, herself?

– Fine, she conceded curtly.

Lily sighed. This was not going to be easy.

– So, after I had taken the high road and decided I would wait and see, the events carried me away, if I may say so. He kept calling me,playing me music, stupid things really. Said his life was meaningless if I wasn’t in it. He said a lot of things, mouhem, he said that I was the only one that mattered. But I wouldn’t listen, or I would, but wouldn’t answer. And so. So he showed up one evening. He looked at me Nina, he just had to look at me, and something melted, deep inside. Next thing I know we’re kissing and clinging on to each other as if we were drowning. He carries me, he carries me and I let him, one look and I’m gone and honestly I kind of lost track of time, and space and everything. Just his skin is enough.

– Ewww that’s my brother we’re talking about ewwww

– And it has been like that since then. He comes, we have, yes Nina cover up your chaste ears, we have mind blowing sex, we share a cigarette, he looks at me, he opens his mouth to speak and I shut him up, with a kiss or my finger on his mouth.

– But why? The Beiruti Princess seemed puzzled. Mesmerized, moved, and very, very puzzled.

– Because I don’t want to spoil it with words. I know words. I work with them. I know they can spoil everything, they have that power.

– Speaking of words, I read the new and improved version of your column, it’s brilliant.

– Yes yes, thank you Nina, but for now my brain is frozen, I can’t think of anything else than your brother.

– That’s because of all the sex, volunteered Gabrielle.

The waitress was waiting for them to order, poised with her pen in her hand. God knows for how long she’d been there. She probably did not know it herself. All 5 women in a circle, none of their minds within.

– I’ll have a ginger juice please, thank you

– An raqwe please, no cardamom no sugar no nothing. I want it black please

– A double espresso

– A latte with extra milk and sugar

– This is disguting Yasmine, this isn’t coffee.

– Thank you for your input Gabrielle. I’ll have a double latte with extra extra milk and sugar please.

– D’you know darling, perhaps we might very well be able to do something with you

Melat floated away, leaving the four girls deep into their shared silence.

– I’m in love with a man who doesn’t want to become one.

– I’ve never really been in love.

– Shut up Yasmine, you’re like 12, you have all the time in the world.

– Fuck off Gabrielle I was almost married.

– Good girl, you’re learning to fend for yourself.

– And why were you looking ashen when we came?

– Grace wants us to leave Lebanon.

– WHAT?

Lily’s outcry was overpowered by something none of them had seen before.

Nina was crying. In itself a sight more distressing than the last visit of the Pope, which, let’s face it, was extremely disturbing.

– Nina, Nina stop this, stop this this minute, Jesus Fucking Christ, Lily do something, Yasmin, bring her water, Nina I’m not going anywhere, khalas, I’m just fighting with Grace at the moment We’re not leaving, khalas habibti dakheelik if you stop crying I’ll even be nice to Beiruti Princess over here, shou fi, lek shou fi, redde! Is it the shop?

Nina smiled between her tears.

No the shop is good, I wanted to tell you about this, but no, it’s silly, I just, I met someone.

The girls took a collective intake of breath. Nina’s private life was usually kept very private, as in, she worked all day all night and did not seem interested in anyone, even though lots of men, and women, seemed very interested indeed.

– And I think I’m pregnant. Except I’m so scared I’m in complete denial and don’t want to take neither the test, nor his calls and I’m petrified and this is why I’m not smoking this cigarette you gave me, that’s because I’m so scared, and I’m not sure I want it if I really am pregnant. My mother will die.

They all looked stunned.

– What?

– The Fuck?

– Jesus. Jesus.

Gabrielle couldn’t bring herself to finish off with Fucking Christ. A couple of meters away, sitting at a nearby table, Hamed from Mashrou3 Leila was writing down lyrics for a new song while humming Imm el Jacket. Beirut lived on, its noise filling the deathly silence of their table.