Marc Abi Aad
It’s 5:15pm. I am stuck in heavy traffic, worried I might arrive late. I look for my notepad in the mess of my handbag, and when I find it, I start reading, for the millionth time, the questions I have spent my last two weeks preparing for my internship in a local magazine. Realizing how soon I will be interviewing Hayat, the blood in my veins boils, and my breath falls even shorter behind the mask on my face. Nothing but what-ifs are running in my mind: What if I tremble when I talk? What if she finds my questions silly? What if some of my questions are too personal and inappropriate? What if I mispronounce a word or a name?... All these questions are growing anxiety in me. I cannot wait for tomorrow to come when the interview would be over, and I would have my answers. I try to calm myself down, craving for an enchanting melody, but I will not be able to hear a thing amid the street’s cacophony, no matter how I raise the volume in the earphones I am wearing just to avoid any conversation with the service driver, in which I would have to pretend to agree with his vague political visions, and unreasonable conspiracy theories. Instead, I start thinking about Hayat: she is a very reputable painter in Lebanon, yet she offered me, an undergraduate student, the opportunity to interview her in an apartment she has transformed into a workshop. She is so successful and talented, yet so humble and down to earth. These thoughts bring me some serenity. Finally, we arrive at Nor Hadjen street. It’s 5:25pm and our rendezvous is at 5:30pm. I am relieved. I look at the small building, make sure it’s the correct address, climb the stairs to the third and last floor… I ring the bell. She opens the door instantly.
Without her makeup and styled hair, Hayat looks different from her figure on TV and in magazines; she looks older. The modern clothes covering her short thin body reflect her desperate attachment to her slipping youth, the colorful paint on her fingers reflects her young and vivid art, and her smile and greeting reveal her energy and enthusiasm. I step into the workshop after greeting her back. The air inside is cool and the fragrance is floral. She asks me if I need anything; I ask for a glass of water. She smiles and disappears behind her paintings. I start staring at her artwork dispersed all over the walls. Some are paintings of faces drawn with high precision, with an undeniable focus on eyes drawn in detail and depth I’ve never seen in a painting before, others are lacking precision and depicts portraits, houses, seas, villages, cities with a prodigious mixture of colors, while others are abstract compositions of lines and shapes in all confused shades of colors, creating unreasoned sense, and provoking hidden emotions. At the center of the room, a wide painting is placed: next to it, a lively palette that you would think is still wet. An eyeless woman’s face, drawn with photographic precision, is in the middle of the canvas behind which unfinished lines and colors connect in my mind to form a city in a lovely sunset. I turn around and see Hayat leaning her back on the wall, with a glass of water in her hand. I see her observing me silently, and I feel her understanding of my thoughts and emotions that she refuses to interrupt, just as my mind refuses to remind me of the interview that I must start soon.
- This one is unfinished. I was painting before you came, she says while handing me the glass, raising her hand, and looking at her colored fingers.
- Oh! I am sorry I interrupted you.
She smiles and shakes her head. I put the empty glass on a small table and take my notepad out of the handbag to start the interview. I read the questions written down: When and where will you hold your upcoming exhibition? What do you think about art and artists in Lebanon? What does international recognition mean to you? What about being an inspiration for young artists in the region?... A bunch of cliché questions that I can ask later. Instead, I ask her:
- Do you always paint the eyes at the end?
She looks at the unfinished painting and says:
- Yes, I always finalize my paintings by drawing the eyes. It is the thing I fear the most in my work. I do it in the end after putting everything else together. Sometimes my vision for how I will paint them changes dramatically after painting everything else, sometimes it doesn’t vary. Sometimes it takes me weeks and months to paint them, sometimes it takes me just a few hours. Sometimes I simply don’t know. I don’t know how I draw them or what vision I am applying while painting, nor do I know the time it takes to finalize a certain painting.
- Is it your favorite part to draw?
Then I think I should probably stick to my list of prepared questions. But I cannot take my eyes off the unfinished painting that I consider to be her masterpiece. I am overwhelmed with the privilege to know the secrets behind her tour de force. So, I ask her:
- This is a city behind the woman’s face, right?
- Can you tell me more about what this painting is about?
- Umm, you know, sometimes I express things in my painting that I don’t like to explain. Otherwise, I would have expressed myself explicitly without resorting to my paintbrush and to my colors. I think that one of the most amazing things about art is that each person can interpret it in a unique way. It’s about what you think and what you feel when you see a painting, not what the painter was feeling.
She looks me in the eyes, sensing my dissatisfaction with her answer that leaves me longing for more knowledge about her painting, about her art, and about her. She exhales sharply and says:
- Well, I can tell you that it’s me in front of a city and that it is about what feels like home to me, places where I would feel safe, where I can be my true self, with no filters, lighthearted, and at ease.
- Can this city represent Beirut?
- Beirut! I never painted a line outside Beirut, did you know that?
- Really? No, I did not know that.
I am enchanted by the new information she provided me with.
- Hahaha, well no one knows that. I mean no one knew that! But I don’t know if I consider Beirut to be a home for me. It’s too complicated!
- Then where, what, or who is a home for you?
She turns her face towards me quickly, takes a step back as if my question perturbates her. Her face seems troubled, and her eyes start traveling around the room quickly. Then, before saying a word, death approached us.
Within a blink of an eye, Hayat disappears. Everything else disappears. Shapes disconnect, fade, or deviate, and colors are gone. Nothing but black remains, falling on me from the roof, or directly from heaven. I don’t know if this is reality or if it is a dream, or if I became a part of one of Hayat’s melancholic paintings. I don’t even know if I am alive or dead. Suddenly, a monstrous sound tears my ears apart, informing me of my attachment to my alive senses. I scream out of terror, but I cannot hear my voice. My uncertainty is therefore strengthened; I cannot tell what is going on, I cannot tell if I am still alive, or if this is what the afterlife looks like. Shortly afterward, I realize that the endless evil’s scream is much louder, much stronger. That voice fades away. I am alive in the middle of chaos, where the glass is shattered into pieces on the floor, where half of the apartment’s roof has fallen, and where nothing else is recognizable: not a shape, not a color, not a face, not a voice... I am alone. Horror grows in me, this time putting my body to action and putting my throat in a long rest. I need to get out of the building. This is all I can think of now, but I never thought that this would be so hard to do: nothing is the same anymore, nothing is in its place. I am lost. I start running in random directions, struggling to overstep the unrecognizable wrecked debris everywhere. Miraculously, I find the stairs. I start to reason that this is probably an explosion, so all I need is to get out of the building, walk to a different street where I would be safer, not alone, and not lost. Walking down the stairs, I see blood marks on the wall in the shape of hands of all sizes. Some are tiny hands. I check myself, to see if I am bleeding. I am not. I am intact. But then I remember Hayat that disappeared in a second. I scream: “Hayat! Hayat!” in hope that she will answer, but there was no response to my shaking voice. I look up at the doorless apartment I was in, thinking that I should go up again to look for Hayat, but I am too terrified to do that, I need to get out of here, I need to leave Nor Hadjen street, I need to be in a calmer place.
I don’t know how I managed to be outside the building, but I am relieved to be out. I look around me and I find that everything is shattered, and everyone is running out to find a resort outside of Nor Hadjen. Some are bleeding, some are bleeding a lot, some are red. Some are walking, some are being carried by others, some are on motorcycles. Cars are destroyed. I cannot look at this! I cannot get this much horror and this much misery into my consciousness. I run faster, looking at the ground. I get out of Nor Hadjen street, thinking that I will be in a better place, but Armenia street is entirely broken. Everything and everyone is broken. Disaster has fallen in every direction I look, reaching farther than my sight can get to. Tears in my eyes, I look up to the sky, hoping I would see something familiar; I would get a sense of home. But the sky was not blue, it was orange, red, and black. I have never felt this lonely. I start walking nowhere, hoping that I will reach a place where things would be normal.
Walking in fear, with my head down to avoid being exposed to more violence and harshness, I start to wonder what happened. I have not seen the source of an explosion, and the long road I have taken is full of glass tearing my shoes and hurting my ears. The sound of the glass under my feet makes me think about the damage they have done, and the skins they have blessed. But thinking makes me weak. I cannot walk anymore, and I cannot stop here. I cannot be here. I don’t bear it. I need to go home. Few minutes later, I see it! I see it on the ground in the middle of the street. I approach it and carry it. It is completed now. The eyeless face now has red eyes, and the city behind it seems fully painted from the dust and the debris. It is an ugly city. The painting is ugly. But this was meant to be Hayat’s home. I hold the painting close and start running. Seconds later, I get exhausted. I stand, with the painting in my hands, my eyes wandering through destroyed homes and hurt people, I scream aloud, I cry aloud with tears falling down my eyes. I break the painting into two pieces, and throw them away, screaming louder. I close my mouth and my eyes. Then I open my eyes thinking that people would be looking at me thinking that I am crazy. But no one is looking, others are occupied with their own pain, deafened by their own scream. No one cares. I keep on walking…
Months have passed. No news about Hayat. I am still walking, hoping to find home. I am still waiting for tomorrow; I am still waiting to get my answers…
A creative writing piece.