Today I was meeting my friend Lara near the HSBC in Hamra. I needed to take my laptop for us to do some work and of course had to carry my purse. So to avoid the abundant stealing incidents, I put all my stuff, including the laptop, in one big bag and walked there.
At the corner, facing HSBC diagonally, the road sign was still red for pedestrians on one side so I crossed the other one. And before I knew it, a pick up truck stopped abruptly near a man on the street and out jumped the middle aged driver. He grabbed the man by his shirt right below the neck. I saw all this happen in a fraction of a second. The two men pushed each other away and the middle aged man lifted his shirt and reached out to his waist, where I could clearly see a black body of a gun. I walked very fast on the street away from them, while the men were still yelling:
“Who the **** are you gonna ring?”
“It is none of your business. I’ll ring whomever I want to.”
Ok, so it was not a gun. It was a mobile phone. Shit. I slowed down and kept going, until I realized… Where is the HSBC building? It was right in front of me. And I found myself gone astray somewhere in Hamra way further from HSBC and my destination.
I cursed Lebanon and the Lebanese and the guns and my cowardice and walked back.
Yesterday, after a long day of repeated Electricity blackouts in our supposedly prestigious neighborhood of Hamra, I sat down checking twitter for the latest crap happening in Lebanon mainly. Besides the usual roads blocked and tires burnt and electricity blackouts, there was this UNusual tweet from our Minister of Energy.
Now I’ve long known that many many Lebanese people live in denial. For me, I don’t like it but I can’t blame them. After all, denial is simply a coping mechanism, and some people don’t have a choice but to live in denial.
But when a minister in the government tweets a statement like the one above, it made me directly pity him. Not because he thinks Lebanon is not the worst country. I agree, it’s not. But to say “any country” is worse than Lebanon is just plain arrogance. I wanted to say many things to Mr. Bassil when I replied to that tweet. But I know he probably has more important things than me to think of. He’s busy getting us ships with electricity on their board to light our houses. Or maybe he went offline because the electric current at his home went off. Maybe he was late coz he got stuck in one of those horrible traffics caused by the burning tire gangs here and there and everywhere. I wanted to tell him that I have lived in the US and it was better than Lebanon. And I lived in Qatar and -surprise- it was better than Lebanon. I have visited many many countries, and -WTF- they were ALL better than Lebanon. Even Tanzania was better. It had fresh air.
Today, our electricity here in Hamra has gone off 4 times already. The roads are blocked in more than one district of the country. People are divided about a conflict in Syria and blind of our problems inside Lebanon because each of their leaders has a ministry to suck off its goody goodies. There is no tourism. The people hate each other and hate their jobs -if they have one. The level of stress among citizens is very high -if only because of the traffic. But, hey, if you want to leave all this beauty and go, no problem. You will discover, sooner or later, that Lebanon was better.
There was a Japanese woman yesterday at the lower gate of LAU, who gave me a book and said I can make peace.
I usually don’t go to LAU on Tuesdays. But yesterday I went to help with the preparations for the Annual Theater Festival. I was almost at the lower gate when I noticed a travel suitcase outside. I thought it’d be for a student leaving to their country since the semester is over. Then I noticed this short woman carrying few books and wearing a badge around her neck.
I know these types. I always see them around Hamra Street waiting for victims to approach then they either want you to donate for a cause or answer a survey.
I am a Itani. Just saying. I saw the woman approach a student who just left LAU, but the student knew how to fend her off so she came back to the sidewalk. I noticed something strange, however. The woman seemed to be Asian from a profile view. I wondered, is it possible that Lebanese people are now using Asians for these jobs? I didn’t have time to wonder too much, though, because the woman’s next “victim” was none other than myself. She saw me and smiled. My smiley face. Grrrr. In my heart I decided that I will not surrender to this woman’s will to make me pay money if it is something I don’t want to pay for. Of course the part after the “if” was just to satisfy my ego, because I never succeed in escaping.
The woman and I had now become really close and she politely started the conversation:
– Hello, you speak English? May I speak to you for a moment?
I said yes, sure. Like a Lebanese child, I always become happy when an older foreigner knows that I can speak English. She also looked older than my mother, maybe my grandmother’s age. And she was obviously not in love with the heat.
– My name is Hayuko, I am from Universal Peace Federation.
She showed me her badge. Like an authentic Lebanese I pretended to be interested. I knew Hala would be waiting for me with a “yell” at the very least for being late, while this Missus talks to me about World Peace. Try to give Hala THAT excuse! But, anyway, it was too late to run away. She handed me one of the books from her hand.
– I am distributing this book here. I come from Japan, to make peace.
– “You came from Japan to make peace in Lebanon?” I laughed briefly but took the translated book nevertheless.
She nodded. I don’t know if the Japanese humour is not similar to Lebanese humour or if she seriously thought she was going to make peace in Lebanon. Bottom line is I couldn’t help but respect her passion for peace -she was hopeful talking to hopeless.
– And you think I’m going to read this book and make peace in Lebanon? You think I can make peace?
– “Yes, yes. This,” she took out a handmade card from her bag and handed it to me, “is from my friend Chiharu. She wanted to come to Lebanon but she can’t, so she sent you this.”
Things were getting better, but my mind was now consumed with two things: 1- I am definitely getting yelled at by Hala for being late because of World Peace. 2- Is she trying to sell me a handmade card on top of the translated book about some peace making Japanese dude?
– That’s very nice.
I noticed that the woman’s family name was “Watanabe” and I wondered if she could be Ken Watanabe’s sister. I shuffled the pages of the book and started thinking of possible excuses. The woman also had started getting restless at this stranger who wouldn’t buzz off, I guess. She took another thing from her bag.
– This is the Japanese symbol for peace.
– Oh, Origami!
– Oh! You know!
Her face lit up at my knowledge of Origami and she gave it to me happily.
– Thank you! How do you say, thank you in Japanese?
– Arigato, Hayuko. Ok, so are you selling this book or is it just something that I have to read then make peace?
– No, no. I am not selling. You read.
– Ok, so then do I have an assignment afterwards? Like do I have to write to somebody?
I now know that this must’ve sounded like an idiot because I feel like an idiot and I remember that she looked at me like I was from outer space. Does this woman think that people don’t give books for free? Not in Lebanon I’ve never seen anybody give a smile for free, heavens forbid.
– No, no. You just read for peace.
– Ok, Hayuko. Arigato! Good luck!
I walked in to LAU and went directly up to the Fine Arts. Good thing Hala had given up on me arriving on time so she was out of her office!
But I was thinking, is the woman coming from Japan to ask me to make peace in Lebanon a good thing or a bad thing? And, out of all people, why me? Does she know that the thing that I want most in this world is to get out of here because of the absence of peace? Is that how messiahs are chosen? Like we write our protagonists? Identify their weaknesses. What is their darkest shadow, their biggest fear? Put them face to face with it. Make them arc.
I just returned from a European Embassy to apply for a visit visa. Of course my papers were missing some documents that these people won’t process the visa without, including, bala zoghra, Ikhraj 2eid 3a2ili bil frinsewi. Which you have the freedom to send later, (as in, it doesn’t REALLY matter whether you send the family civil status record in French or not) because they love to be a pain in the ass and exercise their powers.
I chose not to drive to the Embassy because Parking in Beirut is a pain in the ass on its own. And driving is yet another factor to help your blood pressure shoot up, so, no thank you. I said I will take the Service (Collective Cab). Again! Anyway, I hailed a service and said, Hamra. He said no. I hailed another one so I tried Bristol. He said no. I hailed a third one and said Hamra or Bristol. This one said YES! So I rode with him and it was a very smooth drive alhamdulillah. BUT, the service driver has to be a pain in the butt and remind you of where you live. Before he even gets to the Central Bank of Masraf Lobnan he says, “yalla here is Hamra wherever you can get out will be excellent.” ((As in, the sooner you fals3i, the better)). Now I was wearing high heels to impress the embassy (next time I’m going in flip flops), so I didn’t want to walk Hamra street all the way in those shoes. I didn’t say anything.
– Ya ukhti you are very lucky. I never drive this service.
I was thinking, “Oh, great. It is probably his brother’s car or something”.
– I drive it as taxi only. (No offense but it’s an old poor Japanese car)
– “shu ana jbart jiddak ttali3ni mnil balad lahon service?” (In my head of course), out of my head I am only agreeing with a mild nod.
– Sort 7atit benzeen min honeek la hon 10,000 lira. Shu bya3mlo hawdil 2000? (I paid him to try to shut him up)
– “Mfakkarni mastooli shaklak. I drive and it takes 765 LL to get here from there without traffic.” (In my head)
– Allah ykhallisna min hal 3eeshil khara.
– I will get down here, please. (This time I said it out loud)
He was very happy and he let me down. I was still before Costa Coffee but I figured I will walk a bit and smell some Beiruti air with gasoline and pollution than stay with this guy and have to listen to his curses and reminders how shitty his life is. Because he is the only one -I am very sure- who is suffering from this 3eeshi in our civilized country.
What did I do tayyeb to piss you off like that because I paid 2000 LL to get from A to B? Or now I am thinking, maybe he thought I will pay him more because I was wearing high heels. Sniff sniff. I’ll just put on my sneakers now and go down to Younes. Coffee, calm music, and 30 scenes to write will be a great medicine for these dark times. But for now, Chamishi Shalom 🙂
Our apartment is, as you probably know, in a Itani building. This building has a street, as you probably figured, in front of it.
The street had been closed for about 7 years when it was partially re-opened in February 2012. For on this very same street there is also an entrance to the palace of our ex-prime minister Rafic Hariri who passed away BEFORE blocking the road. On the same street also, there is the lower gate to the Lebanese American University where I teach. But this blog post is not about LAU or Rafic Hariri, nor about the palace.
This post is about the shops on this street, most of which had to shut down because of the blockade. They slowly closed, one after the other. Then the street became a haven for kids to play football in, in the midst of day – something miraculous in Ras Beirut. Some people in the neighborhood -not Itani’s- sit down and smoke sheesha on the side of the road in the mornings. Why not? It’s available and VERY secure. Truth is I have something to say about the security of people on this street, but some other time.
One of the shops on the street was a FLOWER shop. It is a sweet thing to have a flower shop close to you. In fact, this flower shop was not only on the same street. It was in the building right next to ours. How good is that? Anytime you feel like it, you can simply pick up a bouquet and go upstairs and present it to your mother, your father, your sister, yourself, or the neighbor.
And how beautiful would it be to head back from LAU last Wednesday and discover that the flower shop is open again? Cue music! 𝄞 𝄢♭𝄃 𝄑 𝄫♭𝄡 𝄢 ♮𝄞
Ok, I didn’t take a long look into the shop. I simply saw the “florist” standing outside. I recognize this guy because I see him around our street and Hamra in general. I wanted to give him a big smile (a psychological hug) but I only nodded and whispered “Salam”. I was very happy, that I now feel happy just thinking of the joy the thought of the flower shop re-opening under our apartment brought to my heart. I told myself, “I will blog about this beauty.”
And here I am, doing exactly that! I went upstairs, super excited, and broke the happy news to my Mom. She was sitting in the living room with Hasan, my brother-in-law, and my older sister May. And Hasan and Mommy directly woke me up to my senses:
– This guy is just pretending to have his shop open. The landlords filed a lawsuit to end his lease so he’s just here for show. Did you see any fresh flowers in his shop?
– Truth is I didn’t look into the shop well.
Cue sad music now 😦
I felt horrible. HORRIBLE. How can a florist, for me almost a sacred being who deals with flowers, these beautiful creatures, how can he be a liar? And it was then that I noted to myself; there is a big difference between a florist, and a guy who sells flowers.
So for whoever is doing any research related to this lawsuit, if you’re doing your homework right, you know the real story behind Lebanon Rose now. It withered a long time ago.
Another service episode. (These are collective taxis in Beirut)
Since forever, everybody tells me NOT to pay the cab driver until I get very close to my destination, otherwise they might just take me on a tour of the whole city. I know I probably should get one, but not in a service, that’s for sure.
Anyway, I usually abide by the advice. And so far, none of the cabs has ever took me on a long tour. So, today, I thought I’ll just give the guy his 5,000 as soon as I got in near Sodeco. It was the first stupid thing I
did in his car, but it was probably the least stupid thing.
I hand the guy his money, and take back my change and he starts the interrogation.
Driver: “You’re going to Hamra, to the University?”
N: “Yeah, near the university.”
D: “But did you go to university?”
N: (I probably shouldn’t tell him I TEACH at one) “Yes. I graduated!”
D: “Wow, mashallah. God Bless. How old are you? 18? 20? 18?” (Yeah. Right. You perv.)
Let me quickly give a personal card about myself. I am 30 years old, single (I was engaged once to a wonderful man), I have no kids, and I’m not particularly interested in the Eastern mentality when it comes to marriage.”
Back to the cab, the guy waits for an answer. I cleared my throat. What can I tell him.
N: “I am THIRTY.”
D: “Thirty! Whoa! God bless. You look eighteen. Raise your eyeglasses let me see.” (asshole)
Now this is a man who’s in his fifties, as old as my mother possibly. So, I lift my eyeglasses just a bit.
D: “Are you married?”
WHAT?! What the heck is wrong with this man. AND what should I tell him. If I tell him that I am single he’s probably gonna take my Dad’s number and ask for my hand in marriage. So, I decide to practice my craft… without knowing it’s gonna lead me to horrible consequences. And I start crafting a story.
N: “Yes. I am. Thank God.”
I suddenly remember a story that my aunt once told me about a woman who told a cab driver she was married and then got raped coz he didn’t want to rape a virgin. But it was now too late to “undo”. I just hope that this man isn’t really looking for a similar weird thing. But no, he just wanted to talk it seems. Coz,
D: “What’s your husband’s family name?”
N: “Ermmm. He’s not from here. He’s Syrian.”
D: “SYRIAN! SYRIAN! Why did you have to marry a Syrian, my daughter? Are there not enough good Lebanese men here?”
N: “He’s a good man.”
D: “You love him. HA! That’s it. You love him. Do you love him?”
N: “Yeah. Thank God.”
D: “And does he love you? He better do. A Syrian!”
I look out of the window and I see two women waiting for a cab. I pray to God that they happen to be on our way, and the man picks them up. Thank goodness. They are going to Noueiri. I am an idiot. I don’t know where is Noueiri, but it seems -from its name- that it is not somewhere between Sodeco and Hamra. I take a breather whilst the women get to where they want and as soon as they’re out,
D: “Do you have any kids?”
I didn’t have time to plan this answer so it came out automatically.
D: “Well, you said you’re 30. You must be a new bride then, eh? How long you been married?”
I was engaged once in 2003. I count the years. My second and fatal error.
N: “Eight years.”
D: “EIGHT YEARS? NO KIDS?! What’s wrong? Is there something wrong with you? With him?”
N: “No, nothing is wrong with either of us.”
D: “How old is your husband?”
N: “37.” I thought it’d be cool for my imaginary husband to be 37. That’s a nice number. And the driver agreed.
D: “That’s a good age difference. What does he do?”
N: “He’s an Engineer.”
D: “Good. Good. Do you have a house in Beirut or a rental?”
N: “No. A rental.”
Heavenly creatures. Please get me rid of this man. Bloody hell.
N: “In Khaldeh.” (outside Beirut)
D: “Good.” (Are you kidding me?) “Do you commute every day? Back and forth?”
N: “Yeah. Mostly. Sometimes we stay in Beirut.”
D: “At your mother’s house!”
D: “Is there a place for him to sleep at your mother’s house?” (What do you mean, loco?)
N: “Yes. Of course.”
D: “Did you see a doctor for the kids issue?”
N: “Yeah we’re trying.” Shit.
D: “What did she say?”
N: “She said there’s nothing wrong we just shouldn’t stress ourselves about it.”
D: “Yes, she’s right. My sister-in-law didn’t conceive for TEN YEARS. I was taking her to the doctor by the end of them.” (Great) “You know what he said? He said she was….” (Pretty explicit stuff). “You need to be sure that you’re not facing any of these problems, and doing it right, and doing it at the right time of month. You shouldn’t be nervous like your doctor said. That way it’ll happen. Excuse me for being so explicit but these are medical issues. You seem like a good woman and I want to help you.”
Right. I’m wondering if the guy is jerking off by now or not yet. I was starting to get sick and scared.
N: “It is all as Allah wants.”
A woman stops him. She wants to go to Bshara El Khoury. I am almost sure that’s almost where I was when I first got in but I don’t say a word. I paid the man 5-effing-thousand liras to get me from Sodeco to Hamra. How hard can that be? I am pissed off. The woman gets in. He drives her. She gets out.
D: “My brother now has five kids. The same one who didn’t have children for ten years. Now has five. He went to this famous doctor, try to remember with me, what’s his name. He was a minister of health at one point…er..” I am the last person you can ask about ministers’ names, man. Do I look like I care who’s the minister of shit?
D: “Anyway, his office is on our way. I’ll actually drop you there now.”
N: “I will let my Mom know about it and take an appointment.”
D: “You know you said you’re 37. You should be taking charge of your own life now. You can’t still depend on your parents. Mom this, Dad that.”
N: “My husband is 37. I am 30.” That was actually funny. I am laughing about it now, at least.
D: “Right. And you know what? You must do it fast. Drag your husband around. Men don’t care about having children. Women do.” Yeah, well, not THIS one. “And you know what? If you don’t get pregnant fast, his mother will start bugging you AND him. How is she with you? Does she like you?”
N: “Yes we’re pretty much on good terms. She’s a good woman.”
D: “Well, that won’t matter now that he’s 37. She’s gonna tell him to marry a local girl. Do his parents live here?”
N: “No. In Damascus.” (I hope he doesn’t ask me where coz I know the Masjid Al Omawi and Souk Al Hameediyyi in Damascus and that’s about it)
D: “Do you visit them?”
N: “Not now. No. But we usually do, of course.”
D: “Yeah. That’s good. Have a fun weekend in Damascus. Well, his mom is gonna bug him, “37 years, aakhidli yaha Libaniyyeh, shu nafa3et ma3aak?” He’s damn good with the Syrian accent. And I already hate him for making fun of Syrians. Two beloved people in my life are Syrian.
N: “She wouldn’t do that. He would never do that.”
D: “YOU think he’d never do that. But at a certain point it’ll happen. That’s the truth. If you don’t get pregnant. But you will, inshallah. God willing you will.”
D: “Are you helping him with the expenses?”
N: “Yes. I teach.”
D: “Great. At school or privately?”
N: “At school.” (I HATE teaching at school)
D: “Which school?”
N: “Al Iman.” (That’s where my aunt teaches)
D: “Oh I know that school, it’s a good one.” Pffffffft. Yeah, right. “So you finish your work at what time?”
N: “Around 2.”
D: “And him?”
N: “at 4.30.”
D: “That’s good. You finish two hours earlier. That’s perfect timing. So by the time he gets home he finds his meal ready, right?” Hahahahaha. What is he my husband or my pet? Oh, he’s fictional. Never mind.
N: “Yes, most of the time.”
D: “Good. I could tell as soon as you got in to the car that you are a good woman. I was right! What’s your family name?”
D: “Oh! THAT’s why. I AM A ITANI TOO! We’re the best.” F-You, asshole.
By this time I was praying he doesn’t ask me who’s my father or where our house is, coz coming up with a wrong answer could blow up my whole cover.
I can’t give him my father’s name by any means, and definitely not where we live.
D: “Ok, you see that building on the right? That’s where the doctor’s office is. You wanna go now?”
N: “No, but I got it.”
D: “Great. His name is XYZ. Will you remember that?”
N: “XYZ. Ok.”
D: “Ok, my daughter. Next time I pick you up I hope to see a child on your hand or a big belly in front of you.” Whaaaaaa??? But I have to be polite.
N: “Tislam. Inshallah.” (I so hope I won’t ever see you in my whole life again)
That was pretty much most of the conversation that took place. Of course the “medical issues” constituted MOST of what the guy lectured about. I so wished my camera was with me. Maybe I have to keep it with me all the time so I can make one helluva documentary when I come across another weirdo like that. Or when they come across weirdos like me. I am not sure 100% who was worse than who. Me for being such a -well- LIAR. Or him for being such a BLUNT man.
Just watched Little Miss Sunshine with my beloved students. It made me realize how much I miss the freeways of America. With the trucks, the crazy drivers, the Harley Davidsons, everything.
Then I walked down the slums of Hamra.
Passed by Cafe Younes and said hello.
You always bump into acquaintances at Younes.
If you don’t, then you’re not in the art scene in Beirut.
I went to Chico and got my weekly dose of DVDs.
I passed by tourists at Socrates, smiled to a woman trying to attract customers, and almost bumped into a man selling vegetables.
These slums have their joy. When I walk, I see myself from above, a happy carefree soul.
But I still miss the freeways of America 🙂