Tales of the Phoenix City – 29

Gaby was watching the ever expanding frame of her friend, taking pictures of her as she moved bare foot on her tiled floor, draped in a large lacy poplin white nightshirt. Nina was looking tired in the Beirut sinking sun, the sweet autumn wind finding its way into the apartment through the half closed green shutters, gently caressing people and furniture, reminding them that there were good reasons to stay, too. In spite of everything. Nina was arranging on her tray the delicious looking fig jam and homemade sweet anise kaak Lily had brought back from the Bekaa valley, pondering if her hunger was greater than the nagging nausea that had plagued her throughout the 36 weeks of her pregnancy.

– Jesus Fucking Christ, for the love of all that is good and holy, how, just tell me how, does your body manage to accommodate that alien in your belly?
Nina smiled patiently. After all, this was a question she kept asking herself, about four hundred times a day.
– Well, I’m not even sure myself. Sometimes I stare at my body in utter wonder, thinking it’s the most perfect, clever thing in the world…
– Please spare us all the hippy talk I am begging you, interrupted Gabrielle, all this hoopla about your body and its abilities yawn yawn yawn
– Ma hek, if you left me finish. So I was saying, sometimes I am amazed by what I can do, and other times I just feel so, well, full, so heavy, and achy, and moody…
– Are you naming the seven dwarves?
– No seriously, that whole pregnancy thing is no walk in the park. I will never understand the women who claim to have never felt better than when they were pregnant. It’s a huge strain on yourself, on your body and emotions, it’s like this tidal wave of change, you don’t recognize yourself. Everything swells to accommodate a person you’re creating, a person you feel jab and poke at your insides and punch and kick you. Sometimes I’d be sitting down and it’s like my bump has already a life of its own, it goes crazy from one side to another. How odd is that? It’s happening to me yet I can’t wrap my head around it.
– Well, you’d better start wrapping your head around it, seeing as you’re giving birth in about four weeks.
– Yeah no, i’m not.
Gaby started and looked up from her objective, trying to assess her friend’s tone.
– You’re not?
– I’m not.
– Okay then. What do you propose will happen? Will you keep that child inside your womb for all eternity, kangaroo style?
– No no,they shall take that child out of me, but I do not plan on ‘giving birth’ and ‘laboring’ and participating or cooperating in any way to the delivery of that baby. I’ll just let modern medicine do what it does best: fix things.
– You scared?
– To fucking death. The pain, Gaby, how does one bear the pain? I hear all that talk by the midwives about how beautiful and manageable everything is through breathing but i’m like, ‘quit lying to me, if breathing magically made the pain go away, women would not beg for epidurals and oxygen and the shit loads of drugs they ask for, half crying’. I’m not gonna lie Gaby, i am seriously wondering about how people deal with the fucking pain. I demand to know.
– Wait, I’ll go back to my extensive experience in giving birth to 14 children. How the fuck do I know? The whole process seems so foreign and remote to me. A bit like China.
– Nina chuckled, trying to get comfortable in her vintage upholstered wicker chair, putting her swollen feet up. Gaby resumed her frantic picture taking.
– May I ask why you’re all over me with your camera? You look like a paparazzi chasing Kim Kardashian.
– Who?
– Never mind. Just stop taking pictures of the sorry mess that I have become. And since we’re on the subject, please stop likening my vagina and its upcoming torture to China.
– Oh for fuck’s sake, can we please stop with the whole pity party? I am told many, many women have done what you’re about to do before. Apparently it’s even very probable that your body will know what to do by itself. So breathe. Didn’t they teach you anything in that drab, God forsaken prenatal classes of yours? Grace came with you and she bored me into a proper stupor with talk of dilatation and effacement and perineum and pushing and ‘managing the pain’ by breathing and whatnots. Seriously, if you could handle the pain of the preparation to the whole ordeal, you’ll do just fine at the event itself. Oh and by the by, I take pictures because you’ve never been so beautiful and I want to frame a couple of those for your child to see how perfect her mother was while carrying her.
– I didn’t know you were such a thoughtful, kind poet.
– Well, there I fucking go, the sensitivity of Verlaine trapped in the body of Patti Smith
Nina planted her eyes in her friends’. The intense gaze rattled Gaby, who stopped being flippant and held Nina’s gaze with the same intensity and gravity. Now was not the time for jokes.
– Seriously, Gabrielle. What am I doing? Did you see the state of the country and the world I am bringing that child in? Am I doing the ultimate selfish thing? I don’t really care about my child not really having a ‘father’ figure…
– Yes she will, she’ll have me!
– Seriously, ‘father figure’ simply doesn’t mean anything anyway, except maybe patriarchal oppressor. But I feel like I am under so much pressure. My body is definitely not my own anymore, by nature’s design and by people’s will, by the constant stream of ‘well wishers’, telling me I should give birth without medication, telling me I should breastfeed because it’s better, and don’t even get me started on all the parenting advice perfect strangers are showering on me. Sometimes i just feel like escaping but It’s like I’m stuck. I just would like to be able to claim my life and body back, but people are trying to sell to me the sacrificing, long suffering mother stereotype as the ultimate and best mother figure that could ever exist and I just don’t want this for myself, and i don’t want my child growing up thinking it’s ok and normal to be a slave to motherhood.
– Your tangled web of questions has confused me,not the least because i think, of all your organs, the most fucked up as of now, is your brain. Since when did you start caring about what people say? Seriously, you’ve been renting your body for the past nine months, bloody do what you want to do with it when it’s over. You’ve always been your own person, I don’t see why that should change. Raise your child the way you want to, telling her what you think is right and then let her make her own experiences. The way I see it, just let people’s remarks and comments slide off your back and carry on.
– You know, you’re a good cheerleader…
Gabrielle saw where this was going.
– No, please, no
– And as a good cheerleader and my best friend, I’d like you to come with me the day I give birth
– OOooh for fuck’s sake, Jesus Fucking Christ, no, fuck, no, don’t do this to me, Jesus, no, can you imagine me with the blood and the cutting of things, and the whole butchering, no, I’ll probably be taking pictures for my gore collection instead of helping you anyway, seriously, take Grace, she’s strong and responsible and lovely and has been to the classes, or Lily, she’ll sing hippy welcoming songs to your child, don’t take me, please
– I want you. You won’t let them bullshit me when i’m vulnerable.
– But
– I want you. Gabrielle, will you be my ‘birthing partner’?
– Oh Jesus Fucking Christ, yes i will but don’t ever, ever refer to me again as birthing partner. Ever.
– Good, said Nina, closing her eyes and relaxing. You were not hard to convince after all.
– I feel like i’ve been manipulated in some way, mumbled Gabrielle, fixing her filter yet again. Fuck.

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Tales of the Phoenix City – Chapter 28

Lily loved the atmosphere at Em Nazih.
She’d come in the afternoons, when the hustle bustle of Beirut was kept to a minimum, shielded from the craziness by the small stone terrace tucked away in a tiny alley off Gemmayzeh.
She came to write in peace, the soft humming of the distant noise rocking her into concentration, her thoughts and agile fingers on her keyboard only interrupted by the sweet clinking of glasses and arguileh being cleaned. She felt at home, working away and taking her time to talk to Ali, one of the staff members, or with one of the daughters of the owners who taught Arabic to the plethora of alternative youth and possible secret services undercovers calling Beirut home for about three months. Rana, Nada and Nivine were all equally delightful and funny and Lily relished the moments she spent with them, all the while stuffing her face with the delicious batata harra made by their mother. The spices and coriander tickled her tongue while she laughed at Nivine’s latest tale of her pupils who often seemed puzzled to say the least by Lebanon in general and Beirut in particular. During these moments, she always felt incredibly lucky to live here, flaws and all. She had started to train herself in seeing beauty in the littlest things and it hit her hard just how much beauty there was going around.
Em Nazih’s tenants and patrons were a mix of Lebanese taking a breather from a city that could be overwhelming at the best of times and Western and Arab tourists and students learning Arabic and getting to know a country they only knew through the vilifying lens of their media back home. The bewildered looks on their face showed just how much they had trouble processing the clash between representation and reality. Em Nazih’s crowd was a melting pot of artists, secret agents, declared and underground revolutionaries, students, researchers, tourists, family and friends of the owners and staff. It was a place where good food met serious whispers, where laughter died in the fragrant smoke of the Arageel and where the cries of triumph of lucky backgammon players melted away in the frenetic honking that was Beirut’s regular soundtrack.

However, Lily had no time today to enjoy the peaceful atmosphere. Today, she was writing a piece on a new young woman author whom Gabrielle knew through her gazillion networks. The author had just launched her latest novel which dealt with two women in Aleppo trying to forget their damaged past and forge a future for themselves (these feminists, thought Lily, you can’t ask them the time of day without them writing a novel on women’s paths and oppression and stereotyping and whatnots). She had enjoyed the book nonetheless, and thought featuring the author in her column along with a photoshoot by Gabrielle could make a nice little piece.

And so there she was, taking notes for her article while Gaby’s voice in the back garden resonated against the stone walls. Grace was also there to assist Gabrielle, and perhaps, just perhaps, to soften the blow that could be Gabrielle’s personality. Poor little author.
Except the author seemed to be taking a great liking in Gaby, sharing the same vision as her friend and furthering her suggestions.

– Right, sit down in front of this door! Great, show me your hand with the rings! Grace, habibi, where is the cherry lip gloss? We could really work with some colors here!

Lily watched as the author put on more make up. Gabrielle really had a good eye: the author was wearing a deep mint green midi dress with matching green open toed ballet flats adorned with golden butterflies, topped with a lavender belt. The deep pink lipstick made her black eyes and hair stand out. Gaby had her pose in front of a pinkish door, her back to a weather beaten wall. The overall effect was urban, a tad melancholic and romantic with an edge, which suited the atmosphere of her book just fine.

– Tayb, now try and climb on this ledge.
The author’s eyebrows went up to her hairline.
– Listen Gaby, I do not climb ledges. As a matter of fact, I am not known for my climbing, or for my motor skills for that matters, so excuse me, but I think I will not go anywhere near that ledge.
Gabrielle looked a little discomfited while Lily and Grace stifled a laugh. Gaby didn’t seem to know what to do with this highly unusual opposition. A look to Grace who was busying herself with the make up bag to mask her hilarity had her frown, then laugh as well.

– Fine, no ledge. Jesus Fucking Christ, I hate divas. Yalla, sit down in front of this derelict door and turn your head this way!
– Much obliged, piped the author with a playful smile.

Lily was enjoying this column more than she had thought. The clicking of Gabrielle’s camera to her back, she started gathering the notes of her earlier interview with the author, making it into a coherent, witty and informative text. At some point, she had asked the author if she, like one of her characters, had a way too keep on fighting when life threw hardships at her. The author had this quirky response Lily had not paid attention to before.

Yes I do. It’s going to sound supremely stupid and cheesy, but it helps me nonetheless. When I feel like I can’t cope with life anymore, I shake myself and ask myself ‘what would Beyonce do?’. Seriously, can you imagine this woman being depressed or taking crap from anything or anyone? She’d sass them into oblivion. Now as a feminist, I see clearly how she participates to an industry that oppresses women in many ways but regardless of that. She exudes force and control and just sheer vibe of life. So I instantly picture myself like Beyonce in an impossible headdress, sky-scrapers heels clicking away as I pound the floor looking at life and shaking my head like ‘Oh no no no, this ain’t how it’s going to happen’. And yes I feel better’.

Writing this, Lily paused and took a sip of her Turkish coffee.

What would Beyonce do?
Huh.

Tales of the Phoenix City – Chapter 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 – Chapter 22

 

 

We forget, she said. That’s our problem, we lure ourselves into thinking we’re leading perfectly normal lives, we do it so well, we forget we’re standing on red hot lava, threatening to drown us at any given moment.

 

The pile was betting taller and bigger. Another suitcase was needed. Nina gestured to Lili to bring her the blue one with the encrusted copper embellishment. Below, Ziad was at the dekken, buying primary necessity supplies, getting diapers and toothbrushes, his cheeks a bit flushed when getting lady pads.

 

Nina was leading the operations from her armchair. The blast had been so violent and unexpected, she had started bleeding and almost lost the baby she wasn’t so sure she wanted to keep. Although now she was. Feeling the warm, thick liquid running down her legs and the panic that followed were enough signs that she wanted this child, no matter what. She just had to inform the father. Which would have to wait.

 

Someone buried behind several stores of groceries who appeared to be Ziad entered her flat, followed closely by Hamdi from the dekken who was lending a hand. Lily was sorting out clothes, Gabrielle was organizing food and toiletries,  Ziad was running errands and Nina was barking at the TV and orders to her audience, not necessarily in that order.

 

– Shut the fuck up! Can someone please, please kill me now? Someone, anyone!

– Well if you keep yelling like that at everyone, it shouldn’t be too difficult to find someone to volunteer putting you out of your misery, and ours.

 

Gabrielle had been shocked into a stupor by the attack and the shootings, burning of tyres and cheap political manipulation that followed, as if they had taken all of Lebanon’s magic and sweetness with the flick of a detonator.

They had all tried contacting each other, running around like mad cows everywhere, trying to get reception. Lili had been in bed with Ziad, the intensity of their physical relation only rivaled by the distance filled with things left unsaid between us. What they could not say in words, they put in sex, tearing each other apart to try and find the meaning of what they felt, of who they were, and who they could be. Nina’s voice bearing the horrible news stopped everything around them, as if the crumbling of buildings in Ashrafieh was mirrored in the crumbling of their very souls. Lily had cried and cried and cried, over the fragility of life anywhere in general and in Lebanon in particular, over the ever elusive nature of what we foolishly take for granted.

 

Ziad took a look at her and he knew. But it would have to wait, too.

 

Grace had taken the news with the quiet strength that came upon her whenever the crisis was so severe she considered she had no other choice. She put on a coat, and went to cook for people. For the survivors, for the volunteers of Ashrafieh for All, for anyone who needed something warm in their stomachs to take the horrible feelings of pain, loss, grieving and despair away. Gabrielle had taken off to give blood, her O+ group being so highly requested.

 

They had all watched on Sunday the funeral of Wissam Al Hassan, and had all threatened to break the TV when March 14 thugs came on storming the Serail, when Nadime Koteich decided his despicable moment of fame had come. A various chorus of ‘Fuck me!’ ‘Fuck you shut up you stupid fuck!’ and other flattering epithets were thrown at the various dirty corrupted politicians who egged their followers towards violence and hatred. When Saad el Hariri came on urging for peace and calm, Lili started laughing uncontrollably, seriously verging on a nervous breakdown and had to be taken out and given water by the others so she could come to her senses.

 

Now they felt like the blood of the martyrs was theirs, that with each deaths and injuries, veins and arteries of Beirut and of the whole of Lebanon had been cut out too, and the hemorrhage would be difficult to quell. Beirut was bleeding heavily and it came to a point where watching her agonize reached intolerable levels of pain.

 

This is when Nina slammed her hand on her table, making cutlery rattle and her neighbour start.

– Wake up! Wake up! What’s wrong with you? Move, yalla, get a move on, let’s go help.

 

And so they had gone. Yasmine, Nina, Lily, Gabrielle, Grace and Ziad, soon followed by their friends, families and acquaintances. They went to Nasawiya to gather food and supplies, they had gone to help. While the political evils were hiding behind their shades of cowardice and calculations, trying to get a vote here and there, a death here and there, curiously oblivious of all the hatred and contempt they inspired to the population, they, the youth of Lebanon, rolled up their sleeves and got to work.

 

For Georgette and Jana and for all the victims of the insanity of conflict and war.

For themselves, to keep ice cold fear at bay and the scraps of normality they still retained.

For the injured, the neglected, the outcasts.

 

But mostly, because there was no other choice. Life, in all its terrifying simplicity, had to go on.

 

Nina, sitting in a corner, was sewing white blouses.

–       For the white march tomorrow, she answered to those who asked. For we’re marching, as Beirut has always done, we’re marching.

 

 

Tales of The Phoenix City – Chapter 21

The door remained stubbornly closed.

– Nina! Nina open that door! I know you’re in there! You’re not a Prima Donna before a representation!

The lock bolted and he was faced with the blotched, reddish, disheveled face of his sister.

– Ok, now you’re going to tell me why you’ve been avoiding me this way. Is it because of Lily, who, by the way, is ignoring me as well? What’s wrong with you, you’ve never done that to me before.

Nina banged the glass of ginger tea she had been drinking on the wooden table.

– Ziad! Contrary to everything you seem to believe, the world doesn’t revolve around your little person! Neither me nor Lily have given you much thought lately to be honest. Pardon us for having lives besides of you.

The harsh tone shocked him. Nina had almost never snapped at him: she teased him, made fun of him, laughed at him and scolded him, but was never grumpy and snappy, deliberately pushing him out of her world. They were as close as siblings could be, Ziad sometimes composing music for Nina’s shows, each other being the recipients of their own innermost secrets. His sister’s silence hurt and alarmed him at the same time. What could be so wrong that she would hide away from him? What had happened to her?

– Well, that’s always nice to hear anyway. So what’s your excuse for pretending you’re an only child?

Nina winced at the mere word. Child. A Child. Jesus, was she going to be a mother?

Ziad saw his sister blanch and proceeded to panic in due form.

– Khalas, that’s enough! You’re pale. You’re elusive. Your answers are vague. You’ve been avoiding me. What is wrong with you? Nina! It’s me! Your brother, Ziad, me! I know I haven’t been perfect and always available to you lately, but I’m still, well, me! What’s up?

Suddenly Nina felt very weary, as if all the fight had gone out from her. She had felt immensely tired lately, making her bless the day she had hired Yasmine as a PR/ assistant as she was the one making the workshop run.

She plonked herself on her beloved club armchair with a sigh and started crying. Ziad, always the last person to know how to react when faced with tears, let his panic levels shoot out of the roof.

 – You’re sick? Are you sick? You’re sick! I know it! What’s wrong with you, what, is it cancer? Is it? I told you to go and do all the tests you were supposed to take! But did you listen? Nooooo Miss Nina Haddad never ever listens to anyone! And what am I supposed to do then? Huh? Mom is in Canada at Auntie Rania’s, so I can’t even summon her here. She’s always been right of course, you’re so stubborn it’s not even funny. And, it’s too hot in your flat, just open a fucking window will you, it’s like the fucking House of Usher in here.

Nina took a look at her brother’s worried face, waving and gesturing frantically in her small apartment and felt a sudden urge to laugh.

Outside, the night had started to fall. The sun had begun its descent towards the sea, plummeting in the deep blues and greens as if for a kiss. It was one of these common yet ever so graceful Beirut sunset, all sanguine oranges and pink hues, the sky inflamed with blood against the icy blue of the water. The view worked its magic and helped her calm down a bit. Very softly, almost as a whisper, she asked Ziad to sit down, showing him an empty pouf in front of her. Rather, he sat down at her feet, his big black eyes humid with worry, looking up at her, his gaze never letting go of her face. My beloved brother, she thought. Like this, he almost looked like her baby brother again, the same that had so violently rebelled against their father’s death, not understanding it, not wanting to accept it. Then again, it was not possibly human to ask a fifteen year old to accept serenely that he won’t grow up with his father by his side.

Oh Baba. He was yet another victim of 15 years of civil war: he might not have been shot by a bullet, he might not have been executed, but the years in the shelter, worrying over his family, trying to make them survive in the mess and horror had taken their toll on him, weakening his heart until one day, at 53, it just stopped working. He had dropped by his sisters, brought them labneh and cheese, came home and dropped dead on the couch. And that was it, really. The tears and the cries and the frantic calls to the ambulance were all drowned in a blurry mix in her memory. Only one thought had hung on: she was not to see her father again.

And now she was pregnant with a child she was not so sure she’d want to keep.

 – I’m pregant.

– I swear, for a second, my heart stopped beating.

– Yeah well, make it work again, and listen to me. I’m pregnant, it’s still early stages, I’m completely freaked out, haven’t told the father yet, he too keeps calling me and knocking on my door and I pretend not to be home.

– Who IS the father?

– You’re not gonna like it.

– Because I’m liking the rest?

– Do you remember that guy who came about three months ago, asking to potentially buy Nina Haddad Creations and split the shares?

– That God-awful capitalist?

– That God-awful capitalist.

– Well apparently I don’t have such a problem with capitalists, as I seem to go out for coffees with them, then lunch, then dinners, then to bed, then to carry their children, then looking for hospitals to have an abortion.

Ziad looked up at Nina, at her distressed face.

– Nina. It’s gonna be ok. It’ll be ok. I’m here. Your crazy friends are here.

– You bet we are, hollered a voice, banging the door open. Well, if this isn’t the AntiChrist.

Nina lowered herself down to Ziad: remind me to take my spare key from Gabrielle.

– Jesus Fucking Christ, you think Beiruti Princess doesn’t have one? She’ll give it to me.

– No I won’t.

– Yes you will.

Grace hugged Nina fiercely and dropped a lemon pie on her lap.

– Gabrielle, stop swearing and bring napkins. We have decisions to take.

Nina couldn’t decide if it were the situation, or the hormones, or her friends’ kindness, but soon she was in tears again.

– Oh for fuck’s sake. Easy there waterworks!

Tales of the Phoenix City – Chapter 19

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tales of the Phoenix City – Chapter 18

The noise was getting stronger as she drew nearer to the entrance. From afar, It seemed like there was a fair amount of bumping and thumping and rattling being made, which slightly alarmed her. She quickened her pace. As usual, there was no electricity so she had to run up the three flights of stairs that separated her from the mayhem. 

She found Grace in the kitchen, flour up her lovely aquiline nose, crying into her signature orange blossom water and pistachio baclava while a cake was being baked, filling the kitchen with a delicious chocolate smell, screaming insults at the TV. 

Gabrielle knew something was extremely wrong. Grace almost never screamed, let alone cry, especially when she was cooking, which was basically the time where she felt the happiest. Gabrielle sighed. As much as she loved Grace, today was not the day for more drama. She had spent the previous evening helping nurse the Beiruti Princess’s heart and shattered life, and had spent the whole day working with Ali and Ghassan on her upcoming exhibition. The quiet peaceful evening with her beloved, followed by some work on Lili’s book project seem to disintegrate before her eyes. 

– Wou kess ekhtkon, you stupid fuckers, you bajam! 

– Grace? Habibti? Care to tell me why All hell has broken lose in our home? 

– Didn’t you hear? There have been more arrests of men “suspected of sodomy”! Look! Look! 

Grace was motioning rather manically to the shining box before them, where an over made up ageless and emotion less woman was delivering the news. 

Gabrielle blanched. As if the 36 men arrested in that Burj Hammoud cinema were not enough. As if Joe Maalouf’s hypocritical moral so called high ground was not enough. As if virginity tests and anal tests were not enough. As if torture and harassment had become so random and normalized a plastic bitch could afford to announce them on the eight o’clock news without as much as batting an eyelash.

Grace was blowing her nose noisily. Gabrielle felt she was swimming in lead, in deep, dark, heavy waters that threaten to swallow her whole. She couldn’t breathe. Anger, frustration, humiliation and pure, unadulterated, white hot hatred for an establishment that allowed for this to happen were bubbling in her heart and mind, threatening to make her implode. She suddenly remembered the words of a Syrian gay friend of hers: I love my country, but my country doesn’t love me.

This is how she felt, except that the love she once held for said country was dangerously being jeopardized by stories like this, by the guilty silence of everyone when it came to respect each others’ rights, by the over indulgence warlords turned ‘respectable’ political figures benefited from.

The disgust was too much.

Grace was on a mission: contrary to Gabrielle, she knew what to make of her emotions so they were never on the brink of swallowing her and hurting her.

– Can you believe it? Thugs roaming the country, each family getting their weapons and applying their own brand of the law! Kidnappings! Blackmailing! Catastrophic economic situation! Nobody has any rights, workers need to shut up otherwise they unleash more thugs on them while the general security turns a fucking blind eye! No electricity, no public service, no order no nothing, yet they spend hours and resources chasing up gay men, violating more people! Khalas! Khalas Gabrielle, I can’t take it any more!

Gabrielle was rendered speechless by the shrill screams of her lover. She knew what Grace meant. In Lebanon, as things were and seemed to be shaping up, they could never have the lives they’d want: they would have to carry on with the lies they were feeding everyone. Grace and Gabrielle could never share with the people they loved the most, their parents and families, that they were in love, that they made each other happier than they could have ever hoped to be.

They would have to pretend they were each others’ roommates, to protect everyone except themselves, to respect the tacit contract of not rocking everyone’s boat. They would have to respect the ever sacred Code of Appearances. Sometimes they used to think that it was the same for everyone: after all their straight friends had to pretend they were virgins and lied too when they pretended they were “sleeping over at a friends’ house”. However, the recent events had illustrated the fundamental differences: their straight friends could get married, they could have children, theirs was a union society celebrated, while Gabrielle and Grace would never be able to do so, even if they had wished to.

The fact that they did not particularly wanted to get married and were unsure about having children was irrelevant: they too, deserved to have that choice, just like everybody else.

So what do you propose we do?

Gabrielle did not recognize her own voice. Were these deep, choked up vowels really hers? It seemed like she had gotten too comfortable lately: her parents had been traveling so she could spend as much time as she wanted with whomever she pleased without that nagging feeling of guilt she felt sometimes when they were there, as if she should always spend more time with them. Her job and projects were going well, and she had convinced herself that even though archaic laws were still in place in Lebanon, they were seldom being applied. The recent events had proved her wrong: she still lived in an intolerant, homophobic, classist society.

Grace looked at her.

We leave.

Gabrielle did not know if that were possible, but suddenly it seemed her insides had turned into a crumbling building in the midst of an earthquake. How impossibly cruel, that one should disintegrate after hearing two words.

Tales of the Phoenix City – Chapter 15

Lily’s project was simple.
It came to her as she was forever writing about style and fashion and things that seemed strangely unimportant at times of crisis, yet that magically operated on people no matter what, even more so in volatile times, as if the height of a heel was the best saving board one could hope for.
It puzzled her, but she did not judge. She seldom judged anyone anyway and belonged to the “If it makes you happy, then frankly my dear, I don’t give much of another fuck”.
Of course, those were the words of Gabrielle. Lily liked to call it “the live and let live” motto, which amounted to pretty much the same thing, minus her friend’s colorful language.
She had hung up on Ziad. A knee-jerk reaction which reeked of drama, as bluntly put by Nina who was once more her normal self, her bout of Baudelairesque spleen long gone. So Lily hung up on Ziad, took her purse like an automaton,and had made it straight to Nina’s workshop.
– La2! La2 Monsieur Antoine! No no no no no no! I specifically requested the Calais lace, and what you have given me is an insult to your house and my dresses! Perfectly so! Yes! I do not recall to have asked for mock-lace in nylon coming straight from a Manila sweatshop. This isn’t what I want and I’m returning them to you and if you prove once more unable to procure me the fabric I request, then I shall switch suppliers! Yes, you heard me! Yes, that’s right, make it express delivery, with a complimentary peonies bouquet! Yes Monsieur Antoine, I do love peonies.

Lily was miserably standing in the middle of the workshop, blankly staring at her fulminating friend, her eyes a little pink. She looked like a rabbit in a hole.

– What’s with you? You look like a rabbit in a hole!

Nina appeared most definitely all revved up.
Lily looked as if she were made of stone.

– Ok habibti, you take your own sweet time and root yourself to the middle of my space while I busy myself throwing away useless fabric and make us some tea.

Nina banged and plonked and slammed and jammed things unto stoves and pots and saucers. Evidently Monsieur Antoine was getting a little old and a little mixed up with Nina’s orders, something life threatening enough at the best of times without throwing in the mix a statute of a friend and shambles of a country.

Lily came to.

– I have hung up on your brother…
– So what else is new?
– And, carried on Lily,ignoring her friend’s sarcastic comment, he said he was an animal and his voice seemed to tell me he still loved me and I hung up.

Nina froze and seemed to try to get her head around that last statement. She also looked like she was trying to muster the very little patience she still had. She put her palm up in the air in a gesture signaling to Lily that she was not to talk.

– So let me get this straight: you love Ziad.
– Yes
– Ziad loves you, even though you broke up over his never ending questions and drama, although frankly, I’m seeing quite a bit of drama here but anyway.
– Yes
– You cry and you kick and you bore us to death with my brother, and when he calls you, you don’t hear what he has to say, you hang up on him and you make it straight to here.
– Yes
– Lily. Nina drew a breath. Lily. What. The. Fuck. Is. Wrong. With.You and my stupid brother? No, no, you listen to me now. I’m not saying you have to run back to him, all open eyes and dewy eyes and Celine Dion singing in the background, but you have been tossing and turning torturing yourself for hours on end, and an explanation coming from him might not have hurt. In any case, there is no point now telling you this, call him back.
– I don’t have his number
– It’s not nice to lie to your friends as we both know you know it by heart and you of course know I have it.
– No but Nina, what would I say to him?
– How about, errr what do you want from me now, stop jerking me around and make up your mind once and for all so that I can stop being such a wreck?
– Your temper is very short today Nina, stated Lily a bit startled. That behaviour was mostly out of character for her normally poised friend.
– Yeah well what do you know, I might have taken a Gabrielle pill, or maybe Lebanon is turning me into the fighter I should always have been.
Now call!
The Bakelite antique seemed to look at Lily with a threatening stare. Sighing, she picked the receiver.

Tales of the Phoenix City – chapter 13

The city was her haven, the slabs of concrete felt moist and tender beneath her feet, the piercing noises of every day life were the perfect symphony to her dreams. Gabrielle had taken to ramble through the streets whenever the political climate felt unstable and volatile, acting just the opposite of what everyone was doing. Instead of retreating home, she confronted the insecurity heads on, with the suicidal bravado of fools and heroes, going further deep within herself rather than within the closed four walls of a womb-like house where the feeling of safety was nothing more than an illusion. Thanks to the living hell that was her home when she was growing up, she knew full well that sometimes, houses and bricks can be the shield behind which oppressors operate. Her childhood house still haunted her to this day, and she knew very well that even people who knew her inside and out and since forever could not really understand what had happened there to leave such an imprint on her. In truth, no one had ever heard screams coming out from the cream colored rooms of her youth, her mother never had to invent some far-fetched story to explain blues and bruises. There was no open, visible case of violence to study.
But the violence was there, ensconced in the silence, in the tension of her two parents waging each other a mute war of wills, in the repressed movements of anger from her father, in his demeaning demeanor, in his outright indifference to his children. The violence was there in her mother’s Valium, in her sighs, in her elegant ennui, in her short temper and in her glaring unhappiness. Gabrielle had spent her childhood years trying to dodge imaginary and real bullets, not knowing where to turn, torn between the out in the open conflict outside of her doors and the war that wouldn’t tell its name within them. She had started taking pictures of everything she saw when she was thirteen even though she could not always have them developed because of the bombings, when the need to do something with her own skin got too scalding hot, turning to taking photos of herself and her body so that she could create a stare, an external pair of eyes through the camera, to mirror who she was, as no one around her seemed to be bothered. The old Leica soon became her best friend and the witness of an adolescent’s changing body, a change Gabrielle was very careful not to welcome by keeping extra slim. If becoming a woman meant becoming her mother, she’s pass on all the kebbe in the world.

At the time, she used to think it was either that or turning to drugs.

Thankfully, she grew up, and left this house of despair. She had now manage to create a safe golden peaceful home of her own that smelt of the delicious recipes of her lover, filling the walls with cinnamon, sugar and honey, replacing the acrid smell of tensions: however, the hint of the feeling of claustrophobia remained and was hard to shake.

As much as she loved Grace, she still had times where she could only bear being outside, by herself, something her partner understood and never questioned. She would leave early in the morning, her satchel safely strapped across her shoulder, her camera completing her hand, her phone switched to silent.
She entrusted the city with her head, and pleaded with Beirut to replace the racing thoughts and worries with bits and pieces of beauty gleaned here and there.
– Bonjour habibi!
Abou Brahim, her lovely neighbour who kept watch of everything happening in their alley, always greeted her in this French fashion, no matter how many times she would answer a hearty Marhaba Abou Brahim. A 3arouss picon in one hand, he would then proceed with asking her how she was, also in French, as if to demonstrate his various skills.
Gaby had shot him many times over, the fine lines on his worn out face the map of loss, pain and joy that had happened to the country, his droopy eyes always twinkling. Abou Brahim seemed to be always living in a state of perpetual relief, as if he felt happy and content since 1990, while Gaby, when she was in her exploratory moods, seemed unable to project herself in anything else than a dark pit of more conflict.

Which, in all fairness, was not far from reality, the way things were going.

Roaming the streets, she descended in her own self, her sharp trained eyes spotting every scenes, worried expressions of mothers going about their business, their joyful children hip hopping behind them, pensive, serious faces of older men reading the newspapers with the look of people smelling trouble a-coming. She tried capturing the essence of her Beirut, if in fact it even existed, as she seemed to doubt it lately. What if Beirut was nothing more than a mosaic of realities never colliding with one another? Until now, she had always pictured her beloved city as layers: the shiny, outrageous, in your face bling of the nouveaux riches downing Cristal while shaking fake breasts in front of an overweight Saudi being the first thing people and tourists would notice, with real, Beiruti people trying to make ends meet by working 14 hours a day on dire conditions, several layers below.

She had come to learn, through her lens, than reality was much, much more complex.

Losing herself in the graffitis adorning the walls of her city, passing the Phat and Ashekman art, walking further up to Hamra street, she noticed a tiny one hidden next to a parking lot, close to the Dunkin Donuts. She bent down closer and magnified it.

It read: if graffiti was useful, it would be illegal.

Pondering on this statement, and intrigued, she carried on, the smog of the outdated cars engulfing her lovingly in their cancerous mist.

Melancholy, that old friend, held her in her grip, and Beirut herself seemed so sad and lost, she could not do anything for her.

– habibti, there can’t be to Weeping Willows within your walls, one of us has to cheer up.