The commencement speaker wants to speak on their future, but staring out into the crowd, all he is urged to examine is their collective past.
The tension is in his shoulders. Descending from the nape of his neck to his abdomen. If he were not being watched, he would congest his jaw and cringe.
How many are there in the crowd?
That year, the campus had been stunned. A malaise settled over the public, what many attributed to the deteriorating political situation in the country, descending on the capital from all sides. Causing an incendiary season of hate, ignorance, violence in the streets, between classmates, riots that shut the city down.
He moved to Beirut in 2006, twelve days before the war began, ten days before Italy won their most deserved World Cup. Eighteen years old and crazy. Passionate for two things in life. The beautiful game, and revolution. Boys who swell to revolutionary ideals to answer the impending unanswerable questions, to quell the unconscionable negligence of society to ask these very questions itself. Unconscionable. Eighteen, a boy with a conscience.
He was forced to take five classes his first semester. Having accidentally read the regulations stipulating plain clear terms that one of his courses from high school had exempted him from having to take five courses his first semester, a regulation later denied by the office of the registrar of the university, he admitted himself to only four classes that first semester. One class he failed, a mathematics for idiots course he would also fail two other times. Anther course, chemistry, also for idiots, he withdrew, and so he was left with two courses that very first semester. A political science course, that reiterated what he already knew, what he’d already learned and discovered. He managed to do alright in the course. In the end, he had one of the higher grades, but not without some trouble in the final few weeks of the semester. and the final course of that first fall, an American Studies course, on sexuality and sexual identity in the Middle East and North America. It was a course that changed his life.
He was introduced to certain topics that hadn’t been discussed in school. He discovered Adderall, spending three full days, working through the nights, somehow managing to feed himself a six inch subway sandwich at some point in between, writing the masterpiece, so he believed, that would become his final paper. He devoured the readings, meeting the works of Walt Whitman and Abu Nuwas for the first time.
That first semester passed unnoticed, though in the end he had only accumulated for himself six out of the expected fifteen credits, and had begun to show early signs of an addictive behavior, primarily to the use of marijuana, usually hashish, but in those days the two were readily available. He formed a circle of friends. Lived reasonably well with his roommate, his older brother, and their maid, an overage muppet of a human being, who had an extremely large head on a tight fitted body, her legs the legs of a sixteen year old girl, somewhere in the Americas, her eyes the eyes of a Mongol monk, and her skin the skin of a wolf, a hyena, thick, and course, full with veins and acne scars. Later she would fall in love with him, declare her love in letters she would leave him around the house, and only when removed form her position by the family, vanquished to return home, would the torment against him stop, torment in the form of love.
One night, two months into his schooling, he joined the rugby team. He had originally planned to continue playing football that was where he felt most comfortable, having captained his varsity team and delivered them to glory, having delivered glory many times, but after a conversation with the coach of the university football team, coach Moataz, an Egyptian with a foul mouth and a beautiful jaw, who crowned himself the leader of both the men’s and women’s teams, and made no effort to shelter his reputation from an ever increasing rumor of sexual assault against his players. He assaulted a few of the girls, without much complaint. Those crimes would go unnoticed. But upon turning his eyes to the boys, eyebrows were raised, and when he assaulted the son of a Catholic priest, a leader in his village hometown, a twenty minute drive from Beirut, veering off into the hills, he was forced from his position. People were expecting his career to be over, not to hear from him again, but he soon reemerged into the spotlight, finding himself assigned Minister of Sports and Tourism. In a rare show of charitable reach for a politician, he forced his way back into the university grounds, and elected himself varsity coach.
But that was not and had nothing to do with why the young student chose to quit the varsity football team. That had to do with a conversation the two, Coach Moataz and himself, carried out on the eve of a match. He assigned the newcomer the vice captainship, and assigned him the responsibility of penalties. To the boy’s surprise. That night, he told him, urged him, that for the benefit of the team, he ought to forget his way of playing football, Playing football the English way, of passing the ball and making attempts to make a quick, reasonable pass. Instead, the coach said, he ought to run with the ball, in order to make a star play. The following day, the young boy ran with the ball, and after being fouled, was awarded a penalty. He missed the penalty kick, shooting it with too much height, the ball lifting off the ground in impressive speed, with impressive power for a boy his size, and a stance that calm, but the ball, moving with such impressive speed, was right in the height of the goalkeeper’s glove, and so he saved it, the glove conceding the impact of the ball. The goalkeeper’s arm was broken, but the penalty was missed. The following day he quit the team.
And so he had joined the rugby team, a collection of scoundrels pulled form the ranks of all the other sports. The future captain of the rugby team, Wael, was still then a timid, approachable boy, showing no signs of his later psychosis. Karim, the team vice captain, was fiercely driven, fiercely demanding on his peers. All with a smile though, and so it was ignored by most, but his demanding ways would often get them in trouble, causing them to lose a player to injury in training, or to a red card in a game. The actual captain was a small, educated boy, whose shorter body seemed dwarfed in certain joints, but nonetheless he could tackle unlike any player on the team. He could also tell funny stories, and he had once taught the young student a riddle that he later used to accrue the attention of some girls, who listened intently to his riddle, trying to find the meaning in his hints, his gestures. The rest of the boys were either fat or really thin and fast. The fat boys would be the forwards, and take all the hits. The fast boys would catch the ball on kicks and run for their lives, or try to make a play, at the speed of snails, when their team had the ball.
He attended two trainings. He liked the trainings. They were allowed to tackle one another. He had never enjoyed the promiscuity of fouls in football, the way boys took to the pitch with tears in their eyes if they got a tug on the shirt or a snap on the heel. He enjoyed tackling and being hit, sideblinded and burned into the turf or thrown without caution into the Styrofoam sidelines.
But he didn’t enjoy the running, the sprints, shuttle run, laps across the field, laps around the stadium, laps along the lines. All night, up and down. There was even talk from Karim of morning practices, morning showers, morning runs across the university. He didn’t like that idea, but continued with the training on his second night, on behalf of his having quit the football team, and his brother and some of their friends were also playing rugby, and seemed excited.
The coach, a dimwit who’d been raised improperly in Australia, who later it was revealed had stolen two of the players’ phones, returning them in humiliation, was more of an annoyance on the pitch. In training, he would yell to the boys as they ran their laps, listening to one of the boys tell stories from his week, Nemer talking about his last shit, the buttplug he was going to buy his girlfriend, or Mario talking about the hookers he slept with on his latest trip to Bulgaria. Training went like this.
After only a couple trainings, he was picked for the first game of the season, a game against a club team from North of the country, Jounieh, a team of even greater scoundrels, lesser human beings of more improper upbringing. Their captain, Dandash, which translates into Raging Giraffe in the Arabic dialect of his ancestors, nomadic barbarians who traveled across the Islamic and Oriental empires, breeding with the strongest and most physically able Bedouin tribes, was a monstrous figure of a man. His shoulders were perched on a chest that protruded from his muscular body, his stomach aligned with row upon row of muscle lining. His legs, it was said, could lift the sole of a truck if allowed to move at their desired pace. The man was a trained mixed martial artist, and he wore long, thick black hair that reached down to his knees, curled like it had not been washed in weeks. Lacking the creativity of dreadlocks, and fearing that they could not be tied during a game, he only ornamented himself with black paint he drew across his face, three lines to insinuate a trinity of darkness.
During the course of the game, at some random interval, having done nothing but follow the movement of the endlessly dropped ball with his eyes, attending to its wishes, the ball took a strange turn after a deflection, after being hurled in the air in desperation as one of his teammates attempted a pass, and landed right in his arms, where, taking one step forward and dropping to his knees, he scored a try. The easiest try to ever be scored by someone who had previously never touched the ball in a competitive game, and he scored two of them. And then they lost. Later that night, after drinking with some of his friends, he decided to quit the team, and he did. Speaking on the phone with a girl he had liked from class, he boasted to her about his two tries, caught in the act by his friend, who laughed about it later while they were smoking the evening’s fifth or sixth joint. Happiness, he must have felt, comes to us all.
Having quit both teams, he needed a new hobby to distract him from studying and going on his way to liberate Palestine, so he decided to smoke a lot of hash.
He discovered hash like most kids discover weed. He had broken up with his girlfriend his senior year of high school, after she had left him for a drug dealer in Florida, where she attended university, a year earlier than him. He was depressed, on his mother’s urges of only expressly denying himself happiness for two weeks and nothing more, he decided to spend those two weeks drinking with his friends. He made margaritas, would go to his friend’s house and play the drums and get drunk off tequila and frozen margaritas. During school hours, friends from the soccer team, usually a Portuguese kid, Gus, and an American kid, Zach, would sneak off campus and walk the two minutes to his place, hide in his basement and drink his father’s whiskey, listening to the early outlaw country tunes they discovered that week. An obsession with country music began that day, but it had really begun in his family car when he was a young, six or seven year old boy, singing along to his father’s collection of Kenny Rodgers tunes.
Later in the two week period, one of his friends, a girl he had known most of his life, threw her birthday party. They got wasted, he punched his best friend in the face, one of his friends called a kid from another school, Toby, the daughter of a whore who fucked a black African and that’s why he’s so dark, and the place erupted into madness, and everything on the lawn and at the pool was broken, and the place left a real mess, so that the party ended on the father’s command. The following morning, he returned to the house with a friend, to collect some of the unwanted booze. A bottle of dark rum of questionable quality, and questionable producer, and a few loafs of beers. They ordered a cab with some money their parents gave them, and they drove the two hours in the cab to Dubai, where they secretly took sips of their bottle of rum. In the taxi, his friend told him he had some hash on hand, and that they would smoke it later, and get high. If he wanted, of course. Remembering that he had probably lost his girlfriend for the fact that he didn’t smoke weed and she did daily, evidenced by the fact that she left him for a weed dealer, who also would later get her addicted to Xanax pills and other prescriptive narcotics, he decided once and for all to try it. That night, after meeting up with a South African friend of theirs, whose accent he loved, at whose house they would sleep, and meeting up with two other girls from their rival school, who they would later ditch after realizing the girls wouldn’t put out, they smoked the joint and sat in the South African’s room. He wasn’t high but pretended to laugh, wanting to enjoy himself.
For the next several weeks, he smoked a few joints every now and then, not getting high, until one night at a school lock in, where all the students were locked in, willingly, overnight at school, he was given a piece of hash to swallow, not smoke, and after finding the feeling elusive, he jumped the fence of the campus and walked home. Four hours and seventeen minutes later, he was stoned for the very first time.
During the closing chapters of the semester, he had formed a dear habit of smoking, reading his course material in a rush in order to finish his errands and smoke free of responsibility for the remainder of the day. And following, he discovered Adderall, after a friend who had abandoned the country during the war, for good reason of course, who many suspected was a secret agent for the United States, or Israel, or come to think of it, South Africa, the Netherlands, Sweden, any predominantly Caucasian country that has institutionalized racism in the past, returned. He moved in across the street, and soon developed a violent relationship between the two brothers and the secret agent, who would expressly deny, with a sheepish grin, his involvement in extrajudicial assassinations in the country.
He had formed some friends, a thriving political inspiration that would see him read Pity the Nation twice, weeping every time he would arrive at Mount Sannine, rejoicing in the beauty of his beloved surroundings, even when his friend’s car tires were locked in the snow, and they had to carefully push the four by four through a kilometer of ice, down the steep slope of a mountain.
He had even fallen in love, quietly, with several girls he would never approach, developing in these months a certain resistance toward women, feeling himself so culturally excluded from their thinking ways.
It was a healthy time, and he survived it.
It had also been a turbulent time. A few separate situations that, coupled with the aftermath of the war they had just experienced, introduced him to a series of disappointments he would later call home.
First, a week before student elections occurred, he was surprised to learn from his brother and their friends that the elections were an enormously celebrated occasion, and occasion that draws the interest of the entire nation, some years, the region. Political parties were drafting their voters, coercing them with notes and previous exam promises, some of the parties funded with more leverage, others resorting to more physical, aggressive coercive power. He thought they should get involved, and drunk one night, ten days before Halloween, they formed a club among each other, and all those present, and some who would later join, would fall under the umbrella of this club. It was really a matter of boys falling in love under the influence of alcohol in a garden that bore the sign, in big block, childish letters, friendship garden. The following morning, they were summoned to campus by the party heads, for conversations on their attempts to sabotage their respective victories.
The meetings went well. They were sad to admit defeat and promised not to involve themselves in the childish bickering of the public. That proved to be a mistake. A first mistake in a series of disappointments he would later call home.
A few weeks later, while in his sexuality and sexual identity class, news broke that a young politician, the son and nephew of two previous presidents, and the grandson of one of the most powerful men to ever lay his rough hand over the country, a man inspired by the Berlin Olympics of ’36 and Hitler’s maniacal grip over the public, had been assassinated in his car while driving, a few bullets to his name. Fears that a civil war could break out were quietly diminished. He was happy that night to learn there would not be school for a couple days. He enjoyed those days with his friends, dismayed as they were to the rotting situation.
A few weeks after that, a sector of the population, for reasons which were unclear at the time, staged a boycott of the government in the center of the city, repeating a custom that the other crowd on the opposite spectrum of the political divide had initiated two years earlier, ousting in the process a Syrian occupation. They paralyzed the economy and forced the city into arms. Suddenly, checkpoints emerged on every corner, and traveling with a piece of hash, or an ounce of weed, proved dangerous, and he began to feel his habits restricted.
And finally, on the first day of finals, a campus brawl between two polar camps set off a riot, and thousands of students clashed on the streets. The semester came to a close after a turbulent few weeks, and by the turn of the season, looking on into spring, the feeling in his plexus had changed. He realized in those first days of renewal the immense decision he had made in moving to Beirut.
His first spring semester passed without much wind. He did alright in all of his classes, one A, two B’s, one C and a D, deservedly. He missed most classes and developed a reputation for tardiness, absences, and missed assignments, but he always made good in the end and for this reason all of his professors came to know him. His philosophy class was taught by an American, who had the good nature to excuse him for his absences and missed assignments on account of having done all the readings. When in class, he exhibited great understanding of the assignments and could manifest his own arguments. This is why his absence left such a void that it could not pass unnoticed.
He refused to take math that semester, a decision that would haunt him in the summertime. He would spend the spring entertaining the idea he was developing a certain mode of mind, a raison d’etre for his smoking. He hadn’t yet discovered the drugs that would induce a paradigm shift to his core, but he was slowly idling by, the activism of his heart, his youth, waning away with every breath of cigarette smoke he inhaled into his substantially weakened lungs. Crumbs of hash lay rusted under his nails. He became known as one of those who deals with drugs, and, someone who is finished. His conversations on campus, when before he held court with some of the more outstanding brains, those hearts to whom political involvement went without question, to whom the fate of their country, of their people, gave breath to their own life, he now spent most of his time with burnouts under the trees, who would explain to him the different effects of different drugs, the different meanings to all the highs and how they corresponded to differing needs of the body. He learned how to make his first roach out of paper, identification cards, subway tickets from other cities. He learned about Amsterdam and the unconditional freedom. But mostly, he stared off into oblivion, letting his eyes drip onto the stationary grounds, the impermeable canvas of hordes, students mending their days with social bounds, arresting themselves to the decadence of the social square. That long walk on campus, from one end of the medical gate to the other, at Penrose dormitories, where all the student factions had their own nest, and the women passed through as cypresses or hiding behind a desperate cloud of visually impenetrable cloth.
What days! But they were not formative days. Days of youth, days of great and irreversible plunder. He had opened the doors of his home to the masses, opened the gates to let visitors in whenever they pleased, so long as they obeyed the rules, obliging his expectations. And what expectations? Simply, the conversation, the alcohol, the joint. These very three things, very delicate matters in a country, it is now obvious, was eating itself from within. Chewing at her own loins. He made friends, joining group after group, witnessing the demise of social cohesion, realizing that all his friends shared one thing in common. They were all grossly tied to their high school relationships, and all of them, without question, closer to their religious sect than any other. Even those form Beirut and that posed its own problem.
He turned to his brother. They were outcasts, now he knew. They would never be accepted by the mystical tribe of their ancestors, nor did they have reason to want to. But every man needs his place of court. So it was his doors, when grown, began to submerge, and all the while, all his mischief in the city turned against his reputable name, he withdrew into a corner of the earth, onto his balcony, in a curve of shadows, where he was impenetrable, imperceptible, unknown. There he remained, for the remainder of the year. While his friends honored the dead, honoring the whores.
But to a young man, not an elderly man, and not a man of any reputable responsibility, those hours alone, switched off to the bastards, quiet in his own little cave, safe, enjoying the scenery of a lamp and two pens, the sound of every glitch in his speakers, and his wayfaring songs. This had become his sanctuary. Those months, where one was not able to travel from one curvature of the city to three curvatures down without the hassle of an army checkpoint and a police checkpoint a hundred meters away. Those months, in a city where on three separate occasions, each at the beginning of every month, a police squad would raid a festival, a rave, a nightclub, and two hundred students, some of them friends, dealers, random fucks whose names he’d forget, would all be arrested, their households shamed, their pardon forbidden. He had the first taste of the Mediterranean in March, and he enjoyed abandoning his responsibilities, taking in the sun at home, pouring himself a drink before he ever needed one. But those months, in the background, a wilderness had emerged. Slowly, he was becoming a sad, apathetic part of it.
No recollection of those months, beyond the ordinary passing of time enjoyed and time wasted. Hours like running on sand, perched on a straw chair with a joint in hand, ruminating on the collection of disturbances emerging outside. A feeling of passivity overcomes him, and he becomes, as they say, a cloud. A figment that emerges from the shadows of their cave to wrestle a bullet of survival. Coming out for the needs. For the wants. For the craves.
He had even burned bridges with one of his friends. The man they suspected of spying for the great Satan, he had given him a box of two hundred or so Adderall pills to enjoy. One afternoon, while a group of thirty, maybe forty young men, students mostly, some of them elderly spying on the younger girls, hanging around between classes, smoking from their medwakhs, discussing and plotting, the friend emerged from a long absence and confronted our character. He confronted him in broad daylight as though there had already been an issue. Well, he didn’t take kindly to it, and so he resisted the temptation to fight but accepted that he would not listen to the other man’s words. He made himself clear, and the man fucked off. Like a bug, he fucked off, and he didn’t hear form him again, for several months, the cunt who suggested he had sold all the pills for his own profit. The boy had many things he did not need. He did not need the money.