Across the Rickety Bridge

It’s been almost a year since the Beirut Port Explosion. I have typed that sentence out again and again, changing the number value each time I revisit this draft.

After the blast, I read many thoughts and threads about the gap. The gap when you’re the only one at the table scrolling through posts on Palestine while others talk about patty melts and new Marvel films. The gap when you twitch because a Cessna flies overhead and it’s not a reason to move away from the windows. The gap that comes with seeing activists online screaming for all issues equally, except for those that relate to people who are like you. The gap that requires you to sing happy birthday to your parent over WhatsApp video and hold back tears because then they’ll worry about you while their world crumbles around them. The gap that has you lying to them about being okay so that they’re okay.

The gap is isolation in many forms.

I don’t want to do this. I don’t want to be writing a cliche account of diaspora melancholy. Shut up, you are privileged to have crossed the rickety bridge. I don’t want to be the person who posts Gibran quotes and laments about the homeland from my work-from-home desk in Californian suburbia.

For the first time, I’m seeing what it’s like to be on the diaspora side of things with a sense of permanence. I’m experiencing the gap in new ways because I know that the next time I visit Lebanon, I will be on a timer. I don’t necessarily identify with the grand diaspora entity just yet. Months ago, while still in Beirut, a friend of mine described a separate category, a subset of the diaspora, made up of those who spent a chunk of their formative years in the region and left. This subset had a different interpretation of estrangement from home mixed with a deeper knowledge of the hardships of living there. This is not some form of exceptionalism, I am part of the diaspora in that I left but I was also born here. I’m not an immigrant but I’m not just the daughter of one either. Maybe it is all in how you position yourself in discussions about home: do you stand with your home country and face your new one or is it the reverse? Who is your “we” when you speak? Maybe you only truly become a member of the diaspora when you have crossed the rickety bridge and fully turned around to face home from the other side.

The Sarde After Dinner podcast interviewed singer & philosopher Rabih Salloum last week and he brought up a strong point regarding citizenship, belonging, and loyalties Lebanese have to those (zu3ama) who provide services and favors. Salloum said that, in reality, those “services” are basic rights and that there is no sense of ownership in Lebanese citizenry, but rather a feeling of being indebted to someone else in power for access to rights that should be a given.

A given.

I catch myself observing others like a perspicacious documenter. I make mental notes of things like how the city clocks listed on someone’s smartphone tell you where their loved ones are or how strangers are quick to introduce their dogs by name but don’t do the same with their own. What is a given here in the USA is what stands out most. In the past, when I used to travel from Lebanon, I would be reminded of what we lived without and what I had gotten accustomed to gradually the longer I was grounded there. Like the frog in the pot of water set to boil, when I landed in LA at the end of March 2021, it hit me all at once. I couldn’t grasp the level of depravity we had been subjected to for the 18 months prior, the slow simmer that incapacitated us to the point of revolting obedience.

When I try to explain that to people here, they want me to list the givens that they’re overlooking. “Sitting in the grass in the park, using stoves without replacing gas canisters, physical mailboxes, cashless everything, self-checkout, Lowe’s, potable tap water, public beaches with free parking, donuts.” They grin like a toddler just said the cutest thing and I wonder what picture I’m painting of Lebanon as a result of holding up such a mirror.

In the US, driving makes me anxious but it’s an unavoidable part of living in massive California. There is so much blind trust in the system and in each other. I’m almost envious of their faith that all fellow drivers will follow rules and this makes me more vigilant. What if I, the one who learned how to drive in Ouzai, turn out to be the rule-breaker and I put everyone else at risk? What if I’m the one who doesn’t understand consequence? And yet, my first thought is of consequence, not safety. Facing authority is my first concern. Getting pulled over, not getting rammed into. Avoiding police, not avoiding accidents.

I’m the one that should adapt even if the rules don’t make sense, even if bike lanes are a death wish, even if I can make the left turn, even if the light just turned yellow. I’m more passive, I stay 5 under the speed limit, and I apologize more even though I disagree with how things are done or don’t even understand the how at times. For how dare I question America, look at my other country. I should be grateful to be here.

Anthropologist Ghassan Hage, in his brilliantly-named blog, describes this as a “primal injury” and says this shrinking of the self results from, “the simple fact that unlike the local, the immigrant belongs to a country that could not care for them.”

I don’t want any trouble, just let me have my boring Sunday.

My departure from Lebanon doesn’t feel concrete but it creeps up on me during rudimentary tasks that are part of settling in. I realize that this isn’t happening anymore, it’s happened. Switching my WhatsApp number, filling out an Emergency Contact card and not writing my parents’ info, or even answering an Uber driver’s “so do you live here?”

Kinda, I mean I do. Yeah actually, I just moved back.

It feels like a lie but each one makes it more official and reminds me that “here” and “there” have been swapped in my sentences. I have a WhatsApp group of six friends. Five years ago, we were all still based in Lebanon. Today, we are each in different parts of the world while each corresponding set of parents remains in Lebanon. As of 2021, I had more friends who had moved to the US than I did left in Beirut.

Last week, I had a phone call with a friend who left Lebanon after we graduated from AUB. “You sound like yourself before the trauma,” he said. That felt like another lie but one I wanted to believe. The last time he saw me was in December 2020 when I was reeking of bitterness, fed up and on autopilot. And while I’m not as maudlin as I was then, I feel I’ve shed a skin and I’m not seeing the world with the same eyes as those used in 2019. “I know it sounds weird but I’m glad you won’t be there when I visit because I won’t have to leave you behind again when I go,” that same friend said. That wasn’t strange to hear and yet a similar statement of “it’s good you got out of there” sounds different coming from Americans, even the ones that claim to care about you. They’re right but it stings when they say it, as if everything they ever knew about the Middle East was true after all.

On July 4th, I pushed myself to leave my suburban sanctuary. On the day that is all about celebrating America, I woke up to memorial posts commemorating eleven months since the blast. Only after I got to the barbecue, did I find out that fireworks aren’t just for county parks and Disneyland anymore but they’re the centerpiece to this day’s bonanza on every block. After flinching and fidgeting every time a BOOM unknowingly erupted in daylight, I was hiding tears and I eventually disintegrated into a blubbering mess. I begged the only person who noticed not to sound the alarm. Please don’t let people see me as the broken Middle Easterner even if that’s exactly what I am. She attempted to comfort me by equating my PTSD response to war vets by saying, “others go through this, your experience is similar to theirs.” No, no, no. And in the flurry of American flags and racist rants, it wasn’t an 11-month anniversary for anyone else there and I was the only one not part of this America. There are many Americas.

I’ve had intrusive thoughts that I bury by repeating you’re here now, make it work. Lebanon is no longer a safety net. Going back home isn’t the option it used to be just like leaving wasn’t the choice it used to be. When I’m scrolling Twitter, I wonder if I’ve made a mistake and question if this is where I should be. You’re here now, make it work. What if I find out someone back home is in trouble and I need 24 hours to get to them? You’re here now, make it work. The most shocking one is that I want everyone to leave, I want them safe, I want them out. Out where they can take a hot shower without asking if there’s water, where they can go for a cruise on the highway without thinking about wasted fuel, where they can turn on the AC without needing to know iza dawle aw ishtirak. I want them out so I can do these things without feeling guilty that they can’t. You’re here now, make it work. I have to make this work because of what got me here, what made me leave, and what has now made it so I can only see my family for weeks out of the year.

I flirted with the idea of leaving Lebanon in 2017/2018 but I went back and I don’t regret it. I adopted a crusty Penny found in Qoreitem. I moved out on my own. A Better Beirut began. I launched B for Bacchus. I forgot about leaving for a while. I danced in Riad el Solh during the early days of thawra, I tagged the ground under the Martyrs statue, and I got teargassed in the Square with my sister after they blew us up. This last year in lockdown, as articles cited a lira depreciation percentage that kept increasing, I kept wondering if I would still care about Lebanon if everyone I cared for was gone. If it was not a dysfunctional place, would I still have this toxic attachment? If I moved for the sake of novelty and opportunity without the loss of home as I knew it, would I still have this fury inside me?

I keep reading things about leaving but then again, when something is on your mind, you see it everywhere. It is a hot topic when it comes to Lebanon’s survival mode though. Since high school graduation, any time I said that I was choosing to stay in Lebanon, it was dismissed because it was a choice not everyone had. After two decades there, I’ve been reduced to just another person that left because they could and it infuriates me. I have learned that the ability to leave silences any pain you have associated with the act because the mere option outweighs your misery and diminishes your solidarity. As long as you have that parachute, you are not the same.

Honestly, I don’t miss Lebanon yet. The memory of so many consecutive low days hasn’t washed away to the point where I can have dreamy illusions of our beautiful mountains and shaffeh coffee cups. Things have only spiraled further since I left and nostalgia, hopeful optimism, and unsolicited advice to locals from expats are all still irritating.

To believe we are apathetic is to accept that we are deserving of all this — these fuel lines, these bread lines, these empty pharmacies and stolen bank deposits, this exploded port, and above all these vile and ruthless warlords — as punishment for that apathy.”

Lina Mounzer’s latest in L’Orient Today

The Port Explosion rattled me but it also set me in motion. Six months later, I was finally seeing a therapist after ferociously resisting help all my adult life. Lebanon is not falling off a cliff now, it’s already hit the water and it’s struggling against the undercurrent to come back up for air. My therapist, who helped me jump ship, is still there and now I feel I am selfishly holding onto a lifeguard who can’t swim. The current is tossing us both around but I’m wearing the life jacket. The rest of the world continues to spew brink of collapse spicy headlines, pushing our heads back under water when we’ve reached the surface to take a breath.

I think about Lebanon more than I hoped to and probably more than I should. Perhaps it is my own form of punishment: penance I feel I deserve for being able to buy Advil without thinking, fill my gas tank in 15 minutes, or tune it all out should I want to.

What I want is to surround myself with people who understand. People who don’t miss the anesthesia awareness but don’t allow the amnesia forgetfulness. Our baseline has been reduced to bas oxygen, merci so we are ashamed to want more than the bare minimum, even if we have left the crucible. What is this masochism? What has the love for Lebanon done to us all?

But I’m here now, I have to make it work.

People Always Leave

I take notes on my phone or in a Star Wars Moleskine gifted to me by Mo, a former-colleague-turned-friend. I have scraps of notes on napkins and post-its or recited to myself as voice memos. After August 4th, I typed out every new note as an Instagram post. All my thoughts were a discombobulated mess and I stitched them together publicly. The place that made us relive all the sorrow of that day was the same place I found others who were searching for words like the ones I was getting rid of. We bonded over all that was broken.

The “Beirut Blast” as it’s called today is why I haven’t written here since July. I couldn’t thread the needle to bring all those patches together. This will be an imperfect attempt but it’s not the year to be afraid of needles.

The other day, a friend said the beauty about coming from this part of the world is we don’t need to explain why everything is political because it just is. Even Tinder is political when half the profiles come from across a border that’s illegal to cross.

As their military jets violate our airspace on the regular, effectively taunting a population that doesn’t have the energy to protest a government who’s slowly killing them after instantaneous mass murder, I cannot fathom how our collective anxiety can ever subside. 

Do they not know how degraded we feel? Even if their recon drones don’t tell them, all you have to do is comb Twitter to see how we beg, if not for peace, then for quiet at the very least.

The soporific amnesia has started. It must be self-preservation that makes the country continue like we weren’t blown up. It makes me agitated. I don’t want to be ensorcelled by endless sadness but will burying it make the trauma decompose? Will taping over the footage because we need to function make us forever dysfunctional? 

Still from Mashrou Leila’s Radio Romance

On Jan 9, 2019, my dad was ranting in the car. He said, “I’m not very nationalist. Since my birth, they did nothing for me. They gave me nothing.” 

What they gave him, like many teenagers of the civil war era who share his detachment, is this supernatural talent to board up destroyed window frames as if the neighbor’s fly ball just flew into the living room. I have seen him switch in and out of crisis-mode so seamlessly. I was still hitting the floor in sheer disbelief after seeing the videos of the blast emerging on WhatsApp when he was ringing my doorbell, arriving to assess the damage. As impressive as it is, it makes me terrified to think what he has seen to have such a short lag time. 

It also makes me wary of transgenerational trauma when not given the chance to heal. Like Mikey Muhanna said in an afikra Conversation with Professor Jess Ghannam, “there’s no post, it’s just TSD. It’s CTSD, constant traumatic stress disorder.” Ghannam agreed and said that instead of approaching it like a disorder, it can be thought of as a normal adaptive reaction to awful things that gives you psychological antibodies. 

In an effort to reject this inherited ability to flip blank history pages, I’ve been walking through the streets of Mar Mikhael. This is a pattern of mine. After my first breakup, I repeatedly scratched at scabs by visiting the university campus where that relationship lived and died. It’s how I masochistically faced the ruins to reconcile my memories with the present. Instead of avoiding triggers, I tried to melt away any illusions that I could find false comfort in. For Beirut, the illusions are the kind that will create a dimension where the city wasn’t gutted, a place where none of that happened and I can still see transparent shards as just a shattered wine glass. 

That fugacious Fata Morgana will keep me here in the Beirut of my mind.

Protest Sign, Oct 2019

I went to Beit Chabeb with a hiking group at the end of 2019. “Hayde Beit Chabeb 2edemna bas ma ba2a fiya walla shab, kilon seyfaro*,” laughed the guide. Coming a few months after the start of our revolution that was deflating. The joke stung.

Around this time last year, before she left Lebanon, a friend told me she “wanted to hug the walls.” I fully understood that and envisioned the walls of the apartment building I had just moved out of.

In November 2018, when I had been living there for a few months, I wrote this note in my phone: I should close the shutters to block out the morning sun but I like to wake up to the birds returning to their nests in the bullet hole scars of my war time building. Sometimes in the shadow of destruction, there is new life sprouting like weeds growing in concrete cracks or birds’ nests in the gaping scars in the sides of buildings.

Just before I left that building, the birds did too. The landlord filled the holes with plaster. The issue with walls is they can’t hug you back and now even our walls have been viciously stolen.

In his latest Netflix documentary, David Attenborough said, “In this world, a species can only thrive when everything else around it thrives too.” 

I had previously made the assumption that I missed my friends the least because being the one at home meant I saw them most. Friends abroad needed to hope for an overlap in their yearly visits or a chance encounter in another city. But even being based in Beirut became less of a guarantee as their ties here loosened. I stopped feeling the gaps as they stretched from 6 months to 2 years to silence. 

I’ve stopped hugging them as tight when they get in their cars to the airport, I’ve stopped sending that safe-flight text before they switch to airplane mode, I’ve stopped attending farewells. The truth is I’ve stopped missing people altogether. I’ve become so numb to that sensation that it won’t register. I’ve stopped saying goodbye. 

At my first full-time job, I remember having a debate with Mo about why so many young people give up on Lebanon and leave. He responded, “But did they ever really try? What have they done for Lebanon?”

As a fresh grad, could you already know that you wanted more? That Lebanon wasn’t for you? I didn’t want to leave and have anyone tell me that I didn’t try. But more importantly, I didn’t want that to hang over my head. I wanted to be able to board a plane knowing that I had tried all the combinations but the safe wouldn’t open. And I did. I took breaks, came back, and tried another go at the safe. 

But any kind of safe isn’t easily accessed here.

The Who Run the World podcast recently interviewed artist Blu Fiefer about her single, Sint el Ew. She talked about these lines from the track: “I want to be happy, I want to be proud, I want to be capable.”

Over ten years of investing her time and resources into building herself up in Lebanon, she ends the song in exasperation with those words. In the interview she says, “but I’m trying, I’ve been trying…I want to be proud of where I am and what surrounds me and what I’m doing but you make that so difficult and you’re making me feel like it’s impossible. I just want to be happy and fulfilled.”

Before the blast, on July 19th, I wrote, “I find myself wrapped in bitterness and resentful reactions when I read hopeful words that I used to write. I don’t want to hate Lebanon. I don’t want to get to the point where I’d rather light a match and set the place on fire.”

I have told myself that if I was reaching the point of resentment, that was when I would need to leave. So many who left before me, did so with the taste of iron on their tongue. Internal fury and pain eating away at them, the airport gates couldn’t open fast enough. If I was ever to leave, I wanted to do it without rage.

I also wanted to be right about staying. I wasn’t naive in my hopes for the country and I wasn’t susceptible to abuse yet, here I was, repeatedly returning to my abuser. Even though I have accomplished so much and I have grown here, the process has beaten the fiery fight out of me.

While many are yearning to be near their families, I am making plans to leave mine. Although this confinement has made me more conscious of their value, I am weighed down by isolation. Lebanon has been likened to the sinking Titanic and, emotionally, I feel like I am floating on a door in the ocean with no remaining lifeboats in the vicinity. If I can keep my head above the water long enough as the rest of the world goes on without us, I can make it to another shore because I’m lucky enough to have a way out.

After pouring myself into Beirut, I’m leaving without rage. I am leaving empty.

I have a tattoo across my rib cage that says لبنان بقلبي. I chose these words because I knew the sentiment was a permanent one but perhaps it was a premonition. I’ve accepted that being Lebanese means grief is part of our existence but I didn’t know that it was going to be for the memory of a city instead of the city itself.

This latest wave of emigration is beyond expected and I can’t shake this sense of abandonment. Not because I can save Lebanon — I can’t. But leaving years ago wouldn’t feel final like it does now. A departure from this Lebanon is an ending because I don’t know what the country will look like when I return. With the state of the world, I don’t know when that return will be. Saying goodbye now is saying goodbye to this version of Beirut that I have in my mind but even she doesn’t exist anymore.

But then again, I’ve stopped saying goodbyes.

*This is Beit Chabeb (home of young men) but there are no men left, they have all traveled

Lebanon Changes You

“We are all affected and all of you are responsible.”

We recently watched Lucien Bou Rjeily’s Heaven Without People and one line keeps playing in my head since: Lebanon changes you. And it wasn’t said to refer to the obvious ways living in a particular country affects you. Lebanon changes you because you become too resilient. Too malleable. Too resourceful. It becomes your default. It sinks your standards. Your baseline for the bare minimum morphs into 3al 2aleele 3aysheen.

The rot is so much deeper than the sulta alone.

It’s us too. It’s become our factory-setting of how to maneuver, how to bribe, how to cheat the thieving system that owes us. The end justifies the means and the green that lines the pockets of those who taught us how to sew them. It will take generations to unravel that thread when we haven’t even stitched the wounds. We are not a nation. We, the youth, are no different than the war generation when there has been no healing. We have inherited that brokenness and pain. Don’t you feel it?

At 32, my ambition has calmed just in time for me to find out that, as we approach the economic bottom, I am not self-sufficient and my independence was a facade that has burned away like a nitrate filmstrip left in a hot room with no generator in August. I worry that leaving would require breaking ground on an open dig site while I’ve spent the last 10 years building my Cinema Paradiso here. But it is being demolished and I’m questioning where the Nuovo should be constructed. I keep thinking I can make it work here but then I have to ask myself how and the answers feel like cement blocks tied to my ankles. I love Lebanon so much that it makes me grind my teeth when I break down in tears but anything that could anchor me here instantly makes me feel like I’m swimming to the surface as those same cement blocks sink.

If x is the effort you put into a project, x in Lebanon will equal 1 whereas x elsewhere will equal 12. My friend tells his wife, “wanting to stay, it’s emotional” when she says she doesn’t want to be away from her parents. Reason will point you to immigration papers. To the airport. To somewhere you can build. Somewhere with no guarantee but somewhere you can have a chance.

Why do I want to stay here? So I can out-weasel and distrust anything that is supposed to serve me? So that I don’t just expect disappointment but feel discomfort without it? So that I can watch my home disintegrate from inside a see-through shell? So that I age faster and live lonelier for the future family I cannot fathom? That I cannot find? That I do not want because the existence of anyone beyond myself means I cannot be here?

What is keeping me here?
What has kept me here?
Was I wrong to stay?

You don’t need to make me an offer I can’t refuse. It’s not about greener grass when we have no green and no grass. But how do I walk away? How do I not apply pressure where the bullet went in? How do I let her bleed out? Can I save her? Why do I think I can?

Is she the one who’s dying?
Or is it all of us?

I’m not sure but 3al 2aleele 3aysheen.*




*At least we’re alive

I Hate Being Resilient

Artwork by Adra Kandil of @dear.nostalgia

I used to say it was what made us skilled at maneuvering socially and professionally. I used to believe in that narrative too. That being resilient was a strength that made you innately resourceful because nothing worked the way it was expected to, because your baseline was a failed system you could not depend on. Being resilient meant you had a backup, you knew how to wiggle out of a jam, you knew how to overcome.

What you allow is what will continue.

How did they trick us? How did they convince us to take pride in this quality to the point where we use it in our elevator pitches and interviews on our questionable ability to succeed against all odds? How did they manage to flip their failure into something we excel in so well that we want to keep doing it?

Don’t get me wrong; I’m not saying we shouldn’t use adversity to our advantage. But why do we revel in the masochism and smirk at our unrelenting willingness to adapt?

The Lebanese take a certain sad pride in their fate, pointing out that no other country could take such a beating and still function, even in such an odd fashion. The paradox is that the qualities that enable the Lebanese to survive – the close clan ties and the unremitting ability to wheel and deal – are the very things that are tearing the country apart.

Life Among the Ruins in Beirut by John Kifner for The New York Times

That archived article from December 1981 cited the same romanticism of the past mixed with the awe of how the Lebanese manage to keep the engines running when all signs point to rusted gears. Just because we can find a way to breathe as the water fills the sinking ship, does that mean we let the captains steer us into every iceberg? Even when you know they’ll be the first on the life raft while you’ve drowned or you’re left out to sea?

Being resilient is the propaganda our government sold us for decades. They managed to get us to flaunt our ability to keep taking their shit and turn it into a phoenix rising from the ashes. We voted in the same parasites and sang about the country being rebuilt again and again and again. We applauded our expats abroad. We pushed our youth out the doors. We gave them away only to see what they could’ve done at home if they weren’t busy being resilient. We accepted less than we deserve as humans of a so-called nation and instead of asking them why, we said we are resilient.

Well, I am tired of being resilient.

This Space in Between

There’s a tightness in my chest. It’s not the virus (I hope) but more likely a cocktail of anxiety and allergies emerging as the weather shifts again. I spend my days drawing out the skeleton for the week. I fill the pages with golden eggs that seem to be popping out of me like a broken gumball machine.

The heartache of my early twenties taught me that my coping mechanism is to drown myself in work. It’s not a denial of emotions but a denial of their power. If I can keep my fingertips moving and creating maybe I won’t feel at every moment I am breathing. Maybe I won’t feel the intense claustrophobia where the walls are my country’s borders. Maybe I won’t feel the heaviness of my parents’ questions of what to do now that their sandcastles are being washed away. Maybe I won’t feel the impending hyperventilation that accompanies the need for more protests. Maybe I won’t feel the tightness in my chest.

I’m hanging on to this space in between, trying to stretch it out like proofed dough so that I can make more. There needs to be enough so that I am full for days, so that I am fulfilled for hours, so that I am satiated for just a bit longer. So that I am in control.

This space in between where there is no time, no goals, and no pants.
This space in between where screens are just another window with lifeforms on the other side. Can you see me?
This space in between a governmental’s collapse and its reincarnation.
This space in between my deodorant and the whiff of a stranger’s cologne.
This space in between every inhale and exhale.

Melvin Sokolsky

In this space in between, I watch Tim Burton films and let the Danny Elfman scores coat my consciousness. Misfits shrouded in a gothic palette existing in whimsical settings that don’t know how to hold them. I have felt detached from the ground, from the fight, from the belief that there still is one. I’m an observer in a glass sphere rolling over the streets. What weight keeps me here? Is the place out there still mine? Or am I trapped in the space in between? Is this where I’ve been all along?

Until I figure out the answers, I’ll sit here gazing through the looking glass.

In Isolation, I Feel Less Alone

Martyr’s Square, Oct 18, 2019

For the last 6 months, I felt like I was in a daze. From the economy to the lira to the environment to the emigration, every grain that fell through the hourglass was another piece of the country collapsing. Lebanon was disintegrating. It felt like we were suspended in gelatin, unsure of what was waiting for us after the new year, unsure of what was to come with every parliament meeting, unsure of where we were supposed to put our faith except in the hands of one another.

In February of 2020, I had gone for a walk in downtown. It dawned on me how my own feelings towards the beginning of the uprisings had shifted from that of euphoria to utter exhaustion.
I wanted to keep protesting.
I wanted to feel that high again.
I wanted to prove to myself that I wasn’t succumbing to the fake detente, the rain, the strain, all the impediments that the government was counting on. How I felt that first week in October was nothing like the dumbbell sitting on my chest. I didn’t know how to lift it for one last rep. I had fallen in the mud under the monkey bars and my inner coach was berating me because there was still the rest of the obstacle course ahead. I wanted to crawl away. Maybe I wasn’t cut out for this. Maybe I wasn’t an activist, I was a privileged fraud. Maybe the doubters who thought this was pointless were right. Maybe I didn’t know what we signed up for when I went to Riad el Solh on the 18th, that Friday morning that I wouldn’t believe happened if I didn’t have the pictures to prove it.

When we wore masks for different reasons
Downtown Beirut – Oct 18, 2019
Martyr’s Square – Oct 18, 2019

To go through my phone’s photo album is another obstacle course. It’s exercises for my emotions. I scroll through a sea of Lebanese flags that get thinner as the days pass and I lose more of the sense of control over the days that haven’t been logged yet. The more I scroll, the harder the wave hits. The crash of suffocation, of lost direction, of wanting to check-out without guilt.

With the virus taking hold of the planet, the limbo that Lebanon had been suspended in has become the global pandemic’s main symptom infecting our entire species. We are all crippled by anxiety and fear that someone we love will die. We are all learning how to cope with plans becoming a word we don’t use anymore. We are all taking it one day at a time and hanging onto whatever piece of normal we can find in the dark.

Still from Gravity

We are all just trying to adapt and figure out a way through. To where, no one knows. We just know that through is the only way forward. And, in a way, because the whole world is now somersaulting in this darkness with me, I feel less alone.

Mabrouk

I say “as a woman” when I can’t but you can
which makes me feel like I’m admitting
it’s because I’m not a man.


The only time I’ll get a “Mabrouk” is if things are entering or exiting the gap between my legs. The gap that keeps me from bringing home the bread, not the baked, but the dough that keeps me fed, that leaves me on read, that keeps me reaching for those Mabrouks that are given to him instead because they aren’t meant for women who talk about rights while shoving thighs into tights and I pluck and I pry and I cry and I dye and I die a little inside every time you look at me like I could be…more.

•*•*•*•*•*•*•*•*•*•*•*•*•*•*•*•*•*•*•
It’s an endless fight, this being-a-woman thing, but I’m so proud to do it with all of you. Happy International Women’s Day my ferocious & feisty ones ✊🏼#IWD2020

The Generation of Guilt & Glory

I haven’t given up. I believe change is here, this revolution will continue. But I didn’t discover my belief in Lebanon as of October 17th.

My belief is rooted in the little nothings. In “Allah!” when someone trips. In the “khalilna ndayfik shi” as you’re buying a kilo of cucumbers. In the “zeiteitna atyab,” be it from your Southern teammates or the Northern competition. Old houses eaten by moss and sunshine. The light. Oh, the light. In the “yen3ad 3aleikon” that means may you get to experience this again. It’s a wish for the return of an annual celebratory moment in time. As lives are often measured in milestones, it’s a veiled wish for longevity. What a sentiment to bestow upon someone so simply.

It’s not just the food, it’s the flavors in between. The taste of Fantasia 3a ketchup, the chili paste on the kaak with Picon, the radish slice in your hummus, the molasses on your sfiha, the crispy minced garlic in the batata b’kozbra, the toasted nuts in your rice, the grilled tomatoes on the skewer, kariche, the leftover sumac-dotted sauce of your fattouche, the cherries in fishna, the toum, the toum, the toum.

These little nothings have been my saving grace when I am sinking under the weight of what Lebanon fails to give me. They become more pronounced during the holidays and I’ve made an effort to mentally log them as I scramble to hang onto a handrail in our latest episode of uncertainty.

For every steel façade, I will give you walls of peeled paint and layers of torn event posters. For every shortcoming, I will give you an initiative to create A Better Beirut. For every paid-off voter, I will give you a volunteer fighting for the community in crisis. For every traffic jam, I will give you a side-street with walkable stories. For every hour without power, I will give you one at a table with such warm conversation that you won’t notice it’s by candlelight.

When our president dared us to emigrate, my reaction wasn’t an automatic, unwavering “too bad, I’m staying.” It was a whispered, “maybe I should leave.” The question of staying here is one that has simmered behind my eyeballs daily for the last decade. But now, with a new Lebanon on the rise while the current one is still digging its talons into our shoulders, thoughts of leaving aren’t voiced for fear that you’ll come off as a traitor to the cause or less invested in the revolution. Shaming you quite audibly, your internal voice of guilt chimes in: “You don’t want this badly enough to stay. You don’t care.

I feel forced out. Forced to be responsible with my potential and privilege rather than selfless yet unnecessarily sacrificial. The furious righteousness of those who stay is countered by the mumbled resentment of those who leave. Both are mechanisms to cope with decisions we take and feel the need to justify, either way. “How can I rebuild a Lebanon if doing so leaves me in ruins? I can make it, I can get by. But why should I actively choose that for myself? Who will that serve? The future generations! But what about mine?

I’ve typed versions of these words here since 2012. When the realization that our movement’s gestation would be closer to 9 years rather than 9 months, I had to revisit the words and consider what this national shift in consciousness meant for me on an individual level. “Do I need to hemorrhage during my prime to prove my dedication to the country I had chosen over and over again? Who am I proving it to anyway?

It feels like the regret of not leaving sooner may outweigh the regret of not being here to witness every part of the transformation even if I vehemently want this transformation to happen.

Lebanon is a young nation and she still has some growing to do. Unfortunately, so do I.

This Revolution Isn’t for Me

For the last few days, I’ve been experiencing what can only be called “total system shutdown.” All things thawra pinch me with annoyance. I still believe in it; if anything I believe in it more because there is no longer fear that I will wake up and find that it snuck out the window. After Sunday’s numbers, I’m confident that this will, at least, make it to Day 30.

So what is this feeling? This resentment? This guilt? At first, I thought it was coming from disengaging from the constant ebb & flow of the protests, for the need to momentarily come up for air.

“Look out for yourself.”
“Your mental health is important.”
“You have to have a life beyond the thawra so you know what you’re fighting for.”

But that isn’t it.

It’s because I realized that, even if the government were to fall tonight, even if we were given every human right scribbled on white boards, even if we were presented with the roadmaps to our utopian Lebanon, even if the blueprints were unrolled and the technocrats were getting every check on the ballots…I realized that all of it would not be for my generation.

I’ve been repeatedly saying that this is a long road, that these changes will take time, that patience and perseverance are the tools we need to sharpen to win this. But only now have I seen that that also means, as an almost-32 year old single female with just a cat as a dependent, all the battles we fight will be won for the generations after my own.

As a parent or student, it is easier to be filled with adrenaline for this. All you have to do is think of your child or of the next decade of life beyond graduation. It has been heartwarming to see tents filled with the proud, hopeful civil war generation and the determined, empowered Lebanese youth. But as someone in between those two phases, it is heartbreaking too. I am absolutely willing to fight but I am overcome with envy. I do wish the match was struck a decade earlier. There is shame in even admitting that I feel this way but I’m acknowledging how furious I am that those of us who have stayed here will have to sacrifice more when our friends have already left, when our elders are already sick, when our careers are already stunted. Hasn’t she taken enough?

But all these thefts only act as daily provocations that shove me to continue this revolution. There should be no going back.

This revolution is not for me but it is for my younger sisters. It’s for my aging parents. It’s for parents who have passed away too soon from illnesses they shouldn’t have had. It’s for every kid who was rejected from a hospital. It’s for my female friends who have married foreigners and want their unborn children to be seen as equals. It’s for the mountains, the tomatoes, the hyenas, and the olive trees. It’s for every word I have bled for this place.

It’s for my country. And hell, it’s for my cat.

And if it’s for every one of them, then I guess it is for me after all.

Lbeika ya Libnein

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October has always been my favorite month because it’s about change. The leaves, the costumes, the weather, the government.

What?

Yes, the moment we’ve all been waiting for is here. I have been wanting to put this all in words since Day 2 but I haven’t been able to peel away from what’s happening. Even now, I sit with the TV streaming MTV Live, my twitter timeline refreshing on my iPad, and Instagram is scrolled periodically on my phone. I thought yesterday was Monday as I’ve been counting my days in days of the revolution, or thawra. Today is Day 7.

I’m addicted to the Square and the thawra I thought may never come. I don’t know how to focus on anything unrelated to our revolution and I’m literally in it – I can only imagine how the diaspora feel as their adopted cities continue with their days, as usual.

I feel like a representative for my friends who are not here. I have walked down to Martyrs’ Square alone one too many times because those who would be walking with me are in another time zone. I have heard, “this makes me proud of Lebanon” with conviction from those who had long since given up on her. Their encouragement to continue and their desire to be here has spurred a statement they rarely ever say: “Neyyelik inte bi Libnein hala2.” You’re so lucky you’re in Lebanon right now.

Yes, I am. We’re making history.

But I am weary. I am exhausted. I don’t know if we’re being naive in thinking that if we just hold on long enough, the ruling regime will fall. The corruption is in every vein of an intricate system; it would be foolish to think that they would walk away and the clouds would part to shine on a utopia. They are waiting for us to lose confidence like we have done in the past. It is all so fragile. Another chance that, if lost, could shatter even the staunchest believers after so many false starts.

I am drained but it’s not because of walking to downtown or navigating through crowds for days on end. It’s because of the feels. It’s difficult to describe how emotionally taxing it has been to see the people, or the sha3b, unite through anger, pain, and joy.

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I have been choked up a few times a day, every day of the thawra. Before I go to sleep, I worry it won’t be there in the morning. I worry it’ll collapse before it forms. Like a mound of clay spinning on a potter’s wheel, a revolution being molded by the hands of the people. Are we just going in circles or are we forming something beautiful? Will these hands stay steady? Will they bring their hand together to create a vessel that can withstand the pressure?

But the power of the people is real.

I want to go back every day because of it. Not just to make sure it’s there but also because it’s addictive. When I feel my faith is wavering, I go back to the street for another hit and it’s restored.

The power of the people is palpable.

It fills your lungs. And that’s just it: people are breathing. Something has been unleashed. The sha3b is alive and so is the country because, as a protester said, na7na kil shi bi hal balad.

We had turned more and more inward as the ruling class, or sulta, left us to depend on ourselves alone. After the fires tore through the Shouf last week, after the Minister of Environment spoke down to us like a kindergarten teacher, after they wanted to steal from the most basic method of communicating with all our loved ones who were driven to emigrate, after thirty years of a broken system, we have learned that we aren’t even an afterthought in their agenda.

But just as the community came through for the wildfires, they have come through for the revolution. We have each other. We have strength that is not only figurative, but it is also corporal. It seeps out of our pores and rolls down our skin in beads of sweat. The sha3b is full of fury but united in their healing. The sha3b who not only shake signs and wave flags but who wake up early to sort through trash left by the protesters the night before. The sha3b who block the roads with their bodies to shut down normalcy. The sha3b of Tripoli who chant for Dahiyeh, the sha3b of Beirut who chant for Tyre. The sha3b who grab hands with strangers to dabke in the middle of a protest. The sha3b who lie on the Saifi grass, who tear down the barriers to their downtown, who bring their man2als and plastic chairs to sit on the sidewalk. The sha3b who have brought back the souks. The sha3b who are making the cities theirs again. Reclaiming their space, their central district, their rights. The sha3b who have been through so much and are finally smiling.

There have been complaints that the revolution shouldn’t be a party. That we should stay focused or we’ll let this all slip away. This fear is valid and true. However, in the early stages, for this is a marathon, we must draw numbers. We must make the sha3b feel safe, empowered, and understood so they keep coming back. Meetings are being organized, demands from the sha3b on the ground are being noted, WhatsApp groups are being formed. And there are technocrats and activists that have been shouting from the sidelines before this (in)formal uprising began. They will be anything but still in this movement. Even the amenities in the Square have improved with each day – bathrooms, medical, food. It is not wrong for people to come together through happiness, harmony, and hope. We need this boost so we have staying power.

Join the party in the way that you want and do the work that you feel is needed. Help clean-up the streets in the morning, ask people what they want from this or what they’ve been through, change the chants you don’t like. Fear of this revolution being ruined is what, in actuality, will ruin it. It will cripple you. It will keep you at home. For once, the streets are yours. Take them.

And it is a marathon. When you train for one, a key to making it to the finish line is to set a pace. You can’t go full speed as soon as they blow the whistle. You can’t let the excitement gauge your energy in the first few kilometers or you’ll be spent before the quarter mark. In the thawra, you must also be careful to pace your participation. Egypt’s revolution was 17 days, Earth’s revolution is 365, ours will not be complete in a week. This will need time so take shifts, take breaks, take breathers. Take friends or family down with you so their mere existence reminds you what you’re fighting for. We need to stay fierce. We need to keep the issues at the forefront so we don’t forget what brought us here. We cannot go back to sleep. We cannot go back.

“The most important thing now is that we gain a victory in terms of people believing in themselves and the hope of people imposing change through taking action because this is what has been missing for so long.”

– Nizar Hassan, The Lebanese Politics Podcast

The unknown ahead is frightening but think of the last 3 decades. It will get worse before it gets better so we must sacrifice in the present to ensure the future. The power of the people is real and now we know it. Now let’s use it.

And since I’ve paid attention to the date, today will mark Teta‘s one-year memorial. I wish she could’ve been here to see my new Lebanon.