by Mishka Mojabber Mourani
Driving in Beirut can be hazardous at the best of times. It was immeasurably more risky in the 1980’s, during the Lebanese war, but I did not know this first-hand the day I drove down Bliss Street, on my way to moving to the school campus. Reaching Tarazi’s famous ice-cream shop, I took a right down the AUB lane that led to the wrought iron gate marking the entrance to the college. My suitcase sat prominently in the back of my tiny navy blue Fiat 127. I was barely out of my teens, still an undergrad at the university.
It was a Sunday, so the school was empty. I was greeted by the giant cypress trees that form an avenue, beginning at the western end of the school and extending through the university to the medical gate. The campus comprising the two institutions is one of the few green areas in a city bereft of open spaces. I parked my car under a jacaranda tree facing Rockefeller Hall. I headed toward the adjacent building, glancing at the plaque. SAGE HALL 1911. It was an imposing rectangular building of white sandstone ashlar, with a red-tiled pitched roof, belonging to the Ottoman tanzeemat period of construction, with a balcony overlooking the main entrance and a long, wide corridor on each floor with classrooms on either side. The windows facing north at the end of each corridor framed two cypress trees on each side, cloudless blue skies, and a deeper blue sea. It was almost surreal.
I climbed the short flight of well-worn stairs to the ground floor, and then up two more to reach the boarding department. The girls’ dorm was to the right of the landing, the supervisor’s room immediately to the left, just before the President’s apartment. I knocked on the thick wooden door, painted a yellowish cream. The brass doorknob turned and Rae stood there, the sun behind her. She made way for me to go in.
I had slept over a few times at school already that month, when it had been impossible for me to drive back to Zarif, which was about four kilometers away, because of a sudden deterioration in the security situation. Rae and I had been hired to teach English. We were still working on our BAs at the neighboring American University of Beirut. We were also working part-time at Radio Lebanon’s English Service. We had a talk show together, and were also on a rotation to read the English news bulletin. Our parents’ apartments were both within walking distance of the radio station, so that made us a valuable commodity.
The school had hired us as a stopgap measure when overseas teachers who had been contracted to come to Lebanon had changed their minds as a result of the worsening security situation that had begun in April 1975. Within a few short months, fighting in the streets of Beirut had degenerated into armed militias taking control of various parts of the city, the worst fighting occurring in the heart of Beirut—what was known as the Green Line. The school was situated in what became known as West Beirut. Many of the teachers lived in East Beirut, and found it impossible to cross over on a daily basis. Consequently, temporary sleeping quarters were set up on campus.
Rae’s room was a converted storage room, all of four meters by three, with a window taking up most of the wall facing the door. Two narrow single beds covered in colorful kilims and separated by a small night table took up most of the space of the room. A closet with a mirror, two bookshelves, and a small Persian rug made up the rest of the furnishings of the room.
“Where’s your suitcase?” asked Rae.
“In the car. It was too heavy to carry.” I grimaced. “The way things have been going, I have no idea when I will be able to go back home. It’s only a 12-minute drive, but it might as well be in another country. I passed two roadblocks. They just waved me through, but between the shelling and the kidnapping these days, and my parents leaving for Greece… I packed a lot of stuff!”
Rae grinned. ”It’s lucky I took this extra assignment as boarding supervisor, or we would have had to share a basement with four more people! See, I removed the desk, so the extra bed fits perfectly here, and we’ll just use the big table in the teachers’ lounge below to do our work.”
“I drove my parents to the airport this morning,” I said. “I feel so much better about them not being here. Especially Dad. They are not bothering women, but Christian men in West Beirut are not always safe. This situation is bound to clear up soon, and then they can come back without having to worry about kidnappings and sniping and what not.
“Let’s go get your suitcase,” said Rae.
We climbed down past the empty classrooms and made our way to my car. We ran into Nabil, a young physics teacher who lived in Antelias, in East Beirut. He was one of IC’s new residents and shared the men’s quarters in the preschool music room. Rae had a secret crush on him.
“Where are you two off to?” he asked.
“We’re going to get my suitcase. I’m moving in with Rae.”
“Yalla, I’ll give you a hand.”
Rae and I spent long afternoons reading, sketching, and talking. Living on campus was a bit of an adventure, but that little room became a haven for us. It was in that tiny space that I wrote my first poem. Rae was sitting on the Persian rug her mother had given her for her room. She had just told me about something Nabil had done that had made her very happy. And so I wrote:
A ray of sun stretched out and touched
Stretched out and touched.
Over the next fifteen years I wrote a number of poems that I published when the war ended, in fulfillment of a promise I had made myself if I survived the war.
A few weeks later, the Christmas break started. I had driven home to Zarif to pick up some things before I went to Athens. I was going to park the car at school, and had booked a taxi to take Rae and me to the airport.
I had almost reached the Bustros Pharmacy near the Sanayeh garden. I had often walked on that road to go from our house to the radio station, so I knew the area well. At the crossroads I was going to take a left toward Ras Beirut. Suddenly two young men carrying Kalashnikovs blocked my way. To my right was Daaboul Taxi, a company everyone used, particularly to go to Syria or Jordan safely.
“Your papers,” said one of the armed men.
I reached out for my ID card and gave it to him.
“Marie, and from Ashrafieh? Welcome! Get out of the car.”
I was stunned. The war had destroyed all constants, but one norm that had survived was that women were rarely harassed.
“But I am not from Ashrafieh. That’s where we are registered. I live here in Zarif, and have done so for years. I work at Radio Lebanon down the street,” I protested.
“Sure you do,” he mocked. “Yalla, nzali– get down!” He pointed his machine gun at me.
I got out of the car. On the first floor balcony a man was leaning with folded arms on the railing. The Daaboul Taxi office below looked the same. On the sidewalk in front of it were a couple of white plastic chairs, and a tray with coffee cups. An armed man sat on one of the chairs, his machine gun on his lap. The sun shone brightly, almost tauntingly. The man got up and beckoned to me. He pointed to the entrance of the building. We walked down a staircase leading to the basement. I was temporarily blinded by the darkness after the bright sunlight outside. He banged on a metal door. The door opened.
“Yalla fouti—in you go,” growled the armed man.
Another man, similarly armed, stood in the doorway. The metal door swung shut.
The silence and darkness frightened me. I sensed that there were people in there, but I couldn’t see much. The atmosphere was dank. There was an odd smell. I think now it was the smell of fear.
I do not know how long I was there for, nor do I remember much about what I was feeling. I was numb with shock. All I recall is the heavy metal door swinging open and the armed fellow who had first stopped me whispering to the basement guard and pointing at me. The guard headed toward me. I shrank.
“Do you work for Radio Lebanon?” he asked tentatively.
I stared at a water stain on the wall behind his head. I couldn’t look at him.
“Yes, I do. I am a West Beiruti.”
“Well, you’re lucky. The neighbor on the first floor recognized you. I guess you were telling the truth. You’re free to go.”
I don’t remember getting out of that basement. All I recall is finding myself out in the busy street again, the sun shining brightly, my car parked by the curb. I got in. I couldn’t control the shaking in my leg but drove back to school anyway. I arrived to find the taxi I had booked to take us to the airport had been waiting for some time. Rae looked worried.
“What happened? Where were you? “
“It’s a long story, Rae. Let’s just go.”
Within three hours we were in Athens. We spent a festive week there with my extended Greek family. I did not tell Rae about my experience until we returned. I found I could not talk about it, except in the safety and normalcy of that little warm room at the top of Sage Hall, protected by the school.
A few days later, I found out that the kidnappers had not been a militia at all. They were a West Beiruti family whose 18-year-old son had disappeared. They thought the Phalangists had kidnapped him. They had kidnapped 200 people that day. As it happened, the young man was involved in some shady business, had been taken for interrogation by the PLO, and was released three days later. It was not originally a sectarian issue at all, just militia justice taking its course.
What I didn’t know was that that young man’s brother was a student at our school. What I also didn’t know was that my cousin had been in that basement. He was kidnapped and beaten. My cousin was a student at the university. He was also a musician, an intellectual, and an activist in West Beirut. He happened to be a Christian. When he had been released, with apologies, along with the two hundred other people who had been kidnapped that day, he made straight for his apartment, gave his car keys to a friend, packed some things, took a Daaboul Taxi to the airport, and left for the US. He did not return for another thirty years.
There were countless stories like this on both sides of that “green” line dividing Beirut. Violence and inhumanity were meted out equally to the captive population on either side, united both in their fear and their resilience. Many of the teachers remained, braving daily life, and striving to preserve sanity for themselves and for their students, and the school stayed obstinately open throughout the fifteen years of civil war, with the exception of three months in 1989, when the city was being “liberated,” or was it “annihilated?“ We underwent a “war of liberation” and a “war of obliteration” in the late eighties. I forget which came first.
Mishka Mojabber Mourani’s short story, ‘The Fragrant Garden‘ appeared in two anthologies: Lebanon Through Writers’ Eyes and Hikayat: Short Stories by Lebanese Women. She published Balconies: A Mediterranean Memoir and co-authored Alone, Together with Aida Y. Haddad, who translated Mourani’s poetry from English to Arabic, and vice versa. Her ‘Once upon A War Night‘ was published in the Exquisite Corpse anthology by Medusa’s Laugh Press. Her work has appeared in several print and on-line literary journals, including The Studio Voice, Mused Literary Review, Your Middle East, Arabic Literature in English, Sukoon Magazine, Cedar World Magazine, Rowayat, and GFT Presents: One in Four. Mourani’s writing deals with memory, identity, war, exile and gender issues.
SLAG GLASS CITY • Volume 2 • October 2016
Image header by James Case.