Late night arrivals
Beirut and Damascus, 2003 and 2005
This one is dedicated to my favorite Lebanese person and someone else who brought us together by being evasive about telling me “what he is” many years ago!
Ualla habibi, You know who you are!
A Human Gift
“Fantastic, I can put this on my website” I realized when I entered the hallway of Hanan’s*(a pseudonym to protect her identity as requested) apartment and remembered what I had asked other people to do: Tell about “the kindness of a stranger” because the best antidote to war and murder in my experience are personal ties to people from other nations and cultures. Especially from those that are obscure or notorious as it’s sometimes hard to remember the same type of people, good (and bad) are available in any “group” of people in the world; something certain other “groups” like to make us forget to stirr up emotions and fears to promote themselves instead. Never mind I had only just overcome my one of my own!
It was 2 o’clock in the morning and I was exhausted and dehydrated. I dropped my bags in the hallway, and peeked around the corner to see a huge living room, the lights still switched off. I stood around a little unsure, wondering if I should follow Hanan, and maybe disturb my hostess in an intimate moment, or rather wait, since her husband had gone to their bedroom as he had announced it, and Hanan had also disappeared. I felt it intrusive to just go find the bathroom unasked, and I wasn’t sure if I could drink the tab water. We were both straightforward, but after all, I had only known her for about 2 hours. Suddenly I heard her call me in a low voice.
“I want you to meet my daughter.”
Fact was, on the flight to Beirut she had told me she had stopped bringing gifts for her kids from abroad because "They have everything." Even though I had admittedly problems myself finding nice AND affordable souvenirs for older children, I had thought it sounded a little harsh. I may be a little old for that, but stilI a sucker for gifts…who isn’t?
I dug into my suitcase to find the chocolates I had brought for my unsuspecting former neighbors in Syria. My neighbor and her 3 generations of family, crowded into 2 bedrooms and a living room, no running hot water, (same as I), had always tried to invite me to have food with them or hang out in their livingroom with the TV, making me feel welcome and protected--even if that also bade me give her the title “The nosiest woman in the world “…She needed to know about every little bit that caught her attention, like: Me getting stepping outI Or more sensational, almost causing an uproar in the whole neighborhood: Me arriving with a flower! I only smiled when they asked me about the flower, an unknown species to me, white of blossom, bought from a street vendor, and I put it in front of the makeshift memorial in my room.
But the next day the keeper of a flowershop in another neighborhood, typical for Syrian hospitality, let me pick a flower to take with me just because I had come in to ask about directions...When I came home with this flower, a rose and white like the other and with its stem stuck into an empty soda can as it had been a long day since, for all to see (so that it would stay in one piece) yet another time, the women on my block and passers by in the neighborhood smiled at me conspicuously: So they had known after all…not!
“It’s good that you gave them something to talk about” said my wise former roommate, ”Otherwise they will make up something that maybe much worse.” Still this intense interest in my life had been nice for me, because it was a long time since anyone besides family had cared enough to bother what I was up to. I’m also used to the obligation of providing entertainment to my neighbors from living in an old downtown building full of nosy and retired immigrants. It’s safer that way, too, even if they at first thought I had to be callgirl because I only had night classes when I moved in. (It’s very informative when you understand the one or the other foreign language…)But they were a lot nicer once we started talking more because I needed help defying leaks and stalkers.
The family in Syria was extremly helpful, from stopping the seemingly exploding heater in our bathroom and welcoming me with candles in the pitch dark neighborhood after a power failure.Their teen kid carryied home my groceries when he saw me in the local store, he who had at first refused to talk to me as his parents had bossed him to do so unsuccesfully on the night of my arrival. With the order to “Speak English to her” they had dragged him out, and not looking up he had sat on the chair opposite of me, refusing to look at me, fuming. He had apologized and poured his heart out about the parental insensitivity as I had caught him sneaking around in our walkup apartment a few days later, and didn’t rattle that he had sought space and quiet for himself.
I never found out who the owner of the incessant female screaming voice was, because it never happened when I saw them, but who ever did it was peacful enough because of it during the day time. I liked these hearty people. I decided I could just get them something else since many Syrians I knew didn’t even like chocolate in that warmer climate, and the women I knew, like everywhere, just didn’t want to get fat.
“Hey” I hissed at Hanan from the hallway, waving the candybox. “Just give her those and say it’s from you.”
She peeked out of a door and shook her head. “Give them to your habibi in Syria” she smiled goodnaturely.
“There is no ‘habibi’, just friends” I mumbled, getting annoyed again. That was a sore spot in multiple ways, but she didn’t yet know that. One is: Why do people always think any effort a woman makes is only ever for the sake of a man you are trying to lure?
She motioned for me to come forward and went back into the room.
"Look what I brought you" said Hanan* and kissed and cuddled her 6 year old daughter in her bed. She hadn't seen her for a week. She pointed at me, standing in the door frame of the room that was stuffed to the brim of the ceiling with said “They have everything”, i.e. barbies, brats, games, a huge dollhouse, toys…The little girl sat up and turned towards me, with squinting eyes full of sleep.
"Look, it's a girl. I buoght her for you, as a gift. She will stay with us. She will teach you English. Are you happy?"
"I will stay for ten years" I caught up quickly, stepping forward to the end of her bed, looking at Hanan grinning, but the 6-year-old was still too dreamy to get scared of the prank we’d planned earlier, even if she understood enough English. It turned out she wasn’t one bit scared of the odd looking foreigner either, and later, demanded to see her proclaimed “gift” in the full daylight.
I bunked at Hanan's home one night in 2005, an apartment like the one I would like to have if I could: Near the ocean, full of shiny Middle Eastern objects. Lavishly embroidered blankets and pillows with sequins and Quranic verses in silver thread caught my eye, there were at least 6 different oriental looking sofas framing the huge living room, one of which would be my bed for the night. There were framed antique magic eye ornaments in silver and gold, similar to those I had brought from tourist shops in Syria and Egypt to hang on my doors: They are supposed to keep away envy, the type that breaks things and necks, and the kind of envious stares that make a decent life sour.
“No,no, that’s not what it is, but it makes people fall, for example” objected an Arabic aquaintance the “evil eye syndrom” that this ornament is supposed to prevent. Falls, you see—the big theme in my life, whichever way I turn, it comes back at me, dreaming or waking. For the rest of my life the murder of someone I love and its consequenes will scream, squeak and beam at me from TV sets and people’s mouths, at work or in the subway, in the form of films and quotes and jokes and a hell of a lot cruel and opinionated babble.
But in the Middle East I usually get a little break. Oh, the bliss of ignorance…I can’t read or understand Arabic very well, and here they have different catastrophies to think about!
I had been severely ill since my return from Syria and getting weaker and weaker, the worst since the initial onset of funky body reactions after the murder, when I had been almost ecstacic and running around with unknown energy and devototion for the first year, taking care of “everything” that needed be taken care of, dispensing love and care to all that would take it. Aye, there is the rub!
With the murder, I had suddenly become contageous, to old and potential new friends alike, that was the worst of the whole experience, other than what he had to go through, worse than jokes and cruelty by co-workers or strangers. Any mentioning of the connection to the events, to explain and not be evasive—end of contact, end of job prospect. I realized it was like being a fugitive—but hey! I’m not the murderer! It didn’t make sense and it wasn’t right. There have been precious people that still cared about me of course, but for the most part with plenty of earth or water between us. You know who you are and I won’t forget!
But after my return from the Middle East where I had had a break it seemed the shock had caught up with me physically, or rather, the series of “aftershocks”,a long line of international disasters where I was sure to have a personal connection, having to find out again and again if people I knew were alive. The very first were 3 events in one month, one of them was that my hotel in Baghdad had been under attack, and several people died. That’s when my body seemed to say “I don’t care if you think you can handle it. I can’t.”
I became so physically weak, that pants that had fit me as a teenager and that I had been able to wear again after the falls were too wide now. My eyes huge in a peaked face—I, who had already stood in front of a mirror and pulled up my cheeks behind my ears, on the verge of understandig why women of a certain age and weight go for plastic surgery. I who had called myself the human little hungy catarpillar, “eating herself through the world”, as a travel slogan.
I was now sure I would soon die anyhow since medical tests showed no results and they had given me that “Who knows what she caught in Iraq or on Ground zero” look. Radiation? Toxic substances or bacteria? I felt I must use my remaining lifetime carefully, but I had no more physical strength to do or even want anything!
I was so tired and drained as I had never been before, just waiting for it all to end and be closer to the sensible and warm person that I knew had died. How could it be that I couldn’t even remember how with the exception of reasonable times of grieving, I had been so content in the Middle East, especially Syria, in 2003? Even in Iraq?
The answer lies not in so much in the fact that nothing there really reminded me—in Iraq EVERYTHING reminded me about why I was there—and that again was the only reason why I was rarely scared or even worried there. I do NOT have the nowaways overtly popular Post Ttraumatic Stress Symdrom because of Iraq! I was so comfortable there, even in danger. Where my own survival is concerned is subjective anyhow with what happened on 9-11 to someone I care about. But the reactions of the people in the Middle East, how they interacted with me, were a tad different from the majority I had experienced in the West…
In spycho babble: I “healed” a bit, because people were kind to me, as a human being—and not as a paying patient, as I always refused to become. What is the point of wasting precious time and energy, and paying someone to analyze a behaviour that is obviously not the cause for the horror that happened, like suffering for someone else that cannot be changed? I needed real people to draw me back into life and give me back hope and trust, work to make the money to push my issues.
You don’t change the world or your situation or grief and anger one bit when you ignore all future evil on antidepressives and evasive and forced “positive thinking” patterns, and it makes any kind of mutual support impossible when anything not so pretty you need feedback on or help with is sensored away via silences, or someone imitating their dominant therapist with that “scarily insincere” (borrowing from Rushdie) somewhat panicky or furious trained cheerfulness. A nation of mad people…
My great aunt must have been in hell when they murdered her fiancee, and she coudn’t even officially claim that status without risking her life, but from what I read her family supported her, at least they were still writing, But most notably, at least until her 70ies she was still seen hanging out with his sisters—a familiar streak, seeking new people to care about, especially those associated with the deceased.
I highly recommend it.
She had never married, and unlike me she was able to open a door without scaring someone out of his wits with facial nudity. She lived well into her 90ies, even if she thought she was back in the world of the 1920ies for the last decade or so, an aera before the murder had taken place. Better use my remaining time wisely before my mind will skip out even without medication …
They were certainly not evasive in Syria! Everything had its place on the table. I realized most of all I missed the warm people who accepted me and set me at ease with their openness where I had to suppress no aspect of my life and shared many laughs and teers. Experience. Spirituality. Sincerity. And food! They always make you eat.
I started looking for flights into the region…just a week! Syria? Just saying the name makes me smile. I wanted go back to Syria to try to to soak up once more the wonderful kindness of the people I had met there which might, I felt even affect my health. I had been content and even close to happy there—everybody always went out of their way to help me, and I was so helpless with my lack of Arabic and how things worked, that I was at everyone’s mercy.
I checked flight rates almost every day of the week… as a fed up kind relative told me, rather than nostalgically whine about missing Syria where I had experienced a different and vast social net and mindset, I should stop lecturing to her about the wonderful world of airfare and take my christmas money and just GO!
But even if I had the money for the flight, after that expense I wouldn’t be able to afford the stay unless I sneaked in without the costly visa somehow and decided to become a leech to people’s hospitality…both not my style! Life is fairly inexpensive in the Middle East, but I was on an economic edge and I don’t borrow just for fun.
Just then a man in Beirut I had never heard about all my life got ready to get into a car.
The Forbidden Question
A bomb went off and in a neighborhood called “Ain al Mresse”, near the Mediterranean sea, 11 people were killed, amongst them former prime minister Rafiq Harriri, a mischieveously smiling man with a chubby face like a cherub, mak that a cherub with a moustache, who had build up war-struck Beirut with his own private self-made money.
This Lebanese tragedy which started another US-prompted spur against Syria left me with nightmares about Syrian friends caught in a war. I dreamt of going between the lines on trains (there are none, actually) and not being able to bring someone back to his family. (What’s the name of this long somewhat trying movie with Ralph Fiennes as the dying soldier again?) But hadn’t I carelessly promised my friends I’d be back with the next war threat?
Beirut in Lebanon is only a 3 hour bus or car ride away from Damascus in Syria (depending how much time you spend at the border). You can also enter from Jordan or from Turkey. The sad event in Beirut finally helped me go because prices for flights into Lebanon dropped sigificantly…and even the Lebanese tourist visa was said to be free of charge now. I could go as long as I stayed in a share or dorm and ate streetfood only. Don’t need more than sitting down having tea and locals and friends to talk to in a café or outside of a shop in the souks or the beautiful old town to be content in Syria!
I had finally booked the flight to Beirut and imediately felt lifted up. However I was still so weak and slow, that even a whole day was not enough time for packing for me, and somehow I was still packing in the transit area for my flight to Beirut, looking for my hotel directions and shifting things from my purse into my carry on bag, annoying the organized looking sour Western woman with her neat file folders on her lap next to me.
Later, in the lounge, there were mostly men in the waiting area beyond the gate. I was being looked at which made me selfconscious. In Islamic countries I learnt to not look back at guys or strike up conversations with them without any reason, and they don’t force themselves either. Rules are different and clearer and behaviour is interpreted in a different way. I was comfortable with it in my situation, and always felt taken care of if I ever ran into trouble. But I really wasn’t familiar with Lebanon, which is said to be a lot like Europe, more modern, more liberal. I wasn’t sure liberal in how far, or if I even liked that.
There was also another reason slipping back into my mind during that time that made me uneasy. Lebanon is the home of one of the alleged 9-11 highjackers. He was said to have been in one of the planes that went down in Pennsylvania. The one destined for the White House, the only allegedly planned target that wasn’t hit. I remembered this guy because I had looked at all their faces in an article. He’s the one that looks like US-comedian Jerry Seinfeld. He (the alleged hijacker) was said to have been somewhat of a playboy in Beirut, driving around with girls in a showy cabriolet. He left behind a Turkish girlfriend, which is why in one article it was argued that he might have had a change of mind or not known that the plane was allegedly destined for a suicide mission. (As in: people with someone they love to live for don’t usually kill themselves. They’ve got a point, ya know.)
Yeah, I’d love to talk to his family to hear what THEY think happened up there. But I was also very insecure about if I really wanted to face people that might approve or have approved of murder, or even coincidentally sit next to them on a plane, be coincidentally friendly to people whose offsprings might not have been friendly enough to grant permisssion of living his life to somebody I cared about.
This went around in my head when a kindly older man with a video camera sat down opposite of me and soon asked me which language I spoke.
I got alittle upset, because mildly said, I don’t like to be asked where I am from any longer. It’s not even anymore about stereotypes, about me as a lose Western woman, or being labeled as having certain attributes as a foreign national of THAT country, as it used to be. No. Oh no…it goes way deeper…
You see, I couldn’t help noticing that he had a younger man traveling with him, one who had in vain tried to get my attention earlier, and my alarm went off blinkingly, because it hit right on my only sore spot deriving from my life in Syria…
As much as I had liked really EVERYTHING about my life in Syria, the food, the people, the daily interactions with the sincere and the humble (and the nosy) that are normal in a culture where traditions are kept alive and anonymity doesn’t exist, I had become allergic to two questions, in precisely that order: “Where are your from?” (What will the passport be?) and “Are your married?” (Can I hook you up with my retarded brother?”) Eventually to the point of barking at people without any trace of patience or even humor remaining: “YES! OF COURSE I AM MARRIED! WHAT DO YOU THINK, THAT I’M SOME FILTHY WESTERN WOMAN WALKING ABOUT UNMARRIED?”
I do know some of my friends in Syria had meant well. To them, I am a sad lonely person, hit by tragedy, without a man, kids and with bad financial prospects, who must be helped. That may be true, and it’s very kind, but not by fixing me up with someone to solve my apparent problem of not having a wealthy husband in my bed. Once and for all: An unloved husband in my bed would add to my agony, even if the concept of love and being provided for ist still somewhat different in a country where many girls still “get married” just because, like in the case of someone I met there is no more space at home and she must live somehow, why not with the older guy with the big house?
Never mind they have love marriages also, and in the West plenty of Anna Nicole Smiths are doing the exact same thing. But it’s considered normal in Syria, that is the difference. Kind of unromantic. (if practical, even if I don’t understand how any normal-feeling woman could love children from someone that was forced on them and not do everything to get rid of the unwanted troll who tries to climb on top of her every night).
I do know these innocent questions about your marital and national status are really just chit chat in the Middle East, not personal questions, but they irritated me, much like a stinging toothache, to the point of above mentioned madness! Instead of feeling steam rise when I thought of gropers in the West who continued to treat me like some animal you can just reach for, even in a professional setting and even during an event dealing with the occupation in Iraq—talk about the irony of that, physical occupation—I eventually felt just as enraged at the very idea that someone considered me a possible spouse…
My landlord used to interrogate me and my other Western roomate about our status quite a number of times. After a few unsuccesful invitations by his unobtrusive but unsuccessful brother in law, who at first used to puzzle us as to why he lived with him, the intention of these interrogations became clearer.
“I want world peace first” I explained in all honesty to my landlord, in a conversation that was thankfully cut short due to the language barrier. And maliciously turning to my Arabic-speaking roomate: “And, what is your excuse?”
“I can only marry someone from my own culture” she explained solemly (which I knew was an outright lie because she was seeing someone from the city) At first this was the cause of many jokes. But I wonder how many Syrian girls tie the knot because their resistance is slowly ground down, just because they can’t hear those questions anymore!!!
Mad woman on the lose
With all this boiling in the back of my mind sending steam to the front I told the man in the lounge what he wanted to know and continued at the stare on the space before my feet, but after a short pause he went on: “What are you doing in Beirut, are you working?”
I had reached my PM (premenstrual)-PT(post traumantic) -MQTS (Marriage Question Traumatic) syndrom limit…
"Already these questions--We are not even at immigration yet" I said primly.
I couldn't believe I had just said that. The man looked like I had just slapped him.
For all I knew, he could soon become someone in danger, in a country at war, and they had to live with civil war for so many years, he probably had had hardship too in his life. Me, me me! And I had just reminiscenced what a bitch this other Western woman at the terminal had been when I tried to strike up a conversation with her as I couldn’t help noticing she was reading a guidebook on Jordan. Jordanians are extremely good-natured and friendly, too. I had asked her if she was also going to the region, because I loved it.
“YES!” she barked at me and looked back into her book. Geez. She obviously wasn’t the least bit Jordanian, I noted sourly into my diary.. And now I was turning into a monster myself. I needed to get to Syria quickly! Maybe it would get better after I had crossed the border.
As we boarded the plane, the first Lebanese I had insulted that day was behind me, and I smiled at him in a way I thought was apoplogetic to make up for the rudeness.
He said “I'm sorry, if I bothered you, but I thought in case you needed any help with anything?”
"Thanks but I really don't need any help. I’m going there to relax" I added.. No, not this time. Nothing anyone could do anyhow. He looked dissapointed.
"We Lebanese like to help people" he said.." “I wanted you to know that.“
“I do know”
So there I was, safely on board of a flight to Beirut—3 hours from Damascus by car, my real reason of going there—pondering about how I would be able to find an affordable cab as the route to the city is quite expensive, in the dead of the night, and what about my non-confirmed hostel reservation. Even if I could afford the flight my remaining budget was still very very limited. It made me a little tense, because this country was possibly not like caring informal Syria where total strangers at the busstation haggle a taxi for you, give you change for your big notes and want nothing else but to help a guest and where you can just ask around and someome willl tell you about a cheap but decent place to stay.
Just when I still hated myself for being rude to the old man and wondered how I would find the hostel in the dead of the night and hoped they had no mixed dorms as I then woldn’t be able to stay there, an ill looking woman with hollow eyes climbed into a seat in my row, at the window. Soon afterwards a guy behind us talked to her and gave her a magazine, and I wondered: "Why does he have to sit there if she's with him?”
Then she started coughing. My luck. I had just about managed to avoid contracting a cold from the people around me as I really didn't want to be sick on my vacation, and this one here was spiked with what sounded like TBC, medium stage.
Then she leaned towards me and started talking to me despite my futile attempts to look sleepy or “not here at all”, blowing what I was sure were antibiotic-resistant tubercle bacilli onto my face.“My luck!” I thought. “Now I will get REALLY sick for the rest of the trip, if not my life!”
You just laugh—But I’m not (just) hypochodriarchially pessimistic—My immune system had become so dysfunctional—colds always knocked me down completely then, all the ‘itis’es you can think of…so here was my final executor. But the torture had only just begun.
Question number one was about my nationality, and inside I moaned “oh no, not another one...Probably her husband or brother in the row behind us had told her to chat me up, checking out a potential western wifey for her relative.”
I thought: “They must be really desperate to get out with yet another war lurking around the corner.”. An argument erupted as to why the f... I should answer questions like that...harsh words were spoken, hot air and lightning evaporated, but I promise, there were no hissing sounds. Just a whiny annoyed complaint, and on the other side, baffledness, and then a laugh.”
“I couldn’t believe you said that! I ask you where you are from and you fight with me…But you are honest, like me, even if it’s rude , I like that” laughs said Lebanese lady, several hours later…She told me the last part already on the plane, rather than pour coffee over my head, and so it was that after an initial conflict we had it all out in the open and made our peace. “Better a fight than evasiveness” some poet once wrote. True enough.
The man behind us, by the way, had been harrassing her already on the airport, and she was bored out of her mind after an 8 hour wait.
“What? You thought I am checking out a wife for my relative? But I don’t know him!”
“But I saw you talk to him. Or whoever had been sitting behind you. When you got on the plane.”
“Oh, that! Let me tell you! This guy got on my nerves already at the airport, asking me ‘where are you from, where are you going, are you alone, can I borrow your magazine’. So I finally gave it to him and said:’ Look, here it is, we’re on the same flight, give it back to me then’ and then I got up and walked off.”
I told her why I had been a bit….awkward about yet another person chatting me up, even though I had tried the same thing earlier.
“You know how many hours between my flights I had? I had one nescafe in one cafe, then another nescafe at the next place…I can tell you everything about nescafe at the airport. I read this magazine probably fifty times. I thought if the person next to me looks nice enough, I will talk to her” she said.
That also explained why in intimidating speed she had summarized every article in her Arabic magazine for me—I had found that a little odd and wondered if she was on something, but was impressed by her memory. I was just lucky she was so desparate for conversation that she didn’t mind my initial hissing…
And that isn’ t all. She offers to drop me off—the taxi trip which had worried me earlier would have cost me a personal fortune due to a local monopole, more than the on-going trip to Syria, even if I already found another travelor with whom to share one in the airport. She gives him a ride into the city also.
The hostel I tried to book in vain has no more singles which is strange because I thought due to the attack Lebanon would be kind of empty of tourists, and it has only a mixed dorm—I come back to the car to tell her and her husband who picked us up from the airport, that we will have to try the next address. I get in the car and she turns around and says “You know what, you can stay at my place.”
Tourist or terrorist? The other side
It’s a long night, and I have not talked to a woman my age, in depth, this much, on my line, for a looooong time. We’re sitting in the corner of her livingroom, sipping tea and now she’s crying. The former prime minister who has just recently been torn to shreds was Hanan’s hero---she talks about his generosity and ability to stay calm and good even during personal attacks, the same way I used to tell people about my loved one. I don’t yet dare to tell her—I know the reactions and I am too starved for company and in-depth-talk. She has a very wicked sense of humor, too. On the plane she told me her job is “I pick flowers”. (Housewife)
I tell her her murdered hero is lucky to have kids—his son is trying to run for office now---they could be like him. People like that, she says, are made by circumstances also, not just genetics—he started out very poor and worked his way up—and don’t come by just like that, once in a lifetime.
We also agreed on one major thing that frustrated both of us : “If the truth is something bad, people don’t want to hear it, even while they could still do something about it.” She had to give up her just started business because the economy is zero—when one thing goes wrong, the rest seems just to collapse as well—worry about more bombings is the least but also the core. My “career” was supposed to really take off September 12—the first official work day at my new job, the beginning of the end. The last failed endeavor after much effort was trying to officially volunteer supporting Tsunami familes. I helped search and translate via the net, but I can do more locally?
I contact several organizations, explain how I can help due to my personal experience with disaster. In New York Oklahoma City Bombing families are helping Trade Center families—here I am asked to make a donation, as if they hadn’t listened to what I offered. All (paid) seats are taken and 9-11 equals wealthy…Not this one, like many others! But volunteer work is already a competition, and if you have real people to suport you you might not supply your local shrink (mediated by one of the orgs I contact) with an income….my guess! We have a loooooot of thoughts to compare--I don’t get much sleep that night, talking and sipping tea in her seaside apartment.
She loved Harriri for whose job training center she volunteered—a mischievous looking man who gave one of my Syrian friends 100 Dollars and a Tshirt “because I have the same name as his dead son.” This guy told me Christinan sections in Lebanon didn’t like him because he is popular among the muslims, and christian sections were supported by Israel during the civil war. “United we run”, a kind of marathon, was the name of an event that brought both parties together, to show unity in demonstration against the murder.
"I demonstrated, too" She said.
"Against whom?" I asked
"Against whomever has done this. We don't know! Bush, the Syrians, the Muslim fractions, the Christian fractions, the Israelis--nobody knows!"
This is a familiar situation—It’s intresting to see if “I” will get on my nerves with the wheel of praise for the dead—I don’t, and they WERE that great--even if I get a little jealous: Her hero has a grave of possibly all his body parts, in the city center he rebuild, the most expensive piece of ground in the city, and mine has sewage pipes for the next building going through his—ground zero, New Yorks prime piece of land--only few parts were found. Mine has a website, and this one—posters all over town, even on the windows of the busses going into and departing from Syria.
“My friends told me: Are you crazy? You don’t know her, how can you let her in your home, she could be a terrorist!” she told me after I came back from Syria. Ha! I remember how people said a similar parboid thig about an Iraqui woman I met in a hotel lobby—because I mentioned I had given her some money as she was obviously not able to make money while a war went on in her country and she was alone, she had to be a con artist…but even someone from the staff let her stay at his family home, and later she came to my birthday party, still in the same few clothes she had with her.
Again Hanan takes me out with her family—we do the Harriri memorial route, the hole in the ground, the grave and memorial site, and after I have told her about my loss. “Will you come with me to America to visit my loved one’s grave as well?” I ask a bit bitter…And she brings me to the airport when I leave.I wasn’t sure if I shouldn’t rather make arrangements…”NO, of course I’ll pick you up” she says when the taxi driver lets me call her from his cell after my return from Syria as we have a little communication problem about where I want him to drop me off: There are not phones nead the bus station, which I ask for. In Hanan’s car we pass security soad blocks and I have to rummage for my key as they want to check my luggage.
“What if I told them I came in from Syria?” I tease her.
“Shut up! You wouldn’t be able catch your plane tonight!”
Hanan is a muslim and since she really can actually read the Q’ran, answers my theoretical question about conflicting info on “them scarves”: “It says in there that I should wear one but I think God cares more about what is in my heart than what is on my head!” (Which is a very expensive haircut I much envy, with frosting—they all go for blonde in the Middle East. She also told me how to keep the haircutter from cutting it bluntly short instead of just triming it—my ongoing pain in the arse:”I tell him if you cut it short I will kill you.”)
Terrorist, matchmaker…the whole wonderful world of stereotypes. I was indeed taken for a terrorist in one of the Christian villages because I like to see what food they have in other countries and sneaked around the aisles in a supermarket. A worried looking older man followed me and I had concluded he thought I wanted to steal something because I looked bit crumbly after walking in the sun and being on a bus. When I addressed him and a girl translated for me, it turned out he thought I carried a bomb in that dark plastic bag and was planning to plant it when I put it down to look at ingredients of packages. It was my equaterisque water supply. Because I was covered up and looked a little odd they thought I was a muslim—i.e. not someone from that village--the old fears erupting, groups going against groups as they were in the civil war, the normal civilan people in the middle smashed neveretheless.
He had been really scared of me and I was so sorry. They’ve been there. A lot of people on tranquilizers, just like post 9-11 New York, I have been told. (And nose jobs, said my new friend. “They all have the same nose”…”And what if a guy marries someone like that and his kids have a horrible nose, surprise?” “Where is the problem, they get a nose job, too!”)
This lady has a really cool name that made my face droopy in dismay because I only have cool pseudonyms--I won’t disclose it for her safety’s sake just like she asked me not to put up her photos: “everybody knows my shirt” “ everybody knows my sunglasses”, “don’t put up my kids”, in a place where the civil war, foreign spurned, I have been told, prompted parents to buy birthday gifts for 10 year olds in the shape of preserved fingers of their “enemies” in a glass.
“I have seen it before. It was exactly like it. I think they will go for Syria, and we are next,” said Hanan. “I’m scared of what will happen now.”” “They” meaning the US.
Much later I asked her about what Condolezza Rice had said, that “soon people in Kabul, Baghdad and Beirut will be able to have freedom of opinion, too”.(Actually normal people in Baghdad are still timid to speak their mind and certainly not be quoted by name, or be on a photo you will put in the internet or press etc.)
Hanan explained: ”There never was democracy, and there never will be. And we know what the US want.” And how do you think they will presumedly bring it anyhow. I’ll take airborne attacks for one hundred, Alex.
Some people in a shop in Lebanon—(I found out they are less obsessed with marriage and the typical question there is “Where are you going next?”) said “Syria? What do you want there? Bring them a bomb!” I asked back if I should bring them one also, because one of their own people had killed someone I loved…No, remarks like these don’t make people rethink their own rantings—it makes them think I am the one who’s the nut! Likewise, Israel and the states are blamed for the bombing, as Israel spurned the first civil war by supporting a group of christians. But like all of Lebanon nobody wants to go through the turmoil of different ethnic and political groups going against one another again.
"If there is another war" Hanan said bitterly, "I will not stay here. I will take my kids with me, if my husband agrees, but you know what, if he doesn't agree, I will still go away. I will not go through that again." I am not going through THAT again either—being far away when people I care about are in danger.
Why invade anyhow? They already have American fastfood chains, like Flying pizza, and Hardees, so that nobody frequents the only traditional Lebanese restaurant next door anymore—other than I, the only customer on that day I found out my guide wasn’t quite up to date and I won’t have overpriced hamburger in the region of falafel and Lebanese salad. American English is spoken in many kindergardens, if it’s not run by French “soeurs”, and everywhere in the district around the American university, I heard it all over.
“We had everybody here!” explains Hanan the mix of French and Amerian lifestyle markers alongside the Arabic bits of Muslims, Christians, Druze heritage, Russian hookers and they also have Palestinian refugee camps .They even had a Tsunami a few centuries ago, 30 000 people are said to have died. Lebanon, land of the cedar, is a fertile country in which you can go swimming at the beach or skiing in the mountains on the same day. You could also go down to the South and watch out for Israeli missiles and I’m assuming it’s the same thing the other way round.
“The only thing that is good here is the air” sniffed Hanan, notorious chainsmoker, at her abundant environment that has been causing so much trouble as “everybody wants it.” I had told her how my year-long sinus problem had disappeared after only one day in the mountain resort.
Beirut not so much a pedestrian city as Damascus, because many more people have cars, unfortunately, because that way it’s harder too meet people, unless you want jump inot the way of the joggers along the corniche. Expensive, newlooking cars, too. Lebanon seems to much wealthier than Syria, and later I read that a big part that wealth comes from Lebanese working abroad. “If a guy has an expensive car, forget about him, it’s probably not paid yet!” Hanan tries to squash any illusions I may have about catching a Lebanese millionaire. When I approached younger and professional looking people in the street regarding directions they were all helpful, but they already conveyed that same brisk impatience I know from New York.
“In 25 years or so , things will have changed here too” a friend from Damascus remarked as I had commented on the hospitable atmosphere created by the inhabitants, even when I dealt with youngish people who voluntarily got up for women without a seat on the busses—as if I’m some b---- who will insist on the seat of a hardworking and tired undergrad. “Humble” was a word an American I talked to had come up with. Another friend told me “Here the people at work want to have lunch with their kids. It’s more important than any profit. I worked with Americans before, and they just don’t understand that: They want perfection and speed, but here you cannot have both.”
All’s well that ends well
In Damascus, my local friends most of whom had left town about the time I left, were suddenly back or visiting, and thanks to “hamam-mail” (public bathhouse-mail aka gossip) I caught up on news and endings of old stories and mysteries.
I also learnt, that, unbeknownst to me, I had been “engaged” to someone who had often shared his lunch with me (like many other people!!!!)…
“We wondered if you would get married” said a sweet friend, causing me to almost choke on the fresh squeezed apple juice from the shop around the corner. Now I also understood what this other Western guy had meant when years ago he had said “Oh, you two!” and got up and left, and why he didn’t show up alongside that guy, when I, lucky renter of a kitchen, had made dinner, for BOTH of them, kitchen-deprived, and, as I had assumed, probably as tired of take out food as I! Aaaaaaargh!
Oh, and remember the chocolates? My psychic Christian neighbor, whom I surprise-visited, invited me to sleep at her house, after declaring to me in front of her guests, an elderly couple, unabashedly, how kind she had always been, sharing her meals with me, (which is a little inccurate, as I always said no thanks, but never mind) and then asked me, who had never conversed with her on the subject: :”So, did you bring us any chocolates?”
Thanks to some vital information from my former roomate, who, it turned out, still lived in the same place, my health improved quite a bit and at least I don’t look like an anorexic heroine addict anymore.( I just look like an oldish heroine addict) So my long, long walk in the worst traffic of the world that will likely get me lung cancer later (as I didn’t contract the bronchitis Hanan had bred out on the plane after all—there is something about the immune system and emotions) was well worth it as I had gotten lost again and started to wonder if they had changed and rebuild all the landmarks I was looking for until I was at the outskirts of the city and had to walk all the way back…in that neighgborhood, there are no streetnames to go by.
In Syria, I got that critical part of my health back this time and lots more answers to questions, and had meaningful encounters, much more than I wrote here happened of course, and in Lebanon I found a close friend who also told me something very valuable that I won’t write here. Just this: If I heard this from a shrink, I wouldn’t buy it because I’d think they are saying it on purpose to make me tick a certain way, not because they really think so. Because it comes from someone frank and real, I can buy it. And I got the decongested nose, (temporarily), too.
Well, if some famous woman-shutter-upper (“shouldn’t speak in church”) named Paul was healed from blindness and from the drive of persecuting people in Damascus already ca. 2000 years ago, that’s the least “miracle” you would expect now, isn’t it? I don’t know how good they are with piercing together body parts, but I guess if you need the whole set we don’t stand a very good chance, yet. But you never know.
I think I liked Syria also because I saw a little bit of the same kindness in many people’s actions to me. I hope they won’t take that away from me together with the homes and bodies of those people who helped me remember goodness is not a way of thinking, but an act, to be found where you least expect it, the only thing that keeps you going when you lose everything else.
Late night revelations
A few months later I sat in my apartment during the dark winter time, sinking into gloom because what was the use of having new friends and meaningful encounters if they were so far away and not part of my current life? They probably had just thought it was curious to talk to a foreigner, but their world went on much more colorfully than mine, they had forgotten about me and who knew even if they were alive? Mails and calls had often not gone through on either side as well, but that only showed me how useless it was even if one made the effort.
The fact was: I sat here by myself. It seemed too meaningless to even do post my experience—almost like lying, giving things a positive twist that they really didn’t have for me anymore. But I had only started to rewrite this piece a day earlier, after long futile months, as if suddenly spurned by something.
The other night I had renewed certain vows to my murdered loved one, especially that I cannot stop being dedicated to certain people just because they are not behaving the way I want, and that I cannot give up a cause I vowed to carry on because it needs more time or because I won’t be able to see the results myself. I decided to stop that aversion—it had worked for this woman I read about, by simply making the unemotional decision, the rest came later, she had said. Yeah right, I thought. But why not try it?
The person I lost once told me that giving is not a trade where you should expect anything, like gratitude, or even a thank you. Then you shouldn’t give, or call it that. He was right, of course, (even if it would have been nicer to get something back that I wanted because I am not a martyre and felt going against your feelings is very unnatural and dishonest and makes people bitter and warped and I don’t have this in me. Want more excuses?…Picture Whoopie Goldberg in “Ghost” handing the nun the check and holding on to it with clenched teeth, you’ve got my personality…) But earlier, n the Middle East I used to even say at some point, if I can change the mind of one person who might possibly kill someone in the future otherwise, it’s well worth the effort, even if I will never know about this. (Like a missionary, but I swear I am not!)
But as reality sunk in again the next day, my newly found motivation left me. I went to the kitchen to fix me some tea. It seemed useless to write anything anymore—if I really thought about it, I only really learned about life and people from experience, and followed that, not books, i.e. other people’s experience. It doesn’t go under your skin the way confrontations or acts of people do.
Except the decision last night—I had that from a book that a very wise woman with a lot of heartache and horror in her life had written, so I couldn’t just dismiss her as theorizing, and I believed that she told the truth. But it was a different situation, it really didn’t work all the way with my circumstances, and like me, she didn’t elaborate too much to protect people’s privacy and confidence in her. She had received so much feedback though, support to keep going because she was part of a very pushy group with certain interests—something I can’t do, against my own conscience—and what backbones or prospects did I have to keep going, now? I didn’t even have the excuse of an illness anymore.
I suddenly heard a female voice and raced back into the bedroom because I thought it was my answering machine that had come on: I intuitively thought Hanan had gotten my vices and remembered me after all. I don’t call people in critical places to not subject them to any trouble. Not everyone likes people who like peace, and who talk about it…
No, everything was as silent as always. I went back into a kitchen and noticed that it was somebody next door that I had heard through the wall.
A few minutes later I was back in the bedroom, working on the revisions. Still, I was grateful for the experience I had had with all these people. Maybe my seeminly useless determination would come back, or it would lead to another idea. Maybe my job was done. It was kind of a young age to live only out of memory’s golden casket, but at least I could travel back in my head where I wanted to be and with the horrible murder in comparison, who was I to complain anyhow? “Uallah habibi” (Something like “Well, sweetheart”)I typed, grinning, as I heard the words being said in my mind again, with that bit of sourness.
The phone rang.
“Uallah, habibi, where are you froooooom (very fake-acidic)” said a woman’s voice. It was Hanan. She hadn’t received my mail either. But, apparently, my “brain-mails” are still coming through, and boy, did that spurn me.
I should have known. I used to get them from someone else all the time in my worst months. I always knew because then strange very much needed things were happening. But my memory is so that it needs actual reminders from time to time, like “not all good people are dead” and they did not forget about me. I’m only human after all…But it’s a little warped, isn’t it, that this kind of steady support, of all places, comes from the country that produced one of his alleged murderers.
You never know. Hang on in there. They are not all the same—and more like yourself than you may think. (or like—I’ ve had that, too…) Please don’ t generalize—and if you do, have it out so you can make up—and make sure none of your people kills any people one of who could be your friend. There is no happy end when you are below zero with who dies because of what, but you can make the best of it, for yourselves and those after you.