a strange and silent war
by Paul de Marion
My attraction to Beirut was founded around a picture of two beautiful lesbians dressed in suits, dating back to the city’s days of great freedom and liberality during the French Mandate. It was a beautiful picture, the sheer dignity of the women and the confidence they exuded. One sat casually on the arm of a sofa chair while the other stood, and I imagined one of them to have just finished a nice brandy and a cigar perhaps.
Jhalila, my Syrian wife, suggested I take a trip to the Lebanese capital if the picture interested me so much. In her mind, it was the best way to find out a bit more about that unique time in history. The idea didn’t appeal to me immediately, though, because I’d always hated museums, monuments, field tours—anything that vaguely resembled school or study. Yet the more I thought about it, the more the picture haunted me and the more I felt the urge to go.
The next stage was a meeting with Nakba, a Palestinian married to one of her Syrian cousins. It was typically Syrian, and typical Jhalila, setting me up to drive from Syria to Lebanon with a Palestinian without thinking of the dangers. I pictured us driving down a scenic highway in the Bekaa valley, one minute sharing a handful of dates and the next lying in a smouldering heap of ashes. Compliments of an Israeli rocket.
She assured me we were safe and that the purpose of the trip was to take Nakba’s Uncle Nassan and Aunt Medhaya back to a refugee camp in the south of the country. He’d drop me off in Beirut and from there I could make my own way. I could stay with extended family or in a hotel.
On the ride I heard the entire history of the Middle East from the time of the first Arab-Israeli war to the present. It was authored by Nassan, in Arabic, and translated by Nakba who, as it turned out, was named after this most important time in Palestinian history. I found myself in tears at one point, listening to his aunt describe their village and how, during the Nakba, the Israelis had run them out like cattle, killing old men, women, and children so even the diehards and hangers on would get the message and leave. I knew enough to keep in mind that a great number of atrocities were committed by the Palestinians as well—still it is hard to sit in such close proximity with people who have been victimized, no matter who they are, without feeling some of their pain.
As the car continued onward, I thought of Menachim Begin, the Israeli Prime Minister who signed the peace treaty with Anwar Sadat. Begin the terrorist who planted the bomb in the King David Hotel. Which convinced the British to leave. I thought of how Ariel Sharon the war criminal called him many years later when Begin became Israel’s first terrorist Prime Minister. Called him from Lebanon and told him that he had Yasser Arafat the terrorist in his sights. He could kill him right then and there, he said, or he could let him pass through the roadblock. But Begin the terrorist told Sharon the war criminal to let Arafat the terrorist pass.
The Bekaa Valley was beautiful. With a lush, green, and peaceful feeling despite the presence of Syrian troops here and there. I told Nakba a story about a book I’d read by a Lebanese author. Written by a man purporting to be a woman. Please tell your aunt about this I said. A Syrian soldier had killed one of the girls in the author’s family because she refused to marry him. Then he killed himself. At the funeral the family was mortified to discover the identity of an uninvited stranger, a poor tortured soul who’d come to express her grief. The mother of the Syrian soldier.
Aunt Medhaya held my hand as we walked up into the shade of the fig trees. It was a story all mothers understood. You didn’t need to tell them any details. They figured it out. All could imagine the horrible shame of the Syrian mother, the loss of her own misguided son, and the great courage it took to express her remorse for the girl. As we sat, it dawned on me that maybe we didn’t need a Nobel Prize committee. Or if we did we should be able to strip some people of their medals and give them to someone more deserving. It dawned on me that President Anwar Sadat who supported the Nazis and Prime Minister Menochim Begin who put the bomb in the King David Hotel should have their medals stripped and given to the Syrian mother.
Uncle Nassan pulled out a small radio and we had music, a melody that everyone seemed to know, drowning all complaints in joy and a bit of silliness too. We ate simply—bread, oil, olives, with a sweet kind of wine that burned in the chest and made you want to dance. It was during this playful little interlude that an old couple, the owners of the land, joined us. Nakba explained to me how this was often the dangerous part in Lebanon. As people tried to suss each other out—like what faction they were from. Druze? Marionite? Sunni? But the old couple just wanted to know if we were okay and the car hadn’t broken down. And, well, perhaps we could help them a minute at the house. So we followed them up a trail to where the problem was.
The man did the talking, lots of it, from a wide and largely toothless mouth. His eyes were full of light, and it seemed like he’d been happy from the moment he first set his eyes on the world. His mouth was a flurry of liquid, of fizzing, and swishing, a constant slurping of runaway streams sloshing through this tooth and over to that cheek, and from that cheek down his throat. And he had this way of pressing his lips closed to stop himself from drooling.
I got this strange feeling when I viewed his wife, though. She was distant and quiet, overwhelmed by his energy it seemed. And then I noticed something even stranger. Her lips were dry and chapped. Her throat was so dry she looked as if she had just crossed a dessert. She was straining to swallow and disappeared inside coughing, like her mouth was full of dust or gravel.
After we’d helped the old man hitch up a trailer to an old tractor we began the walk back down to the car. That was weird, I said, it was like he was sucking the moisture right out of her.
Nakba laughed and agreed it was a bit odd. His glands were over-active, and she needed a drink. He didn’t think it went any deeper than that. Period.
I had never gotten on well with people who were literal-minded or superficial, who lived on the surface amongst the facts but had no clue about the oddities that reality sometimes presented. Things that carried on below or behind the surface. I tried him out one more time, but he shook me off and began to sing. And that’s how the rest of the drive to Beirut was spent, in song, which even I joined in when I could get my tongue and my throat wrapped around the different Arabic sounds.
In Beirut I latched on to a university student and began my pseudo-scholarly research on the long gone and buried heyday of the city. I discovered the picture was by a French photographer. The two women were indeed lovers, one a nurse and the other a lawyer. The building where it had been taken had been destroyed in the war, as had some of the descendants of the family. When I ventured the idea of visiting some of the living members, Hamal, my sidekick and translator, born to the sound of bombs and gunfire, didn’t think it was a good idea of me to remind a good Shia family that someone in their lineage had been a cosmopolitan. So obtaining any further personal information was pretty well out of the question. It was interesting though, how his understanding of the word cosmopolitan was quite different from mine. For me, it was a positive word. For him, negative.
There were some great musical acts that came to the city. Once the fighting died down and the rebuilding began, there was a hunger for culture, for dance, for song, for all the joyous things about life that had been near impossible during the lost war years. The following year Jhalila and I, after hearing of a festival in the city, felt daring and decided to hitch from Damascus, following the same route I’d traveled with Nakba. We had a small tent, sleeping bags, and of course our proverbial backpacks.
The Syrian side was uneventful as was the border and the first stretch of the Bekaa. As we approached the area where Nakba had stopped for our picnic I became confused. Everything looked the same. The groves, the homes, the small paths and side roads. In the end, I asked the driver to stop and let us out.
The old couple had never left my mind—and I wanted Jhalila to witness what I had. As we walked I reminded her how, before we flew overseas, she often went through profound periods of anxiety. I would become pre-occupied in the effort to calm her down and yet somehow by the time we got on the plane it was me who was nervous. I’d smell fuel and think the tanks weren’t sealed. The landing gear would snap up, and I’d think the bottom of the plane was falling off.
Mmm-hmm. And the point is?
Or before we went tree-planting she’d come up with some screaming backache, twisted elbow or ankle.
Well, how about that year at the corner of Oak and Sixteenth, when I felt a sudden pain in my knee and would have said so out loud if you weren’t already blocking the airwaves, rejoicing at the fact the awful pain in your knee had just disappeared.
Now she remembered. How we talked about this pain in the knee floating around like a ghost with a sheet on, but no fooling because we’d just seen it happen. She’d handed it to me on a platter. On the corner of Oak and Sixteenth. Like that.
We walked back and forth, up this path and down another and eventually just sat down in the shade under some trees, monitoring our joints and our thoughts and our happiness just in case either one of us tried a little dumping act or perhaps a little pillage. That’s what was on our minds.
We were sharing some bread and cheese when the same old woman came strolling toward us, hunched over, beaming and cackling out from her leathery sun-browned face. Initially I thought it was just friendliness but it soon dawned on me, without the need for Jhalila’s translation, that she recognised me. I was the Canadian. What a surprise! Praise be to Allah. And what a beautiful girl! My wife? Good choice! A nice Arab girl! Only a fool would marry a western tart!
All throughout the dialogue there was this sucking sound, a surplus of saliva that gave you the feeling things were good, that the wells were full and if one wanted a drink there was no need to be sparing. She wiped the corner of her mouth twice in her exuberance and cackled when I asked where her husband was. When I persisted, she shrugged as if he was irrelevant but started moving, toward the house it seemed, leaving me clueless because the conversation was between the two women now, with no translation provided.
The old man was leaning against the doorframe as we approached. She’d flung her arm in his direction as if to say gaze on it and weep and left us to have a word while she cackled off toward another outbuilding. He looked pretty rough. His lips were chapped, split open at one point. Just like she’d been. His eyes looked red and dry, and he was obviously croaking with thirst. And he was miserable. He recognised me but didn’t appear greatly enthused about conversation. Instead he nodded his head, shook my hand and then shuffled off inside.
The old woman loaded us up with fruit and olives and gave us great long wet kisses. It was a happy send off that blurred any thoughts of her husband’s condition. Yet back at the side of the highway, now that she knew the full story, Jhalila began speculating alongside me. When had their roles changed? Had it been sudden, like our exchange of the pain in the knee? Maybe it had happened during a kiss. Perhaps during an argument. Neither of us contemplated how unorthodox our thoughts were, or how absurd they would appear to those who stuck closer to convention, what they considered to be reality, yet was only the surface of it.
Paul de Marion works as a forestry worker in northern Canada during the snow free months and winters in Spain’s Balearic Islands. He is a writer of poetry, short stories. novels – and music (mostly classical and flamenco). To date he has recorded two CD’s and published short stories in Canada, the States, England, and Northern Ireland. While most of these stories have been published in print several have been published online.