Lyric Essay for Beirut by Jess Rizkallah

Editor Carrie Ivy, Editor's Choice, November 23rd, 2015

"We came from buildings falling around us, bricks used as pillows."

terrorist attacks essay jess rizkallah nailed magazine


Should I be writing this?


I didn’t say ‘Merry Christmas,’ but it’s not like I’m a Jihadist,” a friend says, and I tell him what I tell anyone making a Jihad joke in front of me.

“I’ve got an uncle named Jihad on each side of the family.”

I think I say this because names are the safest spaces. Or they should be. And I love my uncles. I love words. I love names. I love that that we can claim and reclaim, but I wonder how possible it is to take something back that violence bloodies. My uncles smile resignedly when I tell them to be proud of their name, to spell it out.

“Yeah? What are their middle names? Mohammad?” the friend laughs. I don’t laugh. I start to say “No, but so what if it were?” but he leaves. I think about what I really expected here. I put my apron on and take my place behind the steam wand, milk screeching into the cafe as I think about Teta.

“We named him ‘Jihad’ because we wanted to give all our children Arabic names. We wanted to celebrate the language. When they came for the sons, his name saved him. Back then, Jihad was a good name to have. They wouldn’t shoot a Jihad on the spot like they would an Anthony or a Charbel. That’s not why we chose it, but it worked out.”

“Jihad” means to struggle with oneself, to persevere towards self-improvement. A name common among Christians and Muslims in Lebanon. Like the KKK and Westboro having nothing to do with Christianity, ISIS has nothing to do with Islam. “Jihad” has come to mean “holy war,” but the war being fought by those who use it for terror is nothing holy. It’s nothing Islam is responsible for. But still, the name has become something else. Something twisted metal in white mouths, so my uncles have Americanized their names. For their jobs, for their families.

Should I be writing this?


hey what’s happening in paris
i’m on my break but i can’t find an actual article about it

No one in the family groupchat answers. When I find an article, the lights in the back room suddenly feel too harsh. The numbers climb. Articles multiply while my coffee goes cold. I imagine the hostages lined up in the Bataclan. Or not lined up. Or running. Then not running. Someone having a bad day, or a good day, a new day and then no day. The streets I walked five years ago blurring in and out of focus.

Then another link.

wait, beirut too???

No one answers. The light harsher, inside me now as I read about a suicide bombing the day before, killing 44 in Beirut, injuring more. Headlines subtly justify the violence by geographically tying it to anti-western political groups. I read about Adel Termos diving at a bomber who was headed for a mosque. Adel died but saved hundreds. His daughter is also dead, or not dead. The sources can’t decide.

I remember the streets of this now-broken neighborhood I’ve only ever gotten lost in by car. I think about the sectarian tensions and the parts of Beirut I was always told were safer for me. They sound the same. The hiss of food, of old men laughing rings of smoke, of women of children of beads and radios, car horns, the zip of motorbikes carrying families, the din of prayer in the form of living. This is all of Lebanon.

Still, I know, I don’t have to worry about counting my loved ones this time. Still, I feel it, my heart hurts. Doesn’t remember where my mouth is, how to climb out, how to spill in all the necessary ways. Too busy trying to eat itself.


I find a photo of Malak holding a photo of her father, Adel. He’s Photoshopped in front of a canopy of golden clouds. She’s six years old but already older than I’ll ever be. All the kids in Lebanon have always felt older. Their voices have bones that catch stories in their hollows. The same ones my family shares with me, but not for preservation. All for preparation. These people. My blood. They eat raw meat, shotgun anise liquor. Rifles aimed at the sky in case anything hides in the clouds. They love driving fast because there are worse ways to die.

So used to the world not counting our dead, we’ve lost track. Started calling them martyrs. Never stopped mourning, but have forgotten we mattered. This happens all the time now suddenly, people care, and we’ve been caught wearing our pain proudly. Because isn’t that the Lebanese way. We’ve been persevering for years. To both reject and embrace red, white, and blue. To fly our flag, but wear someone else’s on our faces.


“You never learned French. You should know French. That was my fault, I should’ve taught you,” Jido always told me. He’s dead now and I’ll probably never know French. Stillborn under my tongue. Flowers at my teeth for the words I’ll never know how to say.

I think about colonialism intertwining the histories of these cities. Like tongues. My family members who speak French more often than Arabic. The gilded age of Beirut making it the “Paris of The Middle East,” and how we all proudly accepted that. This thing that makes us sophisticated enough to be acknowledged in history books.

I think about my Jidos. One was a French teacher and poet. The other one a Lebanese veteran. Both accepting that they’ll never see the city that gold again. Mourning that their grandkids will never get to see it that way. Capitalism like metallic rods where the bones of the city once were. Shines in the sun, harsh enough to fool you at first glance. A Hilton next to a bombed footbridge invaded by moss. A BMW next to the ancient shell of a home no one came back for. An eeriness I can’t articulate. Ruin somehow romanticized.

And now Paris, “Beirut of the West.”

please don’t be connected please don’t be connected please
don’t be arabs please don’t be arabs please don’t be


The Internet has exploded. American friends who scroll past my weekly posts about Palestine, Lebanon, Syria, about Israel’s abuse: its Zionism and the West’s sponsorship and complicity — they are stepping in for us now, demanding we be grieved, too. How come no one cared about the violence in Lebanon yesterday? and I wonder where these friends were yesterday. Or the day before. Caring quietly, or not caring. Or maybe finding out after hearing about Paris. Like me. Who even am I? Angry Arab. Angry Arab not sure what to say. Angry Arab First Generation American Kid Who Walks Down Streets Only Worrying About Oncoming Traffic. I’m not there. I don’t live there, but I feel it in my throat, ready to spill when I try to speak. So I don’t.


Ramy’s family is in Syria. Ramy tells me their stories. His father paints the landscapes. A tank with a cannon trying to blot the sun, but a dove nesting at the mouth instead. A fence under an angry sky over a dehydrated field, but the fencepost sprouting into a tree.

hey ramy, i’m feelin weird arab american feelings on this day,
i’m glad we have each other in this vast sea of white people

I feel the same. I’m glad you have the courage
to share your feelings to others. love you


Lebanon, France, Palestine, Syria, Japan, Nigeria, Mizzou, everywhere everywhere everywhere, all the time, I trace them like prayers with my index finger into the pad of my thumb while I ride the bus to work where someone will order coffee from me and see the cedars on a chain around my neck and know now they aren’t Christmas trees, will stop asking me what I am wearing. Will stop asking me where I am from.



It’s my twenty-third birthday. Mama had me when she was twenty-three. The war that brought my family here “ended” two years before I was born in America. I think about this generation’s refugees. Families they’ll take away from their homes. How used to abuse they’ll become from the hand that’s begrudgingly feeding them. How they’ll become thankful for the back of it coming at them when they really should be angry. How they’ll adapt to the whiteness and think themselves white even when white people decide they want them out.

How the pattern continues.

How we build entire peoples into walls, then fear what we build each other up to be. How fear turns families into shrapnel. How mosaic is a faulty metaphor for resilience when that too can shatter.


It feels different being an Arab (-American) poet in the wake and midst of this. It’s scarier. Like years of my father’s warnings are lining up around me.

don’t scare me like this, with your words. don’t make me think about what they’ll do to you when they read these things. when they pay enough attention to who your parents are …..don’t let them notice you …..don’t let them realize where your last name is from.

I’m not saying I’m some martyred artist. I’m saying I’m an Arab saying anything at all. You learn to whisper even in front of shadows. You learn from white kids that You Are American Now, No One Cares You Know Another Language. You learn what it is to have eggs broken into your living room. Your neighbors suspecting you of fuck knows what. Your father coming home with stories of white people refusing to buy cars from him, white people who You People’d him. Relief that this was all they did. Fear that they might one day do something more, but the realization that there’s a layer of security that comes with not being a Muslim Arab. A responsibility that comes with knowing that and standing with your brothers and sisters even when your country draws divides.

None of this is real, not if you work hard. Just check white/Middle-Eastern on the census even though white people can’t be called terrorists but you can. Be less angry. Don’t let them catch the furrowed brow. The twitching fist behind the eyes that they’ll assume is rage even when it’s not. But never cry. We don’t cry. That’s some Westernized bullshit. Like owning a dog or talking about your feelings. Chin high. Wear your pain proudly. We came from buildings falling around us, bricks used as pillows. Sirens replacing birds. This happens all the time.

We’re lucky here. Sure, they aim their guns at each other, at children, instead of the sky. But you’ll never hold your own mother in your arms, a bullet lodging itself Moses in her brain. Dead sea staining your clothes. Fleeing with only these clothes. They don’t want to let any more of us in, but at least we get to be here. We have proven ourselves. Still, keep your head down. Don’t let them notice you.

What are you writing about, habibi?

About how I learned not to rock the boat even when the splinters of great ships coat my DNA. About how I’m watching the progressive American people of my generation say things I agree with but would be ignored or challenged if out of my mouth.

They’re applauding each other. I’m glad they’re saying these things. This acceptance is kind of fucked up, but I feel like I need to hide this raised eyebrow. It will overshadow the grief. That’s what it is to be an Arab in mourning. You’re not allowed all shades of grief because they start canceling each other out until everyone gets to be right about you.

Just know they’ll never be right.

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Header image courtesy of Anton Krasnikov. To view his photo essay, “Speak it Easy,” go here.

jess rizkallah writer beirut essay nailed magazineJess Rizkallah is a Lebanese-American writer, illustrator, and coffee slinger living in Boston. She edits Maps For Teeth magazine and publishes chapbooks at pizza pi press. Her work has recently appeared in Word Riot, Electric Cereal, Drunk in a Midnight Choir, Alien Mouth and on her mother’s fridge. Talk to her about whales & find her on Facebook: here.


Carrie Ivy

Carrie Ivy (formerly Carrie Seitzinger) is Editor-in-Cheif and Co-Publisher of NAILED. She is the author of the book, Fall Ill Medicine, which was named a 2013 Finalist for the Oregon Book Award. Ivy is also Co-Publisher of Small Doggies Press.