See the Story Index for a chronological guide to all the stories.
“Hold on,” Muhammad said. “Did you say your earlobe got shot off? And you were shot through the arm?”
Hassan nodded. “The ear was a close one.”
“Can I see? Is that why you grow your hair long?”
Hassan sighed. “I’m a mess, bro. I have scars all over. Why do you need to see?”
Jamilah thought Hassan sounded defensive. Embarrassed maybe, or ashamed. She imagined she’d feel the same if someone asked to see some damaged part of her body.
“Leave him be,” Jamilah said. “Go on with your story, Hassan.”
Hassan shot her what might have been a grateful look, and continued:
“I mentioned that there were three events that opened my eyes and changed me. The third event occurred a few months later, in June. A propane tank at the American University of Beirut was hit by shellfire and exploded. Luckily it was early on a Sunday and the campus was deserted. One of the generals had a son who attended the AUB and he dispatched my platoon to haul away the wreckage.
It must have been a lovely campus once. On the seashore, with red-tiled roofs and cedar trees, and a clock tower that chimed on the hour. You could catch glimpses of the calm, blue waters of the Mediterranean between the buildings. But now most of the windows were shattered, the arts building destroyed, and the smell of gasoline and fire hung over everything. We tied handkerchiefs over our mouths because of the smoke.
We took a breakfast break and sat beneath one of the remaining cedars eating canned sardines and crackers, and smoking. I heard voices, so I took Daniel and another man and went to investigate. We followed the voices to the language arts building, guns and grenades ready. When I crept up and peered through the shattered window, I saw a class in session. I almost laughed. I made my way to the classroom. The students were young, some no older than me, and they looked at me in startlement. I was used to the looks of fear, resentment and hostility that I got from civilians, and I saw all of those emotions on these students’ faces.
The teacher was young as well – in her early twenties, I thought. I was captivated by her slender beauty and flowing hair. Every day I shouted clear orders under fire to men twice my age, but when I tried to talk to the teacher I stammered. I said, ‘Do you – don’t you know that the campus was shelled?’ She gave me a bemused smile and said that if they cancelled class every time fighting broke out, no one would learn. I asked why the students were all so young and she explained that these were secondary school students taking a summer course. “It’s called Practicing Peace,” she said, and waved to the blackboard.
I looked at the board, and my stomach leaped into my throat. There was a quotation written there:
“A scattered family inherit a beautiful mansion, on the condition that they all share the home. Do they barricade the rooms, some locking themselves in the bathroom and others in the kitchen? Do they pollute the home, foul the pool and burn the garden, rendering the home uninhabitable? Do they make war, piling bodies in the basement and leaving the floor stained with blood? Or do they learn to live together, enjoying their inheritance in peace? What will you choose, sons and daughters of Lebanon?”
I recognized the quote before I even saw the name at the bottom: Kamal Haddad.
“What do you think?” the teacher asked me. There was no challenge in her voice. She genuinely wanted my opinion. I heard some of the students sniggering, thinking perhaps that I was an ignorant gunman who could not understand such ideas. The teacher shushed them. My mouth was dry. I had not consciously thought of my father in so long. I knew he would be ashamed of who I had become. Still, I managed to speak clearly, without stammering this time. I said it was a beautiful sentiment and nothing more, and that all of Kamal Haddad’s lovely words had not saved him in the end.
“So you’ve heard of him?” she said. I said yes. She asked if his death rendered his words less valid. “Great men throughout history have died for their ideals,” she said, “but the ideals live on.” I told her that this quote had been inspired by a speech by Martin Luther King Jr., who was Kamal Haddad’s personal hero.
She tipped her head and smiled, and it was like the sun brightening the room, driving away the atmosphere of hostility, and lifting the pall of smoke that hung over the campus. “I never heard that,” she said. “How do you know that?”
I turned away from her and looked at the board. I didn’t like all those eyes on me. I said, “He told me so. He used to quote Dr. King all the time:
‘When our days become dreary with low-hovering clouds of despair, and when our nights become darker than a thousand midnights, let us remember that there is a creative force in this universe working to pull down the gigantic mountains of evil, a power that is able to make a way out of no way, and transform dark yesterdays into bright tomorrows.’
My father had made me memorize several MLK quotes, but I hadn’t known that they were still in my head. It occurred to me that I was a part of that gigantic mountain of evil, and that if a creative force was working to pull it down then it would pull me down as well. The teacher stepped closer and said, “Why are you crying?” and I hadn’t known that I was. Then she said, “Who are you?”
One of the students said, “Miss, that’s Lucky Haddad. He’s a legend.”
I looked to see who had spoken and spotted a gangly, curly-haired youth at the back. He was older than the others – maybe eighteen. A scar starred his left cheek, which was strangely indented. I remembered him. He’d been in my battalion a few years ago, though not my company. He’d been shot in the face by a sniper. I was glad to see that he’d survived, but I felt a twinge of jealousy. Here he was, out of the fighting, studying like a normal human being.
Who was I, truly? I’d been raised as Simon Ibrahim, but that was not my name. I was a Haddad, but Boulos and Sarkis despised me, while Uncle Sami was simply not interested. The only friends I had were Saber, Daniel and a dog named Rocket. My family had been murdered, and I didn’t know who had murdered them. Or did I? I was a mindless killer, roaming the streets of Beirut like a demon, fighting for a cause I didn’t believe in.
The teacher smiled and said, “Is that right? Are you a legend?”
I said, ‘I don’t know who I am,” and walked out.
Daniel had been watching through the window. When I exited he said, “Woman like that, you need a map, so’s don’t get lost.”
I had a rare day off a few weeks later. I dressed in jeans and a t-shirt, stuck my pistol in my waistband beneath my shirt – I never went out unarmed – and took a taxi to Hamra Street to see if I could find a bottle of ketchup. I’d grown up loving ketchup with fries, fish, chicken, you name it. Ketchup was an oddity in Lebanon, but on Hamra Street you could find anything. Fast food to fine French dining, barbershops, the latest designer clothing, bootlegged cassettes, Japanese electronics, everything. I was also supposed to look for mustache wax and a Fairuz cassette for Daniel. He thought Fairuz was an angel on earth. He used to drive me crazy, singing, ‘Taljak al mahabbi wa shamsak al herreye’. Lebanon, your snows are love, and your sun is freedom.
In the end I found the cassette and the ketchup, though the latter cost me a week’s wages. And I found the teacher – quite by accident – sitting at a sidewalk cafe table with a few other women her age, wearing a flowing green skirt and a long sleeved white blouse. I wasn’t going to stop, but she leaped out of her chair and grabbed my sleeve. She said, “Hey, you’re the soldier from the other day.” I nodded my head, tongue-tied. She said I looked younger in my civvies. I said, “I’m fifteen and I’m a captain.” Which was maybe a childish thing to say. She gave me a mock salute and I smiled and shook my head. She reminded me that I had not told her my proper name, and I said, “My name is Simon Haddad.”
She tipped her head in that way she had, and asked if I was related to Kamal Haddad. I said, “He was my father. He died in my arms.” And I turned to walk away. I don’t know why I said that. I had never discussed my father’s death with anyone.
The teacher snatched her scarf from the back of her chair, took my arm, and said, ‘You’re not getting away this time.” She walked me to an old Renault, put me in the passenger seat and started to drive. I didn’t protest. It was my day off, and an attractive older woman wanted to take me for a drive. There was something relaxing about letting an assertive woman take control. Which she did. I lit a cigarette and she snatched it away and threw it out the window. She said smoking was a dirty habit for dirty people, and that I was not dirty. I laughed it off, but I never smoked another cigarette after that day.
The teacher drove all the way out of Beirut, and into the mountains north of the city. It was so different there, with forested slopes covered in cypress and cedar, and incredible views of the sea. The air had a sweet scent and I inhaled deeply, as if I had been underwater and just surfaced. Now and then we rounded a curve and caught a glimpse of Beirut far below, looking strangely small and serene, except for the smoke rising from burning buildings here and there.
Her name was Lena Ayyoub. She was nineteen years old – I was surprised to hear that – and a student herself at the AUB, majoring in peace studies. Her mother had been killed in a street robbery before the war, and her father was a general in the Phalange intelligence service. I’d heard of General Ayyoub. Saber had said once that General Nader Ayyoub was one of the few who genuinely cared about the men in the field.
Lena said her father considered her field of study to be misguided and foolish – he wanted her to become a doctor – but he let her have her way because he doted on her. ‘He’s just a big cotton ball,’ she said.
She drove off the main road onto a muddy track through a mountain pasture, and stopped next to a low, ancient looking stone structure. She explained that it was an abandoned shepherd’s hut, and that the mountains were full of them. In the old days the shepherds would shelter in them if they were caught outdoors in a storm. Some were big enough to hold the flock as well. I could see many small, round lakes punctuating the hillside. Lena said they were hill reservoirs, dug by hand to capture the runoff from the mountain springs.
It was stunningly beautiful, but I found to my dismay that I could not relax. As I gazed over the meadow I found myself calculating how I would attack it. A wide open space was dangerous. The enemy would have a clear field of fire. If I came across it with my squad, how would we get across? Deploy in a wedge formation, or a line of skirmishers? If I had a full platoon, I could stack two squads in front and one in back to cover the rear. Lena commented that I seemed far away, and what was I thinking? I didn’t tell her that I was monitoring the treeline, scanning for the telltale glint of sunlight on steel.
Lena took a small sketchbook and a pencil from her purse and began to rapidly sketch the meadow and mountains beyond. Her drawing was extraordinarily good. It was an amazing thing, seeing someone take two simple tools – paper and pencil – and create real art, right in front of my eyes. I was so used to destruction that the act of creation seemed magical by comparison.
When she was done she tore the sketch off the pad, folded it, and put it in my breast pocket. Having it there gave me a small thrill, as if Lena and I now had a secret connection.
Lena went to the car and came back with a bag of chips, which she shared with me. She asked about my father and I began hesitantly, describing his limp, the way he always wrote in his journal, his work at the gas station, and his gentleness. Soon the words flowed, and the next thing I knew I was pouring out my life story. My regret over the way I had looked down on my father, my shame for not protecting Charlie, my loneliness, my confusion about what had happened to my family. Lena expressed sympathy but not pity, which was exactly what I needed.
She pointed out that I had said little about my mother. I said that I was angry at my mother for turning me into a killer. Until the words came out of my mouth, I hadn’t realized that I felt that way. Lena said that was a cop-out, and that I was old enough to make my own choices, not only about what to do in life but how to feel about my past.
I think I fell in love with Lena that very first day. It wasn’t hard, since she was beautiful and smart, and I was a shy teenage boy. But there was a kindness in her that was a healing wax for my cratered heart.
She asked if I’d ever thought about not being a soldier. She said I had a sharp mind, and should attend school and do something meaningful with my life. I replied that soldiering was all I knew. She asked if I didn’t get tired of killing men and them trying to kill me, and suddenly I realized that yes, I was so tired of it. I was weary to my bones.
I told her that I’d been thinking about Islam and wanted to know more. I was worried how she might react, since she was a Maronite Christian like me, but she said it was a good idea, and that learning and exploration were the currents in the river of life. I asked her if she knew anything about Islam and she said, “Oh, you know. They go to mosque, pray, fast in Ramadan, eat dates on Eid.”
“Yes, but what do they believe?”
“Hmm. Their thing is one God. They don’t believe that ‘Isa Al-Maseeh is God’s son. They say, ‘Laa ilaha-il-Allah.’ I don’t know if they worship Muhammad or not. I don’t think so.”
Laa ilaha-il-Allah. I mouthed the words to myself. There was something about them. They rolled off the tongue like a breath, or an incantation. I sensed something powerful in the words.
She drove me back to Beirut and dropped me at the barracks. Before she left she jotted down her university schedule and told me to see her at the campus when I had the chance.
I found myself thinking about Lena every day, but the fighting had become intense. We didn’t know it on the ground at that time, but the end of the war was approaching, and the various sides were hell bent on seizing any advantage they could before the cease fire.
I was able to see Lena only once in the next few weeks. We sat on the grass at the campus and talked. I picked at the grass, unsure what Lena wanted from me.
“Where do you see yourself in five years?” Lena said..
I laughed. “I’ve heard of job interviews. Is this what they’re like? I don’t know. Still fighting this crazy war, I guess. What about you?”
Lena looked at me seriously. “I’ll be teaching peace studies at Istanbul University, or I’ll be a peace negotiator. The university was founded in 1453, can you believe that? Do you know what Bonaparte said about Istanbul?”
I smiled at her enthusiasm. “No, what?”
“He said that if the earth was a single state, Istanbul would be its capital. And Alphonse de Lamartine said that if one had but a single glance to give the world, one should gaze on Istanbul. Listen, Simon. Marrying age in Lebanon is sixteen. When you turn sixteen I want you to quit soldiering, go back to school, and marry me. There’s a brightness to you. It’s been burned around the edges, but it’s there. We will conquer Istanbul together.”
I stopped picking at the grass and stared at her. What would a beautiful woman like her want with an ignorant fighter like me? Me, in Istanbul? The idea seemed like a joke, and suddenly I realized that she was teasing me. My face flushed with anger.
“You’re playing a prank on me,” I said. “That’s not nice.”
She started to protest, but I was furious. I wanted to tell her that it was wrong to tease someone about something so important. I might be a fighter but I had feelings like anyone else. But my tongue was made of wood. I stood up and walked away, even as Lena called after me.
I returned to the front line, but my heart wasn’t in it. I didn’t want to be a part of that gigantic mountain of evil, fighting enemies who I admired more than my own side. I kept mulling over the phrase Lena had taught me. Laa ilaha-il-Allah. There was something mysterious and powerful about it. I wanted to know more, but I didn’t know any Muslims, and if I were seen reading a book about Islam I could get in serious hot water.
Suddenly I began having one close call after another.
I was in a battle in Aynal-Rumana where I was shot through the arm. The bullet passed through cleanly, missing the bones. I carried my bandaged arm in a sling and the wound healed quickly.
Another day I sat behind a sandbag sipping water when a sniper’s bullet went right through the canteen. All I got was a face full of water as it splashed out.
Craziest of all was when I was driving a technical – that’s a pickup with a mounted heavy machine gun – and the vehicle was literally struck by an artillery shell that embedded itself in the truck bed but didn’t explode. The truck tumbled over and the soldier manning the gun broke his back, but I climbed out with no more than a cut over my eye. The men who’d teased me about being a national lottery winner began looking at me almost superstitiously. Daniel said, “Burnin’ your luck. Catch fire, you ain’t careful.”
I received a message to report to Phalange HQ. I commandeered a Jeep and Daniel drove me there. I thought I would be chewed out for the destruction of the technical – loss of matériel was considered more serious than loss of life. But the duty sergeant told me to report to General Ayyoub’s office.
When I arrived I found the General and Lena both sitting there, he behind a battered metal desk, and she in a no-frills plastic chair. Lena gave me a big smile.
General Nader Ayyoub was a tall, gaunt man with silver gray hair, dressed in camouflage fatigues.
The General said, ‘‘How the hell did you make captain at the age of fifteen? Your record says you’ve won a fistful of medals.”
“Sir, I’m lucky, sir.”
“My daughter says you are special. I think it’s ridiculous, but Lu’lu’ can be persistent.”
I had no idea what to say, so I remained silent.
The General sighed and told me to sit. He said, “My daughter says you have questions about your family.” He motioned to Lena and said, “Leave us, Lu’lu’,” She nodded and left, closing the door behind her.
The General gave me an appraising look and asked what I wanted to know. I told him that I wanted to know who had killed my parents, and why, and what had happened to Charlie.
“Son,” he said, “You’ve been dealt a bad hand, but you’re resilient. I’ve read the battlefield reports. You don’t look it, but you’re a war machine. That won’t make you a good husband. I don’t know what Lena wants with you but I cannot approve. As far as your family, some things are better left unknown.”
“Sir, I want to know.”
The General stared at me for a long time, until I wondered if he would say anything further. I waited and did not look away. Finally he said, “Very well. But you didn’t get this from me, clear? Boulos Haddad is not a man whose enmity I desire.”
“I have no intel on who killed your parents. But I will share what I know. Are you aware that your grandfather Antoine Haddad founded the Bank of Bekaa?”
I shook my head. “I don’t know anything about that.”
“Yes, well. It is one of the largest banks in the Middle East. Worth billions. In his will, he left ownership of the Bank of Bekaa to all his male heirs. Your father was eldest, so he would have inherited primary control of the bank. Now he’s conveniently gone. Sami Haddad is an heir, and frankly I wouldn’t bet my lunch money on his longevity. Your father’s share passes to you, and from what I can tell you’ve been given progressively more dangerous assignments in this war. I’m surprised you’re still alive, and I’ll bet Boulos is too.”
My mind reeled. Was he saying what I thought he was saying? That was crazy! I asked him outright if he was claiming that Boulos killed my parents.
“I never spoke those words,” he said. “You can infer what you like.”
I sat for a minute, digesting his statement. “You said male heirs,” I pointed out. “What about Sarkis?”
The General frowned. “Nirmeen’s son? The crazy one? No. He inherits nothing, at least not in the bank.”
“What about my brother Charlie? Do you know what happened to him?” I repeated what Boulos had told me, that Charlie was killed by PLO shelling in the mountains.
“Unlikely,” the General said. “The PLO doesn’t operate in the mountains north of Beirut. That’s Maronite country, though we’ve had conflicts with the Druze over control of the mountains. Maybe it was the Druze and you misheard. I’m sure your brother is dead, but I can’t say who, how or why. This is a war. Things happen. Listen, son. This whole bumper car ride is running out of steam. The Syrians intend to take control of Lebanon. They captured sixty of our men yesterday and executed them all. Lena wants me to help you get out, but I will not. You’re Boulos Haddad’s nephew. If he means you ill, you’re in hot oil. But I can’t intervene. I’m ordering you to stay away from Lena. No good can come of her association with you. Be clear on this. No more contact between you and Lena.”
When I walked out of his office, Lena said, “Do you understand now that I wasn’t teasing you? I spoke to my father about you.”
I related what her father had said, and her face turned dark with rage. “He can’t tell me who to love,” she said. “What do you want, Simon? Do you want me?”
I looked at her, not knowing what I would say until the words came out of my mouth. “With all my heart,” I said.
Lena took my hand and said, “I don’t want anything to happen to you. Leave Lebanon. Go to Homs, in Syria. It’s only 87 kilometers from Tripoli. My uncle owns a theater in the Hamidiyyah district, called Le Toulon. Tell him you’re a friend of Lu’lu’. Stay with him and wait for me there.”
I looked into her eyes, brown as the rich earth of Lebanon. In all my life I’d never been anywhere but Los Angeles and Beirut. I was a captain, and my men needed me. And I had unfinished business in Beirut.
“No,” I said. “I have to see this through. When the war is over things will be different.”
I left, thinking about what General Ayyoub had said. He’d implied that Boulos Haddad had killed my parents. His own brother. And for what? Money. Filthy, dirty money.
I had to confront him, or I’d never be able to live with myself.
Daniel drove me to the Ministry of Defense, where I marched straight to Boulos’ office and accosted the young lieutenant who acted as his personal secretary. Boulos was not available, the lieutenant informed me. Where was he? Classified. I swept the papers off his desk and glared at him. “You know who I am,” I said in a tone like acid. “I have an urgent matter of family business to discuss with Uncle Boulos. Do you know what happens to people who interfere with Haddad family business?”
The man’s face went white, and he stammered, “Tel – Tel-Az-Zaytoon. 2nd battalion is conducting a sweep.”
That would mean they had overrun the Line. Tel-Az-Zaytoon was a small Palestinian refugee camp in West Beirut. Why on earth was 2nd battalion bothering with such an unimportant target when the Syrians were crushing our forces up and down the length of Lebanon? It made no sense. But if that was where Boulos was, that was where I was going.
Jamilah stood, stunned. This was a story whose ending she knew all too well; a story that had haunted her all her life. The final outrage in a series of crimes that had left her family exiled from their ancestral homeland, destitute for years, and shorn of various extended family members who had been imprisoned or killed.
She gritted her teeth and forced herself not to raise her voice. “Tell me that this isn’t going where I think it’s going, Hassan.”
“It isn’t going where you think,” Hassan replied.
Jamilah paced up and down the room. “Hassan, you know that my grandfather was killed in the Tel-Az-Zaytoon massacre. You know that.”
Hassan shook his head solemnly. “No. I knew only that he was killed by the Phalange, as you said.”
“I can’t hear this story,” Jamilah said. “I can’t hear this.”
“I understand,” Hassan said.
Jamilah continued pacing. She’d made a choice to trust Hassan, or at least to hear him out.
“Tell your story,” she said.
“Are you – “
“Tell it! But no lies.”
Hassan sighed. “If I were going to lie, then why would I…” He shook his head. “Never mind. No lies. Wallahu Ta’alaa.”