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?

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Twice Upon a Time – 35 Hours To Go

To all my followers on this blog:

We have 35 Hours left to complete our crowd funding campaign for Twice Upon a Time, my feature documentary.

Your help to support the post production process of this film is needed. You may help us by contributing and by sharing and spreading the word about our campaign during these last hours to people who would want to see this film get made.

Thank you!

Twice Upon a Time – The Documentary

Faith & Hope in Lebanon

I was taking a look at older posts I had written when I was still a recent returnee to the country.

It is unsettling for me to admit to myself that I had not returned to Beirut with a neutral self. In fact, I had returned to Beirut with extra enthusiasm and energy to try and make it somehow part of who I am. I wanted it to be more than “a city I was born in but feel nothing special towards”.

Three years later today, I still don’t feel anything special towards it nor towards any other city in the world.

My “complicated relationship” with Beirut has given me a lot of awareness. First of all, it encouraged me to take up any (and every) opportunity to travel out of it. These experiences are always good to get to know cities in various countries around the world. The more cities you get to know, the more you discover that, “Guess what? They’re all the same.” They all have good parts and bad parts, they all have thieves and filthy rich people and those who are neither this nor that, they all have good people and they all have hypocrites walking their streets day and night, they all have rather safe districts and rather scary neighborhoods.

“And guess what? It’s okay.” This is humanity. Nobody said life was going to be a nice and fair ride. It will never be. Get over it.

When you want to give a certain city the evil eye and walk around pointing fingers, you will be able to do that wherever you are. Pick Paris, New York, Beirut, Reykjavik, Toronto, or any city you name. The cities that won’t belong to this list are the exceptions (if there are any!)

The truth is that we have to give it to the people of Beirut. They have been to hell and they may still be trying to recover from that journey. Journeys take time. People need love, they need patience and they need a lot of FAITH to make it through such journeys. Faith in that patience pays, in that a better future is possible, in that good deeds pay most of the time, and in that one day things will be better for real. And just like in a film script, they need to be ready to do whatever it takes them in order to get to their goal.

The failure of generation after generation in rebuilding Beirut is no excuse for any of the generations.

“But guess what?”

We have not failed. The future for us (today) is better than our present (yesterday). And the future for the young generations (tomorrow) can also be better than their present (today).

My friends and classmates were all born during the civil war. Our country and our cities -Beirut specifically- handed us blow after blow. We might not be the best children for Beirut & Lebanon, we might not be able to tolerate it as much as our parents and grandparents do/did, we might not be very enthusiastic to give back to a place that hurt us so much. Yet, here we are. Giving back. We give back with broken hearts, with faded hope, with less faith in the country perhaps, but we still try.

To recover from war is not something people should do on an individual basis only. Recovering from war is a generational process. DENIAL has not been serving us well for the past two decades. The wounds have to be exposed. The past has to be unveiled. We need to know in order to move forward. We need to know how ugly was the road behind, so that we can see how good the road is now. And we also need to look around and see how green the grass is on the other side, so that we don’t ever stop and think, “We’re in a much better place than before.”

We need to keep the wheels of faith and hope in this country moving. Today quickly becomes yesterday in our age and tomorrow is already here.

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.

Niam to Make Peace in Lebanon

From Japan with Love

I have been chosen. It is no joke.

There was a Japanese woman yesterday at the lower gate of LAU, who gave me a book and said I can make peace.

Details Below:

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.

– 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.

..he pulled out a weapon and fired..

Just like that. On the main road. In Quraytem. In the afternoon. From the window of his car. I saw a gun slowly get out of the window. I knew it was going to shoot. I prayed for Allah not to make me see someone fall to the ground with a gunshot. And I hoped we won’t get killed with a stray bullet. I probably wished he didn’t fire. But he did.

I have to start this story from the beginning. Fact is, I was expressing my happiness out loud yesterday about me being outside the country on April 13th, the anniversary of the Civil War. I simply would rather not be around to witness people celebrate the end of a war that pretty much still lives inside many hearts and bodies. But things didn’t go as simply as I wanted them to.

Today, I left LAU at 3 o’clock and headed to Jiddo’s house for a family lunch. Since Teta passed away in November, these gatherings at her house became less frequent and often planned, rather than spontaneous. And they terribly lack her presence, which I know Jiddo feels. I stole a look at his face today and saw tears in his eyes. So I took a chance and asked how is he doing. He smiled. Our gathering at his/her house makes him happy. But it also makes him miss her badly. Just like we miss our lovers when we are happy and want them to be there to share it, and to enjoy it to the maximum. He misses her.

We had a good meal and then I was offered a ride by my aunt. So I gratefully took it. The ride from Raouche to Labban is no more than 5 minutes by car. You go up towards the Saudi Embassy then to Quraytem, near the Hariri Palace, and then take a left down to Labban. That’s it. But today’s ride suddenly became very long because of this guy who fired a gun from the car in front of us.

There was this Porsche Cayanne driving really slowly ahead. We were all starting to beg the driver to move it. My aunt was almost pushing his car with the front bumper of the GMC she drives. I noticed the Porsche had license plates with four numbers only. Someone with lots of money. Someone who likes to show off and let people know they have lots of money. We almost gave up. I told my aunt this man has the right to drive however he want. “He’s driving a Cayanne!” But I didn’t know he also had the right to do other things.

The Porsche drove past the Hariri Palace. It slowed down even more. And suddenly from the driver’s window, a pistol came out. It wasn’t steady first, it was shaky, as if searching for a prey. Then it steadied and BANG. What spans a couple of lines here almost ended my life in that car. I have never seen anybody shooting a pistol in real life. Not as far as I remember. I’ve seen men in our family shoot hunting guns. But those are for hunting animals, not killing people. The sight of a real pistol sticking out the window of a car in the middle of Beirut, in Qoraytem particularly (supposedly a heavily protected area), was shattering. I don’t want to see people killing each other. I hate whatever motive that makes any human being pull out a gun at any creature. I simply can’t live with it. Yet, here is a guy pulling out a weapon and firing it right in front of everybody on the street.

The gunshot was almost unheard. The target was a pigeon, that escaped. The driver is insane. I am still alive at the time of typing this. But that was really scary. And the worse part? No one did anything when that gun was out searching for a prey. Life froze.

I resist the temptation to write sometimes because…

I resist the temptation to write sometimes because I worry I would border on politics. And the truth is I don’t really give a big damn about politics. Nor a small damn, as a matter of fact. Heck, I don’t give a damn at all. But, see, in Lebanon this is already too much politics.

The country celebrated Independence Day yesterday. It was cool. You get to hear lots of BS really. Not that it is rare on usual occasions. It is just cute when suddenly everybody gets proud of the country they mock all year long. I certainly don’t belong to that group of people. I am not proud on any day of year. I prefer to be honest.

Speaking of honesty,,,I saw a clip of the current Miss Lebanon being circulated heavily on the walls of Lebanese friends on facebook. Most of them were criticizing her for speaking “negatively” about her country. I salute this young lady. Somebody ought to tell the truth. And it wasn’t like she announced to the world that we don’t have electricity 24/7 or we have war criminals leading our highly educated people. All she said was that there is so much traffic and noise in the country. I salute this young lady again. Because she still lives in this country, while most of the people who were circulating the video live abroad.

I love the conversations I have with my friend. The other day we had a discussion about the effects of war on society and people collectively. How ethics shift and people’s judgement changes. I told her how it is very difficult to be “normal” in a society like this. If you can’t deal with people driving through red traffic lights, you need to “get over it”. If you can’t push and shove in places where you usually would find queues, you’re a pussy. If you think an M-16 and soldiers with machine guns filling the streets are odd scenes, you better get a life. When things like these become normal for people, they all become abnormal collectively. And when you, the pussy without a life who can’t get over these things, come to give it a second shot in your beloved independent country and point them out, people look at you as if you’re a foreigner: “Where are you from?” To heaven with you. To Lebanon with you.

In today’s conversation I told my friend a simple story that happened in my screenwriting class. A student pitched a futuristic story that takes place in Lebanon in 2047. In the world of her story, people were brainwashed, divided to two camps, and had no opinion of their own. They follow their leaders. In that environment, a man and his wife who’ve maintained their individualism start drifting apart when the woman gets sucked into the “public way of life”. The man decides to win his wife back and on the way to doing so he discovers a way to restore independent thinking to everyone else.
When my student finished her pitch, students started suggesting ways to add conflict to the story. One young lady said, “Maybe one time when the electricity goes off —” and I stopped her, exclaiming: “It’s 2047 for heaven’s sake. Will there still be electricity cuts?” And my beloved students all replied in unison: “Yes, Ms.!”
Tragically funny, I think.

The night is long. Thoughts consume me. Conversations never end. Love waits. Till a new post, have a good night. And good luck!