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 25

 The rain seemed to provide the right soundtrack to the heavy silence between the three people seated on the plush poufs and couches Nina had had especially made from Barjis. Bucketloads of fat droplets pouring over the warm grayness of Beirut, drenching the dusty city, giving it an air of sharp cleanness, an aura of fresh start. As streams of water scrubbed Beirut from its lies and dishonesty, Nina felt the conversation she was having with her mother under the benevolent presence of Ziad was doing much of the same: wiping away the pretense to reveal only the essential, the pure light of what matters, feeble attempts at the truth.

Her bump was now slightly showing, and she closed her hands on it, scooping the pulsating life in her embrace, giving it warmth as it was giving her strength. The ashen face of her mother would have defeated a lesser woman, but Nina soldiered on with the stubbornness of someone whose decision is final.

  • Mama, I’m not doing this to spite you.

Her mother took another gulp of coffee. It was remarkable how thin her mouth could become, how the soft plumpness of her features could harden this much. A tiny part of Nina felt incredibly guilty for the ordeal she knew she was putting her through, while the freedom monster she harbored and that had led her to take her own decisions from an early age on, confronting stupid prejudice and society’s raised eyebrows at her actions, was roaring that this was her life and her body and that very few people were actually concerned by the choices she chose to make, ie, when it came down to it, no one but herself.

  • Mama, please say something.

Ziad’s unusually soft voice made their mother let out a deep guttural sigh and acted as a caress on Nina’s agitated soul. No matter how low she was, no matter how anguished, the presence and support of her brother were her treasured comfort. She had not wanted him to be there, yet he had come, rising above her somewhat childish urge to do things on her own, to rely on herself and herself only. ‘I am an autonomous being, and I don’t need my hand to be held, thank you very much’ had been her greeting when he entered her flat this morning, to which he had replied, in true Gabrielle fashion ‘ Jesus Fucking Christ, just because you can doesn’t mean you have to’. That had riveted her, and he had seized this moment to close the door behind him and started busying himself with making coffee. ‘You’ll see, she won’t be that bad, I mean, you already told her on the phone’. After repeating twenty times over that things were going to be fine, Ziad finally shut up and they had sat together in expectation of their mother heavy step on the threshold.

And now here they were, the three remnants of their family, sitting in a triangle of tension and reflection, their souls strained to their breaking point, the absence of their father and husband now more daunting and cruel than ever. Nina was sitting next to the semi opened window, unconsciously rocking her body to the sound of the storm, watching Beirut idly go by, oblivious of big and small tragedies and joys alike, carrying on with being equally a city of chaos and wonder, Ziad perched on the edge of the club armchair, his whole body leaning towards their mother, in a posture of anxious expectation and their mother, between the two of them, sitting on the edge of her seat as it to signify very clearly that this was not to be a long visit, that she was by no means staying.

  • You will have to get married.

Those six words set something off in Nina, as if her mother had detonated the hand grenade she had turned into.

  • No, I don’t. And I won’t.

The words were scarce and measured, sharp bullets fired at the wall of propriety her mother had built her world on. Ziad seemed to cower at the simmering anger slowly building up between the two of them. This was a war of wills whose outcome he wasn’t sure of.

  • What do you mean, you won’t? Do you think I will stand being shamed by my own daughter’s behaviour? Do you think I shall show my face to my friends after everyone has spoken about you until blue in the face? Pregnant and unwed! There is no glory in that you know, nothing to be proud of.

At this, Nina stood up, her delicate frame chiseled against the acid Beiruti light.

  • Mama. I love you, but if you think for one second that I give a damn about what your friends might think you’re cruelly mistaken. I will not be part of this circus you call good society, where the most evil of acts are hushed up, talked in low, muttering conversations behind closed doors, where pretense is the norm and hypocrisy is celebrated. I will not get married because I don’t want to. No need to look so shocked, I’m not done yet. Mama, please open your ears widely: yes, I have sex. Yes I had sex with this man who, frankly, I don’t know that well. I got pregnant, and I’ve made up my mind. I shall keep this baby because I have the privilege of deciding. The father doesn’t even know yet, I’ve decided to tell you before I tell him because honestly, after I’ve told you there’s no one I can’t take on anymore. I’ve made up my mind and it’s not for you, or him, or society to decide for me what I want and how I want it, it’s not for anyone to decide in my place what I choose to do with my body. And not mama, I won’t nor will I have you pretend that I’m going abroad or I don’t know what. I will give birth to this child in front of everyone in the smack banging middle of se7et el burj if I have to, but I shall not hide. Every day I see war criminals and crooks speak on my TV and they’re not hiding, while they should be covering their heads in shame. I’ve done nothing wrong. I’m telling you, not asking for your blessing, your advice or your opinion.

  • Then I’ll leave, now shall I?

Banging her coffee cup on the wooden table, their mother exited the flat, making the door bang while she went, leaving a gaping hole in Nina’s heart.

After what seemed like an eternity, Ziad’s voice brought Nina back to the shores of life, while she felt his hand on her shoulder, bringing her into a hug.

  • She’ll get over it. Give her time. Now, how would you like to arrange the birth on Sa7et el Burj? Should we put up a marquee with a sign ‘Unwed Designer Gives Birth to Child: 5000 LL to watch’?

From somewhere deep against her brother’s chest, Nina’s laughter met her tears.

How To Live With A Revolutionary Without Losing Your Head, Or Co-opting His

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The Revolutionary has been following this column with ever increasing concern now. ‘What are you saying about me again? Please make sure the facts are accurate, you never know, we might recruit more people through your series’. Needless to say, the Rev has not understood the very concept of fiction (although sometimes I wish the content of my column was fiction), and needless to say, the Rev is delusional. I’m not recruiting anyone; I’m giving out hope to fellow people living with revolutionaries. We shall overcome.

The Rev has friends. Well, he has friends and he has comrades. See, they’re not the same. Friends are long term acquaintances the Rev met when he was still debating what his ideology of choice would be, at a time when he had elected his thought leader would be Zinedine Zidane. The Rev’s friends are usually bankers or real estate brokers or other nasty uber-capitalistic specie whose eyes glaze over whenever the Rev desperately tries to make them turn to the dark revolutionary side where the cookies are fair-trade and organic (such neo-liberal terms, pah, ‘Fair Trade’ another marketing ploy to try and make people forget about the dire oppression of Southern farmers and workers). And herein lies one of the great tragedies of the Revolutionary’s life: How could he ever reconcile his beliefs with the decadent bourgeois lifestyle and belief of his long term friends? They’re his friends, he’s very loyal and he’s nothing but a humanist, I mean, he should be able to make them see the light radiating from the permanent revolution. Such an existentialist conundrum.

As it happens, the Rev’s friends flaunt their paychecks to his face before starting their brand new BMW with a bang with manic laughter, such a graze to his poor heart. They shall never understand the beauty of equality. Sadly for him, the Rev shall never give up on turning friends into Comrades. You have not yet shared with them the ultimate way to get the Rev off your back, which is to call him an oppressive Stalinist. You’re mean.

With a sigh, the Rev therefore goes to his Comrades to find solace. Comrades are people who know their Posadists from their Entrists and who can exactly pinpoint on how many levels Leon Blum was wrong. They can meet up, discuss wildly for hours why the Permanent Revolution is the best socio-political book that was ever written, like, EVER, and agree that mainstream capitalistic thought has infected the heart and minds of potential revolutionaries. They can sing l’Internationale together , translate each other’s work and share the dame sense of humour, giving out hearty guffaws and making thigh-slapping jokes you do not understand: ‘ And then he said, THIS is the real Super-Structure HAHAHAHAHAHAHA.

You love the comrades. How could you not? They’re so afraid they might be accused or actually found guilty of sexism they treat you like a prized egg. Which is in itself sexism. You tell them so. You have no shame. As previously mentioned, you’re mean.

You have become highly reluctant to introduce anyone to the Rev, for after thorough assessment, more often than not, he is likely to put on a frown and close up. What’s up, you’ll ask, he’s a liberal, he’ll mumble, and manage to make it sound like an insult. No, you have understood a long time ago that being called a liberal is only third to being called a Stalinist and a social-democrat in the insult scale of the Rev. You thus hide your liberal friends for fear of him trying to ‘recruit’ them.

Recruititis: the uncontrollable compulsion to recruit people to the Party. Starts innocently enough with questions that are actually traps (Do you know where all your social rights come from? The struggle of the left, that’s where they originated from my dear fellow), then it kind of takes a life of its own with the Rev repeating self-fulfilling prophecies with the fervor of an Ayatollah on Ashoura, gently cajoling you: you’re a Comrade now, yes you are, you’re a comrade now, until you actually believe you are indeed a Comrade, without you knowing how it happened.

You could try and come to the rescue of the cornered poor soul and free him from the ever seducing claws of the Rev, only it’s decidedly too funny when it’s not happening to you.

Yes.

You’re mean.

 

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 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 – 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.

Tales of the Phoenix City – Chapter 19

So much sun. So much freaking sun in this freaking city. No matter how hard you wished for it, the weather simply could not make itself match your Mood.
Jesus fucking Christ, as Gabrielle would say. Gabrielle was a lesbian. Not that there was anything wrong with that. She had just never been friends with one. Oh God. Sometimes she asked herself if she hadn’t made the biggest mistake of her life. Everything now seemed so unknown and blurry. Wouldn’t it have been better if she had gone through her wedding and complied with what was expected of her? Right now she would have been sipping a latte in her white and gold marble living room, in her upscale building overlooking Rawche.
Instead, she was following up on some order placed by Nina, in a cramped studio on a rickety chair.
Granted, she WAS sipping a latte.
I mean, you could take a girl out of her bourgeois comfort zone, but you could NOT take her out of her fondness for sweet coffee.

Shedding one life really was like shedding a skin: it left you raw and vulnerable.

Only for a short while, had said Nina. After that you become stronger.

She often wondered about Nina. How can one person be so fucking serene all the fucking time? Didn’t the woman get depressed over her single status? Didn’t she fear winding up alone, old and left out? She had asked her that very question during one difficult night, after her mother had barged into the workshop, barking imprecations of doom, death and destruction, in which the words “shame”, “inheritance” (or lack thereof) and “dishonor” came back quite regularly.
The past few weeks seemed to have been filled with these words, transmitted by aunts and cousins and of course her mother, until they had become like a regular tune, a distant stream of hurt, a cruel song she kept hearing at the back of her mind, without her even realizing it.

After a while, the words had stopped hurting her and she was only left with an overwhelming sense of shame and guilt. She had let everyone down. Her family, who had paid so much money on this wedding and who had done nothing except wanting her own good. Her ex-fiancé, who, despite being atrociously boring, arrogant and petty still did not deserved to be left in this way, and her friends, who could no understand why she had deserted their shared lifestyle. The worst part of it all was that her father had not called her.

It was bad, all round.
A thought kept nevertheless rearing its rebellious head. It was a thought that kept her awake at night, that kept her from running back to the life she had just left: my life is mine.
The fact that her parents loved her in their own way and had spent money on her did not give them the right to decide everything for her. They could no longer buy her. Her fiancé did not really love her, not like she wanted to be loved: he saw her as a prized possession, a woman with class and relations and money, a wife that would have made him look good. He would soon find another fiancé to play trophy wife with: she was well placed to know they abounded, she wasn’t the sole specimen of her breed. The fact that she sincerely regretted hurting people did not make her change her mind: to the core, she felt she had made the right decision.

It was just that she wasn’t used to 1) stand up for herself 2) have everyone being crossed with her and 3) not needing everyone’s approval every time she did something.

Her sheltered upbringing had shielded her from the evil in this world, but had failed to build up her strength. She was now taking an advanced, express class in Having Her Own Mind 101.
Failing the exam terrified her.

She looked around her: particles of dust were dancing in the rays of sun peering through the blinds. Muted noises came from the outside, signs that life, against its better judgment, still went on. She was as unimportant as dust: one day, this too shall pass. The Beiruti Princess felt crushed, drained, as if the hurtful words and judgment had washed her of her previously brilliant colors. She had found a small studio for an affordable rent, and reminded herself she was Nina’s PR/Communications/assistant now.

I am Nina Haddad’s aide now. She asks for my opinion. She respects it. I earn my own money.
I’m standing on my own, two, shaky, too thin, feet.
That felt odd, but nice odd, like when she let herself out of her flat every morning, that shiver, that thrill of independence she got every time the turned the key in her lock. Or when she had told the party planner to straighten her manners when she was talking to Nina’s petites mains. Had she been like that before? Belittling women that had she deemed uneducated, backwards, out of it. When she had met them, she had felt wronged, like these women did not fit the image she had forged of them. They were so much stronger than she could ever be. Some more friendlier than others, they all had good and bad days, they were all desperately human.

Independence was bitter sweet. She sighed.
Her phone rang, caller ID withheld. Absent-mindedly she picked it up.

The voice at the other end made her eyes fill with spontaneous tears.