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East Beirut, 1978

By
June 1, 2011

An excerpt from a novel

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Photograph via Flickr by mediateletipos

                                                civil war
Imbued with a compelling charm, this country is one of diverse
fanatics                                                                  strategic
beauty. Mountains and sea only minutes apart . . . skyscrapers, deluxe living
                                     gunmen and refugees                                   dying
accommodations for traveler and native; mixed with undisturbed, seasoned
shell-blasted
gardens and farmhouses of another time . . . an enchanting resort area.

 

Mayya capped her pen and flipped to another page.

“Each country has a ‘Finlandia’ of its own,” she read in a whisper, how she’d always read no matter how maddening to others (her mother, her husband, but who cared what he said anymore?), “its particular symphony of sounds. Lebanon’s most beautiful theme is played at dawn.”

Well, this was still true, on average. Most dawns, the murderers on all sides collapsed exhausted into their dark hiding spaces with guns cradled in their laps. The bellowing night was snuffed out, the sky went silent. Then the muezzins across the Green Line croaked out their prayers and the roosters stirred and fluffed and crowed, and all over the city people muttered the day’s reckonings, how many dead, how many wounded, and theories of what might happen next.

Mayya was not a theorist. Her mornings unfolded with the excruciating vagueness of Valium hangovers. She lay on the couch. Her legs felt like sandbags. Her fingers fumbled pages, looking for a new passage to edit. Hélène and Samir’s chatter and cries drifted in and out of her awareness. The children’s unfailing energy tortured her daily: her greatest achievement was inventing things to occupy them in ways that excluded her. Today Hélène and Samir giggled on the balcony in their tent, which was a sheet draped between the clothesline and some chairs. Usually the balcony was off-limits, but they had wanted to play camping so much, and there wasn’t much shooting this morning, just the occasional crak-crak to remind everyone of the night before. The children had slept through the bombs like their father, who snored louder than the rockets. Mayya barely slept at all, despite her pills. Instead, she calculated things. How long until dawn. How much bread was left. How absurd was a particular thing. She had a scale of one to ten. This Portrait of a People coffee-table book with its flowery descriptions (mesmerizing Oriental charm Biblical ass carrying modern man’s fuel, etc., etc.) scored a ten. When her stupid half-brother Omar sent it from America just before the war began, she had barely paid it any attention. Now it filled her with pleasing bitterness. That he’d managed to get his hands on it when it was published here, when she’d not even known about it, was proof of his unsettling, stupid devotion to the motherland. He’d sent the book lavishly wrapped, saying it was gorgeous and evocative. What a fool. He’d underlined a passage: The growth of the Lebanese character is like the whirlpool pattern of the annual growth rings on an old tree trunk newly acquired impressions far removed from the core.

There was a note tucked into the crease of this page; she’d forgotten about it. His tidy minuscule writing proclaimed: That is my problem. I’ve lost my core.

She considered the note, which was dated January 3, 1975, early on during her émigré half-brother’s attack of nostalgia, when he, for the most part a complete stranger, had overwhelmed her with a flood of letters. That he dated a single sentence suggested unbecoming self-importance, and the whining selfishness of which their father complained.

She had taken up randomly editing the book to reflect recent developments, but now was struck by the desire to correct Omar himself. She uncapped her fountain pen, crossed out core and wrote in mind. Then as a footnote: There is no core, as a matter of fact. Lebanon is not even a real country. If you—

“Mami!” Hélène screamed.

Mayya’s pen jolted at the proximity of the voice and a blob of ink flew onto the book page. Her daughter was standing right in front of her in her yellow dress, enraged, tears clouding the huge blue eyes, Fouad’s eyes. Everyone exclaimed about those eyes set in the pretty little white-skinned face, framed in a black bob. As they should. This child was extraordinary. At birth she had been showered with blue beads lest envy snatch her away into death. Even when her little face was twisted up in outrage, she was a beauty.

Mayya squeezed shut her eyes to bring down the curtain on the past, but it lingered. Perhaps it was lack of sleep. Or the Valium.

“Ma-meeeee! Samir won’t play properly,” Hélène cried. “He won’t be my slave!”

“I don’t want to be a slave,” Samir sobbed. He was so small, Mayya had not seen him come up behind his sister. “I want to be a prince.”

“You agreed to be the slave,” Mayya reminded him.

“You agreed, see?”

“I changed my mind!”

“You can’t!

“If you don’t play properly I’m taking down the tent!” Mayya shouted.

Her rage transfixed them. She gripped the edges of the book, staring them down.

“Take turns,” she suggested from between her teeth. “That’s what good children do. They take turns.”

Hélène’s momentary shock transformed into sulkiness. She pushed past her brother, almost knocking him over. He stood there, a little plump puppy paralyzed with concern and misery. Mayya sensed herself coiled on the couch gripping the book like a weapon. She felt the lunacy of her frozen expression in such contrast to his pudgy smallness, the liquid brown eyes full of fear.

“I’m sorry,” she tried. The effort was monumental. She did not feel pity, she recognized distantly; but she knew her role. “Mami is tired. Go play. You can be the prince soon.”

His lips clutched at one another. Then he turned and ran, bare feet slapping the tile floor.

After a moment, Mayya rediscovered the ink blot. She pulled a used clump of Kleenex from her pocket and soaked it up. She stared at her unfinished sentence, recalling only the bright philosophical nature of her remark, the words themselves obliterated by the interruption.

“If you,” she whispered.

If you—

Tears ran down her cheeks. She wept all the time now, she who never wept—You rotten-souled child! her mother Seta accused, herself a weeping whirling maniac with silks and shoes and purses flying about the room: Have you no pity, none at all?

Mayya shuddered. Became aware of herself again like slowly emerging from warm water. This would not do, this constant tripping into the jagged black chasm of years ago. That had been the day great-grandmother Araxi finally expired in her bed and the house reeked of flowers and everyone collapsed in mourning, and Mayya had said in desperation (because no one had brought it up yet) wasn’t it better great-grandmother Araxi had joined the Virgin because this way she (Mayya) could have her own room. Mayya squeezed shut her eyes to bring down the curtain on the past, but it lingered. Perhaps it was lack of sleep. Or the Valium. No matter what, Seta kept rising up in Mayya’s thoughts like a corpse suddenly sitting up in her coffin, that wry tilt of a smile as fresh and acute as if she’d appeared before her.

Well, she hadn’t. She had been gone, let’s see, eleven years.

Gone. Ashes to ashes. Nothing to nothing.

Mayya suddenly remembered, uncapped her pen with trembling urgency.

If you simply accept that you are nothing, then you will be free.

She liked that. It had a Zen ring. If the post offices were open, she might even break her vow to ignore Omar and send it along.

                                                                      *                    *                    *
 
At 12:30 on the dot, Fouad came home for lunch.

Fouad, as Mayya had come to perceive through the lens of war, was an optimist infatuated with routine. If he kept to his routine, order would be restored, an illusion maintained in bizarre complicity by the combatants, who usually eased up in daytime so as to allow the city to limp along in imitation of its formerly mesmerizing Oriental charm. Fouad thus left for work, though there was none to be had—interior decorators were in low demand—and came home every day at 12:30 for his lunch, which Mayya set out by rote of habit though feeding him was an act of masochism. Then he snored through a nap, rose, and went back to the office until six, after which, unless there was a cease-fire, they settled into the corridor on blankets and pillows (or went to the basement, depending on the severity of the fighting) and hoped the rockets hit everyone else but them.

“That’s not what we’re feeling,” Fouad argued when she said this.

But it was: to claim otherwise was myopic. The rockets had to fall somewhere. Hoping to survive implied hoping that death would find someone else.

“Don’t speak like this in front of the children.”

“Why not? They can see reality all around them.”

“This is not reality.”

Another ten on the absurdity scale.

At lunch, Mayya sat opposite her husband as she always had, though she herself could not be bothered to eat. Usually she ignored his talk with studied indifference, which was her new, simplified form of communication. But today there was news: his office in Aayn al-Rummaneh had been hit with a Katyusha.

Mayya was startled into listening, much as she wanted to tune him out. He described how oddly the rocket carried out its destruction, more like a tornado had blown through. Charred papers littering the entire floor to the untouched side of the office, overturned chairs skidded to the opposite wall, drawers wrenched from their snug runners by the tremendous force, their myriad contents scattered all the way to the corners. Farid’s desk had been hit full-on. Mayya thought this was ironic since Farid himself had been hit by a stray bullet a mere week before and was gone; and now his desk.

Fouad mentioned that the painting of Byblos Mayya had made in college was untouched, not even askew.

“So? Are you finally closing?”

Fouad deflected the question by talking about how Jumana, his secretary, had become hysterical when she arrived. Probably because she thought she’d be out of a job, Mayya thought acidly, but Fouad would never think such a thing, or tolerate it being spoken aloud. To his employees he was a wellspring of gentleness and generosity: their salaries had been coming out of his own savings since February.

“You’ll have to close now,” Mayya insisted.

“Why? We simply have a new window courtesy of Syria. When I called down to Ali for coffee, I used it,” he smiled. He lifted his eyebrows impishly, seeking a laugh.

Mayya kept her face still. There was no sense in carrying on this charade of conversing.

Fouad ate in silence for a few minutes, and the silence closed around the topic of the blown-up office and sealed it shut.

Then he started on his usual lunchtime list of political remarks. The baritone droning filled her ears until she thought she might snap and start screaming. He did not notice, or care, just kept unspooling news: “Those bastard Syrians aren’t going to leave. They’ll bomb us all to nothing before they do any such thing. As for the Israelis, well, UNIFIL is hopeless.” He ate slowly, talking, shaping the bread with his thick knobby fingers to scoop up the mishmash of a lunch she’d concocted—hummus, tabbouleh, rice, and beans. He did not complain about her culinary deterioration. His big jaw worked each bite and the bite disappeared down his wide throat darkened by a half-day’s growth.

“    .           ,        .      ,” Fouad continued.

Mayya had learned not to hear the words, just get the gist.

He got briefly animated about President Sarkis. “.  ! .    .     !”

He spoke with feeling about Beshir Gemayel. “. . . .(sigh) …     …      .”

He had gotten portly. In their youth—less than ten years before, she reminded herself—he had been big, but in a sexy-meaty sort of way. My big Maronite farmer, she’d called him, after he joked about the men in his family having worked the mountains of Lebanon for centuries. Now the bigness was altered. He was expanding, puffing over his belt and shirt collar like an overcooked cake. It astonished her that she had once found him handsome, and that the French cow he was now fucking could have any interest in him at all.

“                                 ,” Fouad expounded, chewing. “     ?          . . . .”

Mayya wondered if he also bored the cow with his endless political discourses. Of course, from what she’d heard on the rumor mill, the bitch worked for the U.N. so she probably delivered speeches of her own. She was French with a big nose: Mayya suspected the nose had been enlarged for her sake, to give her something to claw and snarl at in the ineffectual privacy of her hatred.

Could Mayya expect nothing from the mistress, not even a minuscule amount of help?

There was a brief infiltration of her mind’s blockade: “. . . can’t help but wonder if Raymond ‘Eddé had been elected. . .”

What did any of it matter? Fouad’s need to talk politics in this pompous, erudite manner was perplexing. It seemed to her that such discourse had no effect other than to stir the air in the room. If Fouad were actually involved like the rest of the men in his family, well then. He would be in the know, his words would carry weight. As it was, his words meant nothing.

(Not that she wanted him to fight: see what had happened to his cousin Michel, blown to bits, and for what. But did the alternative have to be these endless monologues?)

She detected in his tone a gradual winding down, and allowed the speech to plod into her ears once again.

“. . . and the Sunnis hate the Maronites, and the Maronites hate the Druze, and the Druze hate the Syrians, et cetera. The only thing everyone agrees on is hating the Shia. Their dispossession is not to be trifled with. I predict they will become a force to contend with. So, what did you do this morning?” he inquired.

He was not actually curious, and she had nothing to offer.

He pushed back his chair, leaving the mess for her, and went to the balcony to dote on the children before his nap. They had earlier run in only for a moment to greet him before dashing back out. They squealed delightedly when he stepped through the shutters. He filled the doorway: he was shaped like a fat jug against the harsh sunlight.

All right. That was unfair. But he had definitely put on weight while she lost kilo after kilo, as if to emphasize the chasm between them. Why didn’t the French cow get him under control? Could Mayya expect nothing from the mistress, not even a minuscule amount of help?

Be civilized about it, he had said, when she first sniffed the stranger’s scent, found the white lace glove in his pocket. What did you expect?

Hélène, who had secured the position of princess from her fundamentally sweet-natured pushover of a brother, greeted her visitor with regal pomp, inviting him to sit on a cushion. Samir peeked up with docile envy, crouched like a turtle at her feet. Fouad huffed and puffed his bulk into a cross-legged position and accepted an invisible sweet from the tray Hélène ceremoniously placed on Samir’s back. Mayya heard his low jocular voice ask a question, but could not make out the words. Samir giggled and the tray tilted precariously. Fouad smiled, and his face momentarily, startlingly, transformed into the one she had once adored—the brilliant teeth, the blue eyes crinkled at the corners.

She wondered what it felt like to sit in the tent, in the hot shade.

She piled the dishes in the sink and lit a cigarette. Could she legitimately have a Valium yet? Usually she waited until four. She supposed she could wait. The children’s squeals carried from the balcony down the long corridor to the kitchen where she stood, blowing out thick streams of smoke, a habit acquired long ago from Seta who had smoked, a poet admirer had infamously extolled, like a dragon. Mayya wondered what her dragon of a mother would do with such a husband. But he would not have done this to her to begin with, she corrected. Or else he’d be obliterated in her roaring fire. Mayya had no fire. Little Miss Proper, Seta had called her. If she’d had any sort of wildness in her, that moniker tamped it out, leaving her with a poor arsenal of weapons, the only one of note being an acid tongue freshly coated every day by a bubbling wellspring of bitterness.

Mayya was aware of herself utterly: self, the self that was her, the Mayya-woman in the jeans and T-shirt and sneakers and long black hair that the husband once upon a time likened to oil (he was not a poet). The self existed independently, in a way, in that she was so acutely conscious of it, so the self was almost a separate thing with its own mass, taking shape now and then in the corner of her mind, and thus she had taken to addressing it.

“Self,” she queried, “should we just kill him and be done?”

She smoked, exhaling through her nose like a dragon.

Fouad barreled into the kitchen in a state of anxiety. “Hélène scraped her knee,” he explained, rummaging in the drawer for Mercurochrome and Band-Aids. “Do you think I should put Sulfa?” he asked, holding up the options for her to see.

“How deep?”

“Not so deep.”

“Then no.”

He put the Sulfa back. He had these chats with her to establish a façade of normalcy. It was becoming pathetic, really: he knew that she knew that he knew Sulfa wasn’t necessary. He closed the drawer. “I’ll be having my nap after this.”

“Sweet dreams.”

There was no symbolism in [the plants] being left to die. It was merely the outcome of there being no water to waste.

Fouad muttered curses and left, carrying himself with the wounded, frustrated air of someone wronged. He thought she was stupid, Mayya decided. The affair wasn’t over, there was no possible truth to his claim. Even if he obligingly addressed her only in Arabic or English now, as she’d requested, the sound of French in his mouth become so vile, this bending to her rage was just part of the sham. Why would he end it? It wasn’t as if he had something good going on at home.

She stubbed out her cigarette on the dirty dishes.

A short time passed, then she heard Fouad’s slippers come down the corridor, the click of the door closing. There was a small high window in Fouad’s bedroom that gave onto the kitchen balcony. She’d taken to listening from there, in case he got on the phone in the rare instance there was a line. She crept past the shutters through the dead potted plants that dated to an earlier time of romance and flowers. There was no symbolism in their being left to die. It was merely the outcome of there being no water to waste.

She balanced on the overturned crate with her hands pressed against the stucco walls. The feel of the rough surface digging into her palms was not unpleasant. A pigeon murmured above, its claws ticking the corrugated tin overhang their genius concierge had devised after a shell smashed a hole in the wall. Every rainstorm was like being shot in the brain with a pellet gun, but Mayya did not have to endure that anymore, having migrated across the apartment to the laundry room where she had a cot and a bedside table and a pile of clothes. Fouad did not complain. He never complained. He endured the war and its associated discomforts, such as one of his architects being shot to death, such as a destroyed office, such as a destroyed wife, with the stoic calm that had caused her to fall in love with him, but now ignited amazement and hatred.

She craned, listening, pressed against the wall. Nothing.

Mayya let go her stiffened muscles and leaned her cheek on the stucco. The pigeon clucked. In the distance, gunfire crackled briefly, and a portion of her mind registered the children’s sudden silence, then they resumed their noise, which was probably driving Monsieur Nahhas crazy downstairs. Good. Mayya stepped heavily off the crate. A movement caught her eye: that cheeky Filipina maid across the street on the fourth floor, looking up sideways with a smirk. Mayya glared. The maid executed one more sweep of her broom, the gesture laden with mockery, then went back inside with a flick of her pink uniform, her long black braid swinging.

G

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Patricia Sarrafian Ward is the author of The Bullet Collection (Graywolf Press, 2003). Her writing has been published in a variety of journals and anthologies, including The Literary Review, Epoch, Mizna, and Banipal Magazine. Also a book artist, Ward’s one-of-a-kind miniature books have appeared in several shows. Her installation Re/Vision will be on view at the Center For Book Arts in New York City next spring. She is a member of the collective project An Inventory of al-Mutanabbi Street.

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