Mistakes Made in Beirut

image_6483441

I’ve done one of the these for LA and NYC but it didn’t occur to me to make a list of mistakes made in my own city. There will probably be multiple parts to this as Beirut is a place where maneuvering to get the basics is an acquired skill.

  • Go to Mikey’s Tacos & Dancing solo three times in a row without a dance partner and leave right after Bachata each time. Never learn Merengue.
  • In an effort to spare yourself from Waterfront traffic and paying Waterfront parking fees, you order an Uber to Biel for your sister’s high school grad ceremony only to find that “Biel” is now somewhere by the Beirut River, not the Beirut Waterfront. You’re late and get to pay for two Ubers.
  • Agree to drinks on a Sunday night assuming it won’t end at Barbar.
  • Order chicken shawarma without extra toum after it does.
  • Wait until the morning to shower only to find there’s no electricity or hot water. Dry shampoo your way through Monday.
  • Get in the car at any time of the day between 8am and 7pm. Listen to a lot of Warda, Abdel Halim, and baby George Wassouf to avoid bitchslapping half your countrymen.
  • Shower and blow-dry your hair before heading to Meats & Bread for lunch. Smell like a spit for 3 days after diving head-first into a plate of ribs.
  • Go on dates with expats and wonder if there are any men left IN the country. Find out there are but stay home because of swiping burnout.
  • Bring said expats to the same bar because it has good music that is loud enough to accompany a conversation. Bartender winks at you because he thinks you’re a player. In reality, you’re just on the Bumble welcoming committee.
  • Adopt a stray kitten. Find out she loves Warda & cheese so you’ve obviously been reunited with your daughter from a previous life. Become one of those people who has an Instagram account for their pet.
  • Park up the street from Barbar to visit a friend nearby. Return after a few hours only to find a YELLOW 50-thou handwritten ticket that is reserved for no parking zones (that’s a thing here?) instead of the 10-thou unpaid surcharge tickets. Never return to Barbar again. That week.
  • Work at a supermarket that regularly has tortilla chips in stock. Sign up at a gym within walking distance but forget that it’s 34 degrees this season. Never walk to the gym.
  • Go to Habibi Club at Grand Factory after an almost-2-year hiatus from the former mattress party venue. Think that 30 is still young so work the next day should be easy. It probably won’t meet your expectations anyway. And then they played every Jnoub wedding song of your strange childhood. Brb, I need to get more Advil.
Advertisements

The Three E’s Sinking My Submarine

IMG_2549As a dual national, I am frequently asked why I’m still here or why I haven’t left yet. You have a second passport, work experience, and degrees – what’s keeping you here when you have a way out? Didn’t you leave? Are you back?

“I’m here until further notice” has been my automated reply.

I am trying to shy away from pouring out more words that hit high on the dazed & confused scale. When I had returned to Beirut in April of this year, after a couple rounds of Pong between here and SoCal, it felt as if I had unlocked the next level of young adulthood at the ripe age of 30.

Being in the USA was an eye-opener: I didn’t have a problem with Lebanon. I had a problem with my living circumstances in Lebanon. Having a separate living space in California allowed for mental somersaults and brain foam rolling. Why did I need to travel over 7000 miles for +20 hours to get it? Without feeling like settling or assuming the big fish, small pond title that accompanies residing in comfort zones, there must be a way to have that within your own city; the same city you’ve invested so much in, socially and professionally. The city you feel you can actually do something for?

I came back with the thought that moving out of my parents’ house was the last ingredient necessary to cook the cheesy casserole and build my fempire, using my own Tupperware and feeding my own cat.

Then the three E’s swooped in and were like oh, you’re figuring it all out?
Let’s fuck some shit up.

The three E’s being Environment, Elections, and Economy.

The country has been treated like a massive wasteland for a couple years now. According to Newsroom Nomad, there are hidden agendas behind all the beach propaganda but that doesn’t erase our trashbag rivers and lack of existence/respect for public spaces. I admit, I had become accustomed to Lebanon morphing into a cesspool and had allowed this to be swept under the tattered Ajami rug. Ultimately, it wasn’t a lost cause and there were plenty of groups with private projects attempting to reverse the damage. Could they turn back the clocks and stop the introduction of incinerators?

When Beirut Madinati lost, it was an inspiring failure. But then the parliamentary elections came. I knew the independents wouldn’t win but when public apathy has reached the stage where people are amused by your belief in the power of the vote, you feel defeated. You feel like the patina of patriotism is chipping off the walls as the mildew creeps through. You feel like you don’t belong here. You feel like you’re the minority and hope is a form of self-sabotage.

 

And finally, the economy on the brink of collapse, once again. Paying double for utilities can make for killer overhead for any business, particularly one that deals with temperature-sensitive merch (or depends on any form of electricity and/or water).  Salaries and cost of living are atrocious and the market is crippled. Property prices are outrageous and housing loans will rope you in for decades even though you can’t imagine where the next 12 months ahead are going. In between all the ghastly, ghostly towers, our ecru stones and cement tiles are being rolled away in wheelbarrows.

Downward-spiral aside, I have moments where so much love fills my lungs here. When I see grandmas on balconies, when I meet a family growing wine in the mountains, when I’m vegetating on giant pillows under the trees, when I share a meal with an Argentinian chef who’s here to rediscover her Lebanese roots, when I meet expats who are here for a quick dose of kibbeh and the Mediterranean, when I hike with a group of people older than my parents and they use my father’s village as my nickname, when I see Beirut through the eyes of a flabbergasted tourist, when I’m involved in creative work that ties into learning with and about my people, when I’m talking to strangers who instantly become wells of emotion. Lebanon can give and give and give.

But oh, how she can take too.

The short film above (Mounia Akl’s Submarine) resonated with me because, as much as I’ve tried not to, I do have a problem with Lebanon. That question of whether or not you will leave seems to have lost its polarity. For those trying to lead an adult life, leaving has become a question of when because, lately, it feels inevitable.

The Return of Ronnie

In 2013, I’d written about Ronnie Chatah’s walking tour of Beirut followed by an interview. Six months later, in December, Beirut lost Mohamad Chatah, Ronnie’s father, by car bomb assassination and then Beirut lost Ronnie – the ponytailed, neutral navigator that walked groups through her history in shorts and Birkenstocks – as he emigrated to Edinburgh.

IMG_2086

When Ronnie left, it made sense. How do you stay confined in a prison of daily reminders of who is gone? How do you continue to share Beirut’s story without touching on personal tragedy? Do you want to when it is so tied to the loss of your hero, someone who defended Lebanon’s potential so vehemently? Can you still tell that story? Can you tell it the same way as you did before?

I was curious to see how and if the tour had changed after such a loss. After travel and separation, I wanted to see if Ronnie had edited chapters of his tour alongside his writings. Even if it’s based on historical events cemented in ochre stone, has our frame of reference changed after 5 years? Have we moved forward? And what brought Ronnie back? Why now?

Ronnie says that, as far as content goes, not much needed refreshing because not much has shifted and that the first reboot this January was only supposed to be a one-off to raise funds for an internship at the Grand Serail that carries his father’s name. And it’s true, the content remains an impressive mini biography of Beirut perfect for seducing new lovers or reigniting the embers of your old flame…yet it was annoyingly the same. Even his trusty sidekick-photographer, Marilyn, is back on the route with him. It was all too familiar for me as a returning guest who’s seen our cyclic tendencies and felt stagnated whenever an expat comes home for a dose of it’s like I never leftAll I thought was, but why hasn’t anything changed? The only progressive step is being able to vote abroad which means our tourism industry will take a hit since people have even less of a reason to return? What have we been doing for 5 years? Coincidentally, SkyBar is back from its own ashes like a phoenix so even the scripted paragraph on the Holiday Inn’s rooftop bar didn’t need an update.

But the whole stroll still wows foreigners and Lebanese hybrids. I visibly see them get infected by Ronnie’s love for the city because that still laces his monologue. You should see the gratitude they grant him after the tour ends at Samir Kassir’s garden. They look like they’re saying, thank you for giving me a piece of your Beirut. That is beautiful.

IMG_2088

It’s all the same. The tickets. The map. That is, until Martyrs’ Square. There’s one change in the account, one that he tells me he was wary of adding. Pre-2013, the strength of his tour was the objective account of how Beirut came to be. Just the facts ma’am, make what you will of it on your own. Now though, the penultimate stop of WalkBeirut includes Ronnie’s personal story of his dad’s death. How painfully appropriate that I witnessed this new dedication on (American) Father’s Day.

The tour overall has not changed but what has is, understandably, Ronnie himself. It wouldn’t have been honest to leave out the fact that he is an undeserving victim of this country’s disease and, in any case, he doesn’t posit himself as so. If anything, this sole subjective part makes him an intrinsic example of the Lebanese experience. It is what makes Ronnie’s tour all the more powerful, all the more brave, and all the more admirable: that his pain is collateral damage interwoven in the very story he’s reciting and yet that love is unwavering.

Ronnie & I suffer from the same affliction: an undeniable, unrequited love for a country currently and somewhat perpetually in retrograde. But hey, it’s comforting when you find out you’re not the only one.

Ronnie’s leaving on July 1st and might be back in September to keep it going so if you would like to join a tour, sign up soon. There are only two Sundays left for $20/person. A donation will be sent to the Mohamad Chatah Internship Program at the Grand Serail with every ticket purchased.

Slow Down, Sip, Savor

IMG_2041Each weekend that I’ve escaped the city and the confinement of my supermarket’s warehouse has emphasized how voracious I am for pause and sunlight. Winery hopping, for me, is not about a profligate’s drunken afternoons; I get a sense of calm when walking through vineyards. The way the tendrils of the vines wrap around the trellises. The way the soil sinks beneath my feet. The way blocks are aligned systematically by grape but the clouds, weeds, and deer don’t care. The way each bottle’s contents can tell you what happened that year, historically and in the ground. The natural progress of a vine and the desire to pump out millennial-targeted gallons of fruit-forward elixirs is the simulacrum of our impatience for growth. I’m reading this book and there’s an excerpt that nailed what wine, beyond being a time capsule, does:

“Hell, wine teaches us this. If we’d only listen. It teaches us to take things as they come. In the vineyard, but also in the glass. Slow down, sip, savor.”

We forgot, or maybe just I forgot, how to do this. Even my writing – which has been a mental stretching exercise that allows my thoughts to flow into digital tributaries and gives me a sense of personal decompression – has taken a backseat to the barrage of professional epithets on my attention span. My mind is so tangled, so terrorized, poked and prodded like a dead jellyfish carcass sprawled out on the sand or trapped in a shallow tide pool. It feels good to type again.

Even in these strangely, wet summer days, the curvy, sexy silhouette of glass bottles coated in condensation gives me a second of focus. Watching a drop of water slide down the neck of foggy existence makes the world around it freeze for half a minute, like when your autofocus blurs the surroundings enveloping your subject.

IMG_2042

 

The death of Anthony Bourdain, world-traveling foodie storyteller of the page and screen, has stung deeper than expected given our mentorship was rooted in my imagination. I’ve been pouring over articles written by and about him and podcasts that commemorate his raw soul. Those that ask questions about suicide, excess, hospitality, and happiness. Even in his passing, he explores layers of the human condition that we have yet to understand and introduces bridges to the unknown that we haven’t had the courage to cross.

Sharing a meal or a glass of wine can bring about the feel of coming home. Eating a fried ball of kibbeh dunked in molasses left over from the plate of marinated soujok or a winemaker’s latest white whom they treat like they’re introducing their child to the outside world, a parent letting go of their baby’s hand before they walk into their first day of preschool. Their children need time to mature while they’re out there unarmored. Let it lay down refers to how a bottle needs to rest for years for the complexity to find its place, let it breathe to give it time in its environment, give it a sense of where it now is. It’s about patience for that unfolding, that extraction of pleasure that can come from touching every edge of a carafe, more surface area of discovery. Maybe each of us is a bottle that needs to lay down, that needs to breathe, that needs to be consumed by another in order to come home.

 

If you need to talk to someone, we have a suicide prevention hotline.
If in Lebanon, call 1564. If in the US, call 800-273-TALK (8255).

Thoughts from a First-Time Voter

IMG_0466

Unlike most of my graduating class who hit 30 this year without ever exercising their right to vote, in the last parliamentary elections of June 2009, I was eligible to vote having turned 21 in February of that year. But I didn’t. At the time, it felt like my vote in the South would be useless. For many in the Jnoub, my extended family included, Hezballah – like other parties across the country – provided wherever the State itself failed and that resulted in unshakeable loyalty. The kind that can still excuse all the humanitarian injustices that have come after. It wasn’t a voting process for me when there were no alternatives to the ones that had always held power. Plus, I didn’t even live there.

What would my vote do beyond waste paper and gas?
Up until a few weeks ago, I still thought that way.

The only time I’ve voted was for our student representatives in AUB SRC elections and, even then, when my friend wanted to run as an independent, he had to ally himself with the bigger parties’ lists just to win votes by association. The university elections are seen as a microcosm of the state of the country’s current highly educated voters and there you had it: independents couldn’t even run alone, much less win. But that was 10 years ago.

Flashbacks of the Beirut municipality elections reminded me of when I worked with Beirut Madinati FOR ONE DAY, and how much that day reignited the dying embers of hope and the need to take action versus talking about others taking action for me. The simple, “vote or don’t complain” is solid. We are stripped of all nagging rights if we don’t exercise the one that can lead to actual change, even if it’s the illusion of it.

And then, a friend told me we have an independent list in the South.

The photos of my migrated friends’ purple thumbs say that they want a home to come back to, that they haven’t let go just because they’ve left, that they remember what forced them to seek other shores, that they too believe in the power of their voice.
Perhaps foolishly, I feel like my vote matters even when I’m not casting it in Beirut, the city where I live and (try to) breathe. Dare I say it, it may have more power to prove to others that times have changed if it’s placed in the South where Amal/Hezballah roots run deep. If anything at all, my vote will mean I did not genuflect at the altar of complacency and corruption.

It began with Beirut Madinati proving that these lists could exist despite the fact that they lost. Here we are, two years since then, with full lists comprised of sixty-six fresh faces going for parliament. In these final hours, don’t forget or forgive what we’ve been through for the last decade.

 

31292710_1292358010898222_4669136542203581051_n

Still from the series, Westworld


There are alternatives and that in itself is progress that shouldn’t be overlooked. There are angry people who don’t want this path for their country but there is no deus ex machina in this narrative, there is only our vote. There are the privileged who can afford to say no to bribes, sacrifice an afternoon for a ballot, and thus, start to shift the tide for those who can’t. I don’t expect the independents to win but just one seat for us can put a hole in their yachts anchored at Zaitunay Bay. With each round of votes, their vessels will fill with the stagnated water they’ve left us in.

As far as nations go, Lebanon is still an infant but her first steps have to start somewhere. We won’t get there this Sunday and we may not get there in another 4 years. She won’t run across the finish line in a fortnight but I’m willing to crawl if it still gets us to where we need to be because Lebanon won’t be a toddler forever. One of these days, she’s going to be a grown woman and we all know you can’t mess with one of those.

99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall

 

Bottle Of Beer In The Sand Looking Out To Sea

Courtesy of Stokpic

Impending nuptials have a way of seeping into the psyche of the parental layer of your inner circle. I get asked if I’ve found someone, if I’m talking to anyone new, if I’m “on the apps.” This, coming from your friend’s relatives, is less awkward than you’d imagine. It is rooted in good intentions but, time after time, it does weigh on you.

 

The accidental, additional pressure is intensified because I think about it too. I contemplate if my gut shouldn’t be trusted when I feel this match isn’t mine, if I wasted too many nights not making it my active mission to find my boo, if I’ve been doing it all wrong from the start. But you’re not allowed to voice concern on this search yourself because you’re a strong, independent woman who don’t need no man. And yet, those around you interfere and worry for you because you’re a strong, independent woman who, god forbid, don’t need no man.

The life I am proud of is like a case of beer with one bottle missing. How do you find that person that fits in with all the other bottles of your life? I have been assembling my crate for three decades. If I’m to make room for another bottle to complete my set, it needs to be a Limited Edition 200th Anniversary Guinness. I don’t actually care much for beer but the metaphor sticks: in order to accommodate their existence in the case that is your life, it needs to bring added value to your entire collection. I have been told that seeking this obscure Guinness is expecting too much. Are you destined to do it alone and fill that void with bubblewrap instead? Isn’t it still a void if filling it with an empty Corona doesn’t really make your box fuller in effect? Can you tell I’m working on a shipment of alcohol?

“You’re too picky. You’re too smart. Your standards are too high. You need to readjust your expectations. You’re picking crappy suitors. You’re not trying. You’re trying too hard. You need to put yourself out there. You need to stop and focus on yourself. You’ve got time. Stop thinking about it and it’ll happen. Aslan ma fi shabeb bil balad.”

I wonder about this gap because I’d like to buy the dual-pack of Cinnamon Toast Crunch for two. If I excise this wondering and assume that I’m destined for one box of Cheerios for as long as I walk this earth, have I carved out a vital organ from my torso? Does it mean I have one less badge from the girl scout sash of what I’ve accomplished? Does it affect the measurement of how much I’ve lived?

I want someone who knows buying throw pillows “to put on the guest bed” actually means they’re for building a sturdy fort on the balcony. I want to find the stabilizing Karen to my off-balance Hank Moody. I want to find my complementary dork and I’m not denying that. I want to share my porch swing but I’m not willing to strike a Faustian bargain in order to find a mate.

 

Screen Shot 2018-02-17 at 10.34.23 PM

Still from Californication

 

It has led me to this thought: it may not be in the cards for me. It could be that I’m supposed to be alone. I don’t say it as a cry for pity or from a feeling of running out of time as a result of turning 30, that societal deadline of expected self-establishment. I don’t say it out of fear of being the only name on all the wedding invitations to come. Accepting this as my possible status quo from now on is healthier than wondering if something is missing whenever a friend’s mother asks if I’m still single. Right now, I am alone.

Except I’m not.
My case is pretty full, lhamdilla, and I’ve always liked bubblewrap.

Foreigners’ Responses to “I’m From Beirut”

IMG_4466

So do you live near the terrorists?”

“Ohhh, a Lebanese girl. Hellllllo.”

“Yeah, I’ve been to Dubai once.”

“So you speak Lebanese or Arabic?”

“OH BEIRUT. I LAAAAAV BEIRUT.”

“You speak Arabic? That’s sexy.”

“Hummus!”

“Really? But your English is so good.”

“I am also from zere.”

“My grandfather is Lebanese but I haven’t been back since 2005.”

“My mother has Lebanese heritage but I’m too afraid to go there.”

“23&Me says I’m 4% Middle Eastern!”

“I’ve had that Moozar wine.”

“Ouuuuuu that’s different. What’s that like?”

“Really? What were you doing there?”

“That must be SUCH a long flight. I could never do that. 4 hours tops for me.”

“I like Lebanese men.”

“So how’s that trash thing going?”

“Do women have to wear that thing?” *does circular motion around face*

“Yikhrib baytik 3arifit 2ennik 3arabiyyeh! Laike tfaddale la 3andna 3al mat3am hon 3al yameen.”