Online Only – An excerpt from The Birds of Holiday Inn
The Habibs, Fourth Floor
The Habib family moved to the Ayyub building, which in our neighbourhood we called al-mabroomeh, the round one, during the first weeks of the war. They fled from their home in the building owned by Maurice Habib behind the cinema of Ain Rummaneh, after it was bombed by tanks from Chiyah and burned to the ground. They escaped a sure death because they had been sleeping in the cinema, which by virtue of being underground had become the neighbourhood bomb shelter. When they got out of the car with a burned-off roof, they looked like new arrivals from hell, and were followed by a pick-up truck with all their belongings. They were among the neighbourhood’s first refugees. They rented a flat on the fourth floor. Three bedrooms, two living rooms and a dining room with rear windows overlooking the Beirut river and the Dawra bay. When bombs fell on the neighbourhood, they blocked out the windows with concrete blocks and sandbags, fearing shrapnel. It darkened the apartment, but the radiant white faces of Michel Habib’s three blonde daughters soon lit it up. In the first months of the war, they mesmerized the neighbourhood with the sensuous way they moved, their high-pitched chatter and their daring glances. Then their only brother, the family’s little prince, disappeared and they all fell silent.
The Abeds, Sixth Floor
‘The round one’, whose flats enclosed most of the characters in this novel, was initially called the Abed building, having been built by the Abed family, who had left for Mexico in the waves of Lebanese migration of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. Some members of the family returned to Beirut after making their fortunes, and in 1933, one of the returnees bequeathed the Beirut municipality with the famous stone clock tower that now stands in Parliament Square (Nejmeh Square) and is now known as Parliament Clock, but which most people then called the Abed Clock. His relative, who had built a tall, round building in the upscale Achrafieh neighbourhood at the top of a street so steep it scared the elderly, applied for a license to build the apartment block before the municipality had even built the street. At that time, in the 1940s, the area had few houses – which he liked – and wide-open spaces planted with mulberries, figs, olives and sycamores in terraced fields that descended down to the Beirut river street and the French military hospital. One of those who returned, Ayyub al-Abed, also built the grain mills that powdered the neighbourhood with dust and fame over the years. But the neighbourhood’s real notoriety only began after the start of the civil war when, after the spread of massacres and sectarian population cleansing, refugees thronged to it from other neighbourhoods across the city as well as from the south, the north, the mountains and the Bekaa. In a few months, the orchards and trees were buried under encroaching piles of concrete and tin. These shanty houses surrounded the European-style building whose beautiful old walls were crumbling away with time. As the noise rose, alongside chicken feathers and the smell of sardines, the residents left for newer buildings in posher areas. Its balconies became faded like worn clothing. The green paint flaked off the shutters. Mats, piled with fish and vegetables, invaded its sidewalk. Its old owner, who had been awarded the digging contract in the Panamanian city of Colón during the construction of the canal, left Lebanon at the beginning of the war, never to return. He was almost blind, but his hearing was powerful, and he loathed the fact that his building was called the Abed Building, since he’d always despised the word’s pejorative connotation with slavery [Tr: Abed is Arabic for slave]. He ordered that the stone plaque hanging in the entrance over the black iron gate should say “Ayyub Building”. Dirt encrusted the letters on the plaque. The vegetable and fish vendors started to describe the building as ‘the round one’, and the street that wound steeply through the clumps of houses became known as ‘the round one’s slope’, though the oldest residents in the neighbourhood continued to call it the Ayyub Building, and the blind emigrant’s name remained stuck on the building in the heart of the crowded, popular neighbourhood.
The Thabets and Shararas, First Floor
I arrive at the door of the plumber-caretaker’s home, picturing her face. The entire building knows, but what will we tell the man, her husband? If I run across her in the quiet entrance darkened by the barricade that now blocks the doorway, I will avoid looking at her face, that is coloured with bruises, black and blue. She says she fell. Or the door slammed into her face by accident. I don’t know why she explains, I never ask. I run up the stairs two at a time to the first floor. On the left, over the buzzer, is written in English letters, “Thabet and Sharara”, but the Sharara has been blacked out with ink. Lydia hasn’t changed the paper over the buzzer, but she has erased – or tried to erase – her husband in black ink. Since the kidnappings began, Muslims have disappeared from the building: they fled East Beirut for West Beirut, or abroad. Suleiman Sharara, a Shi’ite from Bint Jbeil in the south was the last to go, and we were all astonished when he disappeared, leaving Lydia alone with her stroke-struck mother.
Lydia said they had split amicably, and that the lawyer was handling all the divorce papers. The tenants were sorry, because Mr Suleiman had taught a number of their children Maths at the Sioufi School, and was generally beloved, never having caused trouble for anyone. (“Damn this war and this situation!”) He was a tall, broad-shouldered, heavyset man, but he trod lightly on the stairs, always with a smile on his face and a warm greeting on his lips. When he took off his glasses to clean their thick lenses, his sunken eyes made his face look extremely fragile, as if it could shatter with the first gust of wind. He sometimes taught Geography, and the children in the building learned the world’s capitals (Sudan: Khartoum, Belgium: Brussels, USSR: Moscow, Italy: Rome, Guatemala: Guatemala) and memorized country borders across the five continents in exchange for sweets from his pocket. He had married in a civil ceremony in Nicosia, Cyprus, then moved with his wife into her parents’ apartment, before leaving it to the constant stench of disinfectants, medicines and the stroke victim mother. The big catastrophe had hit the building that hung over the round one’s slope. Lydia’s martyred brothers – like their father – used to hang their military fatigues out the windows to dry. Their khaki trousers would flutter over the heads of those entering the houses; but then, the trousers disappeared, and so did the laughter that used to come from that window. First, the father (Aziz Thabet, 57) died. He had been a sergeant in the Lebanese army, and they found his body in Bourat al-Tiyyan, on the river road, with one bullet to the temple and a stab wound in his hand. After that, the three brothers (Moussa Aziz Thabet, 26; Elie Aziz Thabet, 24; and Tony Aziz Thabet, 19), all fighters, died within a month of each other on different fronts. One funeral followed the other, one wake after the other, and the Shi’ite son-in-law Mr Suleiman Sharara (33) stood as still as a statue near his beautiful pale wife, supporting her with the strength of prophets as he accepted condolences.
“It’s best if you go to your people, Suleiman,” a friend high up in the ranks of the Phalangist party told him every time he went over to their apartment for dinner and stretched tipsily on the old yellow sofa. “The situation in East Beirut is unbearable. We can’t protect you from thugs when all the neighbourhood knows you’re a stranger.”
“Me, a stranger?”
“Suleiman, you’re part of the family, like a brother. You know how much we treasure you, but what can we do? The country is like this now and whoever’s going to stop you at a checkpoint is not even going to read your name. Just the religious sect: Shi’ite. And boom, boom. Do you want Lydia to be a widow? Take her and leave East Beirut. The school’s shut anyway. I’ll drive you to the crossing in my car.”
The Mouranis, Seventh Floor
My uncle’s wife drove me to the building. “Here we are.” She turned off the wipers, willing me to believe the rain was just an insignificant drizzle. Like me, she was in mourning black, but I noticed the bright red nail polish on her toenails. Had my uncle seen it as they drank their morning coffee? Whether he had or not, what did I care? They were abandoning me, forever. I was not of them, nor was I connected to them any more. My mother was dead and I no longer had anyone. “Seventh floor,” my uncle’s wife said, “I’m not sure which flat it is exactly, but the name’s on the bell, and he knows you’re coming. He won’t be down to carry your bags, we’re here earlier than expected. Do you want help?” she offered, as I wrapped my black scarf around my neck, but her hands didn’t leave the steering wheel nor did she turn the engine off. The cars around us began to honk – we were partially blocking the narrow street. I didn’t know he lived in a place like this. “Trunk’s open.” She gave me an elegant goodbye kiss on my cheek. She smelled of perfume and face cream, “Call us at the weekend, and we’ll come and take you out to a restaurant for lunch. If the roads are open.” I moved quickly to avoid getting wet. I dragged a first, then a second, suitcase out onto the pavement. But as I lifted the last one, the smallest and lightest, from the trunk, my scarf snagged on something. It’s always like this. When I finally extricated myself and stood at last between the two large suitcases, the third slung over my shoulder by its strap, my cheeks were red, my clothes were soaked, and my black corduroy trousers clung heavily and wetly to my skin. She smiled and waved, and I felt embarrassed as I raised my hand. I carried the big suitcases in, weaving my way through the sandbags, lined up like another wall, in the entrance. As soon as I stepped inside, the street noises and the patter of rain on the tin roofs disappeared. I thanked God when I saw the light: the electricity wasn’t cut off! The entrance was old and wide, its ceiling high. With a violent thud in my heart, I realized it reminded me of the Union building near Sanayeh Garden where my mother worked. There weren’t any lion statues flanking the entrance to this building, but the smell was similar. And so was the silence. I finally found the lift in a dark corner, a frightening wood and metal contraption that looked like an antique. On a piece of dingy cardboard tied to its metal crosshatch I read “Lift is broken”.
We had used these suitcases whenever my mother had to travel for work. I remember the times we’d struggled under their weight at airports. I remember my mum’s laughter as I disappeared under toppling suitcases. I liked to take all my books with me when we travelled. And whatever toys she’d let me bring, too. I was young. This time, I’m on my own in a place without luggage trolleys or a lift. When I reached the third – or fourth? – floor, I sat on the suitcase to rest. Was he on the seventh or eighth floor? Where should I begin counting? From the ground floor . . . the entrance? Or is that counted as level zero? Why didn’t they just number the floors? I got up and continued climbing. My fingers burned with pain. I remembered my uncle had said “the top floor”. But I still checked the names on the doorbells of the fifth and sixth floors (I eventually discovered that it was the sixth floor). I was puzzled by the foreign name “Heineken” there, and continued to climb. I found a great number of doors: five! But without looking, I knew which apartment he was in: the door was ajar, and smoke and the scent of frying potatoes wafted out.
The name on the door was “André Mourani”. I had never thought that I would one day be standing like this, in a place completely alien to me, and read his name spelled this way, in red ink on a doorbell label with a broken glass cover. I was too scared to stretch my hand out and touch the buzzer. I was also too scared to knock. I don’t know how long I stood there, listening to him moving about inside, making sure he was alone as I listened to the song playing on his radio. Asmahan, or Laila Murad or Umm Kulthoum, I knew the singers’ names but I couldn’t tell them apart. My shoulder hurt and I thought it might have been dislocated by the heavy bag; as usual, I blamed my mother and her gift, which far outweighed any other book I had, Darwin’s Origin of Species. I’ve never been able to finish it! She would always laugh when I found myself without any novels to read, having finished all my bought and borrowed books, and she’d say: “You’ve got Darwin! Don’t complain that you have nothing to read!” I would shout back: “Darwin isn’t a story! The theory of development and evolution isn’t for reading. This is a book for torturing children!” She would laugh until I asked her to stop because too much laughing always gave her hiccups. That would make her laugh, too. Often, she would laugh at something silly I’d said as if I’d just said the funniest thing the world had ever known. My mother. “André Mourani.” My finger touched the buzzer, but I didn’t press it. I felt my mother behind me, saying “Laura”. Her voice never left my ear. At night, I would wake up crying, searching for her in the house. I heard her voice calling to me, but I never found her. Most people call me Lulu, a nickname that had stuck so enduringly since childhood it had almost replaced my real name. But my mother liked to call me Laura. On the front page of the Darwin book, which she had bought me so I would read something besides the picture books, novels and puzzles that I devoured so avidly, she wrote a dedication in her minuscule, childish hand: “My darling daughter Laura, I will never be able to tell you how much I love you.” I cry, and see her in front of me, stretching her hand out to wipe my tears. I stood there until the song on the radio ended and still did not press the buzzer. I heard movement, someone approaching the door. Only then did I ring the bell.
He was neither what I imagined nor what I remembered. I hadn’t seen my father in almost nine years. He was no longer slim, and his face had changed, as if it had swelled. But there was another thing that made his face strange. I couldn’t pin it down until after I had sat down at the table, facing him, as he placed food on it: he’d shaved his moustache off! He asked me why I’d carried the suitcases up by myself. He asked me why we hadn’t honked for him to come down. He asked me where my uncle was. I explained it had been his wife who’d dropped me off, and told him the suitcases weren’t that heavy. He looked at me as if I were from another planet – or as if I thought he was from another planet. His hands were sweaty when he shook mine. As he moved things from the fridge to the table, I noticed he was like me, and bumped into things a lot. He wore a pair of new jeans and a green sweater. He wore shoes. I wondered why anyone would wear shoes at home. From a blackened deep fryer he took out another plate of french fries with burned edges. I thanked God I was seated at the other end of the table, away from the stove. He asked me if I still liked fried, breaded chicken with french fries and ketchup and coleslaw. I shook my head, not knowing how to answer. I wasn’t hungry, even though that morning, at my uncle’s house in Jounieh, I hadn’t touched my breakfast: they had brought me my favourite croissants, hot from the bakery (cheese, zaatar, chocolate, jam, and plain) but I found the festive atmosphere vulgar and tacky, in poor taste. I worried that I would burst into tears in front of my young cousins. The table shook and I saw him placing a square piece of wood underneath one of its legs to steady it. His body moved near me as he leaned over to fix it, and when he got up, muttering something I couldn’t make out, I breathed again. On that square piece of wood by my black knee-high boots I saw the picture of a duck and the circular rim left by a glass. I heard the rain over my head, on the roof. I looked at the fryer and the plate of french fries, and felt exhausted. I wanted to sleep. But not here. I wanted to sleep in my mother’s lap.
The Thabets and Shararas, Part 2, First Floor
The sun was shining in a cold blue sky that had emerged after a drenched night. On her way back from Hotel Dieu Hospital, Lydia was forced to stop in Sassine Square. Military jeeps blocked the street, which was empty save for a small yellow Renault whose windows had been smashed, shards of glass lying on the ground sparkling like diamonds. From the slogans on the jeeps, she knew that they were a cocktail of Phalangists and Numur (the Free Tigers, the rightist Christian party loyal to Camille Chamoun). She hadn’t heard any gunshots, which meant that they hadn’t clashed with each other. That occasionally happened, and when it did the radio stations called it “war in the same trench”, and the people on the street called it hooliganism. She wasn’t tense, but when she heard the sharp scream, she froze. His clothes were ripped and his blood was leaving a trail in his wake. She heard him scream again. She did not know why the old woman who sold lotto tickets and chewing gum approached her window. She had to crank down her window to hear her: “That’s a stupid Muslim; the poor thing lives at the bottom of the street near the Zahrat al-Ihsan school. This summer, he took his family and fled to West Beirut. He came back today because he’d forgotten a couple of things. And we caught him.” One of the armed men, green-jacketed and shaggy-haired, approached. At first, she couldn’t identify him, but then she recognised his voice. It was Kamil Saliba, a family friend and her martyred brother Musa’s best friend. He was in charge of Phalangist security, and before the Karantina and slaughterhouse massacres, he had warned Suleiman, telling him to leave for West Beirut. “The situation in East Beirut is unbearable, and we can’t protect you any more.” He leaned over, moving the Kalashnikov on his shoulder behind his back. She cranked the window down fully, but he spoke to her out of the side of his mouth, so she didn’t reel from his breath. He was sick, his nose as red and swollen as a carrot, and his eyes barely open. He asked how her mother was, and she told him she was better, in a wheelchair, but able to move the top half of her body and push the wheels and move around the house. He asked about her legs, would she be able to walk again? She didn’t say “With a stroke, you’re forever broke”, the way the other nurses, her co-workers, did. She just kept silent. She heard another scream from behind the jeeps, a moan that unexpectedly turned into a squeal. She raised a shaken face to him and asked him whether she could pass and go home. “Hold on a moment until we move the cars,” and he turned around and walked away. She saw red leaves fall onto him, which he brushed off, cursing the wind. Her face was troubled now, and he turned around suddenly, looking extremely uncomfortable as he asked her whether she heard from Mr Suleiman, and whether he was doing well there, in West Beirut. She pushed herself into her seat until she could feel the springs on her back. She looked like she’d been stabbed. The words came out on their own, saving her from an awkward situation: “The last I heard of him was through a lawyer two months ago. He was living with acquaintances in Hamra.” She didn’t say his name. She said: “He was living with acquaintances in Hamra,” and averted her eyes, once again looking at the jeeps parked crossways in the street, doors ajar, shaking in the strong wind.
Furn al-Saydeh was open and baking, and people crowded on the pavement to buy bread. She saw an old man carrying two bags of bread being hassled by someone who was demanding to buy the second bag off him. A line of customers blocked the road, and her car horn didn’t budge them. They finally moved, and she stepped on the gas pedal. She did not stop to join the queue. She drove by the supermarket, and didn’t stop there either. The petrol station was closed, signs were hanging from the pumps and birds chirped from the sycamore tree on the side of the street. Hayy al-Abed woke up to birdsong. She shut the car door and returned the grocer’s greetings as she walked quickly towards the round one. She was afraid and trembling, and the sounds that assaulted her from the shops and the street vendors seemed vicious, murderous, even though they were merely wishing her a good morning. Before reaching the round one, she noticed – although she didn’t want to – that the posters on the walls had multiplied: her three dead brothers’ eyes stared at her from beneath the Phalangist cedar, asking her what she was afraid of, what was going on. The wind blew sand into her eyes as she wended her way through the stacks of sandbags in the entrance. In the familiar darkness inside, she saw the caretaker mopping the floor. The women exchanged morning greetings, and the caretaker asked her if she had passed the bakery. Without stopping, Lydia told her that it was open and had bread, as she stepped around the edges of the wet floor and onto the stairs. The caretaker didn’t leave her be, though, and rushed behind her, gripping the mop handle as she concernedly asked whether she was all right, and whether she needed any help. She was always so nice to her, self-effacingly so, and Lydia usually tried to avoid her as much as possible. She turned around from the top of the landing, looking down, and said: “I’m late for my mother.”
She left her standing there, wanting to say something, and as usual stumbling over her words, unable to. Before she reached the door, the key was already in her hand, beating her to the lock. She quickly opened the door and squeezed through it sideways, as she had begun to do lately. Then she shut it swiftly behind her, drawing the bolt. Her breath was squeezed into her chest, and despite the cold, she noticed the smell of sweat. Her shirt was sticking to her back and was so wet she could wring it. She put the keys on the tabletop and walked into the sitting room without turning the light on. The house was dark because the shutters were always closed. Even the windows that weren’t dangerous, the ones protected by sandbag barricades, were sealed shut. Lydia would only open them on rare occasions, if she really needed to let sunshine and air in. She found her mother asleep on the sofa, the red transistor radio crackling at her side. She did not go to turn it off, even though the batteries seemed about to die. She looked at the corridor and the bedroom doors, and heard the rumble of the fridge in the kitchen. Without making a sound, she went to the bathroom and changed out of her wet clothes. She washed quickly. She was crying. She wiped her tears, and washed and dried her face. Silently, she pushed open the door of the nearby bedroom, listening for his familiar breathing. He wasn’t asleep. Suleiman had just woken up, and had put his hands behind his head, expectantly.
The Khourys, Part 2, Third Floor
“The worst thing that happened to me? Of course I know what it is. Of course I can tell you about it. Why wouldn’t I be able to, am I retarded? Do I look like a mute? Who would I be afraid of? What more could possibly happen? All those massacres have emptied Achrafieh of Muslims, but we still find one here and there. Charles, my brother Charles, was killed like that. I won’t talk about him. You’ve got nothing to do with him. Don’t ask me. Three people founded our movement: Kamel Haddad, who was very close to Sheikh Pierre, but wasn’t a member of the Phalangists. My brother Charles, who was on the same school volleyball team as Sheikh Bashir – they did weapons training at the Bsharre camp at the same time. And Maurice Naim, who left the Phalangists, unable to bear the insult of Sheikh Amin slapping him in front of everyone. The newspapers didn’t write about our movement until after the invasion of Tel al-Zaatar camp, but we go back further than that; 350 of us fell as martyrs alongside the Lebanese Forces. We used to send press releases to the papers, but they were never published because we were an independent front that refused partition and demanded a unified Lebanon for all its children, free from Palestinian, and every other kind of rule. We used to condemn sectarianism and sectarian cleansing. Kamel Haddad wrote that in magazines. After that, there was a schism and our movement was split into two. I, like my brother Charles, was against killing Muslims in principle, but for it if military tactics required it. For the sake of the Lebanese cause, we did some things we didn’t want to do. I can prove that we weren’t sectarian: my brother Charles’s girlfriend was Muslim, her father Druze and her mother Shi’ite, and they lived in Ain Mreisseh, near the American University. My crazy brother Charles kept going there throughout the war, crossing the checkpoints with a bunch of fake IDs. He would shave his beard off, put on a white suit, like a bridegroom, and set off. I’m not saying “crazy” to diminish his courage – quite the opposite, in fact.
After the schism, we began to fight in the souqs downtown. Charles and I were in Allenby, in between Allenby and Foch, right underneath Weygand Street, where the municipal building is. It wasn’t a stable front, but we found ourselves there after the Palestinians and their allies from the Western front and Hotel district made considerable headway into our territory. They were armed with heavy artillery and were trying to reach the port. They were many, and their supply lines were plentiful by land, sea and air (the airport was in their area), while we only got ammo by ship. But Sheikh Pierre and President Chamoun managed to secure support lines. Were it not for the supplies, I think, East Beirut would have fallen and the Christians would have been exterminated. Kamal Jumblatt told President Assad when he visited him in Damascus: “We want to get rid of them”. President Assad announced as much in his famous speech when the Syrian army entered Lebanon. Charles used to say that if he could get in the same room with Kamal Jumblatt, he could convince him to end the war. He liked him and called him “the master”, irritating comrades who couldn’t stand to hear his name mentioned. He would say the man was neither a follower nor a servant, that ‘Lebanese’ was written on his ID card the same way it was written on ours, that the Druze and the Christians got along in his region, and that we were alike, so we could get along too. During the battle of the souqs, we would sometimes squat and sleep in the ruins of Parliament, or in the Omari Mosque where it was cooler inside. We washed in the fountain as the bullets rang out over the domes of St Elias and St Geryes. They bombarded us with mortars once, and Charles was wounded in the ankle, and never walked right afterwards. But he didn’t change much, besides that slight limp. He kept on fighting in the burnt-out downtown, and he kept on crossing the frontline to go and see his girlfriend, using the alias Mahmoud Hammoud or Mohammad Haidar, I can’t remember which. He used real ID cards, replacing their pictures with an official, stamped photograph of himself when he was younger, his black hair parted in the middle, as my mother used to style it after our baths when we were little. It was very dangerous, but he was like that, fearless, changing his accent without batting an eyelid, suddenly becoming a Sunni from Mazraa, or a Shi’ite from Sour or a Druze from Baaqlin.
When I kidnapped the Faqih brothers, it was just me and three other guys. One of the three died a little later when an Energa bomb – a small thing, smaller than a Tatra milk tin – slipped through the peephole in the barricade. Luck. We used to call him Mr Haemorrhoids, because at the beginning of the war, he’d sat down on a lit stove up in the mountains, and sat funny afterwards. Another one was killed in the bombardment of Zahle after the two-year war. I think the third is still alive – I won’t say his name – and in Venezuela. We kidnapped the Faqih brothers in Bab Idriss, specifically between the sloping street and Starco Centre. It was a no man’s land, and civilians never went in. We fought over every single inch of land, and they were winning because they held Bourj al-Murr. Hamza, the eldest, was twenty-one and Ali was sixteen. There had been three of them. One of them was killed in the car. We drove it between rocks and broken steel, and dragged them into a building behind the Beirut municipality, along with the corpse. We didn’t know he was dead because of the darkness. We left him on the stairs and tied the brothers up with rope, belly to belly. The younger one was bleeding from his mouth and his nose. The eldest, Hamza, was trying to move his face because blood was pouring into his mouth. We used to store ammunition, water and tins of sardines and mortadella in that building. We opened up some cans and ate, and when my comrades left, I stayed alone with the brothers. The younger one, who had stopped bleeding, cried himself to sleep, but the older one kept staring at me. His ID was in my hands, and I asked him what his father did. I said his father’s name. He didn’t speak. I told him: “My name is Charles, what’s yours?” He said: “You know my name, I’m Hamza.” I said: “What were you doing in those Jews’ houses, Hamza, were you robbing them with your brother?” He said: “You’re the robbers, we were hiding from the snipers in Phoenicia and got stuck in the rubble.” I looked at him and knew he was telling the truth, and that luck was the only reason he’d fallen into my hands, him and his brother, who’d been woken up by our talk.
Al-Thabet and Sharara, Part 3, First Floor
Lydia hid her husband in her apartment until the end of the two-year war. During this time, Mr Suleiman Sharara did not set foot outside the house with the shuttered windows and the long balcony suspended over the street. He could see outside through the green slats. He spent long months watching the neighbourhood change, and the houses mushroom on the other side of the street. He felt sad and lost as he looked at the vegetable sellers and construction sites as people came and went while he was stuck eternally between two walls, in the darkness. It never once occurred to the people in the alley that he hadn’t escaped to West Beirut and that he was here, on the first floor of the Ayyub Building, listening to them argue and fight, seeing them buying their vegetables and fruit from the brothers, George and Mikhail. When the electricity came on for the allotted eight hours per day, he wished he could make use of the time to turn on the washer and clean the clothes or the sheets, but it was too dangerous, because the neighbours might hear the washer. Lydia’s mother, whom he called “Aunty”, would sometimes tell him stories to ease his loneliness, just as he tried to lighten hers with his stories, but even then they would have to keep their voices to a whisper so that they couldn’t be heard on the landing. They learned to listen out for the sound of footsteps on the staircase, and to sign to each other not to speak. In time, hushed tones became integrated into both their personalities, and often, Lydia would feel the urge to scream because she hadn’t heard what her husband had said or what her mother wanted.
Translated by Ghenwa Hayek for publication in Banipal 45
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