A. Naji Bakhti
I heard this theory once that if you toss a newborn into a swimming pool he’ll come out the other side kicking. I find that highly improbable. My father, or so I believe, has always been a strong advocate of the theory. Instead of water, however, he chose books. And instead of infants, he chose the entirety of his son and daughter’s combined childhoods. In more than one sense, my sister and I have been kicking through books for most of our lives. The idea was that if you expose a child to literature long and hard enough, he’ll grow up wanting to be a writer, a critic, an editor, or the J.R.R. Tolkien Professor of English Literature and Language at the University of Oxford. Of course, I wanted to be an astronaut.
“Don’t be ridiculous,” he’d say, “who ever heard of an Arab on the moon?”
“I’ll be the first one,” I replied once, instead of taking the usual route of trying to look as non-ridiculous as possible for my father’s liking.
“You’re flat-footed. They don’t allow flat-footed Arabs on the moon,” he remarked casually, his face hidden behind this morning’s AlNahar Daily. “It’s illegal.”
“Jesus-Mohammad-Christ said, that’s who.” That was another thing my father would say with unerring regularity. As if Jesus’s middle name had always been Mohammad and everyone in the world had thus far simply failed to spot this most obvious truth. One expected nothing less of a Muslim man who had forged an unholy alliance with a Christian woman against the wishes of his now-irritated family and his now-pissed-off god, who, one would have thought, must have known in advance and ought to have had ample time to cope.
“How many times have I told you not to dash your son’s dreams?” my mother cautioned as she made her way towards the balcony, cigarette in mouth and all. She was being generous today. Usually, she would spend most of her leisure time in the living room creating a cloud of smoke in front of her and then struggling to make out the images on the TV. “He can do anything he sets his mind to.”
“Next you’ll be telling him he can walk on water. God knows we have a hard enough time getting from one country to another without being held back for a cavity search. They’ll shove a fucking Hubble telescope, mother and father, up his backside before they let him get on that space shuttle,” he said.
“Mother and father” is a colloquial term used in Lebanon to express the idea of something whole or complete. For instance, the weight of the explosion knocked the man, mother and father, right out of the window, as men in Beirut occasionally are; or the building collapsed, mother and father, to the ground, as buildings in Beirut occasionally do.
A Lesson in Buddhism
When, in school, I was grilled on the subject of my religion by my classmates, I would respond with a shrug as bewildering to my inquisitors as it was to me. I knew that church was for Christians and mosque for Muslims. I knew this because both Christian and church begin with the letters “C” and “H,” and because both Muslim and Mosque begin with the letters “M” and “O,” if you should choose to spell Moslem as such, but don’t. I knew that the Mosque was the one that smelt of feet on any given day, but particularly on Friday; and not nice nail-polished lady feet either, but thick-skinned and hairy man feet. I knew this because my friend, Mohammad, was Muslim and he smelt of feet on any given day, but particularly on Friday.
Mohammad had devised a game, or so he told us. He hadn’t really. All he had done was learn it off of his big brother.
“Christian or Muslim?” he asked one day during break, extending two clenched and clammy fists and imploring me to pick one.
I picked Muslim because, in Arabic, it means peace, and, I reasoned, no harm could come of peace. The Arabic word for Christian bore an uncomfortable resemblance to the Arabic word for crocodile, and I was not especially fond of crocodiles at the time.
Mohammad slapped me straight across my left cheek with his clammy right hand and ran. He hid behind the teacher’s desk for what seemed like more than ten minutes, and I eventually gave up looking for him and forgave him instead. The next day I asked him where he was all afternoon, and he said he was hiding behind the teacher’s desk for the first ten minutes and had since then found his mother, walked home with her, done his homework, watched Boy Meets World, gone to sleep, woken up, brushed his teeth, skipped breakfast and walked straight to school.
“Nothing,” he said, before reciting the above activities to me in that same order.
From a distance I observed as Mohammad extended his still clammy fists to an older boy whom I had only known by name. Mohammad then struck the older boy, Boulos, across his right cheek. Boulos made an instinctive gesture as if to react. His arm was half-raised and in pole position to strike when he slowly and gradually began to lower it.
“You’re Christian, Boulos. You can’t slap back. You see. Those are the rules of the game,” said Mohammad, smiling triumphantly. “I know it’s not fair,” he continued, “don’t blame me. Take it up with your own god.”
It was true that my mother had never made to slap me across the face, and nor had my father for that matter, but it was also true that the sole of her shoe had narrowly missed the tip of my nose and the top of my head on countless different occasions. Of course, on these occasions the sole of my mother’s shoe had long since left my mother’s foot and was making its own pilgrimage from her hand to whichever part of my body it had set out to reach. My mother may have been Christian but her shoe, almost definitely, was not Christian.
“Am I Muslim or Christian?” I asked my Christian mother over dinner. The family had been sitting before the TV set, each with a tray on his or her lap, for at least half an hour watching my father’s favorite Comedy Sketch program: Basmeet ElWatan, which literally translates to “The Death of a Nation,” or alternatively, “The Smiles of a Nation,” depending on the manner in which one chooses to read the title. The TV set was old with vinyl wood varnish and knobs rather than buttons and my little sister’s nimble fingers rather than a remote control. The story which my parents had upheld thus far was that either my sister or I had hidden the remote control somewhere within the house when we were very young and forgotten about it. They had searched for the remote countless of times before, of course, and were eventually forced to concede that it was lost forever. We, my sister and I, had to pay the price for our mistake by getting up to change the channel every time one of our parents decided they didn’t like the program they were watching. As I was almost twice my sister’s age, at the time, it often fell to her to change the channel.
“Technically, neither,” my father replied absent-mindedly, drawing a stern look from my mother and failing to notice both her stern look and my slightly concerned expression.
“Both, Adam,” my mother said, seeking to reassure me in some way.
“Yes but if I had to pick one, which would it be?” I asked again.
“I heard Buddhism is all right. Try that,” my father said, smiling and winking to himself.
“How many times have I told you not to confuse your son?” my mother remarked sharply.
“I’m only laying out his options in front of him, darling,” he replied.
The conversation then went in the direction of Buddhism and how they, the Buddhists, worship a short, fat and bald man, who looked remarkably like my uncle Nasser and who had spent most of his days naked and attempting to lift himself off the ground without the effort of moving his legs. He sounded, to me, like a more obese version of Jesus but without the long and fair hair and the glimmering blue eyes.
“Glimmering blue eyes? Where do you think Jesus was born? Sweden?” my father interjected, now turning his attention away from the TV set for the first time in the conversation.
“Australia,” my sister replied with an air of authority which belied her tender age of six.
“Why Australia, fara?” my father asked tugging at one of her pony tails playfully. Only my father called my sister “fara.” It means mouse.
“Why not?” she said, adjusting her ponytail.
The general consensus was that, as god would not have consciously and willingly overseen the evolution of the kangaroo, he must’ve turned his back on Australia for a good few thousand years and so could not have sent his own son to that overgrown island two thousand or so years ago. The only link my sister and I could find between Jesus and Australia, years later, would be Mel Gibson, an Australian actor and director, who directed the movie Passion of the Christ. My sister maintains, to this day, that her answer was prophetic.
“He was born in the Middle East. He was probably tanned, had a long black beard, thick black eyebrows, and dark black eyes,” my father said, running his thumb and index finger over his thick, black moustache, “like bin Laden.”
A week or so later, as he dropped me off to school, my father leaned over and explained that there were quite a few advantages to being a child of a “mixed marriage,” chief amongst them the ability to switch back and forth between both religions at one’s own convenience. By that point, Mohammad’s game had spread and most children, Muslim and Christian, had been slapped across their cheek at least once. Whenever we saw two of our classmates chasing one another during recess we knew that they were both Muslim and that the one being chased had just slapped his chaser straight across the face. The Christian boys, as you would expect, did not like this game very much, but none of them slapped back or chased their aggressor because they were Christian and Christians must turn the other cheek, or so Mohammad, and countless other Muslim boys, had told them.
“I want to play again,” I told Mohammad who shrugged his shoulders and extended his arms to reveal both his clenched and clammy fists.
“Muslim or Christian?”
“Christian,” I said smiling.
“I thought you said you were Muslim,” he asked confused.
“I did. But I changed my mind. My mum’s Christian. I can do that,” I replied, victoriously.
Mohammad slapped me across the face and stood there laughing with four or five other Muslim boys, all of whom had latched themselves onto Mohammad ever since he’d introduced his now popular game to the playground. I did not wait for Mohammad to finish his laugh before reaching over and slapping him with the back of my hand across his right cheek as hard as I could.
“That’s not how it works,” he said angrily, “You’re Christian, you can’t slap back. Ask your god.”
I asked him, I thought, and he said its fine by him if I go back to being a Muslim for the next few minutes. But I didn’t say it. I didn’t say anything. I slapped Mohammad again and again. The fourth slap knocked him off his feet. He made a helpless effort to punch back as he fell to the floor, swinging his fist in the general direction of my face. I pinned him to the floor and began to punch his face wildly. I imagined that he was an alien life form which I had come across in one of my journeys to outer space, whose sole aim was to spread a disease that would divide the entire human race into tiny little groups of men and women who fought endlessly amongst themselves and achieved progress only sporadically. None of his newly acquired friends came to his aid and they were joined by more spectators, mostly young Christian boys who were led to the scene by the mere smell of retribution.
As I sat there in the principal’s office thinking about what I’d done, my mother and father were escorted to the leather chairs either side of the one I had been occupying for the best part of an hour.
“Sit, they’re not just for decoration, you know,” the principal, Ms. Iman, said tapping one of the leather chairs on its back and looking up at my father.
My father does not take too kindly to being told what to do by anyone, especially slightly younger women, and would likely have been much more cooperative throughout the remainder of the meeting had she, the principal, politely asked him to please take a seat without tapping any one of the leather chairs on the back and without making a remark about their function in an office. I was glad she had done both.
“Are you happy about what you’ve done, Adam?” asked the principal, leaning forward and staring me intently in the eye.
She was one of those women who had once been startlingly beautiful but who’d since deliberately taken the decision to cut her hair short, develop myopia and age a few years in order to be taken more seriously.
“Yes,” I replied, knowing that it was perhaps not the answer she was looking for.
“You see, the boy shows no remorse,” she said, addressing my parents and filling them in on the details of the incident.
“It seems to me that my son was involved in a fight with another boy. Now where is that other boy?” my father inquired calmly.
“Your son broke his nose. He’s in the hospital,” she replied, raising her right eyebrow.
“That hardly seems fair,” he casually remarked.
“What, that your son broke the boy’s nose? Or that the boy is receiving medical treatment at the hospital?”
“My son’s arms are covered with little scratches which, clearly, have been left unattended,” my father said, putting both his hands on the desk before him and adjusting his seating position, “This boy fights like a little girl.”
I chuckled and received a stern look from both my mother and the principal who evidently thought that neither my father’s remark was funny nor I entitled to laugh at it. I looked at my arm and noticed the tiny scratches for the first time. They hurt more now that I was aware of them. A tear must’ve escaped me as both of their expressions soon softened recognizably.
“What do you want to be when you grow up?” the principal asked, looking straight at me.
Ms. Iman’s what-do-you-want-to-be-when-you-grow-up lecture was infamous throughout the school. There was not a student summoned into her office who had not been on the receiving end of one. It went something like this: what do you want to be when you grow up? A doctor / engineer / lawyer / businessman / teacher. And do you think doctors / engineers / lawyers / businessmen / teachers punch one another in the face? No. Exactly, now apologize to your classmate.
To say that it is inherently flawed is an understatement. That the moral fiber of a human being is essentially tied to his occupation is ridiculous. Even as eleven-year-olds, we were well aware of that.
“An astronaut,” I replied.
“An astronaut?” she repeated, turning over to look at my mother, who shrugged her shoulders and smiled politely. “Who ever heard of an Arab on the moon?”
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw my father slap his forehead audibly with the palm of his right hand, then slap his right hand with the palm of his left one.
“The point is you shouldn’t resort to violence every time someone insults your religion. It’s why the entire country has gone to the dogs. Is that clear?” asked the principal.
“Yes, Ms. Iman,” I replied, occupying myself with the elaborate pattern of the Persian carpet on the floor.
“Hold on. You’ve had a student spreading sectarianism around the school for the past month and you’re concerned that my son has found an unorthodox way of putting an end to it?” my father asked.
“Unorthodox? It’s completely orthodox, Mr. Najjar, that’s the problem,” she said, somewhat impatiently. “This is not the first time your son has been involved in acts of indiscipline, or blasphemy for that matter. Just last week, he asked the Civic Studies teacher whether Jesus Christ existed in the same way that Santa Claus did.”
“Well, with all due respect Ms. Iman, what the hell was Jesus Christ doing in a Civic Studies class at a secular school anyway?” my father asked.
“Calm down,” my mother said, nudging her husband in the ribs.
“And a month or so ago—tell your father what you said about the prophet,” she demanded, addressing me and completely ignoring my father’s question.
“I asked the Arabic teacher whether, after commanding Mohammad to read, god then smacked him on the back of the head with the Koran, like you did to me with Oliver Twist,” I said, staring bluntly at my father.
“In all honesty son, if Mohammad was anything like you, then god must’ve done, yes,” he replied.
“I will not have blasphemy in my office,” said Ms. Iman, sternly.
“Do you know who I am, Ms. Iman?” My father had just invoked the quintessential Lebanese statement which often preceded an indisputable declaration of war between two mostly rational adults.
It doesn’t matter if you’re a second-rate citizen living from paycheck to paycheck, with a modest background, no ancestors to speak of and earning barely enough money to feed your eight hungry children, in Lebanon you will ask this question of anyone who rubs you the wrong way and wait for them to ask you it back.
“Do you know who I am, Mr. Najjar?”
Of course, neither of them knew who the other really was. Neither of them really cared to find out. My mother, suspecting as much, stood up apologized to Ms. Iman, told her that I would be severely punished at home and asked for Mohammad’s mother’s phone number so that she may call her and apologize personally. I don’t know what my mother said, but I never heard from Mohammad or his mother again.
When we got home my parents sent me straight to my room to think about what I’d done. A few minutes later my father opened my bedroom door, walked in and locked it behind him.
“Your mother and I agreed that the only way to punish you is this,” he said, holding his black leather belt in his right hand.
“But I didn’t,” I began to object and stopped as soon as I saw my father’s index finger being placed firmly on his lips.
“Jump and scream,” he whispered, deliberately missing me and landing hard lashes on the bed sheets.
“Never be afraid to fight for what you believe in, or defend those with less courage or intellect than yourself,” my father said, lashing furiously at the bed, “but always stop short of breaking your opponent’s nose. You know you’ve gone astray—scream—when there’s blood involved.”
“I’m sorry,” I said, bouncing as high as I could and screaming over his words.
“Stop that’s enough, stop,” my mother implored, banging on the bedroom door.
“Do not hesitate to blaspheme if religion happens to stand in the way of truth or knowledge, but do not do so intentionally to provoke others,” he continued, inciting me to shout louder with his left hand, “apologize—louder—to those whom you have wronged, but never wait long enough to be told to do it by others. It takes the gloss off of the apology.”
“Open this door right now or so help me god, I will burst through it,” my mother shouted.
For a moment, my father stood before me panting and trying to catch his breath; then he unlocked the door, swung it open, and walked past my mother without saying another word.
Aljahiz and Monsieur Mermier
Not too many men are fond of the time their father almost ended their life. It would be a sad tale to tell had my life actually ended, and I, in all likelihood, would not be the one to tell it. As it so happened, I survived.
Once, I asked my father if he could give me his copy of The Miserly, a book by the Arab philosopher Aljahiz, which was probably collecting dust somewhere around the house. He gave me a ten thousand lira note instead and told me to go buy my own version before hiding his head behind the AlNahar Daily. He was looking to see if they had published the article he’d sent in the week before. Such was the chaos which engulfed the house that when my father declared a book lost, no one bothered to look for it.
All I knew about Aljahiz was that his tragic and untimely death had come about when an entire library of his own books fell on top of him one night and crushed him to death. It was how we’d all imagined my father would go, looking for a book to read and then suddenly being overwhelmed by a number of them launching themselves at him.
Many visitors who passed by our home on occasions, would take one glance at the piles of books stacked haphazardly around the house and put them down to my father’s insatiable thirst for knowledge. It was not, however, my father’s insatiable thirst for knowledge which cost us valuable house space, it was his insatiable thirst for books. I use the word house, loosely. Ours was not a house; it was a small apartment on the sixth floor of an old building in Ras Beirut, just off Hamra Street. The location was ideal, but the apartment itself was designed to fit one or two people at most. Certainly, not four people and an entire library.
When Monsieur Mermier, a Frenchman working for the UN, moved in to the apartment facing our own on the sixth floor, my father jumped at the opportunity to invite him to our home. The Frenchman, he told me, is the pinnacle of cultured and intellectual men. Of course, he might have said the same thing about Englishmen, were we living next door to an Englishman.
“Your home is a sanctuary for literature, Monsieur Najjar,” said Monsieur Mermier, taking a sip of his Turkish coffee.
“And a dumpster for everyone else,” my mother added, offering Monsieur Mermier a tray of Arabic sweets and wiping the smile off my father’s face.
After my mother went to sleep, my father took out a bottle of Arak, a slightly stronger version of vodka diluted with water to be just as strong, and offered Monsieur Mermier a few shots. They drank to health and Lebanon and success and new friends and peace and old friends and peace and France and Lebanon and Charles De Gaulle and Jacque Chirac and my great grandfather and good health and Zidane’s footballing skills and success and Barthez’s bald head and Voltaire and Monsieur Mermier’s mother and my grandmother and Lebanon.
Despite him getting along well with my father, I was always slightly suspicious of Monsieur Mermier. For instance, he would regularly sit with one thigh resting completely over the other; it was a manner which I had never seen a man sit before. Most men I knew, including my father, would place one ankle over their knee and sometimes hold it there with their hands. His unusual seating disposition led me to one of two conclusions: either Frenchmen do not have genitals or, more likely, evolution has exclusively granted them the ability to suck their genitals inward, whenever they so choose. Also, he called me “le petit prince,” which I did not like.
By the time I was five, I had grown accustomed to leaping over piles of books to get from one room to the other. Later, I stopped leaping and simply walked over the books as if they were part of the floor, infinite little rectangular tiles each with its own design forming some random grand pattern which made sense only to my father. During my adolescent years, I developed the much more pronounced technique of kicking through the books and landing them halfway across the apartment. But then my adolescent years were one large kick at life, and the books were no exception.
Two large “towering blocks of literature,” as my father often referred to them inspired by Mr. Mermier’s comments, stood on either side of the apartment door as you walked in. Occasionally, I would stack the books on the floor over one another in such a way as to emulate a spaceship and pretend I was on my way to the moon. My sister would join in by spreading her little body across the floor and pretending to be a star, with ponytails.
“Grow up,” my father would say every time he passed by my spaceship, which is why I never got to the moon.
Beside the kitchen, there was an entire room which no one apart from the members of my family had ever seen. It consisted of nothing but layer upon layer of old books, which presumably my father had once read. It was locked for most of the time anyway and my father carried the key around in his pocket. Whenever my father wished to find a book which he suspected was inside the room, he would hand my five or six-year-old sister a flashlight and toss her inside. For the most part, she enjoyed the task until she came across a dead cockroach, or worse, a living one, at which point she would begin to scream and my watchful father would reach across, grab my sister by the shirt and place her on the floor between his legs.
“They’re harmless, Fara. They’re even smaller than you are,” my father would say, before taking out a can of Bygone and emptying it inside the room.
I pushed the door open one Tuesday afternoon, having just returned from school, and found my father attempting to slowly pull a single book out from underneath one of his two “towering blocks of literature.” The house was unusually empty as my mother and sister were not yet home. He ordered me to stand beneath one of them and support its weight while he made an attempt to withdraw the book. The moment he forcefully tugged at the book, perhaps out of frustration, both columns came tumbling over my head. Though we lived in a small apartment, the ceiling was undoubtedly high and had one of the heavier hardcover volumes of Encyclopedia Americana fallen on my head, some serious injury might have resulted to my skull. None of them did. I would later survive two full-fledged wars and one tiny one which would last for four whole days, but I consider this incident to be the most life threatening, near-death experience I’ve ever been involved in.
I leaped and screamed and swore and cursed and was excused for all I’d done when my father saw that the books had landed on the floor and not on my head. He clutched my shoulder with one hand and kissed the top of my head twice.
“Not a word of this to your mother,” he said, as we picked the books up and began to stack them into two perfectly aligned columns.
Mother and Father
As my sister, my mother, and I sat around in a circle crammed inside a single bathroom, my father stood over us, cross armed, listening intently to the sound of bombs going off in the distance. We could measure their proximity, my sister and I, by the intensity of the expression across my father’s face. A cringe meant that it would land somewhere else, on someone else’s house, on someone else’s family. It was when my father looked up that we feared the worst. I could never quite tell whether he would look up expectantly or whether he would do so in order to better hide his facial expression from us. There was also the relatively insignificant fact that when the shelling dragged on for hours the sensation of fear was inevitably replaced by the unbridled urge to go or shit or pee or excrete desperately unwanted wastes. Whenever a bomb went off somewhere very far away, he would look down at us and smile and ask us about school and deadlines and essays and football and literature and such, mindful of our need to go.
It was the war of ’67 or ’82 or or ’00 or ’06 and Israel and Lebanon were at it again. I, like my father before me and his father before him, was crouched inside the safest room in the house beside my family and hoping to god that no RPG rocket or bomb would land on my home. The last man to hold a gun for war in our family was my great grandfather Samiir who fought for the French army during the mandate. His medals of honor are now a family heirloom, still in possession of my father. Upon winning the war, the French offered my great grandfather the French passport and nationality, which he accepted. For a brief period of time I was an as yet unborn Frenchman, then Lebanon got its independence and my great grandfather opted to burn the French passport in celebration.
On a routine night within the walls of the bathroom, my mother looked over at my father and then at me.
“You’re lucky,” she said, as mothers almost inevitably will, “some writers spend their entire lives looking for inspiration. You’re hiding from it in the bathroom.”
I wanted to shout back, to say that I never wanted to be a writer, to ask whether she was suggesting I stand on the balcony and let inspiration and stray bullets hit me in their stride, to exclaim that there was probably infinitely more inspiration in space than there ever would be in a tiny old bathroom in Beirut. But I didn’t, because when you’re hiding from death, you worry about him overhearing you saying nasty things to your family, and interfering to stop the brawl.
“I want to go,” I said to anyone who would listen.
“Go where?” my mother asked.
“There,” I said, pointing to the toilet seat.
“Hold it in, you’re a man,” my father scowled.
“I can’t,” I said, but I did. I held it in for two hours.
“You can do anything you set your mind to,” my mother said.
“But I can’t,” I said, now almost pleadingly. But I did, I held it in for another hour.
“You’re little sister isn’t nagging as much as you are,” my father said.
Until finally, after five hours, I let go. No man ever remembers the good old days when he used to shit himself daily, if he did, he would be infinitely more modest.
“Jesus-Mohammad-Christ,” my father said, looking at my mother in disbelief, “your son just shit himself.”
“What have you done?” my mother asked in a whisper.
Once the first tear rolled down my cheek, there was nothing I could do about the rest.
“I think I’d rather be out there,” my father remarked, cringing.
“Leave him alone,” my sister shouted, daring my father to utter another word.
“It’s all right,” my mother said softly, wiping the tears from her face and mine, “it happens.”
A flat-footed Arab astronaut is one thing, but a flat-footed Arab astronaut who once shit himself is an entirely different prospect.
At that moment, my father looked up; both my sister and I ducked in anticipation. It was the closest one yet. We later learned that the bomb had landed on the building adjacent to our own. Our bedroom window had shattered completely and shards of glass could be found on our beds.
When the shelling stopped my mother took out the broom and began to dust the glass off the beds.
“I just cleaned those windows, you sons of bitches,” my mother shouted at the top of her voice.
It was an hour or so before we’d tidied up the house and replaced the glass with scotch tape. I put on my best clothes and followed my mother around the apartment, attempting to make myself useful.
My sister and I heard repeated banging coming from the halls so we rushed there in time to see my father’s attempt to knock down Monsieur Mermier’s door fail miserably.
“He won’t answer,” he said, more to himself than to us, “I’ve been knocking on his door for the past ten minutes.”
Monsieur Mermier had been dead for more than an hour. The debris from the adjacent building had rebounded into his living room and there was nothing we could have done about it. The neighbors, all of the neighbors from the first floor to the fifth floor, gathered inside Monsieur Mermier’s apartment, not that any of them had known him very well while he was still alive. Some of them called the ambulance, some of them mopped the floor, some of them picked up the broken shards of wood and glass and placed them in a pile beside the garbage bin but most of them just stood by the door and cried.
“He was so young,” one large woman said, in between sobs.
“Not that young,” my sister interjected, to the sound of one or two chuckles and a few odd stares.
“Young enough,” the large woman replied, determinedly.
“Young enough for what?” my sister asked, only to be ignored.
“Was he Muslim or Christian?” inquired the large woman.
“He was French Chafeeka, what do you think?” said a much shorter and stouter woman.
My father grabbed me by the arm and pulled me to the kitchen. He shut the door behind us and locked it. For a moment I thought he was about to take out his black leather belt and lecture me on the importance of restraint and maintaining one’s composure. But he didn’t. He took out his bottle of Arak and poured us a shot each.
“To Monsieur Mermier,” he said, raising his glass.
Many years later, long after I’d left Lebanon to pursue a higher education in France, my father would write a heartfelt article in AlNahar newspaper. It would be his final article before he retired.
“I curse the country,” he would write, “I curse the country that bid our children farewell with a smile across its face and told them to never return. I curse the country that presented our children with two alternatives: death or immigration and instructed them to pick between the two. I curse the country that forced its parents to send their children to outer space, or worse Europe, and wave silently from afar. I curse the country that gave our children water but no future, soil but no belief, light but no hope. I curse the country that stripped our children of their parents, and us of them. I curse the country that made fools of us all and led us to believe that we would grow old watching our sons and daughters rise to greater heights amongst their fellow countrymen. I curse the country that robbed me of my afternoon Arak with my son. I curse the country that deprived me of the sight of his wispy beard slowly maturing into one which resembles my own. I curse the country that resigned my wife and me to that comfortable couch in the living room, staring past broken shards of glass into the empty void that is tomorrow. I curse the country, mother and father.”