See the Story Index for a chronological guide to the previous stories.
Night descended on Beirut like an old friend, and the city lit up to meet it.
Hassan recalled an ayah from the Quran: “We made the night as a cover, and We made the day for living.” At what point, he wondered, had the natural order been perverted, so that some cities seemed more alive at night than during the day? Was that a symptom of the ascendance of Shaytan in the modern age?
He was tired, that was all, and his thoughts were taking a dark turn. As if on cue the taxi driver apologized, saying he had to be home for dinner. “If I had a customer like you every day, I’d be a happy man. But my daughter would kill me if I kept the old man out past seven.”
“My eldest, Alyaa’. She’s twenty. She’s an angel. I don’t know what I would without her. Ever since my wife died, she has cared for her grandfather and the younger ones as well.”
Hassan wasn’t sure if he should praise the driver’s daughter, or express condolences for the loss of the wife. He chose the latter. “May Allah have mercy on your wife.”
The driver nodded. “Thank you. She died of cancer. So many poisons left over from the war, you know? Industrial wastes, phosphorous, depleted uranium from Israeli bombs…it’s been a hard life without her. I work all the time…” He shook his head. “I hope my kids will understand one day.”
Hassan felt the sting of shame for the part he had played in the war. “I – I’m very sorry.”
The driver reached out and patted Hassan’s shoulder. “Nothing to do with you, my brother. Have no fear.”
The driver dropped Hassan at the Queen’s Suite, an exuberantly decorated but noisy hotel just off Hamra Street. Though Hassan was exhausted – aside from a nap on the flight from London he had not slept in almost twenty four hours – his mind was too overloaded to sleep. Thoughts of Lena, his parents, Jamilah, and the burdensome sense of past in this city, all whirled through his head like a litter-filled dust devil.
Not knowing what else to do, he picked up the phone and called Jamilah. It was perhaps a cruel thing to do. He knew she might not want to talk to him, but she was his anchor. She was the beacon that had guided him back from darkness and death. She was the woman who fought for him and saved his life.
To his surprise, Jamilah was not the least bit angry – or if she was, she hid it well. She listened as he described everything he had seen and done so far. When she responded, her tone was subdued but kind.
“Go to the masjid,” she said. “When you lived in Beirut you were not Muslim, but now you are. Take your burdens to Allah and lay them down. You try to carry so much, Hassan. Even the Prophet sal-Allahu alayhi wa sallam couldn’t carry the pain of the world on his back.”
“It’s not only that. I feel confused here. So many bad memories. This city feels haunted.”
“Yeah… I haven’t been through what you have, Hassan. But umm… I’ve been through some stuff with you.” Her voice changed, and Hassan could tell that she was close to crying. He didn’t know what to say, or if he should say anything at all.
“Hold on,” Jamilah said. A moment later Hassan heard her blow her nose loudly. It made him smile.
“Here’s my suggestion,” she said when she returned. “Redefine your presence in that city, so that instead of you being haunted by the past, it becomes you connecting with Allah. Do you remember what you said to me at the hospital, when my mom was sick?”
“Aaaah! Sorry. It’s confounding that you can’t remember the years we’ve known each other. Anyway, you reminded me of Allah’s saying that with every difficulty comes ease. You said that Allah hears us and is with us, and that He cares. Allah is not a random God throwing problems at us to see what we can withstand. He’s on our side, and He wants good for us, and we have to trust that.”
“I said all that?”
Jamilah chuckled softly. “Yeah.”
“What about you?” Hassan asked hesitantly.
“Don’t worry about me.” Jamilah’s tone was a bit more brusque now. “I’m stronger than you think. Do what you need to do, and let me know when you have answers.”
Jamilah prayed dhuhr in her room, then walked out to the headland. The day was uncharacteristically cold. The sky was turgid with clouds, and the air nipped at her exposed cheeks. The sea swelled gray and unwelcoming as a thundercloud. Sitting on the bench overlooking the water, she pulled her hijab lower on her forehead, adjusted her mittens, and hugged herself. Already her nose was beginning to run, but she didn’t care. She did her best thinking out here.
When Hassan had declared his intention to return to Lebanon to find Lena, Jamilah had initially been deeply hurt. It felt like a personal betrayal. She was the one who’d stood by him, believed in his recovery when no one else did, waited for him. Now here he went, not even knowing who he was, off to find a woman who’d been dead to him for sixteen years. If he had retained his memories Jamilah might have stood a chance. But to Hassan she was a stranger, someone he’d just met a few months ago. It wasn’t fair.
Once the initial shock wore off, however, she realized that her anger demonstrated a lack of faith. All this time she’d trusted that Allah would bring Hassan back to life – why? Only for Jamilah’s sake? He didn’t belong to her.
Now, after his call, she knew she’d overreacted. Hassan wasn’t leaving her. He was confused, taking the fragments of his past and trying to assemble them into a life, but they would never fit because he didn’t have all the pieces. His memory would return in time, and only then would the puzzle come together.
There was another, unformed thought floating in her brain. Something about dreams. A true dream was an element of Prophethood, right? A true dream was from Allah. When Hassan had been comatose he’d dreamed of Jamilah guiding him back. Could one walk away from a true dream?
She wasn’t a poet, but there was a line she’d once read by Langston Hughes, the African-American dialectical poet, that stuck in her head: “Hold fast to dreams, for if dreams die, life is a broken-winged bird that cannot fly.”
Even a dreamer had to live in the real world, however. There was nothing left for her here at Salsabil. She would return to her hometown of Madera to help her mother at the sandwich shop, continue her correspondence studies, and live her own life.
Hassan asked the concierge for directions to the nearest masjid. The woman directed him to the Mohammad Al-Amin Masjid, also known as the Blue Masjid. Hassan had never heard of it.
It turned out to be about a fifteen minute walk down Hamra Street. Hassan was beginning to orient himself. He knew that if he walked in the other direction he’d come to the southern end of the Corniche, with the lighthouse and Pigeon rock just off the coast. Slightly more to the north and he’d arrive at Paris Street.
With the new sense of orientation came unwanted memories. A block up that way was where Dido – the curly-haired boy in Lena’s class – had been shot in the face. Across the street, where a new apartment building gleamed, had been a ditch in which Phalangist thugs dumped the bodies of dead Palestinians. That Greek Orthodox church to the west, looking beautiful with its spires and bells, was where Hassan’s platoon had once sheltered from incoming shell fire. A shell had burst right through the stained glass window, filling the main sanctuary with fire and death.
He put his head down and walked, not looking around anymore. He thought about Jamilah’s advice: redefine your presence in Lebanon. Focus on your relationship with Allah. And then she’d said, I’m stronger than you think, which was amusing because he already thought of her as a superhero.
The masjid caught him by surprise. He stopped, his breath catching in his throat, gazing up at a mammoth stone temple with minarets kissing the sky at each corner. Two beautiful turquoise domes rose above it, a smaller one and then a larger one rising behind it like a parent sheltering a child. It was so evocative of the Ottoman architecture of Istanbul that for a moment Hassan had the uncanny sensation of standing in two cities at the same time.
This masjid had not existed during the war. Once again he was reminded of the propensity of Beirutis to reinvent themselves. This version of Beirut stood arrogantly – or perhaps playfully – poised atop a darker one that everyone wanted to forget. Of course in reality there were multiple layers of history here. You couldn’t dig a ditch in Beirut without uncovering a Roman ruin.
He’d missed Maghreb in jama’ah, but he prayed alone then sat on the plush carpet, reading the Quran. The brothers and sisters of Beirut came trickling in for Ishaa’. The adhaan was called as beautifully as any bird had ever sung. Then Hassan stood beside them, shoulder to shoulder in prayer. He was not a stranger in a city of ghosts. He was not a walking shade, out of place and time. He was a believer, at home in this house as he would be in any masjid of the world, whether in a village in China, amid the haughty skyscrapers of Dubai, or on an island in the middle of the ocean.
When prayer was over he returned to the hotel and finally, for the first time since he’d awakened from the coma, slept peacefully – not fearing the darkness, nor worrying about being sucked back into half-death, but resting as deeply and dreamlessly as the earth itself.
The driver arrived at 9 am and drove Hassan to the Corniche. It was a Saturday, and traffic was light. The father-in-law was absent, so Hassan sat in the front passenger seat.
The driver explained that his children were taking the old man to the zoo. “I told Alyaa’ not to take him. Last time she took him to the zoo he threw a cell phone at the monkeys to see what they would do.”
“And what did they do?”
“Why, they called the Syrians to invade the country, of course.”
Families, couples and well-dressed groups of youths strolled along the Corniche. Beirut’s stunning seaside promenade began at Ras Beirut on Avenue de Paris in the east and encompassed the entire waterfront around to Pigeon Rocks in the south. Old men played backgammon, teenagers flirted, and poor residents of the city’s slums pole-fished on the rocks, hoping for a catch to provide the day’s supper. Cups clinked together as streetside coffee vendors wandered amid the crowds. Adults of all ages sat in folding chairs, smoking hookahs and watching daredevil youths dive from the rocks into the sea. Vendors called out, hawking corn on the cob, roasted nuts, and a snack called ka’ik – a sesame-crusted, hoop-shaped glazed sweet bread that had always been one of Hassan’s favorites.
Hassan had a thought that Jamilah would probably like it here. It was like an Arab version of San Francisco. He could imagine her sitting at one of these tables enjoying an iced tea, or down there on the rocks, wading in the tidepools along with the families and children.
Behind them, new skyscrapers rose in a forest of steel, glass and cement. Cranes towered everywhere along the waterfront. The Corniche, as much as any part of Beirut, was in metamorphosis. The past was being erased.
Looking at it, Hassan felt a pang for a city he had never known: a pre-war version of Beirut, cosmopolitan but still distinctly Arab; diverse, welcoming all religions and sects, beautiful and thriving and yet still provincial in its morality.
The driver pointed to the tall, swaying palm trees that lined the corniche. “Look closely, habibi.”
Hassan approached one of the trees, studying it. Then he saw it: bullet holes. These were the same trees that had grown here during the war. They all bore the scars of bullets and shell fragments. It almost made him want to laugh. These trees are like me, he thought.
The driver pointed to the building they were going to. It was clearly of recent construction, and towered above its neighbors. As they were about to enter, Hassan cast a habitual glance behind him, surveying the environment. A half a block up the Corniche he saw a young man just sitting down at an outdoor table in front of a boulangerie. A well dressed, athletic young man. The same man he’d seen at the cemetery.
Hassan strode rapidly to where the young man sat, looking out over the sea. “Who are you?” he demanded.
The youth looked up in surprise, his gray eyes reflecting the clouds that waltzed in on the breeze from the Mediterranean. “Sahtein. Marhaba. My name is Hamdi. Would you like to join me?”
“Comme c’est étrange? I am only being friendly.”
“What were you doing at the cemetery yesterday?”
“I was visiting the grave of Kamal Haddad. One of the great thinkers of our nation, if we would only heed his words. The same with you I presume?”
Hassan studied the man, memorizing his features. “Yes. The same with me.” He turned on his heel and walked away.
Stepping into the penthouse apartment, Hassan was greeted brusquely by a hulking bodyguard in a pale yellow linen suit. The guy looked like a parakeet on steroids. The bodyguard patted him down, then led him past a small woman in a black abayah laboring on her hands and knees to clean a stain from the foyer carpet. He could not see her face, but her hands were aged. He felt a stab of pity – no one so old should have to work so hard. She should be resting on a rocking chair with her grandchildren playing around her, not laboring on the floor.
He was ushered to a large living room filled with the antique style furniture favored by moneyed Arabs, as well as bronze and ivory statuary and large impressionist paintings on the walls.
A thirtyish woman sat in an upholstered wooden chair with a high back and curved legs. She was lovely but austere, with dark hair piled atop her head in a schoolmarmish bun. She wore little makeup or jewelry, which Hassan found surprising. It was common for wealthy Arab women to wear enough gold to buy a small town.
Her purse rested on the floor beside her. Hassan found that odd. What woman kept her purse at hand in her own home? She gestured to him to sit.
“Your home is beautiful,” Hassan said.
“You said you had something important to tell me about my father.” The woman’s tone was businesslike, her words clipped. “That’s the only reason I agreed to meet you.”
He could see the blue of the sea through a sliding glass door that led to a balcony, but the door was firmly shut against the breeze. Instead, the hum of an air conditioning unit kept the temperature tolerable. It was a bit warm for Hassan’s taste, but seemed to suit the woman, even though she wore a long sleeved dress with a collar that buttoned high on her neck.
Hassan glanced at the bodyguard who stood at the doorway to his right. The man’s bald head glistened with sweat. He kept wiping his palms on the legs of his suit pants, leaving a stain on each hip.
“You need not fear Andre,” the woman said. “Speak freely.”
“As I said on the phone, I hoped to speak to all three of you, and your mother as well.”
“I told you that is impossible.”
“Are you sure? I could come back later.”
“My mother and younger brother died in a car accident years ago. Which you would know if you were any friend of the family. And my older brother Remy is attending to business in London. Say what you have to say, or leave me in peace.”
“I’m sorry for your loss,” Hassan said softly. “My condolences. Qasem was a sweet kid. Whenever your mother came back from town with halawa, Qasem always saved a bit for me.”
The woman stared. “Who are you?”’
“My name is Hassan Amir. But when you knew me I was called Simon Haddad.”
The woman’s face grew hard as marble. “Are you a con man, here to ask for money? You have wasted your time. Simon Haddad is long dead.” She gestured to the bodyguard. “Andre, see the man out.”
The bodyguard placed a beefy hand on Hassan shoulder. “Let’s go, sir.”
Hassan grasped the man’s hand, pinning it even more firmly against his shoulder, then pivoted his torso slightly to lock the man’s wrist. The bodyguard grunted in surprise and bent from the waist. Hassan continued the joint lock, compressing the SI-5 nerve point on the wrist, eliciting a cry of pain from the bodyguard. He brought the man to his knees and then his belly, all without leaving his chair. When the man was flat on the ground, Hassan placed a foot on his shoulder and added an elbow lock to the mix to keep him immobile.
“Sorry, Andre.” Hassan said. “Nothing personal.” He regarded the woman, who sat gaping in shock. “I assure you I am Simon Haddad,” he said. “I can prove it. Can I let Andre up and we continue our conversation?
The woman nodded, and Hassan released the bodyguard. The big man clambered to his feet, his face red with rage and embarrassment. For a moment he looked like he would attack Hassan, but the look of cool dispassion that Hassan returned seemed to unnerve him, and he returned to his station.
“I remember you, Abeer. When I first came to your home I was in shock over my parents’ deaths. I didn’t talk, do you remember? You were only six or seven years old – a little younger than Charlie, as I recall.”
At the mention of Charlie’s name something changed in the woman’s face, but Hassan could not read it. A flash of fear?
“You treated me like a doll. You’d come to me with your stuffed animals and put one in my hands while you held the other and created a conversation between them. Once you made me a feathered hat out of a paper bowl and told me I was Robin Hood.”
The woman sat back in her seat, her mouth an uncompromising line. “I vaguely remember playing such games with the real Simon Haddad. But that means nothing. Anyone who worked in the household could have told you that.”
Hassan tipped his head back, thinking. Then he snapped his fingers. “One time, you entered my room when I was alone. Charlie was at school, but you were home for some reason. Perhaps the school was shelled or the area wasn’t safe. Anyway, you came close and whispered, ‘This is something I saw in a movie.’ You tipped my head to the side and kissed me on the mouth. Then you blushed, and ran away.”
The woman – Abeer Haddad, middle child of Sami Haddad – paled. “I need a cigarette,” she said, and reached for her purse with trembling hands. What came out of her purse was not a cigarette, but a gun. It was a little thing – a palm-sized, gold plated .32 – and not terribly frightening, but certainly enough to kill if her aim was good.
Hassan had known men – and women too, for that matter – who could kill without thought. He’d also known men who struggled every time to pull the trigger, and yet others who had been constitutionally unable to kill, and had paid for it with their lives.
When someone killed on impulse, whether from rage or fear, there was a look that came into their eyes. It was the look of a man who has come to a dark river across which lay a land of monsters, and has decided to plunge into it. He is so consumed by emotion that his higher mind is gone.
Abeer had that look in her eyes now, and Hassan knew she was about to fire. He grabbed the back of the chair and dropped forward, flinging the chair over his back toward her. Even as he did so, he heard the gunshot crack deafeningly in this enclosed space.
He looked up a moment later to see Abeer lying against the wall, clutching her arm in pain. The gun lay several feet away, beneath a coffee table.
Hassan was relieved that she was not more seriously injured. The chair could have crushed her skull. He’d acted on instinct, though she hadn’t left him much choice.
He was about to stand and recover the weapon when the bodyguard tackled him like a yellow buffalo, forcing the air out of his lungs. The two of them rolled across the floor, knocking over a mounted elephant tusk carved with scenes from some ancient battle. Hassan reached for the tusk, grasped it firmly and struck the bodyguard across the temple, just hard enough to knock him out. At the same time he managed to suck in a breath of sweet air.
He picked up the gun and tucked it into the small of his back, then walked to Abeer and tried to help her up.
She shoved him away with her good arm. “Get away! You killed my father in cold blood, you son of a bitch! You’ll go before a firing squad!”
Hassan looked at her in surprise. “I didn’t kill Uncle Sami. I liked him. He wasn’t around much, but he was nice to me. I respected him. In Tel-Az-Zaytoon he tried to put a stop to the massacre. That’s why Boulos killed him.”
“You would say anything to avoid punishment. Uncle Boulos would not kill my father.”
“Abeer, I didn’t have to come here. I came to tell you that your father died well, trying to prevent people from being harmed. I didn’t want you to think that he was responsible in any way for the massacre.”
“What do I care what happened to a bunch of Palestinians twenty years ago?”
Hassan shrugged. “Maybe you don’t. But your father did. Let me see your arm.” He took her arm and felt it with his hands. “Can you move it?” Seeing that she could, he said, “It’s not broken, Alhamdulillah. I’m sorry for hurting you. But I couldn’t let you shoot me. I’ve had enough of that to last a lifetime.”
“Why should I believe anything you say?” Abeer spat.
Hassan looked at her for a moment, then removed the gun from his waistband. Abeer flinched.
“Shhhh. Easy. Here you go.” He turned the gun around and handed it to her, butt first. “You can either kill me, or learn the truth.”
Abeer, pointed the gun at him, breathing heavily.
A tremulous voice said, “Mademoiselle, please, what’s happening?”
Hassan turned to see the old woman who had been cleaning the floor. She stood slightly stooped, her face heavily seamed and spotted with age. But her eyes were clear, and there was something in her hazel brown irises that made Hassan’s breath snag in his chest. He stared at her, his eyes wide.
The woman put a hand over her mouth. Then she approached Hassan and reached out to him, touching his cheek. “Simon?” she said. “Ya maseeh, ya Allah.”
The old woman was Gala.
Hassan was shaken by a sense of unreality. He wondered for a moment if this were a dream. But when Gala stepped forward and embraced him, he felt her warmth and her frailty, her shoulders so thin that he was afraid to return her embrace any more than superficially.
“What are you saying, Gala?” Abeer snapped. “Surely you do not believe his story?”
Hassan stepped back from Gala to see Abeer still pointing the gun at him, her arm trembling.
“Please, mademoiselle,” Gala said. “Put the gun away. This is truly Simon Haddad, your cousin. I would know him anywhere. You have nothing to fear. He was always a good boy.”
Abeer lowered the gun but did not put it away. “My long lost cousin, the great Simon Haddad, returned from the dead,” she said with a sneer. “Have you come for your share of the bank? Is that it? I tell you now, Remy will kill you in revenge for our father.”
Hassan sighed. “First, I already told you, I did not kill your father. Boulos killed him in Tel-Az-Zaytoon – shot him with that pearl-handled 45 he used to carry on his hip.” He saw a look of recognition flash across Abeer’s face. “I see you remember it. Second, I want nothing to do with that corrupt bank, nor any other wealth inherited from Antoine Haddad. Third, my name is Hassan now.”
“Then why are you here? You must want something.”
“You and Remy are the only family I have left. I just wanted to see you, believe it or not. But I see that I’m wasting my time.” He turned to Gala and smiled. “Tant Gala, please gather your things. We’re leaving.”
“Excuse me?” Abeer struggled to her feet, still holding the pistol. “You can’t just come in here and kidnap my maid.”
“Your maid?” Hassan was furious. “My God, where do people like you come from? This woman raised you! She deserves to be cared for and loved, not treated like a slave.” He turned to Gala. “Tant, what would you like to do?”
Gala’s back straightened and she drew up to her full height. Years seemed to fall from her face. “I’m going with – Hassan, did you say?”
Hassan grinned and nodded his head.
Ten minutes later, Hassan carried Gala’s only bag as he led her by the hand to the door. Gala turned back one last time and regarded Abeer. The younger woman stood in the foyer disheveled and pale with anger, the bodyguard behind her red-faced as he rubbed the bruise on his temple.
Hassan saw regret and love in Gala’s eyes.
“You were a sweet child,” Gala said sadly. “You always wanted to help in the kitchen when I was cooking. And brave. When tracer fire lit up the sky you said it was God taking your picture. Goodbye, Abeer.”
The driver informed Hassan that Reza had information about Lena, so they headed toward his office. Along the way, Hassan learned Gala’s story.
Gala recounted how Boulos sent her to live with an elderly relative in a mountain village, to help as a nursemaid. A few years later Boulos terminated her employment and she returned to her own village of Rmaish, near the border with Israel. Gala never married and had no children of her own. She started a laundry service to support herself, but when her village was bombed by the Israelis in 2002, life in the south became impossible. Returning to Beirut, she sold chewing gum on the streets and lived in a shanty town, hungry and desperate. One day she saw Abeer coming out of a bank, begged her for employment, and was taken on as a maid.
“I had nowhere else to go,” Gala said. “And Abeer knew it. I worked so hard for that girl, but I was never more than a servant. She used to scream at me and call me a stupid peasant.”
“That’s over now, Tant. You’re family, and it’s your turn to be taken care of. I promise you will never again be hungry or abused, Insha’Allah.”
Tears spilled down Gala’s cheeks faster than she could wipe them away. “When I learned that you and Charlie were dead, it broke my heart. I’m so happy to see you Simon. Sorry!” She put a hand on his shoulder. “Hassan. What about Charlie? Is he truly gone? Did he change his name too?”
“That’s a long story, Tant, and I don’t know how to answer.”
“It’s alright, Hassan.” She patted his hand. “There is plenty of time.”
Hassan watched Gala as she relaxed into the seat and closed her eyes, letting out her breath as if she’d been holding it in for years, and hadn’t rested in decades. The Gala he remembered had been young and strong, with a spine of steel and a vibrancy like perpetual spring. The woman before him now was aged and worn, but he sensed the green life within her ready to return. She already seemed years younger than when he’d seen her on hands and knees in Abeer’s flat.
This dear woman had been a second mother to him. All his life Allah had taken away the people he loved, one after another. He wasn’t bitter, however. He doubted himself at times, he raged against himself, but never against Allah. He always believed that Allah meant good for him in some way he could not grasp. Now, watching Gala as her body sank back into the tattered seat, it struck him that Allah was giving someone back. The Almighty had seen Hassan’s pain and patience, and was returning someone to him from the dead. It was a miracle if he’d ever seen one, and he had seen plenty.
The private detective was unable to find a recent address for Lena, but according to him she had lived with an aunt in Tripoli until five years ago. She was alive. Hassan had never quite believed the story of her being killed, because he didn’t remember it. So he was not shocked to learn that she was alive. He was anxious, not knowing what to expect. What kind of person was Lena now? What would it mean, finding her? How could he explain his absence? Would she hate him?
Hassan was trying to figure out what to do with Gala when the driver – whose name was Muhsin – solved the problem for him.
“Akh Hassan,” he said. “What do you say we drop your aunt at my house while we make the trip to Tripoli? She can relax with my family.”
Hassan turned to Gala. “Is that okay with you?” He saw the hesitation in Gala’s expression and added, “Muhsin is a good man. I think it will be fine, Insha’Allah.”
Gala nodded, and Muhsin headed for the suburbs of southwestern Beirut, where his home was located.
They found the house in a bit of an uproar. Alyaa’, the eldest daughter – she was so beautiful that Hassan cast his eyes to the ground, exercising self-control so as not to stare – was upset because the cake she’d just taken out of the oven had fallen apart.
The wizened old father-in-law – whose name, Hassan had learned, was Abu Layla – examined the baking disaster skeptically. “Looks like chunks of whale blubber,” he said.
Alyaa’ burst into tears. “It’s not my fault! The cat kept running between my legs. I couldn’t concentrate.”
A girl of perhaps six years of age tugged at Alyaa’s skirt. “Add butter, Alyaa! That will fix it.”
Another child, a boy of eleven or twelve who sat at the dining table playing a video game on a small electronic game box, spoke without looking up. “Send Alyaa’ to cooking school.”
Alyaa’ threw an oven mitt at him.
Muhsin opened his mouth to intervene, but Gala stepped forward and put an arm around Alyaa’s shoulders. “Easy, my dear. Let me taste.” She sampled a small piece. “Tasty! Do you have whipped cream and fresh fruit?”
“Oh… Yes, I think so.”
“Very good. We can layer the cake pieces in glasses with fruit and whipped cream and create a lovely parfait.”
Seeing that Gala had the situation well in hand, Hassan and Muhsin departed for Tripoli.
Traveling up the coast road, Hassan reached into his pocket and fingered his phone. He wondered what Jamilah was doing at that moment. It would be – he performed a quick mental calculation – the middle of the night in California. Anyway, she wasn’t his wife. He couldn’t just pick up the phone and call whenever he was lonely.
After a two hour drive with amazing views punctuated by stops at checkpoints, Hassan stood in front of a weathered stone house in the city of Tarabolous, known in English as Tripoli.
The second largest city in Lebanon, Tripoli lay 70 kilometers north of Beirut. It was an ancient city built atop a rocky promontory that overlooked the sea, and was filled with traditional souks and khans, madrassas and hammams, and guarded by the thousand year old Citadel of Raymond de Saint-Gilles. Actually Hassan had never been here before, but Muhsin kept up a running commentary.
He wasn’t here to sightsee. He knocked on the door and waited, then knocked again, and a third time. When he was about to leave, the door opened, and the entry was nearly filled by a short, rotund woman who might have been in her seventies. She stared up at Hassan through her bifocals, her sharp nose reminding him of a bird of prey.
“You don’t look like a salesman, so come in!” the woman urged. “I have kanafeh that needs to come out of the oven.”
Kanafeh, Hassan knew, was a Middle Eastern dessert made of pastry and cheese, and covered in tiny noodles that looked like grass. His mom used to make it, but Charlie called it hairy cake and refused to eat it, which had always been fine with Hassan because it meant more for him.
Hesitantly, Hassan shed his shoes at the door and followed the woman into the house.
“Close the door!” the woman called. “Don’t let the flies in.”
The interior was small and slightly shabby, but clean and well kept. He was about to sit on one of the antique-style settees when he saw a large photo frame on the wall, displaying perhaps a dozen photos. He walked over to it and froze, his eyes wide. In almost every shot there appeared a beautiful blonde woman with distant green eyes. Lena. In one photo she looked almost the same as Hassan remembered her. She stood in front of the Tripoli citadel, carrying an infant in a sling. This child appeared in a few other photos as well – in one he was perhaps eight or nine months old, and in another he was a toddler with light brown skin and straight black hair.
He tried to still his mind and heart, and not get ahead of himself. The boy could be anyone – a nephew, or the child of a friend. Even if he was Lena’s child, that didn’t mean he was Hassan’s. Still, he felt a fierce joy at this visual confirmation that Lena was truly alive. He took a deep breath, calming himself.
“My niece,” the woman said from right behind him, startling him nearly out of his skin. “But why do I think you already know that?”
The woman instructed Hassan to sit, and brought a piece of kanafah and a glass of milk. He had a million questions, but knew it would be rude not to eat. The kanafeh was different than his mom used to make – filled with mild white cheese, rolled up and sprinkled with grated pistachios.
“That was delicious,” Hassan said when he had eaten a bit. “Allah bless your hands.”
“A boy with manners! That’s a change. Is that your driver outside? Why don’t you invite him in for some kanafeh?”
“Sure.” Hassan went to the door and waved to Muhsin, who – after polite greetings – joined Hassan on the settee and happily demolished his serving of kanafeh. The old woman brought him seconds, praising his appetite, then sat on a chair opposite and began to knit, peering at Hassan through her glasses as she did so.
“What’s your name, young man, and what brings you here?”
“I’m Hassan. I’m looking for Lena.”
“Who are you to her?”
Hassan shook his head slowly. “I’m not really sure. I was her husband, once.”
“Her husband?” The woman peered at him. “Which one? I know my eyes are getting worse, but I don’t recognize you.”
“What do you mean, which one?”
“Son, Lena has been married four times, and you don’t look like one of the four.” Her tone was losing its liveliness. “So who are you, and what do you want with my niece?”
Four times? A medley of feelings swirled inside him at that revelation. Confusion, jealousy, disappointment. He knew it was petty. He couldn’t have expected Lena to put her life on hold. But four times?
“I truly was her husband. We lived in Istanbul together.”
The aunt set her knitting down slowly and lifted her eyeglasses, squinting at Hassan. “You are that Hassan? Son of Kamal Haddad?”
Hassan saw Muhsin looking at him sideways, his dessert forgotten.
“My. Just when an old woman thinks she’s seen it all. You have some explaining to do.”
“I’d rather explain to Lena.”
Lena’s aunt continued to stare along her nose at him. “Of course you would. Well. She doesn’t live here. Truth be told, I don’t know where she lives. Last I heard, she was waitressing at a pricey seafood place in Beirut. A place called Azraq.”
“One last thing,” said Hassan. He held himself very still, suppressing his excitement, and had to force his next words out. “They boy in the photos? Who is he?”
The old woman sighed and picked up her knitting. “Some things are better left alone, my son. Take it from an old woman who knows the ways of the heart. Forget about all of this, and forget Lena too. Go back to wherever you’ve been, and live your life.”
“No.” Hassan’s tone brooked no argument. “I have to know.”
She nodded her head slowly, as if she had expected nothing different. “As you wish. His name was Kamal. He was your son, Allah yarhamuh. God rest his sweet soul.”
Lena’s aunt explained that the boy had died in a car accident at the age of three. Lena was driving while high on heroin. She ran a red light and was hit by a truck. Lena herself was badly hurt, and spent months in the hospital.
As the old woman spoke, Hassan listened silently, watching her knitting needles move. They were like silvery birds darting in and out, and leaving something behind each time. He felt frozen and distant. He could feel Muhsin’s comforting hand on his shoulder, but it might as well have been a leaf in one of the trees that he could see through the window. It was so strange the way life would give you a gift, then strike you a blow like a spear through the gut, and all you could do was persevere. There was no other choice.
My fault, he thought. It’s my fault. I abandoned Lena like a coward without even checking to see if she was alive. If I had been with her to raise our son, the accident never would have happened.
“Lena was lost after that,” the aunt said. “She fell deeply into addiction. Left her second husband, moved away. I don’t know what she did during that time. She never spoke of it. Came back in 2005 with a different last name – married and divorced again. Checked herself into rehab and got clean, worked as a school teacher here in Tripoli, got married again.” She shook her head ruefully. “It didn’t last. She never could stay away from the drugs for long. Left again five years ago. I think she must be clean now, because she sends me a little money every month.
“Listen, my son,” she continued. “You are in pain. You have a good heart. Lena is my niece and I love her, but she is a broken person, and she can’t be fixed by you or me. There’s some hunger inside her that no one can fill.”
She said a few other things, but Hassan was no longer listening. At some point he felt Muhsin’s hand urging him to stand, and guiding him out of the house. The aunt disappeared for a moment then returned, put something in his shirt pocket and bade him goodbye.
As they drove away in the taxi, Muhsin asked him where they should go next, but Hassan did not respond. The words, my son, and, Kamal, thundered inside him, bruising him from the inside out. There was no room for anything else. The fact that he had never known the boy only made it worse. His own son had never known the love of his father. My fault. The words echoed through the emptiness of his soul like the sound of his heart cracking in two. I killed my own son.
The driver too fell mute, and they drove toward Beirut like two astronauts drifting in the silence of space, each lost in the secrecy of his own thoughts.
At some point Hassan noticed that Muhsin had pulled off the highway and was driving west along a dirt road. The land around them was lightly forested, with strange rock outcroppings rising here and there. Muhsin rolled down the windows, letting in a breeze that smelled of sea water and pine. Hassan took it in dispassionately, letting his eyes roam the landscape.
Muhsin stopped in a small dirt lot, exited the cab and beckoned Hassan to follow. Supporting himself with his cane, Muhsin limped awkwardly up a trail that wandered alongside a running stream. Birds called, and the waters of the stream babbled beside them. Hassan could see that Muhsin was having a hard time navigating the uneven path. He wondered where the driver was taking him, but had no strength to speak.
A half hour later the trees thinned and the trailed opened up to reveal the distant blue of the sea. The stream disappeared invisibly into a canyon, and Hassan heard the thunder of a waterfall. The trail descended, and Hassan realized that Muhsin could not manage on his own. The driver was breathing hard and limping badly. Hassan put an arm around the man’s waist, supporting him.
When the trail ended, Hassan’s eyes widened in amazement. They had arrived at a shaded grotto beneath a sheer rock wall. A pool of turquoise water shimmered at their feet. High above, the stream reappeared as a waterfall, cascading through a hole in the rock, then through another hole, cutting through two separate layers of stone before thundering into the pool. Twenty meters in the other direction, the pool itself gathered into yet another waterfall, where it fell to the sea below.
“These are the falls of Salamiyyeh,” Muhsin said. “I used to come here with Haneen, my wife, before I was shot. It was our special, secret spot. Help me to sit.”
Together they sat on the rock, which was covered in a carpet of green moss. The driver turned to him. “This life is difficult, my friend. You need time to grieve. But I know that you are a pious man. I was thinking that you have experienced the same loss as the Prophet, sal-Allahu-alayhi-wa-sallam, with his son Ibrahim. Perhaps there is some comfort in that. I do not know.”
Hassan stared at the man. Of course. Ibrahim. He knew the story well, and recalled it now:
Ibrahim, the Prophet’s son by his wife Maria Al-Qibtiyyah, fell ill at about 21 months old, in the year 10 after hijrah. He was moved to a date orchard near his mother’s home, in the care of her and her sister Sirin. When it was clear that he would not survive, the Prophet was informed. He was so shocked that he could not stand on his own, and had to lean on `Abd al Rahman ibn `Awf. He proceeded immediately to the orchard and arrived just as his son was dying in his mother’s lap. The Prophet laid Ibrahim in his own lap and said, “O Ibrahim, against the judgement of Allah we cannot avail you a thing,” and wept silently. When Ibrahim surrendered to death, the Prophet wept again and said, “O Ibrahim, were the truth not certain that the last of us will join the first, we would have mourned you even more than we do now.” A moment later he said: “The eyes send their tears and the heart is saddened, but we do not say anything except that which pleases our Lord. Indeed, O Ibrahim, we are bereaved by your departure from us.”
The last of us will join the the first, Hassan thought. Kamal was first, and I am last, but we will be together Insha’Allah. He latched onto that thought like a drowning man to a lifeline.
But… “The Prophet did not kill his own son,” Hassan whispered.
The driver stared in surprise. “What kind of talk is this? You killed no one.”
If you only knew. “I should have been there. I abandoned her. If I had been there -”
“He still would have died,” Muhsin said. “I am surprised at you, a religious man. You must know this better than me. The time of death is written. It is our Qadar; it cannot be changed. Everyone gets his measure of sorrow. You are grieving the loss of a child. That’s enough of a burden. Don’t add to it unnecessarily.”
“Come.” He punched Hassan in the shoulder lightly. “Let us swim. The locals say that these waters have healing powers. Maybe it will help.”
Muhsin stood with difficulty and stripped down to his underwear, then dived into the pool. When he came up for air he let out a squeal. “Ay! I forgot how cold this water is.” He plunged back in, swimming vigorously. On land, with his injured hip, he was ungainly, but in the water he moved as gracefully as a fish.
Hassan stood, stripped down as well, and dived in. The frigidity of the water was a shock. For the first time since he’d learned of his son’s tragically short life and death, he was fully awake. He dived, seeking the bottom, but the pool was deeper than he had imagined, and after a minute he rose back to the surface.
For a half hour he swam furiously, the words “Kamal” and “Ibrahim” rising and falling in his mind like the strokes of his own arms. No more than that, no coherent thoughts, just Kamal and Ibrahim, on the inhalation and exhalation, letting this connection to the Prophet sink in, letting it become a part of him.
Finally he and Muhsin lay on the sunny rocks, warming and drying. After a while they got dressed and Hassan called the adhaan.
“I cannot pray standing.” The driver poked at the moss with his cane, clearly ashamed. “My hip will not allow me to go up and down. I haven’t been praying much because of that.”
“SubhanAllah, brother.” It was the first time Hassan had spoken since learning of his son’s death. “Allah knows your intentions. Rasulullah sal-Allahu alayhi wa sallam himself prayed sitting down when he was ill.”
Together they prayed Dhuhr and ‘Asr salat, shortening and combining them as travelers do.
“Why don’t I take you to my home?” Muhsin said afterward. “I know you have a hotel, but stay with me anyway. Tomorrow we’ll find Lena.”
Hassan nodded. “Okay.”
Before leaving, Hassan took a picture of the falls with his phone. He’d send it to Jamilah later. She would be amazed.
Surprisingly, the driver was able to walk back to the car on his own. Maybe the waters really did have healing powers. Or maybe the cold water reduced the inflammation in his hip, Hassan’s skeptical side whispered. But no, he felt better too. He was still hollowed out with grief and pain over the loss of a son he had never met, but Muhsin’s words had hit home, and he felt just a little bit lighter. He would survive.
Muhsin struck the steering wheel with the heel of his palm and cursed.
Hassan had been half asleep, his head lolling against the window. “Huh?” He opened his eyes and squinted into the late afternoon light. “What’s wrong?”
Hassan was fully awake now, studying the road. The men erecting the barriers and detour signs looked, on the surface, like road repair workers. They wore hard hats, boots and reflective vests. But there was something wrong with the scene, and it took Hassan a moment to spot the incongruity. While these men seemed strong and fit, they didn’t move with the casual swagger of road workers. Their movements were precise, reminding Hassan more of trained soldiers than laborers.
He craned his head, examining the cars around and behind them: Two cars back, a painter’s van. And in the center lane, a white Renault driven by a hulking man with a shaven head and a scar that ran from his hairline down one cheek to the corner of his mouth. What caught his eye, however, was the passenger in the Renault – a young man with a chiseled chin. The same young man that he had seen at the cemetery and then at the Corniche. Hamdi.
“Where does this road go?”
“That’s the problem. They’re sending us to Ittihad Square, just ahead. Traffic there is always -”
“Stop the car!”
Ittihad Square. That name was synonymous in Hassan’s mind with death. During the civil war it sat right on the Green Line. A relatively small square with a fountain and open grass in the center, surrounded by tall buildings on all sides, it had only one ingress and one egress. That made it perfect for ambushes. More men and convoys had been destroyed in Ittihad Square than any other spot in the city. They used to call it the Bonehouse because of all the skulls and bone fragments that littered its wasted grounds.
“Why?” Muhsin shot Hassan a baffled look. “We’re in the middle of traffic, I can’t just -”
“I don’t care, stop right here!”
Muhsin reluctantly slowed and came to a stop. Instantly a cacophony of car horns sounded. Drivers shouted curses and gesticulated through open windows.
Hassan’s attention was so focused that the action seemed to unfold before him in slow motion:
The workers ahead, pulling weapons from an open manhole. Not just any weapons but M-14 rifles with red dot sights, an M240 belt-fed machine gun that would turn this street into rubble and chewed metal, and even an RPG – a rocket-propelled grenade launcher…
Men climbing out of a black SUV up ahead, similarly well armed…
Hamdi and the scarred man stepping from the Renault, carrying AK-47 rifles and an old Dragunov sniper rifle…
The painter’s van disgorging armed young men who ran up the sidewalks on either side…
Was this a terrorist attack? Or were these men here to kill him? If they were here to assassinate him then it was hopeless. Alone he might be able to escape, but he could not leave Muhsin behind, and the man could not run.
Muhsin, like many of the surrounding drivers, had seen the gunmen. He opened his door, apparently to flee.
Hassan seized his arm. “No! Shut the door, climb between the seats, get on the floor in back.”
“I don’t know yet. Move!”
Muhsin did so, and a moment later the street erupted into a cataclysm of chaos and noise.