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.

 

 

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A Ribbon Around a Bomb

We are currently at Nasawiya working on a book on the women who inspire us, interviewing “regular” women whose stories reveal their strength, trying to showcase alternative forms of leadership.

This got me thinking about what strength is, to how the mere concept of strength is riddled with misconceptions and stereotypes. Is keeping quiet and holding in every feeling or negative emotion a form of strength? Is enduring abuse and misery for all eternity a form of strength or is having the courage to recognize and leave certain situations that define us as strong? What is feminist leadership? I don’t buy into this whole “women’s leadership style is softer than men’s bla bla bla” because it simply replicates and reorganises gender stereotypes and prejudices, so what are we talking about when we’re trying to illustrate feminist and women’s leadership? Rest assured, we’re not talking about women in power suits, buying into patriarchal beliefs and attitudes, denying their fellow females employees the right to maternity leave because they want to play “the big boys game”. We’re talking about the unsung heroes of our every day lives who manage to realise what they want for and by themselves. We’re talking about women who may not have the economic power, the connections or the privileges to help them realise and fulfil themselves and move mountains, yet women who do it anyway. We’re also talking about women who might have had all that, yet chose a path that was truly theirs, questioning the very essence of their privileges along the way.

These debates prompted several images to me. Sometimes your brain is a kaledeiscope you can’t control. I remembered that older Egyptian woman yelling at a startled policeman with all her might during the 25th of January revolution. I remembered the Palestinian mothers crying while Israeli soldiers were arresting her son for no reason at all except that he was Palestinian. I remembered that woman joking after her radiotherapy sessions, and so what if they had just removed that tumour from her breast. At least it was not there anymore. And for some reason, I had the image of Frida Kahlo pop up in my mind.

I am not an art critic, but some paintings have always resonated in me: amongst them, Frida Kahlo’s paintings strike a chord in me that triggers an irrepressible sentiment of feeling so impossibly alive, in all the tragic vivid sorrowful joy of the term. And yes I have written vivid sorrowful joy. Her brush strokes manage to conjure up love, pain, change, transformation, death and revolution. Her paintings are life itself, and they invite the onlooker to a feast of colours and questions.

Frida Kahlo has become somewhat of a feminist icon, and how could she not? We’re talking here about a woman who was born in 1907 yet changed her birth day to 1910 to make it coincide with the start of the Mexican revolution. A woman who chose not to comply by social gendered norms by sporting a uni-brow and not shaving under her arms. A woman who by the age of 6 had polio, making sure she would limp her whole life. A woman who at the age of 18 was in a terrible bus accident that left her almost dead, her whole body badly bruised and broken, unable to have children. A woman who questioned every label that people gave her, trying to make her paintings fit into a certain category. A woman who married and divorced and married again the same man, Diego Rivera, to which she used to tell “I had two big accidents in my life Diego, the trolley and you… You are by far the worse”. A Communist woman who happened to stumble into a passionate love affair with Leo Trotsky. A woman who was deeply in love with her husband yet had affairs with women. A woman who you so obviously can’t classify, she sends us all back to the own labels we accept without any form of protest.

Maybe this is what feminist leadership is: protesting labels affixed to us on a daily basis. You over there, you’re such a girl! And you over there, that was such an Arab thing to say! Most of the time, we smile tensely while punching in our mind the little comic ingratiating us with these remarks. Perhaps it is time we pull a Frida.

Kahlo’s most interesting feature (at least to me and since this is my blog I’ll happily go along) is her relationship to her body, a relationship she translated so outrageously in her paintings. I say outrageous because it’s the appropriate word. Frida’s paintings could not suffer the word “beautiful”. Seriously, beautiful is a word you use to describe the painting of a lotus flower on a pond of ylang-ylang essence. Put a Kahlo in your living room and be assured no one will exclaim “How beautifully quaint!” but rather “where should I put my eyes her boobs are looking at me”. But I digress. That body of hers was her own private little torture room (sounds familiar?): she had polio, she had that accident that broke her spine and about all her bones, she got pregnant, she miscarried every time. She stated herself that she felt terribly alone each time she had to go back to a hospital, alone in that body that was betraying her so blatantly. Yet she never gave up on it: she drew it metaphorically, her spine becoming a crumbling column riddling her body with pain so intense it felt like nails in her flesh. When she had to wear a cast she drew on it the sickle and hammer of the Communist party and a foetus. What she could not create, a flesh and blood baby, she created nonetheless.

Do you get that? She replaced seemingly impossibility to create by creation. Perhaps we should remember than when we destroy out bodies, wishing for them to be the copy of airbrushed things that don’t exist. And perhaps we should remember the Fridas we know, and ponder a bit more on feminist leadership.

A Letter to Beirut

Dear Beirut,

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

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

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

You were only gearing up your weapons.

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

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

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

So I pulled up my sleeves.

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

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

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

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

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

On Stitching Beirut Back Together or Another 13th of April Story

This week end was the commemoration of the start of the Lebanese civil war that lasted from 1975 to 1990. I’d refer you to a history book to get all the details of how it started, what happened, how alliances were made and broken, except that us Lebanese may have cooked the biggest Hummus ever, we’re still not able to agree on the same version as to why and how the war happened. So officially, there is no lebanese history taught in schools from 1975 on. 

I could go on and on about the massacres that were perpetrated, about the history of blood, and loss, and hate and pain that characterized that era, for there were quite an impressive amount of them, all more horrifying than the other, except that I wouldn’t quite know where to begin. 

One of my first memory of Lebanon is how the city center was utterly, completely and irremediably destroyed. I remember the first time I saw it, as well as the first time I passed by Galerie Semaan, I remember thinking: what utter horror. I was six, I think it must have scared me like a horror house or something. I couldn’t quite fathom it. 

Have you been to the city center lately? Could you ever tell that shiny, happy, Khaleeji-friendly place was, not so long ago, the horror of its inhabitants own making? No one could ever guess it by looking at this Potemkin village. Some call it resilience, I call it amnesia. Capitalist Beirut did not try to give its city center back to its inhabitant, a place they could reoccupy and reinvent, with new activity and new contacts with one another, it tried to gloss over the horror with mock pre-war architecture, pretending it was the new and improved Beirut when in fact it is nothing more than a place for others, a place for tourists where Lebanese do not communicate or build ties. Post war, it was a no man’s land, post post war, it’s still a no man’s land, and no amount of sparkly shops can ever change that. My friend and writer Sara Abu Ghazal says it really well in her last article “Politics of Closeness and Alienation[1]” ,

Beirut is a city that represents short memory, with an outstanding privatized downtown that screams in your face: nothing happened here. 


Except that things, terrible things, did happen here, and that we’re still stuck with the system that allowed them to happen. We’re still stuck in a sectarian paradigm that has brought us nothing but chaos: yet we’re still quite happily carrying on with it. 

Among the many things that shock me when talking about the civil war is how all those warlords, all those corrupt, disgusting murderers got together in Saudi Arabia, gave each other a pat on the back, declared amnesty to one another, then came back, told the people, yalla, 3a byoutkon, go home, the war is over, leaving only a skeleton of a country licking its wounds, a devastated population while they had made more money out of death and destruction than decency would allow me to mention. 

150 000 people dead. 17 000 disappeared. A handful of power hungry corrupt warlords still ruling the country, not really giving a shit about the people that actually paid the high price for their lies. 

This is what we have to show for the war.

So today, the coalition for Social Justice, Equality and Secularism had invited different groups to march throughout symbolic parts of Beirut, where the infamous demarcation line used to be drawn during the war, a line that is still very much drawn in the Lebanese’ collective subconscient. 

And on we marched, from Chiah, through Ain el Remmaneh, to Adlieh screaming that we should never forget what happened in our country, chanting that those people, the 150 000 people who died, were not rocks or pebbles on the streets, they were people, human beings, that deserve to be remembered, and respected, that the 17 000 disappeared were not insignificant, that we could allow ourselves to forget them and move on, that they too, need to be remembered, their fate, elucidated. 

And on we marched, singing that we will never, ever let a civil war happen again. People’s faces were grave, they were watching us as we blamed the parliament and the current ruling political elite, some, mostly older women, threw rice on us, as a blessing, as a way of wishing us well, others openly told us, bravo, bravo, some looked at us with weariness, some kept silent, others said Allay y2awwikon. They looked at us, as we were forcing them, by our presence, to reflect on our shared history. 

We were not many, in fact we were disappointed we were not more, but as I was marching, I was deeply listening to the chants around me, especially one: They created the demarcation line, us the people, we are erasing it. 

And as I was marching, I had the image of the line as an open wound, and that each of our step were the stitches that were going to close the wound together. 

Yes, we were not many, but if several of us carry on the stitching, then maybe one day the wound will only become a scar, something we would look at and say about: see that scar? I got it doing something really stupid.

I’ll never do it again. 

[1] http://www.sawtalniswa.com/2012/04/politics-of-closeness-and-alienation/

For those in Lebanon, please find the event here: https://www.facebook.com/events/171190029664659/ 

Let us march to mourn and honour the women who have died as a result of domestic violence, let us send out a message of solidarity to those still trapped in their living hell, let us call on our useless, corrupt, criminal governement to vote the anti VAW law, not in the state it is currently in, all maimed, but the draft that the coalition submitted. 

Moving Mountains

Day after the demonstration and my head is filled with unforgettable memories.

The time will come, rather soon, where I will be writing an extensive report on it, to let people know what happened, to document events, to leave a print on the tangible: how many we were, what itinerary we followed, what were the messages we screamed and carried and sang. What are our next steps, what media covered the story.

But allow me here to document and retell the intangible, the emotions, the fire and the passion that rips through a crowd, quicker than a ray of light.

Yesterday we were in the streets of a much beloved city to call out to the government to grant us our rights, to put a stop to an unspeakable discrimination, to create the beginnings of a new society where having a penis doesn’t get to dictate your position in life.

These issues are serious, negative, they could depress even the strongest of us, yet yesterday, as if by some miracle, we managed to turn our anger into a beautiful force, a positive energy to overcome obstacles and to reach our goals.This force carried us throughout the day, stayed with us and was so communicative you could see it on people’s faces and chants.

Yesterday, under the rain, I felt that each and everyone of us had wings, that we could walk all over Beirut and more and still feel a power inside of us, a fire that made us sing for our rights.

Yesterday I witnessed the sunrise of a new era, of new starts. We know we still have a lot to achieve, we know it is not because of our march that laws will be passed and cancelled on Monday. But we also know that we are slowly building the basis of equality in our country, linked together by the positive energy we have managed to create, bound to each other by hope, and hard work and drive.Yesterday, I could feel the invisible ropes of revolution tying us together, bringing us closer to our aim.

Yesterday I was in a crowd of love, and solidarity and care, where it didn’t matter in the slightest what religion or sex or age I was.Yesterday I got a glimpse of what Lebanon could be if only we managed to get rid of a harmful system, to rally under the banners of freedom and openess and equality.

Yesterday, I felt a part of the family of Humanity.

And it felt good, standing there, under a gray sky pouring with rain.

Pics of Today’s Demo and Article on the AWID Young Feminist Wire

Pics can be found on my Facebook page here: https://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.340356419327608.92936.194530360576882&type=1

And the article here: http://yfa.awid.org/2012/01/ahead-of-us-the-defense-of-our-rights-lebanese-women-in-their-struggle-to-live-free-from-violence/

LBCBlogs: Paola Daher: The last fight is ahead of us

Link: LBCBlogs: Paola Daher: The last fight is ahead of us

My Blop post for LBC

lbcblogs:

Many tourists come to Lebanon thinking it is the most liberal country in the Middle East, with its bustling nightlife, restaurants, bars and clubs. They marvel at the rows of mini-skirted women dancing the night away and leave the country thinking Lebanese women are emancipated and free, the…