Tuesday, 6 July 2021

Birthday Letter 2021

Hi Baba,

This year, your birthday letter will be heavy. It will be sad. It will be angry. 

But it will be relieved that you are not here.

This is the second year in a row that I say that. I say I’m happy you’re not here. 

That thought hurts in itself

Take from that what you will, when someone prefers the fate of the dead than those who are living.

Where to start? You already know the beginning.. I started it last year, and although there are some good things to mention, it seems we were cursed to continue with an unfolding like no other we could have imagined.

Less than a month after I wrote you, 28 days to be exact, I had just gotten home from work, excited to show Laith a fishing game toy I bought him earlier. You know the old school one with fish that bop in and out of a rotating lake, opening and closing their magnetised mouths while you attempt to catch one with a little tiny rod.

As I kneeled at the coffee table, with him excited to see, chirping and squeaking, a loud noise shook the glass of the nearby balcony doors. I stood up, and Mama who was there looked at me saying “earthquake??” I grabbed my phone to check for the news, moving away from the coffee table, and told her “No, no. That’s a bomb. They’ve blown someone up.”
What happened next was a mix of quick thinking on Mama’s part, fate, and pure luck. 

Thinking it could be Israeli war planes, Mama grabbed Laith from next to the coffee table in the middle of the living room, and started towards the inner hallway of the house, calling out to me and Louis to run to the hallway, incase “more bombs hit closer to us”.

She was no more than three steps away from where we were sitting, when all the glass in the living room shattered and flew furiously inwards.  Where Laith had just been. 

Seconds passed that felt like minutes of trying to comprehend and realise what happened and picturing what could have happened. Where Laith had been sitting were large sharp shards of menacing glass, over the table, the carpet, embedded into books and board game boxes that were in the book case. (6 months after this, we were still finding bits and pieces of glass behind books and in corners…)

Laith crying out at our panic and shock shook me out of a daze, and I grabbed him and ran into the inner bedrooms, pausing on the way to see a huge plume of smoke rising into the sky. It was towering above, in soft pinks and oranges that were almost beautiful if it weren’t a sign of something so much more sinister.

The port had blown up Baba. 

And with it, blown up half the city, its people, its walls, windows, and peace of mind. 

Outside, car alarms were blaring, glass was everywhere, ambulance sirens and people shouting. 

And we were no where as near to the port as other areas. 

Then the images started to filter through the TV. The phone calls to check on everyone, the phone calls checking on us. “Are you ok?? Are you hurt??” 

My Whatsapp exploded with messages after an eerie quiet. “Is everyone ok?? What was that!?”

"Are you ok?? Are you hurt? Where are you??"

It’s been nearly a year, and it still feels like today. And all the “what ifs” haunt me still, and I push them back and bury them and they manage to crawl out into hypothetical scenarios that keep me up at night and make my heart beat faster, and make my eyes water. Thoughts I dare not even put into words because breathing life into them will give them volume and space that will break parts of me that I already have to hold together tightly. 

And we were the “lucky ones”. 

The government had sat on 2,750 tons of highly explosive ammonium nitrate, stored in a metal warehouse, in the middle of Beirut. For 7 years. 

A ticking time bomb. 

And it had blown up and taken the homes of 300,000 people, the lives of over 200, and everyone’s memories before that day. 

Everyone lost something or someone, somewhere that day. 

The days and months that followed brought with it lots of agony, anger, sadness, uncertainty, and in small ways hope, as the Lebanese did the thing they had gotten so used to doing over all these years with irresponsible leaders: they started to take care of themselves and others around them. 

We swept streets, and boarded up broken windows, and checked on elderly, and distributed food and medicine. The country united under a mushroom cloud of terror, leaning on one another to stand up to face another day.

In all this, I’m glad you were not here. One less heart to break over the ghost of a city. 

And the snowball kept rolling, and gathering more and more dirty snow, as months went by with no help, no support, a falling currency that lost over 90% of its value, power cuts that now last most of the day, lack of basic medicine and formula for babies, food costs that are eye-watering high, poverty increasing at alarming rates, and petrol shortages driven by want of profit that lead to days upon days upon days of lines and lines of people in their cars snaked all around the city waiting to fill up what they can so they can get to where they need to be the next day. 

The view from here is dark Baba. I’m telling you all this, but I don’t want you to hear it. 

It will only hurt you. It will only break you. 

It broke us. 

The anxiety, the stress, the worry. It becomes numbing after a while. 

You see so much around you that makes you want to implode, that you become catatonic. You have to, to survive. You walk in and out of days, hoping the passing of time will bring with it some sort of relief. You blow a bubble around you to drown out all the words people utter, the pain they express. 
It's been so hard. So very hard. Worrying about everyone, about myself, about what will happen. Where to go from here. 
Things were never clear before, but at least there was a path outlined that made sense, felt safe. Now it truly just does feel like a dark tunnel, and we're just feeling our way through day by day waiting to see that distant light at the end to guide us through.

Thank goodness for Laith. I don’t know where I would be without Laith. 

What a force for survival he endowed upon us, despite it all.

I must remember to thank him when we are out of this all. 

And on the way, another grandson for you (see, I did say there was some good news!)

A brother for a little lion, although I won’t lie and say I didn’t desperately wish for a girl, perhaps to relive my childhood, the happiest of my years. 

But two boys it will be, and two boys I will raise and love and nurture to the best of my ability…  Two boys for you to be proud of.

So survive we must, and to do that, an exit plan from a country that despite our love for it, our hopes for it, our attachment to it, has become a tar pit that is dragging us down, and I can’t let that happen. Not with a family. Not with my family. 

So come bouncing boy number two, we are moving to Cyprus. To start from scratch.

I’m terrified but excited. Anxious but hopeful. Scared but determined. 

And although I’ve said it time and time again this year that I’m happy you’re not here to see all this, and worry alongside us, and suffer alongside us.. a big part of me really needs you. If only to tell me it will be ok. Nothing else.

But I’ll have to make do with the you I have within me. 

I’ll stop here, there’s no need for more. This is heavy enough.

Baba, next year, the letter will be better. It will be happier. It will be worthier. 

It has to be. It just has to. 

Love you always, love you forever.

Bintak, Im il subyein, 


Birthday Letter 2009

Monday, 6 July 2020

Birthday Letter 2020

Hi Baba,

To be honest, I don't think I've ever dreaded writing you your birthday letter before.

I get sad when I do it, sometimes I wonder what I need to write, whether or not I'll be repetitive, or just not have much to say.

But I've never dreaded it. 

Today, I dread it. So much.

I sit writing you, out my window, most of the city is black with night, plunged into darkness with very few lights to break it up.  I'm lucky enough to hear a droning hum of a generator which keeps our building powered, our air conditioning on in this muggy weather, our fridge cold, our internet running.
Not many people are that lucky these days.

I'm dreading telling you the sorry state we're in, as a country, as a world, as a family trying to survive what seems to be one of the worse periods I've ever experienced.

All the mess and dirt and corruption that hasn't really changed since we moved back to Beirut has finally caught up, and the country is crumbling. The currency is 5 times less valuable than it used to be (and falling), half the country is under the poverty line, people are angry, sad, depressed, people are dying by suicide in broad daylight, making their last breath on earth a statement against the reality the country has been forced into... And to add a surrealistic macabre twist to it all,  there's a global pandemic that is paralysing most of the world, putting lockdowns in place, causing fear and anxiety, dangling the threat of death in front of our eyes, making things so much harder on so many levels that it is suffocating.

But the country Baba, the country... What can I say about the country?

I don't know if there are enough words, or any words to describe the feelings, emotions, realities we find ourselves in. We wake up every day feeling we've hit rock bottom, only to realise it's a false ceiling and we crash into a further depth, and it's on repeat. A sadistic Ground Hog Day that just won't give. The lies, the stealing, the hypocrisy, the depravity, the constant insult to our intelligence, to our pride, to our humanity... It's all too much!

And we had a glimmer of hope. Between last year's letter, and this one, I saw a spark leap from the embers on October the 17th. My countrymen and women seemed to wake up, to realise the tragicomedy that had become our state, and they shouted ENOUGH! كلكن يعني كلكن! We wanted them all out, all gone, we were fed up and we united under the flag, and for the first time in a long time I felt so proud! I felt empowered, invigorated, justified! But always cautiously.. I remember telling mama "this is the last shot. I can't continue like this. It has to be now or it won't be at all. It's now or never." So many felt this way.

It seems like never baba.

Part of me is relieved you're not here to see it all crumbling. I'm relieved many of you aren't. Did you and Teta Zaza cross paths somehow? And if you did I hope she told you how we are...

I don't know when it will be better, when it will be the Lebanon you and Mama hoped for when we moved back, the Lebanon we deserve, that is deserving of us. I hold on to that hope deep, deep inside. For me, for Laith, for Mama, for Saadi, for you.

That small spark that managed to free itself from the embers under the ashes, we lost it, we can't see it in all the darkness anymore. I hope it's still there. I hope that if it's not, another one will liberate itself and ignite an explosion of fireworks that will make us all stand in awe, mouths agape, laughing at the colours and lights and sounds. That our hearts will skip a beat but in excitement and wonder. Unlike these days where our hearts skip beats at yet another piece of news that spells more disaster, more hopelessness.

There doesn't seem to be an end to the tunnel, it's so dark that I can no longer tell if there is no light at the end of it, or just that the light is so infinitely far that I can't see it for now. I'm holding on to the hope that it's the latter.

I don't know if I can bear the dark while I wait for it anymore.

I'm so sad these days Baba. I wish you were here to comfort me, to reassure me. I think of you a lot. But the fear that even if you were here you would not be able to, adds to the relief that you're not witnessing this. One less person to agonise.

I'm worried for Mama, who even with all her stubbornness and determination is losing sight of the light at the end of Lebanon's gaping hole of a reality. I worry about her, and with her. 

The only joy, that I thank the universe for every single minute, every single second, is Laith. Laith! The lion who is but a cub right now, roaring his presence and laughter and soul at us, giving us so much purpose and life and light! When I delve into the dark of our present reality, he is the torch that reminds me there must be a way, even if it isn't what we wanted.

And with that I know it's time to leave this sinking ship I call home. I tried to scoop the pooling water out, we all did. The whole country was cupping hands and scooping and scooping and scooping. But the water is faster, and we're watching as it's reaching our ankles, and shins, and thighs... And as much as I love the ship, I have a family, I won't sacrifice it. I can't. I refuse to let the water reach a lick of a flame of my torch.

Some things you do not compromise. 
I have a solid suspicion if you were here, you wouldn't question this difficult decision... Perhaps you would have reached it before, who knows...

So we have to leave. I like to think it's not forever. I like to think we'll be back, when the light is flooding all the homes, coming through the windows and the open doors, instead of water.

We'll be close by, always close by.

I read somewhere that grief is merely love with no place to go. And now I think I'm grieving a life I wanted to have here. I'm grieving a homeland that should be loved, and not mourned.

But it pales in comparison to the overwhelming grief at your loss...

I think I have to admit that your leaving has traumatised me in some way.

All these letters over the years with an underlying feeling that there was a missing link between you and me. One that made me doubt what I remembered, and how our relationship used to be. I always saw myself in motion, and you still. 

There was always this passiveness in my memory so far. Photos I talk to that don't talk back.

And then one day, before all the shit hit the fan here, I accidentally went down a rabbit hole, cleaning out my email.
I typed in “Karma Computer” (what you named yourself on outgoing emails...) into the search bar.

And suddenly you had a voice again. I could see the words talking back to me, I could hear the voice, feel the warmth even in black pixels arranged on a screen. 

I heard it, and I fell apart.

I could only read a few, before I decided the love that had no place to go was overwhelming. And I stopped. 

But I heard you. And I'm glad I did. 
And I'll hear you again. You aren't just a photo, you're in binary, and in my heart. 

And I can take you wherever I want. You're coming with me, my home comes with me. 
You, and mama, and Louis, and Saadi, and most importantly Laith. You are my home now. You are all the driftwood that I'd choose over a million, a billion, an infinite fleet of ships. 

You're the home washed in light, and warmth, and joy. 

I hope next year's letter will make a joke out of this one. 

Happy Birthday to you. My home. 

Bintak, bint il balad

Karma Im Laith

Saturday, 6 July 2019

Birthday Letter 2019

Hi Baba,

Happy 69th birthday. 

If you were here, we’d probably go up to Baakleen on your birthday. Laith is walking now, he’s 13 months old, and he’d probably be wreaking havoc while you chase after him amid the oak trees, making sure he doesn’t trip and fall flat on his face. 
We’d probably pass by Saadi’s farm, check it out, and there would be a debate where we would have a BBQ, our place, or there.
Truth is, that could all be wrong. How would I know? I don’t remember the last time we celebrated your birthday. How did we? I really don’t remember.

This year has been an interesting one. Laith’s first year with us has been so full of lessons and experiences, and it has been non stop. By his first birthday, Louis and I looked at each other and were wondering how the time flew by. And to be honest, when it’s about something wonderful, we ask that question like we expect time to take, well, it’s time. We want to savour every second. We wonder so naively, so nonchalantly. 

And then when I think of the 12 years since you left. They feel enormous. You seem so far, far behind, at the back of the theatre, while we continue to do our thing on the stage, under the spot lights, while you are in the dark, far from sight.
I can no longer see your face, unless I squint into the aisles, and when I do, it is unchanging, it has been the same face for 12 years. 

I can’t decide what is harder. That I miss you, that you are not here, or that you have not moved forward. You are the same, you are not in all the new vignettes, none of the new scenes. You are static, glitched somewhere in the time line, while our life gathers sunshine with the birth of children, is seasoned with new people, and is punctuated with all sorts of memories.

I think this is the hardest thing of all. 
I now feel like most of my letters are so similar, they all express the same frustration. The same obvious frustration nonetheless…

My life is so different now, from what it was when you were here, that I can no longer fill in the blanks with past conversations or interactions… What I could imagine as your advice for a bad day at work, or a decision that needs to be taken about a friend no longer applies to my life as a parent.. We never had conversations about that part of my future.. How can I summon your wisdom for something so different?

I try and imagine you as a grandfather, I find it hard at times. Had I ever really seen you around babies? I don't think I ever did… The youngest children I ever saw you around were probably Samih and Rami, and by then Samih was 5?
What would you think of me as a mother?

Hold on. I need to ask that again.

What would you think of me, as a mother?

I dreamt of you a couple of times at the end of my pregnancy, and during the first few months of Laith’s life.
In both of them you appeared after having to hide out for a while, having to fake your death for some reason or another… Having had to keep it secret.
In one, I distinctly remember you walking into the door of our house, with big bags of shopping, Vape mosquito repellent mats in bulk. It was around the time Laith was being bitten by mosquitoes, and obviously it translated into my dreams. You were trying to protect him from all the bloodsucking mosquitoes. Of course you were.

You were thinner, and had a longer neck, and were wearing a velvet or corduroy jacket. 
I remember reaching up to you for a hug, with some desperation, a “where have you been??” sort of hug…
But since then, no dreams. 

Sometimes I have to pause, and tell myself to think of you very, very hard. Having a child, your day gets eaten up with everything having a child entails, and you realise at the end of the day, you having had much time to think of much else.
I remember the little panic I had the first time I noticed that I hadn’t consciously thought of you for quite a few days. I felt terrible, like I was forgetting you, like now that I had a child he was replacing you in my life. I felt guilty, and twisted, and promised myself that I would drag you out of the past by the sleeve, and bring you here, with me, and Louis, and Laith and Mama and Saadi, so you can see me as a mother, see your grandson, be a grandparent. 
At least, as much as I realistically could. 

So I opened up the photo album I hadn’t opened in a while, with Laith in my lap, on the quest to see if he resembles me in any way (the forever ongoing debate…) and to show him Jiddo Mohammad. To point at Jiddo, so he knows Jiddo. See here? That’s Jiddo and mummy when she was only a bit bigger than you. See there? That’s mummy on Jiddo’s back, Jiddo being very silly

See that? That’s Jiddo’s face. It’s loving, and warm, and he’s looking at a baby mummy, with so so so much love. Thats the love Jiddo has for you, Laith. Maybe even more. Probably even more. 

So I may have bigger breaks between thinking of you consciously. I may be busier. I may have to think harder to conjure your face and presence sometimes. 
But the love is the same, the longing is the same. 
No, the longing is greater. And more concentrated. 

I promise to do what I can, to make sure, Laith knows you. At least as well as I do. 
It is the greatest loss he’ll have, but he’ll never know it, and as horrible as that can sound, there’s a bit of solace that he doesn't feel the loss like we do. 

So happy birthday Jiddo Mohamad. 

We all love you so much. 

There’s now one more person who will be sure to remember you somehow, we will make sure of it. 

Bintak, Im Laith.

Friday, 6 July 2018

Birthday Letter 2018

Hi Baba,

This year, this year is special.

This year, your birthday gift is more than this letter.

This year I gave you a grandson. Laith.

He was born the 28th of May, (ten years and ten months to the day you left) and it was love at first sight for me, for Louis, for everyone who laid eyes on him actually.

In the few hours after his birth, when we finally decided on his name, (we were teetering between Yazan and Laith) I sat in the hospital bed holding him in my arms, lost in his soft featured face, and I heard you say his name, in a happy voice, welcoming him: "Laith! Laith!" and I knew I'd made the right choice, and I knew that you could see him.

In the months leading up to his birth, I wondered how you'd be as a grandfather, I missed you, and thought of my child missing out on you. And to be honest, after a while, I had to stop thinking of you that way, missing out. It made me very sad, not only because it would never happen, but because I couldn't even imagine it. Every way I tried to, it didn't feel like I got it right. How could I anyway? The closest reference is how you were a father to me, but then again, grandkids are different...
In fact I don't think I remember you around small children..

The only thing I can imagine is the amount of love you would have had for him, that you have for him.

I imagine you in your stillness with him. Almost meditative, not really paying attention to anyone else but him. Perhaps you'd bring the harmonica out of retirement? Perhaps history could have repeated itself?

Now begins the long road of being a mother, and all that entails of challenges and questions that really no one has the answer to. Already the challenges have begun in his five weeks of life, between sleeping (or the lack there of) and breastfeeding, and managing life around this creature that existed and became the gravitational centre of us all.

Except you, and that saddens me, breaks my heart completely.

The closest I can get him to you, is through me, through photos, and videos, and talking about you, and telling him all I know, all I remember.
I can't tell if I look forward to that, or dread it.
I would look forward to him knowing you, to keeping you there with us, to pass on your light and your song to him.
But I dread facing all of it too. What if I don't remember enough? What if my sadness stains it? What if I don't do you and your memories the justice they deserve?
And most terrifying of all, what if it isn't enough?

A question I, sadly, already know the answer to.
It will never be enough.

But it will have to do.

This letter shouldn't be sad, we have Laith! You have Laith! A little lion with boundless potential and promise!
So I'll try and end on a better note.
I'll end by saying, you'll be there all the time. At his first birthday, at his first Christmas, the first time he trips and scrapes his knee and cries out for comfort.
You'll be there for every candle blown, every bedtime story told, every family photo,  every "first", every teenage outburst, every graduation, every everything.
Every milestone, minute, second of Laith's life, you will be there, as long as I breathe.

Because you are with me.

And he may not know it yet, he might never really truly know it, but he is as lucky as he can be to have you.

Happy birthday Baba.


Bint Mohamad, Em Laith.

Birthday Letter 2017

Birthday Letter 2016
Birthday Letter 2015


Thursday, 6 July 2017

Birthday Letter 2017

"Now for ten years we've been on our own,
and moss grows fat on a rollin' stone, 
but thats not how it used to be..."

Hi Baba,

That lyric has been stuck in my head since this year started.
It's been ten years already, and I can barely believe it. It's like time is playing a trick on me where it keeps rolling but I don't feel it anymore. I still miss you as much, if not more. The seconds and minutes and hours ticking by don't sooth or comfort or ease that feeling, in fact feelings grow around it (perhaps like moss I guess).  I find myself angry at times, more often than not, with more questions and more needs. I'm trying to reconcile with my feelings, with my loss, and death is pesky like that, not giving any help, just being there, with all its emptiness, being but not, keeping me stuck staring at a hole to shout at and cry in and talk at. But never to. Just at.

Pretty dramatic start to your letter this year. I'm sorry. That bloody lyric, from one of your favourite songs, the song I listened to on my walkman over and over, wearing done the tapes you gave me.
That song that when I play when DJing, I take a shot in your honour, to the faithfully departed, the long lost, the missed.  It's just been playing in my head all year.

A decade dad. I know time has been a theme in nearly all our letters, but I can't shake it, it won't shake. It stretches and contracts and lulls me into a sense of security before once again sneaking up on me to remind me that it's there, and so is all the baggage I carry.

I'm now married, and hitting milestones that now make less sense in your absence. So many talks I would have liked to have, so many conversations, so many silences.
I made sure you were at the wedding. I had a couple you know, one in Northern Ireland, and one here. And I made sure you were there. I tried to make you proud, and be happy and remembered you at every toast, and every pause, and every mention of family. I made sure you were there with what I had, which will never be enough.

Mum misses you. More now, with more time (again.. that element of slight) on her hands. I worry about her, you know how her emotions and her thoughts can swirl and cloud up, and I feel there is nothing I can do. How can I help her when I can barely help myself. This world you and I share in-between life and death, that gap, it's a very private place. I share glimpses every now and then. I do it sometimes in fear that the here and now will forget you, if I don't mention you, out loud.
Time does that to memory.

Once, this year, I mentioned you to someone who was supposed to know you. Or knew you. But perhaps not well enough, and they hesitated in recognising your name and your face, and to be honest it wasn't clear in the end if they did remember you. It wasn't someone I knew, or personally even, but I was told you knew each other way back when.
And they didn't seem to remember you, not the way people remember someone like you: instantly, with love and admiration, and a hint of sadness.
And I found myself holding my breath, and holding back my tears, as I rushed to a corner, realising how much I missed you, and how unrealistically scared I was that you were slipping from collective memory. You see, this world you and I share, this gap of darkness in-between life and death, it's ours, and private, but I know there are other gaps with other people, lots of people. And the thought that our gap might become the only one, as unreasonable, and ridiculous as that sounds considering all the people who love you, scares the holy shit out of it.

I guess you can see, I've been trying to deal with this gap. I'm working on it.

I'm working on a lot of things since last year. I'm working with Saadi a lot more, doing my part there, while also trying to figure out what I want to do with my life. That whole existential jam is just one of the many things I wish I could talk to you about. I've been trying to get healthier, basically nearly quit smoking, which I'm sure you'd be happy about. I still sneak some every once in a while, but it's progress. Even more progress is getting mum to quit! Well. She's nearly there too. The time for her to take her health and her being seriously is now more than ever. She has to think about me, and her grandkids... Well, her potential ones.

There aren't any yet, but we're planning it. A whole new page to turn, an adventure, an apprehension, a whole knot of feelings to unravel and discover.
And that stupid death, tainting it. With every joy I can imagine, a sadness to pair it. Where will you be, to have them ride on your back like I used to, to tell stories to at bedtime? Where will I get to see the past in the present, from a whole new angle, and appreciate it so much more?
I don't know how I'll deal with that, I'll have to deal with it when it comes.  Mama will have to do double the loving, and Saadi will have to tell stories, and your friends will have to help fill in blanks that even I can't fill...

I also started doing yoga, which is funny, because you know me and any sort of physical activity. But it sometimes reminds me of you. Your morning routine of breathing and stretching, and jumping jacks. But mostly the stretching.
The last few years I don't remember you doing it as much, you were more tired, and more distracted. But your routine of fresh orange juice and stretching always comes to mind. There's a song we listen to when we're winding down from that day's practice, and today I heard it, like many times before, and suddenly felt it was a song I would've shared with you. And the reality of not being able to hit me again. So close to your birthday, and with "Now for ten years..." echoing and bellowing and reverberating in my head with all the cheesy sound effects of an 80's movie flashback.

And all of that, just to say I miss you.

The day the music died isn't one easily forgotten.

And you know what, that song that I wanted to share with you, that I finally got the name of, today of all days, and has a bittersweet irony to it's name, I'm going to share it with you.

I'll put it here for you. A gift, on your birthday.
I know you'd like it, so much, I can see it now, in our little world.

So much more I want to tell you, but it'll wait till next year..

Happy birthday Baba.
Keep an eye on us, on mama, on all of us who live with the in-between.

Love you kteer.



Birthday Letter 2016
Birthday Letter 2015