Short fiction by A. Naji Bakhti

 

I heard this theory once that if you toss a newborn into a swimming pool he’ll come out the other side kicking. I find that highly improbable. My father, or so I believe, has always been a strong advocate of the theory. Instead of water, however, he chose books. And instead of infants, he chose the entirety of his son and daughter’s combined childhoods. In more than one sense, my sister and I have been kicking through books for most of our lives. The idea was that if you expose a child to literature long and hard enough, he’ll grow up wanting to be a writer, a critic, an editor or the J.R.R. Tolkien Professor of English Literature and Language at the University of Oxford. Of course, I wanted to be an astronaut.

“Don’t be ridiculous,” he’d say, “who ever heard of an Arab on the moon?”

There is an article in Alnahar Daily, which my father wrote several years before I was born and which my mother kept hidden away from the dust in her table of drawers. She showed it to me as soon as she believed I was capable of appreciating it. Every so often I would forget about it, and my mother would produce it again; a little older, a little more fragile but still readable. In it, my father claims that he only wants three things out of life: a book to carry his name, a tree to carry his seed and a child to carry him when he can no longer carry himself. A car never figured in the article.

Ours was an aging, white, second-hand American made car called Barney. The night my father bought it from Payless Car Rental, he took me by the arm and told me all about how he intended to take us for a ride around Beirut in the morning. The next day, he gathered us around him, rubbed his hands together and presented us with the keys to the Nineteen Eighty-Eight Oldsmobile.

My mother muttered something, put out her cigarette and left the room.

The car had been christened Barney by my sister who, having not yet seen the car, decided that it too deserved a name. Though not many people appreciated Barney, the neighbours seemed to agree that the name worked.

The neighbors did not like our car because it was too big and because it would take up too much parking space. My mother did not like it because it was white and would get dirty far too easily, and because my father had bought it without first discussing the matter with her. My sister did not like it because it was infested with little cockroaches that would, frequently, climb up her own little legs, and because it seemed to trigger an argument between my mother and father more often than not. My grandfather did not like it because the only thing worse than an American-made car is a second-hand American-made car and because he had explicitly advised my father not to buy this second-hand American-made car. My father, and the mechanic, were very fond of it.

My father’s tendency to buy used cars and, in this instance, overused cars resulted not only in regular visits to the overjoyed mechanic but also the odd car accident and the increasingly frequent exchange of sharp words between my mother and father. For the most part, they pretended that we could not hear them in the back and, for the most part, we were glad to pretend that we could not. My sister, who at five was not as keen an observer of our silent agreement with our parents, would stick her head in between the front seats in order to adjust the air conditioning or the radio, at which point my parents would briefly fall silent.  They would resume only after the last of my sister’s ponytail had withdrawn itself.

It was not long before my father came to view the car as an extension to our house. I use the word house, loosely. Ours was not a house; it was a small apartment on the sixth floor of an old building in Ras Beirut, just off Hamra Street. The location was ideal, but the apartment itself was designed to fit one or two people at most. Certainly, not four people and an entire library. By the time I was five, I had grown accustomed to leaping over piles of books to get from one room to the other. Later, I stopped leaping and simply walked over the books as if they were part of the floor, infinite little rectangular tiles each with its own design forming some random grand pattern which made sense only to my father. During my adolescent years, I developed the much more pronounced technique of kicking through the books and landing them halfway across the apartment. But then my adolescent years were one large kick at life, and the books were no exception.

Soon my sister and I found ourselves sharing the back seat of the Oldsmobile with all manner of paperback and hardcover books each seemingly intent on making it their own with little regard for leg space. The greyish cloth which had served to cover the inner ceiling of the car did so only half-heartedly, creating something of an air pocket between itself and the ceiling and now hung low enough to scrape the head of almost anyone insisting upon sitting fully upright. The remaining side-view mirror was soon knocked off by a speeding motorcyclist and the rear-view mirror by my father’s angry swipe at it. Driving Barney, as a result, involved an active effort on my sister’s part who would sit on top of the books with her back to my father and inform him of oncoming cars when the occasion called for it. During the months of the winter, rain would find its way through the cracks and seep into the seats. The smell of wet, crumpled old newspapers, which we often placed between ourselves and the damp seats, coupled with that of the seats themselves, and the equally damp books, was to become a constant over the brief but full life of Barney the car.

Whenever my father was asked what he’d seen in this overgrown excuse for a car, he would inevitably come up with a reply to do with luxury.

“It’s like driving a Limousine,” my father would say, until my grandfather informed him that driving your own Limousine was very much missing the point of owning one.

Every Sunday he would pack us all, my mother, my sister, myself and the damp literature, into the car and drive us to his father’s house.  My grandmother would welcome us with a smile and open arms. My grandfather with a nod. He had lost most of his hair and teeth. What little hair he did have, he would make sure to dye brown which he, to my grandmother’s amusement, insisted was his original hair colour; a habit which my father picked up on in his later years. His remaining teeth too were brown. His penchant for smoking, over more years than he cared to count, ensured that they would remain so. My grandfather’s smiles were as spare as his teeth and neither was a sight which I ever got used to seeing.

According to my father, the only time my grandfather is supposed to have smiled, prior to that Sunday, was when he won the lottery. My grandmother neither affirms nor denies this; nor does she claim to have seen him smile on their wedding day or on the birth of any of his ten children, especially the last one. Whenever I would ask my father where all the lottery money had gone, he would shrug his shoulders and tell me to ask my grandfather. I never did. My sister who had been privy to this routine exchange, between my father and I, chose not to take part in it, only to observe from the perspective of a five year old.

My grandfather tells the story of how he woke up one morning with his old license plate number ingrained in his mind, how he wrote it down so as not to forget it, how he went around Beirut looking for the ticket with that same number, how he couldn’t find it, how he wished he could, how he sat down at Wimpy Café on Hamra Street for a cup of Lemonade with ice, how he eventually settled for a ticket with a single digit off, how he called on Abou Talal to help carry the briefcase full of cash across Ras Beirut, how Abou Talal had advised him against withdrawing the money all at once, how he ignored him, how hot it was that day, how he could tell because of the large sweat stain across Abou Talal’s shirt, how humid, how like Beirut in the summer.

My father tells the story of how his father took him, the eldest, by the arm and told him all about the lottery ticket and his plan to return with a briefcase full of cash, and Abou Talal, how he was instructed not to tell anyone, how he ignored his father’s instructions at the earliest opportunity and assembled all three of his brothers and all four of his sisters and his mother, how his father opened the door to find them all awaiting his arrival, how Abou Talal wiped his forehead and how my grandfather smiled.

“Where did all the lottery money go?” asked my sister one Sunday, looking up at my grandfather, as my parents and I made our way past the odd collection of twenty or so assorted relatives standing up to greet us.

My grandfather smiled. My father did too. Everyone else let out a nervous laugh, or pretended not to have heard.

When he first won the lottery, AlNahar Daily ran with an article calling him “the man who won whilst the nation lost”. It was the early seventies and Lebanon was on the verge of a civil war that would last for fifteen years. In that time period, my Grandfather Adam travelled the world, sometimes disappearing for weeks and months on end but always returning home to his war-torn country, his faithful wife and his steadily increasing number of children. Once, after a particularly long absence, my father asked him why he’d taken so long to come back.

“Traffic,” answered Grandfather Adam, then he threw my young father the keys to his new Mercedes-Benz. He had driven it all the way from Frankfurt.

After the war, when Grandfather Adam’s lottery money had almost run out, he arranged to go on the holy Islamic pilgrimage to Mecca, referred to as Hajj. He had, thus far, not been particularly renowned for his religiosity; his casual approach to alcohol, bacon and extramarital sex being some of several reasons why he was not. Grandfather Adam never divulged his motives behind that trip, or any other. My father mused, years later at the funeral, that it was a result of some misplaced urge to express gratitude to someone for those fifteen or so years of joy. It was not lost on my father that gambling too, of which the lottery is a variation, is forbidden in Islam.

Upon returning from Hajj with a black eye, my grandfather is said to have serenaded everyone who had come to congratulate him on a successful pilgrimage with the tale of how he had been involved in a fight at the “Stoning of the Devil” ritual. A man had stoned him instead of the devil and he had stoned back.

“Where?” my sister asked again, still staring at him.

“Everywhere,” my grandfather said, leaning over to the sound of a much quieter room.

He placed both his hands on my sister’s shoulders and told her the story of how he woke up one morning with his old license plate number ingrained in his mind, how he wrote it down so as not to forget it, how he went around Beirut looking for the ticket with that same number, how he couldn’t find it, how he wished he could, how he sat down at Wimpy Café on Hamra Street for a cup of Lemonade with ice, how he settled for a ticket with a single digit off, how he called on Abou Talal to help carry the briefcase full of cash across Ras Beirut, how Abou Talal had advised him against withdrawing the money all at once, how he ignored him, how hot it was that day, how he could tell because of the large sweat stain across Abou Talal’s shirt, how humid, how like Beirut in the summer.

“And then?”

And then he told her about how, on his way back with Abou Talal, he had been ambushed by two Christian militiamen who demanded the briefcase, how he had been forced to fling the briefcase as far and as high as he could while he held them off, how the briefcase had burst open in the air, how random people on the street had danced to the tune of paper falling from the sky and how, for a brief moment, it was raining Liras on Hamra Street.

When it was over my grandmother had her head in her hands and my mother was standing over my sister with an arm around her. My father looked at me and shrugged his shoulders.

“Still driving that piece of shit?” shouted Grandfather Adam after him, as we made our way past the same odd collection of twenty or so assorted relatives standing up to bid us goodbye.

My parents got into an argument on the way back. They argued about my grandfather, then about my sister then about the car. The fact that my father had managed to park the car almost ten minutes away from the house, for lack of suitably large parking space, further infuriated my mother.

Behind our house which was not a house, there was a garden which was not a garden. It was a parking lot reserved for the tenants of the apartment building; and it was my father who had first dubbed it a garden on account of a single tall Jasmine tree surrounded by a small plot of soil in an ocean of cement. On Independence Day, as my sister approached her sixth birthday, the children in her nursery school were handed young Cedar trees in little pots and told to take them home with them. Upon spotting my sister walk into the house, holding the Cedar tree in one hand and my mother’s hand in another, my father scooped her up and carried her to the garden. My mother, my sister and I observed as he dug a small hole in the soil with his hands and planted the Cedar tree right by the Jasmine one. My mother then scolded my father for giving his daughter false hope. What the children in my sister’s nursery school were not told is that Cedar trees are not meant to survive and grow anywhere by the coast and that the potted plants would soon after proceed to wilt and then die.

“You told the boy he could become an astronaut if he wanted to,” my father said, dusting the soil off his hands and clothes.

“That is different,” my mother replied.

“I’m just giving the tree a fighting chance,” he said, as he rolled down his sleeves.

For a week afterwards, the highlight of my sister’s day was checking on the Cedar tree in the garden on her way back from school. It had not grown an inch but it hadn’t died either. Then one day Madame Hafez, the landlord and fifth floor neighbour, ripped the plant from the ground and tossed it in the trash can. She was not French but she had insisted upon being called Madame. Her husband Doctor Farhat, who winced every time someone referred to him as Monsieur Hafez, was the old man responsible for planting the Jasmine tree in the then parking lot. He apologized on his wife’s behalf and asked for my sister’s forgiveness. She nodded.

In order to park a car in the parking lot with the single Jasmine tree, one had to squeeze one’s car through a narrow passageway which separated the adjacent building from our own. This was not ideal for most of the neighbours even with their German, Asian and French models, but for my father, with his Nineteen Eighty-Eight Oldsmobile, it was impossible. His attempt to force the car through the narrow space between the two buildings is how the first side-view mirror was knocked off. He continued to pay the obligatory parking fee for a spot which served only to remind him that his car was too big.

“I’ll sell it,” my father proclaimed, as we made the rest of our way to the house on foot, “I’ll charge them extra for the literary entertainment.”

“It’s not about the car,” my mother said.

“I’m not moving to London to live off your sister’s charity, he said, slamming the steel gate to the building shut.

“Australia, then.”

“God damn Australia,” he shouted, “and the hour in which it was created.”

 

A sharp exchange of words in the elevator was soon followed by a sharper exchange of words in the dining room, which in turn was followed by my mother’s angry swipe at the stacks of newspapers books on the dining room table. The Alnahars, Alhayats, Alanwars, Alsafirs and Aldiars along with A History of Arabia, Sometimes I Dance, Echoes of a Western Word, The Druze Revisited, My Beirut Then etc. flew across the room as my mother stormed out of it. My father knocked the remainder of them onto the floor, flung the door open and left the apartment. We were no longer in the backseat of the car pretending not to listen.

For some time afterwards, my sister and I sat in silence. Then she stood up, launched herself towards the newspapers on the floor and began kicking them, throwing them in the air, leaping, snatching at them as they, now Liras and now Madame Hafez’s non-French face, fell to the floor again. She did this until she could no longer stand then she stretched her body across the floor and I stretched mine alongside hers.

A week after the death of our French next door neighbour Monseiur Mermier via an RPG rocket, we awoke to find the Oldsmobile riddled with bullets and littered with broken glass and heavily punctured books and newspapers. The Israeli-Lebanese war of 2006 had been particularly cruel to our family car.

When Monsieur Mermier, the Frenchman working for the UN, moved in to the apartment facing our own on the sixth floor, my father jumped at the opportunity to invite him to our home. The Frenchman, he told me, is the pinnacle of cultured and intellectual men. Of course, he might have said the same thing about Englishmen, were we living next door to an Englishman.

“Your home is a sanctuary for literature, Monsieur Najjar,” said Monsieur Mermier, taking a sip of his Turkish coffee.

“And a dumpster for everyone else,” my mother added, offering Monsieur Mermier a tray of Arabic sweets and wiping the smile off my father’s face.

After my mother went to sleep, my father took out a bottle of Arak, a slightly stronger version of vodka diluted with water to be just as strong, and offered Monsieur Mermier a few shots. They drank to health and Lebanon and success and new friends and peace and old friends and peace and France and Lebanon and Charles De Gaulle and Jacque Chirac and my great grandfather and good health and Zidane’s footballing skills and success and Barthez’s bald head and Voltaire and Monsieur Mermier’s mother and my grandmother and Lebanon.

 

My father stood before the Oldsmobile scratching his ear, first with his thumbnail then with the car keys, and smiling. That was the closest Barney would ever get to a eulogy; my mother shaking her head and lighting cigarettes, my sister and I inspecting the bullet holes and my father scratching his ear.

As the tow truck was too large to squeeze into an already narrow street lined with well-washed cars, Barney stayed. It soon became something of a landmark, as well as an intermittent home for a brown street cat with a collar, which my father named Ninnette after the porter’s wife. Ninnette was a dark-haired, brown-eyed slender woman who wore a gold necklace around her neck and several gold bracelets around her wrist. She smiled back at anyone who did not ignore her.

Residents of the same street would inform the pizza deliveryman, and other visitors, that they lived two buildings down from the old, white American. My sister believed that the street was not too far off being called the White American. It was true that the original Sadat, so called after a former Egyptian president who briefly restored peace under dubious circumstances in the post Jamal Abdel Nasser era only to be assassinated by the Israelis or the Egyptians or God’s will, was not a particularly popular name.

The porter, Saeed, who was also Egyptian and who would on occasion beat both his sons and their mother, made a habit out of ringing the doorbell early in the morning, newspaper in hand, to ask my father whether today was the day that the white American would disappear forever. Saeed believed that he could turn a profit by getting my father to sell him the white American for cheap.

“Any news?” my father would ask, taking the AlNahar Daily from Saeed’s hands and sifting through it.

“Madame Farhat is complaining that the white American hasn’t been washed in a while,” said Saeed one morning in midweek, as my sister and I prepared for school.

“Then wash it,” my father replied, still going through the contents of the paper.

“But there are no windows and too many holes.”

“Shouldn’t that make it easier?”

“Yes, Basha.”

“Basha” is an Ottoman term which Saeed reserved for any man who was not a porter. It means lord.

“I found this book in your car,” said Saeed, scratching his chin and producing a tattered book from under his armpit, “something about goats and reincarnation, it is a bit damp, but still readable,” said Saeed, scratching his chin.

“It is yours. Have it.”

In his early forties, my father developed an interest in the Druze, a peculiar religious minority which exist only in the mountains of Syria and Lebanon. The car, more than our home, contained remnants of that period of time when to my father only, the Druze were all the rage. No one knew very much about the Druze and, it was said, the Druze did not know very much about themselves except that they believed in reincarnation and that they might learn more about their religion in the next life. Those who wrote books about the Druze devoted the vast majority of their books to dispelling myths about the Druze believers and their beliefs. The Druze Story, for instance, was written by a scholar, Elias Jabra, who had limited knowledge on the matter beyond what his brother had told him. The scholar’s brother had shot and temporarily killed several members of the Druze community in the “War of the Mountain” between the Christians and the Druze in the eighties.

One such myth was that the Druze did not eat spinach because a holy goat once slipped on a pile of spinach leaves and broke its neck.  Jabra had this to say on the subject: “Most Druze would tell you that the slip is not the reason they refrained from eating spinach and that goats are, as far as they know, not particularly holy. Some of them would even tell you that they do eat spinach, albeit in the same manner that a Hindu would eat beef, or a Muslim eat pork.”

A rare Druze classmate of mine, Basil, would ask his mother to pack spinach and rice in his lunchbox every day, and every day his mother would. This went on for a month with Basil eating spinach and rice during the break and receiving odd stares in the process. Until, finally, everyone proclaimed Basil a Druze atheist who did not believe in the holy goat.

During the lunar month of Ramadan, while my Muslim classmates fasted, Basil and I ate. While they thirsted, we drank. The Christians ate and drank too, of course. But they did not chew too loudly, nor burp, nor lick their fingers, nor soak their lips in burger sauce or mayonnaise, only their teeth, nor raise their heads to knock back a cold can of Pepsi on a hot sunny afternoon.

When the history teacher asked why Basil and I were not fasting, I said I was a Christian and Basil said he was a Druze. Ms. Bache was a brunette who had dyed her hair blonde because it was turning white. Crow’s feet had formed around her eyes which her choice of large, round glasses only served to highlight. She also wore a scarf around her neck at all times. No one knew what exactly was wrong with her neck.

“Are the Druze not supposed to fast?” asked Ms. Bache in class.

Basil pushed out his lower lip and scratched his eyebrow in reply.

That month, Basil and I were invited to our first Iftar, the ceremonial stuffing of one’s face at sunset to make up for all the hours of the day spent thinking about hot food and not eating it. It was another Mohammad who had invited us, a short white boy with freckles. His appearance gave away the distinct impression that he was European, despite the fact that no one in his family had ventured outside of Lebanon. Both his mother and father were very much olive-skinned and did not have a single freckle between them. As adoption is forbidden in Islam, everyone at school ruled this out immediately. They, instead, decided that Mohammad’s grandmother was raped by a crusader, a phrase which was often repeated to Mohammad whenever the occasion called for it. Mohammad’s family had originated from the south, an area which was historically heavily populated with crusaders. His insistence upon not inviting anyone who had claimed his grandmother was the rape-victim of a crusader to Iftar, reduced his guest list to three Muslims, a half-Christian and a Druze.

I told my parents that I was going to fast on the morning of the Iftar. My father had not yet received his newspaper from Saeed and was sat on the comfortable couch in the living room holding a book entitled The Druze Revisited. On one of the bookshelves behind my father, squeezed in between Emily Nasrallah’s Birds of September and Youssef Saleme’s Yassin Had This to Say, rested a framed photograph of him wearing his cap and gown and moustache. In the photograph my father is not smiling. A wrinkle parts his forehead and a dimple parts his chin. The photograph was the only one on display in the house. It was colored and my father’s tie was red.

Though my sister was very fond of this photograph, she wasn’t allowed to pick it off the shelf because she was too young to carry glass around the house. I had memorized the titles of the two books either side of the photograph as I was often the one to return it to its rightful place after my sister had left her finger prints all over the glass. When my mother caught on to this, she moved the photograph up a couple of shelves.

“I liked it better when you wanted to go to the moon,” said my father, flipping the page.

“I still do,” I said, in an attempt to sound defiant.

“Jesus-Mohammad-Christ,” that was another thing my father would say with unerring regularity. As if Jesus’ middle name had always been Mohammad and everyone in the world had thus far simply failed to spot this most obvious truth. One expected nothing less of a Muslim man who had forged an unholy alliance with a Christian woman against the wishes of his now irritated family and his now pissed-off god, whom, one would have thought, must have known in advance and ought to have had ample time to cope.

“Adam, I have no doubt that you can do anything you set your mind to,” my mother said as she tied my sister’s shoelaces, “but I’m making stuffed zucchini for lunch today.”

“Can I fast too?” asked my sister, looking up at my mother, who in turn glared at my father who in turn glared at me.

“No,” my mother replied.

“Why not?”

“We’ll discuss this again when you learn how to tie your own shoelaces.”

“Why does he get to fast?” asked my sister, pointing her small finger at me.

“He won’t last ‘til lunchtime,” said my father, now momentarily less interested in The Druze Revisited.

“Don’t discourage him,” my mother said, holding my father’s stare.

The doorbell rang and my father opened the door to find Saeed holding the newspaper in one hand and a brown cat in the other.

“Any news?” my father asked, taking the An-Nahar Daily from Saeed’s hands and sifting through it.

“I found this in your car, Basha,” he said, holding out the cat.

“Take it back.”

“Of course, anything else?”

“Stop beating your wife.”

“Why, has she said anything?”

“She doesn’t have to,” said my father, now reading through his own article.

“I’ll ask her to keep her voice down.”

My mother insisted upon having a family meal around the dining room table in the afternoon, when my sister and I had arrived from school. This meant that my father and I had to clear the table of the newspapers which had once again found their way onto it. It also meant that my father had to carry one of the foldable balcony chairs into the dining room, as one of the original four dining room chairs had long since lost a leg. He then adjusted the TV set so that he could both see and hear “Basmet Elwatan” from the dining room. It literally translates to “The Death of a Nation”, or alternatively, “The Smiles of a Nation”, depending on the manner in which one chooses to read the title. The smell of stuffed zucchini had filled the room.  After a brief argument between my sister and my father over who gets to sit at the head of the table, we eventually found a place for her on my father’s lap. She soon tired of this and resigned herself to the empty seat to his right.

Though my mother remarked that I did not have to sit with them this time, as I was fasting, she insisted that this was how it was going to be from now on. It wasn’t. The next time we would sit together around the dining room table would be Christmas, and the next time after that would be the following Christmas.

Over lunch, my father told us the story of his mother and how she would starve them during Ramadan. Then he asked me if I thought astronauts fasted on their way to the moon. And I said, I don’t know. And my mother said, drop it. And my father said, they probably don’t. And I said, why not. And my father said, because the sun doesn’t set in space. And my mother said, lunch was over. And my father said he wasn’t done. And my mother told him to take out the folding chair to the balcony.  And my father kicked the folding chair shut with his heel as he stood up, grabbed it with his right hand, chewed on his last bite of stuffed zucchini and launched the chair out of the balcony and into the air.

The chair hung for a moment, allowing my mother, my sister and I enough time to rush to the balcony and observe it in full flight. It landed on the roof of one of the few remaining Ottoman houses in Beirut, opposite our own building. Madame Hafez owned that house too, but it was inhabited by the grandson of one of the men who had fought for independence from the French. He was an old man who had refused to pay rent for some time. Madame Hafez had decided to wait for him to die rather than enter into a battle about neglected rent payments.

“I’m proud of you,” said my mother as she dropped me off at Mohammad’s place.

She said the incident with the flying foldable chair was not about me. She said it was because my father was afraid of confronting the possibility of something.

I leaned against the steel gate to Mohammad’s building. Only a few patches of green remained to indicate that there had ever been any effort made to paint the rusted bars of metal which now guarded the entrance to the battered building.

“The possibility of what?” I asked.

Basil and the Muslims were already there, sitting around the dining room table. When the sun finally set, we ate Pizza, from Pizza Hut. Basil told us he was glad the goat hadn’t slipped on Pizza. Mohammad’s mother let out a high-pitched giggle and asked if he would like more. And I laughed.

Mohammad’s mother laid out the prayer mats for us while we were eating and we all stepped onto them as soon as we were done. I imitated the motions: hands on stomach, hands to ears, knees on floor, head against floor and mumbled the words to “Our Father which Art in Heaven.”  My maternal grandmother, Teta Mariam, had taught me it. I was afraid to sleep in the dark and glad to have her slightly course voice by my bedside. When my grandfather fell ill, many years ago, my Teta made a pact with god. She promised that if he let her husband live for a few more years she would take a cab to Mount Harissa, climb, barefoot, up the long winding stairs leading to the holy statue of Virgin Mary, kneel before it, recite “Our Father which Art in Heaven” and kiss it. When my grandfather recovered from his heart attack Teta left him at the hospital, took a cab to Mount Harissa, climbed, barefoot, up the long winding stairs leading to the holy statue of Virgin Mary, knelt before it, put out her cigarette and kissed it. Then she lit another cigarette and recited the words to “Our Father which Art in Heaven”.

Basil stood on the prayer mat, hands in his pockets, while the rest of us knelt to the floor. For a moment, we were praying to the spinach-eating, holy-goat-denying, Druze boy from the mountains. Then he decided that divinity was not for him, and found a place for himself on the couch.

“It upsets my stomach,” he said, as Mohammad’s mother looked on.

My mother was the first to pick me up. She stood by the door while I put on my raincoat and said goodbye to my friends and thanked Mohammad’s mother for the Pizza from Pizza Hut.

“He’s a lovely boy,” said Mohammad’s mother with one hand on my shoulder.

“Thank you.”

“I noticed he was a bit off with some of the steps during prayer, though.”

“Was he?” asked my mother, looking down at me.

“Yes. I could recommend a teacher who would rectify that immediately if you like.”

“I’m not sure that my husband would approve of leaving Adam alone with a stranger.”

“He’s a good friend of the family,” said Mohammad’s mother as she put the small piece of paper in my coat pocket.

“I think we’ll be fine.”

As we made our way back home, my mother took the small piece of paper out from my pocket and tore it to smaller pieces.

“The next time that woman makes you pray in her house, you do the steps to the fucking Macarena,” she said, lighting a cigarette and throwing the torn pieces of paper behind her.

The folding chair was still resting on the Ottoman roof when my mother and I returned. The house was empty but for my sister who was standing on the balcony above the remains of the photograph’s broken frame.

“It wasn’t me,” she said, “I swear.”

That night we could hear Saeed shouting, raging, slamming doors shut, breaking glass, cursing god and his son and all the prophets whose names he could recall, and their mothers. We could hear Ninnette too.

“Are there no men in this building?” her voice coming from the garden.

My father shifted in his seat. My mother put her hand on his forearm.

“Enough,” said my mother.

From that balcony, you could see Ninnette and the folding chair and the Jasmine tree. From the other, you could see the White American and a fraction of the Mediterranean Sea. When there was no electricity in Beirut, as was often the case, you could spot the sun set behind a haphazard collection of bullet-ridden buildings and half-baked attempts at invincible sky-scrapers, or hear the echoing sound of afternoon prayer or the hoarse voice of the grocer as he pushes his cart down an empty street every Sunday at five: “I have carrots, I have zucchini, I have vine leaves, I have zucchini, I have parsley, I have zucchini,” and once, “I have no one, zucchini, no one cares, zucchini.”

My father never attended a graduation ceremony. When he had completed his courses, he collected his certificate from the secretary’s office. That year the Israeli army made it to the middle of Beirut, on land. He walked home through Hamra Street with his certificate in his left pocket. He passed Wimpy Café where, just a month before, a Lebanese civilian had stood up, pushed his chair back, pointed his gun at an Israeli general’s head and shot him as he sat there eating his burger. It was Ramadan, the day before Eid. It was hot and my father had not had anything to eat yet. He waited for the sun to set then he sat around the dinner table with his brothers and sisters and his mother, and he ate Couscous. Uncle Nasser asked my father whether he would join him for the customary fireworks the next day. My father shrugged his shoulders. The photograph was my mother’s idea. It was taken a few weeks after my sister was born.

“What’s going to happen to the folding chair?” asked my sister, as my father walked us to school.

My father adjusted his newspaper.

“What’s going to happen to the chair?” asked my sister, again.

“You know that Jasmine tree in the garden,” said my father, “when you are my age, its branches will extend into the balcony and seal everything else from view.”

My sister and I returned home to find that the framed photograph had been restored to its rightful place on the shelf between Emily Nasrallah’s Birds of September and Youssef Saleme’s Yassin Had This to Say, and that Barney had disappeared forever. My father told us the story of how it had been applauded on its way out by all the inhabitants of Sadat Street, including Madame Hafez and the old man in the Ottoman house. My mother maintained that no such thing had happened. Not long after that, Ninnette too disappeared forever. She took her two sons with her, and Saeed started leaving the newspaper on the doorstep as was the norm before Barney had made its temporary home on Sadat Street.

Ninnette, the cat, lingered for a few days, like the smell of the damp literature, where the Oldsmobile had once been.

 

 


bakhti-150x150A. Naji Bakhti is a Lebanese graduate of the American University of Beirut (Lebanon, 2011) and the University of Westminster (UK, 2012) with a BA in English Literature and an MA in Creative Writing, respectively. He has recently obtained a PhD in Creative Writing from Lancaster University (UK, 2017). He has taught Creative Writing and English Literature at Lancaster University, the American University of Beirut and the Lebanese American University. Previous work of his has been published in The Writers’ Hub (2013) and The Kenyon Review (2014).
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