See the Story Index for Wael Abdelgawad’s different tales.
The National Lottery
It was a sizzling December in 1989, and I used to be sitting behind a sandbag in East Beirut, sipping water, when a sniper’s bullet went by way of my canteen, dousing my face. My males laughed and mentioned, “al an-naseeb al-watani.” The nationwide lottery. A typical phrase on this vicious struggle. It expressed a fact that everybody understood: anybody, civilian or in any other case, may die at any second. Car bombs leveled metropolis blocks. Israeli warplanes attacked randomly. The struggle zone was wherever you stood.
I’d survived so many shut calls that recently my males’s declarations of “the national lottery” had grow to be awed, virtually frightened.
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“Still burnin’ your luck,” mentioned Daniel, my corporal, repeating certainly one of his favourite traces. He made a twinkling movement along with his fingers. “Smoke comin’ offa you like bubbles off a fish.”
At the age of fifteen I used to be a captain within the Kataeb Regulatory Forces, one of many right-wing Christian militias slogging our means by way of the blood and rubble of the Lebanese civil struggle. I used to be younger to carry such a rank, however it was late within the struggle, and so many fighters had died that anybody with expertise was being promoted. I used to be a unprecedented soldier, having been taught to combat and shoot from the time I may stroll. My personal mom, earlier than assembly my father, had been a teenage tank driver within the Numur – the Tigers militia. A slender, blond-haired lady, she drove an M41 Walker Bulldog tank, and with nothing greater than an AK-47 may put a bullet within the eye of a sniper at 5 hundred meters.
A jeep drove up and a soldier hopped out with a message for me to report back to Boulos Haddad. Boulos was the chief of the Lebanese Christian forces, and a member of President Amin Gemayel’s cupboard, although it was mentioned that Boulos was the facility behind the throne. He was additionally my uncle. One might need thought I’d be coddled. In actuality it was the alternative: I’d all the time been given unattainable assignments, to the purpose the place my males typically puzzled if command had a purpose for wanting me lifeless.
I’d begun to suspect that this was certainly the case. My father had been a dissident, an creator and poet who spoke vehemently towards the struggle, earlier than he and my mom have been obliterated in a automotive bomb explosion. I noticed it occur, and sat surprised, reduce and bleeding from the ears, seeing the tree leaves papering the road – timber all the time misplaced their leaves with automotive bombs – and smelling the stench of urine. I used to be advised that the PLO killed them, and I believed it then. But I used to be skilled sufficient now to know that the PLO used C4 for automotive bombs. C4 smells like almonds. It was our facet, the Kataeb, who used ammonium nitrate gasoline oil. ANFO smells like piss.
I saved my speculations to myself.
I had no automobile, so I commandeered the soldier’s Jeep. Daniel drove whereas I held my rifle prepared. Passing by way of Sassine sq., a infamous sniper lair, Daniel – a small, wiry half-Druze, half-Turkish man with an odd method of speech and a waxed mustache that curled on the ends – weaved the Jeep madly. A shot rang out, and my facet mirror disappeared in a sprig of glass. I spun, scanning the buildings, and noticed the sniper on the fifth ground of the half demolished Byblos Bank constructing. He was working to get a greater vantage. I tracked him, and fired at an open window a cut up second earlier than he reached it. His head snapped, blood spraying onto the wall behind him.
In the sq. we handed the bloated corpse of a canine. It lay on its again with its legs sticking up like pins in a pincushion. A second later we drove by a headless feminine physique, then previous two younger males rotting beside a pile of sandbags, their arms tied behind their backs. In the grassy island within the heart of the sq., somebody had erected a Christmas tree adorned with spent bullet casings.
“Begin a look a lots like Christmaaaaas” Daniel sang in horrible English.
I didn’t snicker. My emotional inside was blasted and wrecked, just like the scene of a automotive bomb explosion. Neither sobs nor laughter could possibly be manufactured. I went by way of my days following orders, combating who I used to be advised to combat, as a result of I used to be too silly to assume for myself, and too unimaginative to visualise myself doing the rest. When I used to be little I’d seen the film Pinocchio, and it had frightened me. Pinocchio was a misplaced puppet, kidnapped, trapped in a nightmare, surrounded by youngsters being was donkeys. The solely voice of sanity in his life was his ineffectual conscience, reedily protesting within the type of a cricket.
I used to be the misplaced puppet now, dancing because the puppet grasp pulled the strings, deaf to my very own conscience, watching the world remodel right into a hell on earth, and never solely did I not attempt to cease it, I used to be part of it.
But I’d lately met a younger lady, Lena, who taught English on the American University of Beirut. She’d woke up a spark of life and religion in me, and I started to assume that possibly I could possibly be greater than a soldier. Maybe there was a life for me past this river of blood, if I may simply survive a bit of longer.
I’d additionally begun to be taught a bit of about Islam, and it intrigued me. All I knew that was they worshiped just one God, Allah, and that this worship was the crux of their existences, defining every part they did. I sensed the reality on this. It was the seed of one thing highly effective and big, however the seed had not but sprouted in my thoughts, and I couldn’t grasp its significance.
I’d lately survived a PLO ambush in an alley. They may have completed me off, and even tortured me for info, however as an alternative they’d given me water, and returned my Beretta 92 handgun. I couldn’t overlook the way in which the Palestinian commander had then turned his again on me, standing in keeping with his males to begin the Muslim prayer. When I’d requested him how he could possibly be so assured that I’d not shoot him within the again, he’d solely mentioned, “Allah is watching my back.”
Where did such religion come from? It was as if Allah was not solely the person’s God, however a trusted pal. Not an idea, a fairy story, a line from a catechism, or a bearded outdated man drawn from the pages of a dusty e-book. No, their God was a dwelling, current Being who watched your again whenever you prayed within the alley. This fascinated me. I knew that the Palestinians have been solely right here in Lebanon as a result of that they had been pushed from their homeland. They’d suffered a long time of massacres by the hands of the Israelis, together with the lack of their land and houses, and have been subjected to untold each day brutalities. Was it that have of struggling and hardship that engendered such religion? Or was it one thing in regards to the faith of Islam itself, some inherent spring of fact that nourished the soul?
I didn’t know for positive that I wished to grow to be Muslim, and in any case I knew that changing to Islam was not potential so long as I remained a part of the Kataeb, or certainly so long as I remained in East Beirut. But there was no escaping the struggle. I used to be trapped in the identical downward spiral of demise that my complete nation was locked into. How may I presumably break away?
How We Achieve Peace
Boulos’s fortified home sat on a hilltop overlooking the waterfront. The guards moved a barricade to confess us. As quickly as I stepped out of the Jeep, Rocket dashed to me. She was Boulos’s canine, a Saluki Persian Greyhound – an costly purebred – with lengthy legs and a barrel chest. I’d had few buddies after my mother and father’ deaths: my little brother (who had since disappeared); the home supervisor, who all of us known as Tant Gala, additionally now disappeared and presumed lifeless; Daniel and one other soldier named Saber, who’d been amongst Boulos’s home guards again then; and Rocket. More than anybody, it had been Rocket who’d introduced me again to life. My coronary heart swelled with love as I kneeled and scratched her ears, and rubbed beneath her chin.
Daniel waited exterior as I entered with the maid, who confirmed me to Boulos’s examine. His private bodyguard Mr. Black stood exterior the door, as typical, as unmoving as stone. He was a mute man with a protracted purple scar throughout the entrance of his throat. No one knew his actual identify.
Black indicated that I ought to increase my arms. I’d left my rifle within the Jeep, however I carried a Walther PPK handgun, ankle revolver, two knives, and a loop of paracord, all of which Black confiscated. He then accompanied me into the examine.
Boulos, a portly man in camos and a brimmed military hat, reclined along with his ft on his desk, smoking a cigar. He grinned. “The prodigal nephew appears!” His voice was gravelly and grating on the ears. “Merry Christmas.”
“Yes sir.” If the Kataeb had certainly killed my mother and father, and if command was intentionally making an attempt to get me killed, then this was most likely the person behind all of it. I ought to hate him. But all I felt was a burning want to know the reality. None of which I let present on my face.
“What?” He waved his cigar. “No enthusiasm for Christmas? Don’t you like peace on earth? You know how we achieve peace?”
The grin disappeared as he took his ft off the desk and sat upright. He reached beneath his desk and introduced out a long-barrelled Colt revolver that, I knew, had been handed down from his grandfather. He licked the barrel and tapped it on tobacco-stained enamel. “We bury our enemies. Every last one of them, men and women, headfirst in the dirt. There’s nothing more peaceful than a cemetery.”
My face should have registered some flicker of emotion, as a result of he mentioned, “You don’t like that? Too much of your father in you. Ma’lish.”
He pressed the intercom button on his desk and instructed the maid to “bring the ham”. A second later she hurried in, a easy nation woman in a sleeveless cotton costume, her lengthy brown hair braided down her again, and each shoulders displaying vaccination pockmarks. Her skinny arms have been burdened with an enormous plastic-wrapped frozen ham, which she stood hugging.
“On the desk, idiot!” Boulos roared.
The woman deposited the ham and virtually ran from the room.
Boulos defined that he wished me to ship the ham to his lawyer. He handed me the lawyer’s identify and handle on a slip of paper. When I learn it, I did a double take. It was in West Beirut.
Boulos laughed. “You need a job done right, you call Simon Haddad. And give the lawyer this too.” He pushed an envelope to the sting of the desk, and pinned me with a brutal gaze. “This is important. Don’t fail.” He handed me some spending cash and advised me to return personally when the job was finished.
Of course I wouldn’t fail. I didn’t do failure. Pull my strings, watch me dance.
Daniel and I stashed the ham within the Jeep, and I defined the mission as we headed for the Green Line. The metropolis was divided between East and West, with Christians on one facet and Muslims on the opposite, separated by a sniper-infested no man’s land. There have been checkpoints the place business site visitors may cross, however 1000’s of individuals had been kidnapped on the checkpoints, or just shot. For males of combating age like myself and Daniel, a checkpoint was a demise roulette, with the percentages towards us.
No, we’d should sneak throughout the Line.
“If you want to sit this one out,” I advised him, “I understand.” This was fairly presumably a suicide mission. There was no level in each of us getting killed.
Daniel tweaked his mustache. “Goin’ west with a prayer and a gun. Lemme see that envelope.”
“Wanna hold it to the light, me. Get a little see what, know what.”
I needed to admit I used to be intrigued as effectively. I held the envelope to the solar myself as Daniel drove. “It’s a check.”
“I can’t tell.” I put it again in my pocket.
At the barracks we become civvies – for me, denims, outdated sneakers and a Led Zeppelin t-shirt, and for Daniel slacks, Italian strolling sneakers and a darkish inexperienced polo shirt. The man spent each cent of his meager wage on garments.
“Afraid you’re going west with a prayer only,” I mentioned. “Leave your guns in your locker.”
“Cap,” Daniel protested. “Lemme keep one gun. Crazy not to.”
I shook my head. “You can keep a non-military issue knife, like a pocket knife. We need something Islamic too, like those white caps the Muslims wear.”
We drove over to the retailers on Shar’ah Al-Arabi. Small pocket knives have been straightforward to buy, in addition to a sports activities backpack to hold the ham in. But we tried 4 totally different shops, and practically bought shot by a shopkeeper who thought we have been Muslims, earlier than we discovered a few Muslim-style knitted skullcaps, which we stuffed in our denims pockets.
The solar was excessive and sizzling, and I nervous in regards to the Jeep, which had begun to cough like an outdated canine. We stopped at a service station with an enormous gap blown within the overhead awning. A shell had struck the station final 12 months and embedded itself within the asphalt, failing to blow up. The nationwide lottery. I stuffed the radiator, however we hadn’t reached the Line when the engine belched smoke, rattled and died.
We hoofed it. When I jammed the ham into the backpack it felt gentle on the surface. It had begun to thaw. Daniel insisted on carrying it, and I let him. Though I used to be taller, he was as sturdy as an elephant.
“You know this ham get us killed, eh?’
“Muslims don’t eat pork.”
Black day, he was proper! I thought of. “If anyone asks, we say it’s turkey.”
Daniel regarded uncertain. “It got no legs.”
“A big turkey. With the legs cut off. No, I know. It’s a Texas turkey!”
“Texas turkey ain’t got legs? How it walk then?”
“I don’t know, I just made it up. That’s the point. No one else will know either.”
Daniel nodded slowly. “Might could work.”
The Green Line
As we walked down the facet of the highway, different pedestrians crossed the road to keep away from us. I regarded like a standard Beiruti teenager, if such a factor existed, and Daniel regarded downright stylish. Nevertheless, one thing about us was betraying the truth that we have been harmful. We have been protected sufficient right here in East Beirut, however as soon as we crossed the Line we’d should be much less conspicous.
“Walk like a civilian,” I urged.
“How a civilian walk?”
“I don’t know. Slump your shoulders like you’re depressed. And stop touching your pocket.” I’d observed that he saved fingering the pocket he’d put his knife in. It was a inform.
We skirted sandbags, particles and rubbish. There was hardly a constructing in Beirut that had not been broken, and a few have been flattened, as if a mighty fist had hammered them to the bottom. Bullet-pocked murals displayed both political satire, or uplifting scenes of an unblemished, shining Beirut. They have been outdated, relationship from early within the struggle, earlier than phrases like hope and peace grew to become punchlines in jokes.
The Green Line was a three-block broad demise zone that ran the size of the town. Over the years crops had taken root and grown in its streets. It was actually wild, thick with ferns, timber, jasmine, bougainvillea, marijuana – a riot of inexperienced. Hence the identify. Magnificent outdated colonial buildings lined both facet, crumbling.
It was exhausting for me not to think about the final time I’d walked by way of right here. I used to be eleven years outdated, dragged alongside to a brothel by my fool older cousin Sarkis and his minder Maron. We have been attacked by Amal militiamen, and I killed two. One I shot within the hip, and he twisted on the bottom, making an attempt to cease the bleeding as he screamed, “O Ali!” Until Maron put a bullet in his brow. I had by no means killed anybody earlier than. The reminiscence of that day nonetheless haunted me, standing out even amid the flood of violence I’d skilled since. You always remember your first, they are saying.
“Cap?” Daniel stood in a shaded doorway, scanning. “Gotta move.”
I shook off the reminiscence.
We went by way of buildings, again door to again door. We slipped by way of chinks in fences, crawled by way of artillery holes and home windows, climbed over partitions and thru ditches. A significant firefight broke out to the north, and we hunkered in a sandbagged kitchen as roaches scurried over our legs and sweat poured down our faces. The partitions have been cracked and patched with mildew. The sound of rifle fireplace echoed in these empty city canyons, in order that you possibly can by no means inform precisely the place it was coming from. The ham was thawing. I may odor it, meaty and uncooked. I took it from Daniel, giving him a break.
The firefight died out, and we moved on.
We got here to Damascus Street, a large, abandoned boulevard that fashioned the arterial heart of the Green Line. No one inhabited these outdated buildings however snipers and troopers. There was nothing however to cross it. Fortunately it was a forest, with timber towering 4 tales excessive, and dense underbrush. We surveilled it by way of a grimy window. The road was abruptly, eerily quiet. No snipers taking potshots, no artillery, no patrols that I may see. The hair stood up on the again of my neck. There was one thing flawed right here.
But we have been troopers on a mission, and puppets should do because the strings inform them, so we proceeded, crawling on arms and knees into the plant development. The floor was a combination of soil, shattered masonry, damaged glass and litter. It was filled with sharp edges, and shortly my knees and palms have been uncooked. The odor of the ham was so sturdy I used to be afraid it will give us away to any close by patrol.
We have been practically throughout when a twig snapped someplace simply to my left. Down on my arms and knees, I froze, holding up a fist to sign Daniel to cease. I listened, my entire thoughts devoted to detecting the slightest sound. The snapping sound got here once more, together with a rustle from the opposite facet, and light-weight footsteps in entrance.
Black day, this was an ambush! It was a setup, and like fools we’d crawled proper into it. I considered Lena in that second, and felt unhappy that I’d by no means see her stunning face once more. I didn’t know what I wished from her, or what I believed may occur between us. But she was a gentle voice in a tough world, a supply of kindness and energy, and I’d miss her. I additionally regretted that I had not had the chance to be taught extra about Islam.
Shut up, I advised myself in a fierce psychological whisper. Mourn your personal demise later. For now, stand up and combat! I used to be about to movement to Daniel to face and draw his knife – may as effectively die on our ft – when one thing leaped onto my again. Painful needles drove by way of my t-shirt and into my pores and skin. At the identical second, a darkish creature ran at me and scratched my face.
What on earth? These have been cats! They leaped out of the undergrowth and down from branches, dozens of felines of all colours and breeds. Snarling and yowling, they swarmed over my backpack, clawing and biting, tearing at it. There was one on my head and I grabbed it and threw it away, feeling its claws tear at my scalp.
Daniel was there, batting them off me. He pulled the backpack from my shoulders and tossed it, saying, “Ham hungry, them.” The cats adopted the ham, and commenced dragging the backpack away. One managed to tear it open, and the ham tumbled out. Thirty or extra felines swarmed, rending and feasting.
Daniel pulled on my arm. “Come on, Cap. Ham’s KIA. Leave it to the beasties.”
I set my jaw. I’d crushed PLO fighters, Amal militiamen and even well-armed Syrian military regulars. I’d survived practically each kind of assault with each weapon in need of a nuclear bomb. I used to be not going to be defeated by a bunch of loopy cats. Yanking my arm free from Daniel’s grip, I ran on the cats and snatched them off the meat, flinging them away as they clawed my arms and arms. I seized the ham and sprinted, throwing warning to the wind. Not even caring anymore, I marched within the open, hugging the ham.
Daniel tugged at my arm once more. “Cap, there’s a checkpoint ahead. Can’t go there.”
We’d left our IDs behind, since our names have been clearly Christian. The troopers may shoot us on the spot.
“I don’t care. Put on your Muslim cap.” I used to be possessed by a kind of suicidal mania. This had come over me in battle at occasions. We went straight as much as the checkpoint. They have been Fateh militiamen, PLO regulars. Some had their rifles educated on us, whereas a gray-haired sergeant with tough cheeks regarded us stonily.
“As-salamu alaykum,” I improvised. “Making a delivery to my uncle, Nasir Aziz.” This was certainly the lawyer’s identify. I’d heard it mentioned that one of the best lie was constructed on fact. “Texas turkey, all the way from America.” I grinned broadly. “We had to sneak through Christian territory to collect it at the wharf.”
For some purpose I used to be not afraid. I’d killed PLO troopers, and so they had killed my males, however I held no hatred for them. My experiences in the previous couple of years had led me to think about the Muslims and Palestinians as my equals, and in some instances my betters. I’d been proven compassion by them in conditions the place I knew for a proven fact that my facet wouldn’t do the identical.
A tall, gaunt soldier poked the ham with the barrel of his rifle. “What is this stuff on it? And what happened to you?”
For the primary time I spotted that the ham was a large number. Chunks have been torn out, and it was lined in cat fur, together with blood from my wounded arms.
Sheepishly, Daniel defined in regards to the cats, telling the story of how they’d ambushed us. “But we made it. All praise due to Allah.” He started to recite the Quran flawlessly. I’d not identified he may try this.
The troopers weren’t listening to the Quran. At the outline of the cat ambush, their faces grew incredulous. One started to snicker, and shortly they have been all cracking up.
“Go, brothers.” The sergeant waved us on. “Take your Texas turkey.”
Looking At You or Me
We walked on. We not had the backpack, so we lugged the filthy Texas turkey in our arms, passing it backwards and forwards. I used to be roughly aware of West Beirut from occasional incursions. We made our means towards the lawyer’s handle, typically backtracking once we made a flawed flip.
“How do you know the Quran?” I requested.
“Part Turkish, me. My granny taught me the ways and hows.”
After two hours of strolling we discovered the lawyer’s constructing. The elevator was out of order, so we climbed the steps wearily.
Nasir Aziz, Attorney at Law – a shiny-faced man in an Armani go well with – gaped in astonishment as I dumped the soiled ham on his desk, then handed him an envelope. He opened the envelope, took out the examine and nodded. “This is what I needed. As for that“ – he gestured to the ham, his face contorted in disgust – “throw it in a dumpster. Go, you both stink.”
Rage rose up inside me. I had not braved the Green Line to be handled like a employed hand. Boulos may deal with me that means, and I needed to settle for it. But not this man. I leaned throughout the desk and stared into Aziz’s eyes. I didn’t should attempt to seem intimidating. My internal killing area streamed out by way of my gaze, and Aziz noticed it.
“Do you know who I am?” I mentioned quietly.
He drew again. “Only – only that you work for Boulos.”
“I am Simon Haddad. We are not leaving without a thank you and some Arab hospitality.”
The lawyer blanched. Though I used to be younger, my status was widespread. “Of course,” he stammered. “I’m sorry.”
Three hours later we stood exterior, showered and in recent garments, and our bellies filled with hen and rice, sizzling espresso and baklava. It was about an hour after sundown. We’d been launched to the person’s complete household, together with a flirtatious and in any other case fairly teenage woman whose eyes appeared to look in two instructions on the identical time. Nasir additionally gave us a beneficiant cost for our hassle.
Outside, Daniel grinned. “Man so scare, he ‘bout to ask you a’ marry his daughter.”
“Who, the cross-eyed one? I couldn’t tell if she was looking at you or me.”
Daniel guffawed. Watching him, considering of the ridiculousness of the day, one thing unusual and light-weight came visiting me. I threw again my head and, for the primary time in years, started to snicker.
Come to Success
A flock of geese handed overhead, calling to one another. The sky was rising darkish, and we had a protracted journey dwelling. At least it will be simpler to cross the Line at evening, beneath cowl of darkness.
The Muslim name to prayer sounded, spreading throughout the sky like a flock of doves launched from their cages. The caller’s voice was ululating and candy. I’d usually heard the prayer name echoing faintly from the opposite facet of the Line, however had by no means been in a position to make out the phrases. I listened intently now, and understood most of it. Allahu Akbar – that was clear sufficient. La ilaha il-Allah – Lena had advised me what that meant. Hayya ‘al as-salaa, I didn’t perceive that. Hayya ‘al al-falah – I bought that. Come to success.
The name pulled at me. No, it lifted me out of my muddy self as a mom lifts an toddler from the cradle. In East Beirut we had church bells, and so they have been nice sufficient, however this was totally different. This was a person respiratory his soul right into a microphone, imploring me to journey with him to a land the place spirit mattered greater than substance, and the place God may come down from the heavens and lay a finger on a person’s chest, turning him from a strolling corpse right into a dwelling, respiratory human being. In that land, I imagined, I may kneel beside a river and wash the stinking demise from my arms.
Simon, the caller appeared to say, you could be a actual boy now. You don’t should be a puppet anymore, serving villainous masters with hidden motivations. You can serve the One who brings mild, readability, and internal success.
I considered Pinocchio, free of his strings, singing, “I got no strings to hold me down, to make me fret, or make me frown. I had strings, but now I’m free. There are no strings on me.” That was early in Pinocchio’s adventures, with a lot hardship nonetheless forward of him. But in a means, it was the start of his liberation.
Only a minute in the past I had laughed for the primary time in ages, and now I started to cry for the primary time since I misplaced my mother and father in one other life, one other world. At first it was just a few tears, however there was a non secular artery inside me that had been clogged with a mountain of disgrace, denial, blood and rage, and because the strain reached crucial ranges the dam broke. No strings on me, I believed, and it was not a press release a lot as a prayer and a want. No strings on me. I squatted there on the sidewalk, lined my face in my arms and wept as I had by no means finished, racked with sobs, mucus working, gasping for breath.
Daniel mentioned nothing, however squatted beside me and put an arm round my shoulders. I used to be his superior officer, however he was ten years older than me, and in some ways I used to be nonetheless a toddler.
The name to prayer ended. Nearby, a pair of cats yowled and fought. In the gap, an artillery gun began up – theirs or ours, it was all the identical – the sound echoing throughout the town. Ka-thoom, ka-thoom, ka-thoom. I leaned into Daniel and let him maintain me.
Check again each different week for a brand new story by Wael Abdelgawad.
See the Story Index for Wael Abdelgawad’s different tales on this web site.
Wael Abdelgawad’s novels – together with Pieces of a Dream, The Repeaters and Zaid Karim Private Investigator – can be found in e book and print kind on his creator web page at Amazon.com.