(Excerpt) Between Beirut and the Moon by Naji Bakhti




The day Mohammad came into school after his father had disappeared was a memorable one, in that the teachers mostly did not know how to behave. It happened a day after that rip in space and time within the walls of the elevator. I wondered whether his disappearance was an unintended byproduct of that tear in the very fabric of the universe, but Mohammad explained that his father had not disappeared at all.

‘He was kidnapped,’ said Mohammad.

‘From his bed?’ asked Basil.

‘It was a targeted operation.’

Ms. Mayssa offered her condolences, to which Mohammad replied that he thought his father was still alive. Ms. Mayssa then took back her condolences.

‘The Don was right about this one,’ said Mohammad, as she left the class.

Mr. Abu Alam pretended that the whole kidnapping had not taken place, and Mohammad burst into tears in the middle of the former’s explanation of relativity. It was not even on the syllabus for that term but I suspect he believed that Einstein’s theory of relativity would prove enough of a distraction for the day.

Mr. Malik singled Mohammad out and asked him to recite a poem written by Al Mutanabbi, an egomaniacal, tenth century Arab poet who had played at being a prophet. He later recanted his claim but the name ‘Mutanabbi’, which means ‘the self-proclaimed prophet’, stuck. Under the circumstances, Mohammad did what can only be described as an admirable job. He walked up to the front of the class and stood by Mr. Malik’s desk. He looked at Mr. Malik who nodded then mouthed the words ‘go on’ without uttering another word.

At first it was incoherent blubbering, and Basil swore he heard him stumble over the words ‘I want my father’. Then Mohammad straightened his back and treated us to his own summation of Al Mutanabbi’s greatest hits. The structure made little sense and whole poems were reduced to one or two verses, he even modified certain words and arguably added substance.

‘I am he whose literature is seen by the blind. And whose words are heard by the deaf.

The steed, the night and the desert know me. As do the sword, the spear, the paper and the pen – and the eraser.’

The class fell quiet again and you could hear the overhead fan humming its approval.

‘Man does not obtain all that he wishes. The winds take the ships where they do not desire to go.

If you see the lion’s teeth displayed, do not think that the lion is smiling – or frowning either.’

Nadine and Wael led a round of applause, Basil and I joined in half-heartedly and so did the rest of the class. Mr. Malik shook his head and waved Mohammad back to his seat.

According to Mohammad, a helicopter had descended onto the roof of their building in the middle of the night. A group of armed men had burst through the door and led his father out of there.

‘They spoke Hebrew,’ he said, during break, as he spread himself along the green wooden bench under the acorn tree.

There had not been a president for so long that the school simply opted to paint over where the portrait once stood.

‘So not the SSNP then?’ asked Basil.

‘This is not funny,’ said Mohammad, looking up at us with his hand now resting on his forehead.

Wael smacked Basil across the back of the head.

‘Are all Syrian Nationalists idiots,’ asked Wael, ‘Or is it just you?’

The incident had been all over the news featuring Mohammad’s mother wailing and Mohammad standing in the background looking perplexed, almost like he was about to recite one of Mr. Malik’s poems. His father shared the same name as the leader of Hezbollah at the time. This had been enough to puzzle the Israelis and rush the Mossad into an operation which ended with them in possession of a fairly jovial and clean shaven man. The nation had been caught between a mood of comic disbelief and one of concern for the fate of the unfortunate namesake.

‘What’s in a name?’ the LBC news anchor exclaimed, cocking an eyebrow, ‘A lot, apparently.’

I wondered what Mr. Aston would have made of that appropriation.

The only self-evident piece of information available, was that the someone from the Israeli side had committed a mishap. This made the Israeli’s the butt of a joke for a couple of weeks.

‘An Israeli walked into an Electronics store to buy a coloured TV,’ said Basil, pausing to look over his shoulder, ‘When the owner asked him which coloured TV he would like. He said ‘an orange one’.’

Even Mohammad laughed timidly at that.

‘Do you think they’ll return him?’ I asked.

‘Return him?’ asked Mohammad, in a raised pitch, ‘Like he was a shoe that did not fit.’

Basil leaned in and muttered his assessment of the situation in my ear; it was to do with Mohammad being a bit too dramatic, even for a boy whose father had just been kidnapped by the Mossad.

It did not matter whether I agreed, I was glad to have a private moment with Basil. He and I had found our time together constrained now that he was spending more of it after classes with younger boys who would lurk outside school for him to emerge and greet him with a cigarette or two. These new recruits of the SSNP – his own or Mr. Malik’s, I could not tell – usually nodded in my general direction. Somewhere within the nod there was also a nudge, or on those less subtle days, a shoulder barge. I was never personally introduced to any of them – though I did recognise a regular boy with a pudgy face and dimples who was always the first to spot me – and Basil sensing that they were not my crowd would pat me on the back as we approached the school gate and promise to catch up later.

Ms. Iman, who seemed to know where on school grounds to find us, walked straight in between Basil and myself and sat on the green bench by Mohammad’s head. He hesitated at first, his body stiffened and his hand gripped the edge of the bench. Basil and I both stood over Ms. Iman, hands in our pockets, with Wael behind us.

Ms. Iman placed her hand on Mohammad’s forehead. She shaped her lips to say something but did not. Emboldened by this, Mohammad laid his head against her lap and turned his neck so that he was now facing her Bordeaux shirt. And he sobbed. He sobbed like a man, not a boy. At one point his knee slammed hard against the back of the bench but he did not acknowledge this at all. Basil and I tried to expand our adolescent bodies as much as we possibly could in order to conceal Mohammad from the rest of the school. But we could not. We looked to Wael for guidance on this matter, but his body contracted instead as if to shield an infant from the weight of the world. Every passerby would have seen Mohammad that day, his head buried in Ms. Iman’s lap, his chest heaving, his shoulders shivering, his torso shaking, his voice cracking.

Ms. Iman pursed her lips and for some time said nothing. She looked at the three of us and the edge of her mouth dipped.

‘Maybe he should have stayed at home,’ said Wael, planting his elbows on mine and Basil’s shoulders.

Wael was so tall that he sometimes had to duck when Mr. Abu Alam aimed his famous Highlanders at us in class. The trajectory of the physics teacher’s flying Highlanders was spot on when it came to narrowly, but purposefully, missing most of us. Wael, however, quickly found that he was an exception, a statistical anomaly.

‘It happens,’ said Ms. Iman, stroking Mohammad’s hair.

She might have meant the sobbing or the kidnapping. I was back in the bathroom hiding from the bombs.

This encouraged Mohammad who took his sobbing to a more pronounced level.

‘Now he’s definitely milking it,’ said Basil, nudging me in the ribs and squeezing the udders of an invisible cow.

Wael smacked the both of us across the back of the head before I could protest.

For the first week, no one heard anything about Mr. Nasrallah. Ms. Mayssa refrained from reoffering her condolences and classes carried on as usual. During break, Basil and I speculated that the whole scenario was an elaborate ploy devised by Mohammad’s father as a means of escape. We did this away from Wael and Mohammad because we did not want to appear callous.

‘He’ll have called the Israelis up and begged them to kidnap him,’ said Basil, but he did not laugh.

Then on a Wednesday, in the second week, Mohammad did not come to school. We later learned that another helicopter had landed on the roof of their building and dropped off a disorientated Mr. Nasrallah. He was escorted, blindfolded, down the stairs and left in the hallway. He staggered into the front door and Mohammad who had slept in the living room by the door, with his mother, rushed to open it.

The jovial man was no longer so clean shaven.

‘He did not know where he was at first,’ said Mohammad, in the morning just outside class, ‘He shouted something about fucking the mother of the next man who lays a finger on him.’

The man’s lip was swollen.

‘Was he badly bruised?’ asked Wael, placing his hands on his waist.

‘Not at all,’ said Mohammad, ‘once he realized it was me who was hugging him. He calmed down.’

Mohammad chewed his gum thoroughly then he tossed it in the air and swung his foot at it but missed. He winced.

‘He must be Mossad,’ whispered Basil in my ear, ‘How else do you explain him waltzing back into the country like nothing happened?’

‘Don’t be ridiculous,’ I said.

Mr. Nasrallah was in his mid-sixties but he stayed up that night telling them how tiresome this whole trip had been and repeating that there truly is no place like home. It was as if he had been to London on a business trip. He refused to do any interviews and when one TV reporter would not leave, he told her that he could arrange for her to be picked up by the Israelis from her place if she really insisted on an interview.

‘He’s gone,’ said Basil, grabbing my arm and squeezing it tightly for a moment.


‘The pimp. I couldn’t believe it at first. I thought for sure he’d come back. I told my mother about the picture. They had a big row. He’s gone.’

‘Your father?’ I asked, disingenuously, ‘when?’

A few weeks prior, I had been helping my mother carry the groceries up the staircase after a power outage, when she ran into an acquaintance of hers who was there visiting Madame Hafez. The acquaintance mentioned Mr. Abou Mekhi – and wasn’t his son a classmate of your son? That poor fatherless boy. My mother turned towards me. Sweat dripped down the sides of her face and her fingers strained to prevent her palms from opening to unleash bags of onions and bell peppers rolling back down the stairs. She closed her eyes and opened them gently then pushed on, lugging the groceries up the next flight. And I followed.

‘Three weeks ago,’ said Basil.

He patted his pockets for a cigarette or a lighter. When he could not find what he was looking for, he made his way steadily towards the school gates without another word.

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Born and raised in Beirut, Naji Bakhti graduated from the American University of Beirut (Lebanon, 2011). He has an MA in Creative Writing from the University of Westminster and a PhD from Lancaster University. His work has appeared in the Guardian, the New Statesman and the Kenyon Review among others. Between Beirut and the Moon is his first novel.

23 November 2020