new beginnings


I’ve been in Beirut for a little over nine months now and throughout those nine months I have been on more planes and crossed more borders than I care to remember. But on my last trip I transited through Amman. That trip was a turning point, for many reasons. I feel I have finally closed the doors of Amman and now I have opened doors, or am really trying to, in Beirut.

Its been such a difficult time on so many levels, Beirut is a difficult city to assimilate into and be a part of its social circles. But its even harder when you are stuck in a life you took 20 years building. It’s harder when your history only goes back on average a year and my oldest relationships I have here are two years old. Having no sense of history, having to have to go through all the social angst I had as an adolescent and young adult and try to build relationships from scratch all over again, takes its toll. I have been on a roller coaster of emotions for nine months. This ride has had some very low dips and few high peaks. And I hate roller coasters!

Knowing you are falling into deep despair and trying to pull out all the tools in your arsenal to stop it was what I have been doing for nine months. It didn’t work, until recently. Looking back it didn’t matter what tools I tried to use because there were factors that were not in my favor and things I did that didn’t help me. I travelled way too much and it’s hard to settle down somewhere when you are only there for two or three weeks at a time! It’s hard to establish yourself when you are seen as an extension of another person and not as your own entity. It’s hard to be committed to exploring and trying a new place when your heart and mind are elsewhere. It’s also really hard to start from scratch when you leave behind you a life of complete and total success, satisfaction, and fulfillment. It’s hard when you have to relate to your nearest and dearest electronically and through machines when touching them and seeing them were daily occurrences. It’s hard when the smells and tastes of 20 years’ everyday are replaced by the strange, the foreign, the alien. It’s hard having seamlessly traversed the various communities of Amman and been a part of so many people’s lives, and part of so many different circles, ideas, initiatives to become so one dimensional, viewed from one lens and through a box or label. It so hard going through a year of firsts away from home, where tradition and ritual gives way to… well nothing really, and no one really understands what the fuss is about.  It’s hard knowing that the life I left behind is… well, left behind and there is no going back.

A month or so ago, at my new Toastmasters club, I gave an ice breaker speech to introduce myself. Standing in a room full of strangers I spoke of this transition and how painful it is, and I likened it to the transformation from a tree to a bird. I will quote a part of that speech here as it sums up how I feel about this transition and my future outlook about my time in Beirut.

“But in knowledge and self awareness lies power and I am determined to make the transformation work. This metamorphosis is a long process and it started with my uprooting from Jordan. It is, I think, the  most painful and challenging part of the transformation to be ungrounded, to be wobble and blowing unsurely in the wind. Exposed. Vulnerable. But these raw bare roots that are swimming around in the air like the tentacles of an octopus are slowly receding into the trunk that is the body of the bird, becoming my inner strength to carry with me wherever I go.

My branches that are full of leaves and fruit and melding together in a canopy of colors and light new feathers, transforming into beautiful powerful wings that will fly me every which way I want to go. They are still a bit stiff mind you, and I am learning to spread them. But when I am done they will be strong and ready for flight colorfully gliding through the clouds.

This tree is becoming the bird it always wanted to be and when it does the whole world will become its nest.”

I know my time in Beirut is limited. It is not a place I will spend 20 years building a life; I also know that Amman is no longer an option. I need to move forwards not backwards. And so Beirut is the place where I will learn to fly in stormy weather, after which, the clouds will part, the sun will shine, and the wind will be high. I am optimistic. I am determined.

A friend of mine scaled Everst and when he returned he brought me a small package. It was a very colorful roll that when unraveled a string of beautiful colorful flags with prayers surrounding Buddha was on each one. He told me they were pray flags that need to be hung in the wind so that they may send out prayers on your behalf to the world. They ward off evil, bring luck and protect. I hung them immediately and for over two years no one questioned their presence only their purpose!

Knowing I was going to move to Lebanon and into new territories I asked a friend who was visiting Tibet to bring some home for my new life. I thought I needed all the help I can get as well as some reminder of home. And so after I arrived I unraveled my new set and put them out. How quick were my Lebanese friends to make fun and joke away at the colorful flags making remarks that I found not only hurtful but very rude and intolerant as well. The flags stayed.

Earlier this week I moved to a new apartment and only last night did I hang my flags, happy to see them flutter in the wind for me. It is part of what makes my home a home. And so I went to sleep just that bit more content with my symbolic and simple nestling. But after coming home from work today I was confronted by the doorman making these statements “the other tenants want you to remove the flags immediately” “what are they anyway?” And the most upsetting remark of them all “that there is no need for them” said in a very dismissive tone. The reason given for the removal of the flags was the outside of the building is “ours” not “yours” and so it has to remain uniform. And mind you this Urban, concrete jungle is not so pretty so I really don’t understand this obsessive need for concrete uniformity!

The whole issue in the grand scheme of things is trivial, but is significant of much larger things at play to name a few xenophobia, conformism, and that simply it is very difficult for the Lebanese to celebrate what isn’t them or even their idea of them.

I have been here for a bit over four months and I feel Lebanon is a hostile unwelcoming place. It is about circles of exclusivity. I have been trying very hard to turn those ideas around and become positive about this experience. Some days I am successful and other days I fail, sometimes even miserably. There have been people around me who are supportive and welcoming and inclusive and to them I send out a big heartfelt thank you. Slowly I am finding these people, but it is a struggle which I will explain another time. For now I have to try and find a way to make these flags flutter in the wind for me where there is no wind.

Growing up I didn’t realize that what my mother made us do nearly every summer was going to be monumental to me later in life. We hated being dragged over the bridge, being humiliated, taken away from our creature comforts at home to go to see our grandparents in Palestine. I don’t think I realized then that my relationship with MY Palestine was starting and being formed.

 

But my relationship with Palestine was always defined by my mother’s, aunts’ and uncles’ stories of Palestine and their relationships with the places and the people. It was their relationships, views, ideas, prejudices, like and hates that I took on to be mine.

 

But 1998, when I was 21, I finally crossed into that beautiful land alone. I visited my grandmother, I visited my uncles and aunts, I visited the land, the cities, and the trees. I even went to Jerusalem for the first time. I started to see Palestine through my eyes and not anyone else’s. I started to form my own relationship with Palestine. But I may have been seeing it through my eyes I was still influenced by the anxieties and fears and thoughts of others.

 

In 2000 I went again, a friend of mine wanted to go and another friend was visiting her family there and so I decided to accompany one and meet the other there. It was a different experience for this time my grandmother had passed and it wasn’t to her home that I went and that too started to shape my relationship with Palestine and my family that lives there differently. I traipsed around the Palestine then with both my friends and was learning to navigate around the cities and was proud to show it off despite not knowing the lay of the land. I left just four days before Sharon entered into the Haram in Jerusalem and the second Intifada started.

 

With the violence escalating and oppression at its height, my solitary trips ended. Until last spring, a friend of mine was organizing an exchange workshop that was to take place in Ramallah for 10 days, I jumped on the idea despite being apprehensive for I had not crossed over in eight years and I had no idea what to expect. In eight years Palestine was an image on the TV screen, ink on paper, an idea, a slogan, a statistic. We very easily forget that it is a hop skip and jump away. We easily forget our family and people and their everyday struggle. We simply live in oblivion.  I especially was in oblivion for up until then Palestine was where we went to renew our papers and visit our grandparents. Israel was embodied by the TV my mother shouted or cried at when something was terribly wrong. We were never very political.

 

But last spring that all changed, I spent 10 days in Palestine. I went again in June and once again in December. I am reclaiming my relationship with Palestine and everything Palestinian. I bring back pictures and stories for those that can not go home or visit Palestine. But more importantly I am building my relationship slowly and clearly with My Palestine. The Palestine of olive groves and family gatherings; of uncles who love to laugh and cousins who struggle to live their youth; of cities and villages torn and divide by walls of cement and electricity. My Palestine where the fruit is that much sweeter, and the air that much purer. My Palestine, on my terms, with my impressions, my connections, my expressions.

 

I will soon be 32 and I have been asked what I want for my birthday whether it be for celebrations or for gifts. These questions got me thinking about past birthdays and gifts and what they’ve meant to me. I’ve done the crazy parties with the cakes and sparklers and massive amounts of booze, the traveling for my birthday and the quiet dinners. But this year I want something different, and I know exactly what I want.

This year what I want involves none of the above in any way, shape or form. This year I do not want any parties in bars or restaurants or cafes. I do not want any celebrations with cake, or alcohol or food. I do not want all that money spent for such a selfish and self centered purpose. My birthday! There have been many and who knows there may be many more too. But I do not want to be the excuse for a night of drunken revelry, I do not want massive amounts of food consumed at some lavish dinner in an expensive restaurant, I do not want anyone to go out of their way for me to celebrate in frivolity a day that comes a long often enough and there is really nothing special about it except that I popped out from between my mother’s legs like thousands if not millions of others on that day.

I do not want any gifts either not matter how big or small, grand or symbolic for I have enough stuff in my life and I am trying to get rid of a lot of it! There is nothing I really need at this moment in time and the things I want I can do without. So thank you but no thank you.

When I made these declarations to my friends their faces were so puzzled, confused and some were upset and said that was unacceptable! And so I told them that what would make me happy instead was for them to do something selfless, something that gives back to the community, something outside themselves and me.

One of my favorite quotes is “Be the change you want to see in the world” by Ghandi and this year this is what I want for my birthday. And so to celebrate I want organize an event that gives back to the community in some way or form. That recognizes the pleasure in working together to make a difference. If there is any money to be spent then it would be on the event and it should go towards your local community. And if you insist on giving me a gift then make a donation in my name to an organization that makes a difference to people’s lives like a cancer foundation, orphanages, NGOs that work on community development, and if you don’t want to give cash then clean out your closet and give the things you don’t want to people who can use them like the Gaza aid souk or the King Hussein center for the mentally disabled, or Ruwwad in Jabal Al Natheef, if you want to do this and don’t know how give me a call and I can help you or just drop things off with me and I can take care of it. Spend a day volunteering. If even that is too much trouble then just do something nice for a stranger in the street, it can be that simple.

If you still insist on giving me something personal then give me a good memory. Walk with me in the streets or Jabal Amman, come over and watch a movie, let’s have a good conversation, send me a letter or an email or help me paint a new bookcase I’m getting, take a picture and send it to me. I will also personally be arranging an outdoor activity that will focus on giving something back to the world we live in. Let me know if you want to be part of that activity, it will make me really happy to spend time with my friends doing something along those lines and I will post it here once the details are sorted out.

Help me be the change I want to see in this world we live in and embody some of the ideals and beliefs that I have. Yes I am an idealist and to some I may be foolish, but I think we can make a difference one small step at a time. Will you walk with me?

On December 24 I wrote a blog post that I never published. It was entitled Here is to 2009. I thought I would wait a bit before publishing it and then the Gaza Massacre happened and other things became more important than my personal rants and raves about 2008 and 2009. Yet I have been thinking about the post and I have decided to post it below. I post it and yet want to comment on how three days after the positive note the year was ending on was turning sour, the big bang I wanted to start 2009 with was not that of guns and bombs.

 

Yet I look at it on a personal level again and though I first felt impotent, angry and I didn’t know what to do with my energies, I put my first resolution to the test. I did get more involved with different initiatives and will continue to get more involved on different levels.

 

In positing this I am still thinking there is much to be done and some of what I want to achieve is trivial but these trivialities are a privilege and I am thankful for the privileges in my life.  2009 did not start on a positive note with occupation, genocide and abuse being the dish of the day. But I am an optimist and I think that things will change and turn around. I think that because in my own way I know I can help initiate change even on a small scale with a word, a picture, an action. Small change can become big change and there are ways to turn misfortune into small wins. We just need to find that silver lining.

 

So if you wanted to know what I was thinking that happy day here it is, but do watch this space to know how things have changed and progressed in the mundane life that is Shalabieh’s World!

 

 

Here is to 2009

 

Last year I ended the year with a Thank you note (And I want to thank…)

 

It was a review of a year gone and passed it was year that ended positively for me 2007 was great. It was the year I turned 30 and it was definitely a milestone year. Looking back at 2008 I can only say it just keeps getting better. My thirties are definitely better than my twenties. And as the fortuneteller in Bangkok said: “30 good, 31 better, 32 BETTER. Good money, good job, good lover!” So 32 here I come. But not before I say good bye to 2008.

 

The year 2008 was a wonderful year. This year saw some much growth and change and all for the better. This year was a turning point in many ways with many wonderful things happening:

  • It was the year I reconnected with Palestine after an absence of 8 years
  • It was the year I met my nephew for the first time and really knew what it meant to be an aunt
  • It was the year I got connected at home with a new laptop and allowed internet to reinvade my private space (not so sure that’s a good thing)
  • It was the year I took a passion to the next level and bought my first SLR camera and I love taking pictures with it
  • It was the year I made a lot of new friends near and far and got close to a lot of them
  • It was the year I realized how much I liked development work and working with people underprivileged and underserved to better all our lives
  • It was the year I explored more of the Middle East than any other with travels to neighboring and not so neighboring countries and I realized how much I love the Middle East
  • It was the year I reclaimed me once again from the clutches of an unfulfilling love.
  • It was the year in which I stood my ground
  • It was the year I asserted myself

 

It is a year that is ending on such a positive note that I can only look forward to 2009 with anticipation and excitement. I am looking forward to a number of things on so many different fronts that I will have different kind of new year resolutions’ list. 2009 will be the year that

  • I will get more involved
  • I get out of debt no matter how miniscule
  • I will work on a photography project that will result in an exhibition
  • I will write more here and start a writing project too
  • I will take up learning to ride a bike again
  • I will reclaim the kitchen again and start cooking for myself
  • I will go somewhere new I have never been before and I am not just talking about travel

 

2009 is my year because I want it to be, not because a fortune teller told me it would be. So I will defiantly be drinking to 2009 and bring it in with a nice big bang!

 

Happy New Year everybody and see you in 2009.

  

 

It was snowing all morning and as the a blanket of pure white covers the streets I can’t help but think how pretty it all looks. The purity of white cover the streets and all its potholes, broken pavements and naked trees. The flakes lightly cover the old and the new, the tired and the energetic. Everything that is outside is kissed white buildings, cars, streets, trees, and all.  The snow gift wraps our life and with a stretch of the imagination you can see the silver bow tied around the gifts. But the truth remains, even as we watch from our windows, as the flakes from, the world has not changed.   

The views, the look, the symbolism of white, all give us hope that a new life is buried below. But as the snow melts what it has hidden underneath will come back to the surface, a bit shinier, somewhat wetter, but unchanged in essence. The potholes of the roads are still there. The tired old cars will still cough into life, the bare tress will shiver with the wind until spring is here, and we will continue on our merry ways doing what we do. 

The snow though gives us a bit of a respite, a break, to look at a white, brighter hope. Knowing things could be different, things could hold hope for us. This is what rejuvenates the world, this is how we know the cycle of life continues.   

I hope that with every flake fluttering down that the earth is invigorated.
I hope that with every flake fluttering down that hope is born.
I hope that with every flake fluttering down that life is renewed. 

Stay warm, stat happy, stay healthy. I hope that with ever white flake the new white dress worn by this city inspires change for what potential exists.