Notes on an Ugly Society

Reader, take note on how you are supposed to approach a typical Friday night in the big city.

First, you bring any good book with you and keep it in the glove compartment of your car because you’re never sure what type of people you’re going to meet down in the streets.

Then, you pass by the guys and pick them up (a group of 2-3 friends is enough, too many and they become a crowd on their own). Then you head down to a bar. You push through the people who are eager to drink and party and listen to commercial music that sells for no reason.

You push through the drunkards and the pretty girls sitting on the sidewalk smoking with the bums and the hipsters and waving at you. You pick a bar – you try to pick the least crowded one out there so that you don’t get exposed to masses being evicted or shoving each other through the door just to get in. You find the place. You get in with your friends. They ask why you’ve chosen that particular place, what was so special about it. You have no answer for them. The place comes with a cute waitress. You think it’s a bonus for you, even though you know you won’t be talking to her through the night.

You sit at a small table. You order beer. You drink beer. You get your picture taken by the waitress. In the picture you’re blinking and it looks like you’re winking awkwardly. Your friends talk about medicine and politics and social issues and other countries. They talk about the west, they talk about America. You think they too will be leaving, leaving for good and leaving you behind. They all left this shit-hole; they all looked for ways to get out of the gutter. The waitress brings some snacks to go along with the beer: small salty snacks that resembled bird food.

You order more beer. You drink a lot of beer. There are three girls sitting at a table next to you. They are cute. One of them is even looking your way. But you and your friends don’t talk to them; you shy away and think you’re not good enough to be talking to them; you don’t deserve to engage with cute girls like them. So they slip away. And so does the rest of the night.

You do a couple of shots. You think about writing that book you started. You think about those lonely pages waiting for you back at home. You think how the process is different from anything else you’ve experience; different from any other career or occupation or job. The doctors, the engineers, even the merchants could work for 9, 10, 11 hours a day. But when it came to writing, to good writing, you were lucky if you could make it past the hour-mark. It drained you. But it had its own rewards. Unfortunately, you couldn’t share them or discuss them like any other open topic on the night.

So you pay your check, thank the waitress politely, although in your mind you want to invite her to spend the rest of the evening with you.

You leave and it starts to rain. You get to your car soaked and play some of that commercial radio music on your way back. Your friends say they had a good time. They had a great time. You get back home and hit the books. You try to learn from them, learn to really live, not make brief appearances in public and drink a few good bottles.

Well now it’s raining and there are still people out there having a good time in the city. But why should I talk about them? Why should I discuss them or write about them? Why should I mention the few good guys who found decent women and stayed at home tonight cuddling to a good movie? Why should I talk about the guys who were grilling outside on their terrace with their friends? Why should I talk about the guys who had bought a house or paid off their car debt and insurance and showed up to work in fancy suits?

Why should I talk about good guys and heroes?

I shouldn’t. These were the few good ones that had slipped through life’s demonic fingers, that had escaped from its fiendish grip. There were plenty of others who were neglected and left to rot in the pit. Others who hadn’t found love – men and women alike – who were forced out of society just because they thought or acted or behaved or spoke differently. Others who were outcasts, who didn’t believe in the system or the big corporates selling their big ideas. Others who didn’t have a home because they couldn’t afford one, not because they didn’t want one.

Others who found comfort solely in alcohol or a few words of solace. Others who were geniuses in their own realms, who painted or tagged city walls and made murals out of dumpsters. Their only problem was they weren’t driven or supported by money.

Those are the ones I think about tonight. Those are the unsung heroes I am addressing. And tonight I rest my head on the pillow and fall asleep knowing every day is another war for them.

***

Be sure to check out my debut novel, A Road Away From Home, now available on Amazon and in paperback.

A Road Away From Home – Hanna Abi Akl

Free Verse

And she was not light

She was not dark

She was a barren land

Where nothing grew

Not grass,

Not weed,

Not wild life

She was the high land

The mountain cap

Whose tip was covered

In snow

That bit of water

That splashes on your feet when you’re sitting on the shore

She was amnesia

Memory loss

A temporary sensory disabling

The frugal effect

That comes with drinking

Just the right amount of alcohol

The coloration of the rainbow

And then they say

Words can never be

Substitutes for life

That they can only go so far

And reach out

Without touching

Well tonight I

The writer

Can feel you

Can touch you

Can tuck you in

Next to me

Through the words

That I stay up

All night

To write

There is no better time

There is no ideal time

For me – for any writer

To write them down

To have a woman belong to him

We are

Like the geniuses

The eccentric scientists

The mad mathematicians

Who jump out of their beds

In the middle of the night

Just to jot down

A complex formula.

Well, today I draw my formula

On the big white board

In letters

And verses

And watch it grow and thicken

And expand

To the point of covering the universe

And connecting all the atoms

Together

And I sit and weep sometimes

When I am sleep-deprived

Or love-deprived

Or alcohol-deprived

And remember

I have traded these things;

No,

I have given up these things

Temporarily

Or permanently

I might’ve let go of these things

And left them behind

For good

Like a farmer

Walking away from the field

After working tirelessly in it

Leaving nothing but a scarecrow behind

To look after it and guard it.

I am

The scarecrow

In my story

I am the farmer

That cowardly leaves his most prized and cherished

Possessions behind

I am the man

Who lives in a little house

With an empty pantry

Empty closets

Empty beds

Empty drawers

Empty picture frames

What is being asked

Of me here?

And what is asked

Of all of you?

Nothing,

But a little revealing faith

To take the blinds

Off your eyes:

There is much wisdom

Between these lines

And if you manage to find it

Or make up a three-letter word

Out of it

Then you hold

The key to all life

And all that is living.

And to you

Dear woman,

Lovely creature

Warmly tucked

In my bed;

Here is the answer

To my riddle

Above

I give to you

Plainly

As a show of faith

And gratitude

For your eternal supply

Of love

And affection.

The answer

To the eternal question

Is ART

And it will keep coming back

No matter how fast the globe orbits

No matter how many more planets

They discover

No matter how many formulas

They validate

The recurring answer

To our madness

To our problems

To our troubles and trials and tribulations

To our sadness and separations

The answer

Is ART

Music

Lyrics

Words

Painted walls

Massive sculptures

ART produced by people

For people

And when you find that answer

Again

This time

On your own

Only then

Will you understand

Its true meaning.

***

Be sure to check out my debut novel, A Road Away From Home, now available on Amazon and in paperback.

A Road Away From Home – Hanna Abi Akl

Writing Seminar

I walk into the room and there is a small table with four women sitting. The head organizer introduces me to them. They are all younger than me.

One of them is 22 and plays basketball for a local team. She suffers from speech problems. Another one is Armenian. She is 17 and fresh out of school with high ambitions of making it into law school. She has great big emerald-green eyes.

The last two are friends. They are 16, still in school, and sit next to each other with matching writing journals. I look at these women and they all have one thing in common: they have high aspirations in life. Two of them are still in school pursuing their education. The pretty Armenian girl has high hopes for a successful college run. The other harbors the ambition of becoming a professional basketball player and getting drafted abroad to play for a big team.

I was the only one walking in carrying an American dream on my back: to make it exclusively as a writer. Here, in another Arab country or anywhere on the face of the planet. I had nothing else to gain or lose from the world.

That seemed to trouble them all as they gave me piercing looks – I felt I was being attacked by a flock of bats in a dark cave. Even the writing instructor seemed to have other (better?) things to do after giving the session.

So I went to the adjacent room, got a black coffee and joined the rest of them. I sat at the table’s edge while they sat at the other end aligned next to each other.

The instructor gave us an exercise: to write a story starting with the following words, ‘The door opens.’

We were timed for 5 minutes and the only rule to stay in the game was this: never stop writing. Never take your pen off the page. Well, I’ve been writing non-stop since I first got the call from the craft. I’ve been struck by the wand of the word and caught writing fever and now I need to strip the page from under my hands every time I need to attend another task or chore.

So I wrote: The door opens and I suddenly find myself inside a small room surrounded by four women. They were all younger than me. Two of them were Muslim and best friends coming from the same school. One was a chubby basketball player who had speech problems. The last one was an Armenian girl with beautiful green eyes and cherry-red lipstick.

I greeted them all, took the Armenian girl by the hand and led her to a corner. I shoved her body against the wall and started kissing her.

She begged me to stop.

I kept kissing her.

She pushed me away.

I kept kissing her.

I kept kissing her until

The timer sounded.

We stopped writing. We were asked to read what we wrote. I took my piece, got up, and headed for the open door while they all looked at me with curious eyes.

The door opens and I exit the building with a small paper half-crushed in my hand. The piece of paper contains a little bit of writing. I throw it away somewhere on the street and go looking for a bar to drink and forget the madness I just wrote.

***

Be sure to check out my debut novel, A Road Away From Home, now available on Amazon and in paperback.

A Road Away From Home – Hanna Abi Akl

Papa

Papa, not much has changed since you were gone. This old chap’s still sitting on the porch every afternoon with a whisky in his hand, drinking each glass in two gulps until his stomach starts hurting and he collapses on the tiled floor.

Papa, the city’s still warm and the buildings are still yellow. I still walk or drive around at night hoping to find something. But what exactly? I don’t really know. I tried looking for truths, I tried looking for distorted truths, but the city’s all mysterious and quiet and it reveals little about its streets.

We hold out for much but receive so little in return. I got into music because of a girl. I may have gotten into writing because of another. I guess it’s shameful for a man to get hooked to things, to be addicted to certain substances. But being led into life by a trail of lovely women who want you to fall for them is acceptable.

Papa, the words are still flowing out of me. Day in and day out they roar out of me unfiltered.

They’ve attracted hate, they’ve attracted mutiny and they’ve attracted unrest. I’m still learning not to get too attached to them in fear of losing them one day. And that day, I won’t really know who I am anymore. It’s true the words haven’t been with me for long but they’ve quickly grown on me.

And then there’s the merchants, there’s the college enthusiasts, there’s the criminals and bums and poor men. There’s the single moms still shopping for fruits and vegetables at local supermarkets. There’s the army men scattered at the borders fighting terrorism and what the government refers to as ‘The Big Evil’.

There’s cars and planes and the same airport and dock. There are still no trains but there are a lot of tourists. A lot of people who come here from all the hype believing they want to learn our methods and history and get invested in it. They want to get involved when all we want is run away to their countries and live like them.

The walls are still up but not for long. You can sense them slowly collapsing from the weight of the roaches and the rats living inside them, from the lies and the memories of wars and humiliation and debt and corruption that infiltrated them.

Heartbreak is still very much real. Death is very real but it got much easier and much less costly. Everything human has gotten cheap and that only makes us want to hold on to the rope a little longer before letting go for good.

Papa, your picture’s still up on my wall and I wonder if there’s a plan for all this. I wonder if there’s a plan for everything rotten to just pile up in a single place on this planet. I wonder if there’s a plan to our madness of standing on the sides and watching it all happen and go to waste.

How do we know we’ve done right? How do we know we’ve given enough life and love? How do we know we’ve invested enough of ourselves before we go?

Well, I still can’t tell. And it might be a while before I can. I wonder if you knew in those dark final moments you had lying on the white bed.

The only thing that’s clear for me now is this drink. It goes straight through me without asking questions. Even the sun at times appears mocking or deceiving. But the drink is always present for solace and forgetfulness. And truly, in these difficult times, what better thing is there than to simply forget?

***

Be sure to check out my debut novel, A Road Away From Home, now available on Amazon and in paperback.

A Road Away From Home – Hanna Abi Akl

 

Using Real Lebanese Society to Fuel Fiction [Q&A]

Hamline Lit Link

This is an interview with Hanna Abi Akl. 

Born on September 16,1993, and hailing from the small village of Bejjeh (North of Lebanon), Hanna Abi Akl is an aspiring young English author who devotes his time to writing poetry, fictional short stories and novels. His writing is inspired by real places and stems from a real environment; war-torn Lebanon and the mannerisms of Lebanese society often take center stage in his works. Hanna’s works have already appeared in many literary magazines like the RainPartyDisaster Society, TalkingSoup and CentumPress Publishing. He recently published his first novel, A Road Away From Home.

How did you get into writing? 

I got into writing by reading books. Words have always appealed to me, they always seemed to have a magical effect and were able to inflict all kinds of sensations and emotions I’d come across in my life: joy, sadness, grief, heartbreak. There…

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The Interview

A writer has been asked to sit down for an interview process following his meteoric rise to popularity by a local journalist.

The following is the captured text of the conducted interview whereby the journalist is referenced as ‘J’ and the author as ‘A’.

J: Thanks for taking the time to sit with me. I understand you don’t really tolerate going out in public or talking to people in general.

A: Uh-huh.

J: Tell me about your book. How did you get the idea to write something so gritty and raw? I took the liberty to ask some people who know you and have read it and they said it sounded nothing like you. Usually you strike them as calm and collected – some would even go on to say shy – but never as deranged as the characters you describe in your story.

A: The first thing you should know about writing is that it comes with a personality. A character. A bunch of traits. You can’t write as the person you are. You write as the writer that’s camping inside of you. Sometimes – most of the times – these two people are very different. Hence the shock some readers get when reading a novel by a person they know.

J: You mentioned the word novel – why exactly did you choose to write a novel? Some might argue it’s the toughest kind of writing there is.

A: It is the toughest type of writing. It’s grueling and excruciating. But after you sit down and start typing the first few sentences – after the words really start to click and you can hear them tapping wildly in your mind like a frenetic tap-dancer – then you’re hooked. The rest becomes easy from there.

J: And what about the sales? We know nowadays that most people refrain from reading – whether it’s books, newspapers, journals, even magazines. Aren’t you worried your book won’t do well on the market?

A (chuckles): It’s not about selling. It never is. The writer writes for the same reason the painter paints or the composer composes. If it were to make money, then we’d all be taking up high-paying jobs and enrolling in lengthy careers like lawyers and doctors and engineers. But an artist doesn’t care about money – at least, any decent one wouldn’t – the ones who do often spend more time marketing their work than actually concentrating on getting a good piece finished. You can never have both. You either go for the money and glory or you bask in the art.

J: And yet you’ve made it. You reached some form of glory now and you’re even getting coveted and paid by a couple of literary magazines to get your work published.

A: I didn’t make it yet. I’ll never make it as long as there are still words bottled inside of me. When the well dries up and the pipe is as dry as the Sahara desert, then that’s when I’ll have made it. When I’ve used up all the words and there isn’t a single one of them left for me to put down on paper, then that’s when I’m done.

J: You’re starting to acquire a fan base – and some of your readers would like to know what gets you going. What really inspires you to write.

A: Life. Anything we observe or see can be put into words. A writer’s greatest asset is his ability to observe – it doesn’t matter if he’s divorced, a transvestite, drunk – what matters is his ability to perceive everything around him. He doesn’t really need to fully understand them to write about them. These things can range from the simplest to the most complex. A butterfly can become a poem. A heartbreak can be told in a lengthy essay. The road to redemption can be traced inside the pages of a novel. Whatever the thing, no matter how brutal or naïve it is, if the writer has discerned it somewhere in the pockets of life, then he can put it into words.

J: A final note to end things. Perhaps a funny story you could share with us?

A: Uh-huh. I was down at one of the bookstores in Gemmayze. It’s actually one of the nicer places I’ve visited in recent times – a sort of complex coffeehouse with a few library shelves in the backend where people can buy brand new or used books. They’ve set up a nice collection of books and I’ve picked up a couple of them. Anyway, one time I was there probing the shelves when I notice a woman next to me. She was very pretty and she was carrying a book. I observed her closely and recognized the book in her hand. It was my book and she’d picked it up from one of the shelves in the bookshop. I approached her and told her, ‘Nice book you got there.’

‘Oh,’ she says with a timid smile and blushing cheeks, ‘have you read it?’

‘Actually, I wrote it.’

Her eyes dilated. I picked up my coffee, paid my check (left a 2000 lira tip) and exited the place. I don’t know if she ended up buying the book. But it was the way she looked at me – with amazement and praise and respect – that caught my eye. A way any contemporary writer living anywhere in the world would have been surprised by. They are often used to scorn and disdain and reproach from the working folks whose sole interests are paying their bills and then venting about them.

J: Thank you for your time.

A: Uh-huh. Now where’s that beer I was promised?

***

Be sure to check out my debut novel, A Road Away From Home, now available on Amazon and in paperback.

A Road Away From Home – Hanna Abi Akl

Messy Little Lives

As a person who lived his entire life in Beirut and dreamed of making it to America, john wondered about the nature of things in western countries. He wondered how basic concepts like love and romance played out there. After all, he had seen enough of them here to know these things tend to deviate from a single norm and don’t often follow a straight line.

Looking at love and finding love was like looking through different lenses at the same time. You could see different pictures, different scopes of the same image. Here was a girl counting the days till new years’ eve to finally get a chance to be with her man – a boy in his twenties who had enrolled in the army and was given permission to go home once every three months.

The girl waiting for him only knew him through text; they had chatted and flirted and made promises to be with each other over the phone, and she had made her own secret plans and personal promises of things she would do once they’d get the chance to spend a night together.

Over in the big city, Achrafyeh, the heart of Beirut, a man who had waited 5 years to tell his best friend he was in love with her has finally seen it happening to him. He couldn’t believe how his luck finally changed one fateful night and he now wakes up and walks the streets every day a man happily in a relationship. Every morning on his way to work (which happens to be downtown), he makes a stop in front of his girlfriend’s house and leaves a love note on the windshield of her sky-blue car.

Another couple found each other in college taking French class together. One day the boy realized he was facing difficulties with the language Rousseau and Sartre used to transmit their brilliance to the world and sought help from the girl who always sat next to him in class. Now they are unbreakable, going strong and a model of exemplary behavior and unconditional love among their peers and in their friends’ groups.

Then there is the dreamer. The poet. The guy who always falls in love with a girl out of his league and spends his time writing about her. He writes poems addressed to her and short stories about her and believes that if she is really the one, then she would be able to see through them and decipher them and love him back with the same fondness and ardor.

And of course, there is the young woman stuck in a corporate job. This woman unexpectedly finds love in the eyes of a handsome co-worker sporting a groomed beard and a flashy shirt. She chases him around the office and tries to sit with him through lunch in the company kitchen every day just to examine his eyes up close and observe his rugged face. But that same man is hooked to another girl – a girl two years younger than him with hazel eyes and a nose piercing.

These people are scattered and their love is scattered and no matter if you drink or pray or try to understand it you will never be able to piece this puzzle together – because the pieces are all there but sometimes they’re just not the right ones. Sometimes they simply don’t fit.

People chase people and people go after a love they think is theirs or a love they think they deserve. But love comes in different forms and stories and john wondered what the norm of it was. What was the rule to love and what was the exception? Or were all these cases exceptions and was the rule something we were still trying to postulate? There were people who fell in love with each other over phones and text messages. There were others that only took one moment to fall for each other – one gaze into each other’s eyes, one night out drinking and partying in a bar, one afternoon spent in the car watching the beautiful prairies in the North.

So which was it? Some people fell in love with artists, some fell in love with people who had a job or a house or a decent family. Some women fell for tough men and some men fell for tough women. Some were nice and some were charismatic and social and funny and good-looking. Some were shy and charming. Some took the only chance they had and others blew the many that were presented to them. And some never had a chance to begin with despite everything they tried and everything they set up to be. And while the world caught fire and burned and rose from its own ashes again, those were the ones observing it from afar.

***

Be sure to check out my debut novel, A Road Away From Home, now available on Amazon and in paperback.

A Road Away From Home – Hanna Abi Akl