Tales of the Phoenix City – Chapter 14

The boat was a bit rocky, the crowd, a mix of citizens going about their usual business and tourists exploring the city, all smiles, the flashes of their camera creating memories they will replay on rainy days to cheer them up.
Amongst them, a tall, skinny, dark haired man bearing an air of deep ennui. Ziad had spent a bitter sweet ten days, torn between discovering Istanbul and marveling at every little corner and the continual anxiety he felt for Lebanon and his friends and family upon hearing news that did not bode well.
By that time, he felt he was a Master at existential angst: come on over, Jean-Paul Sartre, and I’ll give you a run for your money. Thinking of Jean-Paul Sartre, he thought of Jean-Sol Partre, the imaginary alter ego of the famous philosopher imagined by Boris Vian, which invariably lead him to think of that terribly cruelly beautiful novel, l’Ecume des Jours, a love story so funnily painful Ziad felt he bled a little each time the read it.
Not that he would ever admit it: after all, he had a reputation to live up to, a hard shell to sustain. The musician in him tended to lend a specific song to each of this reaction and life events, and he sometimes felt he needed the “You’re so Vain” treatment.

His hotel bore the delightful name of Anemon and was located at the feet of the Galata Tower, in a lively neighborhood called Beyoglu. Every morning, Ziad forced himself out of the plush bed and dragged his lead body to the roof top terrace overlooking the city, where he could have his strong, black Turkish Coffee while watching boats passing by on the Bosphorus. He had a unique view on the Blue Mosque and the Agha Sophia, while he for once allowed his mind to wander at the slow rhythm of the boats before him.
At first, he thought his looming depression would keep him pinned to his bed and that he would only get up to open and raid his mini bar, but Istanbul, just like his beloved Beirut, seemed to have a mind of her own and not bend to anyone’s will, rather making people abide by her rules.
So on he went, slowly at first, exploring the neighborhood and going as far as the Istiklal Caddesi, where he sustained himself on Mante and Cimit, then realizing he was actually enjoying himself and pretty soon, started walking around everywhere. Down from Beyoglu, passing the little Turkish designers boutiques and buying a green jacket for Nina, sure that the cut and fabric would pass her almost unattainable standards, to the Galata bridge, where he actually stayed for almost a day, talking to fishermen and fishmongers, lost in the deep Turquoise shade of the sea, to Eminonu, where the violent colors of boats and ferries waiting for their passengers cheered him up to no end.

Upon crossing the Galata bridge, he was faced with the exquisite beauty of the “new mosque”, that was nonetheless several centuries old, the multi-dome architecture making him think of a slate blue wedding cake.

On and on he walked, and each of his steps screamed and ached for Lily. He wanted to show her the little streets he had discovered off Istiklal Street, an incongruous path made of restaurants and bars, with colorful lanterns giving it a warm redish glow. He wanted her to be there when he improvised a mini concert in one of the restaurants with local musicians. He wanted to make love to her in the pink Istanbul dawn, he wanted to wake up with her rolling her hair around his fingers, the out of key voice of Bob Dylan singing that there was music in the cafes at night and revolution in the air. He wanted not only to be tangled up in Blue, he wanted to be tangled up in the blue of her eyes. He wanted to be stupid and romantic and in love.

When the sad news of death and destruction in Tripoli and Beirut came on his TV and in his newspapers, he had rushed to the phone, only to be greeted by the disheartened voice of Nina:
– We’re all ok habibi, don’t worry about us and have fun in Istanbul.
If Nina was calling him habibi without a hint of irony and if she did not nake fun of him or scold him for one thing or another, then something had to be very, very wrong.

He pondered on calling Lily. You know, just to make sure she was fine and ask her to look after his sister. For once, he kind of had a good reason to actually call her.
But his courage failed him, and rather, he had organized a teleconference on Skype with his political alliance to decide which position to adopt. The comrades had organized a candle light vigil to signify that they were firmly standing against the oppression of war, an event that was sparsely attended. Nevermind, he thought, better small attendance than not organizing anything, even if there is three of us, it’s better to show we are there, we exist, us the opposition to the whole system.

He knew Lily must have gone to the vigil, he knew she was as concerned as he was, and suddenly, he asked himself if she hadn’t been right from the beginning. When they broke up, she had told him it would be easier if they stuck together, united in love and in principles, but he felt as if she were an added responsibility at a time where he was arrogant enough to think he had the Revolution, capital R, to think of, and blind enough to miss the fact that it would indeed be easier to share his worries and thoughts with her. She’s so clever and you’re such an animal,he admonished himself. 7ayawein, 7ayaweinm he kept echoing in his mind, God but I’m a little fucker.

The phone kept on ringing, his heart beating to its rhythm.
There a click, a pause, then a caramel like voice answered: hello?
A gulp.
An intake of breath.
A plunge taken.
“Lily.”
A pause.
” I’m a 7ayawein”.

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Tales of the Phoenix City, Chapter 11

Airport halls are all the same. Rows of humans treated like cattle, trying to bear the excruciating tedium that is waiting in line for an hour behind families of screaming children, haggard travelers harassed from waking up at the break of dawn to catch a flight schedule at an ungodly hour, excitement and laughters, a condensed sample of humanity stocked up under the same roof while waiting to be shipped someplace again.
Ziad could see all of this, and yet, couldn’t bring himself to feel part of any of it. He had become increasingly private these days, even more so than his naturally shy disposition. He sat for hours on ends, chain smoking,a medical note having absolved him from going to work, a burn out, they said, thinking about what is it that he wanted to do, and who he wanted to be, in his life. A whirlwind of questions tormented him. Outside, Beirut seemed to mute her usually buoyant self to allow the rickety racket of his thoughts bumping against one another. He often missed the delicious hour of dusk, realizing he had forgotten to eat at dawn, while the pomegranate sun drenched the concrete city in its ray of velvety, lava-like sunshine.
His sister had schedule an intervention.
Nina seemed very fond of interventions these days, and very worried about his disheveled state.
She was the one to blame for his mere presence at the airport.
“if you don’t book a vacation, I’ll tell Mom. It’ll upset her so much, knowing you all depressed, she’ll keep calling you all day everyday to make sure you’re not slashing your wrists somewhere in a dark corner, and next thing you know, you’ll be begging me to put a stop to it”.
Another thing Nina was very fond of was guilt-tripping, a trait inherited from their upbringing that his sister had perfected into art.
And so he went ahead and booked his ticket, choosing Istanbul, not really knowing why, hoping perhaps that the energy of the city would supply him with a renewed dose of optimism.
Waiting at the gate, his eyes shut from the mayhem of children and tired mothers around him , he allowed his mind to wander to Lili. Her hair, that delicious golden mane in which his fingers ran so freely not so long ago, her silky smooth skin, the three freckles she had on her shoulders, surprisingly mirroring his own trio of beauty marks at the exact same spot. Her quirky way of seeing the world, her slender fingers typing away on her computer, that hypnotic concentrated air she had when she was working on a story, her nose ruffled and her eyebrows knotted, her whole faced expressing intense thinking and reflection to find the right words, the right turn of phrase.
The longing for her was excruciating, and he asked himself for the umpteenth time if he had made the right decision, leaving her high and dry when things were getting serious.
Ziad had always fancied himself as some kind of bohemian, ready to pack his bags in under a second to participate to a Marxist conference, eager to take his guitar and stay up late until the little hours of the morning, smoking and composing, talking late into the night with the city that was his main inspiration, blessed by the semi silence of darkness. He was happy walking around everywhere, talking to idle people, taking pictures of everything and everyone, pictures that now adorned every inch of his apartment in a shabby building of Caracas. When Lili, serious, poised, strong-willed in a kind of quiet way Lili tumbled into his life, part of him wanted to run away, no matter how strong the love he felt for her. He was no white night in shining armor, he felt weak, and indecisive and lost, still trying to figure out who he was and where he was heading. He felt unfit and unwilling to take care of her the way he imagined she wanted to be taken care of.
That Lili never wanted a white knight in the first place, or could more than properly take care of her own self never occurred to him, and there he was, spinning his thread of golden prejudice and own complications until he could not see anything clearly anymore, blurring their powder blue romance into something much darker and foggy. Every day he felt more and more hemmed in by her and their relationship, and everyday he draft away from her, leaving her more and more confused and hurt, until there was nothing left between them but a ice cold awkward bundle of tensions that was begging to be pierced. He did it finally, after gathering up some scraps of courage, and she looked at him with the face of someone who has no clue about what went on in his head. She was no fool, and until that kiss she so unexpectedly gave him last time at Bread Republic, he had barely heard of her.
Now he was sitting in that airport hall, thinking that if only he had had the codes to navigate his life, if only he had be taught to open up and share his feeling and anxieties, then maybe, just maybe, he wouldn’t be waiting for that flight by himself, and that perhaps he would have someone to talk about this fears to, someone who understood and scolded and comforted him more than his sister or his best friend.
He felt a tiny hand on his lap, patting his knee: he opened up his eyes to a black eyed girl toddler who had used his leg to strengthen herself while precariously walking over to her mother. Gently leading her way, Ziad felt he could give the same comfort to the woman he loved, and be comforted by her in the same simple way.
Sighing, he picked up his back and entered the flight, half hoping his depression would lift along with the plane.

My Beirut

My Beirut is a battlefield, a permanent fight of honking cars and suicidal pedestrians, lost in the hustle bustle of the city. My Beirut is an inextricable web of fantasies and myths and weird ideas, of apparent dangers and hidden kindness. 

My Beirut has been diabolised and insulted and torn apart and trampled, yet it kept going, blackened and bruised yet never defeated. 

My Beirut is the beating heart of a million people, all linked to her from a certain place under their left ribs, the cord so strong it can be frayed but never broken. 

My Beirut is the colourful place of half hidden memories, she’s alive and kicking like a spoilt child, she’s restless and bothered, hot and impatient, quick witted and forceful.

My Beirut is capable of the worst, parading its bullet holes like a sequin dress, carrying the bravado of fools looking for death amidst the chaos, leaving her legs open for murderers to loot her, allowing herself to sink so low the innoncence can never be retrieved, for we all know now the squalor beneath the glitter. 

My Beirut is trying to make amends, wearing her new buildings like a dead corpse special make up, forgetting that it doesn’t do to cover up pain, anger and misery with marble slate and mock Dubai sky scrappers. My Beirut is no good at wearing truth on her sleeve, she’s no good at admitting to anything, she prefers to hide behind distorted explanations and constant bickering, it saves her the trouble of looking into the abyss that has been her life up till now.

My Beirut is to be found now in the smile of a stranger, in the crumbling beauty of an abandoned house in a zaroube in Ashrafieh, in a table of different generations of men playing cards on the sidewalk in front of their dekken, their game rocked by the humming of traffic next to them. 

My Beirut can be encountered in the smell of gardenia at the entrance of my old building, at the soft sand in Ramleh el Bayda, in the laughter of uniformed school girls, in the clamour of demonstrations, in the voices of citizens fed up with the icing on the rotten cake, eager to shake the city back to genuine life. 

My Beirut is in the eyes of boys and girls who still believe in her magic, however much people try to format and label her, she will always reinvent herself, escaping the bell jars she’s being forced into. 

My Beirut is a work in progress, a future to be unraveled, a window to be scrubbed clean. My Beirut isn’t one: it is thousands, and in each of them I see a little bit of myself. 

From Geneva With Love

Reading past posts, especially as this blog is slowly turning one (or has already turned, I can’t keep track of time), I’ve come to realise I’ve written about Aleppo, Damascus, Cairo and of course my glorious Beirut, but have never even mentionned the city I live and work in, Geneva. 

It feels only fair, now that the time of leaving the City of Calvin is drawing nearer, to make amends, and apologise to a city that has sheltered my (to date) most beautiful years, before I board that plane which will take me to new adventures in Beirut for the next year. 

Some people love to bitch about Geneva: it is small, boring, the night life is absent, blah blah blah. It’s tiring, really, the way they’d tell you New York and London are ten times more exciting, and that they’re only here for the job and the money and will leave as soon as that investement banking job in Wall Street will happen (which, in the current climate, might never happen, but let’s not be cruel to the wanna be Batemans). 

People, reality check: London and New York are roughly made of 8 million people each, while, Geneva, er, welcomes about 200 000 inhabitants. 

Ahem, so small difference in sizes, so really, I wouldn’t compare. 

The reason why people do fall into the trap of comparing Geneva to the big megalopolis of this world is because Geneva is a World City, to use a french expression “elle a tout d’une grande”. With its international organisations and banks, it attracts people from all over the world, making its population very diverse, creating a cultural melting pot, making you feel at home even if you’re so far away from it. It’s difficult to feel alien in Geneva, and it’s probably the reason why I like it so much. Talking to people, you’ll start being very surprised if somebody tells you they’re actually from Geneva. To the point where you’ll make, yes make, the people repeat their origins, and once the clearance received, you’ll be free to award them the “1st person truly from Geneva I ever met”. 

I’m not going to bore you to death with touristy type of descriptions, you’ll just have to come and visit it, to take in a very particular atmosphere of openess, the serene presence of the lake, the discreet politeness of its people, the vivid cultural life. I may never feel the crazy love relationship I have with Beirut for Geneva, but I know that when my city of Sun will burn me, I’ll find a safe haven in my Protestant Rome, in its glorious parks, flawless order and broad tolerance. And that, my friends, is simply priceless. 

Now, I’m not going to leave you high and dry without any tips or places to go in Geneva, so let me share with you the places I heart the most (which are most likely to be clothes and shoe shops, and yes, places for brunch): 

Colie Shop https://www.facebook.com/group.php?gid=88657203591 best clutches and bags and accessories (ok, I’ll admit most of them are from Lebanese designers, I can’t help myself) and lovely owner, a must see in Geneva Old Town

Klima https://www.facebook.com/group.php?gid=77464472093&v=wall the only shop in Geneva where I found By Larin Shoes, which in itself makes it a HUGE hot spot, also in Old Town

Mamzelle Popeline www.mamzellepopeline.blogspot.com THE vintage shop in Old Carouge (in itself a fantastic neighbourhood with many local designer shops). Beware, Addictive. Where you might find me buried under a pile of 40’s shoes and fifities dresses.

Famous Ape http://famousape.net/ First Concept Store in Geneva, don’t hesitate to ask for Julien to tell you if that dress suits you or not. He has a passion for Maria Callas and will just KNOW how to make you look a million dollars if you feel so inclined 

Histoires de Mode http://www.les-boutiques-de-vetements.ch/1200/5/395545/geneve/histoires_de_mode/detail.htm  in the Eaux Vives neighborhood, new shop opened by a young woman who makes a really fine selection and offers beautiful advice as well

Brunches and Breakfasts Cottage Cafe Have a BircherMuesli under the trees, breathe and relax, all things are homemade and delicious http://www.cottagecafe.ch/ 
O Calme (Comme A La Maison) http://www.ocalme.com/ for the home made pancakes and delicious coffee, under the trees as well, very quiet and lovely 
The laughing teapot For the Scones and Clotted Cream! (yes, in Geneva, aren’t we entitled to miss London sometimes?) http://www.glocals.com/guides/biz/La-Theiere-qui-rit-(The-laughing-teapot)/ 
Le Figuier My Special Place in Geneva: Salam is the sweetest Lady in the world, and cooks heavenly. The place is tiny, located right under a huge fig tree, and Salam makes the most beautiful dishes with the fruits. I usually just go there, don’t look at the menu and ask her to make Muhammara, fig rolls, labneh and her divine Msakhan for me http://www.le-figuier.ch/ If she’s not spoiling her clients, you’ll find her smoking and welcoming people at the entrance of the restaurant, in deep conversation with the Arab Bookshop Owner 😉 

On the Road Again…

Right. So, we wanted to be good and travel from Aleppo to Damascus by train, using the rare opportunity to use public transports for once in the Middle East. We thus went to the Aleppo train station, all proud and happy with ourselves, only to be told that the train was leaving at 5:45. That’s in the morning. That’s NOT a good hour. Not if you don’t want to be murdered by me anyway.

So we took a car (yes, yes, the pride subsided, but wait, if we hadn’t, I wouldn’t be writing this post, and admit it, you’d be bored right now.)

Driving towards the capital, we made a little detour and took the opportunity to visit the christian villages of Maaloula and Sadnaya, where Aramaic is still spoken. The scenery was simply breathtaking. Imagine acres of ocre land, spotless blue skies, age old rocks where cave dwellers used to live. You’d honestly think you’ve gone to another age. Crosses lining the horizons, with the odd minaret keeping them company, Maaloula and Sadnaya are places of pilgrimage for people from throughout the world. I mean it. People do literally come from throughout the world: Shi’a Muslim women from Iran wearing the full chador patiently climbing up the stairs leading to the Sadnaya convent, Lebanese who just crossed the border to pray, Chinese, Italian, French, Spanish and Russian tourists kneeling and praying. The atmosphere, far from being severe, is of joyous piety. At the Mar Takla Convent in Maaloula, the holy tomb of Saint Takla gathers both Christians and Muslims coming to address their concerns to the saint and to drink the blessed water from the grotto spring. White tissues and wool bracelets freely float around the bell towers of the Sadnaya convent, whispering to God decades of prayers and asking for solace.

The energy coming from Sadnaya and Maaloula is sweetly compelling, and praying in such an atmosphere is easy.

So we did, just before taking with us blessed oil and incense (bakhour) and hitting the road again towards Damascus, paving the way for new adventures.

But this, my friends, is a whole other story.

Beirut never fails me

Beirut never fails to amaze, to challenge people or make them wonder, to sweep them of their feet or have them shudder. Beirut always seems to be a surprise in itself for the unaccustomed soul that dares to wander in the tortuous maze of her streets. The newcomer seems to always have to go through the ritual process of exclamation: “Oh! So this is how it is in Lebanon! Oh, my my, but you  have women wearing minishorts and some serious cleavage in broad daylight! What? And that Nasrallah look-a-like isn’t going to start throwing stones at her?” I know we’ve all been there, smiling politely to the tourist who thought he’d be catapulted in the as-seen-on-TV Beirut, now completely lost for words in the diversity that lazily springs before his eyes.

 

Yes, Beirut never fails to raise too many questions for her own good from people who do not know her.

 

But Beirut also never fails to amaze me, and most importantly, Beirut never fails me, her (remote, somehow estranged) child.

I arrived yesterday in my beloved city, taking in the familiar overcrowded streets, the faces, the smells, looking out for some novelties, some new building blocking the sea from people, some oh so vulgar billboard that will make you want to lie in a darkened room to recover. I got home, sat on the balcony, and silently stared hard at the amount of concrete I saw spread before my eyes. “How is it, I said to my mother, that something so ugly can generate so much love?”

For Beirut IS ugly. Its misshapen buildings built during the war and never properly finished, her mishmash of Dubai-style skyscrapers and old Arab houses still waiting to be restored, her Potemkin city centre, all these elements give an air of unfinished business to the lady: nothing ever seems definite or defined in this city. Maybe that’s what gives its inhabitants a sense of extreme urgency, as if, like the buildings of the city that surround them, their lives could end up just like that, unstructured and not properly finished.

 

Beirut never fails me, I don’t know how she manages, but she keeps me on the edge of my seat, not knowing what will come next. Talks of politics welcome you as soon as you arrive, will Israel attack us again, did you hear about the rumours regarding the Hariri bombing, who’s the last politician to have, once again, changed his mind about Syria, followed by some serious issues such as: have you heard about the latest bar/restaurant/beach that has recently opened that you simply must go to? And while your brain is still trying to jump from Israel to the international tribunal to Syria to trendy places, somebody points at distant fireworks, remarking matter-of-factly: oooohhh look, another wedding tonight, where do you think it is?

 

I look at her, my Beirut, willing for her to change, willing for her to keep the good and at least recognize and try to eradicate the not-so-good, willing to be part of the change, I look at her and I think: my love, you’re a bitter-sweet symphony, Richard Ashcroft sang about life, he could have written this song for you.

 

And as the music starts swelling in my ears, I hear the mix of ambulances, voices, honking and the distant murmur of the sea.

 

Oh yes, Beirut never fails me. 

Myrrh and Mint

For those of you who follow us on Café Thawra (www.cafethawra.blogspot.com), don’t worry, your favourite political/social/activist blog will carry on ranting about the ups and downs of the Middle East.

Myrrh and Mint is just my window to explore the literary interests of the Middle East, to allow me to mumble my own thoughts on my travels and experiences in the region without checking my references before!

I’ll soon be hopping from Beirut to Aleppo to Damascus, with maybe a lot more of Middle eastern hopping as of next years… Plenty of occasions to share, and I hope you’ll enjoy.