NOSTALGIA / PROGRESS: Issue 3 of Rusted Radishes: Beirut Literary and Art Journal

January 3rd, 2015

Rusted Radishes, Beirut’s only English-language literary and art journal, is in its third circulation, having launched in early December 2014. The following is the preface as it appears in the journal.

Now It Is After

This autumn, I was in Berlin one week before the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Wall. Cozied up at a bar, I sipped on the house wine, a Cabernet. I told the bartender, “After this glass, I’d like a Pinot Noir.” He swiftly plopped a French bottle of the blood-red juice onto the bar, and with a triumphant smile said, “Now it is after!”

It occurred to me that “after” had come so logically, yet unexpectedly; graciously, though beckoned, that it melded with the present moment in a way that “before” and “after” were just strung by a few moments of time, of desire, of drinking. There I was, in a city that was reminiscing of the day that history was made within hours of a news conference, and everybody had a story of how they heard the Wall was coming down, who they were with, how they reached the Wall, and so on. (Did you know that Angela Merkel was somewhere other than a soccer game at the time the Wall began to be chipped away? She was in a sauna. She recalled that day as “unimaginable happiness.”)  The city is in the “after,” 25 years after, but what about those moments just after the breaking of the Wall, when the future – and the past, literally – were suddenly in their hands? They could have never known that “after” would come so suddenly. Nor what the next 25 years would bring them.

The writers and artists of the third issue of Rusted Radishes raise images and questions of nostalgia and progress; nostalgia in the wake of “progress”; the seductive nature of each; and the narratives that we weave in the interstices of these concepts. These themes arose naturally and without solicitation – as we at RR like it. Again we did not call for a theme, but instead looked for themes in the work we accepted into the issue. It seemed appropriate that the concepts of nostalgia and progress be considered together.

Our writers offer us images of nostalgia:

Tightly zipped pockets.

Child-sized, outdated, pinching staircases.

Crushing the lemons for us in summer.

Eyes as vast as samaa’.

In a red booth picking a lock.

Black birds on a fence like a pattern of a kufiya.

Frayed cushions.

A long scratch in the old hardwood floor.

The cliché of a café.

Killers, their bones rattle while jogging along the


Rocks that had been painted yellow and pretended they were the sun.

Pinecones crack and spill shells from within shells.

They write about moving forward, making progress, seeking the future. Christine Rice shows us the seductive powers of moving straight into a tornado, in “Atmospheric Disturbances.” Tarek Abi Samra writes about the torpor that seizes his character as he holds a heavy rock and contemplates killing a turtle with it.  In “Honey Apple,” Ziad Lawen seeks out a love interest with the oldest trick in the book, honey.

The photos and artwork behold old staircases and doors, tumbled gas cans, Mickey and Minnie, the subtle beautiful movement of water, the opening of light through a tree, an ostentatious remembrance of the dead, a paradise of gummy bears, and people and rockets taking off into their own adventures. Look at our cover, and try to hold its gaze.

Finally, in a conversation with Kasper Kovitz, we discover how his art is inspired by the wilderness, the rigor of creation, and the rejection of the progression of time as “progress,” or improvement. He further leaves us with a question that challenges our understanding of a narrative vis-à-vis this question of progress.

In the 18th and 19th centuries, doctors believed that nostalgia was a disease, and therefore could be cured; in some cases it was thought to have been, as there are common symptoms between nostalgia and tuberculosis – chest pains, loss of appetite, fatigue. While tuberculosis may have been cured, a cure for nostalgia was never found. How did doctors ever think they could cure a feeling that was so individual and based on humans’ senses, emotions, and experience? Eventually, they figured the cure would be found with “universal progress and the advancement of medicine.” Little did they know that the progression of time was actually the soul mate of nostalgia.

Rusted 3.0 cover



























May 29th, 2013



It happened that I looked into my journal, a place I visit randomly, (just like this blog, eh?), and I found this entry from October 19, 2012, the day that Wisam el-Hassan, a top security officer in Lebanon, was targeted in a massive bomb in Achrafieh, in Beirut, a place that is anywhere. He was killed with several other innocent passersby and residents; many others were maimed or displaced:

I think of the sleepless, who held a broken, limp body today. Their bloodied clothes, the burnt cars come skeletal. I just had become happy and content. Finally another car blew up – I had been awaiting it, to shoot me across. Today I understood  how some people are injured from car bombs – besides losing limbs – glass flies into your skin, your eyelids; ceilings fall on your head; balconies slip from their place and crash to the pavement. People, in other neighborhoods feel lucky, and far, but charged, with anger, hate, sensation.

This car bomb hit people hard. Every car bomb does. But this one targeted and killed a guy who was incognito each time he entered Rafik Hariri airport. He slept in his office, which was located not far from where he was killed, so as to minimize the risk of being assassinated. He uncovered plots that could have taken the lives of hundreds of people. He was one of the few good guys. His assassination, and the enormous “collateral damage” – a whole other discussion – came after a period of “peace.” Peace meaning that no one south of Lebanon has come and bombed it inside-out; no entities inside of Lebanon have raised arms against each other in the name of this religion or that new policy (well, kind of); or no one has decided to invade and occupy (yet; for now). Peace looks like beaches and Hamra and mountain air. It means that people can get on with their dreams, their jobs, their progress. It’s not taken for granted. But this guy, he was protecting us, and he knew better than anyone how to stay safe — and then he was killed. And so were so many others. My friends all texted or e-mailed. It made world news. It was forgotten less than a week later, here and there.

I don’t want to dwell on drawing analogies that have already been drawn like here; or dwell on obvious stereotyping and racism like here; or go on too much about the endless violence that is taking over our world (read any newspaper, not difficult). But I do want to talk about what happened in Boston and how Boston matters to all of us.

I will be straight: There wasn’t the sympathy around here that you would expect from a place that understands what flying limbs are and bloodied streets and…  In fact, in Beirut, it was almost shameful to dwell too much on the Boston marathon explosions. Because Lebanon currently hosts almost one million refugees from our neighbor Syria, a place where flying limbs and death has become everyday reality, where 70,000 (consider the number higher), 70,000, people have died since the war began 2 years and 4 months ago, leaving orphans, who walk our streets at just 3 feet tall, with muddied shirts and stained faces, selling flowers, polishing shoes, begging, begging, begging. How many kilometers have they walked? We are also not far from Iraq’s demolished streets, another few hundred dead. The everyday death in the Middle East has become the norm. The day that there is no death by bomb in the Middle East will be the day that marks a new future. I’m no historian, but I’m sure some people out there could put the history of bombs in the Middle East into a perspective that highlights how today’s living generations of Arabs have no memory of life without them – or, at the very least, fear of them.

People in the hallways of AUB and the streets of Beirut feel for the 8-year-old boy who lost his life and the mother who was critically injured. The empathy is there. But the sympathy for America, the lack of sympathy comes out in words like “But look how many die here every day!”

What has got people upset is the realization that some lives are more valuable than others. My students, at 18 and 19 years old, realize this. This semester, my class at AUB is corresponding with an American classroom. They have discussed matters of the environment, terrorism, and reflected on culture and the Other. They have found that their American counterparts are very similar to them in ethics and values, and even thought. They were tuned into the Boston Marathon bombings, they knew details, they watched much of the coverage. But they were conflicted – should they feel sympathy? But look how many die here every day…

I imagine running a marathon where at the finish line my legs blow off. It is the last thing that would come to a runner’s mind. When you run a marathon, you can’t help but be thankful for your health, your legs, your strength. It was one of the most satisfying and rewarding feats I’ve ever accomplished. You feel your power. You find potential. You are pushing, pushing yourself because you are a believer in something. You become emotional over the fact that you could do this, because it’s hard work. And I, like others here, feel appropriate sympathy for the people of Boston who suffered such a horrific act of the same cowardice that rules our contemporary politics. But, I am reminded of the human strain that is growing in the world – as war and trendy terrorism and an imbalance of human value from continent to continent uproot our most basic humanness. This feels like resistance.

When someone says around here, “Did you see what happened in Boston?” and the other just raises her eyebrows and has an uncomfortable smile on her face, you realize that the violence on one’s land has cut too deep, past flesh, muscle, guts. There’s an uncomfortable truth, one that has been cultivated by the desensitization of human life lost in war: that if she weren’t exposed to so much inhumanity herself, she may have felt a little more sympathy.

It’s been a while since I started this blog post. And since then, more sick pranks on humanity have taken place. More drone attacks, more cities in Syria plummaged, a factory in Bangladesh crumbled on its poor workers, more people dead; and more fear of dying in flames. Recently, the beheading of a British soldier in the middle of the street by someone who spoke in the name of Islam was all the talk in England and Wales, a place where 551 homicides occurred in 2012 alone. Though now the follow-up of that story has been pushed to the middle of The Guardian’s front page, with Chinese hackers, NHS surgery risks “high on the weekend,” and Israeli threats to Russia: “Don’t Arm Syria” pushed to the top, that story is far from being over. When do we call it “terrorism”? When do we feel sympathy? When do we believe in humanity first?


March 20th, 2013

I just watched the movie Argo. I hadn’t watched a Hollywood movie in quite some time. Partly because I don’t live in the U.S. where celebrity status and movie news is always tickling the senses – on morning radio, in grocery store lanes, TV ads, magazines lying around my mom’s hair salon. Sure, Hollywood movies show in Beirut, and I can have the local pirate burn me any movie I want for less than a few bucks. But Hollywood stays far from my mind in these parts. I don’t know who is the new it-actor (though I just recently found out how wildly popular Lena Dunham has become, but that’s because I read a fun essay by her in New York Magazine) and the last holly movies I saw in the theater that I remember are Ted and Les Miserables. Ted, hilarious; Les Miserables, not. However, I did not find out about the making of Ted or how the surly bear actually managed to speak. Nor did I find out how long it took Anne Hathaway to train her voice or how she felt about her ratty haircut. (Oh look, I just found an article about that.) I no longer have this constant access to celebrity do’s and don’t’s in Beirut. It’s relieving. I think we are all vulnerable to desiring their fame and beauty and lifestyle, even if just a teensy, weensy bit. Even if our favorite place in the world to go is our couch.

Although I like my occasional Hollywood movie or tabloid trash, I am bitter with Hollywood. Not only because it’s gross to see how people like to imitate all things celebrity, but also it’s this message that everything will be fine and it will be fine in a very feel-good way. Whenever a scene includes a score by Philip Glass or a symphonic crescendo and someone running toward a forest or a lover, I get pissed off. The message is too often, “You will go through conflict, but prevail in the end. All of it will be behind you. You’ll be fine.” (And the conflict is romantic.) As if the end result is completely divorced from any pain and suffering along the way. You can overcome the worst and start anew. And even if you don’t overcome, and you die, let’s say, you will be a hero. And that seeps into our heads and sticks.

A friend recently watched the film Habibi in Massachusetts, which is about a couple in Palestine who couldn’t be together due to the usual suspects – religion, family, politics. The film squeezes your heart. You may leave feeling depressed, heavy. After the showing, a woman was found addressing her students and expressing how she “believes in the youth” and that things aren’t really like that over there. She was an Iraqi woman who was apparently apologizing for this representation of a place that is close to home and too often “misunderstood.” It’s true that many Arab movies are rarely optimistic. But there’s a reason for that. Shit ain’t Hollywood over here. Nor is it anywhere. Currently in Beirut is the Arab film festival, Ayam Beirut, which I attended last week and watched a series of shorts. None of them made me feel good in the end. And that seeps into our heads and sticks as much as you’d like to wash it away.

So, Argo. I bit my nails through it and rooted for the Americans not to get their fingernails pulled out of their skin. And I was relieved when they made it into and out of the Iranian airspace. The movie is based on a true story, so I won’t complain that it ended fine. Though, I will complain that it ended with a huge hug and an American flag waving in the background. I stayed alert to any of the usual ethnocentric and racist additives, and although I don’t know Iran now or in 1979, it was something that there weren’t any sympathetic Iranian characters in the movie except for a young maid, who covered and risked her life for the Americans who were hiding in the Canadian ambassador’s house. And another guy who escorted them into town. Other than the helpers, the Iranians looked like a bunch of dimwitted brutes. But that’s not what I want to focus on. It was the young maid in the end that made me sad. She escaped, but into Iraq, where tons of others gathered around to cross the border, looking desperate and chaotic. I was left thinking, why is the Middle East like this? Why are people always clamoring at borders to escape from one horrible condition to another less horrible condition? The Americans found their way out of Iranian airspace and were suddenly free, leaving underneath them a mess of fear of torture and streets teeming with angry people. And on the other hand, leaving a place that they had a hand in affecting, in bringing to the breaking point. Then I remembered it was a Hollywood movie. Then I remembered Syria and Egypt and Libya and Bahrain and Tunisia and Iraq and Palestine and Lebanon.

An ex-student walked up to me today and told me how her authoritarian teddy-bear dad is encouraging her to apply to graduate school in the U.S., just 4 years after dragging her to Beirut from Detroit against her will. “Things are getting hot here, honey.” And she was elated. She looked at me and said, “I can’t believe that you stay here. You like it though, huh?” I said to her that it’s not just a place; there are relationships and roots and life. I thought, why are we so scared to face unrest?

Beirut, the Space Between Hope and the Public

February 20th, 2013

Beirut today is a concrete jungle, in its most pristine definition. Public space is persistently shrinking and threatened. The following short documentary, by Rami Rajeh, describes this and offers some solutions. Incidentally, views of this video have increased rapidly – perhaps this not only speaks for the quality of the documentary, but also the concerns of THE PUBLIC! Please share and spread!


I’m Rusty and So Are These Radishes

January 27th, 2013

So, you are out there. There are actually people who read this blog. I never believe it until someone leaves a comment or asks me why I’ve been so lazy for the past…3 months. I am not stressing. From the beginning, I told myself that this blog would not be a chore, an assignment, a task. It would be there for me, and for you, when I could get to dipping into the world around me. It’s true that I have had a sort of writer’s block; that is, I’ve blocked myself from writing – to be clear that it doesn’t happen to a writer, but from a writer. But also, I actually have been working on a project, one that I feel quite proud of and had the pleasure of working with a great team on.

Beirut is a place that if all its beauty was left to its devices, without the tampering of human garbage and corruption, you would never want to leave it. If it were bottled and packaged you’d have everything you needed. Through teaching writing courses at AUB, I continually see the talent and ideas that are washed ashore from students who really can put words down on paper. And who have the potential for so much more. But how many Lebanese writers have you read lately? Not many, I’m sure. And I’ve had a most recent discovery: the breadth of visual artists at AUB, as well as throughout the city, who probably have more opportunity to display their work than writers, but whose talents and skill are not always recognized.

This past December, writers and artists were merged into a literary and art journal called Rusted Radishes. Yes, we put out a really good literary and art journal from Beirut. OH yea! Excuse me if I’m thrilled. The original team comprised Crystal Hoffman, a poet and former Department of English faculty member, from Pennsylvania who graced us with her infinite presence for one year, and me (Rima Rantisi) as faculty editors, and an amazing group of student editors. You can refer to our Web site for more information on our mission and who were the founding and current editors. The journal is out in the world now: in departments throughout AUB, in cafes and shops throughout Beirut, in MFA departments across the U.S., and soon it will be in bookshops in Pittsburgh and Chicago. I won’t be romantic about it. But I will say it makes me very happy to see the fine work of Lebanese students and people from around the world in this compilation.

During March 6-9, Crystal will be taking Rusted Radishes to the AWP (Association of Writers and Writer’s Programs) where she will wo-man Table X with other literary journal editors, including Mizna, the only Arab-American literary journal in North America.

Our submissions period is now! And ends March 15. Please pass the message along to people who write or make art. And submit, submit, submit! Please go here for full submissions guidelines.

So this is what I’ve been preoccupied with. And we’ll see if I can muster up more writing of my own real soon…but first, the semester starts tomorrow and I’ve gotta go about the illustrious writing of syllabi!


If you are in Beirut, you may purchase a copy at Chico’s, Cafe Younes, or City Stationery in Hamra for 15,000 LL. For those of you abroad, you will be able to find an issue on our Web site in the next few months.

Please follow us on Facebook and Twitter @Rusted Radishes for regular updates.


Even if We Remain the Most Up-Our-Own-Asses Country in the World, Obama is Better, Far Better than What’s-His-Face

October 30th, 2012

The U.S. embassy in Lebanon is in Awkar, a town tucked in a mountain, with a great view of the sea, might I add. I have never walked into a place in Lebanon that demands the same stringent security – no phone, no bag, multiple body checks. The staff is alert and efficient, persistent in their demands. This is refreshing, as a resident of Lebanon, land of the free – free to not bother following any rules or laws, free to walk away from blowing someone up at rush hour, free to fill government coffers while… I’m digressing. What’s important is I submitted my vote for Barack Obama and left feeling clean and proud – one of those rare moments after voting in an unpatriotic person’s life.

5 years ago, I came to Lebanon. It was the Bush days: the “I’m bushed” days; the “I’m so sickened by my president” days; the everyone-hates-Americans-with-more-passion days. And I was so happy about fresh-squeezed juice. It was near midnight and I swung by to pick up a glass of pomegranate, when I had yet to learn that asking politics-based questions in this country wasn’t the right type of asking. Not only because the reality is less than desirable, but so are most of the opinions.

“So you think we’ll have a president tomorrow?” I remembered to ask somebody on the eve of the first scheduled election day of the president of the Banana Republic of Lebanon. (I think back to my newbie self: I was bright-eyed, overly-optimistic — and obnoxious). He’s a short fellow in frumpy clothes. He would (still) stand at the door of his juice joint, people-watching and pestering from under his mustache, “Juice, it’s good for you.”

As he manned the register and took my faceless liras, I wondered if he remembered me from the time before when I bought a few cups of pomegranate juice and he had asked me where I was from, my accent and broken Arabic betraying me. The big man behind the glowing glass case of fresh oranges, mangoes, kiwis, and pomegranates, had clucked his head cockily and interrupted with a guess, “You’re mom is American and your dad is Lebanese.”  I corrected him, and he seemed surprised, “Where are they from?” I told him my parents’ southern Lebanese hometowns, which seemed to have also scraped his preconceptions.

“So you think we’ll have a president tomorrow?” I asked again. “I wish we would, so we can be done with them!”

“Done with who? Done with who?” The frumpy fellow wanted to know.

“All of them,” I replied. He fished for my allegiance: East or West? Big man eyed me with dark eyes, one hand on the juicer. “Both,” I said. “Both!”

“With who? With who?” the weasel persisted.

“All of them!”

Big man pulled the juicer’s crank down onto a half pomegranate. “We need to be done with America. America is Satan. I noticed his hands, his thumb flat and wide, his nail just a small piece against the ample flesh.

“The Americans ruin everything. It’s their fault we’re in this mess.”

“It’s everybody’s fault,” I said.

“America and Israel need to leave us alone. Do you see what they’ve done to Iraq? They destroyed the country.”

“I’m with you, I’m with you.”

Anger spewed from his throat as I became mute. “All we need is for America to drown into the sea,” his hand rose flat in the air and slammed down.


Since Bush got the hell out of office, after he was an accomplice to hundreds of thousands of murders, anti-American sentiment has been reserved more often for the zealots and fanatics, versus your everyday juice vendor. I don’t know a single Lebanese in Lebanon who wants Mitt Romney to win this election. Isn’t this something to think about? Aren’t Americans curious as to why 1) People outside of the U.S. care who Americans elect as president and 2) Why most prefer Obama over Mitt Romney? I think there’s one major answer to both questions: Mitt Romney is another war-monger and religious fanatic in this world. King Kong in a suit.

This summer, while I was in the U.S., in Illinois, my friends – all 30-somethings – each had something to say about the current state of things. While I have become accustomed to people talking about the “situation” in Lebanon, I had not yet heard so much griping about the “situation” in the U.S., and particularly in Illinois, the state that takes the prize for government corruption and debt which is at $139,829,215,000 and rising by the second. I couldn’t believe that the road tolls had more than doubled. I complained to the tollway attendants as I drove through, who just shook their heads and said, “I know, I know. But what can we do?” Also a familiar sentiment in these parts. I began to think that voting for Obama in 2008 was a waste. Taxes are sky-high, Chicago is a murder capital, welfare has increased and become mainstream (“I Am Julia” – where did it vanish?), and still there’s no peace-steps in Palestine/Israel – nor any part of the Middle East – far from it.

And my friends, many of them, were talking about leaving Illinois. If they weren’t talking about leaving Illinois, they complained how they were living check-to-check. At least two of my friends or their spouses had been laid off in the last year. Things have become expensive. Sales tax in Illinois is at 10%. On everything you buy. People are feeling it. Property has plummeted due to so many foreclosures. The Chicago Public Schools went on strike for the first time in 27 years because of the cuts in spending on education.

The situation is shit, but it’s because this is where his-and-her-story brought us. Before-before-Obama. We, as Americans, have been greedy, wasteful, short-sighted, haughty, big-headed, ethnocentric, racist, gluttonous, vengeful, hopeless, tunnel-visioned, apathetic, stingy, unsympathetic, unempathetic, ungracious, unholy, un, un, un.  And then we rant and yell about one man who comes along and asks us to change these ways – to bring soldiers back home; to share the wealth; to build our country rather than dominate others; to hold banks accountable; to give everyone an opportunity, not just the privileged, to “make it.” I know it doesn’t feel this way. And maybe I’m too hopeful, but if nothing else, his words inspire me, his logic inspires me, and to hell with it, his “otherness” inspires me. I voted for his brain, and hope that his plans have longterm gains.

And that’s why I voted for him and pray to the heavens that Romney — who uses God and his privilege as a tall handsome wealthy white man as reasons to manipulate the rights of women and the poor and people who he cannot see “over there” for his own personal beliefsdoes not win, does not win, does not win, does not win, does not win, does not win, does not win, does not win, does not win, does not win…



The Real Raouche

September 6th, 2012


Imagining New Sectual Relations

July 22nd, 2012

You are the inheritor of hate. Hate bred through scenes seen in blood, torn in screams, erased from land. You are the inheritor of experience had over 20 years ago. You have heard the words “Muslim,” “Christian,” and “Druze” refer to people your whole entire life. And when you lived through the 2006 Lebanon War, you might have been partying in Faraya or outside the country or only just heard a whisper of the sound of the bombs and only tasted the hate that your parents ate and breathed for 15 years. So how do you hate? And how can you unlearn it?

Joanna Choukeir wants to help you find out. She will not tell you, nor force you to tell her. But she will design a way for you to interact with the “other” – because you have inherited hate, not created it. As a “social designer,” Choukeir uses “innovative and creative projects to tackle social issues.” Her latest pilot project, which was co-created with volunteers made up of students, activists, and creatives, lasted for 48 hours, in the form of an “Imagination Market, ” where 5 pop-up tents addressed the five key social barriers, as Choukeir has identified through research, which contribute to a sectarian-divided Lebanon. Why, according to her, she “as an 18-year-old hadn’t met any Muslims.” I joined her and her team of “Imaginers” in Baakline and witnessed the optimism of a group so ready to show others the vibrancy of the new path they had found.

The moment I walked up to the “Market,” which comprised 5 booths – Gharam (Love), Moushwar (Trip), Khabriyeh (Story), Dardasheh (Chat), and Souhba (Friendship), I was met with red excitement of volunteers and team leaders. They each wanted to explain “Imagination Studio” to me – the incubator that yielded “Imagination Market” and was created by Choukeir – and their investment in it. Aisha Habli put it simply: “We want to fix the social situation in Lebanon.” She fizzed as she spoke about the project and its audience: “of the youth and for the youth” which echoes Choukeir’s commitment that it is not “experts” who come up with solutions for youth, but rather youth coming up with solutions “for themselves with one another.” Yossef Chaker, her fellow “Imaginer,” as Choukeir has coined the volunteers, says “What the studio promotes is what I’ve lived.” His mother is a religious Muslim and his father is a religious Christian. As a result of this mixed upbringing, he says he’s “lived the good experience in Lebanon.” He, like Aisha, was introduced to Imagination Studio at Tedx Beirut where Choukeir’s presentation inspired them to volunteer their time towards bringing youth of all sects closer together. This does not seem elusive to them, as they proudly claim the proof in the bond that has grown between them as team members who have come from all corners of Lebanon.

Choukeir’s realization at 18 years old that “there is an issue of social segregation” in Lebanon led her to a PhD program, where she could have the structure to “make something happen.” Her research question was: “How can we use communication design methods for social integration with youth in Lebanon?” Her first step toward the answer was an intervention called “Expressions Corner” – a pop-up tent in which she conducted blind interviews with people of different religions and regions over Skype. Participants, whom she was linked to as “influential youth” in their town, had a deck of cards that each had a religion or region on it. Their task was to simply respond in any way they wanted, and thus they spoke about experiences, ideologies, or prejudices; while others had “nothing to say.” From these responses, she found the five major barriers, upon which “Imagination Market” is based and which the Studio builds their designs around. The divisive combination includes sect and marriage, region and mobility, politics and friendship, media and influence, and language and prejudice.

“Souk ek Khayal! Souk el Khayal!”


“Come closer so I can tell you a story; one from me, one from you!”


“Hizb el Sushi! Hizb el Hummus!”


Imaginers called out by the side of the main road in Baakline, a quiet town in the Chouf populated predominately by Druze, where young people started emerging after their Sunday lunches. Two young men were coaxed out of their convertible over to the dardashe booth where they sang “Imagine,” by the Beatles in Arabic, English, and French with the help of flashcards. Not of course before one walked away and had to be pulled back, his cigarette in tact between his fingers. They sang the song with Imaginers’ help and moved from booth to booth, laughing though reluctant. They visited moushwar where Imaginers proposed taking them on a trip to an old Maronite Church in the village that had been closed for years – and which by the end of the day only 2 of 50 participants knew existed! The day before, the trip was from Jbail to a fish tavern owned by a woman named Maggie, who opened up shop just after her husband passed. Visitors had wondered how they could find more of these authentic places in a country that had less and less of them.

When they sat down for the short skit at the souhba booth, where two friends get in an argument over their political allegiances – Hizb Sushi and Hizb Hummus – the guys participated in the post-performance discussion which focused on conjuring up ways the conversation could have been civil. But ultimately they said, “We already know all of this.”

However, Choukeir does not feel pressure to change these people. What seems to be most particular about the ideas behind this project is Choukeir’s hypothesis that of the five personalities she has divided people on the subject of sectarian divisions in Lebanon – open-minded, curious, stubborn, distant, and skeptic – she believes that Imagination Studio’s efforts will have the most impact on the “curious” and the “skeptic,” both of whom just need a little “nudge” to see a “new path.”

“We had some ‘distant’ and ‘stubborn’ yesterday. The distant don’t even want to acknowledge that there’s a problem in Lebanon; they’re living in their closed social circles – they don’t think anything is wrong with that. The stubborn realize that there’s a whole other community in Lebanon that they don’t know but they don’t even want to have anything to do with it. They are very politicized; they’ve made up their mind. At the market they said, ‘This activity isn’t going to change anything.’ And we know that – with them, it’s not going to change anything. But with the curious and skeptics, there is potential. Sometimes they just haven’t had the exposure. Seeing something optimistic like this could trigger the change.”

Imagination Studio has been an ongoing project of workshops that led to the Imagination Market, which was a pilot to prove that some of the ideas have potential for nudging minds. For example, the khabriyeh booth, a 48-hour user generated blog, could be an ongoing project where people share their stories and experiences, and make connections. All of the ideas are registered with Creative Commons, so anyone can use them, as “Change has to be something continuous. A one-off thing will only affect those who were there at the right time and the right place,” says Choukeir.

Attendance was low after a few hours (as opposed to previous day in Jbail), when two girls, aged 18, walked up to the gharaam booth, where a fortuneteller awaited them in full glittery gear. She fluttered her ringed fingers over the cards as they sat expectantly. She flipped over two cards, which revealed a Sunni man and a Druze woman. Although the fortuneteller was to brief them on the rights of the individuals if they were to be married – conversion, kids, inheritance, custody, etc, she only gave them their options in terms of how two different sects could get married. One of the young women asked if she could choose the combination, so she chose a Druze woman and a Druze man. “This is the best option,” she said. Here, again, the fortuneteller told them “That’s easy. These two can get married, no problem.” I believe she missed an opportunity to be detailed about their rights.

The young women walked away and wrote their complaint on the chalkboard on their way out: “We wish there could have been more than just choices for marriage.” But they also wrote that “The idea is awesome.” When I asked her what she expected, she said, “We already know the stuff the fortuneteller told us. I thought I would have my fortune read.” I really don’t know what to think about this response (except that it’s kinda funny – and made sense :).

Will any of these ideas have potential for “nudging” the minds of skeptic and curious youth who know they should think or feel something, but do not know why – or that there’s an alternative? Could more and more people just like Joanna, who grew up in a small mountain village dominated by the same sect, went to religious schools and university, and met someone from another sect for the first time at 18 years old – besides the latter nowadays (I presume), an apt description of many Lebanese – also open their lives to accepting the others, past a simple tolerance, in a country that largely frowns upon the union of these sects? Could this fascinating co-creative project evolve and tighten the execution of its ideas and actually make an impact on the youth and future social situation in Lebanon? The Imagination Studio plans to take on the challenge. And use these learning opportunities, such as at the Imagination Market, to build on them, imagining and imagining, that a better country is possible.


The Human Factor

June 5th, 2012

On the last day of May, at 5:30 a.m., I saw my first sea turtle nest. In the quiet of seaside dawn, the fat smiley tracks of the sea turtle stretched from the sea in front of us like a mother’s arms. It was the first turtle visit of the season.


Seat turtle tracks. Mama turtle went up the right side, laid her eggs, then created a camouflauge and went back to sea on the left. Soldiers look on in the background.

We get down on our knees with Mona and Danny, who poke their sticks into the sand to find the hollow of the nest. When they do, we all, including my friend Crystal, plunge our hands and begin shoveling sand back, 2 feet deep, until we see the white shells of eggs peeking from the sand.  Crystal and I are thrilled by the sight of these hidden treasures. The conservationists tell us that they had been scoping the beach each dawn since the nesting month for the turtles began on May 1, with no luck. When they saw the tracks finally, which were made in the dead of night while everyone slept, neither of them said a word, they just got to business.

Digging for eggs.

Getting to business.

The 30+ eggs (a small batch; the turtle may need to come back and lay the rest) are then carefully transferred with rubber-gloved hands to a bag and re-nested  a few feet back, safe from the sea’s tide. They are placed in the same exact line and same depth. The mother never comes back for them, but that mother was most likely born there on that beach. When the hatchlings climb from their nest about 65 days later, or are set free by a conservationist, their itty bitty brains and instinct record the magnetic field of the very spot they nested and were born. And if they live to be 30 years old (only 1 in 1000 do), they will come back to that spot or beach and lay up to 100+ eggs. If they cannot get to that beach, they will have to find a safe beach nearby, or lay their eggs in the water, which will never survive. Mona ties a red ribbon on a nearby plant to mark the nest.

Peeking eggs.

I had always wondered why people all around the world were so obsessed with sea turtles. I was beginning to understand: their elusiveness, sensitivity, their endangered status, their pure instinct, tug at an ancient string inside of me. One that believes in life’s infinite power, and its delicateness.

Ali, one of Mona’s helpers on her sprawling estate, helps clean the beach each morning and now brings a metal crate to hammer over the nest to protect them from being eaten by wild animals, namely foxes or dogs, or tampered with by humans. Ali has been with Mona for a long time, and she expresses her fondness for him regularly for both his love of the turtles and his hand in the estate.  (“I’m not getting any younger! I need help!”). We then pile the sand over the crate and wish the nest good luck.

Ali. Protecting the eggs from foxes, dogs, and humans.

We are at the Orange House Sea Turtle Reserve in Mansouri, Lebanon, just south of Tyre. This is Mona Khalil’s family home.  And since 1999, she has been in the Sea Turtle conservation business. It happened by accident, when she saw a sea turtle climb to shore one night. My friend and I went to the Orange House, which is also a bed and breakfast, for some sun and relaxation after the end of the semester. I hadn’t planned on waking up at 5 a.m. at “the first light” and hunting the beach for a green or loggerhead turtle’s fin prints. Or on feeling there was something miraculous in the experience of seeing the tracks, knowing that this mother, who had started life smaller than the size of a coaster had survived the enormity of the sea, lived 30 years, and came back to drop off her offspring. All of this in the night, when the disturbance of humans is at its minimum. An interesting fact: During the 2006 Israeli-Lebanon War, the beach had the most nests ever, since there were no humans traipsing around. However, it did scare the foxes from the hills who feasted on the eggs. Those foxes are still around. Would you ever think of sea turtles when you think of Israeli bombs?


Mona does not tag her turtles, as is customary amongst turtle conservationists. This is done to keep track of the turtles. But the only time it can be done is while the turtle is laying her eggs since she apparently goes into a trance-like state where she doesn’t react. Mona doesn’t believe in tagging because she puts herself in the turtle’s place. I’m trying to push out 100 eggs out of my body, godammit, and you take the opportunity to stab me with a permanent piece of metal?


When we found a lightbulb washed up on the beach as we helped clean, it led my friend and I to seriously contemplate where in the world this would have come from. The beach is the last place on earth you would have a lightbulb, at least this undeveloped beach.  I figured it wafted off the mountain of garbage in Saida. She thought it was a fisherman at sea who would dump a murderous object for sealife in the very entity that fed him. Whatever it was, it wasn’t innocent.  Another one of sea turtles’  enemies  is a white plastic bag, which dances in the sea just like a jellyfish, one of their favorite foods. Lebanon’s abundance of jellyfish is due to our filthy sea and the turtles’ deaths due to swallowing plastic bags. Imagine what lighbulbs and other pieces of metal or glass do to marine life.

Beach booty.


When we were back at the house and having breakfast, which included an awesome spread of Mona’s homemade jams from the trees on her estate (cumquat, lemon, apricot, yum), Mona and Danny chuckled because they had forgotten, due to their excitement, to measure and weigh the eggs.  I thought it was remarkable that they hadn’t shown their excitement at the beach. They had been very professional, whereas my friend and I had been yelping and clapping. (Really, we were like kids.) I wondered if their excitement was mixed with relief, as it had taken all month to find a nest. I wondered what it would mean to them to lose these animals.


In a country that has an official mountain of garbage, reaching the Orange House’s environmental goals, depite their remote location along the Naqora road,  is often a fight. Mona has fought local fisherman’s practice of dynamite fishing, and eventually won. She had to ask UNIFIL workers to stop buying turtles from the fisherman, and they obliged.  But there are some fights she hasn’t won. The beach must be cleaned each day. The day we were there alone, we filled two big garbage bags full – t-shirts, plastic bottles, diapers, caps, etc. The army checkpoint just 2 doors before her estate impedes foreigners’ ability to come to the Orange House as they always need permission from the Saida permissions office as it is an entry to the deep south. They hadn’t always been there, but moved there just 2 years back from just a few kilos up the road for apparently little reason, but it’s unclear. Their base also may shed light onto the beach at night which is confusing for turtles. And Mona has no government backing or aid, but you could have already figured that out.


The Orange House is a reminder of humans’ disconnection from the natural world. How do we protect ourselves? The natural world has become so foreign to us that we feel safer building more concrete around us than green. We poison our food with chemicals because we fear our resources will disappear.  Animals are just animals, usually utilized for our needs. We use more and more, and imagine that our garbage is “elsewhere.” We drive everywhere and, at least in Beirut, are obviously damaged by the excessive car exhaust and noise. Danny, a marine biologist from Spain, mentioned his first visit to Beirut and only remarked on the traffic and noise – especially the honking. And when he mentioned honking, I couldn’t believe that I had to go back to that, as I sat on a long stretch of clean beach, an island of sorts, the sun’s light shimmering crystals down to the sea. The sound of waves and thoughts were crisp and clear. The city was so far away. I looked out for the head of the sea turtle poking from the sea, looking ashore for some peace and quiet, a place away from us, to leave her eggs.


I thought I'd include a picture of the Orange House's hermaphrodite goat.


My friend Crystal Hoffman has another take on the trip; her post is not up yet, but here is the link to her blog.

If you would like to stay at the Orange House, not only to have a tranquil getaway on a sliver of paradise in southern Lebanon, but also to support the turtle conservation project there with your stay, call Mona at +9617320063 or +9613383080.


Slapped by the Wind

April 15th, 2012

It’s official: I’ve been “slapped by the wind” – and I can’t even Google it. Since I was a young tyke on Elmcroft St. in Peoria, Illinois, I was told to zip up my windbreaker, avoid switching between extreme temperatures, or to dry my hair before leaving the house lest I wanted to be “slapped by the wind.” This warning is not merely a reference to a strong wind overtaking you, wobbling you off kilter. It is a warning of another kind, and it multiplied in strength and frequency when I started living in Lebanon. My grandmother told me, “The wind here is different than Amerka.” And my mind would conjure up this notion that the flower-and-garbage infused sea breezes were dead-evil in their very composition. But truthfully, I didn’t believe in it.

Being “slapped by the wind” was in the same showcase of warnings as “don’t swim in the sea, you’ll catch a fungus”; “don’t walk barefoot, your stomach will hurt”; “don’t eat yogurt with fish, you’ll be poisoned”; “don’t let them curse you with their evil eye”; “don’t drink cold water if your body is warm.” To me, these were all overly cautious warnings passed down through the ages – only made true if you believed in them and meanwhile nurturing the wimp in ya. Furthermore, these warnings were for born-and-raised in Lebanon Lebanese, not the American kind.

Head in the pot.

But now my face is dripping with condensation as it’s been hovering over a steaming pot of eucalyptus leaves that were clipped from just outside and boiled on the stove. The villagers would use this home remedy when the wind did its thing against them. See, part of being slapped by the wind is actually this ironic thing where the wind is slapped out of you. As I type, I take deep breaths in, laboriously, as each inhalation sends a stab into my back, like someone is pushing and pulling a sewing needle from underneath my shoulder bone, between my ribs, to my chest. I assume that the eucalyptus was meant to open up my chest, which spasms when I eat or drink, so that breathing is smoother. In my case, I found that it … ouch, it hurts to laugh … as I was saying, it offers a relaxing, peaceful flow through the body, a minty tickle to the nose, and it opens up your pores. But, very little in the way of relief. Let me make something abundantly clear: Being slapped by the wind is painful, dreadfully painful. And it’s real.

A eucalyptus steam.

For those of you who live in Lebanon, have you ever left the country and been asked by a fellow Leb to bring her back a bottle of Advil? This is one of those distinctly Lebanese customs that somehow don’t expire. I wish I knew the first Lebanese national who discovered Advil and spread the news, years ago, that there’s this great painkiller that so-and-so can bring with her from Amerka because since as long as I can remember, rattling bottles of Advil  have been on the wish lists of Lebanese matrons and patrons, who have kept it safely stowed away in their medicine cabinets and with each pill felt the increased power of no pain, or less pain, and silently cursed their country for its god-forsaken government, killer traffic, and counterfeit bottles of Advil. But, I’d like to spread the word here: Lebanese Advil is just as good as American Advil. Game’s over, guys. No more freeloading off U.S. travelers. I’ve been taking 8 Advils a day for a week, and I would feel completely clean in my advocacy of this pill that I bought at Spears pharmacy just up the street from my Lebanese apartment. It softens my pain and pulls my spasms under control, all without stomach problems. I don’t feel the difference between it and its American counterpart. And it’s cheaper. Anyone back home need a bottle?

So how did the wind slap me, you wonder? I bought a bike. I rode it right after a yoga session as the cool spring air literally slapped my body from all sides.  As someone has so aptly described it to me: It’s like taking a warm loaf of pita bread from the oven and placing it on a picnic table in the cool air. It crinkles immediately. And perhaps the most important part of the equation is having not believed the tales of the wind that a Leb tells.


Post Script: I am now on day 4 and not much better. I woke up this morning and my inhalations incited a feeling far more intense than a sewing needle working its way through me; it was more like a plunger sucking the very humor out of my insides.