Living/Leaving here

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This post was originally written as a submission for the Outpost, for their second number on the ‘possibility of living here’, so I wrote about my own experience living in Lebanon. The submission didn’t make the cut, so here it is!

You always want to come back.

No matter how comfortable you are in your life abroad, some part of you is always thinking about it. You think about it when you hear someone next to you on the bus speak Arabic and you feel your heart melt a little. You think about it when you close your eyes and can feel the Beiruti sea breeze on Rawche without having to do much else. You think about it every minute of every day, it’s like this nagging feeling that won’t ever go away, gnawing at your soul. I’ve always asked myself how can one could be nostalgic of things one barely knew. But you can. You can feel linked to where you come from by an invisible, tenuous yet incredibly strong thread, coming from your heart to that place.

I was born abroad, another statistics on the Diaspora never ending numbers, and for as long as I can remember we’ve always gone back and forth between abroad and Lebanon, for my parents didn’t, or rather, couldn’t bear exile too well.

Then one day, I decided to come back. I packed my bags and went, deciding somewhere along the way that I wanted to be part of the new Lebanon. I have two degrees in international law and human rights, work experience in that area, and I was a remote part of the booming Lebanese civil society that was trying to organize itself to bring social change to the country. I wrote articles for different Lebanese outlets and took part in any online campaigns I could get my hands on, but somehow at some point this did not seem enough. I needed to live it. I had the luxury to choose, and to be able to come back to Beirut to become an actual part of it. I thought I could bring my skills and experience to my country, I thought Lebanon would need me, and that I could give it my all. And in a way, Lebanon did need me. Just not in the way I thought.

Beirut had, and still have, this incredible attraction over me. Its bubbling creativity, exuberant force of life, its people, its smells, everything seemed to be calling my name. Needless to say, despite knowing Beirut quite well, distance and time had blurred its flaws, only leaving a frangipani flowers/diesel scented dream. I was in for a rude awakening.

Over the past couple of years, Beirut has earned in Western media the reputation of a lively, stylish city, a heaven for party goers and a cultural hub for arts, which in some part is true. However, this depiction is only one tiny aspect of Beirut, the one the most privileged only can enjoy. What I have discovered while living there is that the incredible weakness of the state is felt at all levels by people living in Lebanon. Basic infrastructure of making water and electricity available to all are not fully functional, thus once again creating inequalities between different regions of Lebanon and neighborhoods of Beirut. Political instability is clearly a drawback for anyone that is thinking of coming back to Lebanon, but I wouldn’t say that for me it was the biggest, for after a while you just learn to live with the risks. It’s the daily chaos, the constant need to have an alternative solution up your sleeve because the state simply isn’t there to fulfill its obligations and the constant violations of civil liberties and socio-economic rights that wear you off after a while. Workers do not have social security, social benefits, people’s rights are trampled on every day, human rights like the right to education and health are contingent to your financial means and this, in order to get Lebanon’s talented workforce back, needs to change. To me, the most insufferable part was the dire inequality. The wage and social gap between different strata of the population is disheartening. And can – and should- inspire revolt.

After a year in Beirut I received a job offer in Switzerland. I thought long and hard about going back to Geneva. Was I abandoning Lebanon to its inept government? I felt guilty, but here I was, having an opportunity to do a job I love, under normal working conditions, in a country that uses the taxes I pay to build proper roads and offer good public education. Something in my mind kept nagging me, telling me I had a right to a decent life after all. And so I left again. Looking back, I was too angry at Lebanon’s phenomenal potential being wasted by greed, sectarianism and corruption to stay and be useful. I was too angry at my own inadequacy to change turn things upside down. 

And so I left again.

However, i remain convinced that opportunities are there and lie in the resourcefulness of Lebanon’s inhabitants, in civil society that grows stronger and manages to get more people engaged, in the creativity of its talented people. The more we push for positive change, the more we’re likely to attract and bring change. The moment is now, when the whole region is pounding its fists for change, demanding that its potential is achieved. The moment is now to impact our region’s future and we should not let it pass. The moment is now. We have a whole new landscape to build. 

Tales of the Phoenix City – Chapter 27

This isn’t over.
He said it with a definite air. His crestfallen face tugged at her heart yet she shook herself and stood firmly her ground.
– I believe it is.
– Why the fuck are you doing this?
She sighed. He was not going to make things easy.
– I am not trying to push you away or to try and make you disappear. I’m just telling you I am keeping this baby and if you want to be involved that’s great we’ll have to work it out but I will not, shall not, marry you.
– It’s the right thing to do.
– It’s precisely why I don’t want to do it.
He folded his arms in a self protective fashion, pushing her out in a defiant stance. Jesus, she should have done this in a public space. This way he couldn’t have made a scene.
– This isn’t over.
– You already said that.
– You’re not going to be able to smarten your way out of this one.
He Was starting to get on her nerve.
– I believe the bump you see where my stomach should be is the living proof that I’m not trying to get out of anything, apart maybe from a lifetime with an almost stranger that I would marry because it’s the right thing to do.
She stopped and gulped some water. God she felt like vomiting. This pregnancy business was no walk in the park.
She needed to calm down. After all, she had just dropped a huge bomb on him and he was only trying to do what he thought was the right thing. But somehow, her courage seemed to be growing alongside her baby.
– Listen, Shadi.
He raised his eyes at the mention of his name.
– I know this isn’t easy. I know you must feel trapped or lost or even angry right now.
She paused. They had only talked about her. It hadn’t really even occurred to her to ask him how he felt about all this, save for telling him she Was not to marry him.
– Now that you mention It, how are you feeling?
His raised eyebrows and the flicker of a smile That passed on his face made her exhale for the first Time in the last hour. Perhaps It would not have to Be this hard.
– Well, first of all, thanks for asking.
She couldn’t place the sarcasm for sure. Let It go let It go she urged herself. Soon it’ll all be over and you will return back to your life of creation, on your workshop, with your assistant teetering on her high heels, polishing her nails in neon pink while convincing an umpteenth magazine to cover your brand. Just bear with him for a bit.
– I’m pretty damn happy.
She chocked on the ginger tea she was sipping in a desperate attempt at quenching her nausea.
– excuse me?
– Well yeah, I’m obviously not happy at the stark rejection you’re offering me on a silver plate, but I am happy at the prospect of having a child. With you, he added as an afterthought. I like you Nina. There’s something about you that warms my insides, somewhere next to my heart.
God why weren’t pregnant women allowed cigarettes?
– You don’t have a heart. You try and buy up perfectly happy small businesses for a living remember? You’ve tried buying up mine.
– Then you had sex with me if my memory isn’t cheating me?
She sprung to her feet. She’d had enough of this.
– D’you know? I’m a tired pregnant girl who’s in a desperate need for a nap and less drama. So bump, meet father, father, meet bump, it’s all lovely and nice, now please exit my house. Chop chop, don’t drag your feet.
– But…but
– But.. But nothing, this conversation is over. You and I are not having a child together, I am having a child and if you want to be involved then all the better but don’t you are come to my house and spring this happy shit on me, we’re not a family in that little Kodak moment you seem to have built in your head. Now bye.

The sharp noise of the door slamming was still ringing in her ears when Yasmine came in with the latest coverage of Nina’s dresses. As usual, Yasmine was dressed to the nines: her YSL sandals high as ever clickety-clicking on the beautiful old-fashioned tiles of her home, her perfectly cut 7 for all mankind skinny jeans an exquisite shade of blue, a simple oversized white top topped with a chunky statement necklace completing her look, Nina told herself she could not have picked a better assistant/PR girl. Her appearance screamed ‘I’m a DIVA and if you don’t oblige me I shall whine you into oblivion’, which guaranteed good coverage, which kept sharks like Shadi at bay and ensured clients kept coming to have their wedding dresses designed by the new hot designer, aka Nina Haddah, as long as she was in the papers and that word of mouth worked in her favour.

Yasmine had gained some self-confidence in the past few weeks, trying to rebuild bridges with her family while working on her independence which proved to be difficult at times to say the very least, so it was with a bit of surprise that Nina to see Yasmine plump herself on her chintz couch, take off her eyeglasses to reveal dark circles and reddened eyes.

– It’s been a while since the last time I saw you look like a rabbit in a hole like that. What’s happened?
– Nothing.

The answer came sharply, knifing the peaceful afternoon with acrimonious dryness, Yasmine’s tone a shield to ward off any attempt at comforting. Nina knew better than to fight it, and simply grabbed a box of tissues and the last issue of Oriental Elle, where her Grecian one- shoulder tulle and silk crepe dress was being showcased. Absent-mindedly, she turned a page, while handing over the box of tissues to Yasmine, who was quietly crying on the sofa, her honeyed tone hair gracefully falling on her delicate tanned shoulders.

– Life is a cross to bear after the other, as my devout mother who doesn’t speak to me any more would say. What’s the new cross habibi?

Tales of the Phoenix City – Chapter 25

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

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

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

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

  • Mama, please say something.

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

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

  • You will have to get married.

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

  • No, I don’t. And I won’t.

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

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

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

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

  • Then I’ll leave, now shall I?

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

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

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

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

Tales of the Phoenix City – Chapter 23

This city.

This city gets under your skin, invades your bloodstream. You can’t ever leave it, even if you travel, emigrate, destroy your passport and burn down your house.

This city stays. It leaves an unshakable bond, an imprint on your forehead, like the most vociferous mistress, stronger than passion, fiercer than tenderness. Love.

This is what Gabrielle had told Grace. She could never leave it, not with what was happening, not with Nina needing her, not with her own self needing the air of Beirut now more than ever. Sulphur, Diesel, Jasmin, Magnolia and Oud. She would not, could not leave this air, she’d suffocate. Intolerance, prejudice, harassment, she’d face it all, she’d fight it all, but she was not to leave.

Grace had only asked one question. The most terrible she could ever have asked.

– Do you love this city and your life in it more than you love me?

Gabrielle had not believed what she’d heard. Grace was not usually like this, she and her, they epitomized the modern couple, free from the shackles of jealousy and possessiveness. Perhaps Grace’s vulnerability was triggered by Gabrielle’s iron will, by the gleam of absolute decision she had seen shine in her lover’s dark eyes. No prevarication, no hesitation. She would stay.

– There is nothing or no one that I love more than you on this earth. But if I leave, Grace, I’ll die. Misery will consume me whole. The Guilt, the horrid guilt of my comfort overseas would eat me whole. I know myself. I won’t be able to cope. It’ll be the end of me. I will stay but I want you to think about what is it that you want.

– I want you.

– And I want you. But if you stay for me, then one day, if and when something happens, you will resent me, and I could not bear it. Simply could not.

It was Grace’s turn to show her will.

– Listen. I love Beirut as much as you do. I wanted to leave because the climate of hatred we have to live under is unbearable. Do you know why I always wake up at 04:30? Because 04:30 is the blessed hour where everyone just shuts up. People are slowly stirring in their beds, some are praying, others are dreaming. Coffee is on the way, and everyone is still too suspended between wake and sleep to think of hating. I wake up while you’re still deep in slumber, and I look at the pink dawn over the crumbled gray buildings, I look at Beirut and an insane feeling of love, deep, deep love for every bullet hole, for every teeny tiny rock shakes me whole, like if I could hold the city tight against my chest in an eternal embrace, I would. I would be staying for my own happiness, which is be with you, here. But you will have to get used to the fact that sometimes, when I’ll be overwhelmed, I will want to leave. It doesn’t mean I will actually do it. It just means I’m human, I get weak, and I don’t see why I should keep silent about it. Is that too much to bear?

Gabrielle was speechless. Five years, and through and through these five years, Grace still knew how to amaze her. Petite, soft spoken Grace, sitting on her velvet armchair, looking straight into her eyes. From the outside, it looked like she was the calmest, quietest person currently having the calmest, quietest conversation. But her eyes gave it all away.

There was nothing left for Gabrielle than to walk up to her, cup her face in her hands, and kiss her.

Later, Gabrielle would go for a walk, her rib cage a little looser, her breath, a little less shallow, relieved to have straighten out the hollowing decision that had been hanging over them for the past month, poisoning each of their caress, looming over their heads like a malevolent bird.

Later, Gabrielle would roam the streets of the city she was almost ready to sacrifice so much for. She would go and talk to the mothers, sisters, and wives of the 17 000 disappeared in Syrian prisons who were holding their daily sit in in front of the UN, asking for a tiny bit if peace of mind. ‘It’s the not knowing that kills you’ said a Stereophonics song. It’s the not knowing what happened to their lives, their hopes, their loves, and there they were, sitting in front of people and institutions that could not care less about their shattered lives, that only demanded forgetfulness of people, that only demanded obedience and quiet. Gabrielle would whip out her camera and start taking pictures of these women and of the pictures they were holding, because after all these years, after all these words, the only things they were left with were pictures. All the while she would be playing in her head a song she liked by Shadi Zaqtan , a song which spoke about 11 000 empty places. 17000 here, 11000 there, and God knew only how much everywhere else. Empty places filling thousands of hearts with sorrow.

She would come and sit and talk. Then she would pack her bags, her heart a little bit heavier, so much sadness, so much unbearable suffering, the torture of not knowing what had happened to the person you loved the most. She would pack her bags, and a decorated staircase would appear in all its multicolored glory, an older woman sitting on her balcony would see her pass by and would ask her to come and have coffee with her.

Gabrielle would shoot and shoot and shoot, images to replace bullets, life to replace death, excerpts of life and hope, because Beirut, no matter what, always gave you a reason to hope. Yet another. Reason to hope.

In another life, in another apartment, Nina, a hand on her womb and another on the phone, was preparing herself to have the toughest conversation she would ever have in her whole life.

The line crackled a bit. One, two, three rings. Then the receiver was picked up.

– Hi Mama!

Tales of the Phoenix City – 17

The creature looked pale and panicked.

She also looked like she had been through a war.

Wearing a wedding gown, that is.

– I left.
– I can see that. Good timing, Yasmine. Really, you couldn’t have done better. What did you do, jumped off the white Merc?
– Oh shut up, would you, and let me in.

For once, Nina was not offended by Yasmine’s peremptory tone. The little resident devil in her mind was doing a little victory dance, while the resident angel already felt guilty at the thought of having instilled doubt in her young client’s mind.

Yasmine past through the door, the ruffles of her dress enveloping her in a sea of caring, soft silk and lace. It seemed to Nina that the once dry, tense woman had a new suppleness about her that seemed to increase at every step she took, as if the shackles that had been binding her up until now were slowly unknotting themselves.

When she barged in, Nina had been sketching a new collection of dresses. They partly were inspired by the Palestinian embroidery and were all the shapes of caftans. She had added special details to the shape of the sleeves for the winter dresses, something akin to lady dresses in the European Middle Ages. The long sleeves matched the caftan shape: each detail completed one another perfectly, making the dresses well balanced, nicely fitting and very original, as they were going against the trend of strapless bodices everyone seemed to be producing right now. The summer dresses were all light as feathers, heavily inspired by Ancient Greece and Egypt, all draped gauze, their sexiness the result of their sheerness, revealing by hiding. Nina, as always when she was creating, had been utterly happy, immersed in her own world. She was supposed to draft business plans and loan applications, but somehow the figures had turned into shapes and drawings and three cups of tea later, she was already imagining how the models would look in her dusty-golden colored dresses.

Then Yasmine had knocked on her door and brought with her mayhem, as seemed to be her habit.

She was currently perched above Nina’s drawings, as if appraising them. Nina let her peer through her swollen, red eyes, thinking seeing some art and calming down her thoughts might help her. She busied herself making strong black coffee, and sat on the couch between the two fitting rooms she had. She spread toffees and macaroons before her, and patiently waited.

And waited.

Yasmine seemed to have gone mute.

– Feel like explaining why you’re here looking at my drawings, casually dressed in your wedding gown on what should have been your wedding day, instead of actually being at your wedding day?
– I told you, I left.
– Sweetheart, I’m going to need a tiny little more than that.
– Well, at first I had completely dismissed your advice and all your blabbing about not needing to get married and all.
– Why thank you, I love it when people drop by to insult my judgement.
– But then, Yasmine ploughed on, then, now and again I’d get an icy cold feeling of impeding doom. An anxiety I could not really define, a blurry, shadowy feeling that something was not quite right, a feeling that would jerk me awake at night, my heart racing and my temples pounding. I felt than my stomach was going through a washer and drier, I don’t know… So I kept smoking and not eating and my mother started noticing something was wrong. Not that she’s a good listener, my mother, but you know, between two important lunches she started noticing her daughter was wasting to nothing. So I took a leap of faith and tried explaining to her that I did not love my fiancé and was having second thoughts about the wedding. She looked at me as if I had hit her with a spade. She started off with a kind of contained rage, she said that often love harmed a marriage more than anything else and that I’d grow into loving my husband. She mentioned children and affection and all these concepts that meant I was signing up for a loveless life, being bored until I died. I must have looked what I thought, because Then she went ape-shit.
– Ape-shit?
– Kinda crazy.
– Thank You.
– She screamed, saying I simply could not humiliate her and my family this way by calling off the wedding at this stage, that I was being selfish and spoiled and a brat, after all the money she and my father had spent on me and on that wedding. I told her the money she had spent was more to make her look good in front of her friends than to really make me happy and that sometimes I looked at her and saw myself in a couple of years and that made me want to scream and kill myself.
– Ouch.
– Yeah, she did not take it well.
– Ya think?
– She had a kind of mirthless laughter And told me I was already like her, obsessed by spending and what people would say about me and my looks and that if anything, I’d be worse than her in a couple of years. Them she stormed out.
– I’m sorry. I feel if I hadn’t put these ideas into your head you wouldn’t have had to listen to these things.
– No it’s not your fault. It’s not even my mother’s. She was raised to be this way, just like I was. I think what she’s told me jolted me out of my apathy. On the day of my wedding, today, God, I feel like it was a million years ago, as they were dressing me in the hotel room, and joking and laughing, I felt very, very empty. I felt as if I were drained, emotionally and physically. I realized I wanted much more for myself than being married and spending money and having children and live vicariously through them. I discovered ambition. These ideas are still confused in my head, but I did know I did not want to go through the whole ordeal of the wedding. So I pretended I wanted to have a few moments to pray before going. They all looked at me a little oddly, but I think they thought I was being jittery because of the wedding night. They all think I’m still a virgin of course, the poor things. They re delusional. Anyway, I waited until everyone went out of my room. I called a taxi and told him to wait for me in front of Goodies in verdun. Then I grabbed whatever money I had, some clothes, and took the service elevator down, paying everyone on my way to shut up. And I took the cab.
– And you came here.
– And I came here. I did not know where else to go, and they won’t come straight to you looking for me.
– Ok. You do realize I can’t hide you here ad vitam eternam. You’re gonna have to deal with the family mayhem eventually, it s part of the process. However I can provide you with a safe bolt hole here until you decide what you want to do. And don’t forget, I have a business offer to take up with you once the craziness had calmed down.

Nina took in the sad little face, the anxiety and fears before her, and impulsively hugged her like a mother consoling her child. Yasmine gave out a wail under the tender touch of Nina, tears she felt she had repressed for a very, very long time.

– Jesus Fucking Christ, who’s the Weeping Widow here?

Gabi had come.

Yours

The tension, the frantic phone calls to make sure your loved ones are safe, the sleepless nights, the apnea feeling of barely being able to breathe, the staying up late for no obvious reason other than the fact that your mind is resisting sleep, the liquid air filled with the stillness of death, the outbursts of violence, the constant news, the stretched nerves and hysterical laughs, the helplessness, the anger, the frustration, the muted life in everyone’s eyes, all of this becomes yours overnight, whether you like it or not, whether you can stomach it or not.

The gut wrenching feeling of all that could have been achieved and will never be, the throbbing pulse of your heart beating too fast, the never ending prayers that this is all a dream, a bad dream, a nightmare, that you’re due to wake up anytime soon, the impatient hope of believers, the resigned gazes of those who have already been there, who have already done that, and who just wanted a tiny patch of peace and quiet before they depart from this world, all of this becomes yours overnight, whether you like it or not, whether you can stomach it or not.

The conscience that your situation could be worse, that other people are suffering much more than you are, the conscience that this doesn’t make you feel any better, but rather much, much worse, the tiny parts of you that wither and die each time you look at a picture too long, each time you hear that additional piece of information, the proverbial drop that opens the floodgates in your eyes, the intense fatigue that holds you in its grip with no chance of release, the shocking desire to lie down on blond sand and let yourself go, all of this becomes yours overnight, whether you like it or not, whether you can stomach it or not.

The realization that no matter what, life has to go on, that you can’t stay frozen in anxiety waiting for the penny to drop, waiting and hoping, the strength and the force that keeps you going no matter what, because you have to, because you want to, because there is simply no other way, the fact that it is not courage but rather the will of life itself reigning over you, the intense power of a friend’s hand on your shoulder, telling you that you’re chipping away at the sinister forces behind death and destruction, the tiny glimmer of hope as you picture yourself as a little bird, eating away at the darkness, all of this is yours, yours, and changing what’s yours, becomes your concern.

Tales of the Phoenix City – Chapter 9

Gabrielle felt incredibly happy. Getting ready to drop by Lili’s, she was thinking about the business she had just started, her very own hybrid graphic design/ photography lab. She had done It for herself, but also for Grace, her beloved girlfriend of five years. Theirs has been a tortuous path, one that was lined with obstacles:hatred from society, incomprehension and guilt from their families, and ultimately, love for each other and acceptance from their true friends. Five years of emotional lifts to finally arrive at a plateau of relative calm and serenity, feeling like a lovely quiet home after a gruelling day.

She wished Lili could feel the same, but knew better than to interfere too much in her friend’s innermost feelings. Unlike Nina, who could behave like the most obnoxious Lebanese mother with her friends and still get away with it, Gabrielle dealt more easily with concrete actions, purposefulness and rational decisions. She was not born this way, but life, with its unexpected twists and turns, had wired her to only be able to swear and curse and come across as strong and hard as nails. Sometimes, she even felt it was true, that she had had to fight so many difficult battles, she couldn’t possibly be bothered any more by the never ending autopsies of hurt feelings over coffee. Try and come out to your Lebanese family while studying, working, and trying to keep your relationship together and then come back and see if the indecisiveness of a spoilt brat such as Ziad had the same impact on you.  

Yet Gabrielle felt Lili’s pain acutely and would have gleefully told Ziad what she thought of him had he not be Nina’s brother and her friend’s great love. Perhaps she’d be more useful to Lili when Lili decided she wanted to get over Ziad once and for all: for now, her pain was too raw for anyone to be able to do anything.


Putting on her jacket, she opened the kitchen door where Grace was experimenting new recipes. Living with Grace, or so she felt, was like living with a deliciously fragrant ray of sunshine. A chef, Grace loved to let her creativity loose by reinventing traditional recipes, adding spices here and a little less sugar there, creating odes to the country they both loved dearly despite and in spite of its numerous thorns. She had always hated the “love it or leave it’ mentality. Who had declared that weird notion that if you loved something you shouldn’t and weren’t even allowed to criticize it? Lebanon had a million and one things wrong with it, and not mentioning them would not be a sign of love, but rather, of acute hypocrisy and blindness.

Entering the kitchen, she felt the wonderful smells fill her nostrils, and amidst them all, her beloved, her hair tied back covered by a keffieh, her apron neatly tied behind her back, looking as if she was in trance over a steaming pot.


– Oh devilish witch, what pagan mixture are you brewing?

Grace gave a chuckles and a start. She loved it when Gaby pretended she was a witch enthralling people with her tantalizing blends.

– I, beloved child, am rediscovering the well known desert of Mhalabbiyyeh, measuring orange blossom water and a hint of rose water, debating if a pinch of cinnamon is advisable, leaving the condensed milk to brew with the Maizena, but, no! Oh No! Don’t even think for a moment that you shall be allowed to taste it before it is neatly sitting in my gorgeous mismatched cups covered in ground pistachios and raisins!


Grace’s quick hand swiftly hit Gabrielle’s own hand that had wandered a little too close to her precious desert.


– Behave yourself! If this version of Mhalabiyyeh is successful and as delicious as I’m suspecting it will be we will have to include it in the book!

– I will take the most beautiful pictures to glorify the most wonderful food Lebanon has ever seen, of this you can rest assured, smiled Gabrielle.

– Where are you off to?

– Nina has gotten in her head to have that customer of hers, Yasmin, renounce her upcoming wedding with that dreadful, incredibly rich fiancé she thinks she absolutely needs to marry not to wind up alone and suicidal. Believe me I’d rather work with you on the cookbook so we can progress design wise and choose the color palette, but our sweet crazy friend seems to deem  it necessary that she offers as many examples of the Great Diversity of Love, in all caps if you may, to that Beiruti Princess, so that she can see one can be happy outside society’s normative box.

Grace beamed at her.

– Nina can’t help herself, she has to be a protective mother to everyone except to herself, beamed Grace. I do love her for it. Go, do your intervention, then we’ll have plenty of time to work. Yalla! Go save that poor girl from the claws of society, or from Nina’s embrace, I don’t know what’s worse!


With a slight movement, Gabrielle pecked her girlfriend, stole a freshly baked almond-hazelnut coffee, avoided another pat on her guilty fingers and dashed outside, taking another helmet for Lili to ride her motorcycle with her.

Lili was waiting for her in front of the old fashioned blue door of her building, the beautiful gardenia tree blossoming above her, generously shielding Lili’s thin frame from the sun while filling the air around her with its sweet pungent smell.


– You look like death, boomed Gabrielle by way of greeting.

– That’s probably because I feel like it, retorted Lili grabbing the helmet from her friend. I’m never ever approaching alcohol ever again. From now on, just call me Lili Rose Water Drinker.

– Just stop kissing twisted bastards, you’ll be just fine.


By the wobbly smile and watery eyes she made out behind the helmet, Gabrielle understood full well it wasn’t one, but two interventions that were needed that day.

On Going on A Micro General Strike

When speaking about feminism and women’s rights, I think I have found myself guilty of going on about laws, international conventions, treaties and regulations, which, while being necessary, somewhat puts the whole issue of sexism at an abstract level made of negotiations, politics, and international and national high level meetings.
While we all have to be aware of what decisions our governments take, it is equally important to talk about daily sexism, the fact that women have to fight sexism and patriarchy every day, the fact that these values and attitudes impact their every days lives.
Whereas hidden in a sarcastic comment or acted upon in a very loud and clear fashion, sexism and patriarchy are still everywhere and have a strong impact on women’s lives.
Still talking in obscure words? Let me just give you a few examples. I
About two weeks ago, I was discussing the awful (at least for me) subject of giving birth with some friends who had already gone through the ordeal ( and please, I don’t want to hear anything about how it was the most beautiful day of anyone’s life. All that blood and pain can’t be good. Giving birth is a necessary step, full stop, don’t try and romanticize it just because your brain wants to forget just how awful it was. There are other women who need the truth here) (ok, it might be the terror talking). Ok, moving on, there we were, sharing horror stories of birth giving and what not, when my friend told me the most awful thing that happened to her on the day of her delivering. Contrary to what I was expecting, it was not the twelve meter long epidural needle, it was not the pain, or the blood, or the fear. It was her husband, actually asking her to iron his white shirt while she was on the phone telling him her water just broke. Let me get this straight, I told her, there you were, paddling in your own water, utterly scared and freaking out, calling your husband so he can help you and drive you to the hospital so you could deliver his child, and he asked you to iron his shirt before going? Yes, she said.
We then looked at each other with eyes like saucers, and I could tell she still couldn’t get her head around it.
What kind of society creates that kind of sense of entitlement so that one of its member can lose all sense of priorities and ask about a FUCKING SHIRT before the health of a woman?
A society riddled with patriarchal values, that’s what.
Social roles women are allocated are very rigid and hard to shake, it takes not only advocacy from social movements for laws to change, but also daily conscious efforts to expose gender discrimination in art, the media, and mainstream discourse.
But let me get back to testimonies: once I knew what I was looking for, stories of women being asked to do things just because they were “the wife” or women kept jumping at me.
Another close friend of mine works full time ( a Lebanese full time, meaning she has two demanding jobs), is always there to support her family and take care of her son. Her husband, even though he works much less, still eats then gets up without even lifting his little finger. When my friend asked him to mind their son so she get in the shower, he told her, brace yourselves again, that he did not have the patience to do it, that he was tired.
Here my brain starts screaming “I’ll give you tired, you useless piece of humanity”. Naturally, this is the all-public, sweetened, version of the much less polite epithets I mentally gave him. The list could honestly go on, as I seem to be a magnet for stories of incapable husbands and boyfriends who always seem too tired to do anything that resembles a house chore.
Challenging these deeply seated beliefs is a fight, there’s no other word for it, but it’s a necessary one. Power is negotiated both in the public and private spheres: deciding who will do the washing up is indeed a power struggle, the one ending up doing nothing actually becoming the winner, not because it’s some kind of game, but because the one cleaning the toilets can’t read Marx and write articles or relax at the same time. Yesterday I was explaining to a friend why I didn’t like the interpretations that put the blame on the women: some people will say it’s the women’s fault for not asserting themselves, something that is in my opinion partly true. To me, women should lead the struggle against patriarchy, but society as a whole should feel concerned, because being asked to do certain things because you’re a woman, or being seen in a certain way because you’re a woman creates a growing sense of resentment from said women, resentment that destroys the love in relationship and creates very unhappy human beings. Truth is, cleaning toilets is no one’s favourite hobby and certainly no woman’s favorite thing to do. There shouldn’t therefore be an expectation on us to do it all the time. Besides, we shouldn’t be too quick to judge other women who might not appear to yell at their partner with blood shot eyes that if said partners didn’t make the bed, he’d die a slow, painful death. Being quiet about it doesn’t mean they don’t realize they’re being expected to do things just because they’re women. I think they’re just uncomplaining because they don’t see how this whole system can be changed because no one challenges it around them. So they resign, and carry on because it’s easier than risking social disapproval and constant fights at home, when it’s not worse like violence. When I arrived to Lebanon and had my first lunch with my aunt and new husband, said husband ate, then got up and cleared the dishes off the table. My aunt seemed to have an aneurysm and screeched at me :”keef 3am betkhalli y9oum! How do you let him get up and clean up???” as if it was my fault he was a perverted soul who helped a bit at home. The fact that she was expecting me to fling myself at my husband, begging him to let me do it so he wouldn’t have to get up was utter madness. Was she out of her mind?
Then I calmly explain to her that he was not a saint really, that he only cleared a table and that was the minimum he could do, that it was completely normal that we would both do stuff at home, and why should I be the one getting up and clearing up? Did I have something in my female DNA that programmed me to do so?
To which my aunt looked at me, then at her husband and said: nyyellik, your uncle eats, then spreads his considerable self on the couch and calls for his tea.
Fighting sexism in our daily lives is the first of all fights, one that, when is won, is won forever.
I’ll leave you with a most inspirational story that my Kenyan supervisor in my previous job shared with me. In order to teach her husband that he should learn how to cook and clean as she was a most busy woman, she just stopped doing anything. “I’m telling you, she would chuckle, I would leave those pans in the sink forever, I would pick up my dinner and eat in my bed while he d be waiting for his, I kept my nerve, and eventually, he started really sharing chores with me”. I called it the micro general strike, and I loved the idea.
Could I do that? If I m honest, No, I’ m way too anal retentive to leave anything in the sink for more than 2 minutes.
No, I can’t do that, but I m still working on becoming the change I want to see, so I keep fighting gender discrimination in my everyday life, starting from home, even if that means the bed won’t be made exactly how I want it to be. At least it ll be made, and by someone who isn’t me.

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. 


On How I Love my Country (But would not mind changing a thing or two)

… Like

  • How nobody treats you like an accomplished adult woman, no matter what you have achieved, until you’re married and have had your picture published in Prestige. Or Mondanités. Or any of these stupid magazines that scare the hell out of me whenever I’m a at the hairdressers’ in Beirut. Too much Botox kills the Botox (and frankly, is an eyesore)
  • How all women’s attempts at assertiveness are dismissed either by puzzled looks, patronising behaviours or even anger
  • How everyone force feeds you. People, I know you mean nothing but the best, but I’m a grown 26 year old woman who has never been known to starve herself. Take it from me, if I don’t want to eat, you asking me 12000 times is not going to change my mind. At most, it might make me want to push your head in the mjaddara.
  • How you can’t have a moment to yourself without 200 people asking what’s wrong with you. Nothing’s wrong with me except your constant badgering.
  • How EVERYONE meddles in your business, which goes hand in hand with live news updates on what you’re doing and where. Screw Facebook Places, the app’s nothing in front of Lebanese networks, where everybody knows you, your parents, your grandparents, even if you don’t know THEM. By the way who was this boy Tante Laure saw you with on saturday night? huh? huh? huh?
  • How people speak about you as if you were not there. This is especially true at the hairdresser’s, where said hairdresser and apprenti speak above your head. In the words of the great Chandler: “Should I use my invisibility cape to fight crime or evil?”I. Am. Right. Here. People. AND fully aware you’re tired of my difficult hair (which is admittedly black, curly and thick, but I won’t apologise. At least I haven’t burnt it with Keratine and dyed it Baby Blond)
  • How Racism is rife. Filipinos steal, Palestinians should go home (which they’re literally dying to anyway), Sri Lankans are not clean, fair skinned women are prettier than darker skinned ones and the list of prejudices goes on and on. Charles Malek did not sit in that UN Room in 1948 for hours so that his fellow country men and women could ignore and mistreat the Universal Declaration of Human Rights he helped initiate and draft. Make him proud!

I do love Lebanon and the Lebanese to bits, but I don’t think it’s useful to keep throwing us flowers while there are many, many things that just aren’t working in our societies. It does not serve the Lebanon I’m hoping to see.

Just leaving you with the hilarious Maya Zankoul who always knows how to translate my sentiments into intelligent and spot on drawings: http://mayazankoul.com/2009/12/30/quid-pro-quo/