narrator Marianna, haunted by events her family is reluctant to
discuss, recounts the fragmented, delicate story of her and her
older sister growing up in wartime Beirut. Throughout their childhood,
Marianna watches Alaine collect the detritus of war—bullets,
grenades, shrapnel, a gas mask. These objects, some taken from
corpses, line Alaine’s bedroom shelves, a catalog of her
retreat into a profound depression against which her family is
powerless. For all their effort to endure the daily violence without,
the war enters within, transforming their home into a place of
danger and secrets. Marianna, ever watching, listening, becomes
her older sister’s keeper, desperate to solve the mystery
of her sorrow . . .
Alaine played soccer with the refugees, she traded bullets and
shrapnel around the neighborhood, she smashed her fists through
the bathroom window and tried to climb out. Daddy shouted for
help, and I was the one who got there first, hung onto her legs
with all my weight while he pried her fists loose from the jaggedy
window frame. The doctor said, She will always have trouble with
this finger, and he held Alaine’s hand aloft like evidence.
hands regained their strength. She stood in front of the mirror
and cut off all her hair again so that Mummy had to take her to
the barber to have it done right. She trained with the Civil Defense,
though at sixteen she was too young to be more than an honorary
member. Why don’t you take your sister? our parents urged,
and I hung my head, said I didn’t want to go anyway. Her
fellows caught sight of me on the balcony, however, and saw the
potential. After that I played their victim, screaming hysterically
in windows, clinging to my rescuer as he rappelled down the side
of the building, but there were many days when I was not called
upon, and I lounged on the balcony, peeking through the rails
at Alaine coiling ropes, doing jumping jacks and running, administering
French peacekeeping forces occupied the building behind ours,
forcing the Civil Defense to train elsewhere. Alaine kicked her
ball around disconsolately for a few days, until the French soldiers
joined in, three on three. She darted amongst them like a fly,
her hair cropped like a boy’s. They gazed at her in admiration,
and I imagined my eyes could launch missiles to blow her right
up. They paused in the game, wiped their necks and faces with
T-shirts. Mais pourquoi toi tu ne descends pas? one of
them yelled up, grinning. I shrugged disinterest at his invitation,
flounced back inside to listen to music. Maybe they would find
her stash of food and weapons; they were bivouacked right on top
of it, after all. Then she would get into so much trouble. I played
the possible scenarios out in my mind, wicked vengeance.
found an unfamiliar grenade on Alaine’s shelf, shaped like
a tube. I seized this opportunity to ruin her life. She got it
from them, I lied, nodding at the French barracks.
up to the two soldiers on duty. Did you give this to my daughter?
he fumed in his terrible French.
sir, the soldier said. They looked troubled. One of them held
out his hand.
—Now you want it? Daddy said irrationally.
—It hasn’t exploded.
moment they all just stood there. Then Daddy handed over the grenade.
Sorry, he said, and I was embarrassed by the way they shook their
heads when he turned around.
do you keep interfering? Alaine screamed at Daddy. I hate you!
around that time that Alaine took a bottle of pills. I do not
know what they were called, but they drove her mad with terror.
She stayed awake for three days, because she thought if she slept,
she would die, and she kept shouting that she didn’t want
to, she didn’t mean to. The stench of her sweat filled the
room, and whenever Alaine allowed it, Mummy cleaned her face and
neck and armpits with a washcloth. I’m cold, she kept mumbling.
I’m hot. The cat lay beside her, purring obliviously while
she trembled and sweated and whispered. Go to sleep, Mummy begged
her. It will be all right, the doctor said. But there was no convincing
her. Mummy and Daddy divided the watch, and Uncle Bernie stayed
over so he could help. There was no need for me. I retreated to
The idea had lived inside me for so long, through nights of my
ear pressed to Alaine’s door, through nights of folding
sodden bandages into the garbage. It was familiar as my own name.
There was the dead soldier, whose gas mask sat on Alaine’s
shelf; there was Alaine’s persistent misery; there was Mummy
sobbing in the night and the clinking ice in Daddy’s whiskey
as he made his way from the kitchen to his chair; there was the
question mark made by my fingernail digging into the soft, white
place between veins on my wrist.
was the day the American Embassy blew up. The top windowpane moved.
In the heartbeat of time, I saw the glass bulge inward, an optical
miracle only just filling me with surprise before the glass yielded
to the pressure of sound, shattered into the room. Ba-boom, the
bomb roared, and the building shuddered. Minutes passed. I picked
up my magazine and held it so the glass slid off. I looked at
my bare feet. Blood trickled down my thigh and I touched it with
my fingertip. I felt no pain. Perhaps this is how the bright idea
beckoned me, that old friend, with the promise that there wouldn’t
arrived in the doorway, and when she saw me, she collapsed against
the doorjamb in relief, hands pressed to her belly. I thought,
What is wrong with me, I should have screamed. I jumped up, to
show fear, because now she was looking at me strangely but she
cried out, No, don’t walk in the glass! She left me there
crinkling my toes, rushed away to find my shoes.
passed. The ambulances came in and out of the hospital down the
street, and then there was shooting. A jeep, the driver shooting
in the air to make a car move out of the way. In the backseat,
two men propped another in between, and his head rolled from side
to side, making cries, Aah, aah. Hurry, someone shouted, the out-of-place
word in English, so I realized they were American. The jeep reeled
around the corner to the hospital entrance. I stood at the window
a long time. It was as if everything I had always heard happening
outside had just been confirmed, and there was a certain security
came home several hours later. She had been there. She told me,
The bomb was so strong, the bodies flew across the road into the
ashamed that the Civil Defense workers had not allowed her to
help. I imagined the bodies floating away as rescue workers waded
after them, yelling back at Alaine to stay where she was; all
this while I had been standing at the window so impotently. I
couldn’t help feeling glad she had been turned away, that
she was in trouble for not having come straight home.
A heavy stillness lay around the ruins of the embassy, the same
stillness that could be felt elsewhere in the city, of things
meant to be hidden now laid bare. The back of the building stood
intact, but in front, the floors drooped in layers down to the
ground where the rubble had been partly cleared away. It was like
looking through the window of a giant dollhouse, but a desk hung
precariously off a shorn floor, a toilet tilted in the shadows,
farther in, still attached to the wall, while the sink was lodged
on a slab of loose tiles that slithered farther down every time
silver ships of the American soldiers lay offshore, moving imperceptibly
through the sea, so that one day they were here, the next day
there, and no one knew when they had moved. Smaller boats cut
white frothy trails back and forth between the shore and the ships.
Beirut waited in this lull, and the foreign soldiers threw flowers
at girls, gave them photographs and presents, they marched confidently
through the streets.
are only containing what is bound to come, Mrs. Awad proclaimed,
and Mummy agreed in that way of hers, the wise, slow nodding.
I understood from this that Lebanon was like a stunned beast,
netted and charmed temporarily by these handsome, pale soldiers,
and it was only a matter of time before this beast would awaken.
I felt a strange kinship to these men who had no idea what people
were saying. I wanted to save them. But I was useless, a small,
angry girl with curling blond hair and no courage, not like Alaine.
The anger festered inside me, only increased by the long days
spent indoors for the bombing and shooting once the Druze and
the army started fighting. I sipped Daddy’s whiskeys when
he wasn’t looking, then I made my own and sneaked them into
my room. I wrote a serialized novel about myself in which I was
a resistance fighter with an army of my own. You must leave,
I told the foreign soldiers in clandestine meetings punctuated
by the scratching of rats in the garbage, the occasional gunshot
that made us all pause and concentrate on the sky. You’re
only containing what’s bound to come, I informed them,
hoisting my machine gun over my shoulder. Help us, they
begged, and I led them through the myriad dangers of my territory,
and they admired me. One of them became my lover, but it was around
this time that Ziad came to our house with the news about Uncle
Ara. The soldier was killed off in a firefight, and Ziad entered
the story as a spy sent to infiltrate my army, but who turned
double agent out of love for me.
are you writing? Mummy asked, flipping through one of my notebooks.
I stared at her in dismay. She caught my mood, gave me the notebook
with a smile. I know about being a writer, she said gently, and
for the rest of the day she brooded over a small notebook of fairy
tales her best friend Muna had written when they were young. I
read the stories in secret, gazed at the photograph pasted in
the front. She had been tragically killed, and I wanted to be
just like her, remembered with sorrow and regret.
twisted in a new direction. I have to do it, I shouted,
wrenching myself away from Ziad. No, no! he cried, but
I ran into the hail of bullets, sacrificing myself so that he
Even though there was fighting all the time, school started again,
and I skipped classes to write in my notebooks in the café
next to the school. School’s boring, I told Mummy and Daddy.
They tried threats, but they had no ammunition; I had no hobbies
to be banned from, and after school I stayed in my room anyway.
They cajoled and begged, which worked for a time, because I disliked
being the cause of their worries, and then they tried to enlist
Alaine’s help, but she refused, saying she had no influence
over me, and this made me feel good. You hardly have to go anyway
because of the fighting, Daddy attempted to reason, but the café
lured me from the dreary routine of school and my fellow students.
I wasn’t the only one who skipped; I had an ally in the
senior Marko, who was Greek and older than everyone else, almost
twenty, because he had missed a year of school after a motorcycle
accident. We did not speak, but acknowledged one another in the
café, in the halls, during the numerous detentions that
had no effect on our behavior at all. He played pinball while
I wrote, and we took cigarettes from each other without asking.
the highest scores ever recorded on the pinball machine; he even
left free games that he had won for others to play, this was how
much he won. He could play for hours without pause. I knew this
because I stayed longer and longer, and Ghada, who ran the café,
grudgingly let me know if a teacher was coming.
right hand was almost useless, I supposed because of the accident.
The hand dangled against the side of the machine, and he used
the heel of his thumb to push the flipper button. The hand was
thin and white with a faint scar that began somewhere near the
knuckles and traveled up under the cuff of his shirt. I could
not understand how the doctors had managed to sew his hand back
together and yet leave it so lifeless.
to being older, Marko was taller than any of the other seniors,
and he wore round shaded glasses like John Lennon. He did not
seem to take care of himself and smelled sickly. He always wore
long-sleeved shirts. I had read that people who are depressed
wear a lot of clothes, because they are frozen with sadness, and
certainly Alaine had hidden under her blankets for years. I suspected
that the accident was the root of his sadness, the long-sleeved
shirts and pallid skin, because he hadn’t been the only
one on the bike. His friend had been riding behind and was killed,
and I could not see how someone could recover from that, from
killing a friend by going too fast.
outside stirred my attention from Marko. Two French jeeps had
parked across the street, and the soldiers were unloading. Ghada,
smoking her argileh behind the counter (Have some, she always
taunted the younger students, who thought it was hashish), noticed
the trucks and hurried to stand in the doorway as enticement.
Her fat arms waddled as she patted her dyed hair, then she placed
one fist on her hip, and arranged herself into a stance I imagined
a prostitute might use. I was ashamed that Ghada shouted so loudly,
Venez! Entrez! but she was in acute competition with
the store across the street.
the soldiers smiled at me as they filed in. They seemed a little
awkward, and I supposed it would be the same for those American
soldiers on duty by the Embassy, if they were trapped here without
the protection of their barbed wire and tanks. No matter how friendly
everyone appeared, these foreign soldiers could never know who
might begin shooting. They bought Pepsis and Mirandas, then grouped
around Marko, who nodded at them while he lit a cigarette. I could
see his score from my seat, and it was in the hundred thousands.
He drew back the exploder, as I called it, slowly, to its maximum
tension, and froze, concentrating on the miniature world of lights
and pathways and targets under the glass. He went over his plan,
looking for trip wires, blinking challenges. The soldiers paused
with him, one with his drink halfway to his lips, the other holding
a cigarette and lighter, waiting. The long pause grew longer,
and it seemed that I was witnessing a pocket of time within the
clanging and talking noises of the café, something separate,
a sign. I did not breathe, I, all of us, were on the brink of
something greater than Marko’s free game, and his hesitation
was an unwillingness to unleash it, as if he held in his hand
the taut bowstring, the almost-there trigger, but it was inevitable,
he had to let go, it was a matter of time. And beyond the happening
of it, there were those of us who watched it, like me, and those
who were a part of it, like the soldiers and Marko, and those
who were innocent and continuing about their day, eating, drinking,
go. The ball jettisoned with such force that it cracked into the
glass before speeding on into its violent world. The soldiers
eased their way around Marko, chuckling, lighting cigarette, drinking,
and leaned on the other machine, which was broken again. They
stole respectful glances at Marko, and at first I thought it was
because he was such a good player, never tilted though he banged
that machine around like he could break it, but then I realized
they were looking at his scars. They must have thought he had
been wounded in the war.
—Why aren’t you going to school? Astrig shouted. Do
we need this now, at such a time?
stupid, I said, secure that she wouldn’t pursue this with
the other important matters on her mind. She was furious because
Uncle Ara was still in the mountains, and no one could make him
come down. The whole world knew the fighting between the Druze
and Christians would explode into a war once Israel pulled out,
which could happen any day. But Uncle Ara said he wouldn’t
leave his house and garden unless he was in a coffin. Astrig adjusted
the collar of her silk shirt; she had taken to wearing the clothes
from her boutique because less and less people were buying things
in this endless war. She looked at me with narrowed eyes.
can’t force me, I cut her off.
—You see how she talks? Mrs. Awad moaned, as if I were her
own daughter. She has turned into a shitaneh!
—If you fail, it will be your responsibility, said Daddy.
This was his latest speech, repeated daily. He had been trying
this with Alaine for years, and she was just scraping by, so maybe
he thought it would work with me. I shrugged. I wanted to fail.
I wanted to get my own apartment and write books and have French
—Alaine goes to school, said Mrs. Awad.
—She didn’t always, I pointed out.
—But that wasn’t good.
was such a weak argument that I did not bother answering. Astrig
had lost interest in my behavior, anyway, and the talk returned
to Uncle Ara.
has an old Kalashnikov, Astrig told Mrs. Awad, who did not yet
know all the stories coming to us from Shemlan. The Israelis came
and he pointed it at them. What are you doing? the Israeli commander
yelled. Are you crazy? Get out of here! We can’t protect
you! So what does Ara, my stupid father, say?
—He says, Please, Mr. Commander, don’t worry about
me. Would you like some tomatoes? No? Please, if you need anything,
you know where I am. The Israelis, they’re so stupid, they
think he’s a crazy old man so they leave him alone. They
don’t understand that he’s mocking them!
—He should leave, though, said Mrs. Awad, dampening everyone’s
not care about the Druze and the Christians massacring each other,
and what Jumblatt said and what Gemayel said. I supposed Uncle
Ara would come down to us at the last minute, so I did not think
about him, and I persisted in not caring even though my nonchalance
tasted false, with a trace of something desperate. But there wasn’t
anyone to discuss this with. The grown-ups walked about with despair
all over their faces, taking Alaine to the doctor, feeding her
pills, begging her to speak. She controlled the daily motion of
our household, whether Mummy went for her volunteer work or not,
whether Daddy went to the library, whether the psychiatrist would
come to us or they go to him, escorting her like a prisoner. The
Israelis left, the mountain war began, but we still had to go
to school. I played Marko’s pinball machine when he wasn’t
there; the times he came in, I ceded my place without complaint,
sat on a chair next to the window with my knees drawn up to my
chin. At last the principal himself came to punish me. He forced
me back to the office, lectured me on attendance and responsibility
while I stared resolutely at the carpet.
Marianna? he asked despairingly. This is your freshman year. Do
you want to start it like this?
—Why are you imitating your sister?
not imitating, I snarled in my mind.
as if he heard me. He tilted his head, waiting for me to speak.
I thought then I might say, I want to die. The words
popped into my head like a bit of nothing. I did not know what
they meant. I felt tiny and tremulous, verging on childhood. A
rush of gentle memories assaulted me: Mummy dressing Alaine and
me in front of the fireplace; Téta humming as she swept
the cottage walkway; the mess of Jiddo’s drawer, my hands
groping through Persian prints in search of sweets. The noise
of bombs interrupted whatever punishment the principal was devising
for me. The door opened and one of the teachers poked her head
into the room.
too close, in Khaldeh. I’ve told everyone to go home.
off. Bombs thundered in the distance, mingled with the chatter
of students filling the hallways. The principal sighed. He stared
at me with his sagging brown eyes, hands folded on his desk. He
resembled some hulking creature perched on the edge of extinction
and no longer willing to put up a fight. The door rattled, a student
evidently fallen against it. Laughter followed. A teacher shouted,
There is no need to go home! The fighting won’t come here!
but the noise grew just the same. I wondered where the Israelis
had reached, and who was bombing who. I thought of Uncle Ara in
his house, Astrig yelling at him. She had gone up to join him
the week before, saying she would not leave her father on his
had best find your sister, the principal said.
—She could find me, I countered.
smiled a little and shook his head. Find each other, he said.
I got up, the good younger sister, the strong one, the happy one.
I left the school without my books. I walked through the university
campus and made my way into a bit of wood. A wildness thrashed
about inside me; with every step my head hurt more, my limbs ached
from some kind of pain whose source lay just below my ribs, right
in the center of me, and I walked with my fists jammed against
the place like it could explode. I wanted to cry, but I did not.
In the thick privacy of the foliage, while the Druze militias
shelled the Lebanese army at Khaldeh, I pressed the razor blade
to my wrist, gasping at the swift pain. I waited. The pain was
followed by something deeper, a hurt deep inside the flesh seeping
out in a thin stream of blood. It congealed almost at once, the
cut superficial, nothing like the things Alaine did to herself;
but it promised more, something craved. Now a calm draped over
me, muting the wildness, pushing it farther inside until it was
a mere pinpoint of light, and I sat still for a time. Then I made
my way home, borne by this awful calm, and my body was weak and
powerful at once, laden with guilt and transformed by awe.
door I paused to gather my sleeve into my fist, hiding the scratches,
but no one looked my way. Hello, I said, and they answered, Good,
you’re home, and I slipped back into the household without
—They’re using the ships, Mummy cried out in anger.
What right do they have?
—Typical, typical, Mrs. Awad bitterly shook her head. America
always wants to crush the East! Look at Vietnam!
is hardly Vietnam, said Daddy, but he was embarrassed. The war,
as the grown-ups took to saying dispiritedly, had changed its
character, as if it were a person that others had grudgingly accepted
but was now displaying ugly traits that couldn’t be ignored.
The Americans were to blame, because they chose to help the Christians,
who were fighting the Muslim militias in the mountains, who were
being supplied by the Russians. In the middle of it all, Uncle
Ara and Astrig and Ziad were either dead or alive, no one knew.
The war shifted, adapted, feeding on the new alliances.
them. I hated the foreign soldiers, the Americans most of all,
and I was ashamed of Daddy’s American eyes and hair and
skin, which had so sickeningly repeated themselves in me. I passed
the days indoors, pale as a mouse, my hair long and stringy. Come
out, Mummy cajoled, but when I walked on the street, I felt everyone
staring at me, despising me for making the bombs falling on the
mountains. I am from here, too, I wanted to say. An evil, helpless
desire grew in me; maybe Uncle Ara and Astrig would die, to prove
me on the Lebanese side once and for all. I could not believe
I was thinking such a thing, but I did, and the thought did not
go away but pestered me unceasingly with detailed images of hearing
the terrible news, the weeping, the funeral, the pity of it all.
I asked after them daily to counteract the malignant thoughts,
but there was no news from the mountains, they were cut off from
the bombing of their embassy, the American soldiers onshore had
constructed a barricade of sandbags and concertina wire that twisted
and turned like a metallic snake along the Corniche from the destroyed
building all the way to the British Embassy, which they now shared.
They draped a thick sheet of wire from the roof to the street,
at an angle, as a shield against any bombs, which would strike
it first and explode harmlessly. In my novel they begged me for
help, and I turned them away. Leave, I commanded. There
is nothing for you here. Please, Carinna (my heroine
name), you must help us! Go or die, I told them, which
was so dramatic I could not bear to sleep until I had played out
the scene over and over to exhaustion.
The Sunday morning of the two bombs, I rolled over and tried to
go back to sleep, but Daddy came in and sat on the edge of my
bed and told me exactly what had happened. I already knew, though,
because the ambulances were starting to echo through the city.
It angered me that Daddy seemed so moved. I thought, No one
knew what they were all doing here anyway, but then I felt
the weight of my own ignorance, because this wasn’t really
my opinion, I had overheard someone say it. I didn’t know
anything about them, or the war, or what any of it meant. I don’t
care, I told Daddy, and he looked sad and left me alone. I could
not go back to sleep, and the ambulances wailed back and forth.
I imagined the hospital lobby, the people running everywhere,
how the beds would be filling up.
At school all anyone could speak about were the attacks and how
awful they were. I sat in my corner, warding other students away
from my table with my cigarettes and foul mood. Ghada smoked her
argileh, listening to the news from a grimy radio on
top of the refrigerator. The story was the only thing in the news,
too. Ghada seemed impassive, her face bloated and sticky-looking
in the heat. I wanted to know her opinion, but Ghada and I never
spoke about anything other than the high cost of cigarettes and
the quantity of garlic in her chicken sandwiches. A girl was going
on about the hospital; her father was a doctor and she had stayed
up late into the night, holding one Marine’s hand. Her pity
angered me. Thousands of people died all the time in the war,
and only now was everyone talking about it like it mattered. I
felt the knotted anger in my chest, but at the same time I imagined
going to the hospital to help, as some of the students were contemplating.
I could tell the nurses that I was half-Lebanese and that I was
born here, just like them. Then I was jarred by the realization
that almost all the nurses were Filipino; they came here to make
was far away from these stories. He played today just as he did
any other, and he was on his fifth free game; I had been counting
through this jumble. He smiled now and then, a private, scornful
smile. He was the only one in here acting normal, and I wanted
to slide between the two machines, watch his game, but this was
an intimate space, reserved for close friends of his. The floor
between us stretched longer than anything, a place not to be crossed.
on, and he didn’t care about the bombs and the dying soldiers.
It had to be because he already knew about such mysteries, about
people dying and how to feel about it and what one is meant to
do. I examined his face to see what it must have been like before.
There had to have been some change. His forehead and cheek had
jaggedy red scars, and another one skewed his lips. He looked
tired. Maybe he had nightmares. I had heard that the motorcycle
slid right under the truck, came out the other side. I could imagine
this, a movie screen in my head of slow-motion screech, roar of
metal, the fragility of the human body become pathetically small,
gangly, ripped up like paper. Then the quiet, tic-toc, tic-toc,
of a place in the world that’s transformed from day-to-day
noises to crash and scream and stop.
could imagine afterwards, when Marko stood up. He got on his knees
first, then his feet. He could not feel anything yet, only a heaviness,
a numbing. The doctors told him later that it was shock. He saw
his friend lying on the street. Now some people were running towards
him, shouting. He asked, What happened? They told him the motorcycle
hit the truck wheels, which was going too fast, though the bike
had been, too, and skidded right under and kept going. They tried
to hold him back from going to his friend, but he persevered.
Marko, supporting his friend under the shoulders, lifted off the
went that Marko saw the inside of his friend’s head. The
head, crushed in on the side, collapsed without the helmet to
hold it together. Marko saw his friend’s brain. Maybe it
looked like the lamb brains Ghada displayed on beds of parsley.
I knew it couldn’t be like that, but it was the only image
I had in my head of brains. Then the onlookers tried to pull him
away but they had to fight him, because that was when he went
crazy, when they pulled him and he lashed out, lost his balance
so the body rolled limply off his arm and he heard his friend’s
ruined head strike the asphalt. That sound had to be what he heard
in his dreams, every day, every night, and no wonder he didn’t
care about the foreign soldiers; but what was it that I had heard,
to make me care so little? He knew what it meant to die: he had
cradled death in his own hands. I did not have these secrets.
Death had always occurred far away from me, in photographs or
overheard conversations. I longed to be like Marko, to have a
dead friend, despite the part of me that recoiled from my own
strange feelings. I couldn’t help it. My lack of caring
was fraudulent; Marko, though, he had seen everything he needed
to see in the broken bone and shimmering juices in his palms,
and he did not have to care anymore, he did not have to try.
—Akh, haram! Mrs. Awad lamented, shaking her hands
at the ceiling. All those poor young men!
agreed sadly. Their rancor about the foreign soldiers had dissipated,
leaving only pity and worry for what would come next, especially
with Ara and Astrig still in the mountains. Uncle Bernie and Daddy
sat up late into the night, drinking whiskey, talking about America
and the lives they used to have, about politics, about the future
of the Middle East. Alaine became grimly obsessed by the bombings.
She had always collected newspaper photos of the war, but these
she decided to paste on her wall, painting abstract images around
them. Mummy and Daddy protested this macabre collage, but Alaine
retorted, It’s art, which for some reason silenced them.
are you upset? I demanded. They deserved it!
painting a skull next to the collage, and now she paused to glance
at me, contemptuous of my ignorance. No, they didn’t, she
said. They didn’t have anything to do with the war.
at the collage, trying to feel remorse. All I felt was a tautness
in my chest, a scream lodged there. I hated Alaine. She always
knew everything, did everything. It was she who found a body and
buried it, she who had a collection of unexploded bullets and
shrapnel, she who knew night time streets, gunfire, bombs. And
now this. I wanted to tear every photograph of every corpse, every
stunned and frightened face, every blast of concrete, arms and
legs dangling out. I wanted to rip that collage to bits.
out of here, Alaine said, and I did.
One day passed, two, and then the moment came when I just got
up and walked out of class. The teacher followed, reprimanding
me, threatening detention, but I continued down the hall. As soon
as I reached the street, I started running in the light rain,
and I ran all the way from the Corniche to the hospital. No one
asked me questions, no one stopped me as I shouldered my way through
the crowds swamping the hospital lobby. I rode the elevator with
the grieving, the exhausted, a foul-tempered orderly rubbing a
rash on his arm. I got out on a floor, I did not know which, and
the first door that yielded, I slipped through.
sighed shut, muffling the hospital noises. An American soldier
was standing next to an empty bed, speaking into a telephone.
He glanced at me. What was I doing here? What had I been thinking?
But I couldn’t bring myself to move, because the soldier
gave me a nod and a small smile, as if he accepted my presence.
Then he went on talking. He was reading a list, pausing now and
then to answer questions. It was a list of the dead, the mutilated,
the nameless and the named. There were movie-sounding names like
Red and Hammer, and also normal American names, like Roger or
Willie. There were men whose dog tags were lost, men who were
in comas. I drank the sweat from my lips. I became aware of the
bed on the other side of the room, a man’s bloodshot eyes
peering at me out of bandages.
the soldier hung up the telephone. He said, You can be alone with
him now, and walked out. I stared at the door closing, my whole
body a wire connected to the door, pulled away from the dying
man in the bed. I’m not a relative, I shouted in my head,
but he did not come back. Quiet, only my breathing. I smelled
the antiseptic air, the sweat and medicines, and the man in the
bed shifted, still staring.
the bed and started to speak about nothing that would be remembered,
and then he whispered, Français. I seized his
hand, saying in French that I was sorry, and he stilled me by
closing his eyes. Minutes passed. When he finally spoke, his words
crumbled in his mouth, they went only as far as his throat, a
hushed talking, so I had to lean closer where the smell of him,
antiseptic, sour at the same time, settled inside the cave of
my mouth, a taste more than a smell. I listened until he fell
asleep, and I held his hand even then, staring, reading the cracked,
dry lips, the crusted blood in his nostrils, the measure and hover
of lashes on cheekbone.
He is already on the balcony because he was roused by the first
bomb, that first one that killed all the Americans, and he is
a young French paratrooper looking across this still city that
is hot and damp in the morning, and his eyes are blurry with sleep
but his mind is alert, watchful. The sergeant stands nearby rubbing
his eyes and then lifting the binoculars, searching through the
haze of heat already starting to lift through the city, and it
is hot and numbing. The mountains form a purple line through the
misty morning heat and Paul, looking at them in the moments of
silence after the first bomb, is bothered again by dreamed images
of village streets, of a father gone and a mother with amber lips
and silk kaftans, of the day her hands stuffed his clothes into
bags and suitcases to send him to France forever so she could
vanish into Africa.
and looks and a spiral of smoke is swelling into rolls like boiling
water and he says to the sergeant, because suddenly he pinpoints
the source of all this fire and smoke and he is fearful then;
Mais çe sont les Americains! Then a split second
of knowing, as if he feels it before it happens because it is
already there in the smoke filling the sky, in the wails of sirens
already starting, it will happen to all of them, too. His knees
are failing before the roar comes, because his body here on the
top floor, tiny on the edge of this building, has sensed the shudder
in the walls and floors and windows, through all the sleeping
soldiers inside, through the eyes of the soldier on duty downstairs
who must have been the first to see the truck aiming like a rocket
for the doors. Then he is falling, and behind him inside all his
friends and the beds they are in and knapsacks and bags and cups
and ashtrays are rolling inwards into each other as the building
hollows itself out, a funnel of concrete and wires and tiles and
plaster and soldiers slipping into it still stunned with sleep.
He crumbles down with the outside of the building, falling with
each floor that falls, one balcony onto another, one by one, riding
down with the walls of the building, the sky revolving over his
day in hospital he tries to move his hands but cannot raise his
arms with two broken shoulders and a gouged-out chest. The plaster
on his nose itches hot then cold and his eyes burn incessantly.
A man groans in the bed next to his and then two orderlies carry
him out and the sheets are left there all day, rumpled and soiled,
but the man is not brought back.
opens and closes, again and again. Through bewilderment of drugs
and surprise at being here at all, he faintly recognizes, then
loses, his general and captain and chaplain who are speaking kindly
to him, patting his hand and telling him he is a strong soldier.
But Paul keeps losing his place, the pages slip from his fingers,
where he is, when: for a time he is in his room at home in France,
napping on his blue bedspread, but then he finds himself speeding
through wooded trails, his dirt bike jumping like a wild, living
thing, and the autumn crush of leaves and mud and motor-oil smell
wet and chilled, but afterwards he becomes who he really is again,
a paratrooper stepping from the plane, taking pictures of the
world as he falls, of the tilting line between sky and earth,
the noise of his laughing lost in the roar of wind in his ears,
and his skin lifts in slow motion and his mouth opens to swallow
the sky. The medics come and go, the nurses rub the crook of his
arm with alcohol and pierce him with needles. Outside the tall
windows, night inks the sky then recedes, and when his eyes open
again to the present, he sees a girl standing on the other side
of the room.
—You will never go back there again, Mummy warned me, but
I was crying so much I could not answer. I could still taste the
smell of him, and it hollowed me out, leaving an agony I had never
before experienced. Marianna, Marianna, Mummy cradled me. You
mustn’t go back. There’s no need for you to see such
was wrong. The next day I hurried home from school, I twisted
about in front of the mirror, adjusting my wraparound jean skirt.
I brushed my hair, anxious that it was too flat, and despaired
of my big mouth that Astrig said was a movie star’s mouth.
What are you doing? Mummy said, and I said, I’m going to
visit Paul, and she stood aside because my whole body threatened
kick and scream should she try and stop me. What’s going
on? Daddy asked, and when he found out all he said was, Don’t
stay too long, I’m sure he’s tired, and I was grateful
for the way he held onto Mummy’s arm, let me pass.
imagined an empty room, Paul gazing at me from his bed. To my
horror, the room was full of soldiers who seemed to know about
me already, because they winked and asked if I was a new nurse
and where was my uniform? Paul told them to leave me alone and
I sneaked behind a chair and stared at the floor, willing my cheeks
not to be so red. Every so often the soldier who was the captain
gave a stern glance, as if I were a child, and I wanted to flee
but I could hardly do that, being behind the chair as I was and
with all the soldiers blocking the way.
as they left, Paul said, Where were you? I waited all day.
had to go to school.
not even crossed my mind to skip school altogether, stay at his
side. He moved his hand slightly, gesturing me closer. I’m
sorry, he said. Of course you need to go to school.
of his eyes were spread through with red and his lips kept sticking
together, chalky with dry spit. The smell of this room, of bandages
moistened with medicine and blood and pus, of sour mouths slightly
opened, of the food left on trays for hours, entered me then and
for years, unbidden, far away from this room, they would come
time I fed him dinner the boiling soup spilled on his legs and
he shouted in agony, throwing off the sheets. I was shocked by
the sight of his thighs and what lay beyond. Towels! he cried,
and I rushed to the bathroom. He could not move for hours afterwards
because of the renewed pain in his shoulders, and I was inconsolable
until he began to tease me.
did you see under the sheets? he asked slyly again and again,
until I begged him to stop tormenting me and the mistake of the
soup was forgotten.
becoming a nurse, for I enjoyed spooning food into his mouth and
adjusting his blankets, but then his bandages needed to be changed.
I want to watch, I said, convinced of my own bravery. The nurse
peeled off the outside bandage from his chest and began removing
the gauze with tweezers. With every piece of gauze, my stomach
turned woozily, for the layers did not end, and the wound went
deeper and deeper. The nurse smiled wickedly at me, lifting out
the gauze that was now sodden with blood, and Paul laughed.
You don’t have to look, he said.
too late; the wound was fresh and glistening as a steak, lined
with white threads. I sank down to the floor. Paul gripped my
hand. It will be over soon, he comforted, and he and the nurse
laughed together at my weakness. After this, I went into the bathroom
during this procedure. Is it over? I shouted; the first time,
they lied for a joke.
about Mummy and Daddy not caring where I was until one evening
they entered the room still wrapped in their coats as if they
had no intention of staying. You’re coming home, they told
me. Paul was beside himself with regret. He tried to sit up in
his consternation and fell to the side; I caught him and propped
him up, sending my parents death looks over his bent head. They
relented, unbuttoning their coats but not taking them off, and
sat on the visitors’ chairs to talk with him. I loitered
in the corner, mortified. But I could see they liked Paul, and
then the nurse brought in dinner and greeted them effusively,
praising my good nursing skills, and they watched how I fed him
so carefully and knew just how much sugar he liked in his yoghurt.
They lengthened my curfew to ten o’clock at night provided
I did my homework here, and Paul said I most certainly would and
that he suspected I was a good student, better than he had ever
could you make your parents into such ogres? Paul asked in amazement.
that now he would dislike me and send me away, but he held my
hand, counting my fingers as if this time there would be more,
or less, than five. He told me, You should be grateful they love
you so much. I knew then he was thinking about his own parents,
for he had been adopted when he was very young and could barely
recall his mother and father, who had left him alone like a forgotten
piece of luggage.
one thing I know is that I’m Lebanese, he confessed, astonishing
me, the nurses, everyone. He said, I never thought I would find
myself here, in this country.
home, the doctor joked.
evenings next to his bed with my notebooks and pens and textbooks
and did my homework, smiling shyly when he asked what I was learning.
I showed him the math for help and laughed when he did not know
the answers. He drew silly cartoons for me next to the equations,
and I cupped my hand around them in class so that no one would
he decent to you? Alaine asked.
that of course he was. I was relieved that her interest did not
seem to extend beyond this question, and put aside my worries
that she would want to go with me.
began to arrive. They came in groups carrying stand-up lamps,
cameras, tape recorders. Paul could not turn them away. For the
families of those who died, he explained, but I was horrified
with the questions, the hot lights and microphones pushed up close
to his miserable face, and worst of all, the same question, over
and over, the demand that he describe exactly what he had heard
and seen on the day of the bomb.
only a matter of time before the journalists discovered he was
actually Lebanese; the coincidence entranced them. To accompany
the article on him, they needed a photograph. Hold this telephone
to your ear, they said. Yes, just like that. The photograph came
out the following day, with the caption saying he had been speaking
with his French parents. The fabrication infuriated me.
outside the door and refused to let the journalists in. Papers,
to the little girl, the nurses said, and the journalists confessed
they had not obtained permission for the interview from the French
Embassy. The third time this happened, Paul shouted from inside
the room for me to leave them alone, to let him answer the questions,
because who else could comfort the families who had lost their
sons? But when they departed, he groped for my hands as he cried
because the nightmares had been stirred and the screaming kept
echoing in his head. His eyes looked wild over the plaster encasing
his nose. He turned his head, shifted his body as he wept, trapped
in all his bandages, the blanket pulled to mid-chest and tucked
tight so his wounded body was outlined in every detail, frail-seeming,
all the way down to the feet pointing up and making little tents
of the blanket. Daddy came to find me because it was past ten,
and he did not argue when I refused to leave; he sat on a chair
in the hallway and waited.
bed had been empty for several days but then the nurses wheeled
in a gurney and told Paul, You have a roommate now. This soldier
was older, a colonel, and he had miraculously survived being thrown
from the seventh floor in the explosion. He groaned all day and
all night for water, for his wife and children, for the pain to
can’t sleep, Paul cried. Oh God, make him shut up! but the
man kept moaning, unaware of his surroundings.
taught me how to soak gauze swabs in water and insert them into
the colonel’s mouth so he could suck them dry. More, he
mumbled. More, more. Not all at once, I told him, and his face
twisted up in despair. Fix the IV, he cried weakly one afternoon,
until a nurse finally arrived. She yanked the plastic curtain,
noise of racing metal rings. There was a silence, then a moan,
and blood splattered onto the tiles. Shit, said the nurse.
the following days the colonel became more alert, so I tried to
entertain him with my problems at school and my plans for the
future. Math is a difficult subject, he agreed. But you have to
finish school if you want to have an apartment and a dog.
necessarily, I argued.
—Finish your homework, Paul said, or your parents will kill
flung open the door. You have visitors! she announced.
of men and women filed in, awkward, laden with flowers and boxes
of sweets. A journalist followed. They looked at the colonel,
whose hand was in mine, then at Paul. He smiled uncertainly. They
grouped around his bed. We will be your family in Lebanon, one
of the women said in Arabic, since you do not remember yours.
looked to me for translation, but the journalist stepped forward
and spoke first. There was a silence as Paul digested this strange
offer. Send them out of here, I thought, but instead
he started to cry, not loudly, but in whispers, not violent, uncontrolled,
but just tears that come when nothing can be said, and I ran out
of the room because I could not bear the way Paul was just lying
there, looking so frail.
they left I climbed into bed with Paul even though the nurses
could walk in at any time. Why did you like them? I asked, and
he said, Because they are kind. But they aren’t your real
cousins, I pointed out, and he knuckled my chin. You’re
jealous, he told me, which shut me up.
this, new relatives visited every day. Paul’s lost family
grew and grew. They brought chocolates and clothing and cards
from others who could not come. The magic of Lebanon had brought
him back, they exclaimed, which was a captivating idea, that the
place where I was born was magical. Any person born here, I learned,
and any visitor who stepped onto this land for even just one day
was infected by this magic. No one could ever forget Lebanon,
nor could one leave without longing to return.
was not convinced. He said, I enlisted in the army. It was chance.
my head, insisting on the truth of the spell that had him in its
and more vases of flowers wilted on the room’s balcony,
left there so they would not suck away Paul’s oxygen, and
I counted them, delighted by the absurd numbers, by the bright
new clothes, the chocolates that gave me stomach-aches and that
Paul could not bring himself to eat. Paul smiled and laughed with
me, and we whispered lying side by side, and the nights passed.
he was well enough to be taken to a hospital in France, I stood
near him on the sidewalk outside the glass wall of the hospital.
Soldiers milled about, and jeeps waited in a line for the time
everyone would have to leave, and he laughed in my ear, asking
for a kiss in front of the captain who had always intimidated
me. I finally gave in to his cajoling, and he smiled against my
lips. The chaplain came close and whispered, I can marry you two
now! Paul looked at me questioningly but I was in a state of alarm,
and he pulled my face to his chest. The chaplain touched my hair
with the tips of his fingers, saying he had not meant to frighten
climbed into the ambulance, leaving me holding the half-empty
boxes of sweets. The lights started spinning and he was carried
slowly away, face framed by his palms against the window, and
now I think about the other soldier in there with him, the colonel,
and how everyone knew he was dying, even I knew, but still, it
was a secret.
I closed myself away in my room at night with the vodka I had
found in the kitchen, easier to steal than Daddy’s whiskey.
Mummy and Daddy did not notice me, and Alaine lived in her own
world, headphones clamped to her ears all day, playing Pink Floyd.
An empty space grew around me each night as I scribbled half-drunk
letters to Paul, who wanted to marry me; he had promised that
when I finished high school he would take me away to France. I
sat in the darkness and smoked cigarettes I stole from Mummy.
My love affair, unlike Alaine’s, would be a success. I dreamed
about wearing silk dresses and drinking Campari in France, I became
someone else, someone older and quiet and mysterious who had nothing
to do with me. If she were to meet me she would ignore me, a pathetic
child. I sanitized a safety pin in my lighter’s flame, pushed
it through my lip. Mummy screamed when she saw me, and the emergency
doctor shook his head, lecturing me about the absence of a punk
movement in Lebanon and how I would be shunned. My lip ached for
days. I settled for safety pins strung together as earrings, drew
black around my eyes, dragged a knife through my jeans until they
hung in rags around the knees. You look like a beggar, Mrs. Awad
criticized in a weak attempt to jolt me back to normal.
I noticed I was alone. Like Alaine, I realized, and this seemed
acceptable. I sat near her outside, not too close, but in her
vicinity. We did not speak, except to ask for part of the other’s
lunch, or for a book. She took her medication without complaint,
she didn’t run away anymore, and she was trying hard to
pass exams, but I walked right out of classes just as she once
had and passed others like a satellite, untouchable. I was the
older woman, walking down the street towards Ghada’s café,
impenetrable, melancholic, words from books.
I looked out the eyes of stupid Marianna, confident that no one
could see this double life. I made up entire histories for myself
and revised them as I watched the other students, who were oblivious
to me and my complexity. Before all this, when I was in Bordeaux,
and the windy house crumbled around me, a knock at the door; it
was the writer who was summering up the beach. He said, Are you
all right? I was touched that he noticed something was wrong,
but how could he know my terrible story, what brought me here
. . . ? At night, I lay wide awake while the whole house
slept, alive in my made-up world, playing the same scenes over
The Americans wanted revenge. The bombs from the battleship New
Jersey were louder than anything we had ever heard; each
one shook the entire country, and the silence after was so full,
the air bloated and sagged with it and its weight held us in place
and in silence. We heard tales of whole mountains being gutted.
The size of a football field, I heard my father say, as if because
the guns belonged to America their effect could not be measured
in meters. Sixteen-inch guns, they were called, so I stood a ruler
on end, measuring the remaining space with level palm, and it
amazed me that something so small could be the source of the loudest
bombs I had ever heard. Uncle Ara and Astrig came down from the
mountains, thin, wild, full of stories, reporting that Ziad was
alive as well. Christmas came and went, and when the Shi’a
fought for West Beirut we retreated into the darkness of the basement.
I chafed with boredom; I missed the long days at the café
with Marko, and I wondered where he lived or if he was even still
in the country. Late into the night, the streets alive with gunfire
and bombs, I snuck to other parts of the building while everyone
slept; I stood near windows, shivering, expecting death, and Paul
sent telegrams, Come to France, little flea. You must escape.
was no escape. The months blended, drifting by, one battle erupting
into another with only a few days or hours between to rest on
a sunny balcony or stock up on food. The windows shivered and
broke; I scraped my wrists along the edge to trace destruction,
to say, The window broke and I did, too, and this fantasy
of being a window giving onto another world occupied me. Why are
you so quiet, Marianna? Because I’m thinking. What are you
thinking? About life. She’s thinking about life, so grown-up.
This from Astrig. A great sigh. War eliminates childhood. This
from Mrs. Awad, whose sharp eyes missed nothing but because I
was a window they missed me and looked straight through to Alaine,
whose junior year was doomed by the fighting so she tossed her
books on the burning garbage pile up the street. How could you
throw away books? Daddy cried, but then he found out they were
only about calculus and economics, and the grown-ups laughed at
his relief. By the time the peacekeepers finally evacuated, Alaine
had managed to regain her footing in school, and our parents invented
what they thought would be a more virulent threat to make me work
in school, that of not being as courageous and smart as my sister,
but this had no effect.
of the peacekeepers was played on TV, and we threw a party for
it because, said Astrig, any excuse for a party was acceptable
at this point. The peacekeepers retreated in jeeps and tanks,
they filed onto boats, they looked back. The camera sought the
most sorrowful ones to foretell Lebanon’s dark future. We
marvelled once again at the plumage decorating Italian helmets.
Mrs. Awad said she didn’t know how huge feathers could serve
as camouflage, especially in city warfare. She said those
words, city warfare, as if she was a professor of some kind. They
should be in the opera! Uncle Ara chortled, and the Italian banker
he had brought as a guest took offence. This is an age-old tradition,
he complained, but Uncle Ara said, Tfih! and brought
up his issues with other idiotic but more sinister headgear, the
fez, though it had no real bearing. They argued on. Daddy received
word that America would help evacuate him and his family, if he
wished. He wrote back, This is my country, and we all
felt proud and Uncle Ara clapped his shoulder and called him brave
as an Armenian.
was merriment in this war; we laughed at it from the basement
or the landing, and our laughter kept the little building safe,
though a balcony was lost from the other side, and one night bullets
shattered the windows behind Daddy’s desk and strafed an
arc through his books. Still, there was no escape. Daddy announced
he wanted to usher in the Christmas season in style, to celebrate
survival. Everyone came at the right time except for Uncle Bernie.
We drank cups of hot spiced wine and we waited, but the doorbell
did not ring and the streets went black and quiet. When Daddy
and Uncle Ara came back from searching, they were alone. The party
ended and everyone went home. Daddy sat at the kitchen table,
the phone pressed to his ear, but there was only the khish-khish-khish
of broken lines.
There is the awful day, soon after. I close my eyes, but the day
remains. Daddy pushes the button for the elevator. I slouch next
to him, all hairspray and cigarettes, my eyes drawn in thick black
lines and safety pins dangling from my ears. We hear the elevator
making its way down.
blue eyes meet mine, and they seem to be asking something.
don’t really care, I explain. I can’t feel it.
speaking the truth. I couldn’t feel anything about Uncle
Bernie being kidnapped, and what was most important, to me, was
to convey that coldness and its terribleness. Daddy just crumpled
a little as if he had been slapped on the back, and he lowered
his head for a moment. The elevator bell rang its arrival, and
Daddy stared at the light inside and he didn’t open the
door so the light went out and all was silent.
I am going to pretend you didn’t say that, and then I wanted
to tell him I did care, I did, but it was too late. Daddy held
the door open for me, and we rode up in silence, the floors gliding
by under the straining clanks of the old elevator. The months
went on, carrying us ever farther from the last time we had seen
Uncle Bernie. The grown-ups said, He might be here, or, We heard
he was there and he is in good health, and Uncle Bernie was moved
from place to place, all around the country, and I did not tell
Daddy I cared because parents always know, anyway, the truth inside
their children. Rumors found our door, slipped through as rumors
will, and the grown-ups, starved, fed on them: Did you hear, the
kidnappers were kind at heart; did you hear, they brought him
medicine when needed. The rumors offered a warm bed and no blindfold,
kindly captors, a ransom about to be paid, and I did not listen,
because it did not matter, because I knew with the easy certainty
of a child that Uncle Bernie would be returned to us eventually.
a window, and people looked through me and did not see, and so
I moved through the days and nights. I sought the parts of my
body that I could hide, dragged open the skin with knives. The
pain slid out, trailed by that calm I craved, but then it always
returned. I made a path out of the cuts, leading to the place
under my ribs, the seat of my soul. One day, a lover would find
me. That is what I dreamed, and in all this time, Uncle Bernie
waited in one dark room or another, his feet in his shoes and
his soft hands folded in his lap, and now and then I did think
to miss him, I did.
from The Bullet Collection copyright 2003 by Patricia
Sarrafian Ward. Reprinted with the permission of
Graywolf Press, Saint Paul,
Minnesota. All rights reserved.