Where are you from, and what do you do?
The effortless answer is to say I’m from Beirut. It’s where I feel most intrinsic to the architecture, like a jar in a pantry. I am continuously being molded by the city’s social and political landscape, its communities, the stretch of Mediterranean Sea and stuffy streets. But (my generation loves to complicate this question, doesn’t it), I am also from other homes: my grandparents’ in Talkalakh, my family’s in Kumasi and Tripoli.
In the most primordial sense, of course, I am from my mother’s womb. My mother is who and where and what I always return to.
As for what I do—my background is in political science and am an ethnographic researcher, working with a wonderful team of development consultants at the Beirut-based firm, Economic Development Solutions. We do research on gender, employment, and sustainability issues for a range of international and national organizations.
How'd you get into writing? Is there a specific moment, or a series of moments, that you can turn back to and say: "Aha, this is when I decided I want to become a writer"?
There’s this specific memory in my head. I am seven years old. It’s Harmattan season in Kumasi and I am plopped on the couch, sticky and impatient. I pick up a short Baby-Sitters Club book and read it in one-go. I don’t know how much time passes, but I finish it and something clear and fresh, like cool water, trickles over me: a sense of complicity. Like, there’s a shared world of words out there, and that world is the one for me. That might be the first proper book I read. And I think I’ve been “writing” since. As in, I see moments and people and emotions as an anatomy of words and images and punctuation: limbs and organs that I can arrange and rearrange at liberty.
But my writing was haphazard and unintentional, in the form of abandoned scraps and assignments and emails to friends. I only allowed myself to believe I can, and should, write quite recently. It happened gradually: after a series of losses; during a work-related interview with a young woman in the Bekaa; the sight of this one almond tree flowering in spring; reading Hala Alyan’s Salt Houses and Arundathi Roy’s God of Small Things in the same month and thinking, ouf, imagine being able to create something that could look like this?
What does being "youthful" mean to you? Do you believe in something like a "writerly" responsibility to shape your community? How do you navigate the space between artistic expression and political correctness?
I love this question because for me youthfulness is not static or time-bound. It is a state of being that you have to tend to like a plant or your skin (neither of which I do very well, I should note). That is, with a mixture of patience and carefreeness. I also think youthfulness, although this may appear contradictory to what I just said, is to be present and eager without a hyper- awareness or excessive consciousness. Simply surrendering to those bouts of aliveness and resistance, of curiosity and discovery. An image that comes to mind is baba at the ice-cream shop, deciding which flavor to get.
The question on writerly responsibility, frankly, intimidates me. It follows me like polluted air and is one of the factors that kept my writing contained for years. I navigated a lot of political spaces in university and the question, with anything I wanted to do, was: How can this tie into a larger political project? Who am I to write about anything? These thoughts are (were?) also fueled by a sense of linguistic inferiority: that my writing is in English when so much of my world, and community, breathe in Arabic. All this to say: Perhaps now is not the time for me to answer this.
As for political correctness, that’s a long but fun conversation. I would say political correctness is at once destructive and crucial. Does that make sense? I mean, I want to be responsible and hope to always hold myself accountable: to probe worlds not mine, and to be alright with making mistakes and learning. But the modern appetite to destroy those who err is very disturbing. In Arabic there is this term—el naqqawi el fikriyya/النقاوة الفكرية—or intellectual purity and self-righteousness. Indulging in that, I find, is quite disruptive to creative expression and growth.
What are you obsessed with, and do you think obsession is an inhibiting or an essential part of the creative process? What is most conducive to your writing process?
Generally, I am not an obsessive person. Sometimes this fact irks me—I want to be able to chase a thought with urgency. Most days, I find myself compartmentalizing instead.
There are themes and images I return to often: time and memory, the “borders” between Lebanon and Syria, August heat, people’s relation to the sea, heritage and fate and witchcraft, tarab. Lately, along with everyone else in Lebanon, the country’s economic collapse and what it means to both co-exist and resist it.
As for what is most conducive to my writing process: I’d say it really depends where and who I am at a specific moment. Reading poetry always helps, so does witnessing people navigate conversations and spaces. But when I feel very stuck, I dance or watch actual dancers dance. And it almost always helps. Something about how automatic and erotic dancing is, this sense of waists and legs and arms turning to music with equal measures of control and euphoria. It reminds me that writing is both about letting go and finding structure, and the distance between the two is often a dance away.