Archive for December, 2009

You’ve Got Your Red, I’ve Got Mine

Tuesday, December 22nd, 2009

The following poem is by Tina Srouji, otherwise known as Tuna Fish. If you’ve seen her share a poem, you know that she fuses her soul into the mic. She brings her verses in handwriting. And when she’s done and her long arms have settled to her sides, you feel that she has truly communicated to you the rhythms and beats that played in her mind while writing. If you’re a writer, you are envious that she has the capability to reach so far inside of herself to connect to the entire audience. The following poem genuinely captures the harlequin, schizophrenic, unabashed nature of our beloved neighborhood, Hamra*. And provides a small example of  what Tina calls “a third-world revolution”…

*Hamra means “red” in Arabic :)

tinafish

Tina and listeners...

To begin with:

i-pod infiltrated signals

as feet beat up

Jean D’Arc street

and smells of sweet Socrate

creep through alleyways in the dark.

When it’s hot:

and sweat intermingles with green eyes,

and up high on their balconies foreign students

and locals exchange ciggies

and they speak,

of bullet infested cavities,

of paper week-late reveries,

of pouring more wine,

of asses so fine,

of bar hopping on side streets,

of what’s mine, theirs, and ours

and they’ll go on for hours and hours,

while floors below, cabs intermingle

escalading traffic grime,

and the heart of the city

comes to life.

What’s yours is yours but what’s yours is mine,

because every time my soul slams on those cobbled lines,

a rhyme plays in the back of my head, now disproved fact,

“step on that crack and might break your mother’s back.”

– But my mother’s just fine.

Because every time I trudge back up that deep red street,

She’s under the covers, fast asleep.

And now the allies know the schedule of the week.

They wait for me, Abu Naji down on Bliss,

he embraces me, pacing back and forth,

our relationship steady,

my cup of coffee always ready.

Bounce up to Younis:

Meet your Mac carrying, starving, struggling artist,

(a little too artsy for me)

intellectualizing more theories on

how it must be…

He looks at me,

assured, the fact is this,

my one response,

put your money where your mouth is,

and take it to the streets.

For lunch:

hit our Broadway Boulevard,

our hard concrete floors our

stores and stores and…

hey…look at that…more stores!

Our Gucci whores and Chinese made,

Our American bread and Philipino paid,

Our French speaking, Iraqi breeding,

Palestinian weeping, Iranian feeling,

German steeling to the core…

and we still got more!

We’ve got Vero Moda on four different corners,

we’ve got Vera Mada from Italian borders,

we’ve got people and people with money to spend,

and twice as much people holding out hands,

for a lend,

a thou at least?

For Mankoushi from Ghlayini?

Or maybe Warkit Ya Nasseeb

for the pretty young lady?

Brand perfumes, next event tickets,

perhaps we can satisfy you with

some Syrian brand Chiclets?

Beyond this:

I hear the crack of ceramic balls,

the calls of young men,

… about ten of them,

sticks and chalk flying,

lying around, Gitanes dangling

off lips with sips of Almaza

goes straight to the hips

Lets bet on this, I say

That things will never change

That life will always stay this way!

And we play our game,

and of course, he wins, so

Modca makes room, lets Jack and Jones in,

and our eyes grow wide as they let all this sink in

and our mouths quickly welcome the taste of evolution.

— This is the third world Revolution.

And this is only the Beginning.

We’ve got:

millions and millions of

roaches escaping busy feet,

we’ve got, millions and millions of

screams on Maghfar Hbeish Street,

we’ve got angels and we’ve got villains,

we’ve got dead ends and we’ve got bends,

we’ve got antiques and latest trends,

we’ve got tagged!

Graffiti-d Um Kulthoum walls,

we’ve got Khod, Khamsi bi3younak

and LGBT imbedded polls,

we’ve got roosters with their four a.m. wake up calls,

right behind Blue Note jazzy walls, and

we’ve got mosques, and we’ve got churches,

praying to Tika Tika painted on grimaces,

We’ve got La Senza!

We’ve got the latest push up Bra!

We’ve got, drenched out streets

smoke spiraling in the dark.

We’ve got the cold.

We’ve got the old, old, stories found

on electricity ridden stairs and the cares

of yesterday hidden under big bouncy hair.

We’ve got tearing cab seats.

We’ve got fleets of predators lurking in

the shadows for their prey

but at least say something!

We’ve got daybreak, shooting rays of pink light,

we’ve got after-hours, with glimmering star sights,

we’ve got noon, and tunes from every café, and

we’ve got the silence only found

at the end of the day.

— and we love it that way.

Because:

once they’ve all cleared the streets,

and all them Politicians have headed to sleep,

my humble feet make their way through deep red streets,

and chanting, one by one, they speak:

Lakum Hamra’akum…wa lee Homra’ee.

Post Note: If you are looking for a good Christmas gift for the literary kinds, pick up my favorite author’s, Zadie Smith’s, new collection of essays,  Changing My Mind: Occasional Essays...

An essay is an act of imagination. It still takes quite as much art as fiction – article by Zadie Smith

Anti-revolutionary Love in Revolutionary Times

Thursday, December 10th, 2009

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This is a small tribute to a one-year anniversary. The one-year anniversary of my first-ever engagement to be married. Scratch that. This is not a tribute to that. Yes, it’s true that one year ago, I and a ______ (I cannot decide how to describe him) man decided in a casual conversation that we should spend the rest of our lives together. Three days after Christmas and three days before the New Year, we bound our fingers with pretty rings. Three days after the New Year, it was over…

I want you to respect me, he said.

That man has been looking at you all night.

And you’ve been giving him the eye.

To be sure, “spend the rest of our lives together” was a fuzzy reverie, a stanza of its own, born of a heavy presumption: “this is the one.”  Each, independently, having announced to our separate worlds, definitively and by virtue of serendipity – we met in a taxi at the border of Lebanon and Syria. How does that happen and then not happen? Just like a movie, I’d say.  The taxi, the “chance” meeting, being that point in the love story when the action begins, cupid’s arrow set assail, fate’s lasso flung.  The story plays out with all its thrilling twists and turns and conflict and subsequent triumphs, then the movie ends.

You’re my best ever love, he said.

This was a mistake!

Don’t ever call me again. It’s over.

I never want to see your face again.

What was real? Desire and poise to be loved, safe, stable. Timing. A long-distance beginning, anticipation. Fantasy-making. Family approval. Trips into nature. Holding hands. Naivete. Foreigness. Obscurity. Jealousy. Blame. Rings and dates and commitments to life, to conventional things that make us feel we’re on track, normal, good in others’ unrelenting eyes. Proverbial culture clash. Judgment: He said, “I could not ‘accept’ you.” I say, you could never know me. We could never reach each other – there were too many years and oceans and cities and convictions between our lives.

It’s all your fault.

We are not only humans, we are dancer. We are products of separate geographies and choreographies. I will not call it East versus West, as this dichotomy oversimplifies our identities and pardons our small individual actions by virtue of our membership within a mammoth expanse of culture and space. Will we ever be responsible for how we treat each other? For how we see the world? Has being human become less relevant?

Love in Lebanon today is cross-eyed. In fact, my conviction of this is so strong that it inspired the title of this here blog as a result.  We are all mixed up between the images of the sweet young pure woman-in-waiting for the suave gentleman to pull up in his BMW and enter her home in humble request of her company and soon after her hand; and today’s opportunities to date and experience what, in the past, was meant for only married couples to experience. The major shift: women have new roles in the workforce, and therefore, new freedoms. And so today, love’s choreography is classic, but with a contemporary twist. But, who is making the compromises?

Recovering from this breakup often took me out into nature, for therapy. One day I was taking a walk along the corniche when I spotted a sad looking girl about my age, who was staring out into the sea. I took a seat next to her on the bench. A young man stood just across from us, leaning against the railing, holding the leashes of his two German Shepherds. With his other hand, he chucked an empty plastic water bottle into the sea. I expressed my disgust, “What, is the sea yours?” And he “apologized,” smiled and posed, shifting from leg to leg, apparently interpreting the disgusted comment as flirting. The girl sitting next to me said, “You cannot say anything. They won’t leave you alone. I came here to be alone.” I asked her if someone had made her sad, as it was obvious in her eyes and demeanor. She had a ring on her engagement finger.

“He goes with other girls and does things with them because he can’t do them with me,” she reasoned. “But, how much more can I take? I put the hijab on for him. I forgive him. I don’t see my friends anymore. I gave everything up for him.” She said it was the first time that she came to sit by the sea in months. I remember feeling aggravated and determined to push a thought into her head, words that were told to me, that gave me a push out of my own recent misery and self-deprecation over a self-righteous person: You deserve better, I told her.

She nodded and hardened her eyes, but I could still see the soft, tattered outline that indicated she needed a whole lot of strength training to believe this.

My own tattered feathers molted only with the strength and love of my family, friends, and strangers who, I found, knew me better than I knew myself in one way or another. And also knew the kind of person who I had dealt with – one who shames and blames, only after getting his way – far better than I had. They surprised me. Everyone from my 77-year-old grandfather to the stranger on the plane who I recounted the whole story to, told me the same thing: You deserve better. Why hadn’t I come up with that on my own?

This new view reminds you that, particularly in matters of the heart, your interpretations are at the mercy of your insecurities, ignorance, and mostly – your desires – not your good sense. Example: Whenever my and this person’s proverbial “cultures clashed,” which bespoke our roles as man and woman, what is respect, and who decides propriety, I interpreted that being in the role of a minority member – a Lebanese-American in Lebanon – I had done wrong.

This conclusion disregarded my personal convictions about what a relationship should be, and persons’ rights therein. For example, I knew it was wrong that I was being blamed for someone “looking” at me or for going out with my friends to the pubs or having male friends or having a past. His conclusions were unfair and misogynistic – and due to his interpretations of who I would/should be as a wife. But I could not accept that he couldn’t “accept me” as I was! Culture clashes could be fixed!

So I shunned my convictions, in that confused and devastated state of mind, believing instead that I could have done a better job of showing him that I loved him – I should have been more sensitive to him as a person, and also as a Lebanese man. I should have asked more questions. Ignored less. I lost him and it was my fault, and I believed that.  I could be better. And perhaps my liberal ways, which America had taught me, needed to be put in check.

It’s funny and true: “When in Rome…” In this case, “When in Lebanon…”

As a Lebanese-American, I always shunned the decision to marry someone after a short period, in this case just 3 months, which is usually the time it takes to move past being polite! But this is normal in the Arab world. The implications are that you should know in a short time if someone fits the bill – and if you’re good on paper and you can stand the way he smells, why not! I was willing to turn myself over to a foreign life, in this foreign way, even though many of my 30-something Lebanese counterparts were past this, having fought the endless taboos our culture had drilled into us since we said Hello World. Today, revolutionaries march through Beirut, to the beats of their determined drums to be who they are and demand what they believe. Yet, despite all of the growing, traveling, learning, and experiencing, I somehow felt secure following this traditional, easy, “safe” route, which manipulatively whispered, this is your best bet. I was charmed by the comfortable duo of all that is Lebanese in the Lebanese man and at the same time all that he adopted from the outside. I was seduced by this person’s desire to sweep me up as quickly as possible and “take care of me.” I had never thought I would accept to be in this position, nor had I ever felt the inclination to. I figured it was love.

It’s a year later. And as in war, in love there are always wins and losses that must be accounted for. What did I lose?  Tolerance, respect, patience for that which only serves itself. I lost a portion of my naivete. Trust. I lost myself for a while. Eventually, I lost the fear of being who I am.

I won. A deeper insight into the differences between here and there. A life-changing look into the true people my family members are, and embrace of their unconditional love. The wise words of my friends. I gained the friendship of a few strong Arab women with whom I feel solidarity. I gained a fire in my heart that promises to burn that which resembles the flimsy convictions that only serve particular groups of people at the demise of others, and a fire that keeps me believing that we all deserve better.

So, no, this is not a tribute to an anniversary, a repetition, a re-run. No, this is a tribute to change that develops from all that hasn’t changed.

To be continued…

My post-break reading list – chosen for their titles

Astonishing Splashes of Colour, Clare Morrall

Old School, Tobias Wolf

Country of Men, Hisham Matar

Yellow, Janni Visman

The Human Stain, Philip Roth

The Arab Woman Writer

Tuesday, December 1st, 2009

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My good friend, colleague, and Beiruti writer Lina Mounzer was recently invited to Belgium to give a talk, which was entitled “The Voyeur in the Mirror: Negotiating Arab Self-Representation in Western Language Literature.” Upon arriving to the auditorium where she was to give her talk, she found that it was moved to one that would accommodate the unexpectedly large number of people who had signed up to come listen to her. This is her account.

It was huge.
Lit with stage floods.
I had to either stand on stage or sit at the edge of it.
And there were so many goddamned people.

Why had they come? Why did I have at least twice, if not three times the number of people that Rachid El Daif – whose books are actually translated into both French and Flemish – had had?

I will tell you why my friends. It is not because they had heard wind of this next, great literary sensation, much as I would like to believe, and have you believe.

No.

They had come, very simply, to gawk. To gawk at this strange, bizarre contradiction  in terms – the Arab woman writer.

The Arab woman! Speaking freely! Expressing herself despite the tyrannies of patriarchy and Islamism that have her swathed in veils of self-loathing and oppression.

Oh the irony! That my entire talk was designed around deconstructing this notion, that my entire talk was about confronting and refuting the stereotypes about the fixed notions of “freedom” and “democracy” that stand ensconced in concrete in Western brains. That I began my talk by asserting the writer’s fundamental right to remain apolitical, that is, outside of the simplistic binaries of politics while fully aware of the fact that writing, that self-expression, is an inherently political act.

And what was my first question after this talk was over?

From an earnest-looking, bespectacled man in the audience, sitting with two female friends: “What do you think of Islamism?”

Head-Lina now, having had time to reflect in helpless rage, shoots back: “I don’t know, what do you think of European racism?”

But Then-Lina, Real-Lina, stumbled and half-giggled and said: “What do you mean? I don’t even know how to answer such a question.”

And the poor man, he really wanted to help me understand. Gently he explained: “Islamism. We’re very afraid of the threat of it here in Belgium you know, and I wanted to know how you felt as a woman.”

I explained that radicalism and extremism of all sorts terrify me, whether it be Christian-Jewish-Muslim-Hindu, whether it be the radicalism of free-market liberals, or the radicalism of staunch atheists who have as little room for doubt in their world-view as religious zealots. I did manage to get in a little dig about European xenophobia (careful, so careful not to use the word racism – why?) and finished by reasserting the need to remain nuanced in the way we see societies and people.

I make myself sound far more eloquent than I was at the time. At the time I was bewildered, held captive by the sudden realization that these people HAD HEARD NOTHING I HAD TO SAY. And aware, suddenly, that I was there to be gawked at.

The questions afterwards were no better. “What do you think of Terrorism?” (It kicks ass! Nothing like it to beat the boredom of a rainy Sunday afternoon.) “What do you think of the Palestinians?” (I like their food, but a lot of them are real stick-in-mud assholes, if you ask me.)

The only, only question remotely related to writing, from the same earnest man who asked the first one about Islamism: “Is it extra hard to be an Arab woman writing? You know, because people don’t want to listen to what you have to say?” (What, you mean people like you?)

I told him that all women have to struggle to be taken seriously as writers, that if you look at the history of literature and compare it to the amount of time that women have even been considered in the canon that it points to a desperate void of female voices and blah blah blah.

“Yes,” he said. “But it must be extra hard to be an Arab woman writer.”

And so we leave this audience to their fixed ideas, ideas I am sorry to say I did little to shake, and we go back to the bed and breakfast, where I invited Sarag to spend the night so we could explore Bruges the next day.

Read Lina’s fiction: The Girl in the Red Beret and Celebrations