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Lebanese Writers Offer Alternate Views of Beirut

by Jacki Lyden
Mar 5, 2005 (Weekend Edition Saturday)

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Jacki Lyden

Demonstrators have filled the streets of Beirut in recent days, protesting Syria-backed Lebanese President Emile Lahoud and demanding the withdrawal of Syrian soldiers.

Among these protesters are some of the contributors to an anthology that was published last year, Transit: Beirut: New Writing and Images.

With its eclectic mix of fiction, experimental memoir and photography from both new and established writers, the book provides glimpses of the rich and complex life of the city not often seen by outsiders.

Malu Halasa, who edited the book with Roseann Saad Khalaf, speaks with Jacki Lyden about the genesis of the collection, the recent protests and the relationship between art and politics.

Read an excerpt from the book:

"My Lebanese Sandwich"

By Maher Kassar and Ziad Halwani

I'm in Moscow airport, waiting for the weekly flight back to Beirut. People know each other on this flight. There are the same familiar faces: businessmen, escort girls and pimps. While I'm having a snack before boarding - and happily saying good-bye to what seems to be staple Russian airport food: rye bread, mayonnaise and kalbasa sausage - I hear a voice in Arabic asking me: 'Did you have fun in Russia?' Moussa is from Jounieh. He is one of the few tourists a travel agency sold an 'all in' package deal to Russia, including food, hotel in Moscow, and guaranteed female entertainment. He seems totally disoriented and out of place. He asks for my help and follows me from the restaurant all the way through the long formalities of the Sheremetyevo airport. He tells me his holiday was a nightmare. Nothing was as promised. The three-star hotel had no hot water, and everything is so expensive in Moscow. And the food, my god the FOOD!!! The girls were all right but they were not allowed in the hotel after midnight. The third day, he fled to Minsk to some friend's place. There, he went to the local market, bought meat and vegetables, and cooked his own food. This at least allowed him to survive the rest of the trip. 'All this time,' he says, 'I was dreaming of a falafel sandwich.' Moussa went to Russia with a hunger for young, beautiful blondes; he came back with an even bigger hunger for falafel.

As he said goodbye and cheerfully thanked me, I felt a growing uneasiness. Something was not right about his story. Usually when you leave for a long period and miss the taste of the food of your country, you are - so to speak - home food-sick not fast food-sick. Why would he choose to miss the taste of falafel when he could pick from a plethora of succulent, typical Lebanese home cooked dishes? Vine-leaf rolls stuffed with rice and minced meat, and cooked with lamb's-tongue. Mloukhieh, a delicate green broth mixed with rice, chicken, lamb, toasted bread, lemon sauce and vinegar sauce. (This is my favourite because it is a 'living' dish; you keep adding each of the ingredients, slightly changing the taste every time, keeping your plate full and alive for as long as you wish.) Or Samakhe harra, an oven-baked white fish with rich and spicy sesame oil sauce topped with grilled almonds and pine nuts. And these are the obvious ones. Did this man have no taste? He seemed to be one of us though; I mean the kind who cares a lot about food.

This encounter made me reflect on the particular affection the Lebanese have for their fast food. I started remembering all those happy faces biting into shawarma, satisfied and content. I remembered the expectation in their glittering eyes as the sandwich man adds the salad, the onion, the taratór and the pickles before finally wrapping the sandwich and solemnly handing it to them: 'One shishtaouk, one!'

But, what makes it so special? Why does it have such a strong hold on the Lebanese heart - something to miss when you're abroad. After all, it is only fast food. And one wonders: do we experience the same pleasure when biting into a Big Mac?

Big, Fat and Ugly ... It's Fast Food All Right!

First things first. Let's identify our subject of interest: shawarma, falafel, shishtaouk, Armenian soujouk and bastirma, and bakery products such as manouché lahmbajin, ftaye and kaak.

The Lebanese Mother

In Lebanon it is no easy job to leave the family home and even more difficult to leave your mother's cooking. Chances are you will be eating at the same table and at the same assigned place, the same fifteen to twenty traditional recipes - however wonderfully executed - for a good part of your life. The road to independence out of the household is long and full of ambushes.

It is not conceivable, for example, that you leave without being married. Your first mission is to find a proper bride from a respectable family. It is also highly recommended that she should be from the same religion since only religious marriages are recognized in our country. However, if you are a free spirit looking for further complications and unwilling to give up on the beautiful candidates that the other seventeen communities have to offer, you will have to plan (and pay for) a civil marriage abroad, usually in Cyprus. I could dig deep into the other solution that requires you or her to convert to the other belief. However, by the time both the religious authorities and the families are won over, and all the 'details' are settled, you will both be eager to divorce.

Now let's say you have found someone. You will only be considered a proper party for marriage if you have the housing issue settled. Yes, you'd better own a house. Don't think you're going to take our daughter and live on the streets... Of course, you can rent or buy a small apartment, but if you're a good man and you're as serious as you pretend to be, it is recommended that you build a house from scratch. You'd better find an architect, a contractor, bricks, concrete, land, and the cash. No wonder there's so little free space in Lebanon. Imagine if every male soul with a crush on someone finds a piece of land and starts laying bricks.

Many of my friends have tried to escape the whole process; and although most of them were definitely James Dean material, they were quite unsuccessful. You could try to go on your own, try to cut the umbilical cord prematurely, be a rebel and do the crazy thing. You might be broke for a while, fight to pay your rent and lead a frugal existence. But don't worry, you will never be hungry. Mama will always be there for you. She will visit every week with stacks and stacks of Tupperware with enough home cooked food to feed you and all your friends until the day you decide to be a reasonable young boy again and come back home where you belong; whenever that day might be. Of course, you can try to hide and not disclose your new address. But Lebanon is a small country. She will find you.

If you follow all this advice, you have a chance to break free one day. You will decide where you prefer to sit at the table, what food you would like to eat, and who knows, you might even want to have a shot at cooking yourself. But nothing is guaranteed. If your parents have a little money, there's a good chance they have started the construction of an upper floor for you and your future family. You can already see the unfinished, armed concrete pillars with the metal rods still sticking out. When more money comes in, they will raise the walls. When it's finished, you can finally get married, my son, and move upstairs.

Then, there will be two rival kitchens competing just to feed you. Your wife will get hell from your mother. First, she will pretend to teach her how to cook. She will give her the recipes just the way you've always liked them. Only for some reason, they will never turn out nearly as good. Too much salt, overcooked, not enough cinnamon. 'Oh, you didn't add lemon, garlic and dried mint on the top? It's true ... I forgot to tell you.' Over the years, missing elements of the recipes will be sparingly disclosed. The proportions will eventually correct themselves. But there will always be something missing. Finally, when she has made sure who was the best cook, and is now too tired for the kitchen duties, your mother will call for your wife: 'Listen! I am going to tell you what is wrong with your coussa mehshe. It is ...' The rest nobody else will hear. The secret has been passed on and she, your mother, has made sure that you will be fed the same food. FOR THE REST OF YOUR LIFE.

The Freedom Sandwich

You're fourteen, coming out of school with your friends. Something is going to happen. A fact of life. It's your first time. You finally find the courage to go across the street and ask: 'Can I have a manouché, please. With tomatoes, olives and a little mint,' you even manage to utter. You hand over your pocket money and timidly take possession of the little thyme pizza.

Yes, congratulations! It is your first meal alone and away from home. And YOU paid for it. Never will you forget the soft and oily dough of the manouché in which you sank your teeth for the first time, the tingling, sour taste of the thyme, and the sesame seeds stuck between your teeth. For you, it will always be the taste of freedom and independence, your little secret culinary hideaway from home.

Worker's Size

Men at work like to have lunch together. They order sandwiches and start chatting about whatever men like to talk about: business, politics, women, cars ... food of course. I believe it is the same everywhere in the world. But in Lebanon, lunch with colleagues is an occasion for very specific male behaviour. At one point, the chatting stops and the munching begins; a collection of impressive jaws bearing down on the defenceless pita sandwich. Two manly bites and the sandwich is gone, and off we go to the next. It is a silent but fierce competition where all the contenders are required to show their teeth. The bigger the bite, well... I'll let you imagine what's at stake.

In the mid-1990s, in order to answer this growing phenomenon, fast food joints decided to launch a new product: the Worker's Sandwich. It is really not different from a traditional sandwich, except it's three times bigger. You could get a Worker's falafel, shawarma, makanik, or anything you decided to wrap in an oversized pita bread. It really made all those men happy. Armed with their sixteen-inch sandwiches, they could finally parade their manhood.

How much of a man are you, anyway? Go to Abu Ahmad. He will tell you. When you enter the small restaurant and order your sandwich, he will look at you from the top to the bottom and will make his judgement: 'Two women's falafel, two!'

Barbar: A Success Story

Sandwiches that give you your independence, sandwiches that make you feel like a real man. These are marketing concepts that a Lebanese fast food owner needs to understand in order to make his business work. But those who make it really big in the extremely competitive world of Lebanese fast food need to have something more, a little spark of genius to stand out from the others; innovation combined with a talent to understand and satisfy the people.

In 1982, Barbar opened in the midst of the civil war. It was a small bakery in the popular area of Hamra, at first solely dedicated to manouché: manouché zaatar, minced meat manouché, manouché kichk (a sour dried milk powder) and the traditional manouché with runny bulgary cheese, except that it was surprisingly topped with sesame seeds. This small innovation was the launch pad for the small bakery of Mohammad Ghaziri also known as Barbar.

'Did you try Barbar's sesame and cheese manouché?' People started to talk about it and the word of mouth spread like a trail of gunpowder. The fact that it stayed open through the most dramatic days of the war also contributed greatly to Barbar's popularity. 'Twenty-four hours I'm telling you! They never close.' People recall that it only closed once in honour of two of its employees who were killed in a bombing. Another legend of the Lebanese civil war was born, and the manouché bakery took off.

Galvanized by these early successes, Barbar started a wild, ill-defined door to door expansion, moving in and occupying every little neighbouring shop whose owner was prepared to surrender.

In a year, the shawarma snack bar and the small falafel shack opened. Later, following the trend started by the notorious 'King of Vitamin', Barbar opened a fruit cocktail and ice cream shop offering exotic juices such as the Mandela, a chocolate milk shake with banana slices, the Noriega and Castro cocktails, or even the Hitler, a blood-red strawberry cocktail garnished with almonds and pine nuts, topped with whiter than white whipped cream. Finally, a restaurant with seating space, a submarine sandwich joint and a butcher's shop completed the Barbar food armada. Soon the little passageway in Hamra became known as Barbar Street and, between the cocktail shop and the sub sandwich restaurant, the street is now blocked by the sign: 'Road Open to Barbar Clients Only'.

Although they are only a few meters apart, every Barbar restaurant has its own kitchen, its own accountancy department and its own employees; a real structural disadvantage due both to the lack of planning and the resolve of remaining shop owners determined to resist Barbar's expansionist plans. The owner of a two-meter wide clock shop, for example, only surrendered half of his small space to Barbar, keeping the other half for himself. One meter of silver watch display still separates the falafel shop and the shawarma snack bar. But this is also part of Barbar's charm with its strange, original architecture and its waiters running around the street from one restaurant to the other, shopping for the cocktail, the falafel plate and the baked entrees you've ordered while comfortably seated in the restaurant.

Now let's do what everybody has been itching to do. Let's look at the menu. More than 200 items! The Francisco Sub with chicken, corn, mayonnaise and soya sauce was introduced in a period when Beiruti palates began appreciating Asian food. The Soiree is another creation. Initially intended to imitate the petit four, it is really like a mini pirojki with Lebanese fillings such as minced shishtaouk instead of the traditional Russian cabbage or potato. 'Mr Ghaziri travels a lot and brings us all kinds of new food ideas from abroad,' says a Barbar manager when asked about their innovation policy.

Barbar is innovative, but in the vein of some of the politicians after whom Ghaziri has named his cocktails, he is most of all a true populist, taking any food idea and trend that his clients are susceptible to and adapting it to Lebanese tastes. Why go anywhere else? You can find anything and everything at Barbar's: take-away pizza, hamburgers, subs, chicken fried 'Kentucky style', fajita sandwich, Chinese chicken, donuts even. You name it, Barbar has it. But everything has been transformed a little bit. The sandwiches and hamburgers have a little more garlic than usual, the pizzas come garnished with soujouk or makanik sausage, and it is probably the only place in the world where you can order a 'lamb's-brain sub sandwich all dressed'! Even certain names, like the French 'croisson' in the Barbar's breakfast menu, have been adapted to suit the Lebanese.

But Barbar had bigger dreams and ambitions. He learned from his structural problems and made a plan. In 2001, the new Barbar Spears Street was inaugurated. One long, single space for the falafel, the bakery, the shawarma, the sub and the take-away restaurants; and a back-door alley for the employees to move freely from one space to the other. At the same time, new competition from foreign fast foods forced him to raise his standards. As the Barbar manager explains, 'We have now very strict policies on nail cutting, hand washing and hair hygiene... what's the word... Transparency, yes... we like our clients to see everything.'

And indeed we see everything that is happening behind the counter; but most of all, we are blinded by the food galore exposed in front of us. From left to right: pickles, lettuce, taratór, shishtaouk, fajita chicken, fried fish, fish filet, fried calamari, shrimps, surimi, French fries, spicy potatoes, shawarma meat, shawarma chicken, makanek, soujouk, bastirma, lamb's-feet, lamb's-brain... Along the high density traffic of Spears Street, a fifty-meter long display of colourful, cold, hot, spicy, exotic, meats, salads, fried and baked foods that you are welcome to arrange at will in a sub or pita sandwich.

It's as if the sailboat of Barbar's dreams suddenly materialised in front of us. With its high ceiling, giant posters, and blue and pink neon lights visible from far away, Barbar Spears is the Taj Mahal of fast food, the ultimate Lebanese street feeding machine; a model that Barbar is now exporting abroad to the Gulf and other Arab countries.

The King of Kaak

I never feel as lost, confused and panicked as on Saturday mornings after a night of partying when I open the fridge and realise there is nothing to eat. Hunger grabs me and the urge to fill the empty stomach drives me crazy. I start opening all the drawers and cupboards in the kitchen: a jar of pickles, mustard, Tabasco ... that won't do. I search every corner of the house with frenzy and a growing feeling of desperation. Defeated, I sit on my bed and face reality. I have to dress and go outside the house to buy breakfast.

As I drag myself out on to the street and the summer sunrays start warming my body, I feel hopeful again. I know that soon I will come across a kaak vendor pedalling in the opposite direction. 'Kaak! Kaak!' the young man shouts. On a wooden frame on the back of his old bicycle, the sesame topped, crescent-shaped galettes are hung in several rows. As he lifts the plastic sheets protecting the kaak, I try to decide on the filling: Zaatar or picon? I choose picon, the 'Famous French cream cheese' found only in Lebanon. 'Thank god for the kaak street vendors!' That's all I can think as I bite into the crispy golden kaak envelope stuffed with the soft cheese.

For as long as I can remember, there have been kaak vendors in Beirut. Hundreds of street carts and bicycles patrolling the streets of the city in search of ravenous souls like mine. They are a gift, or better, a public service; always there when you need them. For 750 LL or fifty cents, you can fill your stomach and satisfy cruel hunger.

'Where do all these kaaks come from anyway?' Without hesitation, the seller answers, 'Abu Ali.' When I ask him where I can find this man, he tells me to go further up the line of vendors and ask again, saying, 'They will surely know.' Slowly, I work my way up from Gemmayze to Basta; and with every kaak vendor that I meet, I am greeted with the same answer: 'Abu Ali? Of course! Go further up and ask. Everybody knows Abu Ali.'

In the narrow streets of Basta, I follow the trails that lead to the bakery of Abu Ali. Vendors with empty carts accompany me through the traffic. From the opposite direction, those loaded with the fresh kaak start singing the calls that they have repeated relentlessly for years: 'Kaak for the morning, kaak for the evening.' 'Kaak, kaak, buy my kaak.' The cycle of nasal, high-pitched voices is a lullaby that seems to carry the strong smells of freshly baked galette and toasted sesame.

Further up in the street, as the concentration of people, voices and smells becomes thicker, workers are unloading enormous bags of flour from a big truck. I realize that I have arrived. The place is small and humble. No door, no windows, just a few steps separate the street from the single space oven. As I start my way up, a young man instantly blocks the entrance and asks me: 'Yes? What do you want?' 'I... I'm a reporter doing an article on kaak. I would like to meet Abu Ali.' As he lets me in, I feel privileged.

I have no difficulty recognizing Abu Ali. He is an old man and his authority over the young workers, and everybody else around, is unmistakable. The place is busy and he controls the operations. 'Go wash your hands,' he orders one of his employees. 'What are you doing? Not here! Get a brain!' he blasts the exhausted hauler whose body is nearly collapsing under a bag of flour three times his weight. Even to his sole clients, the kaak vendors, he is unremittingly tough, never stepping down from the heights of his bakery and never letting them up the stairs.

With me, however, he is extremely charming. He smiles and tells me everything I want to know: he's been working in the business since 1957. Before that his father and grandfather owned a kaak bakery in the old downtown. His sons, however, will not succeed him. 'They are all doctors, engineers or something like that.' He says it so sadly that he makes me feel like taking over myself.

He tells me about the dark days of kaak, during the 1990s when people used to associate kaak vendors with Syrian intelligence. In reaction he decided to paint the red and white Lebanese colours and the national Cedar tree on the walls of the bakery. Many kaak vendors also pin Lebanese flags on their carts to show their patriotism. He tells me about his business and projects. He produces up to 6,000 kaaks a day and has just signed a contract to deliver mini-kaaks to Middle East Airlines for their early breakfast flight.

When the interview is over, he carefully chooses a piece of kaak from the racks near the oven. With his thumb, he makes a hole in it and fills it with his personal thyme mix (zaatar) which he keeps hidden under a table. 'This one's for you,' he says. Slowly, he lights a Cuban cigar and waves to me to come and sit outside next to him. 'I love cigars but I never smoke after 2.00 PM. At my age, I have to be careful!'

Sitting on his plastic chair outside the bakery, cash in one hand and cigar in the other, Abu Ali lords it over the street and all the kaak vendors. He has succeeded, in authentic Lebanese style.

The Rise and Fall of the Mac

I will never forget the surreal scenery of Ain El Mraisse during Ramadan. It is 4.30 in the November afternoon and the sun is setting in beautiful colours that seem to say: we're not in Europe, we're not in Asia, we're in the middle. The place, usually overcrowded with pedestrians, is totally deserted. People have answered the call of the muezzin announcing the end of the fast. In this still and ethereal atmosphere, the voice seems to envelope everything around it: the palm trees standing at the beginning of the Corniche, the mosque on the other side of the street and in between, sticking out with its bright red and yellow colours, the two-storey McDonald's restaurant.

During the war, people dreamt of having a McDonald's in Beirut. They considered that it would be a sign that civilization had finally reached us. The notorious 'M' sign was copied and used by several fast food establishments. 'M' stood for Massis, the renowned Armenian fast food restaurant with its exquisite soujouk sandwiches and famous 'Odour-free-Bastirma'. We even had our own 'McDonald's' though its mascot was not Ronald, the ever-smiling clown, but Donald the Duck. It was as close to civilization as we could get.

Civilization... We asked for it and we got it big time. Along with the new roads, the new infrastructure, the new international airport, a brand new downtown, cellular phone networks, satellite TV, superstar European DJs and modern beach resorts, the thirteen-year long effort to reconstruct Lebanon after the war lead to the opening of 9 McDonald's, 8 Burger Kings, 4 KFCs, 11 Starbucks, 6 Dunkin Donuts, 1 TGI Fridays and 8 Pizza Huts. And for a little while, everybody was happy. While buying our children a happy meal, we had the impression that 'Lebanon (was) moving toward better days' - as McDonald's Lebanese franchise owner Jean Zoghzoghi puts it; and of course the international fast food chain executives were happy to find another four million healthy bellies willing to be filled.

But this golden period was not meant to last. Like a new toy, the Lebanese played with the Whopper, tried the McFlurry and collected all the party favours from TGI Fridays. Today, the hype is gone and the spirit of our good old falafel and shawarma is back.

A friend once told me that what she loved about McDonald's is that wherever you go in the world, you can be assured of getting the same quality and the same taste. In other words: everybody is equal in savours and flavours. This is the strength of the Big Mac. And this is precisely why it will fail here in Lebanon. Listen carefully Ronald McDonald: we do not want to be standard. We want to be an exception. We do not want to be treated like everybody else. We want to be special. When we order a sandwich, we ask the chef to prepare it 'Alla Zawaak' (to his own taste). I want him to look at me, guess how much taratór, how much onion and tomato would suit my palate. I want a sandwich tailor-made for me. 'This falafel sandwich, Mr Kassar, is just for you. Nobody else in the world has eaten one like this, I can assure you.'

And then there's the politics. At the beginning of the second Intifada in September 2000, a campaign was launched in Lebanon and other Arab countries to boycott US goods. 'The penny you spend buying these products amounts to another bullet for the body of our brave Palestinian brother,' the leaflet said in reference to the three billion dollars a year of direct US aid to Israel. In April 2002, after the six-week Israeli offensive in the West Bank and the forced confinement of Arafat in his Ramallah headquarters, the fast food boycott took on another dimension. Students in Beirut organized sit-ins in Burger King, Starbucks and McDonald's. Tragically, bombs were planted at Pizza Hut, KFC and McDonald's resulting in the injury of a teenage girl and significant property damage.

McArabia

But global companies don't go down without a fight. To regain public sympathy, targeted marketing campaigns were launched. Coca-Cola began planting Cedar trees in the southern Lebanese town of Jezzine and has recently sponsored the Palestinian national soccer team. On the culinary front, Burger King and McDonald's decided to market new sandwiches. Last year, the Kafta King and the McKafta were the stars of the summer. More recently, the streets of Beirut were covered with giant posters of the brand new McArabia.

I have taken it upon myself to try the McArabia for you. I have allowed my bag to be searched at the door of McDonald's and undergone the shame of having to loudly pronounce the words: 'One McArabia, please.' Would a Swedish person accept asking for a 'McScandinavia' or worse, a Frenchman order a 'McFrance'? But what the hell, I'm an Arabian after all, so I pronounced the magic words and I received, in reward, my sandwich.

On the back of the closed cardboard box, a small cartoon demonstrated the correct procedure for opening the package and the most convenient way to hold the sandwich. I am now in the 'Ready-to-Eat' position and I can finally bite two slices of chicken burger wrapped in a Mc-version of pita bread with shredded lettuce and tomato, topped with a light mayonnaise-like sauce.

My verdict is immediate: bland, gummy... culturally neutral chicken. Culturally neutral! I feel like I've just bitten into one of those yellow Afghan aid packages specially designed not to hurt the Afghani's religious feelings. They also had a cartoon explaining how to eat the food, as well as an American flag, to make sure that there was no misunderstanding the identity of the benefactor.

But there was a more serious flaw. There is no garlic in the Arabian sandwich! It only struck me later when I realized that I had none of the garlic-related inconveniences, which I usually experience after eating a Lebanese sandwich. We put garlic sauce everywhere, and two layers rather than one. It's called, 'Garlic extra!'

In the Beirut sandwich hall of fame, the chicken garlic and pickles panini from Marrouche is first with no contest. A friend of mine who used to live off it when she was a student and has now become a vegetarian - another one lost to the cause - could not completely abandon the intrinsic taste of the Marrouche sandwich. She now orders a 'chicken sandwich, garlic extra, without chicken... thank you!'

But I have no illusions. I know that garlic is a forbidden ingredient at McDonald's. Bad breath is not part of their image. They cannot afford the bad publicity of someone kissing his girlfriend and her saying, 'You! You have just eaten a McArabia.' KFC is more accommodating. They understand our attachment to garlic, especially with chicken. If you ask for it discretely, they will hand you one or two cups of garlic sauce under the counter. But, shhhh, don't tell a soul!

Angry Stomachs, Angry Arabs

It's not because Palestinian territories have been reoccupied, or that Arafat is confined in his Ramallah headquarters — miles away from the nearest falafel shop — that Burger King and McDonald's are falling out of fashion in Lebanon. Let's, for once, not put the blame on the Israelis or the Palestinians. Let's be honest with ourselves.

It is our stomachs. They are unsatisfied, and they are the culprits. Not enough taste not enough garlic is the reason why we boycott, organize sit-ins and throw stones. If the surest way to an Arab's heart is his stomach then don't mess with it. War has been declared on the culinary front and the guard at McDonald's is not searching your bag for dynamite, a gun or a knife. He is looking for the illicit garlic sauce, our own home-made chemical weapon. So, please, for the sake of peace, start making better tasting sandwiches!

"My Lebanese Sandwich," by Maher Kassar and Ziad Halwani courtesy of Transit Beirut: New Writing + Images, edited by Malu Halasa and Roseanne Khalaf, (Saqi Books, 2004)

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