Wednesday, August 23, 2023

String beans, canned tuna, and other war traumas

From the series "Los Desastres de la Guerra" by Tarek Chemaly

I think I said this anecdote prior in my blog but heaven help me I know not where. Not far from my house (I live in a village mind you), are three shops. All operated and owned by families, so basically, the welcoming is always warm, and the people friendly and there is almost no difference in pricing. So when my mother asked me why I chose to be a patron of one of the specific stores, my answer was "because it faces the sun". Which is as idiosyncratic as they come in terms of answers.
But here's the logic - shops that are away from the sun are damp. Dampness reminds me of the shelter. Shelter is synonymous to war. And war is an open trauma.
Last year I was having a talk with my brother, and he said that it is impossible for him to have canned tuna. In case you did not know, canned products - tuna or luncheon meat or spread cheese were staples in shelter menus. Which reminds me of why I dislike string beans.
The Lebanese war has caused thousands upon thousands of people to be displaced. Many lost homes permanently, so one day - the year is vague to me but it must be early to mid-eighties - a knock came on our door. Do note, we lived on the 7th floor of a building. The knocker was a very old lady. In dirty rags, unclean hair, and obviously homeless. She asked for food and mother gave her string beans in Arab bread (like pita bread but larger). The woman sat on the stairs between the two floors and began eating her food by hand. I am not sure why I had to go out of the house and use the stairs but that image is etched in my memory (I think there was one of those ubiquitous power cuts and I had to use the stairs to go down as the elevator was not working). Which brings us to me avoiding string beans when possible.
Below is a post that dates back to 2013. Strange how much it still resonates today.

Originally published on October 1, 2013:

War is not over. It's a fact. It will never be. Today, in a slip of a tongue my mother said "in case I have to flee" - an awkward small sentence that could have gone unnoticed. But she said it, did not pay attention to it, and went on. But for me there was a sudden freeze frame. The exact word she said was "ehrob" - a word which could be interpreted as "run away", "flee", "save myself".
There she was, a woman secure financially, surrounded by her family in more ways than one, whose tasks have been brought down to a minimum which keeps her mentally and physically active without anything that might overburden her old age. And - subconsciously - she is still stuck in a loop. A loop that should have been finished since 1990 when the "Lebanese civil war" ended.
My first reflex was one of upset - where was she going to run flee? why would she?... And frankly, there was this cynic dismissal, whereas I did not articulate it, I surely thought it. But as I composed myself, I sat there thinking about it. In many ways, she is just a specimen of a generation. They're the ones who explored the Automatique cafe (Idriss) in downtown Beirut, the heyday of the supposed "Paris of the Orient" (what a fallacy!) and they are the ones who have had the dream of normalcy shattered - even if the war had been brewing for a long time under the champagne bubbles of the Phoenicia Hotel before it eventually exploded in 1975.
What struck me the most, was how similar she and I are. What I first dismissed as an outmoded reflex, soon dawned on me how ingrained it is in all of us. I was born on the onset of the war, and so this Capharnaum was all I knew. It was fun in a macabre way, but it was also the only paradigm and frame of reference. Not only this, in 2006, I got stuck in the US during the war which had erupted in my absence. A trip that was supposed to last two weeks ended up being two months long. Add to this that for different reasons - in 2003 and 2010 - I had to change residence twice in record time (once moving from one country to another and another time from one city to another).
And it was those war reflexes that saved me. Whereas everyone around me was panicking as to these swift transitions, I was already doing mental checklists - something you have to do in times of war - organizing things so very efficiently and taking all emotional components out the equation. Naturally, the full blow strikes you where the anomaly of such situations subsides, and this is when the psychological aftermath starts. But when you are still in your adrenalin rush, it all feels so peaceful, so normal dare I say.
And now I realize why my travel carry on luggage is almost set to go despite the fact that it has been a while since I traveled. In that luggage I keep - for reasons obscure to myself until now - a minimum survival kit: Anything from a good pair of jeans, to a change of shirts and socks, some cash and even a travel nail kit.
After all... What if I have to "ehrob" myself?