When Being Lebanese is an Insult

It’s Thursday night in Beirut, Lebanon: the beginning of the weekend. Or maybe just another day of the never-ending weekend we live in. I’m at a pub in Mar Mkhayel catching up with a friend. While inhaling three packets of cigarettes, none of which I inhale by choice (Did the ban on smoking in public pass? And if it did, are we abiding by it?), I notice the usual crowd. The same faces, and if not the same faces, then definitely the same types of people. Mostly foreigners, the NGO-working/article-writing/third-world-saving/cigarette-smoking/scarf-wearing foreigners who, of course, enjoy the “authentic” experience they’re having in a country that’s not quite as dangerous as Syria, but not as safe and sterile as the UAE. The foreign men dance in flip flops, backpacks on their shoulders, either exoticizing the Lebanese women or considering them beneath them.

Of course, there’s the Lebanese crowd as well. The men who live for this kind of experience, hoping to charm a foreign woman by showing her how “liberal” they can be. If the gods are not generous that night, they would settle for a Lebanese woman to dance and flirt with. The story is the same, told by my friends, heard in restaurants, witnessed in bars and experienced with anger. The ladies dance with the men, closer and closer as the night passes and the drinks accumulate. The man is encouraged, he leans in for a kiss, and the time passes. He thinks there is a good chance to take this woman home, but the woman might either be uninterested, unable to stay out till morning that particular night, or just not a fan of going home with a man she barely knows or doesn’t know at all. Of course, he is offended, but really, he is just frustrated, and out comes the typical response: “You’re so Lebanese.”

There it is, everyone, the insult of the bar scene in this country. We, Lebanese women, how dare we be so Lebanese? How could we be so conservative? Suddenly, we’re in the grade school of pubs, with a flag pinned to our shirt, backs turned to the class, and punished in the corner for being so Lebanese. We turned them down because WE’RE Lebanese, not because THEY’RE not interesting. Who can dispute this logic? Later, these men will meet at the “Chauvinist Convention of Lebanon” and pat each other on the back for such sharp observations and comments, they will applaud each other for discovering the reason behind the lack of sex in their lives, which of course, is not them.

Good job guys, you really pinned the tail on the donkey on this one.

 

Dima Mikhayel Matta

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There is no Dignity in Being Lebanese

There is no dignity in being Lebanese. There is no pride or honor. Telling people where we’re from sounds more and more like an apology and hearing where we’re from sounds more and more like an accusation.

How can we even begin to address unity when we’re killing people who live in our neighborhood and belong to our own country and our own religion? How can we discuss improving way of life when we can’t even depend on affording bread? How do we envisage the possibility of being “more green” when we are on the streets burning tires? How do we talk of having independence and autonomy when we’re surrounded by countries who wish us ill and who want nothing but to see us fail and crumble?

There is no dignity in being Lebanese. There is only fear for not knowing what the next hour holds. There is only amnesia because we never learn from our mistakes. There is only meekness because we always follow and never think. There is only hatred and spitefulness because we never really solved anything and we never forgave.

Lebanon is stuck in one scene: Fairuz and Majida el Roumi playing in the background, families gathered around TVs and radios, listening to which part of the country is going up in flames and talking about the days of shelters and demarcation lines.

The rest is intermission.


MFA Frustrations: One-Page Fiction that Should Have Been Longer

Last semester, we had to write a one-page fiction for our last day of class. I was leaving to Beirut that same night, and really needed to finish packing. I was also extremely frustrated with this assignment. What story could I possibly tell in one page? Honestly, I just wanted to be on that plane going back home. So I tried to figure out a way to do the assignment without really doing it. My own little, last-minute rebellion. This is what came out:

 

One-Page Fiction that Should Have Been Longer

 

She sat down to write a one-page fiction. It seemed like an impossible task, and she remembered that quote about how one needs one hour to write twenty pages, and twenty hours to write a single page. She hoped to God that whoever said that was lying. She didn’t want to write one-page fictions, she wanted to give birth to one hundred years of tracing the history of the Buendia family, she wanted as many characters as the Old Testament. They would even live longer. Her characters would suddenly become part of a tree, they wouldn’t die, but simply fly right up to heaven. If one of her characters gets shot, his blood would spill and trace its way back all the way home. They would not get lost in the desert for forty years, they would choose to stay there for that long. She would send them sweet commandments, commandments to kiss their children before they sleep, a few “thou shalt make love to your wife daily”, and end it by ordering the people to drink copious amounts of wine. May your wine be fruity and multiply!

She could not imagine fitting all of this in a one-page fiction. Where would the other characters go? The ones who did not make it into the Old Testament because they did not have long hair, they were not the twelfth or thirteenth child, they could not marry a beautiful pagan wife and when they tapped a rock with their cane, nothing ever really happened. Worst of all, they did not have Latin American names. Marquez and God, or whoever wrote the Old Testament, really did not want to include these characters in their stories. So these characters wandered, they waited, maybe some mediocre writers would pick them up and use them in one-page fictions that they wished were much longer.

She was certain now. There was no way she could write a one-page fiction. She wondered whether she should just not show up to class, or take a page from one of her longer stories and “make it stand on its own” or whatever is expected of a story. She would take that one page and put it among the sea of other one-page fictions and hope that hers would manage to stay afloat between the pages that may have taken twenty hours to write. Her characters could wait till next semester, in a desert or strapped to a tree.

 

Dima Matta


10 Things I Miss about Lebanon… and Hummus

It’s 4am here in Newark, New Jersey, and I can’t sleep. Most of my blog posts are the fruit of my insomnia, so thought “why not another one!”

Lebanon, and missing Lebanon has been on my mind, at the tip of my tongue and pen (or rather, my laptop’s keyboard), so thought I’d make a list of the things that I miss about my country.

1) Just before leaving the house to go buy snacks from the mini-market around the corner, I’d open the door, look back and yell “mom, dad, badkon shiiiii?”

2) Making sure I charge my laptop’s battery before the scheduled electricity cut.

3) Sitting around a table after a meal, drinking Turkish coffee and talking with family and friends for a time that is usually longer than the time it took to consume the entire meal.

4) The old neighbor next door, who, upon finding out that I have a cold (common knowledge between neighbors), told me: “that’s what happens when you eat ice cream in October” The interesting part is, the reason why he knows this, is because he heard me saying (through closed doors) : “mom, dad, badkon shi, nezleh 2eshtreh bouza” a few days earlier.

5) Guests who always say “sar wa2et njawweza” whenever I come out of the kitchen with the coffee tray. The collective “we” is quite endearing, I suppose.

6) Boys selling flowers on the sidewalk, assuming that everyone is in love and should buy their roses. Maybe we should consider the wisdom behind this.

7) My mother’s crepes suzette and turning the lights off so we can appreciate the flames.

8 ) Mentioning random things during lunch or dinner, my father laughing and saying: “yi, khabbartkon shi 3an el marra etc…” We’d always say no, even if we’ve heard the story before, just so we can listen to the way he tells it again.

9) Teta blushing and giggling when a love scene comes on TV, sneaking looks around to check who else thinks this is as funny as she thinks it is.

10) Having ABC mall five minutes away from my house, walking over there whenever studying and/or grading got a bit too overwhelming, but more accurately, whenever I wanted to procrastinate. I would go over and visit Antoine bookstores for the 3rd time that week, buying Alice in Wonderland, and telling my friend over the phone that I needed it to get inspiration for my research paper (which was actually about The Importance of Gender Roles and their Subversion in the Literature of the Other, and the relation between Alice and my paper was just “curiouser and curiouser”).

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to have a bit of Hummus before I call it a night, or a morning, or “Dima-needs-to-put-down-the-oreos”.


My Food (An Angry Poem that’s not about Food)

“Just one really good book”

My dad said.

One

Good

Book

With a catchy title of course

And don’t upset the Jews

‘Cause then it would never get published!

Don’t fall in love with an American man

Even if he’s 1/3 Irish

2/3 Puerto Rican

And had Tabbouleh when he was 10

We don’t want you staying

There

Way over there

Where some can’t find Lebanon on a map

Find a good church too

Methodist, Baptist, Catholic

Episcopalian, Mormon, Unitarian

(Not the Moonies one!)

Presbyterian, Church of God

Speaking the Word of God

AND they like gays!

Oh my word,

Maybe I’ll just sleep in Sunday morning

 

“Do you cook ethnic food?”

“Like food with an accent? Do I

Look like a bowl of Hummus to you?

I’m sorry, but

My food learned French and English at 4

Wrote its first poem at 9

Won a dance competition at 13

My food wrote “Best Poem of 2008″ at 19

Gave the Valedictorian address at 22

Taught 7th graders that same year, and

Was awarded the Fulbright scholarship at 23.

No, I do not cook ethnic food,

My food would school your uneducated ass!”

Dima Mikhayel Matta


Nolita, fashionistas, baristas and flower-shaped gelato

“Livin’ just enough for the city!”

That’s what I heard the guitarist sing in Washington Square park, with his felt hat on, standing in a circle of musicians, playing, singing, then stopping to talk to strangers, and picking up the singing again. An old man joined in at one point and sang something about Mississippi.

My friend said “That’s the difference between New York and Beirut, why don’t we have people who are laid back, singing in the park?”

I spent the day in New York, walking through Little Italy, Soho and Nolita, past waiters with Italian accents inviting people to their restaurants, because, how could someone with such a beautiful accent (and usually spoken by a beautiful man) serve bad food? It cannot be!

I came to New York to buy rain boots and a winter coat. I bought a hat, a scarf, heels, tennis shoes, slippers, socks and two vintage comic books. Yea… I do maintain a clear sense of my priorities at all times! In my defense, it was a winter hat.

And I ALMOST bought this for my niece, then thought that it would definitely not make my sister very happy, so I refrained.

With tired feet and full bladders, we took refuge in a restaurant called “Delicatessen”. As I was walking in, I saw pretty people. Women with gorgeous skin, beautiful hair and a great sense of fashion. Men with gorgeous skin, beautiful hair and a great sense of fashion *coughs*. Yes, they’re not displayed there for us to sample, I’m afraid they “cater” to the “restaurant” across the street.

We spent the rest of the afternoon walking around, doing some more shopping and having one of the best ice cream experiences I’ve ever had! We went to this little place called “Amorino”, my friend told me I can pick the flavors I want and they give them a little “floral arrangement”.

And just to make my point clearer:

Needless to say, it tastes even better than it looks!

After our short-lived wild affair with ice cream, we went to the park where we enjoyed art, music and three guys making fools of themselves by trying to jump rope in the park’s fountain.

That was the art.

These are the idiots:

Note: I apologize for the bad quality of the photos, I only had my blackberry that day.


Why the Lebanese (me) Can’t Really Survive in America

I haven’t updated this blog in ages and now I’m doing so from a different front. The American one. I’ve been here for a bit more than a month, hopping from Boston to Newark, to DC and then back to Newark to start my MFA in Creative Writing at Rutgers University.

I have made many realizations throughout my stay here, but the one that concerns us now is the reasons Lebanese people can’t really survive in America. Now sure, you might be someone who didn’t like Lebanon much to begin with and living here suits you just fine, but I LOVE Lebanon and living here does not bring out the best in me.

Reasons why I can’t really survive in America:

1) FOOD!! There are no words to describe how much I miss Lebanese food, the thought of it consumes me! Back home, if you don’t really know how to cook and you’re hungry, you take some Labneh, put some olive oil over it and eat it with Lebanese bread with some cucumbers and tomatoes. Here, there is no Labneh, no Lebanese bread and the veggies taste funny 😦

2) People on the street aren’t as helpful as they are in Lebanon. Back home, if you’re lost, some people would make it their life’s goal to help you find the place you’re looking for. They might drive you there, walk with you or give you so much directions that you feel like you know the place like the back of your hand before even getting there.

3) In Lebanon, when we say “thank you”, people don’t reply by saying: “yea” or “hmmm”! Is that what your mamma taught you?

4) In Lebanon, we have 2 coins that we commonly use, one is golden, the other silver. One has 500 LL clearly written on it, the other 250 LL. You cannot be confused, if you don’t know how to read, you can still tell them apart cause they’re different colors. Here, there are four coins, 3 of them are the same color, none of them have their numerical value written on them. And you can’t differentiate them by size, cause the nickel is bigger than the dime. So you’re stuck in front of the cashier, paying for your Twix bar and pepsi, which cost 3.48, panicking and thinking: WHAT DOES THIS MEAN?!?!?!

5) I miss the good old days when two things were common truths: we love shawarma, we hate Israel. Now, I meet a lot of people who support the state of Israel, others who dislike Arabs, and worst of all, people who don’t know what shawarma is!

6) Public transportation. Typical day in Beirut: leave the house, stand on the sidewalk, wait for a cab, shout out my destination, get it, pay 2 000 LL, arrive to destination, get out of cab. In America: wake up in the morning, go to the metro system’s site, put in my location and destination, write down the bus numbers, metro stations’ names, the color of the metro’s lines, the stops, the street names. Leave the house, walk to the nearest bus station, wait 15 minutes, hop on the bus, realize you’re on the wrong one, get yelled at by the bus driver, hop off, cross the street, get on the right one etc… arrive to your destination exhausted, ready to go back home and rest.

7) WHERE DO I GO FOR A SUNDAY FAMILY LUNCH??? 😦

8 ) Why doesn’t the dekkenneh on the corner of the street deliver groceries to my apartment in the middle of the night?!

9) Why don’t they serve bezer w termos with beer here?!

10) Finally, why don’t people understand me when I put in some Arabic and French words in the conversation?!?!