The cake I waited six years to taste

If you’ve been reading me regularly, you’ll probably be pleasantly surprised that this post is a little shorter than usual. It’s about cake, after all. How much can you really say about a slice of cake.

The story goes like this:

In 2009, in between classes, I walk into a Starbucks near my college campus to grab a green tea. ‘No sugar please,’ I tell the cashier as I placed my order. I walk over to wait for my tea, and I felt the need to tell the barista one more time ‘sorry, can you please make sure you don’t add any sugar?’ You know, just in case. It was almost summer, which means almost time to go to Lebanon, which means looking like a fat foreign kid who can’t resist American junk food was just not an option.

As I waited, a slice of scrumptious chocolate cake grabbed my attention. It wasn’t like any other chocolate cake. This was heavenly chocolate cake. It looked so good. So sinful. My mouth was watering and stomach making all sorts of sounds just thinking about it. I couldn’t just leave it there.

Little did I care that what I was about to say was gonna make me sound like someone who’d lost their mind (you know, asking for a green tea with no sugar. Twice. Then ordering (what looked like) a 2000-calorie slice of cake): ‘can I also have a slice of your Chocolate Decadence Cake, please.’

I couldn’t wait to get out of there and go somewhere quiet, so I can peacefully devour my cake. A slice that had my name written all over it. I sat in a perfect spot, under a tree, all excited that I was about to have my first cheatcheat in a month. I opened the bag.

Wrong cake. I can’t believe he gave me the wrong cake. I debated going back to claim what’s mine, but it was time for class. (I found out later that the food-deprived me gave him the wrong name. Chocolate Decadence Cake was the name of another slice right next to my beloved).

In 2012, I walk into a Starbucks near my office in Abu Dhabi to grab a green tea, with no sugar. As I waited in line for my drink, I saw it again. Beautiful as ever. The same cake. The other side of the planet. Three years later. It’s fate. I wasn’t gonna get the name wrong this time. So I looked real carefully at the tag, and placed my order with confidence. ‘May I also add a slice of your Dark Belgian Chocolate Cake, please?’

‘Sorry, ma’am. The gentleman there has already ordered the last slice.’

You’ve got to be kidding me, I thought. I debated fighting for my cake, but I had already made a scene by confirming twice that my tea has no sugar.

In 2015, I walk into a Starbucks in Kaslik, Lebanon. As I stood with a friend in line, I saw the cake again, and smiled. I told him the quickest version of my cake story. ‘Tonight is the night,’ he said.

I knew the name by heart. They have more than one slice. No one is ahead of me in line. Nothing can go wrong. ‘Okay,’ I (happily) surrendered.

We walked over to our seats, and as he placed the tray on the coffee table, my greenteawithnosugar spilled all over the tray. I should have known. My cake is ruined. I’m sure it’s ruined.

It wasn’t.

I sighed with relief. Tonight is the night, I reassured myself.

I sat down. My eyes widened with anticipation. My friend pulled out his phone to document the moment. I took my very first bite, of the very cake I fantasized about for so long.

It was gourmet-less, taste-less, disappointing.

We laughed and joked about it. He thought the story was so funny, I should write a post about it. I smiled diplomatically and thought to myself, what the hell am I gonna say about cake.

I got home that night, and realized that this is not just about my cake. It’s about every single thing I’ve ever put a ‘my’ in front of, when it actually wasn’t mine. Be it a job, a boy, a trip, a dress, a cake. Every single time I put them on a pedestal and made them out to be the next big thing. My next big thing. When in reality, they were neither meant to be mine, nor a big thing.

Often times, we try to make things happen, against all odds, against all laws of nature. We ignore everything and everyone telling us to stay away. Because in our minds, it’s ours. And we want it.

Well maybe it isn’t. And maybe we shouldn’t.

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With Beirut, we had it on a silver platter

If you’ve known me long enough or have been following Thoughts & Abouts for a while, you’d know that, despite my political science background, I’m not one to entertain political discussions. I don’t agree with some of my closest friends on political views, and, if you’re familiar with Lebanon, where I was born and raised, you’d know that it’s just better this way. But we’ll get to that later.

For now, let me just show you the place that brought me up.

Beirut was born to be exceptionally gorgeous. Shamelessly beautiful. A Goddess to look at. Despite the wars, the bombs, the insecurity, the high cost of living and low pay, the corruption and class disparity. Despite everything that normally makes a place unlivable, Beirut was where you’d go to live. My city never settled for looks, though. It seduced you with its charm, and drugged you with its appeal. But on the inside, it was arrogant, unbreakable with a heart of steel. It was shot from every direction, but shone through, more stunning than ever.

Over the years, Lebanese abroad would always tell you that their current situation is temporary. That this new place they live in, although great, is not Lebanon. “Akid badna nerja3” (of course we’re going back), is an expression you’d hear often.

Lebanese were hardly the only fans, though. State Departments and Ministries of Foreign Affairs around the world have had notices on their websites for the last 30 years, warning their nationals that Lebanon is highly dangerous, and visiting it would be on their own risk. You’d think this would stop them, but they adopted Beirut as their own and went every chance they got. Why? Because Lebanese mastered the art of living. Because Lebanon is where you meet people who would give you their bed and sleep on the floor. Where the food is to die for and the parties are unmatchable. It’s where everyone, regardless of where they come from, their likes and dislikes, could find a corner that would force them to be spontaneous. Drag them out of their comfort zone. Make them nostalgic for their best memories. Remind them of their first love. Awaken their dreams and ambitions. Reiterate their raison d’être. Whisper in their ears that they only live once.

And, We, the Lebanese People, didn’t have to do anything to earn the right to the country where everyone wanted to be.

But there is so much Beirut’s looks and charm can do.

Growing up, every Lebanese student without fail learned in geography class that Lebanon was strategically located to connect East and West. That with its moderate weather and diverse landscape, people could swim and ski on the same day. That its four distinct seasons made it all too attractive for people coming from countries that didn’t have that luxury.

They failed to mention in geography class, though, that our strategic location also meant that we should thank God for the Mediterranean, our only peaceful neighbor. That our neighbors on every other side have issues that have gone on for decades, often spilling over to Lebanese soil.

Also growing up, every Lebanese student without fail learned in social studies class that Lebanon was home to 18 sects “co-existing harmoniously.” That it was a democracy with a constitution, where people had a say in what goes on in their lives. That our electoral law allowed for proportional representation amongst all layers of society.

What our social studies class didn’t tell us is that the 18 sects appear to be co-existing harmoniously. That our democracy was words on paper. That in reality, we’re a hereditary monarchy, monopolized by a few families whose names we’ve memorized all too well. That our electoral law and constitution couldn’t make up for the sleaziness of our “leaders,” and the naivety of our people.

We, the Lebanese People, took Beirut and all that it gave us for granted and said “thank you, but no thank you.”

We have not learned. And I’m not sure we’re capable of ever learning.

We can blame our government. We can blame our economical situation and our debt and our neighbors and our political enemies and “el wade3” (the situation). And, and and. But, at the end of the day, we should blame no one but ourselves.

After all that has gone on in our Lebanon. After we’ve given time and time again the same people a chance to make a difference. After they failed us every time. After they starved us, split us up, disappointed us, ruined our lives, increased our debt, deprived us of our most basic needs, we still cheer them on and chant for them. Who are we. What is wrong with us. How have we not made those who have driven us away from our Lebanon accountable for every mishap?

Perhaps the only thing Lebanon has ever done for me was sign a no-objection letter, attesting that my government has no issues or reservations with me working for a foreign government. It was the quickest signature I’ve ever received from my Lebanon. And how awful did it feel.

I haven’t lived in Lebanon in 11 years. I know. Now you’re thinking ‘why didn’t just lead with this, so we could have spared ourselves the hypocritical speech.’ And I’ll beg to differ. Every Lebanese who, for one reason or another, has had to leave Lebanon, will tell you that distance has made our love for Lebanon grow fonder.

This same distance, however, has made us appreciate other governments that are doing for people who aren’t even their people more than my government has ever done for me.

I’ve been living in a desert, also known as the United Arab Emirates (UAE), for the last three and a half years. I dreaded this place at first. Maybe because I felt like leaving Lebanon for another Arab country didn’t make any sense. I was in the United States before that. But that was fine. I went to study, and that was justified. But how was I going to justify moving to the UAE when I couldn’t even justify it to myself. A monarchy in the middle of a desert.

I don’t think the way I saw the UAE changed until my parents came and visited. They opened my eyes to things I hadn’t seen. Things that are so different from Lebanon. Things they hated back in Lebanon. My parents who never wanted to leave Lebanon. Loved it here.

Their nod of approval redeemed my guilt in a way and allowed me to see the UAE from a different lens.

We co-exist harmoniously.

They were here on Easter Sunday, so we went to mass at a Catholic Church in a compound of churches and mosques. The priest led the sermon by “we thank His Highness Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan, President of the United Arab Emirates, for his wise leadership and allowing us to be here today.” I later found out that the Minister of Culture, Youth and Community Development, a Sunni Muslim, serving in the cabinet of a Muslim country where Sharia law plays a key role, cut the ribbon at the opening ceremony of the remodeled church and, according to sources, the government also contributed financially to the building of the church.

Major malls and stores here are decorated for Christmas. In fact, a few years ago, Emirates Palace, the UAE’s most luxurious hotel, put up the world’s most expensive Christmas tree to celebrate the occasion. In retrospect, Christians and residents of other religions are expected to respect Muslim observances through certain behaviors and modest dress.

We have a good life.

The UAE population constitutes mostly of expats, with UAE nationals only making up 10% of the population. Expats work across all fields and, for the most part, feel privileged to be able to work here thanks to the benefits and perks that the government has made possible. This has created a domino effect of feel-good everywhere you go, which has boosted the overall happy factor of the country.

The founder and first president of the country, the late Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, whom everyone who lives in this country respected and loved, had a vision to bring civilization to the UAE and turn an economy heavily dependent on oil into a knowledge-based economy. To do this, the government looked at the rest of the world and brought the best of models to be replicated and implemented in all industries in the UAE from education and healthcare to aerospace and energy. The benefits of having these models here have evidently trickled down to all residents, regardless of their nationality, who now not only have access to the best hospitals, schools and technologies, but also increasingly impressive career opportunities. Ones they wouldn’t have had back home. In a tax-free economy.

But it’s a monarchy.

For a big proponent of democracy, the monarchy in the UAE hasn’t bothered me one bit. Before you spit out words like indoctrinated or brainwashed, take a second to think, realistically, about the reason anyone would want a democracy. To choose the people who would represent them in government and make decisions that would be in their best interest. I already have that here. Without having to lift a finger. So right here, right now, I don’t care whether or not I got them to government or they just happened to be good leaders who knew what they’re doing.

In a desert.

The UAE is only 43 years old. It was (obviously still is) a desert, where people, then called Bedouins, lived in tents and rode camels. When you step foot in the UAE today, not knowing anything about its past, you’d think you just landed in one of the most advanced European countries. With its towering skyscrapers, huge malls and spectacular luxury hotels, the UAE quickly made its way to the top in the region. It didn’t spare any expense to build and develop the best and tallest and largest and every superlative adjective you can think of. For the most part, it doesn’t get involved in the enigmas of the region, which made it a safe and stable place for businesses to settle and tourists to visit. It defied all laws of nature by planting and replanting flowers in sand, and air conditioning every single closed space, making the desert a pleasant place to live.

But this post isn’t about the UAE or anywhere else for that matter. It’s about Beirut.

With Beirut, we didn’t have to try. We didn’t have to fight for our spot as the Paris of the Middle East or the Bride of the East or the soul of the region. Beirut just threw herself on us and let us take advantage of her.

So when I say “ma ba3ref eza berja3” (I don’t know if I’ll ever go back), it’s never Beirut. It’s the people.

Beirut, Beirut was too good for us.

Some 48 hours I had

(initially drafted on July 3, 2015)

I hadn’t been home for my birthday in a few years. So I decided that this year, my 25th, is an ideal time to go. I kept hoping I’d get excited about the trip, but I didn’t. “Maybe I will when I get closer to the day,” I thought. But I still didn’t.

I’m not sure what it was. Perhaps the fact that I’m a Gerascophobic turning 25? Or maybe because I had put on a few pounds since my last visit, and no one notices weight gain like Lebanese girls? Or the fact that my sister’s future in-laws (i.e. her fiancé’s parents) invited us out to a post-engagement lunch on my very birthday, and my parents didn’t decline, so I felt like my birthday was being hijacked from me? Or because I’m going through a helovesmehelovesmenot period? Or the fact that I was questioning the questions that you’re meant to question yourself at 25. You know, the who am I, what am I doing with my life, what have I done, who should I be?

Perhaps all the above? I have no idea. All I knew is that right then and there I was down. And nothing was gonna change that. Or so I thought.

I landed in Beirut, and standing in the middle of the airport, at 3:30AM, were my parents and sister carrying balloons and colored signs with “Happy 25th Birthday” written on them.

We got home, and awaiting my arrival were more balloons.

Despite all the balloons and love, I was still down.

The next day, I went to grab a coffee with one of my closest friends, who got diagnosed with the unmentionable last year. For the purposes of this post, let’s call her Nour. Those of you who know Nour, would understand why the news of her illness was devastating. She’s what you would call full-of-life. Her energy is contagious. Her laugh is capable of turning anyone’s day right side up.

But those of you who know her also know that if anyone was gonna kick cancer’s ass, it would be her. And she did.

I got to the café and there she was. That familiar smile. That short hair that she rocked like no one else could. And there it was. That thing about her. Arrogance, perhaps. Towards the illness that thought it could steal her life and her laugh away from her, but couldn’t.

We hadn’t seen each other in a long time, so she immediately started asking about me. My life. My plans. And I didn’t have the courage to ask her about hers. Then I did.

How are you? I asked.

There was her smile again. Then she said amusingly “I had cancer and now it’s gone.” And laughed hysterically. The I-did-it laugh. The who-does-cancer-think-it-is laugh.

Then she said. “It was a good experience.” I couldn’t help the “yea, okay Nour. Keep telling yourself that” look on my face. And she saw it. So she explained.

I hit rock bottom, Rita. And now I can live. None of the little things phase me anymore because I’ve been through the worst.

And there it was. She gave me the first lesson of the trip, on a silver platter, without me having to go where she went.

The next day, we had the in-laws lunch that hijacked my birthday. My sister looked so beautiful and so happy, so I was happy. We partied and danced till we dropped. But I couldn’t help but think that I’m here celebrating her engagement, again, instead of my birthday, which I came home to celebrate.

And then it happened. The second lesson.

The waiters at the restaurant where we were came carrying a massive cake, with 25 candles. Then I heard an all too familiar voice singing my favorite birthday song – my dad. Who has one of the most beautiful voices I’ve ever heard.

I looked at my sister. She was singing and clapping and smiling. The I-gotcha smile. The you-think-no-one-can-ever-surprise-you-but-I-just-did smile. The I-love-you-so-much-I-would-turn-any-engagement-party-of-mine-into-your-birthday smile. So I teared up. At the hate I had towards this lunch that turned out being my surprise birthday party. At the selfless woman that my sister grew up to be.

That evening, I had plans to go visit a friend of mine whose father passed away a few weeks ago. She and I weren’t very close, but we talked sporadically. And when her dad fell ill, I’d check on her every once in a while and let her know that my family and I were praying for them.

My mom came along, one because I was home for a total of three days and she wanted to spend every waking minute with me, two because she knew her family well, and three, because I don’t know how to act in these situations. Do I talk about it? Do I not talk about it?

So my mom, who’s brilliant at everything, started the conversation. And it got my friend, whom we’re gonna call Nayla, talking.

Nayla: It kills me every day. I’m a believer, yes. He’s in a better place, yes. But he’s not here. I lost my father, and I’ll never get to see him in this life again. I am blessed, though, you know? I have no “ifs.” I spent every minute I could with him. When he got sick, I was always either with him or taking care of his diner, the second closest place I could be to him. And now that he’s gone, the diner is my priority. This place put food on our table. My dad spent his life building it and growing it to ensure that we didn’t need anyone and I can’t leave it now. Everything else can wait.

She then told us countless stories and memories of her and him. His best days. His worst days. She didn’t shed a tear. But the sadness I saw in her eyes and the anguish I heard in her voice were more powerful that all the weeping I’ve seen in funerals.

Nayla: In the days before he left, things were lining up like a puzzle. I believed more than ever that everything happens for a reason, you know? I’m so sorry, I talked too much.

Little did she know that I wanted her to. That I believed that too. That me going there on my birthday had clearly happened for a reason. Yes, she needed to talk, but I also needed to listen. Here’s this girl who just found a purpose in the midst of the biggest loss of her life. 

Nour and Nayla had every right to be bitter. I was healthy and the former wasn’t. My dad is here and the latter’s isn’t. But they weren’t. They graciously offered me the lessons they learned by going to hell and back, without even realizing that they did.

And then I saw it. The lesson of all lessons. Perspective.

Scared and free

(initially drafted on May 29, 2013)

Ever since I posted my last blog, I’ve been thinking of a new topic to write about. Something interesting. Something that you would care about. Something that I would care about.

Unfortunately, I had nothing.

Now I’m not the type of person who ever has nothing to talk about. In fact, ask my friends and they’ll tell you that I’m the type who has so much to say, I talk so fast to fit it all in 24 hours.

So it’s not that there was a lack of topics. Or that my life has been eventless since February (2012 that is –yes, I haven’t written in a year and 3 months). As a matter of fact, so much has happened since then, it scares me to even think about it. I quit my old job, I moved 2000 miles away from home, I got a new job, I co-founded an NGO, I fell in love, I fell out of love, I took a solo trip, I met countless amazing people, and most importantly, I learned more than I ever thought was possible in the span of a year.

So it definitely wasn’t that either.

The reason I stopped writing is because –as clichéd as it sounds –I didn’t know what voice I should be writing with.  I still don’t. I think I’m going through this stage in life where I’m just trying to figure it out. I never thought I’d live to see the day when I say this because as far as I was concerned, I’ve had it figured out since I was 5. I was going to grow up to be a doctor by the age of 28, then marry Mr. Perfect and have his gorgeous babies.

So I’m definitely not a doctor (I’m also not 28 yet so I still might meet Mr. Perfect by then or later and have his gorgeous babies.). I’m not even working in anything that has to do with science which had always been my kinda thing.

I’m actually working in PR, thinking of maybe going to law school, or maybe becoming a diplomat, or a politician, or a teacher. Some days, I want to sing for the rest of my life. And on others, I want to start my own thing. I’m all over the place. I’m so all over the place that I have 3 different standardized test prep books sitting on my desk as I’m not sure if the next step is law school, med school or just a good ol’ Master’s degree.

I’m sure this is an inevitable stage in life. But some struggle through it more than others. And for someone who has always made plans, stuck to them and put deadlines on every next step, this is a mess. It gets you to doubt everything else about your being and you start going all Oprah and questioning life and its purpose and your calling and your personality and who you are and who you should be and and and the list goes on.

Now I can’t say I’m writing again because I figured it out. Nor can I confirm that I ever will. But I think I’m starting to realize that maybe it’s not such a bad thing if I don’t.

Am I scared? More than ever. But I’m free. I’m scared and free.

Sex, that taboo

(initially drafted on February 10, 2012)

I got in a car accident a few days ago caused by an illegal immigrant who had no papers, no insurance and probably a stolen car. (But that’s another day’s topic) After the accident, I drove myself to the hospital, got checked up by a pleasant doctor who asked for an X-Ray. I got escorted to the appropriate block by a lady who seemed to be more like the hospital slut than a nurse. She winked at and flirted with every single guy we bumped into on our way to the x-ray room. Just when I thought things couldn’t get any more awkward, the radiologist walked into the room and instead of asking me if there was a chance I could be pregnant (as they would at any normal place), she asked if I was married.

Her dumb question got me to think about her ignorance as a healthcare specialist, our ignorance as a people, the taboo that we made of sex, the meaning that we gave to virginity, and this backwards world that we’re creating for the future generations.

I wanted to say so many things but didn’t know where to begin as her question was wrong on so many levels. I felt the words fighting to get out of my mouth but 5 seconds later all I spit out was: “I’m single.” I felt weak, submissive to the status quo which is not usually a trait of mine. I should have said something. I really should have said something.

We live in a society where it’s 3eib (a shame) to talk about sex in public. I feel awkward bringing up sex in front of my cousins or friends (males of females) who have never left Lebanon. It’s a no-no topic that should just be kept behind closed doors. I think the rule is: if you’re a girl and you’ve done “things” (even if you haven’t gone as far as sex), don’t tell anyone because people talk and then no one would want to marry you. Seriously, what the hell. Where do guys fall into that equation? I know a guy who would only date/marry a virgin when he has literally “de-virginized” half the population. I don’t see anyone telling him to keep quiet about it in the fears of not getting married. Quite the contrary actually, he kinda brags that he’s a man whore. But that’s ok because he’s a guy.

We live in a society where we shame a girl who gets raped to the point that she’d rather keep quiet and let the bastard who raped her go unpunished.

We live in a society where we’re formally introduced to sex for the first time in 9thgrade. Don’t get too excited. We learned about animal sex and had to do the math and figure out how it would happen in our species. We don’t have a formal sex education class so naturally we have to get our sex knowledge from other sources; Porn, other kids, random people, movies… Since the forbidden is desired, especially for teenagers who think they’re “badass” for having sex, they go on sex sprees with anyone. With no protection. With no clue.

We live in a society where the definition of a “virgin” is messed up. So messed up I want to throw up. I was at a doctor’s clinic a few months back when this lady walks in screaming, yelling, going nuts. Her 10-year-old daughter was holding her hand, in tears. The lady was so loud that everyone and their mother heard the story so I didn’t have to eavesdrop. Apparently, her daughter fell on a sharp surface and started bleeding (hence the tears. She was in pain!) and what was the mother worried about? “Please doctor, can you make sure she’s still a virgin? And if she’s not, can you attest on a piece of paper that you’ve checked her up and that she’s never had a sexual relation and that she’s “popped” because of the accident? Just in case we needed it in the future” I was in awe. In shock. I didn’t speak for hours. How do you react to that? What does being a virgin have to do with her damn hymen! And how could the mom think of such thing when her daughter is bleeding to death and is in excruciating pain? I was hoping it was a nightmare that I would wake up from but it wasn’t. I knew it wasn’t because when I told the story in another circle full of Lebanese women, hoping I’d get some of them on my side, I didn’t.

WAIT: Wait to have sex but wait for the right reasons. Ladies, saving yourselves for your husbands does not count as one. I don’t see them saving anything for us. Be with a guy who appreciates/respects the fact that you’re a virgin but would be with you even if you weren’t.

EDUCATE: Let’s educate teenagers so if they do have sex, they can do it safely. Let’s prevent teenage pregnancies, abortions and STDs.

CHANGE YOUR MENTALITY: In order to change a society as a whole, we have to start by changing our own mentality. We can’t expect a girl who gets raped to say something if deep down we’re still going to blame her. We can’t pretend like we’re cool with talking about sex if we’re going to think “slut” of the girl who brings it up.

It is our responsibility as a society to do something.