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Hassan’s Tale, Part 6 – The National Lottery

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When it became apparent that I was a relatively normal human being, Boulos, when he was around, began using me as an errand runner. He’d send me to buy Turkish coffee from an old, blind man who ground the beans by hand, or to take in his dry cleaning, or his shoes to the repair shop, all on foot, not in the city but up in our hillside borough. Then he started sending me to buy cigars or brandy. Finally he gave me Sarkis’ job, which was to buy food for Rocket.

Boulos wouldn’t feed Rocket dog food or even table scraps. Once a week I was sent to a meat packing factory to buy fine cuts of imported New Zealand mutton. It was the only place in the city that sold this meat, and it was a one hour walk, not only down in the flats but across the Green Line. At the time I thought it was an indication of his faith in me.

I heard Gala arguing with Boulos, telling him not to put me in danger. She was the only one who would stand up to him, and I think in a way he respected her for it. She was certainly the only one who would dare to cross Mr. Black. One time she chewed him out for entering the house without wiping his feet, after she had just swept the floor. Everyone within earshot held their breath, as if they expected Mr. Black to kill Gala on the spot, but he simply bowed slightly and touched his forehead.

Not that arguing with Boulos did any good. He was like a planet in his gravitas. You couldn’t escape or deny him. You could orbit around him or get out of his way. He spoke loudly, laughed loudly, and when he moved through the house he gave off energy like a furnace gives off heat. He was a volatile, hearty and murderous man all at the same time, as I later learned.

The first time I went on the meat run, Boulos told Sarkis to take me and teach me the route. Sarkis was sweating like a horse, he was so nervous. Lebanon at that time was ten years into the civil war. Over a hundred thousand people had been killed. The city was divided between East and West Beirut, with Christians on one side and Muslims on the other, separated by a no man’s land called the Green Line. There was not a building that had not been damaged, and entire neighborhoods were flattened, as if a mighty fist had hammered them to the ground. It was possible to cross at places, but thousands of people had either been abducted at the checkpoints, or simply shot. And Sarkis was a teeanger – which meant fighting age in Beirut. Checkpoints were dangerous for him.

It was possible to sneak across the Line, though it involved braving sniper fire. That’s what we did. The meat packing plant was in Amal territory – the leftist Shi’ah militia. Sarkis kept saying that we should buy the cheaper local lamb from the butcher shop in our own neighborhood, and pocket the difference. But I insisted that we do the job right. I think Sarkis would have tried to beat me up to force me to do it his way, if he hadn’t seen me practicing with Saber and Daniel. He knew what I could do.

I’ve learned that when a man is first put in a survival situation, he tells himself that there are certain things he won’t do or tolerate. As he becomes desperate and inured to the carnage around him, he does that thing that he swore he wouldn’t do, and he sets a new moral setpoint, lower on the scale, like descending platforms in the cavern of the soul. And so on.

By the time I arrived in Beirut, all the moral setpoints had been crashed through. There was no bottom. On my first trip through the city I saw the naked body of a woman in a sewage ditch in a poor Maronite neighborhood. It was impossible to say how old she was. Her throat had been slit and gaped like a hungry mouth. She’d been in the ditch for three or four days in warm weather, and she was so bloated that the only way I knew she was a woman was her red nail polish. I turned away and threw up in the road, and Sarkis laughed. I asked if the woman was Christian or Muslim and he said, ‘Who can tell?’ Later that same day I saw a middle-aged man pulled from a car at a checkpoint and shot point blank in the head in front of his family and dozens of witnesses. No one protested.

It was on the meat run two weeks later that I killed a man for the first time. I was eleven years old. Sarkis and a young soldier named Maron were with me because they were going to a brothel right on the Green Line.

Over the years plants had taken root and grown in the streets of the Line. It was literally wild, thick with ferns, trees, jasmine, bougainvillea, marijuana – just a riot of green vegetation. Hence the name. And these magnificent old colonial buildings on either side, crumbling, all their paint gone, broken up from shelling. It was like a science fiction set. Anyway, I would take advantage of the greenery, because I was small. I’d get down on hands and knees and crawl right through the undergrowth.

Sarkis was five years older than me, so he was only sixteen at the time, but he’d visit this brothel whenever he could. It was the only scene of human activity on the Line, as if all the factions had agreed that the brothel would be neutral territory. I never entered the brothel but Sarkis told me that men from every militia visited there and that they all left their weapons at the door.

I left Sarkis and Maron at the brothel, made my way to the meat factory, and came back to meet up with them. We hadn’t gone twenty steps from the establishment’s door when three Amal militiamen exited the place and came up behind us with their rifles trained on us. Only Maron was armed – he had a pistol holstered on his hip – but the Amal soldiers had us dead to rights. Sarkis, the idiot, had been bragging in the brothel and they knew he was a Haddad. If that wasn’t bad enough, one of the militiamen had a female cousin who worked in the brothel, and Sarkis had beaten her. So these guys didn’t want anything but to kill us all and probably cut off our heads to show their commander.

One of them placed his rifle barrel right against my chest. I didn’t think. I did what I had been trained to do, in martial arts and by my mother. I pivoted, got my hands on the rifle, kicked him in the groin and twisted the weapon out of his hands. Then I shot him point blank. The other two were already bringing their guns to bear on me so I dropped to the ground and shot them both while I rolled. I had done the same drill with live ammo many times, in the mountains with my mom.

What no drill had prepared me for was the reality of shooting another human being. I’d hit the second man in the chest and he was alive, lying on his back, gasping for breath. The third one I hit in the head and he was dead. But the first man – the one I took the rifle from – I hit only in the hip, and I think it shattered his hip bone and severed an artery. He was on his back, all the veins in his neck standing out, trying to stop the bleeding with his hands. I can see him like it was yesterday. A young, skinny man with thick brown hair and a mustache. Camouflage pants, boots and a white t-shirt, breaking the rules by being in uniform at a brothel. Trying to stop the blood that sprayed from his hip as he screamed, “Ya Ali!!” over and over. It was horrible.”

 

Hassan’s breathing grew ragged and he stopped his tale. “I need some water,” he said. Muhammad took Hassan’s empty cup and went to fill it. When he returned, Hassan drank deeply.

 

“Maron drew his service pistol,” Hassan continued, “and calmly shot the man in the forehead, killing him. Then he did the same with the other two.

 

***
I went on to kill many men in the years after that, and many of them haunt me, but none so much as that first one. I sometimes think that I don’t deserve to be alive. Or conversely that I deserve every bad thing that has happened to me, and more. I don’t know.

Boulos called me into his study the next day. Mr. Black stepped aside to let me in. It was a large, sunlit room with hardwood furniture, hunting rifles on the wall, a stone ashtray and the smell of cigar smoke. Portraits depicted Maronite leaders – including Antoine Haddad, who I understood of course was my grandfather. Two walls contained bookshelves from floor to ceiling.

Boulos wanted to know how I’d managed to shoot those soldiers. I told him my mother had trained me, and he nodded slowly, as if I’d given him the answer to a puzzle. He asked if I wanted to become a soldier and I said no, that I’d like to attend school with Charlie. He asked if I didn’t want revenge on the Palestinians for what they’d done to my parents. I answered truthfully that I did, but that I never wanted to kill another human being. He didn’t like that answer and waved his hand to dismiss me.

You might think that I’d have been ready to fight, what with my parents murdered by the PLO, the shelling of my new home, and the attempt by the Amal soldiers to kill me. But I was horrified by the reality of violence. My parents’ deaths. The men I had shot. The dead girl in the street, and other dead I had seen on the sides or roads. I wanted no part of it.

Charlie’s sixth birthday party was coming up. I used to run errands for Saber and Daniel as well and I’d managed to save a little money. Everything Charlie and I owned had been destroyed or left behind in Los Angeles, including Charlie’s toys. I planned to buy him a Ninja Turtles action figure, or at least one of the knockoffs sold on Hamra Street.. I hid my savings underneath my mattress. But when I went to get it a few days before Charlie’s birthday, it was gone.

Charlie’s party was huge. Gala’s brother brought a pony and the kids took turns riding it around the garden. Charlie got new clothes and shoes, and Gala baked a chocolate cake. I was happy for Charlie, but I felt ashamed that I didn’t have a gift for him. I’d made him a card out of construction paper and drawn a picture of me and him dressed like Ninja Turtles, and it made him laugh. I could give him anything, I guess, even just a hug, and he’d be happy.

Still, Charlie and I began to argue. He’d come home from school and talk about how, when he grew up, he would become a soldier. He said we had to fight the dirty Arabs, and that we Phoenicians were the rightful rulers of Lebanon. He was so young, and was only repeating what the other kids said at school. I won’t deny that I was confused at that time, but I knew that such ideas were nonsense. I’d spent a child’s lifetime being taught by my father that all human beings are equal. Though I’d thought of my father as weak, his beliefs had become a part of me.

One afternoon Charlie and I were playing with Rocket in the garden. I told him not to be brainwashed by the stupid kids at school. I reminded him that he used to want to be a scientist. I said I wanted to see him in a white coat one day, finding cures for the diseases of the world, not hurting people.

I looked up at that moment and saw Boulos watching and listening from the window of his library. His eyes met mine and I saw such coldness in his brown eyes, as if they were bottomless caverns. It was a warm day and I was sweating from the humidity, but I shivered and looked away.

The next day Charlie was gone. He went off to school and I went to buy some pipe tobacco for Boulos. When I returned, Boulos again called me into his library. He sat there in his leather upholstered chair, Rocket gnawing on a bone at his feet. He said that one of the other Christian militias was preparing a major assault, and that Beirut would be especially dangerous for the next week. He’d sent Charlie, Gala and Uncle Sami’s family to Deir Al-Qamar, our family’s ancestral village high in the mountains, forty kilometers from Beirut. He said they would be safer there, but that he needed me here, to help him with his errands.

I panicked. I felt like I couldn’t breathe. I ran outside and stumbled through the garden and collapsed. Normally it would have been Gala or Charlie to come to me and care for me. But they were gone. Eventually I got back to my feet and walked like a sleepwalker to my bed. I pulled the blanket over my head and slept, though it was the middle of the day. When I woke up I comforted myself with the thought that the situation was temporary. Once the battle was over, Charlie and Gala would return.

But they did not return, and I never saw Charlie again.”

***

Hassan made a fist and rested his mouth on it, gazing in the direction of the front door but not actually seeing it, Jamilah thought. He seemed ten thousand miles away, lost in memory. Jamilah could hardly believe how much had happened to Hassan by the age of eleven. It was a lifetime’s worth of tragedy.

Layth rubbed Hassan’s shoulders. “Go on, akhi,” he said. “Tell us what happened.”

***

Hassan lifted his head as if waking from a dream. “I don’t know,” he said. “I can only tell you what I was told. A week after they left, Boulos called everyone into the living room of the house. He said that Gala and Charlie had been on their way back to Beirut in a minibus. They’d been coming down the mountain when the road came under fire from PLO artillery. The bus swerved, went over the side of the mountain, crashed and caught fire. There were no survivors.

A funeral was held for Charlie a week later, but I refused to go. Uncle Sami’s wife, who’d returned to the house, chastised me, saying that I was a cold-hearted shame and a wreck. I didn’t care. I refused to accept that Charlie was gone. The whole thing felt wrong to me somehow, in a way that I couldn’t begin to articulate. And I was drowning in guilt. Take care of Charlie, my father had said, and look what I’d done. Barely six years old and he was gone. It was an abomination.

Several days later a man came to the house and argued loudly with Boulos. Sarkis had gotten a girl pregnant. Boulos got rid of the man somehow – probably paid him off – and with a look of fury ordered Sarkis to pack a bag, because he was going to combat school – the Phalange equivalent of boot camp. I could tell Sarkis wanted to protest, but he knew better. I spoke up and said I wanted to go too. I hadn’t planned to say that. It just came out. There was nothing left for me. I had just told Charlie a week before that violence wasn’t the answer, but the enemy killed Charlie, and that fact rendered my words meaningless. The PLO had taken my parents, Gala, Charlie – it was too much. I didn’t care anymore. I was filled with darkness, as if everything I believed in had been hollowed out of my brain and replaced with black ink. I had nothing left except the power of the gun. I heard my mother’s words, clear as a bell: ‘Your gun is your life.’

Boulos studied me for a second, then tilted his head, smiled oddly, and said, “Excellent idea. You will both leave tomorrow.” I’m sure Gala would have protested if she had been there, but Gala was dead.

I don’t want to turn this into a war story or a history lesson. I’ll just say that I fought well. I was dead inside, and that’s just about right for a soldier. I was a child, but so were some others in my company, though I was the youngest.

In my fourth week of training, the combat school itself came under attack by an LF splinter group. I was instrumental in repelling the attack, as I led a push to retake the armory, and succeeded. I was nearly wounded but got lucky – a grenade fragment struck a field manual that I’d jammed into my hip pocket. I limped for a few weeks, but aside from that I was fine. Some of the men started calling me Lucky, and it caught on.

After that incident at the combat school I was graduated on the spot and given a field promotion to specialist. I was put on fire support and I learned to operate artillery, recoilless rifles and anti-tank guns. I was placed under the command of a lieutenant who – .”

Hassan looked around at the others, who sat listening with rapt attention. He held out his hands in an apologetic gesture. “You know how I talked about the disappearance of all moral setpoints? It was common to see soldiers killing civilians, raping, looting, and taking… trophies. Body parts, you know? My own lieutenant had a potato sack full of…”

Hassan waved his hand as if dismissing the memory, then continued.

“It was ugly. But I’m telling the truth when I say that I didn’t cross those lines. I don’t know why. Maybe my father’s teachings still lived inside me somewhere, maybe Allah was looking out for me. When I think about how good Allah has been to me, it’s overwhelming.”

**

Hassan’s tipped his head back and took a deep breath. Jamilah thought she knew how he felt. She too felt that Allah had chosen her and guided her for reasons she didn’t understand. The knowledge created a sense of obligation. She didn’t know exactly what challenge or task Allah had in mind for her in this life, but she would do her best to accomplish it.

**

“It may seem strange to say that Allah has been kind to me,” Hassan went on, “but that’s how it feels. Yes, I killed men. My squad mates thought I was a maniac because I would advance toward an enemy position recklessly. It wasn’t because I was brave, but because I didn’t care if I lived or died. But I like to think – and Allah knows best – that I did some good as well. There were times when I prevented other men from killing innocents. Men twice my age respected me because of my reputation as a fighter, and because everyone knew I was a Haddad. I was certainly the only one who could restrain Sarkis. He was in my platoon and had become an evil young man. More than once I stopped him from raping women. Later, when I was promoted, I never allowed the men under my command to commit atrocities.

When I joined, we were fighting desperately against a rogue Maronite General who had split the LF. On the other side of the Line, Amal and Hezbollah were trying to destroy each other – two sides of the Shiah coin. At other times we fought the PLO or even the Druze. The most vicious fighting came when the Syrians invaded Lebanon. Men died like ants.

In Lebanon during the war there was a phrase: ‘’al an-naseeb al-watani.’ The national lottery. A shell hits a house and one child dies while another lives? The neighbors exchange knowing looks and say, ‘The national lottery.’

So I’d run into men I knew and they’d punch me in the arm and say, ‘Hey, Lucky. Still winning the national lottery?’ I got so tired of that joke.

Of course as a Muslim I understand that there’s no such thing as luck. Whatever was meant to happen would happen, and what was meant to pass me by would pass me by. Allah intended for me to survive, though I can’t imagine why.”

 

“You bring people together,” Layth said.

Hassan said nothing but he gave Layth a look that might have been hope, as if he wanted to believe what Layth was saying.

“You do,” Layth said. “Your class for Muslim women. The weekly Tu-Lan dinner – that was your idea, right? And I hear that people have been joining your dhuhr prayer down at Jackson Park. You bring people together, you help them, save them, even. Don’t sell yourself short, akhi. You deserve to be here, as much as anyone I’ve ever known.”

“Insha’Allah,” Hassan said. “I appreciate it, brother. That means a lot to me coming from you…

Well. Back then I was like a gun: point me, and let me work. I was moved from fire support to patrol and finally to the front line. I should have been cut down twenty times over, but again, Allah looked out for me. That’s really what I want to talk about. Not the battles, but what changed me. How Allah protected me, and lifted the darkness from my eyes.

For the first few years I was like a machine, dead inside and just moving, doing what I was told. I took up smoking. All the men smoked. But – I don’t know why, maybe because I was young, and the young are resilient, you know – I started to come around. I began to notice things and to feel.

One time when I’d been fighting for about two years, a young Palestinian boy came running up to me and asked for a sweet. He wasn’t afraid. His left hand was missing, amputated, and he wore a patch on his left eye. Maybe the eye was gone, I don’t know. I said, ‘Who did this to you?’ and he said, ‘Antum!’ You all. And he looked shy about it, as if he felt embarrassed to answer my question. That shook me. Something about him reminded me of Charlie. Maybe his grin. That one word started working its way deeper into my mind. ‘Antum.’

Another time we were on patrol in a Palestinian neighborhood and came under heavy artillery fire. We didn’t retreat, but we changed direction and moved laterally through the alleys until the sounds of explosions faded. Suddenly we heard someone playing the piano. It was so beautiful. One of the men in the squad said it was Bach. I ducked low and hurried across the alley and looked in the window where the music was coming from. It was a girl playing the piano. A young girl, not more than ten, wearing a blue dress and a ribbon in her hair. A Palestinian girl of course – they were all Palestinians in that neighborhood. And her mother sat nearby, knitting something and tapping her foot to the music. I told my squad and we sat for five minutes in the alley, against the wall, smoking and listening. The artillery shells did not stop us, but the music stopped us. The party propaganda said that the Palestinians were a plague on Lebanon, but in that moment a girl playing the piano was the most beautiful thing I’d seen or heard in years.

I’m trying to say that I’d been lost to despair, but what revived me were human experiences. Not philosophy, not history. Just a boy without a hand, and a girl playing Bach.

I’d see Saber sometimes in passing. He’d been promoted to major. We’d shake hands and reminisce about the old days. I think he felt sorry for me and was proud at the same time. He said I had leadership potential, and he must have put in a word for me, because I was recalled to combat school for three months of officer training. The firearms tactics and hand-to-hand combat were easy. But there were also advanced offensive drills, radio codes, military history, and Phalangist ideology. I struggled with the written material. I only had a fifth grade education. I got through it with long hours studying and help from my bunkmate, and still I failed the final. Normally that would mean expulsion, but I was allowed to test a second time – probably because of my name. I passed and graduated as a second lieutenant.

“Three crucial events in my life happened in 1989, when I’d been in the field for four years. Let me talk about car bombs for a sec.

People can get used to anything. A neighborhood a few miles away is being shelled, and the women visit the expensive salons on Hamra Street as if nothing’s going on. Someone is shot dead at a checkpoint, and traffic flows around him. There were two things, however, that no one ever seemed to adjust to. The first were the Israeli warplanes that streaked over the city regularly, dropping bombs and killing people by the dozens. The sky could be clear and the day quiet, and the next you know the a sonic boom is rolling across across the city like thunder and bombs are falling. There was no preparing for it, no getting away. The second thing that everyone feared were car bombs, again because they were unpredictable. You had to live with the fact that the car parked outside your building, or in the basement garage, or in front of the cafe where you dined, could at any moment turn the world into a conflagration of fire and ruin.

I’d seen the aftermath of many car bombings. Our barracks were hit by a truck bomb when I was out on patrol. Dozens were killed. The Phalange HQ in Ashrafieh, a bank on Rue 84, the assassination of the finance minister – I worked post-attack security or cleanup on all of those. There’s a funny thing that happens after while. You stop noticing the burned up vehicles, the broken glass and car parts, the rescuers scurrying about, and the bystanders standing around looking stunned, unaware of the blood on their own faces. You start noticing little things, like the smell of whiskey from all the smashed bottles in the liquor store next door, or the hot dogs that got scattered from the street vendor’s stand, or the leaves on the ground. And the smell of the explosives themselves, like tar or fresh asphalt, with a touch of almonds. So a bomb goes off, everything is destroyed and it smells like the road has just been paved, which is totally ironic if you think about it.

Because we rarely penetrated deeply across the Green Line, I had never seen the aftermath of one of our own car bombs – one set by the Phalange, I mean. But in April 1989 the LF were preparing an assault across the Line and I was ordered to carry out physical reconnaissance. Promotions came quickly in that war because of the death rate and constant turnover, so I was a captain by then, in command of my own squad. I figured two youngsters would have the best chance of looking inconspicuous, so I went myself and I took one other man, a seventeen year old named Butros. We crossed the Line in civvies, looking like typical Beiruti teenagers in sneakers and jeans. About a mile in we came to a commercial complex that had been destroyed by a car bomb. It was the usual wreckage, but the odor stopped me in my tracks. It was a foul mixture of urine and gasoline that made me grimace.

They say that smell is a powerful memory trigger. In spite of all the car bombings I’d seen, I’d managed to put my mother’s death out of my head, but now I was back there, remembering the flames shooting out of the blown-out doorways, my father screaming her name. Butros hissed at me to keep walking, but I was rooted. ‘What is that smell?’ I asked. By then people passing on the sidewalk were looking at me oddly. ‘Not now,’ Butros hissed, and tried to drag me by the elbow, but I wouldn’t move. A few militiamen began to saunter our way. In a panic, Butros begged me to get moving, and I did.

We completed our reconnaissance and made it back to our side, and even though I outranked Butros he was furious. ‘You almost got us killed,’ he shouted. I asked him again about the smell and he said, ‘Don’t you know anything? It’s ANFO. Ammonium nitrate fuel oil. It’s an explosive.’ I protested that I’d been around car bomb explosions and they all smelled like fresh tar and almonds. ‘Those are PLO bombs,’ Butros said. ‘They and Hezbollah use C4. That’s how it smells. We use ANFO. It stinks like piss.’”

Butros reminded me that we needed to report, but I sat on a low, broken wall beside a rotting heap of garbage with rats crawling over it, and stared at nothing. My hands trembled as I lit a cigarette. I kept replaying my mother’s death in my mind, and splicing in Butros’ words – ‘We use ANFO.’ My father screaming, ‘Evelyn!’. ‘We use ANFO.’ The smell of urine, and me thinking I’d wet myself. ‘We use ANFO.’ Could it be coincidence? Maybe someone else had set the bomb that fateful day in Los Angeles – some other organization or assassin that used ANFO.

Butros waved me off in exasperation and walked away. I sat, not even puffing my cigarette. Had I been duped? Had my uncle Boulos lied when he said that the PLO killed my parents? I’d accepted that assertion at face value, but now that I was older and had a better understanding of the Lebanese conflict, I realized that it didn’t make sense. Why would the PLO assassinate my mother, who was not involved in politics and who sold purses through the post? Did it have something to do with her cache of weapons? Or was it my father they were after? But he was pro-peace and pro-Palestinian, and lived a simple life running a Los Angeles gas station and writing poetry in a journal. Why would anyone chase them all the way to the United States, just to kill them?

I had no answers, only questions, and no one to answer them for me.

I made a bad decision. I decided to ask Sarkis. He was closer to Boulos than I was, he’d been around longer, and he was my cousin. It was a stupid move on my part. Our relationship had continued to deteriorate and I hadn’t seen him in a year. He’d become an evil young man, and I’d heard that he had his own squad and they ran a checkpoint downtown, by the National Museum. This was the nastiest area in Beirut, right on the Green Line, and in the heart of the primary zone of destruction. I’d heard a rumor that Sarkis’ squad was known for robbing and killing civilians.

I went with my full squad – men I’d chosen carefully for their loyalty, intelligence and skills, and who were not needlessly cruel. One was Daniel, who used to practice martial arts with me and Saber. He was still a corporal – he’d been promoted as high as captain until he filed a complaint against a company leader who had executed a group of unarmed Palestinian prisoners. The company leader had family connections, and Daniel had been busted back to private. I’d requested to have him transferred into my squad and he had become my right hand man. He was short and thin and smoked too much, but I knew I could trust him with my life.

We found Sarkis and his men behind a wall of sandbags on a barren, rubble-strewn street behind the destroyed shell of the museum. The sound of heavy gunfire rattled nearby. Two bloated bodies lay in the street while a car burned in the intersection. The air stank of smoke and putrefaction. A shell exploded nearby and a large, emaciated dog streaked up the street in a panic. The dog looked a little like Rocket, and I had this momentary fear that it was Rocket – that somehow he’d gotten lost or had been abandoned. I felt a pang of homesickness for the house on the hill. Not for Boulos or the staff, but for Gala, Charlie, Saber and Rocket. At least I still had Daniel.

Sarkis seemed to have done the opposite of what I had done, gathering around him the worst louts the Phalange had to offer. Vile men, undisciplined, out of uniform, a few wearing necklaces of ears and fingers. Sarkis himself was still only a master sergeant, which meant I outranked him by quite a bit. His men were in the middle of tormenting a Shi’ah family. They’d robbed them, beaten the teenage boy, and a slovenly, pole-thin soldier was in the process of dragging an adolescent girl off by the hair as her parents were forced to kneel in the street. I had no doubt Sarkis’ men would kill the entire family.

I ordered the thin man to release the girl, and he sneered at me and told me to go back to Hamra Street and get my nails done if I couldn’t handle the front line. I raised my rifle and shot the man in the thigh, justifiably, since refusing an order in the field was an act of mutiny. Sarkis’ squad stared at me in shock for a minute, then they raised their weapons, and my squad did the same. For a second it seemed like we would all open fire and slaughter one another. But Sarkis knew that I and my men were well trained. Daniel and I alone could probably take out half his squad. He motioned to his men to lower their weapons.

I pulled Sarkis to the side. I asked him if he’d ever heard Boulos talk about my parents’ death. He laughed and said, ‘You get dumber every year. How is that possible?’ Then he spat on my shoe and turned away. My squad and I retreated, taking the Shi’ah family with us, helping the boy to walk.”

Hassan smiled. “When we released them the father hugged me and kissed me on the cheek so many times that I literally blushed. The men teased me about it afterward. I don’t know what I was thinking, though, talking to Sarkis. It was a foolish thing to do.

A second crucial event took place a week after my confrontation with Sarkis. My squad walked into an ambush. We were about a half kilometer north of the Bourj el-Barajneh camp, moving through an alley. We found the far end of the alley blocked by a garbage truck and a huge mound of garbage that the truck seemed to have dumped. At the same time we came under heavy machine gun fire from two different roofs. I was hit and knocked unconscious.

When I came to, I was crammed into a dumpster with the weight of other bodies smothering me. I was soaked in blood and my head hurt. My weapons were gone. I could hear the PLO guerillas talking. They had set up a checkpoint not ten meters from the bin. There was no escape. I stayed in that garbage bin for two days, growing desperately thirsty, my muscles cramping, fighting for air, maggots and flies crawling on me, and choking on the smell of rotting flesh. I quietly explored my own body and realized that I was missing an earlobe, but otherwise unhurt.

The third night the area seemed quiet and I risked a peek. The men kneeled in a row, praying. They had their backs to me. I slipped out of the dumpster but the metal creaked and two of the men whirled, their rifles trained on me. Their eyes were wide. I must have been quite a sight – a fifteen year old boy covered in blood and maggots, crawling out of a garbage bin. They seized me and bound my wrists.

The other men kept on praying. When they were done, the commander regarded me. He was broad shouldered and powerful looking but with a pot belly, and wearing a black beret. He asked me who I was and I told him honestly that I was a Kataeb fighter. He threw his head back and laughed, then he said, “You are a lucky young man. Someone wanted to flush your squad down the drain.” I thought he was referring to fate or God. He asked my name and I knew that telling him my real name would be suicide. I’d heard that all Palestinians revered St. George – even the Muslims – so I said my name was George. His expression became serious and he lifted his chin and said, “That is my son’s name.” He untied my hands and told one of his men to give me water and a weapon. The man brought me a tin cup full of water and a Beretta 92, which is an Italian nine millimeter pistol. I took both and drank greedily.

I had a thought and I asked the commander whether the PLO ever used ANFO for car bombs. He raised his eyebrows so high they almost disappeared into his hairline and said, ‘You are a strange young man.’

“‘Maybe so,’ I said, ‘but do you use it?’ He shrugged his shoulders and said, ‘No. Your side uses ANFO because it is cheap. But it is unstable. We are not so stupid. Now go.’

He turned to pray again, spreading his coat on the ground as a prayer rug. I was stunned. I could tell from the weight of the Beretta that it was loaded. I said, ‘How do you know I won’t shoot you in the back?’ He looked over his shoulder and said, ‘Allah is watching my back.’ Then he began to pray. All the men turned away from me, as if I no longer existed. I set the cup down and walked away.

Most of my squad was wiped out in that ambush. Only two men besides myself survived. I was thankful that Daniel was one of them. The brass gave me a medal, when all I’d done was hide in a garbage bin for two days.

Colonel Samir, my superior, said, ‘Still winning the national lottery, eh?’ But I didn’t believe in the national lottery anymore. I didn’t know what I believed in, but I could still hear that Muslim PLO commander saying, ‘Allah is watching my back.’

If it had been my side with a captured Palestinian fighter, we would not have been so kind. The Phalange would never release an enemy fighter, no matter how young, except as part of a prisoner swap. And to give me a weapon, and turn his back? I couldn’t understand it. What kind of faith could run so deep? Why was I fighting these Muslims who I’d always been led to believe were ruthless killers, but who had shown themselves to be kinder than my own compatriots? I’d never been curious about Islam before, but I found myself wanting to learn.

There was something else about the ambush that nagged at me later. Thinking back, I remembered seeing a civilian in silhouette just minutes before the ambush. He stood in the recessed doorway of the Maison du Monde, an abandoned furniture store a block from the site of the attack. As we passed he faded into the shadows. At the time I thought nothing of it, but in recollection, the way the man had moved reminded me of Sarkis. I told myself that my mind was playing tricks. Sarkis was miles away.

I should have trusted my instincts.”

Next:  Hassan’s Tale, Part 7 – The Teacher Appears

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Wael Abdelgawad's novels can be purchased at his author page at Amazon.com: Wael is an Egyptian-American living in California. He is the founder of several Islamic websites, including, Zawaj.com, IslamicAnswers.com and IslamicSunrays.com. He teaches martial arts, and loves Islamic books, science fiction, and ice cream. Learn more about him at WaelAbdelgawad.com. For a guide to all of Wael's online stories in chronological order, check out this handy Story Index.

38 Comments

38 Comments

  1. abdulhakeem

    May 21, 2014 at 1:20 AM

    wow!wow!wow!..am always eagerly anticipating to read your stories and i’m never dissapointed..may Allah bless you akhi.

  2. Wazeed Safi

    May 21, 2014 at 1:40 AM

    Will part 7 be the last or is the rest still in the making ?

    • Wael Abdelgawad

      May 21, 2014 at 1:50 AM

      There’s still more coming, Insha’Allah. I think Hassan’s Tale will be 8 parts. Possibly 9. After that will come the concluding story to the series, titled Ouroboros.

  3. SZH

    May 21, 2014 at 2:54 AM

    Wonderful!
    Have you completed the story? You said that you have already written next parts, and you are ahead of us. If the story is complete, then please publish it on paper. There will be many buyers waiting for the book.

    • Wael Abdelgawad

      May 21, 2014 at 2:12 PM

      SZH, it’s not completed yet. I’ll think about print publication when it’s done, Insha’Allah.

  4. Garga

    May 21, 2014 at 4:12 AM

    Brother, I am new here but hassan’s tale is really a good piece. May Allah reward you and tymah (bint) for introducing me to the page.

    • Wael Abdelgawad

      August 7, 2014 at 4:03 PM

      Garga, thank you. You mean Taymah who lives in Fresno? Do you live in Fresno too?

  5. Minahil

    May 21, 2014 at 6:20 AM

    It feels so good watching hassan open up like this. He is telling everything that was bottled inside him for a lifetime! To be honest I eagerly wait for wednesday the whole week and i wish this series never end. What more appreciation do you need brother Wael! Simply too good.

  6. Syed Anees Ahmad

    May 21, 2014 at 8:36 AM

    Ya Allah!! Every week I read this story, there is definetly one phase where i cant hold back my tears. Sir, you are doing unbelievably well in developing the parts one by one, its just a master piece :) SUBHANALLAH…I wish this tale was endless :(

  7. Bint Rashid

    May 21, 2014 at 8:42 AM

    Another brilliant chapter… and my mind is overflowing with possibilities now, you are sooo good at building up the suspense. MashaAllah. And the imagery was awesome, as usual. I am actually learning to appreciate that you give us these weekly doses, it lets the story settle a bit before the next part, which it needs to do I think. I can’t wait to read more, which is saying something, as I am addicted to mysteries and thrillers, and this one has me on the edge of my seat, so well done,again, mashaAllah.

    salam alaikum

  8. anon

    May 21, 2014 at 10:21 AM

    it is the uncle who put the ANFO bomb under the car! Amu was it?
    OMG, good job brother Wael

  9. Hamayoun

    May 21, 2014 at 11:16 AM

    Salam Wael,

    Keep it coming bro! Like I said before, real Ludlum style! How much of this is based on how the civil war really was, and how much is artistic liberty?

    • Wael Abdelgawad

      May 21, 2014 at 2:14 PM

      Hamayoun, the descriptions of the Lebanese civil war are quite accurate. I did considerable research, including Jean Makdisi’s “Beirut Fragments”, “Pity the Nation” by Robert Fisk, and other sources.

      • Umm Yasa'ah

        May 21, 2014 at 4:24 PM

        SubhanAllah, it’s hard to imagine that such violence really did/does exist…

      • SC

        August 7, 2014 at 3:29 PM

        dear Brothers and sisters, i think the horrific reality of war is brought out so well here. thank you to the author for that. i think it’s very clear that this type of modern warfare is anything but Islamic, and could never be used in an Islamic manner. all the modern wars are like this – they deform normal human beings, ones who had morals, into machines. becuse the machines are the war, they are how the war is able to be fought, and at some point, they conquer the men who use them and make them less human.
        this is not how the traditional battles were – and so i think really as muslims we need to be anti-war, if this is what war means, and really demonstrate to teh pacificsts that we do agree with them. that they are right. because it is THIS which they are against. and are we not too?

      • Wael Abdelgawad

        August 7, 2014 at 4:07 PM

        SC, that’s a brilliant comment about men being transformed into the machines that they use (and serve?). I may have to borrow that, ha ha.

  10. Sanofer

    May 21, 2014 at 4:31 PM

    Exactly as i thought!!!
    instincts says so!!!

    • Komal

      May 21, 2014 at 5:22 PM

      I thought the same

    • Bint A

      May 22, 2014 at 12:32 AM

      I wish you guys had kept these thoughts to yourselves :(
      I was in a state of a 5 min shock when I read this comment and considered its plausibility, esp as this theory falls really well with the title of Ouroboros… :(

      Would appreciate all future discoveries to be left to the hands of the author, who has earned the right to shock us with all the suspense he has built.

      • Omer

        May 22, 2014 at 10:27 AM

        Sorry, I was just sharing a theory. I will try to refrain from it next time.

  11. Komal

    May 21, 2014 at 5:24 PM

    Wow brother Wael, I just can’t say in words how amazing this story is..everyday I refresh this page,thinking a new chapter might have been put up instead of being placed on Wednesday:) the wait every week is killing me.keep it up..

  12. Umm Yasa'ah

    May 21, 2014 at 9:31 PM

    Who’s Mr. Green?

  13. Abu Asiyah

    May 21, 2014 at 10:17 PM

    assalaamu ‘alaykum sidi,

    Ok, I have to weigh in…

    This story would’ve been better told in some other way. It doesn’t work as a story told by a person. If you were to sit down and tell your life story, you wouldn’t go into that much detail – or that much description. For example:

    “His eyes met mine and I saw such coldness in his brown eyes, as if they were bottomless caverns. It was a warm day and I was sweating from the humidity, but I shivered and looked away.”

    That sounds like something a writer would say, not something a guy telling his life story would. Also, this just reminds me of too many scenes in movies when someone overlooks another person saying something they don’t like, their eyes meet, and there’s this dun-dun-dun moment.

    Anyway, my point is: if you were to narrate this story as an author, this would work well. But being told as a story by an in-novel character, it doesn’t sound like real dialogue. Especially given the tense situation, the killer waiting for Hassan, the conflict he had with Jamila earlier – that wouldn’t make him talkative. He could cover the same story much quicker, in much less detail, and still get most of the point across – which is what he would’ve done. Few people talk the way authors write – which isn’t a problem, until you start making the dialogue sound the same as how you write.

    The plot itself is interesting, clearly, cuz I’m still reading, masha’Allah. I just wanted to weigh in with my 2 cents and offer some critique. Writers need that more than praise :)

    • Wael Abdelgawad

      May 21, 2014 at 10:59 PM

      Abu Asiyah, I totally understand what you’re saying. In the future I might reorganize the story so that Hassan’s narrative is not being told while everyone is in jeopardy.

      • Asiyah

        May 22, 2014 at 5:27 PM

        i agree with abu asiyah but i like the detail in the story

      • Abu Asiyah

        May 23, 2014 at 5:14 PM

        That would work to an extent, but some of the wording (see the quote in my OP) is still problematic, simply because it is too “fictional” to be a part of an actual person’s conversation.

        • Wael Abdelgawad

          May 23, 2014 at 5:19 PM

          You’re right, and I might make a few adjustments here and there. But real people’s speech is full of odd pauses, struggling for the right word, saying “uhhh”, “like”, “you know”, “I mean”, etc. An extended monologue in that style would be tedious. I think we must assume and accept a certain degree of eloquence and articulateness in our narrator.

      • SC

        August 7, 2014 at 7:02 PM

        I understand Abu Asiyah’s point but I feel like (as you say below in response to another comment) Hassan is eloquent, he is unique, he is like a different kind of human. everything he does is different than normal people so I feel like it’s not that weird to have him tell this story with such detail and imagery. for whatever it’s worth, it never felt odd to me. and I really love that it’s all going on while we know that Partridge is outside, that they ARE in jeopardy as he tells it. there’s something really neat about that. it works.

  14. Nus

    May 25, 2014 at 4:39 PM

    How about as Hassan relates his story as it was. So it would be a flashback to the actual events and Hassan would chip in in a conversational fashion as well.

  15. Omer

    May 25, 2014 at 11:08 PM

    It wasn’t a conclusion just a possible theory, and I think it would fit in to the story nicely. To be honest I saw you “edit” some other person’s comment in the previous chapter because he was revealing too much so I kind of hoped you would do the same with mine if there was any truth to it.

    I truly do hope I am wrong. If it were true I would feel horrible for Hassan, and some of your readers who I displeased with my theory might dislike me more. We would just have to wait and see how it turns out, I hope there’s more of a twist.

  16. Sarah B.

    May 30, 2014 at 8:23 AM

    Oh my! What a cliff hanger! Sarkis is such an evil character and really has no redeeming qualities. I really liked reading about the planting of the idea of rethinking Islam in Hassan’s mind. Subhan’Allah it’s amazing how reverts come to Islam. For Hassan it was in the form of being captured by enemy forces then shown some kindess and let go.
    The detail in this story is so amazing! It’s as if you were actually there. Your research definitely paid off! Masha’Allah!

  17. L

    June 10, 2014 at 12:36 AM

    “I said, ‘How do you know I won’t shoot you in the back?’ He looked over his shoulder and said, ‘Allāh is watching my back.'”

    This reminds me strongly of the Hadith where Rasulullah SAW was resting under a shady tree and a polytheist came to him and his sword was hanging on a tree. The polytheist drew it and said: “Are you afraid of me?” Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) answered: “No”. Then he said: “Who will then protect you from me?” Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) replied: “Allah”.

    The story as a whole is already amazing in both plot and flow, but it’s these little details and Hassan’s way of reminding himself of Allah at different intervals that I particularly love.

    I better catch up with the rest of the story, will be sad when it comes to an end!

  18. Saudah

    July 30, 2014 at 6:30 AM

    Salaams

    I trust you are well
    I’m dying to know when the next part is coming out! Please do tell me!
    I’m totally in love with this story and completely in awe of Hassan and his lifes journey

  19. SC

    August 7, 2014 at 3:32 PM

    oh no! say it’s not so. unless this will result in a beautiful redemption. yes, the Creator can rehabilitate even the worst….

  20. SC

    August 8, 2014 at 6:01 PM

    re: people becoming guns: might just be historically accurate too: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Elie_Hobeika (nicknamed after the gun he carried). and what a name for that other gun – Sweetie…no commentary needed….(I like how you keep most of the imagery light – showing not telling and not overdoing the metaphors. The imagery suggests them and when you do provide metaphors they are just light enough to not hold back the pace).

  21. Pingback: Hassan’s Tale, Part 12 – It’s Not What You Say - Ka Waal

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