Portrait: Lola and Rita

Lola and Rita could make you think of Farha and Marha: always together, the one doesn’t go anywhere without the other. Don’t be fooled: unlike the proverbial pair, Lola and Rita are classic frenemies.

Frenemy: your worst enemy, decked out in her finest BFF attire.

Frenemies are not friends to each other: they only wear this label so they can tell you the worst things and possibly get away with it. Lola and Rita call each other lovely, syrupy nicknames like Hayete and Habibi while assessing the other with sideway glances which could rival with the ones given by some Victorian heroine to Heathcliff-like brooding men. As soon as they clasp eyes on each other, the competition game starts: what is she wearing today? Oh Jesus, she should NOT be wearing this! She’s gained weight? Oh No! the bitch looks like she’s lost some! Drowning in their internal bile and jealousy, snide comments will start fusing right, left and center: you really look pale and sick today, maybe you should start eating something, are you really going to eat that cupcake? Oh I was just asking, you know *meaningful stare at thighs*.    

As much as Lola and Rita claim that they are friends, the fact is that they simply don’t seem to be genetically able to act the friend part: each of them keeps talking about herself without as much as pretending to care about what the other one has to say, Lola gets a kick out of bringing Rita down while Rita smiled and nodded and cheered with the rest of their friends when Lola got promoted, except that at the end of the evening she could not take it anymore and simply dropped – oh so innocently- that Lola’s lovely cleavage came as handy in the whole recruitment process, all said with a fake sickly sweet smile stapled upon her face, as if she hadn’t said anything hurtful or undermining.

It seems Lola and Rita simply can’t hack the fact that the other one, and more generally, that people, can be happy and will insist on try and ruin the all round happiness because apparently, well, if they’re insecure and miserable, everyone else has to be, and preferably immediately if not sooner.

The thing is, Lola and Rita are becoming more and more isolated, as most of their friends see them for what they are: a proper nuisance. ‘They’re just so tiring, they say, I’m so tired of having to justify myself all the time that last time I saw them, I just couldn’t take it anymore, and I exploded” were conversations often heard in their group of friends. ‘I am HAPPY! Stop BADGERING me with “Oh, you’ll see, you’ll change your mind and realize that what makes you happy actually sucks’ JUST shut up!” were words that the pair had started to hear more than they cared to mention. ”

Nevermind them, they think, as long as they have each other to bitch about, knife in the back and hurt, someone will be in their competitive race, and that’s all that matters. Lola carries on badmouthing Rita every chance she gets while Rita is currently perfecting her patronizing tone and attitude whenever she speaks to her frenemy.

Sadly for Lola, Rita seems to have lost interest recently, all because of different friends she made, and discovered the delights of proper friendship: no snide comments, honest conversations, sincere celebrations of each others’ successes, rows handled like normal human beings and people moving on from them, growing closer. At first she was keen on replicating the same type of relationship than she had with Lola. Then, when no one was interested, she discovered it was actually easier to be open and honest and caring, Then she shed her previous skin.

Lola had no one to play with anymore, she was like a drowning woman gasping for air, going as far as telling Rita when she got engaged that “she was really happy for her as she’d always put relationships before careers”, making her sound as a dumb half wit flashing guys at uni in order to get a husband.

That jealousy of yours, replied Rita with dignity, you really should get that checked. And with that she was gone, leaving Lola, the center of a void circle, eaten by her own unhappiness, deflated, and more green with jealousy than ever.  

Portrait: GiGi

Gigi’s short for Ginette, the horrendous name her parents gave her, after her grandmother. Ginette, I ask you, her parents must have really hated her. 

No, Gigi, was much better. It suited her long fake acrylic nails (Gigi had a very strict policy about her nails, as she repeatedly told her beautician, her cousin Roro (after Roro’s grandmother, Rindala): the longer, the better, with little studs design and flowers and butterflies to match), her wild hair dyed three and a half different colours, her fake eyebrows and tatooed lips. 

Gigi’s an administrative officer in a medium size office and absolutely loves it. Hidden behind her computer, she can huff and puff and moan and complain that she’s too busy for words, overworked, that these people don’t know  the extreme chance they have that she’s deigning to work for them. 

Gigi’s an expert in looking busy, you see, there are some rules you’d have to follow. First of all, always come early: it’ll impress everyone and you can use this to leave the office even earlier. The fact that you have to get up for your kids anyway and that you take the time in the morning to drink coffee with the natour is completely irrelevant. 

Secondly, keep sighing loudly and tapping on your computer while screaming Ya Allah! everytime anyone dares to make your phone ring and bark a grumpy eh? shou fi? as if the poor person on the line had interrupted you while you were negotiating peace in Kashmeer. It’ll put a deep impression on people who will susbequently avoid calling you. Or making eye contact, for that matters. 

Thirdly, and that is the most important thing: keep telling people about how busy you are. It’ll make them think twice about giving you any more tasks, because you’re so busy you see, that you absolutely can’t be asked to do anymore things. 

Then, when you’re absolutely sure no one will dare to come and ask you to actually work, you can chat on MSN and Skype with your friends and family. 

Gigi loves her job, not only because she mastered the three aformentionned rules so well, but also because it is strategically positionned. When she started, they wanted to put her in that sad little corner, with the little intern who seemed so intent on doing well she’d do absolutely anything Gigi asked her to. Gigi almost threw a fit, and explained at great length to the manager that that chair didn’t suit her back problems, that the computer facing the wall would do nothing good to her claustrophobia, that sharing an office would cause germs to spread and did he know she had a particularly weak immune system? Did these people wanted her to die? The manager hence gave her the lovely desk just at the entrance of the office just to make her shut up (and also, because he was a little scared Gigi would actually fall ill just to prove a point)

From her privileged standpoint, Gigi can see the comings and goings of the office: there was this little young woman who seemed far too self assured for her own good, Estez Mostapha who comes to run her errands 20 times a day. There is also her pal Fifi, with whom she has great political conversations: “Now habibi, I’m not saying anything, we’ve always lived in harmony with them (them, referring to the other religious sect she’s currently criticising), mish ta3assob heyda, bas they’re everywhere and they’re not ashamed! Enno, I don’t get gasoline from my car from them, I go to the son of our neighbours, mish ta3assob I promise but they need to learn their place!”. Gigi also enjoys commenting on society’s declining moral standards: “That guy I interviewed! I’m sure he was gay! I mean, can you imagine a tobji working for us?” 

Alas! Gigi spoke too loud one time, and came one day to find her desk cleaned, a proper dismissal note stuck slap bang in the middle of her now bare table: From your tobji boss, with love. 

Ps: I hated your nails anyway. 

Portrait: Abou Georges

Abou Georges is a “Chauffeur Taxi”, and by this, please understand “Client’s Worst Nightmare Extraordinaire”. 

You see, people need him and his brotherhood of drivers linked by their ever powerful radio, so they have to put up with whatever he decides. 

And if that means making his (rusty old ‘72 Merc) engine roar at 120km/h on the Ashrafieh/Hazmieh autostrade while srcibbling down the phone number of his next patron and zigzaging in between cars, then so be it. And woe betides the fool who would timidly ask him to slow down a little! Ba3d na2ess heyde to come and teach him how to drive in this country! Leyke 3ayne, I’ve been driving for 40 years in this country, if you’re not happy, take the bus! Cue chuckles and mumbles under his chin. 

You see, Abou Georges knows full well there are no buses to speak of in Beirut, no one really knows where they go, or how to take them, and the bus stops seem so elusive looking for them is like looking for a warlord money: invisible until it pops up in front of you, as if by magic. Not to mention the fact that very few women risk themselves on the buses, for fear of having their boob or butt felt up. Abou Georges tried once, and still remembers the allmighty slap in the face he got, assorted with copious insults and threats. Not worth it, wou ba3den he felt bad, I mean he does have the whole collection of saints of Lebanon (Mar Charbel. 2dissetna Rafqa. Mar Hardini. Our Lady of Lebanon. Jesus Christ King of Kings) stuck in front of him, as well as the Holy Cross wrapped around his rear-view mirror. I mean, they can’t have them be the witnesses of his weaknesses.

No, no he is safe in the haven of his Markazieh, the taxi central, and please do not mistake him for a vulgar service that roam the streets of Beirut, looking for clients as if they were beggars: he is a proud member of the  Alonso Taxi fleet. Service! Pah! Can these people yell Markazieh, Markazieh! Tess3ira! Yalla Chabeb! Who can go from Verdun to Ashrafieh in under 2 mins? Yalla! Tayb Khod el tari2 3aks el serr Kheyye! Well can they? See, didn’t think so. The Markazieh makes all the difference. 

Abou Georges likes having clients around, so he can share bits of his life with them, and occasionnally start the odd mashkal. I mean, one does get a tad bored driving up and down Beirut like that. This is why Abou Georges usually plays pro-Lebanese Forces radio shows very loudly in his car, in the hope that a Tayyar-supporting client will jump in, listen to an apology of Hakim Samir Geagea and start a heated conversation with him (also known as fight) until he drops the little traitor in Da7ieh where he belongs now. Sadly, this only rarely happens. So sometimes Abou Georges calls his brother in law to discuss the plans of their joint business together, where it’s question of obscure investments that will leave the client wondering if Abou Georges is not, in fact, some kind of pimp. “There is a lot of money to be made in that business, kheyye”, certainly does nothing to reassure the poor, already horrified, client. 

No, Abou Georges definitely loves being a chauffeur taxi in Lebanon: the comradeship with his fellow taxi drivers remind him of the togetherness he felt with his fellow militia men during the war, even though those truly were the Halcyon Days of never being bored. Ah well, one does get old, and if he ever needs the adrenaline rush, he can always play with his life (and with whomever had the bad luck to be with him that day) on the Sanayeh roundabout. 

Portrait: Carole

Elle danse, Carole. 

Elle danse et ses pieds marquent la cadence du temps, de la fuite inébranlable d’un temps qui meurtrit. 

Elle danse, Carole. 

Elle danse pour un peuple que l’on oublie et que l’on égorge, elle tend sa main vers ceux qui tombent et elle s’étire, s’étire pour apporter un semblant de dernière grâce à ceux à qui l’on ferme les yeux. 

Elle danse, Carole, elle danse et elle mime l’agonie pour faire comprendre l’horreur, elle danse et ses cheveux s’affolent à mesure qu’elle tourbillonne, à mesure qu’elle se perd dans les méandres de la souffrance. 

Elle s’étend de tout son long pour bâtir un pont d’amour entre eux et nous, pour prendre un peu de leur douleur et envoyer de l’espoir, son corps vecteur de tendresse, raide comme la corde de l’arc, elle envoie ses flèches de solidarité aussi loin qu’elle le peut, par delà la barbarie et la honte, la portée de son archée plus grande et plus forte que les divisions factices. 

Elle danse, Carole, et ses pas martèlent le sol pour faire écho aux marches de la liberté, ses hanches se meuvent et clament leur arabité, Arabe, tu m’entends, tous Arabes, tues-en un vois-nous tous surgir! 

Elle danse, Carole, chaque filaments de nerfs et de coeur noués en une force souple et flexible, elle danse et chaque ondulation de son corps appelle au réveil des consciences, au lever de bouclier contre l’arrogance des tyrans et l’indifférence des hypocrites. 

Elle danse, Carole, les hurlements de haine du dehors ne l’atteignent pas. Elle a une mission: danser pour un peuple, utiliser son corps pour en sauver d’autres. 

Elle danse, Carole comme d’autres lèvent le poing, et avec un dernier rond de jambe elle quitte la scène, laissant chaque coeur vibrer au rythme du 3oud qui l’accompagne, chaque battement en parfaite harmonie, le concert de la liberté. 

Portrait: John-Rabih

Sometimes, when John-Rabih looks at himself in the mirror, he can’t help but feel a twinge of pride. Such charisma! Such good looks! Such composure, posture, class! 

John-Rabih is a “social-entrepreneur” you see, something very akin to a regular entrepreneur, except that a social twist gives it a revolutionary cachet that’s proving to be very trendy and marketable. John-Rabih never leaves his house before making sure he’s wearing his uniform (shabby chic, if you must know): frayed jeans that look old except they’ve cost an absolute bomb, slim fitted shirt and vintage sneakers. Fashionable yet approachable. All in all, quite a good look for a “social entrepreneur”. 

John-Rabih has tried to be a little more discreet these days, as some people, no doubt ill-informed, have started talking about his possible affiliations with the CIA and the likes. Him! How dare they! Just because he’s received ALL his funding from USAID, and funding, really, it was merely 2 million USD, nothing to cry about, and then, pfffft, people start whispering behind his D-Squared back. I tell you, Beirut can be so hard sometimes. 

No, of course not, John-Rabih isn’t an imperialist of any kind, he just wants to peacefully make a living while developing his beautiful country Lebanon, and that’s that. 

Truth is, no one really knows where John-Rabih came from. What he says is that his Dad is American (hence the John) and his mother is Lebanese (hence the Rabih). No one knows him from before the day he decided he wanted to go and live in now trendy Lebanon (I mean, he couldn’t really come in the 90’s now could he? All this mess and this rumble and this stinking post-war stench, what good would have come out of it? Lebanon couldn’t be associated with at that time), and all of a sudden, there he comes, friends with everyone, heading a blossoming social business (whatever that means), acquainted with every grant officer this city has to offer. 

While it might have been a tad suspicious, John-Rabih resents the accusations that are being held against him. I mean, what do people make of all these pseudo AUB summer students who cram the rooms of the Middle Eastern politics class, those Jurgen and Françoise and Sven and Chad? Uh? And the ones who suddenly became French or US citizens while doing their PhDs on Hezbollah? And those random foreign people navigating Hamra for months, without any real job or occupation in Lebanon?

What? People know they have ties with their home countries secret services and intelligence too? Really? And they laugh at them too? 

John-Rabih should really tell the Agency to update those briefing notes.

Lebanese aren’t stupid after all. 

For Abzzyy and Lebanonesia, with gratitude for the laughs

Portrait: Charbel

Charbel. Charbel is a gentleman, no, really, he is and woe betides he who tries and say the contrary. All these nasty rumours, he’d crush them in a second if those were still the blessed times of the war. 

Truth be told, Charbel was kind of involved in some militias or another during the Civil War (why do you think you’ve never seen his arms? Too many tatoos that’d make you cringe, that’s why) and he kind of enjoyed it. There was a little smuggling here, a little torturing there, some good old fighting, then everyone would make friends again in one of the many brothels the city hosted in these halcyon days. There he and his fellow militiamen would drink themselves into oblivion, one hand on Sameera’s boobs and the other trying to draft the next attack on some camps or another, drowning in the vapours and hallucinations of the many drugs they had access to. Charbel still thinks of these moment with misty eyes. 

Then, just as business was flourishing, these fools had to to go and meet in Taef and ruin it. Ah, nevermind, he still managed to make a good bucketload of money over the course of the war, and thanks to that Amnesty, no one was ever going to ask him anything about all the times he had fun driving his car with one or two guys attached to it. Bliss. 

But Charbel had to be cautious about all this and not start showering his money right, left and center. He needed a good cover, so he started opening shops. And restaurants. And shopping malls. Who said anything about money laundering? Ya3ni ma ma3oul, people have to make a living, it’s not a laundering of any kind, nothing’s dirty. Yalla, take that ridiculous amount and go, 7el 3anneh! Yes, Charbel had to bribe (what a strong word! Those were just gifts!) a fair amount of people to get away with it, but he managed, and if the money wasn’t sufficient, he would send over one or two of his best men for a little nightly visit. 

Now Charbel is considered a prosperous business man, and loves showing off his external signs of wealth: (armoured, let’s not forget he might still have one or two enemies in the shadows) Hummer that his driver launches at full speed on the autostrade, honking like there’s not tomorrow as if to say “Make Way! VVVVVVIP Coming! Move, You Low Life Mollusc!, trophy wife, overweight children and platinum watch. 

But as Charbel enters his 800 square meter residence over Kaslik, he can’t help but feel a little bored. He misses the days of militia camaraderie, the drunked nights, the sense of dangers. So he pours himself some Courvoisier, and dials the number of one of his many mistresses that his wife pretends she doesn’t know about. 

With a sigh of pleasure, he’ll kick back and relax, waiting for Sandy to come over and entertain him. Ah, That life ain’t half bad after all. 

Not bad, he’ll think, from militia vermin to business tycoon. He wonders who could play him in a movie. 

Portrait: Teta

Teta doesn’t really like that nickname, it reminds her of her own teta, an old lady, a lovely one, granted, but one who loved fitting into the teta cliche, with her cross around her neck and her labneh making and her kebeh labanieh and her sheesh barak, and her permanent black attire. She loved her, but she hated the teta concept: as soon as you become a grand mother you all of a sudden seem to have to make jars of jam and mouneh and be exclusively devoted to you children
and grandchildren. Teta has always been an active woman who fought at great lengths to keep her job and her family, both of which she loved dearly and struggled dearly with, and all of a sudden, because she became a grandmother, she was supposed to act as if all those years never happened and start behaving as if nothing mattered more than the perfect baking of her home made bread.

Er, why?

It seems even her daughter frowns at her when she says she can’t look after her child, as if Teta’s sole purpose in life now was to be full time super nanny, because of course, what else should she be doing? She’s old!
Teta mutters to herself, seated on her lovely balcony full of fresh flowers, and looks down at her wrinkled hands: when does it ever stop? I got judged when I was young for having my own mind and saying loud and clear what was on it, I got judged when I grew older for loving my ridiculously badly paid job instead of staying at home with my kids and now that I’m old, I’m getting judged for not acting the part.  Teta doesn’t look the part: she loved her husband more than anything else in this world, but would never dress only in black ad vitam eternam, the az3ar would never stop laughing from above. She’s not been to a surgeon to keep her features from testifying her age and chose to grow old gracefully. She’s neither the self effacing older woman nor the grandmother who’d rather die than say she actually has four grandchildren. 
The other grandmother doesn’t help, either. This one, she’s like the walking cliche on the Teta with a capital T: ya 3omri, to2borneh teta ana, let me make you some impossibly complicated dish in my quaint old kitchen with special mouneh that I brought from the mountains! Yi 3aleynah heyde, she makes me feel so bad.
Gloomily, Teta sips her delicious orange blossom flowers coffee, thinking of the so-strong-it-aches love she holds for her family, how crazy she’d go is something happened to them, how unfair society has always been, asking her to define herself only in relations to them, to choose, all the time, all these choices. Her own mother told her all these years ago it was every s woman’s lot, that suffering was something that came with the female condition. Teta never believed it and now she’s punishing herself, feeling bad when she should not.
Today, Teta’s available to mind her grandchildren, and, while she starts tidying up her place, she immerses herself in her life, in her role.
If a mother is a role model, then a grandmother should be an even bigger one.
Role model. I like that. I like that my granddaughter will retain a sense of self until the day she dies, I can teach her that. I might not make sheesh barak, but I will develop her curiosity, read with her and always tell her to hold her ground, no matter the circumstances.

Now humming gaily, Teta puts the hot chocolate cup down and prepares the sahlab ice cream. The little devil will come home hungry from school, and she needs her energy for the women’s cooperative Teta’s taking her to today.

To Read: Teta, Mother and Me, By Jean Said MAkdisi

Portrait: Kristel

Meet Kristel. Yes, with a K, one L. The traditional french spelling is so common ya3ni, there’s not point in sticking to it.

And if there is something our Kristel isn’t, it’s common. 

Kristel lives in Ashrafieh (where else?), but not in the little zawarib, no no, those are just too ghastly cha3bi for words, no, Kristel lives next to sa7et sassine, in front of the Byblos Bank SkyScrapper, where she can closely keep an eye on how those mhebil take care of papi’s money ( that she likes to think of as her own, but May God keep papi in good health for long years.)

Kristel is a proud Christian Maronite even though she nevers attends Church and seldom prays (one still has to send a little prayer to above to maximise one’s chances of getting a proper husband), but hey, this is Lebanon, where you’re no one and nothing if you don’t claim to who will listen which religious sect you belong to. I mean, God forbid, someone might actually mistake her for an Orthodox wou yiiiiiih 3aleyeh, it would be a proper catastrophe.

Kristel sometimes thinks these strict religious barriers are a shame, especially when it comes to that nice, good looking, sweet Sunni fella who attends university with her and who asked her out. Nice as he may, Kristel could not believe her ears and started laughing uncontrollably to his face. I mean, was he kidding? Did he not know she would NEVER EVER start something with him? I mean, to start with, she told him, I wouldn’t even know where you live, habibi, you live in Verdun! Verdun, she said, that’s like, the Other Side of Beirut. Kristel never goes there and has no intention of starting, what would be the point? It was enough of a cultural shock starting university at LAU, with suddenly meeting all these muslim Lebanese who fasted during Ramadan and things. Kristel’s highschool had barely no muslim student, so really, she had no idea. No, and besides, she could never date that guy, Mami and Papi would never approve, and there and then would go the superb wedding Papi said he would pay for with the 1200 guests, fireworks, Zuhair Mrad wedding gown with those lovely Swaroski sparkles and hairdo from Simon. The girls would absolutely DIE from envy, and Kristel has no intention of renouncing all of this, even though Sharif really is kind of cute and clever.

When Kristel says she “attends” university, it is to be understood that she goes, yes, all decked out in her finest clothes from Aishti, her gleaming Merc shining in the Beiruti sun, thanks to Gamal the Egyptian from the nearby gas station, but that there is not much studying involved. When she graduated from highschool, papi asked her what she wanted to do. What Kristel really wanted to do was lie on a beach and party hard all day every day (and night) but she figured that might not get her a husband, men you meet in clubs are soooo superficial. So she enrolled into graphic design at LAU, you know, to reveal her artistic side, hoping that would be an easy major. She got really surprised when a good majority of students (even girls, can you imagine!), were talented, hard working and creative people, actually looking forward to getting a degree. 

So Krikoo (her super cute surname) kind of stopped going to class, and hangs out in the Cafeteria with her best friend Karla, where, nicely hidden behind their pairs of Marc Jacobs shades, they criticize everything and everyone, with a specific emphasis on the young women running to their class.

– Would you only look at this one? Wearing glasses, no proper hairdo or brushing, reading like some kind of nerd?

– And this one! Such a fat ass! 

– D’you know? Mami always tells me the guy who would get me will be super lucky, ya3ni 3anjad i understand what she means, we’re the onyl girls here who take care of ourselves properly. 

– We’re a dying breed, Kristel will say, replying to the BBM of the late thirties balding man currently living in the UAE whom she thinks will propose next time he comes to Lebanon. Yup, a dying breed, 

Thanks be to God, will mutter Lara, the waitress/student at the cafe. Thanks be to God.