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Sois belle et vote

April 22, 2009

The Lebanese obsession with ‘beauty’ boggles. Topsy-turvy priorities, misplaced energies, desires for abstraction or forgetting, conviction that superficial reconstruction can produce some semblance of substantive healing, all rolled into one.

In a country whose wounds of constructed sectarian identity still split their shallow stitching on a regular basis and gush forth in streams of crimson, a fair share of the citizenry spend more time working on their tans and abs than engaging in any amount of introspection that could potentially yield a viable reconciliation.

In a country devoid of welfare services for its own citizens, where hundreds of thousands of refugees are pushed to the margins of society and denied access to sustainable livelihoods, banks offer loans for cosmetic plastic surgery.

In a country where political interaction is characterised by blame and self-absolution, where the family names of politicians have circulated for sixty years like some nauseating broken record, where blokes once imprisoned for war crimes now sit comfortably in ministries, the potential of exercising of one’s political voice is packaged in patronising chauvanism and stained in skin-deep normalisation:

tayyar

“Be beautiful and vote”: this is a particularly demeaning election poster from the Tayyar Al-Watany Al Hurr (Free Patriotic Movement, Christian members of the opposition led by Michel Aoun) for the upcoing parliamentary elections on 7 June.

Particularly noteworthy are the use of the French language (obviously tapping into that section of upper-middle class Christians in Lebanon for whom speaking bad French is a status-symbol) and the glaringly Occidental ethno-centric beauty norms. And these alongside from the jaw-dropping belittlement of Lebanese women voters, once again reduced to the sum of their aestethically-pleasing parts.

Sorry to burst you bubble, but, No, love, voting will not make you beautiful. It won’t make you a pouty French demoiselle either.

It could, however, result in some sort of minimal reshuffling of those in power, but nothing more radical than that…

On second thought, maybe I’ve been too harsh. Perhaps it is in fact the realisation of being confronted with the near-inevitable perpetuation of Lebanon’s stale and narrow confessionalist system that pushes young women voters to conceive of their voting in more immediate tangible terms: “If I don’t vote, not much will change. If I do vote, not much will change either, but at least I can pretend that it will make me look like Carla Bruni”.

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The Funeral of Kamal Medhat

April 5, 2009

These are some photos I took last week at the funeral of Kamal Medhat, one of the leaders of the PLO in Lebanon who was assasinated  on Monday 23rd March near the Ain al Hilweh refugee camp. The funeral was held near the Shatila camp in Beirut on Wednesday 25th March.

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Celebrating Mothers in Shatila

March 29, 2009

The much-sung stresses of public transport in Beirut: nightmare traffic; shared taxi (‘service’) drivers that take you half-way round the city to your destination instead of a more direct route; being overcharged because of ones foreingness… Bref, hassle and lateness, combined with wind and rain, severely dampening my Friday morning.

But my spirits were immediately lifted by the pulsating bass and rhythmic clapping that floated out from the third floor of the Najde centre. The beats got louder as I hurried up the stairs and finally emerged into the big room decked out for the occasion with a low wooden stage at the front, over a hundred chairs and a booming sound-system blaring out Arabic beats. Mother’s Day celebrations in Shatila refugee camp.

There was not a free seat in the house, and almost no space to stand either. Women and children of all ages seemed crammed into every available cubic inch: perched on each others’ laps, balanced on the backs of chairs, cradled on hips. And all but the youngest newborns were contributing to the music with their hands and feet, while attentively following with enjoyment the movements of the young dancers on the stage.

There were eight girls and boys, no more than seven years old, decked out in silken shirts the colours of the Palestinian flag and black and white kuffiyehs. Their movements were out of synch, sometimes clumsy, and I could see the ones in the back row attentively watching the movements of those in the front in order to know what was coming next. They stamped their feet and moved their hips to the throbbing beat of the music, occasionally throwing in a twirl and a waving of the kuffiyeh.

Now, I think that it is impossible for a kid to not look adorable when their dancing, no matter how technically imperfect the performance. And these little debutants were no exception. In fact, their charm was multiplied by the infusion of energy coming from the audience. The enjoyment of their spectators translated into their own pleasure in their performance, played out on their faces as the concerted effort one makes to not let concentration be disturbed by a smile.

After the dance, there was a short skit  performed by some older girls, aged between 11 and 13. They were dressed in long black jalabiyyas with bright red, orange and green hand-woven embroidery round the collar, products of Najde’s handicrafts programme. Some lingered in the background, imitating women’s household chores of sweeping, cleaning and cooking, while others read out passages praising the hard work of mothers, and women in general. Their efforts, commitment and sacrifices, the girls reminded us, should be remembered not just on Mother’s Day, but every day.

More dances followed, one by a different group of girls similarly dressed in embroidered robes, and then another by a group of 12-13 year-old-boys, clad in black and white checkered t-shirts with matching kaffiyyes wrapped around their heads. The music started with an empty stage, and as the beat progressed, one at a time the boys hopped on the stage from infront, each of them wiggling on stage in a way that way half-dabke and half-hip-hop, until they were all taking turns getting down, to the great pleasure of their spectators, who continued clapping in rhythm.

Half-way through the performance, a member of the audience joined the boys on stage, waving a red and white kafiyyeh round her head in circles. After a few seconds, it was obvious that she was the mother of one of the boys, as her attention was focused mostly on him and she encouraged him with endearing gestures. Very soon after, she was joined by another woman from the audience, also a mother of one of the dancing boys, and the two women proceeded to gyrate their hips, twirl their hands  and wave their checkered scarves energetically, while the boys wiggled around them.

The vitality of the dancing was contagious. At the mothers’ intervention, the audience went from enthusiastic to wild, some women rising from their seats to clap and stamp their feet, others covering their mouths with their hand to wave their tongues back and forth in their mouths and formulate the iconic ‘u-lu-lu-lu-lu’ syllables of celebration.

Between my own clapping and laughter, I thought about how wonderfully different this series of children’s performances was from all that I had ever staged in primary school. My head was flooded by images of my young self and my companions at our devastatingly British schools in that far-away Caribbean colony: bleached white polo shirts, navy blue trousers and skirts; all stood in utmost obedience in a regimented line; orderly taking turns to articulate some perfectly memorised, formulaic phrase. And the soft, proper clapping of our parents, fit for a golf tournament, as they satiated themselves in our groomed, disciplined behaviour. All of that worlds apart from the veritable festivities now frolicking before me.

It was all so imperfectly passionate, so spontaneous. The lines between audience and performer were porous, their relationship symbiotic, one giving life to the other according to  the unpredictability of inspiration. The performance came to be one in which script was negligible and impulse was everything, in which mothers and sons laughed and danced together on a stage but not as a spectacle; their places there were as entertained as well as entertainers, as subjects in their own enjoyment as opposed to objects in the enjoying eyes of others.

But I did not have long to reflect much more on such things, because Maissa, the director of the Najde centre at Shatila, was pulling me by the arm up onto the stage, where the boys and their mothers had been joined by at least 10 more people, adults and children alike. My feigned reluctance was inadequate to prevent myself being hauled amongst the jiving crowd, where I tried in vain to shake my hips in similar smoothness to those of my colleagues’, to little avail and the amusement of much of the audience. But I harnessed my embarrassment, tried my best to keep in rhythm with the drums blaring out from the speakers, and grinned along with all the smiling faces around me.

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Feminists in the streets: IWD 2009, Beirut

March 11, 2009

There’s nothing like a good, fiery, reclaim the streets demonstration to spark up a cause. And I think that the events conducted last weekend by the Feminist Collective, in Beirut to mark International Women’s Day 2009, in which I am proud to have participated, did exactly that.

On Saturday, we were dispatched in groups of 3-5 to 12 different places in Beirut in order to distribute leaflets and raise awareness about IWD, as well as attempt to engage passers-by in discussion about the situation of women in Lebanon. The stark variation between the different parts of town represented the vast disparity that exists in such volatile closeness in Lebanon: here an up-market shopping area, there a university street; here a trendy bar-street, yonder a refugee camp. Differences, that, of course, are also played out in terms of religion as well, and when mixed in with the vectors of class, income, education and ethnicity, make for an impressive, if not downright perplexing, spectrum in terms of differences in opinion. To quote a Daily Star journalist that wrote about the event:

“One Christian woman insisted her fellow Lebanese Christian women were free and considered “gender oppression a Muslim problem.” A Muslim woman meanwhile argued that sexual harassment and rape resulted from a woman’s inappropriate dress and behaviour.”

But then again, this is Lebanon, and the extent of contrasting opinions should not surprise us. However, I do believe that such contrasts have lss to do with substantive differences in opinion and more to do with the way that sectarian differences reside in the fore of so many Lebanese minds, in that sectarian axes of identity are maintained, cultivated and perpetuated as an overarching mindset.

For me, the most interesting thing when listening to women respond to the question “what is your opinion of women in Lebanon today?” was the tendency that interlocuteurs had of interpreting, or framing the question along sectarian lines, instead of latching onto the pan-woman message of solidarity that constituted our approach and, ultimately, our agenda. Though I was based in the mainly-Christian northern Beirut suburb of Kaslik, I later heard that this tendency manifested itself in practically all of the other areas as well.

“Which women?”, they would ask in reply, as if the national qualifier of “Lebanese” was not sufficient detail. When an activist insisted upon the Lebanese element, the interlocutor would often point out that situations varied significantly according to which “society”, ie sect, they came from. In response to this, we tended to highlight the sort of legal and societal problems that are faced by all women across the board in Lebanon: from the law forbidding a Lebanese woman to pass her citizenship onto her children if she marries a foreigner and a dire lack of anti-domestic violence legislation, to discrimination in terms of employment and wages and common-place incidents of sexual harassment. Well, yes, they would eventually admit, these are some things faced by all us Lebanese women…

Another thing that impacted on me on our day of grassroots awareness-raising was the extent of the pessimism. When asked what could be done to remedy these perceived gender injustices, many women just shrugged their shoulders, pouted their lips and raised their eyebrows in a sort of hopeless lack of inspiration. When talking with other activists in other areas, I heard that such hopelessness was manifestly stronger, and far more depressing for the activists, in the refugee camps, where many women highlighted the problems they encountered on a day-to-day basis in terms of feeding their families. There, in positions of disempowerment that exceed the gender issue, talk of women’s lib seemed to understandably fall near the bottom of the priority list.

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Sunday, International Women’s Day, proved a more positive day for us ‘feminists’. Perhaps it was the unity and strength we felt in numbers, many of us proudly sporting our black shirts with ‘feminist’ boldly emblazoned in white on the front.

Our first event was a sit-in staged on Hamra street under the theme of solidarity with migrant workers. Along with the issue being one of increasing debate in Lebanon, I personally think that it was a strong and aptly selected banner to rally under, because it succinctly articulates broader feminist agendas of uniting struggles for gender justice with liberation along race and class lines. I felt that the demo was given a definite boost when we activists (Lebanese, American, European) were actually joined by some Filipino migrant workers. Not only for the egoistic purpose that it lent us ‘activists’ a mark of authenticity, which it undeniably did, but also because I hoped it would, in some small way, give those migrant workers confidence that whatever struggles they faced on a daily basis did not occur in isolation, and therefore that there could be, at some point, some hope for solidarity yielding an end to marginalisation.. However cliché that might come across as…

And although the amount of people who would have witnessed the event was probably restricted due to the quietness of a Sunday afternoon, the media coverage was fair. Next year, however, someone from one of the groups involved needs to contact more international and Arab media outlets (AlArabiya was the only one there that I noticed). And thanx to our resident film-maker, a video has appeared on YouTube. (I, personally, would have opted for something more mellow musically…)

The second event was a sit-in on the Cornishe in Ein AlMreisse. This time, we were less cushy than in funky, laid-back Hamra, manifested in our initial reluctance to go about distributing leaflets to the many families enjoying a Sunday stroll and shisha by the sea. But the debates sparked first by out flyering, and then by our banners and megaphones asserting our feminist ideals, made it entirely worth it. One bloke was very happy to spout on about how women were, in fact, really only useful in the kitchen. Oh, and for child-rearing as well. And, to much shock, he actually said that wearing lipstick is an invitation to rape… And then another woman started yelling about how we’d gotten it all wrong: didn’t we understand that a woman is considered worthless if she does not seek to beautify herself, that to not embellish oneself physically is a lifetime commitment to spinsterhood?

We welcomed these reactions, and did not face them with words, but with multi-coloured banners, reading “No Woman Deserves Violence, Ever”, “Where are women’s rights?”, “Give us 4 years in Parliament and see how we run the country” and “None of us are free till all of us are free”. There were also others who replied, members of the public, who argued of their own accord, and voiced approval for our willingness to tackle these issues that are so often silenced…

And even though, I admit, even though I felt a bit uneasy amongst the shouting and the being stared at, pointed at by a crowd of curious/disturbed/grateful/angry/congratulatory people, the feeling that we were there, pushing these issues to the fore, was far more significant. We were confronting taboos, provoking the general public, without ever being violent or disrespectful. In a country drowning in the quagmire of its own long-standing and exacerbated identities, we were articulating a radical ideal in a vibrant way. Ye were protected from the emotions that ran high by the unity we felt as a group, bound through our matching t-shirts and our common convictions, and by those in the crowd who sometimes silently, sometimes loudly, proclaimed their support for our cause.

Today, I am proud to call myself a feminist.

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Back to Beirut

March 6, 2009

One moment, I’m gaping, recoiling in horror at the sight of a young child, perhaps six or seven years old, hanging off the passenger of a stationary long, sleek, black Mercedes. Gripping the ledge provided by an open window, the child suspended himself off the tarmac and arched his head into the vehicle, probably asking for money from the driver and eventual passengers. The car made small yet sharp, agitated jerks forward, obviously attempting to scare the child into letting go.

As soon as the oncoming traffic ceased and the car was able to make its turn, it accelerated abruptly, in another cruel attempt to rid itself of the urchin. As far as I could see, the child managed to hang on despite the aggressive manoevre, and as it disappeared down the hill towards Gemmeyze, I hoped for another impending traffic jam so that he would be able to safely disengage his small self.

Five minutes later, I find myself sipping a Bloody Mary in one of the jilted, trendy pubs in the area towards which that car had just sped off to, already allowing the chilled drink and even more chilled surroundings to help me forget the disturbing incident.

Fifteen minutes later, on the walk down Rue Gouraud between the pub and a nearby restaurant, we were pursued by a teenage boy in shabby plastic sandals, shoe-shining kit in hand. “Please mister, no money, no money mister,” he called out after us. “Please, just one thousand (Lebanese Pounds, about 66 dollar cents)! No money mister, no money!”

Although I considered my initially mild yet increasingly harsh shouts of “Khallas!” (Enough!) to be less violent than the dangerous driving of the Mercedes, it was blatant that my attitude conveyed exactly the same degree of brutal disregard and crude apathy.

I silently welcomed myself back to the habitual hypocrisy that seems to define upper-middle class and expat lifestyles in Beirut.

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Ode to an inanimate vagabond

March 6, 2009

My trusty travel-companion; for some time now, we have been seen rambling along distant mountain-tops, trudging over rolling sand dunes and weaving through the smoky streets of both historical metropoles and twenty-first century boom-towns.

Me, on the capturing end of a camera or keyboard; you in your intricate passive appreciation. Never compelled, in your acute and blissful ignorance of passing minutes and paysages, to objectify your surroundings, you are content in fluttering along around me, teasingly brushing the dry skin on my calves, silently absorbing the odours and dusts of every new environment into the fabric of your being.

Your steadfastness never ceases to amaze me. Confronted with my clumsiness and even sometimes abuse, you persist implacably, glimmering, torn, whimsical, and still able to impress with your subdued beauty.

For the first time in many weeks, I cleaned you today.

Working your silky layers into a frothy lather, over and over, I watched the lukewarm water turn yellow, then brown, and then a murky grey.

Washing away your most recent memories. Urban pollution from so many London and Istanbul alleys; dust lodged in the carpets of mosques and footsteps of believers; crumbs of Cappadocian limestone and snow; sprinkles of cumin, thyme, sage, sumac and rose, whirls of apple tobacco, floating through the narrow tunnels of Aleppian and Damascene souks; remnants of moss and rock, flaking away from majestic Crusader castles.

And finally, after many long weeks, sea salt whipped off the eastern Mediterranean and up towards looming Mount Lebanon, mingled with the grease of barstools and sweat of old friends.

Three, four, five times, I scrubbed and rinsed and scrubbed and rinsed until the water ran clean, so deeply embedded were these, and perhaps other, remnants from places afar that you have managed to retain in your soft folds.

Now, draped listlessly in the warmth of a Beirut spring day, you’ll begin to collect anew, spectator to the cacophonic symphony of frustrated ambulances, decrepit Mercedes and over-enthusiastic Hummers on the streets below.

Despite my meticulous bathing, I wonder what fragments you still carry with you.

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Blog update: Home for a while

January 10, 2009

I’ve just posted the pieces that I wrote while I was in China up on this WordPress blog, which was blocked while I was in the country. Therefore, this site now contains the all of what I have written in the past 3 months on the road. 

Having forsaken vagabonding in the name of a December holiday family reunion, I am still enjoying a temporarily sedentary life in Europe, and plan on returning to Beirut in early February.  I am aware that my recent return ‘home’ has not proven as fruitful for my writing as the days on the road have (though I like to blame an abundance of both potable and abstract spirits instead of my own lack of inspiration…)

If things do continue as such for the time being, I do fully intend to recommit myself to writing again once the complacency created by the oft-taken-for-granted luxuries such as fabric softner, 24-hour hot water and a doting mother have begun to wear off… 

In the meantime, I’ll be watching Al Jazeera every morning, an almost obsessive voyeur to the current bloodshed in Gaza, and lamenting the deplorable state of our world in which such atrocities are allowed to occur…