In transit, washed ashore

A few months ago, Europe noticed people taking the most perilous of roads towards the hope of something better because it couldn’t be worse; embarking on crazy journeys because staying would be crazier still. Tiny bodies washed ashore, families facing closing borders when only death is waiting back home. It has brought up the best of humanity in beautiful acts of solidarity, but also sometimes, the worst of the worst in idiots with their fantasies of inbred nations.

They deserve so much better. All those students and doctors and carpenters and musicians whose lives have been put on hold as the world pretends it was an unpreventable fatality. As if we didn’t know about barrel bombs; as if Asma al Assad hadn’t graced the pages of Vogue; as if peaceful protesters were ever given a fighting chance; as if Da’esh appeared out of nowhere and without warning.

Every time I see a face in the news, I can’t help wondering if it’s someone I know. A Syrian friend with whom I lost touch, someone I crossed paths with in Hamra 3 years ago, or maybe in an airport, somewhere in transit since their journey started so long ago, when the world wasn’t looking.

Spring 2012:

The sulking teenage sitting next to me on the Beirut-Cairo flight had the same name as me. I found out because her father, mother, grandparents and 3 little brothers kept trying to talk to her but she was insisting on being a sulking and decidedly unhelpful teen, despite the fact that her parents looked like they would really like to take a moment for themselves and have a good cry. Instead, they were shepherding the whole family away from hell. The adults looked so tired, so overwhelmed, the kids were being loud and had way too much energy, so she just decided to ignore her family.

Still, she was a teenager, excited and anxious about her first time on a plane! That made it hard to sulk too much, especially when the pilot turned on the engine and she started praying in whispers as she clicked on her Tasbeeh tally counter. A pink bedazzled child’s counter that matched her veil.

You were ignoring your parents but seemed happy enough to chat with me. You told me how you left Syria and how Lebanon only provided a short respite. You told me that Egypt will be better because it had to be. That you had visas and relatives in a town with a name you couldn’t remember. You were curious about everything, asked me where I was going, why I was travelling alone, and how old I was. I found the attention flattering but would have liked to hear more about you instead. You had little to say about Syria, said you hated politics and that was that.

During landing she panicked a bit, grabbed my hand and we laughed together but only for a moment. Back on solid ground, time was in motion again. Travellers grab their bags and must get going. The family had a long bus ride to their final destination, I was waiting for my connecting flight. I only had a small carry-on for a 3-day business trip, each member of your group had a big backpack and several carrier bags. Standing up, they all looked even more tired, even the kids appeared worried and thoughtful. This is when the father whispered a few words to his daughter who then asked me if I would like them to wait with me until my next flight. Now I was the one overwhelmed by his thoughtfullness when their own road was so hard. In contrast with their worries, their kindness, the ordeal they were not done facing, the burning uselessness of my own lightness felt like a hundred stabs in my gut.

Smile, say “no thank you”, say you’ll be fine. Wish them godspeed and be on your way.

Christmas 2013

I never saw man looking so exhausted, so ready to just shut down. Sitting behind me at the boarding gate, waiting for a flight to Beirut, I heard him repeat the same story again and again, at least 3 times in the span of the same phone call, trying unsuccessfully to end a never-ending conversation on the absurdity of passports. On the other end of the line, I imagined half a dozen relatives passing the phone around, all asking the same questions and hoping for a different answer. So he kept repeating:

He tried everything he could, there’s no point trying again.
They’re not letting Palestinians into Jordan.
He’s on his way back to Beirut, no he doesn’t have a plan.
He really wants a good night’s sleep and a shower, no he doesn’t have a plan.
He’s tired, he’ll talk to them when he sees them, back in Lebanon, he’s tired.

It’s a story easy enough to guess. He tried to enter Jordan but that’s not happening for Palestinians from Syria so he’s going back to Beirut. It’s a disappointment for the whole family waiting at the other end of the line.

Summer 2014

K is quite possibly the smartest young man I’ve met in a long time. He’s a fighter with the energy only young people can have and judgemental ruthlessness as a survival skill.
In a matter of months, he could speak Turkish fluently and didn’t understand why his fellow countrymen couldn’t.

He got a job and wonders why other Syrians are taking so long to adapt.
He’s already thinking of his next step and despises those who still dream of going back.
His mother and siblings also left and are scattered around the globe.
He is young enough to survive and can’t afford to empathise right now.

K says there’s nothing to go back to, if only his father didn’t cling to the dream of country and nation. His father who stayed in Damascus, alone in the big family apartment, eating frozen meals and watching state news on TV. This is the saddest part. He hates remembering that part.

At some point, between sips of beer and tequila shots on a Monday night in Istanbul, I thought I saw a little boy whose only wish is to be back home, at the family table, sitting with the people he loves. With a strangled sob he only said:

My relationship with my family is sponsored by Skype.

We’re still in touch, he’s thinking of hitting the road. He deserves so much better but the world sucks right now. They all deserve so much better than our inaction.


Learning rubbery morals, down the rabbit hole we go

I remember that time you called me in the middle of the night, sounding very upset but unable to tell me why.

That nameless guy you were seeing, the one you never introduced to your friends, he never called to confirm he got home safe, never texted you back and there was a heavy storm outside that night.

Too sleepy to assemble the pieces, I just asked if you at least called him. That’s when I heard you trying to strangle a sob. No you couldn’t call, what if you woke him up!

Your stories never made sense; they always had so many holes. I wanted to hug you through the phone but for the longest time I never said anything, and just watched you alone with your burden.

Never being able to tell us what’s on your mind.

Looking at us, knowing we know, pretending nobody knows.

People staring, whispering, being mean to you.

Having to leave work early and getting home late, never able to explain where you are from 5 to 8.

Cancelling plans with your friends when he had time to meet up, joining us at the last minute anyway because he couldn’t make it. Never explaining why you couldn’t plan ahead.

Checking your phone all day long for texts, but rarely phone calls.

Then again I was so very innocent back then, so stupidly radical and so ridiculously judgmental, way beyond anything I ever had the right to claim. Maybe it’s for the best that we never mentioned it all this time. Back then, I wouldn’t have known how to tell you that it’s ok, that we all need to fall down our rabbit hole and sometimes, sometimes or very often, it’s not going to be what our parents dreamed up for us. Sometimes or very often, we’re cast in roles that are harder to perform.

Today, with wiser eyes and softer edges, I can see the color gradient in a world I once thought was sharply black and white. Grey areas are everywhere now, and real sin nowhere in sight. We all end up rolling in mud one way or another; we have to be ok with it or go mad.

It’s like alcohol. The first sip of beer at the family table tastes sour and unpleasant. You’re a teenager and although you want to want the beer, sodas still taste so much better. Wine is bitter and whiskey is simply foul so you might start off with fizzy sugary cocktails until you get the hang of it. One day you’re drinking vodka straight from the bottle and that’s when your taste buds are tamed…

…or that’s when your moral absolutism is adjusted, made flexible, rubbery even. That’s when you become an adult who doesn’t drown in the ways of the world.

Of course, you can wrap it in a veneer of sophistication and make it fine wine, pretend you’re enjoying the malt in your scotch or whatever makes you feel better. Either way, the trick is finding what works for you, and you must be very careful not to go too far. Alcoholics are punished by never being allowed another drink. Isn’t that a chilling fate? Sinners who cross the fuzzy line and make a bigger mess than they can handle are kicked out of the playground.

I’m still learning but I’ll get the hang of it eventually.

White Collar Office Blues

So I’ve gone corporate.
And it’s a weird world out there.
Not a job but a lifestyle, a never-ending toothpaste commercial.
By far the best lifestyle I ever had by the way.

So smile, and don’t you dare not show those pearly whites.
Smile. Nobody here is afraid of wrinkles because they’re all so very young with great skin, the product of a lifetime of balanced nutrition and regular attendance at the gym.

It’s like college in American movies and the thing that makes this place magic is also what eats away at it.
27 year-olds stressed out because time is running out, wishing they could go back to being 19 and do things right this time.
35 year-old looking around and feeling alone.

Smile you’re one of the lucky ones,
Unless you’re feeling trapped.

Don’t you fucking dare not smile!
No place here for the un-perfect.
The atmosphere grows thick with internal monologues just left hanging there, for everyone to taste and ignore:
Did I speak enough at the meeting? did they see what a special snowflake I am?
Did I speak too much? Did I sound too negative? That would be the worst thing to be.
Am I giving all I can give? Everything? Everything everything? Surely there’s more left in me, I need to find it and give it now!
I need another chocolate bar.
Someone saw me overeating; they can all see I’m an emotional eater, that I’m not strong enough.
Why did they have lunch without me today, should I make more of an effort to show I’m a cool person to work with?
What if they find out I don’t really know SQL?

They have kayaking gear and carefully curated personalities.
They’re so lucky to be here, so privileged and special.
They’re so lucky to touch the aura of all that amazingness.
It’s glorious, that pink bubble of gum.

Nothing else in the world matters more.

That was not even a joke.

It’s the Willy Wonka factory. Any day now they’ll see I’m a fraud and drown me in the chocolate river.
I don’t want to be called out.

But, somewhere inside my head there’s a song.
A red banner and a raised fist.
The need to shout, revolt and break things.

The key is to believe that bubble gum can mend everything.
Work in progress.

Strawberry tart and a letter to 12 year-old me

I don’t know if it already started, maybe soon, maybe last year, but just in case you don’t know yet my darling, shit is about to hit the fan.

Everything will hurt. It will last a very long time.
You’re about to be hurt for a thousand years.

You wanted something else, and you wanted more, but what I know, and what you don’t know yet, is that it’s gonna be fine anyway.

And how I wish I could tell you…

Don’t listen to them, to the parents and teachers and friends who will stab your brain with their tolerant smiles, uncomfortable silences and absurd chuckles as they tell you time will fix you.
You are not broken.
I can see they already told you that time will smooth out your edges; turn your angles into soft and manageable curves.
Baby they are dead wrong, I promise you, they are wrong.
You are fine, you are great, you are GRAND as they say here. Your edges are ok, your principles don’t need compromise.
And their words, they are poison.

How I wish you already knew that there is nothing they can teach you.
I know you’re already not listening to me, that you’re letting them break you, and that it’ll take another decade to undo all the harm they’ve done.

The good news is that you are stronger than you think (and other things Winnie the Pooh says); strong enough for me to find you again, so many years later, and now it’s ok. That’s the one promise I can make.

Listen to Bikini Kill, Listen to them a lot more, try to understand that what you have is strong, that you can happen to people and things, just as much as people and things will happen to you.
Stay kind, it does not make you stupid. Don’t let them make you so hard.
Don’t let them tell you your lipstick is tacky, your hair unkempt, your t-shirt too childish.
Don’t let them bully you into smiling when you don’t want to.
Don’t let them zombie you to death.

Would you listen to me if I kicked you in the face?
Probably not.

You will listen to them, and do as they say.
And it will not fix you, and it will not make you sane.
Because you are not broken, and because you are ok.

Then again, maybe it’s meant to be. How else are you supposed to learn?
At least you will learn, you will learn so much.

But all these years lost, it still makes me a little bit sad.
You like Strawberry tart. You like eating all the strawberries first. Only after that can you go for the cream beneath it, making sure its all gone before biting into the pastry base that you like to eat dry.

But that’s a silly way to eat! People stare, and they ask with a stupid sneer: “What’s the use of a tart then? if you’re eating each ingredient alone!”

I used to know but I don’t anymore, you haven’t had a strawberry tart in 17 years.

Anger goes well with Merlot

Sometime it’s hard to be mature, calm and graceful. Well…. most times in my case.
I did well today though… these are the things I did not say:

“Fuck off”
“No, you don’t understand, please go away”
“You have no fucking idea, don’t hug me, go away”
“Shut up”
“I’m too tired to explain, and I don’t give a shit what you read in the news. Whatever I say, you won’t understand, go away”

Instead I smiled and thanked well-meaning people who all are “very sorry about what’s happening in Lebanon and in Syria”.

The thing is, these are genuinely nice people, and relatively well informed, and I really wish I could be nicer to them but it’s exhausting. And they don’t understand. How could they understand. Nice, politically-correct people with solid smiles and positive attitudes.

Tonight, I just want to finish my bottle of wine, be angry, and say outrageous, violent, and hateful things. The world can kiss my ass.

Where do you go when you’re angry?
When you’re sorry you can’t be part of the solution, because you don’t know how.
When you’re afraid that next time you go home, people you need and places you love won’t be there anymore.

I don’t mind that much when I’m in Lebanon. But it’s impossible not to worry when you’re not there.

I have to write a report

Banging one’s head on the wall… not just an expression.

I’ve been awake for 2 whole nights.

I have to write a report.

I have to quantify, assess, evaluate what I’ve seen.

People I’ve met, their families, scarred legs, relatives in jail, fear, sadness.

Real sadness, real hopelessness, a reality that reminds that my own blue feelings are bullshit.

I call bullshit on my report.

Nobody’s going to read it, and even if they do… I know enough to know it won’t matter.

Sir, help is not coming. Your life does not matter; you’re not the right country, not the right religion. Your raided house does not matter; Your son, who has been living in hiding for two years, he does not matter.

Budget will not be allocated anywhere it could have a significant impact. Your enemies are too powerful. Your allies are the wrong ones.

In the debate that matters, any other argument will remain purely academic.

I thought I had it figured out, as a consultant, I consulted. I could work with fashion brands, restaurants, and it allowed me to also do “what I really care about”. Human Rights? Riiiiiiiiiiiight…Alright! So glad I’m moving on to a “real” job, in an office, and a manager telling me what to do and what to think.

Sir, if you still think I can help you… you’re in bigger trouble than you can even imagine.

I’m sorry I’m not important enough to change that, and you’re probably even less important than me.

Policy is a bullshit word… I agree.

Instead of answering my silly questions, maybe you should follow your cousin’s advice and learn about explosives.

There I said it.

GoGo Train Wreck Banal (Orzo salad at Doha International Airport)

What kind of sick people make an orzo salad and call it tabbouleh? The Doha airport Costa Cafe people that’s who! Anyway it doesn’t matter, nothing matters, it’s just too early to be at the boarding gate so this will do just fine.

Nothing matters. We’re the bright kids with useless degrees. We’re sooo media, like Gary Shteyngart would say, if his characters had a say.

All around us is Qatar, crazy Qatar that owns PSG and Camden markets and the world. We only see the airport. The temporary version of the airport because the real thing is still under construction.

So here we are, almost 30, and we’ll never have diamonds in our soup. We’re the very qualified and relatively inexpensive workers of a lost planet; Doomed to have no home as we pretend our careers matter.

They don’t.

We will not change the world.
We will not invent ice cubes.
We will survive and not thrive.
We will win health insurance with our jobs.
We will lose health insurance when cancer catches up.

We will sometimes miss “home”, we might “go back” and leave behind everything we built to go looking for a home that has changed without telling us; we might “just stay there” and grow old alone, in a country where our accent is funny and where it’s usually too cold. We might start from scratch somewhere new, we often do, in a place where our accent is also funny, where we have nothing. We will be nostalgic about things that didn’t use to matter: the taste of a good apple and going to the beach every day, 5 months a year.

I can’t tell people I’m sick of living so randomly. I keep changing careers, changing destinations, pretending I know what I want. How do people build lives? I don’t know, don’t know how. I just got an email, a new job, in a new country. I’ll get packing as soon as I get home since I have no reason to stay where I am.

Right now it’s just a Qatar layover, lay over, roll over, submit.

You’re eating a sandwich, we’ve met before, when I had long hair. That was ages ago. The substance of our conversation: I’ve been wearing glasses since I was 2 years old, because that’s how long it took for my parents to discover I’m cross-eyed. So I was the cross-eyed girl, afraid to poke her eyes out with lenses, I wore big spectacles before they were approved by fashion magazines. This is how I can see that you have grey in your hair too and it’s kind of a relief. But we’re young, still young, aren’t we? No we’re not, not really.

So why do I feel so dumb, so bored, so teenage spirit so so so so cold. I’m a grown up, I’m wearing high heels, not that high but look! They’re cobalt blue! Granted, these are wedges, not heels but my ass is improved all the same.

These are the fuck-me pumps of a girl who lives in flats. “Flat-shoe advocate.” That’s what it says in Arianna Huffington’s twitter bio. But I’ll never be Arianna Huffington, I’ll never be successful, I’ll never be anything, and neither will you.

Instead we’re an Edward Hopper scene in drag: everyday sensuality gone cold. In our eyes there’s glitter and gold. And we shine baby! We shine bright.

I have a headache and there’s that Lilly Allen song nagging me “when she was 22, her future looked bright…” Ha!

Let’s be honest, let’s try. I’ll start: The only point is coitus. The only point of a wide array of elaborate, sexy, sensual, cinematic flirting touching smiling conversing, holding hand but it stings. Holding hands stings, kissing burns. He might grunt, look pathetic or (total buzzkill) call out for mother! (happened to my friend’s sister and now all the girls know because, we gossip). she might or might not moan, scream, snort or just fake-pornstar it (apparently my friend’s sister does it, yeah men gossip too). Few things are as unsexy as coitus. Oh what an ugly word! That’s exactly why I use it.

And it’s very wrong what they say about it being a moment of union. It’s isolating as hell because nobody understands; the man whose dick is going limp inside you will not understand what happened a few moments ago… Inside you. Still it’s what keeps us sane, remembering we’re nothing but mammals with lace thongs on a brazilian wax.

This is what we do, this is how we do it. Let’s do it. Everything else is uninteresting.

Let’s pick another plane, let’s not even ask where it’s going and let’s hope it’s Mexico. No, in fact I really don’t care where, Destination is a mute point, destination is always a brick wall.