Beirut: 20 Weeks of Gratitude, Week 3

Part 1: The Writers

This is ‘Floating Woman’ by Joe Nix. As soon as I stepped into Jupiter and saw this on the wall, I thought: “It’s Raneem!” I even said it out loud. The resemblance would have been shocking if I hadn’t seen it before; there’s a mural in Gemmeyze that also looks just like her. “Apparently, Raneem-looking people are muses.” Christine should know; she’s painted her too.

Raneem and I first met when we were both searching for inspiration. She had a blog & so did I; we left a comment or two, exchanged messages, & agreed to meet at a music festival where I had a press pass. That set the tone for much of our friendship—we shared opinions & one of us ended up quoting the other.

We were oddly similar, yet different in just the right—and wrong—ways; we over-intellectualized everything & clung to each other like flotation devices. It’s hard to explain just how alone we both felt in Beirut’s tumult. We seemed lucky to know each other. We bickered often, but were mutually fascinated. That dimension’s difficult to explain too.

Part of what made our bond so strong that it chafed & cut at our palms was that writerly admiration that first brought us together; we were almost metaphors—a glimpse from the other side of the train tracks; linking words between two imaginaries.

These metaphors allowed us to live out new grammars in Beirut; to be militant pedestrians, to go adventuring on a mountain bus line, to climb on a rooftop despite my intense fear of heights. We wanted to flip the scripts, to perform—and we needed a co-star.

This could have been disastrous. I know of too many friendships based on the love of personae over the love of the person; they fall apart when the masks are changed. But the other part of our bond was the permission we gave each other to be vulnerable. That made the difference; I couldn’t write words like these if I hadn’t had the practice with Raneem.

It’s inadvisable to seek friendships to prove a point, but this friendship found us, and a point’s been well taken: cling to your metaphors—they might just help you transform.

Part 2: The Written

But what was all that writing for? A sense of place. Maybe even a sense of control.

“Your Beirut is on my desk,” a notable is said to have remarked about the city’s first directory, produced in 1888 to “facilitate the connections of the local, the regional, and the distant.” A new way of reading Beirut.

That’s what we wanted too.

Growing up, Beirut was more of a song than a city, to me; a lament, a trope, a poem about knives and roses. When I tried to get acquainted, I lost my way in its webs of reference—the imperatives & interrogatives of a coded language I couldn’t understand. My nerves were shot. But soon, the city helped me appreciate the maps of meaning that Beirutis were always making. That’s how so many of us found each other, somewhere out there.

Like fortune-tellers reading the dredges of a day-laborer’s fruitless morning, Beirut taught us that nihilism could be fought with a good story. We tried our best to tell them.

Tapes were confiscated, files were deleted, websites were scrubbed, projects were abandoned—and yet, and yet… Beirut inspired us, Beirut distracted us, Beirut overwhelmed us, and Beirut forgave us when we couldn’t do it anymore.

Beirut the compass. Beirut the hallucinogen. It’s in a vase on my desk. It’s tucked into the back of my jeans. It’s crumpled up and forgotten at the bottom of my suitcase. It’s scarred on my skin.

Part 3: The Writing

The storytelling bug bit me long before I can remember, but it got worse with Y2K—the year the Israeli occupation of southern Lebanon was booted out. Days after their withdrawal, I woke up at 4AM & accompanied my mother, a journalist at the time, to ride-along with her bleary-eyed crew to the border.

I loved the smell of burnt coffee, the wisecracks, the electric hum of a world-spirit kinda moment. I loved Alain, the audio-slacker who let me listen to his band’s demo—“Ten Thousand Curses”—when he wasn’t napping. I loved George, the goofball-cameraman who cracked me up constantly & worked his questionable connections at the US Embassy six years later to make my first trip abroad a little less unpleasant.

I was hooked. I was also bamboozled. Nothing could possibly live up to the hype of that day, & when I eventually enrolled in a comms degree, I quickly learned that not every crew is as fun to work with.

The world-spirit wasn’t done with me, however. As I found myself avoiding my core curriculum with gender studies & human rights, I was sucked back in through the force of a massive car bomb—a whole generation was marked by those 18,000 kilograms of TNT.

Once again, I felt like I was at the center of history, which wasn’t that healthy for a momma’s boy who skipped two grades & had barely a clue what to think half the time. But I’m grateful for having been there: for Current Affairs in Lebanese Politics, a seminar that became an experiment in managing the fault-lines that would fracture discursive communities across the country; for Media Law & Ethics, a class that provided the bearings for navigating those fault-lines—it would also become my answer to that “where were you” question when Samir Kassir was assassinated; I still remember how hard my professor tried to hide her sobbing.

That campus was where I’d learn that poets can be great names for communist groupuscules; where I had to stare deep diversity in the face daily—the pluralism of everything made me a very quick learn. It was also where I’d realize that one can’t expect academics to act on what they teach, let alone what they claim to believe…

Many of those lessons were annoying AF at the time, but I’m thankful for having gone through them—they were the rough draft of how I see the world, & how the world sees me; where most of the thinking was done, & much of the character development was already fleshed out.

I’d go on frame to much of my later growth in opposition to that place & time, but I know that, deep down, I haven’t strayed far from that initial outline.

Part 4: The Re-Write

The comradeship I couldn’t find in my comms cohort, I found in another crew. This blended congregation from across the map shared little more than comfort with hanging out at the peripheries of our fields of study.

Our campus had geographies—Upper Gate for the well-to-do, Lower Gate for the more-to-prove, micro-territories for finer gradations; post office benches for frenchies, fine arts stairs for theatre freaks, etc. Our little group? Over-bored & self-assured, we had the corner with the vending machine. I like to think that our benevolent rule over this fiefdom was so complete, the school decided no other clique could do better, & redesigned the building out of respect; in any case, that corner doesn’t exist anymore.

We were naturally a decentralized group, but our unspoken leader was Nawar. Class clown with heart of gold, ladies’ man & bro’s bro ya bro, shabablak 2abbo rabbah ew ew yo2boshhh—he ticked several boxes. On paper, we weren’t meant to be best friends. He was the extrovert, I was the moody bastard, & it worked.

’Twould be a fool’s errand to try to sum up our memories. Where would I start? That one time we weirded out patrons in bistro windows & cheered for cars caught by camera traps? The time we pretended our friend was a Saudi prince to get into a “supernight,” only to be thoroughly grossed out & saddened? Or maybe that other super night when we were split up, roughed up, & interrogated?

Stories like these say something about Nawar, but they don’t say it all; we were living in extraordinary times, but the absurdity of circumstance did not define him. If you bottled his essence, it would smell like Black XS and consist of genuine kindness & a special knack for turning everything into a positive.

Nawar could be forced to bake in the sun like a criminal for an hour because my stupid mouth had gotten us detained by the Jordanian military, & after all was said/done, flash me his smile & ask: “shu? mabsout?”

His cheeky grin would always tell you everything was going to be okay in pretty crappy times. I recognized his laugh some weeks ago, and immediately knew I was speaking with that same Nawar…

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