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.

Advertisements

Tales of the Phoenix City, Chapter 8

At first she thought the ringing in her ears were the bells of hell reminding her of what she had done. Or more prosaically, were one of the many signs of the absolute worst hangover she had ever had.
Then she realized it was only the phone, trying to pierce through several depths of blissful unconsciousness.
Lili didn’t dare open her eyes for fear of the scorching sun peering through her windows in golden rays burning her retinas. The ringing carried on, feeling like torture on her skull. She extended her hand, knocking over a glass of water, her alarm clock and several unidentified objects. If she had had the strength, she’d have yelled something, preferably rude.
– Whaaaaaat?
– Is that your standard greeting now?
Lili shrunk further down under the covers. Nina’s voice had a devilish ring to it Lili didn’t care much for.
– It’s my standard greeting for so called friends waiting to poke fun at their desperately in love friends.
– ewww how can one, and you, of all people, ever be in love with my brother is beyond me, Bless him I do love him but let’s face it habibi, he’s a nutcase. All this talk of permanent revolutions and egalitarian society, it’d be enough to bore anyone into a stupor, yet you seem to think he’s some kind of cross between Leo Trotsky and Che Guevara, minus the violent deaths, even though that might still happen to him.
Lili groaned, but Nina was a woman on a mission.
– Seriously my darling, she pressed on, her voice all nice and concerned, which scared Lili to no end, for Nina only kept that voice for extreme emergencies, seriously, you’re not ok. You can’t go around kissing people, then ditching your friends as if you were walking on air.
Lili’s face was burning under the covers. She cringed. After her coup d’éclat of kissing Ziad in front of all living souls in Hamra, she had picked up her bag and turned her heels away in proper diva fashion, the music of victory ringing in her ears. When the music had died out and she had come to her senses, she had realized that she had a) ditched her friends, whom she was supposed to be having coffee and brunch with, b) kissed a man who had made it extremely clear he did not wish to pursue any type of relationship with her, and c) made a fool of herself. When the awful realization had set in, she had run down to the nearest dekken and had purchased what seemed like her weight in alcohol. Once home, she had sat on her balcony and had set out to drink herself stupid, shutting down her phone and waiting patiently for the alcohol to put her stress and wretched feelings to sleep. Not that it had proven to be of any help, she had woken up feeling even more depressed than ever, the perspective of having to face everyone and apologize to her friends looming over her head like a malevolent bird. She remembered thinking that Beirut was a great city to be crying in: the noises and whispers of the city would keep you company, as if licking your pain away. More than once had she felt the healing power of a town that wasn’t even hers, but which felt like home more than anywhere in the world. Only those who have truly suffered know the value of life, the fleeting trait of happiness, and who had more suffered than her gray Beirut? Sitting on her balcony, sipping her wine, the powder pinks and blues of her Beiruti sunset before her, she could almost think all would be well in the world, she could almost hope her constant, even pre-Ziad feelings of loss, incompleteness and failure would dissolve in thin air like the sun in the sea. The words of Virginia Woolf came to her mind with acute clarity: Each has its past shut in him like the leaves of a book known to him by his heart, and his friends can only read the title.

While Lili had been painfully remembering all that had happened on the day before, Nina had still been chattering away on the phone, giving out advice on How to Forget Ziad and Sooner Better than Later.
– Habibi, Khalas, you and him have ran your course, he is obsessed with being what he considers to be free, yani he wants to be able to go, grab his Kalashnikov at a moment’s notice and free Palestine or something and being involved with someone, or so he thinks, might hinder his plans. He is stupid of course, as you were always behind him in his activism, but what do you want me to tell you, taking poor decisions is apparently men’s trademark to asserting their virility.
Nina sighed and pressed on. The silence at the other side of the phone did not bode well. She loved Lili dearly, like a sister, and it killed her to see that while her brother loved her, he wouldn’t, couldn’t make a decision so as to stay with her. She had told him off more than once, telling him to leave Lili alone and stop calling her if he didn’t want to have anything to do with her, but to no end. He was attracted to her like a moth to the light and couldn’t help himself, thus entertaining her hopes, keeping the flame alive, torturing her. If he weren’t her brother, she’d have hated him and wished him to fall on his face straight on a porcupine. She actually wished he fell on a porcupine, so he could feel a bit f the pain he was inflicting to her friend.
– Oh don’t, wailed Lili on the phone, don’t speak ill of him because of me, please. I know you’re wishing horrible things to happen to him, you and your stupid porcupine thing.
– I am actually, answered Nina breezily, and I can’t stay on the phone for much longer, my order of satin had just come in, and after that I have My Resident Drama Bride coming in.
– Resident Drama what? Who’s that?
– That, my love, is to teach you not to ditch your friends for underachievers revolutionaries. If you drop by the studio, I might just tell you, or better, you might actually see her. Gaby will be there, added Nina.
– Oh please, you and your hints. I’m calling her huh, I’m calling her right now.
– Good, now stop feeling sorry for yourself, have some coffee and drop by me. Bye,
– Nina!
– What habibi?
– Thank you.
– Yeah well, I do want a good karma.
Still smiling, Lili breathed loudly, gathered her courage, and called Gabrielle. If anything, Gaby would yell at her and curse and swear and she was a little too fragile for this.
– Hello, Gaby? I’m so sorry I shouldn’t have done what I did
– Oh Jesus, just stop it with the Catholic Guilt already, you’re bad enough as it is and you’re starting to remind me of my mom. So shut up. You’re a stupid fool in love but you’ll get over it, now get dressed, I’m picking you up, we’re doing an intervention at Nina’s studio.
Lili hung up, grateful, yet a bit disoriented, her curiosity piqued. An intervention?

Tales of the Phoenix City – Chapter 7

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

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

Nina’s phone call had awoken her. 

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

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

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

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

Nina sighed. She knew the tune.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

– Oh no, you’re the AntiChrist.

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

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

She bent over.

And she kissed him.

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

Tales of the Phonix City – Chapter 6

Ziad lit his cigarette and inhaled deeply. He had spent the whole night working on a new song and was pretty happy with the results. Sometimes, he felt he needed nothing more than his guitar, the diesel scented air of Beirut, his beloved sister Nina and his friends to be completely, utterly happy.
He was sitting on a rickety chair at his favorite cafe in Hamra, Bread Republic, a pot of freshly brewed coffee on his right, his favourite book on his left. His nose in the hair, he was for the moment idly watching the world go by, letting the rhythm of the hustle bustle of his city rock him softly, as if all the noises of the city merged into a unique lullaby specially designed to soothe him. His freshly washed hair glistening in the sun, his three days beard giving him a rougher air than usual, he really was handsome, even though he seemed completely oblivious of it. Except maybe when a particularly beautiful woman passed by, quickly glancing at him. There, he could read in her eyes, mirroring his, the bolt of desire, the sudden, fleeting spark that for a quick second would unite two perfect strangers. To Ziad, beautiful was not sleek hair, inflated breasts and bee-stung lips. His artist’s sensitivity would quite forbid it, and shied away from such plastic. His trained eye could see perfection in the aquiline shape of a nose, in the delicious pear shape of a body, in the drops of hazel in black eyes. Why the obsession with removing what was perceived as faults? Why the obsession, the need to look like everyone else? He had spent his life musing on the concept of perfection, on why it was so important to be perfect, to leave everything spotless, to have everything well and in order. Straight hair, straight nose, straight body, and no room for glorious curves, fizzy curls and crooked noses. He avoided the images of perfection like the plague: too much straightness was only almost always a facade for neurosis. In abundance. Put quite simply, It scared the hell out of him.
This is partly why he loved Beirut so much. In Beirut, the exuberance of life somehow managed to always give colours to the grayest areas, the shocking yellows, greens and reds of taxis merged with the ochres of the Potemkin like city center, the ruins of the Civil War acted like a reminder of atrocities that could still flare up at the drop of hat while the elegant grandeur of empty old town houses reminded the city of a glory past, something that could never be retrieved, the bitter sweet taste of having had, and lost, so much, so quickly. He liked the feeling that anything was still possible, even if the worst had been known and was still lurking in some corner, somewhere. A city on the edge, trying to live while keeping evil at bay: that was his Beirut, for better, or for worse.
God but this city could be paradise on earth sometimes. You could feel that Beirut was just a slab of concrete smashed on the Face of the earth, and all of a sudden, it looked like the screen was scrubbed clean and the horrible fog would lift and there it was, life itself, pure, unadulterated energy.
He always became quite philosophical, waxing lyrical when he was tired.
Tearing his eyes from the scene before him, he opened his book. The Catcher in the Rye had always been a subject of controversy between him and his sister.
– I don’t know why everyone, and you, Ziad, who after all should know better what with your degrees in English literature and all, is amaaaaaazed by this book. Honestly, it’s just the stupid story of a a teenager, or a sociopath in the making, who’s so bored and boring You just feel you want to slash your wrists with an envelope just to make the story go faster.
-Ente okhte you’ve always had an issue with teenagers. Anything you want to talk about? Then Ziad would always play the talk show host getting trying to get the truth out of his guests.
– Today, ladies and gentlemen, we receive Nina Haddad, famous designer and Catcher in the Rye Professional Hater. Nina, could you tell us what happened to you for you to despise so much J.D Salinger and his history of alienation?
He’d be perfect, getting everything right, the fake concerned intonation, the little nods indicating he was paying attention to the story, everything.
Nina would always end up bursting out laughing, telling him he was as much of a natural born actor that he was of a natural born musician.
Sipping his coffee, Ziad laughed to himself, playing the conversation in his head, when a movement caught his eye.
He lifted his head and tried to get a good look at who was the woman who was sitting next to him.
Was it?
Could it be?
The woman turned her head and Ziad bowed his again.
No, it was not Lili.
For all his song and dance about loving Bread Republic because of its organic products and locally sourced zaatar, the real reason behind Ziad infatuation with the place was that because it was right next to Lili’s house, and that it was a shrine for happy memories.
Which was why he kept coming back to it.
Which was why she probably kept avoiding it.
What is it that he wanted? The disappointment in not seeing her when he so wanted to run into her was just an indicator of how much of a selfish prick he could be sometimes. Arguing with himself, he berated his cowardice: he loved her, no question, otherwise why would he keep chasing her shadow? Yet he couldn’t be with her, couldn’t commit when he didn’t want to settle, couldn’t leave his music, his political activities, all for the love of a woman.
Suddenly, his guitar seemed hollow, his activities, childish, and a sentence, emerging from years of Marxism that had tried to conceal his Christian education resurfaced violently in his mind:
If I shall speak with every human and Angelic language and have no love in me, I shall be clanging brass or a noise-making cymbal.
Corinthians, 13:1.
He wasn’t particularly keen on drums but fair enough, he got the point. So he was a leftist, musician, noise-making cymbal that was nursing a heart ache of his own making.
In short, not much to be proud of.
He went back to his book, grateful to merge his feeling of alienation with Holden’s, when of course, who had to come with his sister and her friend Gabrielle?
Lili.
With an unidentified man.
Ziad wasn’t sure, but it seemed to him that the noisy cymbal that was his heart went something along the lines of fuck, fuck, fuckety fucker fuck.
At that precise moment, a car chose to drive by, all windows open, the rasping voice of Ziad Rahbani blaring from the speakers: 3aaayyyccchhhe wa7da balaaaakkk, wou bala 7obbak ya walad
Oh shut up Ziad! Screamed Ziad, and for one split second, Ziad wasn’t sure if he were admonishing the grumpy singer in the radio or the grumpy guitarist on the prickety chair.
One thing was sure: his name didn’t seem to be made for happiness and bliss.

Tales of the Phoenix City, Chapter 5

Nina stood frozen, looking at the bride heaving and crying, her body slumped amidst the acres of fabric, looking like a broken puppet. 

What should I do now? Having a bride cry from happiness and emotion was one thing; consoling tears of sorrow was quite another. 

She decided to keep quiet and let Yasmin compose herself. 

         Mnjdj end luf him came a muffled sound from below the veil.

Please God, let her not put any make up on the pristine dress. Like, please. Thinking of the cleanliness of the dress might have been Nina’s defense mechanism to avoid dealing with Yasmin’s evident pain, but somehow she doubted it. It’s just that the dress had taken so much time and effort and passion, and to see it already creased and soon to be smeared with mascara and khôl broke a tiny part of Nina’s heart.

– Sorry habibte i didnt quite get that. Come again please?

And get your weeping face out of the dress I beg of you.

Sometimes, Nina wondered if that job was not going to make a schizophrenic out of her.

         I don’t love him!!! cried Yasmin, tears and snot running down her face. 

Nina went to fetch a glass of water and a box of tissues and sat herself beside her. 

Somehow, the fairy tale was slowly turning into some kind of ridicule nightmare, and Nina asked herself why designers, hairdressers and bartenders were the Chosen recipients of Drama, Neurosis and Problems. Surely they should charge more for that added service? That’d help me with the workshop, thought Nina half-smiling, then promptly returning her focus to the weeping figure she had next to her.

Yasmin gulped the glass of water. She looked like a deflated doll, too thin, grey faced, and looking considerably older than she really was.

         Well, if you don’t, then why are you marrying him? 

Yasmin looked like all the fight had gone from her usual defensive aggressive face. 

         Because it’s what everybody’s is doing. Because I’m 25 and that’s what I’m expected to do. Because we’re a good match on paper. Because he has the means to keep me to the manner I’m accustomed to. Because our families know each other. Because I’m suffocating at home and want to flee, and marriage is my get out of jail card. 

Nina had the image of two pillar-parents flanking their daughter, not the kind that supports, but rather, the kind that oppresses.

– Well, if you’re that unhappy, I don’t think any amount of diamonds and appropriateness is ever going to change the fact that you’re marrying someone you don’t love. Looks to me like you re exchanging a servitude for another. 

Yasmin had a bitter laugh. So young and already so bitter. This wasn’t right. 

         What do you know about all this? You’re not married are you? Why didn’t you ever get married? Don’t you fear of ending up alone?

         But I like alone, Nina blurted out, almost without paying attention. I’m happy alone.

         They all say that.

         Who they?

         All the ones who couldn’t get someone to marry them.

         What kind of utter crap have people been feeding you, I ask you? “Couldn’t get someone to marry me”! Little lady, I never got married because I never found the real thing and simply couldn’t and wouldn’t settle for less. And trust me, in Lebanon, with my family putting pressure on me, I would have given in perhaps just like you, except that I have found reward and happiness in my job. I have made it happen for myself, I’m glad to live alone, get together with friends, enjoy my life the way it is.

Nina then spotted the dress Yasmin was still wearing.

         Look at that dress. Look at the fabric, the work, the preciousness of it. I work with high quality garment, do you think I would settle for a cheap life and a third rate love? Why on earth would someone wake up every single day next to someone they hate just so that they can wear a dress and pretend to be happy in front of their family?

Yasmin was having none of it and was far from being impressed.

         If I’m too choosy, I’ll wind up alone .

         Then maybe you’re gonna need to start liking alone, and start liking yourself a little more.  

         How so? I’m getting married

         There is no solitude more bitter than the one that is shared, said Nina getting up. If you marry him, you’re setting yourself up for utter failure in your life, failure no Hummer, no gifts and no material possession will ever make up for. You’re not marrying this guy and that’s the end of it, not in my dress anyway. Take it off, you’re not worth it. My brides know what they want and go for it, if you’re not capable of that, you’re not worth the labour of my petite mains. Now take it off.

Yasmin couldn’t move, and stood frozen, unable to utter a word, when the door burst open to let a young women holding a camera on her shoulder enter, soaking wet.

– Jesus Fucking Christ, what’s this fucking weather?

Nina took the woman by the shoulders and pushed her in front of Yasmin:

         Lesson number 1 to change your screwed up value system: Marriage is not the only long term partnership one can think of, it’s only one among many. Yasmin, meet Gabrielle, long time friend, great curser of all times, and photographer extraordinaire. Gabrielle, meet Yasmin, and would you tell her how you’ve been living with Grace, the love of your life, for the past 5 years?

– Yes habibi, Nina told a flabbergasted Yasmin, those two are one of the most equal and loving relation I have ever seen. Think about it as the first earthquake your mind desperately needs: there is a whole world of options out there, and you’re not stuck anywhere, or with anyone. Now take off that dress!

 

Tales of the Phoenix City – Chapter 4

Nina looked at the veil before her, and felt an incredible surge of pride.

 

Put quite simply, she wanted to jump and scream and dance. It was beautiful. No, it was more than that. It was breathtaking. She couldn’t find the superlatives to describe the exquisite feeling of elegance and opulence one could feel when looking at the garment.  The silk organza fell perfectly on the mannequin shoulders, light as a feather; the Calais lace would softly frame the bride’s face. The handiwork was precise, the whole attire elegantly understated, yet a single glance to the whole dress and veil would bear her signature, her couture signature. It had taken weeks to make, but she relished every second of it and was now insanely happy with the result.

 

She loved creating, she loved feeling the threads beneath her fingers, she loved playing Goddess with her fabric, the feeling of control and serenity it gave her. If only she could share some of that calmness and wholeness to some of her clients, the positive, creative, warm energy of her studio would not be disrupted.

 

She looked at the beloved vintage clock she had unearthed from a pile of junk and antique while perusing the Plainpalais flea market in Geneva last summer, and sighed.

 

Only five minutes left until Princess Yasmin, as she called her, came in for her fitting.

 

Arranging on the Palestinian ceramic tray the delicious ginger biscuits and Lawziyyeh she regularly bought from the women’s cooperatives where some of her petites mains or their families worked, she could almost sense the negative energy of her next customer drawing nearer and nearer. Beware of the disturbance in the force! She smiled, remembering her brother Ziad’s passion for Star Wars.

 

Two sharp raps on the wooden door. There we go Nina, plaster a fake Ultra-Brite smile on your face, do it for the pleasure of creating with luxury, high quality fabric, do it for the satisfaction of paying properly your workers and guaranteeing them social benefits. Do it so you can avoid being pinned to an office desk in a nine to five job, coming home way too tired to muster the energy to sew and design and play with colours, do it to keep your life the way you want it to be.

 

– Marhaba Yasmin, how are you?

 

Yasmin, as usual, seemed exhausted, tense and stressed. Nina had seen nervous brides before, but this was different. It was not a happy, rosy flushed cheeks kind of nervousness at the prospect of starting a new life and the usual wedding planning stress. This was hollow eyes, hollow cheeks, frantically chain smoking stress, and it did not bode well.

– How do you think I am? With less than two weeks to the wedding, I’m suicidal that’s how I am!

 

Nina smiled tensely. Accepting some degree of snapping was part of her job, although most of her clients usually apologized the minute the words crossed their mouths. Yasmin’s snapping had a condescending tone to it Nina could not bear, but she didn’t say anything. If she hadn’t found it hard to believe, she’d have sworn Yasmin was, well, miserable.  

 

For all, there was no other word for it, bitchiness, Yasmin stopped dead when she saw the dress.
– It looks like it’s out of a fairy tale, she uttered in a whisper.


– I’m glad you like it, beamed Nina, always happy to watch her customers’ reactions to her work.


– Would you like to eat something and have some tea before the fitting?


Yasmin looked like she had lost weight again, although Nina had instructed her not to if she wanted the dress to fit “you’ll be too thin and it’ll look all wrong. Besides, once the draping is done, I won’t be able to make any more alterations” she had warned her.
Apparently to no avail. Nina, in a weird way, felt somehow protective of everything and everyone, and despite Yasmin being spoilt and rude, she couldn’t help feeling a twinge of pity for her pitiful frame.

 

– No thanks, it’s ok, I’d like to try it on now. Besides, those biscuits are too sugary, how

can you serve such fattening food in a wedding showroom? Everyone knows brides keep

dieting before their weddings and are too stressed to eat!


– No, not all brides, if you can believe it, some of them are so happy to unite their life with the person they love in front of friends and family, they actually enjoy life and, one of the best aspects of life, delicious food, replied Nina equally, meticulously taking the dress off the mannequin.


Yasmin, not sure of the sarcastic tone, blanched and glared at Nina and kept silent, while Nina’s patience and understanding seemed to melt away slowly. In a parallel universe, Nina was snapping at Yasmin that she preferred a million times dressing shapely figures, work the fabric around curves and flesh, rather than dressing a bony fledgling like her who seemed to only feed on smoke.
Thank God for parallel universes happening in her head, they kept her from hurling things at walls.
And so she kept on working, arranging that dress on a silent bride, one of the most awkward and depressing fitting she had ever done. Usually the laughter and banter of friends and family filled the room, confidences and secrets were exchanged among the women, an atmosphere Nina cherished, whereas everything seemed as hard as nails around Yasmin. Just like her.


The dress was put on, and so was the veil. Yasmin looked up, and saw nothing but the pure nothingness that she felt, the abyss that was her life.
Nina looked up and saw a sad girl in a magical dress, with no glow of happiness, no aura of confidence, no spark and no radiance.
Yasmin’s eyes met Nina’s, and the designer braced herself for abuse and critics for the dress not being able to magically annihilate bitterness.
Yasmin’s eyes met Nina’s, and something really weird happened.

Yasmin burst out crying.

Tales of the Phoenix City – Chapter 3

Ziad had called Lili. Again. Yet again. As soon as he heard her voice he felt a catch in his heart, a catch he tried to conceal by adopting an extra business-like tone with her. He could not help it: he could not be with her, yet he had to hear her voice, if only to prove to himself she still existed, that he only needed to reach out to her to open once again the door to a never ending dialogue he had chosen to close. 

Ziad, needless to say, was arrogant, the special kind of forgetful arrogance that comes with the privilege of being a man: the fact that Lili might not want to reopen anything had not even occured to him. 

– Hi, Lili, I hope you’re keeping well, he heard himself ask in clipped tones as soon as she picked up. 
He could almost have hit himself for being so condescending towards her. Knowing Lili, she’d probably reply soflty, all the while nevertheless thinking about what an utter prick he was. He knew she hated confrontation, and he was ashamed to admit that suited him sometimes, if only because he knew she was no woman to give him a hard time yelling into the phone. She didn’t know the power she had over him, and he never felt compelled to telling her. Cowardice can creep up uninvited, at any given moment, after all he was only human, he liked to think. Just another way of justifying himself in his own eyes, and not very successfully at that.
 
– Hello Ziad, I’m good thanks, came Lili’s caramel-like voice. 
She sounded good. Somehow that annoyed him. Wasn’t she supposed to be drowning in sorrow, listening to REM? 
– Well, you sound good, he replied, his voice a little too acrimonious to his liking, betraying his feelings. What are you doing?, he bit. 
– Working, I’ve got a deadline. The abrupt answer made him cringe, but hadn’t he deserved It, After all he put her through?
He knew a  dismissal when he heard one. He had to come up with a good, reasonable excuse to justify his phone call, and somehow he thought: “I only wanted to hear your voice”, was not gonna make the cut. 
– Oh well, if you’re working, I shan’t bother the great magic of the writing genius, he replied, each syllabe resonating with the venom of jealousy, how dare she have a life outside of them? Them, Ziad and Lili! 
Yaaaay Ziad, score ya akhi! Go on, be aggressive, that’s the way to go! Why? Why did he need to be so stupid? Lili hated confrontation but she was neither weak nor a push over: she respected herself too much for that and would make sure, with her tone equal, her well modulated caramel like voice not raising above her usual tune, that the conversation stopped at that point. 
And true to form, his punishment came: 
– Well Ziad, if you’re calling me to aggress me, waste my time and be generally unpleasant, I think i ll just hang up now shall I? Have a nice day. 
Ziad stayed a long time with the receiver pressed to his ear, listening to it beeping, each beeping noise creating the rythm of that acute, universal yet unbearable, insanely inhuman feeling: loss. 
Later, he would use that noise in a song, he would try and put his confusion over himself and her into words and music, well organised music that made sense. But for now, he would keep on sitting at his desk, the receiver pressed to his handsome face, sorrow creasing his brow, his aquilin nose chiseled against the window like Chinese shadows, his black curls an entangled web encircling his face like a dark shadow.
Ziad broke up with Lili for no reason really, except that he felt he needed to be alone for a while, to ponder and reflect on where he wanted to go, what he wanted to do, and with whom. He liked to think of himself as an artist, he loved the tortured musician figure, his scraggly beard and appearance, the late nights with the boys, composing, drinking, smoking, the beauty of new music giving a background to the Beiruti powder pink dawn. Was he ready to kiss his fantasy goodbye for the commitment of a steady relationship with a woman, who, let’s be honest, he loved? 
Lighting a cigarette, he blew off the smoke, his heart beating fast, his brain working non stop. He couldn’t figure things out for himself. But he knew someone who could help. 
Grabbing his leather jacket (what else?), putting out his cigarette, he dialled the number of his sister Nina, running to her for comfort, and maybe, advice. 
Hope, yet again, had knocked on his door. 

Tales of the Phoenix City – Chapter 2

This was turning to be a most unpleasant day.

First the order of lace she had placed did not come through, then that God awful bride who called in at least four times this morning to ask if her veil would be ready for her to try on by tomorrrow. Nina could almost hear her shrill voice piercing through the telephone: And remember who my father is! If the veil and dress I have ordered are not ready on time, your career in Beirut, no wait, your career in the WORLD will be over, finished, TERMINEE even before it started! Do you hear me??!!!!! Do you understand?

What Nina understood most was that she was dealing with the particularly unpleasant breed of Beiruti Princesses (BP) who drove their Hummers as if they owned the streets and could really destroy anyone’s reputation with a raise of their perfectly arched and defined eyebrow. These women turned the art of contempt into perfection, disdainfully discarding with a flick of their sleek hair anyone and anything that was not lucky enough to have bestowed upon them their grace and approval. Nina also knew that the bride to be, Yasmine, would not and could not withdraw her order now. Nina was the new up and coming designer: her work had already been featured and many magazines (these girls’ Bible) and newspapers, and praised by many Fashion editors whom the BP followed as the herd they were. Yasmine, she sensed, cared more about making her friends turn green with envy with her original dress and attire than about the groom himself, hence the extreme pressure she was currently putting on her. The dress needed to be perfect, the veil, breathtaking: the bride needed to turn heads, if not for the qualities she did not possess, at least for the magical effect of the lace and tulle intertwined with mother of pearl drops dress she was wearing.  

But Nina took her own sweet time with her. Oh the dress would be ready all right, as a matter of fact it already was, waiting in the studio on the wooden mannequin, softly sparkling, carefully shielded from the sun to keep its pearly white colour, but she figured it would do Yasmine the world of good to, once in her life, wait. No matter who she was. Especially to teach her she was no better than anyone because her father compromised himself to reach the heights of political life or stole from the people to pamper in excess his little girl, who, let’s face it, was twenty six and was pampered enough for life. 

Nina’s dresses were expensive, they had to be: she paid well her petites mains, the women whom she taught and who taught her and worked with, and made her dresses from the best material and fabric she could find. Twice a month, she would go and travel all over the region to get inspired and learn a new way of weaving, sewing, or adorning garments that she did not know about. Sometimes, she would come back to Beirut with her teachers, women she got to know over time and and have them work on her pieces. She insisted they sign their creation with their names and reap the profits of the sale. At first, people were surprised by seeing dresses from Um Fadeela for Nina Haddad in the pages of their glossy magazines, but the quality and uniqueness of the products soon made them forget about the name of the designer, and Nina and her bees soon enough earned quite the reputation in the city. Nina loved it all, she loved the looks of pride she saw in herself and in her team when a dress was achieved, she loved the late nights spent sewing and talking, she loved the camaraderie and strong ties that united her with the women who worked with her: she loved it all, and felt incredibly lucky and grateful to be able to love her job. Most of all, Nina loved being economically independent, she loved the fact that she was doing something by herself for herself: this is what chunks of freedom feel like, she thought.

Nina worked hard, in her mind when she was not in her studio, always imagining new shapes and colours and styles, writing the things that got her thinking or inspired in a pink Moleskine notebook, one of the many notebooks she carried around in her enormous handbag, almost always overflowing with papers and pieces of fabric. She needed the Beiruti Princesses to be able to live off her art, to be able to pay well her staff, to be able to keep on creating, but her ultimate dream was to be able to create dresses for all women, not just the ones who could afford them. She already made dresses for her staff and their daughters, refusing to get paid, but that was not enough. Sitting on the high chair facing the floor to ceiling window, she was thinking of ways to make her productions more affordable while maintaining the same quality, while her Turkish coffee was getting slowly colder and colder in the tiny little cup that had belonged to her grandfather. 

Business plans were not her forte, and she plainly refused to be bought by one of these saber-toothed sharks that had already started lurking around her after the couple of whopping reviews she got. No, there had to be another way, and she would find it! 

A gentle tapping on the door awoke her from her daydreaming. She got up to open the creaking wooden door, and there appeared Hamid, the delivery boy who spent his days zigzagging through the web of Beiruti traffic to deliver his parcels. Watching his sweaty face while he handed her the delivery of lace, Nina wondered what it must feel like to live in a country where a proper post office service actually worked and where parcel were delivered by workers who got benefits and salaries and days off. Unlike Hamid. 

– Here Hamid, come in, have a Pepsi or something you’re gonna die from dehydration at the threshold of my studio and habibi this isn’t a good look for me

Hamid smiled, and answered in his usual cheeky fashion:

– Come on Nina, you know full well that a simple smile from you and I should be arise from the dead! I can’t stay for a Pepsi, I’m late enough as it is, but thanks anyway! 

– Allah Ma3ak, you weird new version of Jesus! Arise from the dead indeed! 

Still smiling, she looked at him zap the distance on his bike, then opened her parcel, freeing the lace. 

– Now let’s see what we’re going to do with you! 

– 

Tales of the Phoenix City – Chapter I

A great admirer of the Tales of the City from American author Armistead Maupin, I love the serialized version the books were initially published in. I am therefore trying a little experiment here, publishing a new story (I don’t know where it will take me, but come along with me for the ride!) in a series version. Hope you Enjoy!

Lili looked up from her article to gaze at the bustling street below her. Hamra never seemed to get any rest or sleep, always a mixture of hip and trendy youth working for social media startups, artists, students trying to recapture the leftist revolutionary flavor the neighbourhood had once been home of, tourists and foreigners reveling in the Beiruti eclectic uniqueness between two Arabic classes, women efficiently going on about their business, taxi drivers waiting for naive pockets to empty and hapless street vendors watching the world go by. The 9awmiyyeh flags waved softly in the diesel scented breeze, sporting a symbol singularly akin to a fascist one, as if marking their territory: here shall no enemy enter.

Or beware of the dreadful consequences, thought Lili, remembering how she’d heard some acquaintances declare they were purely and simply afraid to go to Hamra, following the beatings they received at the hands of the 9awmiyyeh shabeb during a demonstration.

The flags were the only thing that bothered Lili in the microcosm of a street she had learned to call home. She loved her neighborhood, the way she loved Beirut, with a kind of absurd forgetfulness about all the things that went usually wrong in it, cursing one minute only to get a feeling of absolute adoration the next, vowing eternal fidelity to the decrepit buildings and entangled webs of electricity cables.

Lili had first come to Beirut 3 years ago, on a research trip that was originally scheduled to last six months. She had come at a point in her life where she had virtually no anchorage, nothing and no one to hold on to, to make her feel safe. Her mothers, a successful photographer, was always booked on shoots on the other side of the world, while her father had long deserted her and her mother and was now building orphanages in Cambodia. Lili often wondered where the humanity lied on saving everyone’s children except his, but never voiced it out loud, because to her open conflict was like poison that would seep into her veins, setting down deeply in her bones. She therefore swallowed her anger and pain, sublimating them in tortured verses that she found so ridiculous she hid in a locked folder of her computer.  She came to Beirut while conducting a research on Middle Eastern politics for her Masters thesis. What she had thought to be a short term stay turned out into a love story with the whole country. She had come to immerse herself in another world: three years later, she felt she was still learning things everyday.

Now a journalist for an English language newspaper, she felt her life needed a change, yet another one, but she had no clear direction on where she wanted to go. Sitting at her desk in her high ceiled flat inundated by the citrus bright sun, she felt a gray taste in her mouth, the taste of things that were taking way too long to come, the taste of frustration and bereavement. Something inside of her deeply resented the sadness that Ziad’s departure from her life caused, and so she had learned to suppress any negative feeling. True to form, once she realized where her thoughts had drifted she forced herself to wake up from her daydreaming and return to concentrating on her article.

She was responsible for the Style and Living section of the newspaper, very far away from her degree and interest as a political analyst, but she preferred to be paid to write about lifestyle than for her political opinions to be constrained and dictated by the editorial line of a newspaper. She therefore divided her time between interviewing plastic over made up wedding planners during the week and going on road trips to remote areas of Lebanon to talk to villagers, refugees and political figures. This duality suited her, it made her feel whole.

She was in the middle of her article on a hot new Lebanese designer who was getting excellent reviews for her embroidery work when her phone rang, breaking the serene atmosphere of her afternoon. A shiver ran down her spine when she read the name on the blaring screen.