Jana El Hassan: The city that saved my life

Jana Fawaz Elhassan is one of the finalist of the 2013 IPAF prize; she joined us in Hay Festival Beirut to speak about her book 'Me, she and the other women'

Jana Fawaz Elhassan is one of the finalist of the 2013 IPAF prize; she joined us in Hay Festival Beirut to speak about her book ‘Me, she and the other women’

I live in a small apartment in one of Beirut’s neighborhoods, “Mar Elias.” To be more precise, the sixth floor of an old building located to the left of a dead-end street. I do not have a sea view and the location is definitely not what you can describe as “exquisite.” It is rather popular and cozy. The walls of the living room are full of scribbles by my eight-year-old girl and I have been putting off painting them because I started getting emotionally attached to the scene. I have also experienced several water problems ever since I moved here some three years ago that I actually thought of renting the plumber a room in my place. Overall, I lead the life of the common Lebanese citizens who struggle everyday with these little details and try to find a space of life in between.

So what makes my story interesting? It is actually up to you to decide if it is. I moved to Beirut in September 15, 2010, a year after I managed to get a journalism job in the capital. I had to drive for almost four hours daily –traffic included- on the way to and back from Beirut. I am a village girl, I grew up in vast fields in a small northern town located near the city of Tripoli and this is where I spent most of my life. As a teen, my dream was always to run away from home although I never had a clear destination about where I would go to.

Coming from a tribe-like family, I got married at 18 and found myself a mother at the age of 19. I did however pursue my studies and upheld my dreams somewhere inside my head. They were buried for several years until I was traumatized by the death of my father and they started to awaken inside of me saying “life is too short to get it wasted pleasing others. You have to break free woman, you are not a little girl anymore.” And so it was. A bit late rebellion is better than none. I had a bad marriage that had to end and it did. I looked myself in the mirror and said I do not want to be a school teacher, I want to explore life. I still remember my aunt asked me if I was afraid of the “unknown” and YES; I was scared like hell at many times! A jobless 23-year-old divorced woman with $400 in her pocked and a child to raise. This is frightening.

I moved from the small village to the northern city of Tripoli, experiencing one of the most terrible years of my life, unpaid jobs, loneliness, doubts over my own decisions and skepticism about the purpose and meaning of life and all that. The day I headed to Beirut to apply for a job seeking better employment opportunities, I was accompanied by my aunt’s husband, a supportive person for a change. I was gazing through the window to the streets of the capital and thinking to myself that Beirut makes you feel entitled to dream. It was unlike Tripoli where poverty and misery reigned.

Bottom line, I got the job and moved here a year later, making a step that definitely changed my life. The process was not easy, it was like deciding to annul a whole past and alienate from a part of me which will always exist. It was like making space for a new memory and I definitely could not do with a simple change. My new life had to be big to be worth it, to compensate for the distance and all the loss I have encountered. Failure was not an option, neither surrendering to nostalgia nor getting homesick.

Before talking about Beirut, I would like to talk about Tripoli, a city that suffers from the state neglect and a major victim to nonsense political disputes.  This thing I feel for the northern city can never be put into words, it is a mixture of melancholy, love and pity for all its disregarded riches and resources. It is like feeling a part of you is abused and in pain for unfounded sectarian reasons and this part is the core, the roots of a tree that although might flourish out of place, will find it very hard to call elsewhere a home.

So here I was in a new city in which I used to get lost a lot. I remember falling into tears for losing directions so many times and then laughing at myself but I was determined to discover the locations myself. The streets of Beirut were sort of nameless to me, and I wanted to discover them one by one, to go into the alleys and wander on the sidewalks and look amazingly at the people and the buildings as if I found a treasure.

I wanted to go to the Manara Cornishe, to Hamra, to Downtown, to the Hezbollah’s stronghold of the southern suburbs of Beirut, to the Palestinian refugee camps, to the Sanaeh Garden, to Ashrafieh and to the Gemmayze pubs. I wanted the whole thing.

What did Beirut change about me? It gave me a sense of individuality I always sought throughout my life. Perhaps it is not the city itself but also the lifestyle I lead and the breakthrough I made, but Beirut became the incubator of my dreams. It seemed diverse and rich, a city so busy during daytime and more like a courtesan getting ready to take off its underclothing at nighttime, a big office that quenches the thirst of workaholics and a call of passion for mystery seekers, a blend between the fine wine and the cheap types of vodka or whiskey.

First moving here had made me feel torn apart; I did not have a sense of belonging not to the place where I grew up or to the city in which I was a newcomer. I know I will never be a “Beiruti” in the sense of the origin but I am not just a village girl either or a frustrated single mother and depressed woman as divorced ladies are expected to be.

Walking in Beirut streets a couple of weeks ago, I knew I upheld the same amazement look I had three or four years back and I realized for a fact this city has saved my life and I am grateful for that. Maybe I do not know where I fit in but I know I have attained a new me here, a me that I had to build myself giving up on so many social clichés. Well but then again, who said I have to be one person? I’d like to think of myself as a lot of probabilities and I am actually starting to enjoy that.