by Rima Rantisi
In the days of pearls, they cheered him well
they sprinkled him with candied almonds,
oh how they celebrated him!
“Days of Pearls,” Samira Tewfik
I change the heels of my shoes regularly, as they wear down from walking on the rough surfaces of Beirut streets. They sometimes wear so low that the inner heel clicks on the sidewalks. That’s how I usually know it’s time.
The Toy Guy
I walk into an otherwise empty toy shop, a tiny place packed with toys from floor to ceiling. As I peruse plastic toys that rattle, fit together like towers, light up, or play various lullabies, the owner comes out of a back room and plucks an armful of the boxes of toys he sees me considering. I see him fumbling with batteries at the counter and ripping open a light-up something-or-another. I pick up a block set but something rattles inside, so I ask him if it’s safe for seven-month-old babies and he says, without lifting his face away from the counter, “Of course!” But I can’t find the indication on the box, and knowing the habit of Lebanese shop owners to fib for a sale, I rake the Turkish script to find an age range. It reads, “0-3” with a big strike through it, like a no-smoking sign.
“Come, come, look at this!” he has taken out a tower of plastic rattling parts. “This is beautiful,” he says.
I ask again, “Is this for seven-month-olds? There are small balls in it that a child could swallow if broken open.”
“How will it open up?”
“This is good quality, nothing will break.”
“But it says here, on the bottom of the box…”
“Where? These people are idiots! I’m telling you, idiots…” Here he walks back to the wall of toys, muttering “Idiots” over and over. I stare at the back of his big head, set off with greasy gray curls. When he comes back, he painstakingly explains that the “0-3” symbol means that everything “above” the strike line (which is the zero) is okay. I ignore him. At one point, a long time ago, I might have challenged him, told him to stop lying to me. But it was too much effort.
I finger a toy by Mattel dated 1953. It is a small doll’s set of clothing wrapped in cellophane. The cardboard that the clothes are fitted on is faded and yellowed. It is certainly old. “That’s antique,” he says. I consider buying it, but then put it back. I know that my stepdaughter will not appreciate the old style of clothes, and my house is cluttered enough.
I take one more look around for a toy that will stimulate Leo. The parenting literature says babies need sensory stimulation. There is plenty here, but it’s all plastic. I feel bad not buying anything. He is moving back and forth quickly throughout the store, coming to me each time with a new toy in his hand.
“I’ve been here since the fifties. Here, this is us. We were the first ones on this street.” He points to a photo of himself and his toy store. It is scotch-taped to the counter. “This was us.” He stood back to see my reaction. I stared at the picture, which was laminated and faded. He had kept it here all these years to show his customers that he was once someone, something else.
I smile and leave without buying anything. I think about him for many days to come.
How does one encapsulate herself in a city?
In Chicago, where I lived before I came here, there are wide sidewalks where the baby’s stroller could have moved unobstructedly. There’s 24-hour electricity. There are green yards—I had one: with rose bushes and annuals and a mess of native flowers, Russian sage, black-eyed susans, purple coneflowers, and switch grass—happily sprouting in the front. When I moved to Chicago at eighteen, I hadn’t known that I would stay for ten more years. The old brownstones and my university campus in the middle of that huge city made me feel limitless. I could peek into people’s lives from the street, through their big picture windows in Lincoln Park, and imagine the many lives that moved about the city. I would imagine how I fit inside of it, all the people I would meet and be and love. And I loved many.
I spent late nights at 24-hour diners, once at Hollywood Grill in Wicker Park, talking to my cousin about what I could do next, how lost I felt, how bored, how the city was difficult, too gray and cold, how I wanted to leave the country. I had been acting as if the city, the country needed to change for me—because I did not know how to change in it anymore. My cousin, who had recently returned from visiting our extended family in Lebanon, said go to Beirut. And I believed her.
Abou Abed the Green Grocer
Abou Abed’s fruits and vegetables are always clean: shapely, not oversized, without bruises. He gets the nice stuff that you cannot find just anywhere, like the bushel of onions that hangs in clusters on its own rope, or the local garlic with much smaller, potent cloves than the ones imported from China. It’s always a tight squeeze into the green grocer’s produce shop, which spills out onto the sidewalk just like all the other Beirut grocers.
Abou Abed says hello when he sees me approaching as I walk down the hill from the toy shop and greets me with a smile and a wave. If I ask him how a fruit tastes, he always tells me to try. He never, however, gives me a discount on what I buy, never throws in an extra piece of fruit or vegetable like other green grocers do. He counts his hardware. He walks the few meters of his shop with hunched shoulders and the same navy bowling jacket hanging from his old skinny frame. The smoke from his Gitanes burns my nose. I ask him when he’ll stop smoking. His son, who helps him out in the evenings, guffaws. “We’ve been telling him that for years.”
“I’m tired of this life. I am full,” Abou Abed says today. “Believe me, I am ready to get out.”
I am taken aback by his attitude. I usually do not have personal discussions with Abou Abed. I guess asking him about his smoking was enough to set him off.
“Where are the days that passed? They’re gone, they’re gone. Believe me, I have had enough of this life.”
I scan the large purple-black eggplants as Abou Abed speaks. I’m thinking about making a pasta.
“I had land downtown, and after the war I sold it for $200,000. Now it’s worth $700,000!”
I had heard this complaint before. It’s the narrative of many people who had land in downtown Beirut when it was ravaged to rubble during the civil war, when the prime minister’s development company, Solidere, bought swathes of land for redevelopment. The complaint laments not only the what-was, but what-could-have-been.
“Now I get up at one o’clock, past midnight, to get my produce. How can you get a clean product if you don’t go at one? I’m tired, I’m tired.”
As he speaks, he waves around his hand with the cigarette. “Those were the days! Um Khulthum would have a concert on Friday in Egypt, and I would buy my ticket on Thursday, fly there the next day.” Here a smile forms across his face.
Abou Abed had his heyday. I had only known him as our neighborhood grocer.
“Believe me, those were the days. I’m tired of this life.”
When I came to Beirut, I didn’t know I would be here for ten years and more. I loved its bustling streets and history. I married in it and stayed. But later, the sunny days and views of the mountain range and the sea were defeated by the yellow haze, the dust, the compilation of human refuse. I became bored of the smoky pubs, noisy cafes where I made so many of my memories in Beirut. I was now intolerant of the power cuts, the water shortages, even of the chaos that had once made me feel alive, ready to revolt, like I was part of the world in a way the U.S. couldn’t make me feel, with all its comforts, its self-reliance. Beirut was a city I loved. Now it’s a city where I live.
In Beirut, it is easy to feel like the city is yours and not yours. In its corners, you can find a memory, a friend, an encounter that leaves you thinking for days. And at the same time, its impossibilities nag at you, at each corner, to leave.
When people leave Beirut, they often say that it stays with them, that they want to come back, but they just can’t. They miss the living, the sensory buzz, the truth splayed out on the sidewalk, the old paint, the neighborhood grocers, barbers, and salesmen, the heart they left behind with their friends and families. My friend used to say, I love leaving Beirut so that I can come back to it, so that I can fly over it and feel that enormous nostalgia for a place that I already exist in.
But when people leave for good, they find comforts that make all the past love fade like an old photograph, so long ago that hardly anything inside the frame of that image, that moment, exists anymore. Beirut is not the place they left. I would know. Hamra street is unrecognizable even from the first years I was here. In place of the old orange house whose door I knocked on once when looking for an apartment on Hamra Street, when the tenants looked at me fearfully, scurrying away, saying “There’s no place to live here,” is an American Eagle Outfitters which is next to a MAC store which is near a Charles and Keith in front of which refugees lay homeless, on broken down cardboard boxes. There were better days here for everyone who knew it.
Shadi the Barber, aka Mr. Cuts
“Those days were like pearls,” Shadi says to his friend who is driving away in a rusty Toyota. “Before marriage!”
I am walking into my apartment building, which is a short walk from Abou Abed’s. Shadi has a single-room shop on the first floor of the building, and in the absence of house addresses, it is the landmark that I use each time I give directions.
“Stop talking about your wife like that!” I yell out.
It isn’t the first time I have heard him complain about his fledgling marriage. He is only thirty. Rami, my husband, gets his head shaved at the shop weekly. When Shadi first got married, he would tell Rami how much he missed his single life, and about the women he had gone out with the night before.
“This,” here he laces his fingers together as if in desperate prayer, “doesn’t work!” He seems to be referring to “togetherness.” He works long hours at the shop, often hanging out on the bench in front, eating lunch or talking to one of his buddies. His wife never visits. I always feel bad for her although I have never met her. My feelings come from solidarity with all the women in this city who are left behind, ignored, waiting at home under that old patriarchy. Nonetheless, I am only imagining her in this situation.
Shadi is a good neighbor.
He looks after the people in the neighborhood, like the time someone stole my phone from my hand in front of the building. He had left his client in the chair, half-shaven, hopped on his motorbike and caught the thief down the road. Shadi hadn’t hesitated to help me; I have felt indebted to him ever since.
“I was free!” He flaps his arms like a bird as he stomps into his barber shop. “Who goes from being free to being in a cage?” His parrot, Rico, hangs in a cage outside on the small patio that is framed with lively plants.
“You see that bird? Tomorrow, I’m gonna set him free.”
I begin my long ascent up the stairs to the seventh floor. One foot after another heavily lands, and it’s not the first time I question how I came to be here. Here, in a place where the streets are alive with a worn sadness, where people who have lived their whole lives in this city long for the old glory of being good at what they do, of being seen and free. The walls of the stairwell need paint, but everyone in the building pays old rent from the pre-civil war days, before the inflation of the Lebanese pound. Our neighbor pays one hundred dollars a year. The landlord won’t pay for clean white walls as long as her tenants pay old rent and drive nice cars.
Rounding corner after corner, the higher up I get, the more I swear and mutter under my breath. I am tired of complaining. Tired of the heat. Tired. By the time I reach my door on the seventh floor, I catch a few breaths and think about how I will walk in. Rami does not need to hear my complaining, my perpetual mindset of comparing here and there. He has always been here. I decided to be here. We are here, and for now, we are not leaving.
Rima Rantisi is a faculty member in the Department of English at the American University of Beirut. She is the founding editor of Rusted Radishes: Beirut Literary and Art Journal, which publishes artists and writers from Lebanon, its diaspora, and the region and is currently in its seventh circulation. Her essays can be found in the anthology Arab Women Voice New Realities, Assay: A Journal of Nonfiction Studies, and Sweet: A Literary Confection. She holds an MFA in Creative Nonfiction from the Vermont College of Fine Arts.
SLAG GLASS CITY · Volume 5 · May 2019
Header image by Imad Haddad