He had an urge to step out of his house that morning. Early morning, before the others would rise. He’d been in a state of angst, and it felt good to be alone, to meet the chill breeze of the sea, the quiet fishermen taking in their thoughts, the coffee sellers planning generously for the day. The clarity of the environment was contradictory to the to the reality on the ground. Others spoke of it as well, others who had tried to escape into the wilderness but returned with their hopes dashed. Past life regression therapy, he heard stories from traveling fanatics who spoke of it as the only cure. One hand in this life, one of them had said, and another in the afterlife. In his youth, he had tried to communicate beyond this dimension, but always fell short of connecting to a medium or a source. Sometimes, disillusioned by his failures, he would smoke enough of his pipe to firmly believe his favorite radio hosts to be otherworldly messengers, using the sportswire or newswire as a cover. But as with most determinations in life, apathy snuck her fangs and removed him from his habits. Soon, he was weaving dreams on a stationary park, resting his legs and curling his head around an ancient tree trunk, reluctant to admit his declining faith, meeting the eyes of other drifters, possibly enlightened, with a dip of his own, curious not to offend, careful not to be too noticed. They might realize of him what is true of themselves, he always thought.
Suddenly, he felt his mood sour. Staring aimlessly at the open sky, he wondered if there had been a time in his little country’s past where an eagle might soar over the landscape, choosing to bite at the instant those gathered below took notice. A profound stench rose from the opposite end of the street, stretching to where he stood, upset at the smell. Drifting further into melancholy he stepped to the side, lying against a steel gate and some concrete blocks, smoking a cigarette he rolled with one hand at his side and the other pulling his scarf to his mouth.
He thought in that moment of his melancholic walks along the Beirut Cornish, wrestling with the waning enthusiasm of his being there, the neglect of an obvious female pursuit, the voice of Jim Morrison carrying him along, Cars Hiss by my Window and he could remember the very day he fell out of love with the city, the day the streets were blazing with pre pubescent ingrates brandishing their guns. Snipers on rooftops, intermittent skirmishes on the streets of West Beirut.
Upon moving to the city, it had been reeling with a sense of promise, a sense of hope. Imminent change. Imminence. He vowed, during his first foray into the political mess, staging a friendly boycott of the student elections in his university, never to abandon the nation of his roots. At the time, he felt Beirut still possessed a soul. Unlike his, it could absorb the weight of catastrophe, and remain standing. Though he never knew the town the way elders speak of it in its prime, its golden age, before the decapitation of its heart, everywhere he would go he always felt a sense of longing for the ruined little port town. And when he pictured himself traveling across the horn of Africa, selling bundles of dates and olives he had collected off Bedouins and farmers in his travels westward, finally living a life of solitude, connected to the soil, always moving, always on the go, he imagined the poor settlers he would encounter to look into his face and ask his opinion on their predicament. It is fine here, he would say, it is always fine. Where are you from, they would ask. A port, three revolutions away. What is it like there, one of them would ask. Now, he would say, it is destroyed.
An older man would intervene, collecting spit in his mouth and dismantling it. He is from the port of ports, the graceful eye of the Levant, the shores of Bacchus. In my day, he would add, it was the most glorious port, filled with monument standing since antiquity, the most elegant, beautiful women you have ever seen. From the heights of the Cedar mountains, you could smell jasmine, lavender, descend from the skies, burning hashish swell the evening air, tasting zaatar on your spoiled tongue from the hands of an elderly mother, the wife of a village sage, who could recite to you verses of Greek poets, ulemma mystics, and the decadent couplets of Baudelaire, all in one breath. The his voice would drop, suffering what all men suffer when faced with regret, adding over the aged croaking of his voice, But it is true what he says, now, it is destroyed.
They would settle their accounts and leave, disappearing into a thick gaseous smog, desert winds blazing, glancing over their shoulders to the young traveler left alone, standing on the flatland with signs of loneliness in his eyes. How would contend later with what he’d heard, yet again, from a man who saw what he would never see, a land of beauty and liberty.
On his walk Eastward he would recount the stories he’d heard, dreaming fantasies of another time in his mind. In this way, he could anticipate a different space, arriving with the temper of another age, fixing his form to the modern day. But each step of his boots against the sweltering, mismanaged gravel road, oiling the soles of his shoes in darkness, would slow the pace of his fantasy, irking him on his travel home. Soon, he would hear the rapid fire agitation of assault rifles and mortars, cluster bombs painting a familiar summer sky on the horizon, clouds of smoke rising over banana fields and orange groves, jets dispatched over the pine forests in the East and the Cedars in the North, pummeling towers, schools, bridges, leaving a heap of rubble in their passing wake. The sight of firing squads, executions on sectarian grounds. Intricate assassinations and eruptions of violence. Still, he had hope. Until, it was gone.
He felt guilty, for losing the only weapon he had. It wasn’t just hope in his hometown, it was everywhere, but here felt different. Here he had had hope. Elsewhere, where he had no hope now, he may never have had it, but here it had deceived him. He felt betrayed.
As a child, as the world economy fell to pieces, and wars sprouted across the Fertile Crescent, North Africa, and Eastern Asia, sending large swathes of refugees across borders, nations forced to absorb the burden of neighborly wars, and still distant neighbors refusing entry to a growing mass of displaced peoples. He had watched, from the celebratory streets, from television screens flashing their addictive neon lights, the ending of two occupations, five years apart. The enemy withdrawal from the south, the tyrant’s withdrawal from the north. Still people complained, where was the cleansing of Zionist terrorists from the Golan, from Shebaa, from the metaphysical space that rules the country. How long would we wait to clear the mosques of Jerusalem from the filth of an occupying force? How long must the parliament in Martyr’s Square stand as a beacon of foreign espionage, black operations, in the region? Early liberators wore sectarian emblems on their sleeves, chanting in unison slogans of patriotism but with the fanfare of radical ideology. The Party of God shone her glory to the world, and Arabs the world over took pride in her success. To free Arab land from the enemy’s grip, that was a victory no standing army had achieved. But soon, the clash of sectarian titles stormed the ancient cities of Damascus and Aleppo, merging with a deepening quagmire in Iraq, and the recent victory soured into a devastating quagmire of its own. Years later, where he stood now, every foreign face had become an enemy, every neighbor had become a threat.
The memory of his youth sprang to his mind. Marching through the waterfront to protest a string of assassinations. Months after he first arrived, he would hide himself in his room, with a group of trusted friends, for two, sometimes three days, while the violence spread outside, raging and claiming the reality on the ground, and they would loosen the mood with bottles and bottles of wine, whiskey, crates of beer, joint after joint, some high grade weed he would pay extra for, ordering more than they would ever need, and the infamous Lebanese hash that he so coveted, from the valleys, from the Christian lowlands, from the slums of West Beirut. He tried everything, and everything worked. Cough syrup, during some of the curfews. Tabs of LSD during a lull in the fighting. Most of all, they enjoyed the heavy handed pills sweeping through the underground. By the time he had finished his first eyar of studies, he had become a symbol of political antagonism, courting only the dregs, the washed up, those who would not raise their voice for politics. Once, in his first few weeks in Beirut, he had been invited to partake in a weekly poker match between friends, friends of his older brother, friends of friends. No sooner had they divided the chips, drawn the cards, than a fight broke out between two of the players. Within minutes, the table had been turned, a gun was pulled to one of the player’s heads, and he realized the magnitude of the situation. They were not just politically inclined, politically charged, politically curious. His contemporaries were political militants, and they did not view their militancy through an intellectual framework, which he might understand, enjoying long debates on the utility of warfare, for the economy especially, the utility of torture, secret police, dirty tactics. He was not an idealist, but this was real. At the end of that night, sitting around a dining table, several of the guests now drunk, the two who had fought earlier having made up, enjoying the last remains of a spliff, he decided he did not want to be like them. He didn’t want to be like them, he wanted to be better. He wanted to raise the stakes of militancy. He wanted to build a name.
He walked now along the deserted harbor between two bridges, delegating two ends of the same tribe. He thought of the girls he shared his days with, who he remembered vividly on such walks. He lit a cigarette and greeted the fishermen, absorbed in the quiet of their craft. He took interest in the image of families crowding along the shore, just below the abandoned amusement park, where he’d fallen in love as a child. He continued walking, reaching the white sands at the southern tip of the peninsula. There lay a few groups down by the water taking in the sun. He remembered nabbing crabs off the sand blocks to toss wildly into the air in fits of joy, trying his best to impress her. Reaching the renovated shoreline, newly abandoned resorts, quieter now in the twilight of autumn, he watched schoolchildren huddled beneath the waterfalls, lying under the Mediterranean sun waiting on the waves. The waves that do not disappoint. The sea that is my home.
He listened to the silence of his mind, allowing the breeze to settle in. There had been many nights, many days, where he wandered without end, thinking of an earlier time, a different time. He would often wonder if it all really happened, or if he managed to believe the journeys of his dreams. The music is in my veins, he wrote one night, while she lay in bed beside him. He watched her that night, amazed, wondering, had he sought her out or had she? Did she really exist? Did he? At times, they felt so abnormally compatible it would feel as though they were distinguished from the rest. Others would applaud them but they ought ot have pitied them, knowing it would not last. Not here, he thought, nothing lasts.
The flash of a photographer’s camera startled him. His face grim, he felt in that moment swaying between the protagonist and antagonist of his own life’s film. He could not tell in that moment whether the crowd of strangers, who had taken no interest in him, had inconspicuously formed an audience. He felt paranoid, all of a sudden, feeling incontrovertibly alone. Something in a moment’s force must have triggered his pandering to feelings of nostalgia, he thought.
He rushed through the city in an anxious panic towards the museum. Cinema Paradiso was playing at the film center. He rushed a smoke outside and went inside to buy a ticket. He wondered how much time he had before the film would begin, asking, and was told it would begin in twenty minutes. He was not carrying a watch or a phone.
He went back outside to catch some fresh air. Cool winds easing the day’s burn off his face. The delicacy of an autumn evening, he thought, so that in that moment he did feel comfort, and felt his peculiar otherness rise from the shadows of subordination. His senses heightened and his mind lifted past his thoughts to emptiness. He concluded in that brief moment of tranquility that the following day would be one of grave consequence.