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.

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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.

Maghawir el Leil(a)

Leave it to Lebanon’s growing pains to get me writing again. I’ve been so wrapped up in other media and projects that my fingertips haven’t been still long enough to weave a coherent paragraph of word strings.

Last night, I went to the stars. I needed to be off the grid to get back on it, to reposition myself, to be aware that my time on this third rock from the sun is finite and, ultimately, negligible. Marcus Aurelius said, “what we do now echoes in eternity” and getting lost in a snapshot of the universe will remind you that you are a blip on the timeline of this planet, the planet that is slowly dying because no one feels like their choices have any impact. We want fewer motorcycles on the road but we want shawarma delivered to our doorstep at midnight. We want freedom of speech but we want to silence music or mask art that are reflections on and of our societal structures.

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“Remember when music used to sway us?” – Lyrics from Comrades by Mashrou Leila

Khalil Azar, the cognoscenti of the astroadventurer group, BeirutVersus, mapped out where we were in relation to our geolocation and the summer season. A concept that stuck with me from his intro was that of Jupiter and its 3 moons. Gravitationally bound to one another, the system stabilizes as they resonate in space. In the sea of the Milky Way that flows out of the teapot asterism across the sky of Kfardebian, that glimmer of cosmic kinship was solacing.

The thought of entities orbiting harmoniously in vast darkness is the way we keep spinning and allowing for life to persist. We each have our own moons keeping us stabilized in a world that is geared to always veer into chaos. The second law of thermodynamics roughly dictates that we are not supposed to stabilize, that there is a constant loss of energy available to do work, that entropy will only increase as we continue to exist. No wonder the loss of a moon can throw you into a tailspin.

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Last night’s universe by Anthony Ballouz

 

 

As Khalil continued to break down the stars with Arabic names, including the three that make up the Summer Triangle star formation, we quickly saw how influential our part of the world was in celestial documentation. Vega, one of the vertices of this triangle, is a loose transliteration of wāqi which means “falling” or “landing.”

A fellow stargazer then said, Wein kinna w wein sirna.” *
“We’re still here, I said.

And yet, with the youth being shipped out in droves, their bags being packed by their own parents who shove them out the door, the collective attention being sidetracked because of a meme or a lyric while the country is Vega, falling further into decay – are we still here at all? The sky is the most basic record of the past and it could be that we’ve all but vanished to the eyes of beings across the galaxy. All this light is seen from a distance even though we’re long gone. It feels like this place is a sky full of ghosts.

 

*A phrase that means, where we were versus where we are now

Time on a Balcony

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Leaving Beirut, George Maktabi

It’s finally warm enough to sit on the balcony like a real Beiruti. It will only be a few weeks of this before the humidity has us locked indoors until October. I find myself wanting a cigarette just because I have a place to smoke it. A place to watch the smoke dance away from my neighbor’s drying laundry above.

Beirut is so layered, not just in its being but in its literal appearance. Electric cobwebs, satellite dishes, the red air-traffic lights. It’s modpodged like a paper mache landscape of concrete and rooftops. During take-off, as the aircraft would climb into the sky, I used to look down at the cars and be fascinated by the number of people below that would breathe in a day that was removed from mine. I feel that in my own city when I look at a spread of buildings stitched together like a quilt. Who’s in there? What are they worried about tonight? What have they seen? Who are they thinking about? What song is on repeat until they hate it?

Like Greyworm’s other track, loving Beirut’s a bloodsport. I won’t proselytize on that; I’m tired of taking you along on my personal peregrination when it comes to this love/hate thing. I frequently find myself caught between wanting to leave the noise for some time in a tree OR wanting to wander in its streets for a dose of abandoned secrets.

I digress, let’s talk about wine.

I’ve started another side hustle that involves Lebanese vino. You can learn more about it here. During the research process, I once again saw a parallel in enology and viticulture that can be applied to life’s grand design. What can I say, I’m an acolyte of the vine.

I’ve been ruminating about timing.

So much of making wine is dependent on timing. When to prune the vines, when to pick the grapes, when to bottle the blend, when to uncork the bottle. Pick the grapes too soon and they’ll be underripe and just shy of the desired sugar level. Wait too long, and they’ll be plump with diluted flavor. Open the bottle on a Thursday solo and you’ve just sentenced a Syrah to death-by-cooking the following week because you didn’t plan on finishing it off alone. Much like the orbiting objects on our mobile of life, there is no strict formula that will tell you when things should happen. There’s a rough suggested timeframe but, in the end, you go with your gut and sometimes your gut lies because it wants to get to the goods, the end, the wine.

You can see that patch of grass on AUB’s Green Oval calling out to you and you kill 30 minutes lying there listening to your WORKOUT playlist. But you can miss the poppy blooms in the South because you kept delaying the drive. You can meet the one when you’re a zero and it won’t match up because human romance isn’t a binary code. You can see that gig winking at you from across the ocean but you’re knee-deep in the soil, roots wrapped around your ankles like sea anchors. You can want the timing to be right but it’s just not. There’s more to do, it’s not the right time, says your gut. Timing laughs and you’re thinking, I’m trying to navigate here, asshole. Timing can be such a Moby Dick.

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But then there’s that chilled rosé you pulled from the fridge, that frosty glass on your balcony at 6pm on a Sunday, that lingering sunshine that just hugs your skin with a tenderness that sweat beads are afraid of.

In the rush of it all, that’s a single drop of perfect timing.