The Witnessing

Hiba Krisht

A Tin Beirut Story

O you who believe! . . . call in to witness from among your men two witnesses; but if there are not two men, then one man and two women from among those whom you choose to be witnesses, so that if one of the two errs, the second of the two may remind the other . . .
      —Surat-al-Baqarah, Verse 282, The Holy Qur’an

Rumors darted like shadows behind closed apartment doors in the neighborhoods of Tallet-al-Khayyat.

They told of how, not two nights before, women stood at windows several stories high with fists clenching their curtains over their noses and mouths at what they saw in the street.

At least five women saw it, and one boy trudged his bicycle with twisted handlebars around the corner just as it happened. He was drenched in dust and tears and his eyes were not open very wide, but he saw it too, and the five women saw him turn the corner and stop. They called his mother. Her salon phone rang again almost sooner than she hung it up.

When the boy came upstairs, his mother held his elbows so firmly that their grit and blood tattooed her palms, and she asked the boy what he had seen.

She told her neighbors that his answer was very clear, and stripped her boy on the bathroom floor. She anointed his scrapes with iodine and bowed her head over his knees as she bathed them in salted water, and sent his bicycle with the apartment building’s Syrian caretaker to the méchanique at the end of the street to straighten its handlebars.

“It’s OK, habibi,” she said to her boy. “Everybody falls at first.”

Five women and the boy saw it. For witnessing from women, four or more pairs of eyes would suffice. If male eyes belonged to the young, this was good too, because they were fresh and guileless.

It was not long before the rumors had spread to other neighborhoods in Beirut as women encountered each other across grocery store aisles and on waiting benches in pharmacies.

When Saturday morning rolled around, the families of Beirut loaded their cars with skewers and briquettes and netted sacks of grenadines, with bowls of marinating lamb and bags of salted pumpkin seeds. They were going to their villages in the South or North or the Bekaa Valley for the weekend.

Saturday afternoon they had picnics on the banks of the Litani River, or the Ibrahim River, or the Abou Moussa, with their in-laws and parents and cousins. They turned their children loose into the sprawling waters, and when their progeny were occupied on the far side of the riverbank, they told their village relatives about it too. They injected emotion into the facts, and stabbed hunks of lamb onto skewers in time with their words.

I was only at the window, you know, to watch for a delivery from the minimart around the corner, and they were just running up the steps together even though it was already dark.

They held hands.

He was gripping her hand tightly and she seemed unsteady and was a little bit behind him. I don’t think it was what she wanted.

She must have been drunk.

It’s so strange because we’ve never heard any trouble from her before.

You never know. You never know what secrets closed doors hide. She didn’t dress like most other girls, at least.

She fell at least twice. That’s why everybody noticed it.

There was laughter, though. We heard laughing.

I don’t think she was actually laughing. It was too animal, dirty, for that. She might have been sobbing.

She should not have been out after dark whatever the circumstances.

Where was her father? But never mind, we know where he was. He always let her dress how she liked, do what she liked. No wonder she turned out like this.

The boy with the bike was on the Litani that weekend, and he wound his belly around the hard rind of a watermelon and used it to float, and told his cousins what his mother had made him tell her. He closed his eyes and shot water through the gaps his missing bicuspids made in twin arcs, and told them how interested everybody was, and how many times his mother asked if he was sure about the girl’s identity.

“And were you sure?” his eldest cousin asked, impatient, battering the surface of the water with a tree branch.

“She was Officer Jamil’s daughter. Everybody knows her red shoes and the braid in the center of her long black hair, longer than the rest of it.”

“But you didn’t see her face?”

“No.”

“I guess you didn’t have to. I guess everybody knows. Not many girls wear red shoes.”

It began a few days before, at a sidewalk cafe in Tallet al Khayyat.

Michel and Nermine were having eggs sunny-side up, garnished with mint and roasted garlic. Michel told Nermine the protein would help settle her stomach. She agreed and swallowed bite after bite. When she reached for the little bowl of green olives across the table, Michel shook his head and moved it away from her.

“Too acidic, habibti.” He gave Nermine a mini cheese pie instead.

They were being watched.

High up in an apartment building down the street, Sabina the housemaid clipped laundry to clotheslines on a balcony belonging to one Haidar family, her employers. She entertained herself by watching the patrons of the cafe. It was late afternoon, so there was not much to watch; old men drank tea and read newspapers and young people typed on their laptops with French presses at their elbows. So she focused on Michel and Nermine, who she had often seen around the neighborhood, the fair girl with dimples, her skin like cream nicked with a knife. Michel leaned over the table to gently deposit a piece of bread into Nermine’s mouth. Nermine ducked her head but was happy; her red shoes pattered underneath her chair. Sabina instinctively quelled a longing for her husband, whom she had left with her children in dank poverty in the Philippines to seek work in this country. She sighed, and immediately felt a sharp smack on the back of her neck.

“Do I pay you to daydream?” Mrs. Haidar held Sabina’s hair at the base of her neck and viciously twisted.

“No, madam.”

Mrs. Haidar pointed across the street with one broad arm and then pointed back at Sabina. Back and forth, again. “You. You not like those people. You understand? You no have time to sit and think of silly things. You understand?”

“Yes, madam.”

“No phone call to husband this week. No phone call to Philippine.” Mrs. Haidar grabbed Sabina’s hair and twisted again. “You understand?”

“Yes, yes, madam! I understand.”

“Good. No forget again.” Mrs. Haidar wagged a finger in warning, the bracelets on her wrists clamoring like bells. The sound faded as she went back inside.

Her fingers working nimbly to hang up shirts and shorts this time, Sabina erased her face and went back to watching the couple.

Across the street, Michel reached out and brushed Nermine’s one long braid where it snaked onto the tabletop, and said, “I think you’re ready.” He filled a glass with clear aniseed liquor to the quarter mark, then topped it off with water. He pushed it towards Nermine. Three pairs of eyes, those of two women and one man, watched the glass spin with new color as the water reacted with the liquor. It was the correct formula.

Everybody in the country recognized that dense, cloudy white.

And that is how the events of that talked-about day began.

The next morning, the women of Beirut exchanged the news over the whoosh of hair dryers as they sat in beauty salon chairs in the Tallet el Khayyat neighborhood.

A few streets down, Michel’s mother hung up her phone, sat with thump, and delivered a mother-to-son curse skyward: If only you had been a miscarriage.

Across the neighborhood, Nermine’s mother laid her shivering daughter over her lap and unbraided her hair, unraveling its snarls with gentle fingers. For lubrication and anointment alike, there were tears. Nermine’s feet swung, her bare legs too long for all of her to fit in her mother’s ample lap anymore. Fly little kite, fly, her mother sang to her, fly like the breeze. I want to be a little girl again, on the neighbor’s rooftop.

After lunch, the women of Beirut visited each other in their homes and the details they exchanged were as thick and dense as the Arabic coffee and turmeric teacakes they chatted over. By this time the boy had a name too, and it belonged to a Christian family, taboo to be seen with a Muslim girl in this country newly throbbing from the close of a sectarian civil war. Muslims and Christians were neighbors, shook hands, smiled and invited each other to weddings and funerals—never anything more, never closer than that. Interfaith marriage was illegal for a reason. Mrs. Haidar with her coffee cup flashing recounted how she’d seen them together at the café the previous afternoon, and knew the boy by his orange leather bookbag and red-brown beard. She piled on the descriptions of how they were sitting, their loaded feathery touches, how red, red, red the girl’s mouth was from even across the street.

Across the neighborhood, Officer Jamil, a man unlike any man the neighborhood had ever seen, brought his daughter hot water infused with sage and begged her to drink it. Her hands, she sat on them, and her knees, she pushed them up nearly to her chin. Jamil placed the cup on its plate on Nermine’s knees and sat next to her. She told him she was sorry. He told her it was not her fault. She told him she was sorry. He asked her to say something else, anything else. She breathed the fragrance of sage wafting into her face. She told him praise be to God.

A few streets down, Michel’s father washed the scrapes on his arms, backlash from the angry belt he let crack and hiss over his son’s frame before locking the boy in his room until the he could sort the problem out. What else could he do when he came home at lunch to such horrible news? It would be half this bad if the girl was Christian, and the boy could marry her and end it—but now? What now? He soaked his skin in baking soda and water but could not soak away the shame. He clipped his fingernails and buttoned his shirt cuffs, smoothing himself down to docility before walking out into the streets.

Some women were at their windows again, and watched from those windows as the boy’s father walked in the direction opposite to his workplace, the direction in which Officer Jamil lived. They spun the blue beads of the rosaries in their hands in excitement, and migrated from their windows towards the telephones again.

Jamil was expecting his visitor. He coolly shook hands with the boy’s father, and gestured for him to sit at the end of the cherrywood dining table. It was the furthest seat from Nermine, who stared at the tabletop with her head bowed over her throat, her hair burnished to dozens and dozens of thin strands with oil from caring hands, falling in loose cascades over her ears. Jamil felt a soft stab of tenderness and ran his fingers over the thinning hair above his own ears before sitting down. He nodded at the man to speak.

Michel’s father cleared his throat. “Thank you for seeing me. I cannot tell you how much we disapprove of our son’s actions towards your . . . ”

Jamil gave an impatient grunt.

“Please know that what he did goes against everything we taught him. The daughters of other people are not toys. You must enter through the door as a guest and not the window, like a burglar in the night.” Nermine looked up at this point. Michel’s father had almost forgotten she was in the room, so frozen she was like a piece of furniture, her hair a bronze waterfall. So confusing that she was allowed to be there, so confusing that she had been allowed to run loose at all, that this thing could happen, but Jamil was not a man who understood anything about the role of women in a regulated society. Michel’s father started to sweat. “We are not the type of family who let our boys do what they like just because they are boys. We are not that family. And this is not what our religion is like, I promise you, Jesus would never approve of this. We are not that family. He confessed what he did and we punished him. We are not that family. Please understand.”

Jamil said nothing. He waited for something more, ready to kick the man out if Nermine’s face, trembling like there was simmering water underneath her skin, melted into grief. The man was anxious too. He wrung his hands. “We broke his skin, I promise you, we’ll break his bones—”

Nermine cried out. The boy’s father fell silent. Jamil was behind his daughter in a second, lifting her hair from her shoulders, twisting it gently, laying it to one side, and rubbing her neck. Habibti, habibti, he crooned. It’s OK, habibti.

He turned to Michel’s father. “What do you want? Say it plain.”

“I want peace,” the man quickly. “For both our families, for the names of both our families to not be shamed. We will compensate you in any way, but let’s not take this to the courts, I beg you, let’s not have my family and yours be dragged through the mud in the gutter, on the tongues of every busybody in this town. Let your daughter’s reputation remain clean.”

Jamil thought for a moment, and held his daughter’s hand, “My girl did no wrong. The only shame here is yours. Get out.”

When the door slammed shut behind him, Michel’s father whirled on his heel from the weight of panic and dread surrounding him and yelled at the copper knocker.

Do you think anybody will believe that the girl is pure?

Do you think nobody will blame her for walking and talking with him?

Do you think anybody will care if you are a police officer or about your stupid ideals?

Do you think anybody is like you? You silly, stupid man, you will ruin us both!

Do you know what they will call her, the things they will say about her?

Do you hear me, girl? Did you hear that?

Nobody will marry you. Do you know what they will say about you?

Don’t be a fool.

Don’t be a fool.

That week, neighborhood men looked at Jamil with sympathy and offered him the newspaper or fruit or cigar that was in their hands when they crossed his path in the street. They wished him good morning with hushed tones, as if, Jamil thought, he were the one who had lost something instead of his daughter, as if his fate was the one they feared most for themselves.

And of course, he realized too late, they already knew, of course the whole neighborhood and half the city too, of course. No need to wait for a court case for a scandal to erupt. There were eyes in every crack of cement in every block of this city.

Nermine stayed at home, voluntarily. She did not want to see it or hear it, any of it. During the days she watched TV and cooked feverishly, more than she or her family could eat. Late at night she tried to sleep through the turmoil of her mind, but struggled against the pulse of traffic beating against her walls, the sweet smoke of incense burned to repel mosquitos. As she lay awake, she heard her mother argue down the phone in the next room, pacing back and forth, smacking fist against palm as she yelled at people to have shame, have shame, and stop their lies and vicious gossip. My daughter’s pinkie toe is more honorable than your entire family, she said. She never answered the phone when Nermine was awake.

Jamil too, listened from his bed, listened to his wife rattle off rebuttals with fierce eloquence. He was tired, and Nermine’s voice in his head forlorn. Please, Baba, please, what is the point? They are right, who will believe me? Let’s just let it go. Let them forget, let it go.

Why fight a battle he knew he would lose? Why, when it would hurt her so badly and already she was wounded? Why not just try to insulate her against the attacks here, already, instead of inviting more? The reasonableness of people about these things could not be trusted.

He hit me and cried, ran ahead of me and tattled. That is the way the proverb went.

It was the phone call from Nabatieh, from Jamil’s sister in their southern village home, that changed things.

She called him to his office, in the middle of the day, just as he was unwrapping his labneh and olive sandwich for lunch. “Is it true what they are saying, brother?” she asked.

“And what is it they say, sister?”

“Something unbelievable about Nermine and a Christian boy.”

He set his sandwich down. The news had travelled so far, so fast.

“Something happened, but it is not what they say. It was not her fault. She was not willing.”

His sister took a moment to process this. “And what are you doing to defend our honor?”

“I am doing everything I must to protect Nermine.”

“Which means what?”

“Soon they will forget. She suffers enough. I will not put her through it a second time and third and a fourth in speech and questions.”

“But what about your family?”

“This is best for my family.”

“Your family, your family, Jamil. Your old mother. Do you know what the village is saying about us now, and our daughters that we raise in the city to corruption? Do you want your mother to walk through the town with these whispers following her around? Does your old mother deserve this?”

Jamil’s mother was a noble and weathered woman, who still carried water every day from the spring, balancing it in a clay jug atop her head rather than drink tap water, a woman who grew her own lemons and figs and mint and peppers, and sprinkled seed on the pavement for birds. She was old and kind and did not deserve ridicule.

Jamil was torn. They ask for your hand from the right and the same hand from the left.

“They will forget in Nabatieh too. It won’t last very long.”

His sister laughed. “Forget? Forget? And do you really think that people forget these sorts of things? Do you really think they will ever forget unless she is proven innocent and our honor restored? Does honor die away in one week or two or one year or two or one generation or two? My brother, you are a less foolish man than all of this.”

And that is when Jamil decided he must begin to gather witnesses.

They tried to chase the chain of telling back to the aniseed liquor because therein, Jamil was convinced, lay the defense.

Someone had certainly seen Nermine and Michel having lunch at the sidewalk café, because the café figured in the rumors. Someone saw it, and it was not the Syrian owner of the café, who kept his nose out of neighborhood affairs and only said I do not remember, I do not remember when Officer Jamil stepped in one morning and asked him if he had served the couple aniseed liquor. I get so many customers every day, how should I remember?

Jamil understood. He let the poor man go back to his work.

But someone else had positively noticed them, and Nermine’s mother was determined to find out who it was. Someone saw them talking together, eating together—neither of those objectionable, neither conclusive, neither taboo cross-faith for the very young who did not remember the war—but nobody saw him give her aniseed liquor, so distinctive in appearance as to be impossible to mistake for another drink.

Nobody who spoke, at least, because that part was not in the rumors.

Nermine’s mother now spent part of her days at Jamil’s office, calling from a station telephone so nobody would recognize her number and refuse to pick up. She called housewife after housewife, asking what they had heard and from whom, telling them she wanted to give them the benefit of the doubt; maybe it is true that she was biased towards the facts about her daughter, and God told them to value truth and honesty above personal pride.

And eventually enough tongues pointed to Mrs. Haidar, identifying her as the pair of eyes that was needed for witnessing.

At first, Mrs. Haidar was did not want to talk to Nermine’s mother or answer her questions. She was in a panic, knowing she really had only caught a glimpse at the café and created a story from it that nobody could corroborate.

But then she remembered Sabina. In preparation for Nermine’s mother’s visit, Mrs. Haidar sat Sabina down and told her what she must say to the woman who asked her questions.

“You repeat all I said to you. Red, red lips. Touching, hands holding. Everything. Repeat all. Say all I say. You no say something from yourself. You no do that. If you do that, I no let you call husband one month. No speak children. I lock you in room on Sunday and beat you. Understand?”

“Yes, madam.”

The doorbell rang.

“Good. I go open door now.”

Sabina’s heart raced and raced and she cursed herself for seeing what she could not unsee, for seeing the delicate joy in the girl’s face turn to fear as the boy tipped the glass at her lips skyward, and skyward.

Mrs. Haidar ushered Nermine’s mother into the living room, speaking very rapidly so the maid would not understand. “She was there and saw the same thing that I saw, of course, she had to have. But you know how these girls lie about anything and everything, so watch the way she answers and don’t take her words for gospel.”

Sabina clenched her clean hands but smiled at Nermine’s mother. When the mother smiled back, a dimple broke her skin, a quick, sweet stab.

“Sabina, can you answer questions from this madam? She ask, you answer?” Mrs. Haidar asked.

“Yes, madam.”

“It’s only one question, Sabina,” the mother said. “Mrs. Haidar said you were on the balcony and you saw my daughter Nermine having lunch with a friend who was a boy. Can you just tell me what you saw? It’s very important.”

“Yes, madam.” Sabina quickly crossed herself, looked at the floor, and spoke it all at once. “Nermine and her friend were sitting, eating. They laughed, they talked. She was very pretty. Beautiful. She had red lips, wearing lipstick. They touched hands once, two times, three times. He kissed her hand too.”

“You saw her small lips from so far away?”

Sabina thought of her husband, and how he complained when she could not call.

“Her lips were very red, madam.”

“I see.” Nermine’s mother twisted her fingers together a little bit and smiled. “Was there anything else you saw? Maybe after Madam went back inside?”

And Sabina thought of her children, struggling in squatter settlements along the polluted Pasig River in Manila, desperate for the two hundred dollars she sent them each month. She thought of her husband rolling in his flea-bitten bed, spending his days impatient for work. Her pleading phone calls were one reason he did not leave the Philippines and their children behind to find it.

And she thought of Nermine, who always looked Sabina right in the face and said good morning when she passed her in the street, and who was a human being and did not deserve this.

And she thought of the punishment willful disobedience would bring from this employer who treated her like a half-wit though Sabina had a bachelor’s degree and spoke better English than she did, though she took better and tenderer care of this woman’s children and worked her fingers until they chapped for them. The woman could twist her arm off and she wouldn’t mind so much, but sending her back to the employment agency, dissatisfied with her—could she risk that? Could she risk being sent back to the Philippines, to no job and children who would go hungry?

I’m sorry, Nermine.

“No madam, nothing else.”

“See?” Mrs. Haidar clapped. “What did I say?”

Sabina vowed to say three Hail Mary’s before bed that evening and not once look at a picture of her children.

Nermine’s mother almost cried where she stood. If she could not prove her daughter’s guiltlessness, only one option remained, and it was horrible, horrible beyond imagining.

The citizens of Tallet al Khayyat gathered at their windows to watch the splendid wedding procession go by. The celebration was public, in the streets, so that all could see and nobody could question it. The bride wore white shoes and no braids as she walked through the streets with her new groom. Her grandmother circled the newlyweds with a basket of flower petals in her arms, tossing handfuls of it skyward and ululating with every toss. People shouted congratulations to them from rooftops and windowsills, and let candied almonds and ribbons scatter over their heads. They made sure to call the groom by the new version of his name, the Muslim version, Mikha’il.

Let there be no doubt among those who witnessed that every necessary step was taken to restore the honor that had been maimed.

After dusk, the streets grew quiet and only shadows of the celebration wafted around, in the scent of rose petals in the air, in the scattered rice underfoot, in the ribbon still clinging to lamp posts in shreds.

In the rending sobs of the bride’s mother for a daughter doomed to live with the man who broke her. Fly little kite, she sang into her pillow, a little girl on the neighbor’s rooftop. Her voice wafted through her window and into the streets of Beirut.

In the heaviness in the bride’s father’s voice as he warbled verses from the Qur’an, asking God for forgiveness in accepting his daughter’s grand sacrifice, done to spare her family the anguish of a tainted life.

In the bittersweetness the groom’s father would struggle with to his grave, the relief and joy that his family’s honor was restored, the stabbing, unquenchable pain that his son had to convert from the Church to do it.

In the heartsickness of the groom’s mother, who wanted to die from her shame and knew that not ten not twenty marriages would make her son no longer a cruel man, a rapist, and she would know him as such to her grave.

In the peaceful sleep of the citizens of Tallet al Khayyat, who would soon forget the whole ordeal with seldom a pang about it.

In the anguished prayers of the Filipino domestic worker driven by need so far from home, who would forever feel she betrayed an innocent girl, and forever suffer for it.

In the shared whispers and giggles of a newlywed couple that were young and irresponsible. They held each other in a love that had lasted long, and was deep, and abiding.

Tallet al Khayyat slept, with only flickers and peaks of light and voice glimmering from window to window. Nobody was watching. Only they were awake.

I missed you, she said.

Do you feel guilty for doing it this way? he said.

What else could we do? Never in a thousand years could a Christian and a Muslim marry. Never could such shame be overcome, she said.

Unless they had to, because of bigger shame, he agreed.

I’m sorry you were hurt, she said.

But I was hurt too, she said.

Come, let us sleep. It is behind us. All is well.

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