Eager faces, dim smiles, waiting, with eyes focused on two huge boxes placed in-front of the green board. Until the moment, the teacher says, “one by one you can come and pick one”.
The drift of the tiny creatures, start moving one by one; boys on one side picking a gift box from the huge box and the girls on the other side. In couple of moments all the kids are back in their seats, all the kids are now holding tight to different shapes of gift boxes wrapped in different colors. The excitement on the faces rises and the time seems to stop until the last school bell rings before the Christmas vacation and the flow of kids leaving the school with happy faces as they carry gifts back home.
Toys and ornaments in shoeboxes sent overseas to those kids who are unfortunate in this world. Unfortunate in the eyes of strangers just for the fact of being born in this side of the world, in non-European and non-American countries. While those same kids were considered prestigious to their surrounding and fortunate to be going to this fancy school. Standards change and the same kids are vulnerable for some and prestigious for others.
Those kids enjoyed the small toys shipped to them in shoe boxes, read the letters inside and sometimes a photo came along from kids their age, or elderly, and religious people. Little did they know that they are the vulnerable group in this time of the year and those gifts are merely humanitarian gestures. Those kids, us, grew up and provides the same assistance for others, we are not the vulnerable in our own eyes and there are more unfortunate kids out there than us and those gifts were just an addition to the pile of toys. Toys to brag to the neighborhood kids about.
We grow, we see, we sense, we suffer the cruelty of this world, we try, we realize we were the vulnerable kids at some point, we fight for little change, but what can one do in so much cruelty, a smile drown on kids face for a day, sharing of the suffer of one day and then going back to a warm bed and safe home.
We enjoy the holiday seasons, and those happy final days of the year, enjoy the last moments of the year. However, the hardest part is when the last of the year, is the last day of someone’s life. The last month of the year had turned into accumulation of memories and loss.
Are we in denial mode? Are we the vulnerable ones? Are we born vulnerable? Are we made vulnerable?
Whatever the answer is, back in the days, a wrapped shoebox always brought; happiness to our hearts and smiles to our faces, as we innocently accepted it without knowing that we are the vulnerable ones. In those days, our end of the year had become a box of memories, of passed faces, of feelings, of love, of heartache, and sensations.
Somehow, he managed to escape the crowd, the loud laughter, the weird conversations, and found himself on the road. He walked down with a backpack on his back, earphones in his ears, with the loudest music there to block the sounds of the outer world.
He walked for a while with his serious features and hidden smile, all alone scrolling the alleys with his loud music and louder dark thoughts. At the corner, of the road, he noticed a stranger glimpsing at him in the reflection of the street light. He ignored it which gave the stranger the chance to jump in and keep following.
He walked with his head down and eyes focused on his phone, the music getting louder, and his thoughts darker. While the stranger, strolled behind him, that stranger with his curly hair bouncing up and down, batting his eyelashes rhythmically, enjoying the regular sights with amusements and a big smile flashing on his face. The strangerfollowed him happily without his notice.
Suddenly, he stopped for a puff of a cigarette. As he sat on the sidewalk to smoke, the stranger had no time to escape, so he froze in his place. While he smoked his face was stuck down focusing on his phone and didn’t notice the stranger in front of him. Until he finished his cigarette, he threw it on the floor, and as he made sure the cigarette bud was off, he caught a glimpse of the panicky charming eyes sparkling in the dark in front of him.
“What are you looking at?”, he says as the panic flashed the stranger’s face and before the stranger had a chance to speak. He proceeded “wait you look familiar!” stepping closer to the light to see the stranger’s face “you are…” and he froze unable to continue.
“I’m you!” chokes the stranger “the happy version of you”.
“But how?” says he.
“You locked me in, but I escaped with the melodies you are listening to”, says the stranger.
He looked at his hand still holding his phone, the music is still playing, he pressed the stop button, and looked up facing the emptiness of the dark.
He took a deep breath walked few steps, his dark thoughts jumping in his head, and he pressed the play button again.
He walked back heading towards the crowd once again while the shadows of the bouncing curls stepped by his side.
Three hours break between sessions and a book to read means that she will have to find me a seat in the library. Although, it was cold just the idea of locking herself in a closed place for three hours sounded unbearable.
After a short walk, she found herself at Campo Santa Margherita. She looked around for an empty place and under one of the trees she took a seat on an empty bench, fastened her scarf and jacket, chose a suitable music for reading and got her book out. She had the bench for herself for a while, as she enjoyed both the book and the view. She saw people passing by. There was the old woman dragging her shopping cart careless about the surrounding that seems to be boring usual view for her, followed by a couple astonished by every single thing they see around, fetching their camera trying to capture every sight, and there is a mother on the other side running after her son. Over there a bit further, the fish market stands out and people were gathered around to buy the best of it, and on the other benches people sat enjoying their fresh hot pizza slices. The Campo was busy, where all the places and restaurants tables out were full with people.
She put her head down focusing on reading the book, and in a few moments, she felt the presence another person filling the end of the bench. She took a glimpse of the figure it was an old man with his newspaper. For a while, he sat there reading his newspaper after which he packed his stuff and left again leaving the bench for her. A girl then joined and took the old man’s place, she set out several Tupperware and placed it in the middle of the bench between them and kept it untouched. She sat there nervously looking around at the alley way behind the corner in expectation, fetching her phone checking it and putting it back, hushing the pigeons away and scanning the other girl with the book accusative as if she so self-absorbed, it was almost an hour when she gave up on the wait, packed her untouched food and walked away. She felt for that stranger and for her unfortunate luck as she saw her walk away sadly.
It was then that two guys came to share the bench with her. The smell of the pasta that they were eating filled the place. Their loud voices overcame her music and she could hear their conversation talking over the lyrics. One shared his struggles in Venice as a foreigner while the other told him about his lousy date the other night. She couldn’t concentrate anymore on reading so she put her book back in the bag and walked away keeping her seat for another stranger!
On this same bench, a bunch of strangers sat with their own stories in a city of culture and history, that always made them feel as if all that is just a fictional story.
It’s those walks on this island “Venice”, the island that looks like nothing but itself. Those walks take me back to the past and to memories I didn’t even know I have.
From that pink flower that looks the same as the one we used to have in front of our house in the village. To the jasmine flower which looks different but has the same smell of the one that used to escape from the backyard into my room on hot summer days, in the village.
To the sound of kids and conversations that brings back familiar voices and it takes me a second to understand that those are not the same voices and this is not even the same language!
The familiarity in the strangest things around, to the dreams, the dreams and fantasies of the silent walks.
The walks under the darkening skies, under the reflections of the street lights and through the narrow alleys. And for a second you are not you and this is all a dream!
It is this city, this island with all its people, the modern, the classic, the old, the young, and most interestingly the odd ones. The ones who appear as if coming from a different century.
Out of nowhere a person would appear with a coat thrown over his shoulders as he hasted himself along the small alleys and disappears. As if a time gate had opened and taken him back to where he belongs.
While I stood there lost between the present and the past, between the world of dreams and that of reality!
Theoretically speaking we are always considered locked up. We always seek for freedom, we always consider ourselves prisoned, our souls trapped within our bodies, and bounded by our abilities and limitations.
When it comes to being locked down, restricted from leaving our homes and forced to maintain social distance was something we only saw in fiction movies and read in books. We have read about the plague, cholera, and the Spanish flu. But we have never thought that the day would come, in our modern days, where we will be facing the same destiny and taking the same procurations, like those done a hundred years, to protect ourselves.
I remember reading “Death in Venice” during my B.A studies and ironically when I arrived at Venice in September 2019, to continue my Master’s degree, images of the novella were stuck in my head. Images of the city’s description as the cholera was spreading and I never thought that I will actually witness and experience a similar situation.
The idea of being locked down, looking for a safe space, protecting yourself and fearing of what will happen tomorrow is not something new to me, but this time the context is different.
I was brought up in south Lebanon, in a town called “Kafar rouman”, a town that was half occupied during my early childhood years. I have images and memories in my head of the 8 years old girl not allowed to go out because it is not safe, images of when at school we were taken out from our classes to a safe shelter, images of my mom driving the car fast to get us home the soonest… Followed by memories and images of that day, the day when the occupation ended, on the 25th of May 2000. Images of my brother, my mom and I along with my cousins in my grandparent’s car, as grandpa drove us to a new place, to a new discovery, new land for us kids, as he and my grandma explained that it’s part of our town as well and today it is back to the people…images that made no sense until I was older until I really understood the significance of those memories.
Those images that ended with a happy memory in the 8 years old girl’s mind, were experienced later where I was more conscious and aware of what’s going on, where lockdown had the immense taste of fear. By the age of fourteen, Israeli war happened again and this time I did understand the images at the moment of its occurrence. South Lebanon was one of the main targets in this war, my family and I were still living in our house in the town.
It was summer 2006, we were planning for a nice summer ahead, a time for family, at the worst we worried about was the weather and heatwaves. The last thing we thought about was that we will be living the fear and stress of war.
Out of a sudden, the happy summer ahead, turned to news of death, fear, damage, and destruction. At first, it was all in the nearby towns, our town was somehow safe and we would gather at my grandparent’s house all of us aunts, cousins, and family members to follow the news…
It was on the third or fourth day, I can’t actually remember when the first nearest strike happened. My mom was talking on the phone. I finished my breakfast and walked to the living room when it happened. I was still standing in the doorway. The whole house waggled. From where I stood, I saw the black clouds, just over there over the hill on the other side in the nearby town…
Just like this, the war started for me! In no time the house was full. Friends and family members. Giving that our house was considered to be in a safe neighborhood, some of the family members from my grandparents, aunts, and cousins, moved to our house.
That was my first lockdown, even if the neighborhood was safe, the drone (MK surveying plane) was always in the air and it is better to stay in. For seventeen days, our house, my home, that other family members took shelter in, was no longer safe for me, I was even scared to go into my room as it has windows to the outside, fear was in the air, and the terrible part was the sounds, the sound of the aircraft in the air, the sound of the artilleries at night when I could hear it fired and landing, the sounds were the worst part.
Under lockdown, we tried to keep a good spirit within the safety of a home, my cousin wearing all her brand new dresses that she bought for the summer, my brother buying whatever he found at the neighborhood’s small shop and joking that this candy goes back to World War Two (WWII), food lots of food as the electricity was off it was better to cook the food storage we had, it was a war with fancy food, which I barely ate out of fear, and at last playing cards. A table placed exactly in the middle of the house where my brother, cousins and our neighbor would sit playing cards to distract themselves from the outside sounds. At night we would turn on the TV while keeping all the lights off, to dissolute the drone (MK surveying plane) and to save our minimum energy resources to watch the news.
Today, in the year 2020, at the age of 27, in Venice-Italy miles and miles away from home. I am under lockdown once again. A silent lockdown this time, where the enemy is quiet and targeting everyone, anywhere and at any moment. Coronavirus’s war started for me on the 24th of February when the university closed and we were asked to stay home, for the first-week life was semi-normal, everything was still open and operating until the North area, including Venice, became under lockdown and then in two days, the whole country was under lockdown.
At this time, I cannot but link to my early teenage years’ experience, under lockdown there is stress and fear, and people trying to distract themselves as much as possible through playing cards, board games, and cooking. Once again, I am hearing about people, about humans, referred to and reduced to numbers, numbers of those affected, numbers of those recovered, and numbers of those who died…These victims are reduced from being individuals with lives and identities, from being parts of families, into becoming numbers only numbers.
Back home I feared to stand by the window or to look outside. Here the window is the only thing assuring that there is life out there, there is life behind those walls. There is that pigeon by the window flying with its friends from one building to another. Enjoying his daily rituals and not being restricted to social distancing and lockdown.
My whole life here is reduced to a screen, a screen that connects me to work, to my studies, to my family and friends. It is all through one screen and once it is off the room is silent. The silence that brings me back to myself and my memories and to everything I have passed and still passing through.
It makes me think how weird things happen, the other day I had to go out to the supermarket and to the bank. The bank is a 15 minutes’ walk from my house, which on a normal day I wouldn’t even count. I put my mask on, and my gloves and head out to the street. The restaurants, coffee shops, and the bars were all closed, the crowded sidewalk was empty, the empty bus alone drove the deserted streets. The wind was so strong, and I covered my head with the jacket’s hat. I could only hear the sound of my breath while really few people passing by to head to the supermarket or walk their dogs. This moment took me back to 2006, on the day we decided to leave our house and head to a nearby safe city Saida. Well, basically my Mom and my brother were not afraid. It was me who was unable to take it all. After constant calls from my father who works abroad, my elder brother who lives with his family abroad, and my sister who was already in a safer place in the mountains working in aiding displaced people, who reached the area, the decision was made.
We were four to five cars as I remember, it was agreed to keep distance between each car and the other just in case a strike happens, ironically, we won’t all die. In our car Mom was driving, my brother sitting in the front seat, and I was in the back next to, as much as we could take from, our important stuff. We had to take an alternative way as the main highways were inaccessible and assaulted by the air forces. At some point, we lost the others and my mom didn’t know the directions, as the attacks have changed the landmarks of the places. We didn’t have a cellphone, as mom wasn’t a fan of it, well my brother and I were teenagers and phones weren’t a thing yet. Our only solution was to take the exit back to the main highway. We headed back to the highway, where there was a space for exactly one car to pass as the rest of the road was destroyed. The road was deserted except for us and above us, we can hear the air forces. My mom asked us to display a white sign to show that we were peaceful. My brother though was debating that he loves that white shirt. Which was freaking old and he finally hangs it outside the window. In the middle of all that, my brother’s coldness hit it is best when he is like “this actually reminds me of a movie I’ve watched, where the guy was at a hospital and he came out and everyone was dead because of a virus!”. I remember shouting at him to stop talking. I remember those couple of minutes before reaching the crowded city as hours. Everything that we lived back then seems to be prolonged. Same as my 15 minutes’ walk to the bank that felt like hours.
Ironically, here I am in a city where people are keeping distancing and staying at home because of a virus. Here I am walking in the usually crowded places with rarely a few people. Listening to the sound of my own breath. Here I am contacting my family and friends each in a different country but under the same isolation.
Life in the quarantine is similar to that of a warzone. The only difference is the sounds.
It doesn’t matter how small Lebanon is, being a country that
is barely shown on the world map, still as small as this land in the whole
globe, it happens to hide as many diversities and contradictions as possible.
This small land attracts tourists for its history, they come
here for Byblos, Baalbek, Jeita, Rouche, and for the beauty of its mountains
and sea. They come for the food and the nightlife. They come to the joy that
this country brings.
This country that is hiding behind the beauty a misery and
suffer of the Palestine nation with 70 years of refugee life. At the corner of
the city and away from the fancy restaurants and touristic places, there is
life. Life of people fighting to get the minimum of their human rights. People
whose only fault is being born a refugee.
A small land, where displaced refugees, from Syria has in its valleys and rural areas their only safe escape. For several years now, they found themselves in tents with nothing more to lose other than their own lives.
A small country where
its own people are suffering every day. Suffering to get the minimum rights of
women, fighting to protect their children, fighting to have their rights for a
better life, fighting for better services, fighting for a better tomorrow and
Still above this all, there are people living in their elite areas, having their prestigious life away from the suffer of this nation. Not even knowing that there are refugees in this country, not knowing any of their suffer. They have isolated themselves in their shallow society away from this country itself.
It is a small land, land of contradictions, land of happiness and misery all at the same time. Land of history and secrets, but as much as you love it, it keeps on disappointing you every day. It leads you to despair and isolation as it gets worse day after day. The gap between the reality and how you dream this country would be only gets bigger and bigger. The land you want is only in the world of dreams.