I parked the car and killed the ignition. It’s 10 till 6 in the pm, class starts at 6. I needed to get the kids to stop yapping, get out of the car, to not forget to take their bags, walk all the way across the parc into the gym, out of their clothes and into their kimonos, before 6. Ten minutes is plenty! Time has a comfy mellow paced flow here, as opposed to whizzing by in a loud confusing haze back in Paris. I glanced in the rear view mirror “Grab your bags and let’s go, yalla”. My boys, 6 and 9 years old, each got their stuff and we all headed towards the gymnasium. I ushered them into their judo class, and went to sit in my usual spot on the side bench of the room and let my mind wander, knowing I had a solid two hours of regal ennui.
It’s an immense gymnasium turned dojo, with an excessively high ceiling. The walls don’t go up to the ceiling, so the room is like a huge crate inside an even bigger box. I found myself thinking how uneasy I was being in that room. Perhaps it’s the uncomfortable wooden bench who is just wide enough to fit the curve of your buttocks onto, but no thigh, and then it’s just far enough from the wall behind it so you can’t put your back up against it without dangling your rear-end in the space between the bench and the wall and arching your back to keep from falling. Perhaps it’s the vastness of it, the practical, multi-purpose side that makes it all very impersonal. Because that’s what it is, a space meant to be used for contact sports by several clubs. These walls smell of sweat and tears, of fear and anger. The sensei came up to ask if I was interested in buying pictures of the kids in combat. I forced my brains back into manual mode to make my head nod — sure, yes, whatever. I hate these dirty, unloved walls, with their dust laden surface.
My mind was wandering again, I realised that I was back in the underground level, the malja’, of our building in Beer Hassan, Beirut. Many buildings had underground storage-turned-bunkers ready for use when people wanted to hide in the war. It was one criteria you would check out when you wanted to buy an apartment in Beirut in the 80’s. Here was the last level in the unofficial but well established three stage plan to duck for cover when the fighting broke out, the level after that would be to flee your home, or, well, die in its rubble. But people don’t just flee their homes in a war, many preferring to sit “this one” out, as if each clash was the last one. War isn’t a constant, it was often interrupted by forced normalcy. The 1st level of duck and cover, was to avoid being near any glass windows, those can break easily sending shards hazardously into the room, so you would want to have at least a wall between you and any glass pane, the corridors were the best option. If the fighting intensified, you would need to add further walls, usually the stairwell was a good option. We would all gather on the stairs, and sit out the fighting, for hours at a time. The third stage is the underground malja’, refuge in Arabic. These were built originally for multi-purpose storage, like this big stadium. They are large open spaces with dirty impersonal walls, unloved and dusty. I hate being within these walls.
No one knows how many ceasefires were declared in Beirut in the fifteen years the war plowed on. My dad would believe each one, the ever optimistic. “The war is over I tell you, the country is humming with work” (forced normalcy), he would say with that endearing smile of his that my elder son inherited. You can believe anything he says when he smiles that way, his eyes turning into 2 crescent-moons laying horizontally on each side of his extraordinary nose. My mom would joke that he can modify plane routes with that nose. War or not, my papa never stopped working. When he couldn’t do be in his office, he would volunteer to distribute food or plan a city wide cleaning operation. Drive an ambulance, or knit wool sweaters for the wretched, the poor Lebanese and Palestinians living in slums. He learned to knit helping his aging mom, attained with diabetes hindering her eyesight.
Ironically, as kids, we don’t dwell on the fear and dread and remember these times as happy times. Imagine that. We got to eat nothing but bread, Smeds “cheese” and Zwan “meat” that never go bad. But most importantly, bien sur, we got to skip school. We didn’t fret about food, the adults provided. We didn’t need to be constantly informed of all the military factions and their positioning to calculate the probability of being safe, the adults provided. We weren’t worried about the future, about the country or even about other people. Nothing will happen to us, our adults provided. It’s only when you get older and think back, you start to understand the moods your parents were in. We slept in the underground storage rooms, caves they call them here in France, with the cockroaches and the rats. I remember, even under the bombing, you still needed to pee, war or not. You would need to make that perilous journey back to your house to go to the toilet. Those were scary excursions, adults couldn’t take a dump in your place. My dad refused to sleep there, in the malja’. He insisted on sleeping in his bed, as if taking a stand for himself that no one will make him leave his home. Until one day a shrapnel came in his room, and pierced the mattress where my mom would have slept.
We were lucky, we had the option to flee. First, to my grandparents’ house in the North and later on, to Canada. If you flee, however, what’s to guarantee when you can come back, if ever? So when we fled, my dad would come with just to get us where we were going and go back to our home in Beer Hassan and his office in Msaitbeh, even to Canada. My parents had watched the Palestinians being dispossessed, experience taught them. When Israel bulldozed its way up to Beirut in 82 from the south, my parents were living in Beer Hassan just outside Beirut. My dad was adamant, we stay put, taking a stand for everyone. Until he witnessed the distress of his daughter caused by the clusterfuck of bombing. As the planes flew across the sky, purposefully breaking the sound barrier recurrently and unabashedly throwing bombs on a dense city, with the tanks on the ground destroying gleefully anything and everything they came across, I would raise my head from the pillow with a terrified expression on my face and drop it back on the pillow. Without waking up. I was 2 years old. He watched me do that all night. They decided to flee, but instead of to the north, far from the invading destruction, they went into the already occupied territory south of Beirut, B’aqlin,. The logic? If the land was to be annexed, they would be part of the “new” country and will probably still have access to Beirut and the land “outside”. Like the Palestinians of the “inside”. Experience is the best teacher.
But this was before, where you could hide from bombing. In 2006, no wall was going to protect you from Israeli shelling. A single bomb would reduce a 10 story building to rubble. In the summer of 2006, we fled out of our house, while we had friends that fled into our house. Yes, they brought their families from the south of Lebanon into our house because it was safe. Well, safer. While we fled, because it wasn’t safe. We lived a stone’s throw away from Dahieh. The famous Israeli target, the area that they coined a specific war strategy for: the Dahieh Doctrine in 2006. A few days, I was trying to arrange for them and other friends from Dahieh to flee up north, but they never came. They couldn’t escape. There was no break of normalcy.
I allowed my brain to wander further still into the past, going full auto-pilot mode. I wanted to see, almost two decades after, what I will find inside me that I never dusted off before. I never felt I wanted to share war stories with people who haven’t gone through the same thing. There would be so much explaining to do. Heck, there would be a lot of explaining and probably arguing to do with those who did live through it.
It was 1996, I think, I confuse it with 2006. My mom appeared in the haze that has enveloped me and made me forget I’m sitting on a thin hard wood bench far from the wall. My tall, perpetually tanned and toned, well spoken, with a larger than life personality of a mom. She is all I ever want to be. And all she wants is for me to be much more than she ever was or is. She had her back to me, calmly taking out essential documents and stacking them neatly in a travel bag, passports, school carnets and jewellery. She was talking to me, her voice stern and calm: “You’re thinking of heading out like that? Go get dressed, wear clean underwear and make sure your legs are clean shaven”. The hind thought being, I knew, if we need to go to a hospital urgently, we’d be presentable, “clean”. I had gone into complete panic, but with her words I calmed right the fuck down. I felt like I watched her an eternity, but it was probably a minute and went on to do what she said, albeit with trembling hands. I did not pack anything. My mom then proceeded to empty the fridge, distributing the food that was there. She then shut down the water and electric supply, and then we fled.
Ten minutes before, I had woken up to a beautiful summer morning and was flipping channels on TV, this was going to be another lazy beach day. Must catch up with my mom’s tan. I hear a loud banging noise, from the street. I go to the balcony to tell our concierge to go easy on the garbage bins, he’s making a huge racket. Nothing. There was no one there, no Mohammad no Hakime no garbage bins. The street was eerily empty. The panic started right then, I knew what the other possibility was. Without a thought, I looked up, blue sky. I turned and walked back inside and dreaded what I know will happen next: all the channels had switched to “breaking news”. I didn’t need to hear the news, I knew what it was. Israel was in our skies, but not just breaking sound barriers for fun like it has been doing throughout my entire life, this time it was throwing bombs, again. And again. And again.
I shook. Someone had just sat down on that damned wooden bench. I slowly came to, relieved to be here, within these dirty walls.