TRIPOLI, Lebanon: A virtual female character from the northern city of Tripoli is trying to defy reality with sarcasm while being critical of not only her social entourage – but the entire nation.
Umm Simi, Tripoli’s first lady, is a fictional character created by journalist Souhaib Ayoub who is becoming more popular by the day, with the number of fans on her Facebook page now exceeding 3,000 people.
“It was a way to overcome reality and find a comfort zone, especially because I was stuck with office work all the time, which I dislike,” Ayoub told The Daily Star.
“It was a way to laugh, and laughter became an escape for me and my friends from all the tension the country is witnessing.”
But Umm Simi soon became much more than an escape for Ayoub as her character began to attract a large audience, who also wanted to mock the dramatic circumstances in Lebanon.
The day-to-day toils of Umm Simi, a 62-year-old woman from a Tripoli neighborhood that struggles with poverty and deprivation, mirrors the lives of many of her fans, as she grapples with the intimate secrets and feelings of jealousy that many women keep to themselves.
“What would happen if former Prime Minister Najib Mikati and lawmakers from the city came to live in Tripoli’s old neighborhoods?” she posted recently.
“Would the mayor keep the situation as it is, would the electricity remain cut and would these neighborhoods still be plagued with thefts?”
“Energy and Water Minister Gebran Bassil can buy a new fridge every day, but I surely can’t ... This is the third time that my fridge broke because of the power cuts Mr. minister,” another post by Umm Simi read.
Umm Simi comments on almost all political and security developments in the country, from the Cabinet formation debacle to the kidnapping of the Lebanese pilgrims in Azaz and the recent car bomb in the southern suburbs of Beirut.
“So now Hajjeh Hayat, the spokesperson for the Azaz hostages, wants to abduct every Turk in the country ... Well, if this is the case, Umm Adnan my neighbor, whose husband was kidnapped by Syrians, should kidnap all Syrians in Lebanon,” one of her posts read.
“May God protect the southern suburbs of Beirut, your aunt Umm Simi is praying for your safety from Tripoli and may God damn all those killing the poor people in Lebanon. May God destroy Israel and destroy all killers in the world,” Umm Simi posted.
The places Ayoub mentions in Umm Simi’s posts are familiar to those who hail from the northern city, such as the Riva neighborhood of Bab al-Tabbaneh, Jabal Mohsen, the popular cafe Moussa, and Haret al-Baraniyeh, the neighborhood where Ayoub comes from.
Umm Simi stands firmly against the Salafist presence in Tripoli and against fighters and field commanders involved in the intermittent clashes between the rival neighborhoods of Bab al-Tabbaneh and Jabal Mohsen.
“So now the field commanders in Tripoli are holding a dinner banquet. Those in control of the Riva neighborhood ... the poor residents are left with nothing to eat while these hooligans who abuse and steal from people and roam around the city with weapons are the ones who get all the luxury and importance?” she posted.
In posts about her elderly friends, Umm Simi assumes the role of a nosy neighbor who cannot mind her own business and who is perpetually criticizing other women. “My neighbor Umm Ismael came to congratulate me over the holy month of Ramadan and brought some dates with her, what a stingy woman,” she posted.
Her domestic life is not any better: “I am going to bed, if Abu Simi comes after me then let it be. If he does not, to hell with him,” one of her posts read.
She recently posted a photo of her late mother-in-law Monsef dating back from 2007, and lamented the suffering she had caused.
“She used to mistreat me; she even made me abort my first child. Rest in peace [Monsef] although I am not saying that from my heart,” she posted commenting on the photo.
Umm Simi even follows up on technology. A few days ago she was seeking help from her fans to update her Viber account, but maintained that social media has served to sever family ties.
On Eid al-Fitr, she complained that only a few members of her family visited or called her. Most of them just sent her a simple greeting via smartphone chat applications. “They sent me photos over Whatsapp, is that what Eid al-Fitr has become? Photos on Whatsapp?” she asked.
The old woman also knows how to surprise her audience, as she did recently by telling everyone that she was “pregnant.”
For Ayoub, Umm Simi has become so real that people have begun to conflate the journalist with the fictional character, which can have negative consequences, he said.
“Half of my acquaintances call me Umm Simi or Aunty, I got used to that” he said. “I love Umm Simi but I have other worlds, I write and I tend to melancholy and solitude sometimes so Umm Simi can be tiring.”
Ayoub said that concerns that Umm Simi has overtaken his life has made him hesitant to accept offers to turn her into a character on stage or a miniseries.
“I would rather keep her virtual. It is a big responsibility to assume the role of Umm Simi because you have to act and pretend all the time,” he said.
“I fear a day might come when I will not be able to speak in my own voice but only hers.”
Ayoub compared Umm Simi to the city of Tripoli and said she embodied the attitude of the northern city, speaking in the accent of its residents.
He also compared her to himself, saying that she can be mean sometimes, not just humorous. “She can be cruel and rude in her criticism, especially when conveying a harsh reality.
“We are alike somehow as we are both obscene and daring.”