Snazzy Bazaar

My newest venture & adventure in life is Snazzy Bazaar.

It is a very exciting and crazy step for me but these crazy steps have been the highlights of life so far – Thanks to my family and friends around me who always seem to accept my craziness, for good or bad.

The first major crazy thing I did in my life was stand on the balcony of the fifth floor in Beirut in 1999 and scream out loud to celebrate getting accepted into the NYU Tisch School of Arts for an MFA in Dramatic Writing, when I was 19 years old.  At that time, given the then very serious person that I was, it was a truly crazy deed (the screaming from the balcony).

In 2005, I did the second major crazy thing when I decided to leave my family & friends behind and go to work for Al Jazeera in Qatar. That prompted the third major crazy thing, when…

In 2010, I decided to leave my job to pursue an independent filmmaking career in Beirut. This was the beginning of placeless films and many great memories that I will hopefully be making for a long time with my friend and superstar producer, Lara.

In 2015, I took another crazy decision when my friend Vidya and I decided to sell everything we have and pack our lives and move to Puerto Rico – a place neither of us had visited before.

Today, as I recall all these great thrills, I feel grateful and lucky to have parents, siblings and friends who are able to put up with my craziness. In a few years, I will be doing another major crazy thing (still have to find out what it is) and I will be telling more stories inshallah.

This Too Shall Pass…

I have been working on “Twice Upon a Time”, a documentary film about my childhood during the Lebanese Civil War, for some years now. The film is finally about to come to a conclusion.

For the fact that you grew up during a war there is no changing. You will always have grown up during war. What can change is what you make of that experience.

On Friday, June 20, 2014, I got an opportunity to meet people who were making the best out of it!

I was invited to attend a lecture by Dr. Joseba Achotegui, Professor of Psychiatry at University of Barcelona, Spain, and author of “Ulysses Syndrome” and “Ulysses Scale for Refugees”. The invitation came from the Veteran, Immigrant & Refugee Trauma Institute of Sacramento (VIRTIS).

Between emails and in-person introductions, I managed to meet around 40 or 50 people that day at the lecture and the informal exchanges around it. That on its own is a fantastic achievement for someone like me, but it was not the highlight of the event for sure.

My favorite personal high note of the event was the fact that most of the people attending the lecture and all those esteemed professionals working and volunteering at VIRTIS today were war or trauma victims themselves.

At that time, this was a great unifying and defining trait about those in the room.

Today, when I come to think of it again, I find it all the more reassuring and uplifting.

These were people from all over the world who must have witnessed some war horrors or traumatic situations along the journey of their lives. Today, they are all doctors, engineers, professors, businessmen, or successful professionals working towards the improvement of other refugees and trauma victims’ lives.

When I wonder about their pasts, I see things I don’t want to know about. When I look at their present today, I feel that I want to raise them high and show them to all the sad refugees and war victims living in horrible conditions all over our planet.

Thirty years ago, in July of 1984, life was not beautiful at all for my family and hundreds of thousands of other families in Lebanon.

If somebody at that time had come and told us that we will be where we are today, we would’ve ignored them at the very least.

I wonder sometimes, when I feel so helpless towards all the refugees, specifically those living in Lebanon today, what can we do to tell them that even this, this too shall pass…

And will it?

Film Students and Film Stories

Soon after I returned to Lebanon in 2010, I was given an opportunity to look into the inner and outer worlds of Lebanese Youth through teaching scriptwriting to undergraduate university students.

Truth is, I was blessed for the time I got to spent with my students, my friends. Most of them were mature youngsters who needed an opportunity to express themselves and an opportunity to be listened to. But for some reason, they always chose to express themselves in abstract terms.

Telling a story is something that students in Lebanon, and all over the world I am sure, do on a daily basis.

Gossip is all stories:

Somebody, somewhere, something, conflict, succeds, fails.

But for the life of me, I could never understand why our film students failed to tell stories when it came to film.

Whenever there is a film festival in Beirut, I ask my colleagues and friends if there were any good short films. Most of the time the answers range somewhere between, “None” to “They were too abstract”, “I didn’t understand”, “It looked really nice but there was no….how to say it? Something was missing”.

A story is missing. Characters are missing.

Everything else is always at its best: Exceptional Cinematography, superb production design, great locations, talented actors… But a story that goes all over the place with no beginning, middle or end. And characters who laugh and cry and act and react with no dramatic motivation.

When I taught two years of scriptwriting I had hopes that my students will possibly make better films, maybe films that some people will understand at least. I know they wrote scripts that everybody else in class understood. That was a good sign.

But their films were made and not much changed. When I asked,

“Why didn’t you make the script you wrote in class? That was a good story! You worked on it for months.”

“But it was too simple, too understandable. I want to make something more sophisticated.”

Truth is, I have stopped wondering why we don’t have good short films showing at our festivals.

I now believe it is a societal issue that goes beyond film as a discipline.

There is a lot of bravery in Lebanon, and a lot of cowardice.

Our students rebel. Unfortunately, they only rebel against rules.

And our society is so full of sh*t that even the young ones do not feel safe producing material that is simple for others to understand. Because they fear their work won’t be appreciated. The safest thing is to produce material that nobody will understand. After any screening in Lebanon, nobody, not even I, will dare to say, “I didn’t understand what the film was about.”

But the truth has to be told to these young people: Courageous are the ones who expose their minds and hearts to others in simple storytelling techniques, accessible for the masses. Those who want to be sophisticated can enjoy their sophistication in the one and a half screenings that their films enjoy in sophisticated environments. For sophistication definitely travels less than simplicity does.

Syria: Destination Homs

In the late 1990s and early 2000s, we used to go on a summer trip to Syria for a week or ten days every year.

The trip was always fun. It involved more than one family, each in their own family vehicle. Most of the time my grandparents would also come along in their car. The grand children would take turns to ride with Teta and Jiddo. Although the driving and the arguments were not always fun, it is certainly a privilege to ride with teta. Let alone the fact that you get an automatic window seat.  In our family car, or any other family car, window seats were either reserved for the eldest two children, or rotated on a time basis.

The trip would usually start in Ghazzeh, which is close to the border point at Al Masnaa. Most of the time, we’d enter Syria from that border point closest to Damascus and then drive towards Dummar, where we would take our first break.  But sometimes, we’d choose to drive inside Lebanon up north to Baalbeck and then Al Qa’a, where the Lebanese and Syrian Borders meet closer to the city of Homs.

Today, I saw and shared a photo of what used to be the city of Homs: Post

I couldn’t not help feeling guilty.

Homs was never my favorite city to stop at in Syria. The stop in Homs usually involved a visit to the Souk and a stop at Masjid Khalid Ibn Al Walid.  The Souk used to be very crowded and had a lot of poultry -or at least that left a major impression on me: the smell of chicken and the “bak-bak-bakeeeeek” of the chicken.  But my grandparents used to love that souk. They always made sure to stop by.  As for the Masjid, it was a majestic place indeed: A big mosque with a lot of space outside for families to relax, picnic, and buy candy and “soos” or tamarind drink for the kids.

We used to arrive to the masjid in dire need for the restroom after a long drive. That restroom always had someone asking for a “Lira”/ a donation.  It certainly didn’t make us very comfortable at 14 & 15 years old to have to pay money to do the business!

During the earlier years of our adventures to Syria, we used to lodge at a very old hotel called “Al Zaafaran” (Saffron) in Homs.  That place was really closer to a castle than anything else. The rooms were huge, the ceilings were high like in old Arabic Houses, and the tiles were certainly a blast from the past -to say the least.  The beds at Al Zaafaran were huge for a single child so each two kids used to share one bed -either “Ras Danab” (Head/Tail) or side by side. More often than not, we used to read stories on those beds.  I don’t know how long did that hotel survive afterwards. Bombs or no bombs, it was definitely bound to collapse.  Needless to say; when we were kids, we didn’t like Al Zaafaran.  Whenever we heard the name, we’d express multiple degrees of disapproval.  I didn’t have any special connection to Homs either.

Today, I look at the picture of Homs and all I see is rubble. Even the masjid is in horrible shape.

The memories of the souk, the masjid, and Al Zaafaran flash by like distant images fading to black one after the other.

I look back at our innocent childish objections to stopping in Homs and I feel very guilty.  Tears escape from my eyes.

Even the smell of chicken does not deserve this destruction.

And I cannot help but wonder: Where did all the associations that care for the rights of chicken disappear?

//

What a Wonderful World!

Three major Gulf countries, namely Saudi, Qatar & UAE, admitted that they have been funding people on both sides of the conflict in Syria with money & weapons. The three gulf states held a joint press conference in Damascus earlier today, and apologized to the Syrian people. Qatar said it will cancel plans to build its sub-merged resort, The Amphibious 1000, and hand the $500 million to Syrian farmers. UAE said it will share half the profit of the Dubai Expo2020 they just won the bid for, while Saudi pledged a “carte blanche” commitment to the rebuilding of Syria and its infrastructure. The gulf states added that for every personal weapon they supplied during the past three years, they will pay to educate ten students from preschool to high school.

In Lebanon, most political leaders felt embarrassed when they saw what the Gulf countries did. Since the country has no ability to donate anything really, the ministers submitted permanent resignation from political life and returned all the money they stole from the public taxes or that they had obtained through shady transactions.

Thousands of Lebanese & Syrian citizens took to the streets of Lebanese cities and towns in joy. In a very post modernistic fashion, not a single bullet was fired during these celebrations. The people carried balloons and distributed Baklava to the passers by.

What a wonderful world…it would be.

شبح الأوبرا

ركنت السيارة عند مدخل الصيدلية. قرب المدخل كانت دراجة نارية من النوع المتوسط الحجم (جبلية) مركونة يقف قربها رجل خلفه طفل. حالما انتهيت من ركن السيارة، أدار الرجل الدراجة النارية واعتلى مقعدها، كاشفاً خلفه وجه طفل تشوّه بمعظمه من الحرب.

رأت ماي أختي وجه الطفل مباشرةً وكذلك فعلت أنا.

الطفل الصغير كان يلهو بشيء بين يديه ثم قفز واعتلى الدراجة النارية خلف والده وانطلقا مبتعدين.

ابنة أختي الصغيرة ذات الأربعة أعوام قالت لأمها دون وعي، “انظري! هذا الطفل قبيح جداً.”

كنت أظن قبل أن أرى وجه هذا الطفل الجميل أن قلبي سقط منذ أيام في أعمق هوّة يمكن أن تتواجد بين أضلعي. لكن هاتان العينان الغائرتان والأنف المختفي أكدتا لي أنه لا زالت هناك وديان سحيقة يهوي فيها الجنان.

وجه هذا الطفل يا صغيرتي أجمل منّا جميعاً. يا لتعاستنا.

بين هجرة العقول و فقدها

عندما زارتنا صديقتي الأمريكية في بيروت أريتها الملجأ في بناية بيت جدي على الروشة، ثم حصل أن رأت باب ملجأ بنايتنا في الحمرا وسألت إلى أين يؤدي هذا الباب؟ فقلت إلى الملجأ. بعدها وفي مساء أحد الأيام بادرتني بسؤال: “لماذا يوجد أسفل كل بناية هنا ملجأ؟”

تكهنت حينها وقلت أن البلاد شهدت صراعات كثيرة، أو أن البنايات القديمة لم تكن قد شهدت مشكلة مواقف السيارات فأبقت الطابق تحت الأرض خالياً.

وقد عنّ لي اليوم أن أسأل أمي نفس السؤال لأتأكد مما أخبرته للزائرة. أجابت أمي أن هذه البلاد تشهد فعلاً منذ الحرب العالمية الأولى (أو قبلها) صراعات مسلحة كل فترة قصيرة.

اليوم وبعد أن تأكد لي مما يجري حولنا أن “السياسة” و”الإنسانية” مفهومان لا يتفقان مطلقاً، أفكر فيما يلي:

إذا كانت أجيال هذا البلد (وهنا أتحدث عن لبنان تحديداً) منذ عام ١٩١٤ قد عايشت حرباً إثر حرب، فإننا نولد في وطن تكون فيه أمور مثلُ الألم والفوضى والفساد والقتل والسرقة والعنف والطائفية والحرب أموراً عاديّة. فلا عجب إذاً أن لا يسعى اللبنانيون لمحاربة هذه الأمور أبداً وإنما للتماشي معها لأنها من روتين الحياة، “هيدا بلدنا. احمد ربك بعدنا أحسن من الفلسطينية ما عندهم بلد بالمرّة.”

يا أخي أنا أحمد الله في اليوم كثيراً -بقدر البلاوي المحيطة بنا- ولله الحمد. ولكن هل أصبح تمنّي العيش في بلد ينظر الناس فيه إلى الفساد والرشوة والسرقة والعنف والألم على أنها ليست من مسلّمات الحياة، هل أصبح ذلك بطراً أو كفراً والعياذ بالله؟ ألا يحقّ للطفل بداخلي أن يحلم بالأمان يوماً واحداً فقط في هذا الكيان؟

الأمر الوحيد الذي أفادتنا فيه هذه المشاكل كلها هي أن “هجرة العقول” أيضاً أصبحت بالنسبة للناس أمراً عادياً، فإني أرى معظم الشباب بين نارين، إما “هجرة العقول” أو “فقد العقول” ومسايرة الفلتان.