Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Beirut Mayhem-ek by Tarek Chemaly (Part III)

Beirut mayhem-mek by Tarek Chemaly part III:

It was true, I could not imagine what was going on back there. Every war is different, maybe everything is déjà vu, as we grow blasé of CNN reporting. How long can one put up with a developing story that’s eight hour long with the title at the bottom of the screen: “Developing story, loud explosions heard in Beirut.” Back when the news got concentrated in the 8 o’clock version, one would feel that things were happening, something was shifting, an action was taking place. Nowadays news feels like watching paint dry.

“We are the best, but it’s still wet paint! Miller Co.” said the signs plastered at the ramps of the Vollum hall in Reed College – Portland. As I looked amused at them, a plane heading towards Portland Airport made its path above me: My natural reflex was to expect either one or two loud bangs: One was for a bomb being dropped, two for a sonic boom. But all of this never feels real, but rather it seems like Roy Lichtenstein’s “Whaam!” – I could almost hear the pilot above “I pressed the fire control… And ahead of me rockets blazed through the sky” the pilot of course being Tom Cruise (Not in action, but rather his image on the poster of “Top Gun” with Kelly McGillis putting a confident arm around his sturdy shoulders).

Remembrances of war do not come the way people expect them to come. Sure, we time the war by the major timelines such as “this happened two days before Bashir Gemayel died” (August 8th 1982), or “It was three weeks after the “harb el tahrir” (Liberation was against Syria launched by General Michel Aoun in 1989, then head of the state due to lack of consensus on the presidential seat), but it mostly the personal remembrances that end up triumphing.

Every night, at the shelter in Achrafieh – almost the heart of Beirut – that woman would go on to recount what happened to her and her family on April 2nd 1982, the day of the Israeli invasion (Or rather the second Israeli invasion, to be more precise, as the first happened in 1978).

And every night she would go on in the same boring detail recounting the details, which always remind me of my own April 2nd. My vivid memory of that day was our mother furtively opening the drawers of the wooden chest and taking all possible pairs of white underwear, a cigarette in her mouth as I stood next to her. Then – with absolutely no transition – I could see the whole family packed in my father’s white Volvo 144 as we cruised through the Dbayeh highway with some smoke starting to transpire from the visible Beirut. We left our school bags in the classroom that day because we were told to evacuate immediately.

For a long time, I lived with the impression that the events of April 2nd happened because someone at school said “tomorrow, there will be bombings again” as an April fool’s lie – maybe the kid had overheard his parents, but I have always taken it to be an April fool’s that happened for real. And since, I grew extremely cautious of all April fool’s lies out of fear of them materializing on the morning of the next day.

Yesterday I came across Borges’ statement that “the original is not faithful to the translation,” and it made me smile for treacherous memory can be. In my current memory of that day, mother would be “furtively opening the drawers…” of a white painted chest that’s on the left of the door of our bedroom, but back in 1982, the chest was still in its original blue and was on the right of the door. Through the process of time, memories get actualized and current images get projected onto that distant past, helping bridge it to our neurons that barely cling to it like some Christmas tree lights that gave up flickering long ago.

“What is the profession that got hit most severely in the current war in Lebanon?”
“Dentists. Everyone’s afraid to put a bridge, because Israel might blow it up!”
95% of all Lebanese bridges have been bombed. 80% of the highways. It is easy to lie with statistics, I know, but it is easier to lie without them. Still, I am being told the magnitude of the damage is beyond the scope of imagination. “Nothing will prepare you for what you are going to see.”

 “No two countries that both have a McDonald’s have ever fought a war against each another” was Tom Friedman’s thesis. Lebanon and Israel have just proved him wrong.

“And how are you holding on?”
“Fine. I don’t know what to answer when I get asked that question.”
“Me neither. It’s strange isn’t it?”
“I didn’t know you were in France. Mother told me that you were due to fly the day the hostilities broke out.”
“Yes, I managed to catch the last plane out of Beirut. I am not sure if it’s good luck or bad one. But now I know what kept our parents from immigrating during the war. This sense that it would soon be over. Had they known it would last seventeen years the first time around, they’d have gotten there quick.”
“I see where you come from. I remember this one time father spoke about how easily people were going to Sweden and getting immigration there, and it fuelled up my mind. But then after his nap in the afternoon no one talked about it anymore.”
“I feel like I am Sisyphus. Every time you go back to that gun barrel of a country, rebuild everything from scratch and then when you’re way up, you have to come back from the very beginning. And do it all over again, and again. I am seriously contemplating establishing my practice here in France. But I have to come back.”
“What for an encore? A final reverence? Me, I am like Ella Fitzgerald in that department – I keep coming back to the scene a million times, hooked on the adrenaline of the applause.”

“How much is your life worth?”
“Not much.”
“I will kill you anyway.”
But I hear not gunshots. But both of them do.
In their headphones, and the dead man suddenly springs from his chair slurring insults at the other. He is not serious, just pissed that he got beaten at “Counter strike” – for internet cafes also allowed game playing and were a popular hangout for youths.
“How much is my life worth?” I think. Not much maybe.
Israeli jet planes air raided a safe house in Qana, ten years after the “grapes of wrath” operation which hundred or so people back then, and I could hear the pilots’ words in Hebrew (With an English subtext on the screen):
“How much is their life worth?”
“Not much”
“We will kill them anyway”
Among the dead an infant not even a day old. Thrirty three other children. Thirty four if you do the math. Sixty people including men and women. Do the pilots hear some Atariesque synthesizer bleeping in their helmets, or see a cumulative digitalized set of points that allow them an extra missile once they get to a certain threshold?

They don’t count. The people who are dead. Or rather, if they do, they only count by numbers – never in value. Never as individuals. Never as people who once held names.