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.

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A Ribbon Around a Bomb

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You Killed My Dreams, Too

I am currently baffled by some online phenonmenon, for lack of a better word.

No, I’m not talking about Saad Hariri’s Twitter account, although that’s pretty funny in itself.

I’m talking about women undergoing plastic surgery, plonking themselves in front of their webcam and talking.

And that’s it.

These women seem to have observed the trajectory of Haifa Wehbe and the likes: be beautiful, and if you need a corrupt doctor to be so, then by all means buy that pair of boobs, pout in front of a camera, shake that tiny booty in a gold mini dress and what do you know, you’ve gotten yourself a “career’, with many rich men spending fortunes on you and all eyes on you, you, you.

I mean, they have nothing to say or show, that absolute necessity to create something and maybe share it with the world that possesses all artists is completely absent.

They’re in it for the money and the fame. Every thing they do is directed towards these two goals: be rich and famous. Lara Kay, one of the latest sensation of that category, states it herself in many instances: “Yes I have done plastic surgery but it works so what?”Here, please understand the “it works” to attract attention and most preferably rich men.

The times we live in are terribly frustrating for our egos: economic hardships ensure we need to work unrewarding jobs to make ends meet, with only tiny pools of leisure . Besides, there’s a need of recognition and validation of our own selves: lost in the anonymity of the masses, the individual finds itself insignificant, a tiny ant labouring day in day out. Hence the pursuit of fame that is perceived to be the ultimate goal in life, bringing in its stride happiness and money. The trend of reality TV has made it all the easier for everyone to think their problems will go away with a flick of a remote control, and frankly, with the intellectual/artistic/creative level shown on most programmes, it is no wonder absolutely anyone think they can make it. When I see the sums Kim Kardashian is paid to insult her sister on TV, I wonder if I shouldn’t make a sex tape myself (Bazinga).

Social media has enabled many people to “be discovered”, regardless of their talent. Virtually everyone can have their 15 minutes of fame, and people tend to forget that every work of art, every initiative that might lead to fame is, well, work, and takes effort and dedication, and that fame is not in any way the purpose of that work.

Capitalism has long merchandised everything: art, women’s bodies, people’s lives. The wanna-be famous such as Lara Kay and Myriam Klink are nothing but by products of a system that sees everything as marketable goods . I’m not siding with bloggers and people who have been bashing them with epithets such as “whore” “charmouta” and other insulting comments targeted as their expressions of sexuality. However, I do have an issue with that expression being the incarnation of what men want, and designed to attract said men, impersonating gender stereotypes to the extreme in the sense that they’re reducing themselves to a body and looks, making their appearance their major feature, as if it were the most important thing. Even Kay’s video clip looks like sexist soft porn, the way it’s done exploiting her body and reducing it to certain parts: close ups on her vagina and buttocks, languid expressions and pouts with bee stung lips. There doesn’t seem to be any fun in their appearances, they’re not enjoying themselves, they’re merely going through the motions of exciting thé viewer, of being what they think they should be to get noticed.

Watching and listening to “songs” such as 3antar and 2ataltouleh el a7lem actually made me a little sad more than anything else. Sad because despite many decades of women’s movement, it seems to have achieved littled in terms of erasing the stereotype of beauty being the most important thing for a woman and her only way to get ahead. And sad because sexuality is supposed to be creative, and fun and sensuous and an adventure. Not a means to get showered with gifts and two cameras on one’s self.