Hello World (Let’s Try This Again)

The humiliation of failing in front of the whole world is exquisite.

In the last year and a half, I tried so many times to start this blog. The pressure of writing for the public (again) was high. The last time I kept a blog, Beirut Update, my country was going through a war and my best friend was dying of cancer. In the summer of 2006, the Israeli army declared war on Lebanon, over night. Over night, my life changed forever. The first night the bombs started falling, I thought I was going to die. What they don’t tell you about bombs is how loud they are. Louder than anything you can image. Your whole house shakes. Your soul is tested. I thought that if I was going to die that night, I wanted to make sure the whole world knew how and why. I didn’t want to be another nameless war victim. I opened up my laptop and wrote throughout the night, describing what was happening around me, what I was feeling, what my friends and family felt. Around 5am, the bombing stopped and the sun came up and I found myself alive and well. I pasted my text into an email and copied everyone, and I mean everyone, in my address book. We had no idea then how long the war would go on for and the media were very slow to report.  I wanted to share my story with the world and I also asked for help. Exhausted, I collapsed next to Tapi, my other best friend, my darling Jack Russell Terrier. She curled up next to me and assured me we’d be ok for a few hours. How do you explain bombs to a dog?

I woke up to find my inbox full of responses. So many people had not heard about what was happening. How was this possible, I wondered? How could our airport and major parts of our city have been blown up and yet nothing had hit mainstream media yet. I wrote back to as many people as possible and for the next three days, I continued to write, report, respond, feel, cry, write, sleep, wake, shake, write. I couldn’t keep up with all the emails. And then… ta daaaah! A friend in the States, Nader, asked me if I knew what a blog was. Oh! They’re pretty cool, it’s like an online diary. They’re kind of new, but a lot of people are doing it now! He set it up for me and bam! I became a blogger. And thus began my first real adventure with writing for the public.

I truly believed that the more transparent I could be, the more honest… the better the blog. If there was a chance that I could help stop the war, I had to describe what real life was like under the bombs. It was so critical that you, dear readers, saw me as a person and not a number. I needed to make sense to you. I needed to be familiar and not war journalism jargon. I needed to be real… I was living in the middle of Beirut city and thankfully my part of town was not hit. This gave me the chance to write daily, telling my story as well as the story of my friends and of people who lost their homes, families and lives.

At first I was covering the environmental damages done– it is rare that people think about what happens to the environment during a war. But our seas, earth, air and animal citizens were equal victims. Very early on into the invasion, the Israeli air force blew up our fuel reserves and 15,000 tons of oil spilled into our seas. From what I have come to understand, unless a spill is cleaned up within 48 hours, permanent damages are done. It took us 5 weeks before we were able to even start the clean up process. We had to wait until the bombing stopped. And then all the stuff one needs to clean up an oil spill had to arrive from abroad. People had to fly in and teach us. Experts. Scientists. Activists. However, the day ceasefire was agreed up, we hit the beaches to start clean up ourselves in the best way we knew how. Shoveling up sections, ever so delicately, and making sure we don’t back track and step on the sand, sinking the oil further in. It was grueling work even for an OCDer like myself. It was hot, and the fumes from the black oil filled my lungs every day. I have this idea that I will probably die of cancer, hopefully not any time soon, but, I will die of cancer and it will have been from the clean up that took weeks under sweltering Mediterranean sun. Are Lebanese beaches clean today, you ask? Honestly, nothing survives an oil spill like the one we had.

Most important to me, however, was Maya. My best friend, soul mate… I was absolutely sure she was going to pull through her battle with cancer. Absolutely positively sure. The absolute you feel when you are young and invincible. She had been responding well to Chemo. We had wheatgrass parties. She bought new headscarves all the time. Teal was the new black. She was on top of this alien thing. We were planning parties to throw as soon as the war was done. But I was too busy blogging and too involved in my activism, that I didn’t notice her slipping away. I was convinced the war would end. And I was convinced that Maya and I would be dancing again, very very soon. There was so much we had planned to do together. Impossible. Impossible for all that not to happen. World, you can’t beat this friendship! Two months after the invasion ended, we lost Maya… and then I lost myself. Until today I say that she just wasn’t given a fair chance to fight. Again, during war, the outside world hardly thinks about things like people who are fighting cancer. We literally used to dodge bombs in order to get Maya to hospital for her Chemo. We prayed every night that the hospital would not run out of fuel that was powering the generators that kept all the machines working. Maya, up against so much, was not given a fair chance to fight. I hold the Israeli government directly responsible for the loss of my best friend. In my blog, I was writing about peace. I declared that the blame game was not going to solve anything and that ceasefire had to be reached yesterday. However, this now isn’t about “blame”, this is about facts. We lost Maya and then I fell. I fell so hard.

And the whole world was watching.

My blog was being covered by all major news agencies. Parts of the blog were being reproduced in languages all around the world. CNN interviewed me. So did the BBC Radio. The Guardian dedicated their entire G2 supplement to my writing. I was doing interviews in Canada and Germany. Hong Kong shared my words. Denmark. Finland. India. All eyes were on me.

And then I fell.

The grief of going through a war, I could share with the world, but not that of losing Maya. I needed privacy. I needed to clean the beaches. I needed to mourn. I needed to lose myself in work. I needed to write for myself, not anyone else. And so I stopped blogging. I only went back a few times after ceasefire. Once to announce Maya’s passing. And then another time when a dear friend, Annemarie, was almost killed in Palestine. I wanted to share her letter/her experience. Then I stopped. The whole world is at war and everyone has their story- I couldn’t continue like this. I needed to stop with all the violence and try and find some peace. A small space to cry and release… and then in the right time, the chance to start believing again.

Blogging in 2006 was very interesting. It was still new! and (dare I say) the beginning of electronic “citizen war journalism.” It was definitely the first time people took to social media and the internet to help stop a war. Little did we know then how much more was to happen, how much the Middle East would change and how social media would help shape all of that. Remember, this was before Tunisia and Egypt. This was before Facebook and Twitter. Looking back now, it is so incredible how these tools were so quickly harnessed by the Middle East and used to change the world we live in forever… First in Lebanon, then Iran, then Tunisia and Egypt. Then the whole world exploded from Tahrir to Maidan Squares. From Occupy Wall Street to Occupy Gezi. Everyone was opening up, everything was changing so quickly. There were new names to be reckoned with. Wikipedia. Wikileaks. Anonymous. Assange, Manning and Snowden. And this is only the beginning…

As the months went by, I often thought of all the incredible people who read my blog and sent me love and support. Without them, I would not have had the strength to write every day. I am so indebted to each and every one of you. So many, we eventually found each other on Facebook after that was invented. So many, I have had the privilege to meet face to face. So many, I now call my dear friends. Thank you. In many ways, you are once again the driving force behind me hoping that I hit the enter key when I’m done with this post. I want us to continue our conversations that were abruptly cut 8 years ago.

During my period of mourning, I started writing again. I had a dream one night. Maybe it wasn’t a dream. Maya came to me and gave me the bigger hug ever. It was so real, so warm… She told me she was OK and that I had to stop crying. She showed me her new house, it was all white, like as if her new address was now: North Pole (make a left at Santa’s). She looked great. Her hair had grown back and was long. She was calm. I told her I was going to start picking myself up, and indeed I did. I woke up and burst into tears (something I continue to do to this day… forgive me Maya) and I started writing. I wrote all night. I wrote some 30 pages and then in the morning, I hit the send button.

This time, the email went out to only one person. Lovely sweet strong Samar. Samar, based in London, had found my blog during the war and began writing to me. She pushed me to be strong and write, even the bad things. Even the humiliating things. And when the war ended, she flew to Beirut and planted a seed in my head. She wanted me to write a book. A book that had nothing to do with the blog. She believed in my spirit, my stories and my writing. I made no promises. I could barely keep myself together. I was in a deep depression, constantly missing Maya. I was drinking a lot. Anything to quell the pain. And a great division had formed between me and the man I was married to. No time for book dreaming then. Only mourning a best friend and then soon after, a sad and bitter divorce.

Samar read the first pages I sent her and pushed me to continue writing. And so I did. Sometimes, every day. Sometimes, once a month. It took two years, but then “Beirut, I Love You: a Memoir” was born. We hurried to publish in time for the Beirut International Book Fair in December 2008. I was proud, yes. Even with all the typos in the book. I was so incredibly proud. Somehow, all the pain and loss now began to have meaning. It had all counted for something. Or at least, I managed to find a way to make it all mean something.

I think of myself as an artist, not a writer, simply because that’s what I have been practicing longer. That’s what I’m trained to be. One thing I find in both art making and writing is that the more transparent and honest you are, the truer the work. My definition of beauty is simple; it has to be honest. The painting, sculpture, Instagram or poem has to be honest to the person who created it. That’s it. Everything is so subjective now and so much art “appreciation” in the art world is based on financial value, and not always on content or product. And the more empty the work is, the more it seems to have value! This discussion, I would love to save for another time, but to be brief, what I want to say is that I want to always make sure that whatever it is that I’m painting or writing, it has to be honest.

So back to this entry, I have tried to start this blog so many times in the past few years. I wrote and deleted so many entries. I had fun deleting spam that was piling up. I changed the font and interface a few times. Changed my password a few times. Nothing. Nothing. Nothing.

The pressure hasn’t been so much about being under the public eye again. I don’t think that part of me ever stopped as I published my book and went on tour with that, and continued to exhibit my work and give talks, including at TED. The pressure has been more about wanting to keep a blog that had some kind of valuable contribution to the world. I wanted there to be quality to my writing– #deepandmeaningfulideas!

What changed today?

I don’t think my ideas are that different from what they were a few years ago. But my spirit has definitely changed. I am going through a deep and personal experience right now, and this time, I don’t want to hide away the way I did with Maya. I feel like I am learning so much from my ups and downs and maybe, just maybe, I’m a little bit stronger to share this time around. I don’t want to hide away again and lose years of my life. Sometimes, when people run into me in Beirut, I convince them that I’ve been living abroad, but really I was just at home or in the studio the whole time. Not comfortable to go out, not willing to mingle. Not always ready to smile.

I don’t want to experience another depression, because that is a total waste of time. Nothing gets done. You burn people, you burn your friends. You lose your job. You lose credibility. Time, is something that I feel I have very little of these days. How quickly the years are passing. How quickly a decade can go by.

Simultaneous with this “experience” I’m going through, my work is changing. The art market is so good at categorizing you so that they can sell you. It’s much easier to sell if you are a package that is easy to swallow. Well, what happens when you are no longer that package. What happens when you try new things. What happens when certain ideas and convictions take over from others? It’s a very difficult position to be in if you are an artist represented by galleries, that sell you in a certain way. I thought that if I write about these new convictions then they will become real. They will be my honest representation to the world and not just the Pink Lady hiding behind a wonderfully designed website who loves glitter. Frankly, something to be very upfront about right now is to never doubt my love for glitter. Even with all these changes happening. I still love and use glitter, but it’s just in a very different way. It’s in the way that I need to be using it. Call it, honest glitter.

Call it light.

On a more positive note, a lot of incredible things have happened since 2006. I have traveled, been to festivals and discovered new dimensions– no, not through drugs. I have a very strict no drug policy. I’m too crazy as it is already. Can’t have chemicals messing with my perfectly balanced chaos. I have had the honor of meeting new and out of this world friends, artists and writers. I started a small publishing house in Maya’s honor as her dream was to become a published writer. xanadu* Publishing supports young poets in the region and I have even taken to writing (wannabe) poetry myself. I became a TED Fellow. I seriously and regularly started yoga and meditation. I want to try and bring these new positive dimensions to my blog too. I want to share light, art, and love. I want to take off where I left off, but knowing what I know now.

Let’s see where this adventure takes us. I have never been one to hold back. The internet is a democratic tool that can shed light when needed. A lot of times, the art world prefers to keep secrets, well, because it’s just much easier to sell things that way. Oh, the bland fucking mystery of it all! Come on, don’t tell me you don’t get this painting?! A ha ha ha. Let’s not hide, let’s not hold back. This is not an anonymous blog. It’s directly linked to my website. You know who I am. You can see the naivety and vulnerability in some of my older paintings. I don’t want this to be polished.

Let’s see where this adventure takes us. All I hope is that my next entry doesn’t take another two years.

This post is dedicated to Samar.

Yours faithfully, Zena x


Maya & Zena. On a rooftop in Beirut. Circa 1995.

Zena & Maya Rooftop in Beirut 1995



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