Tuesday, July 25, 2006

It was just a few days into the war and the battered old Mercedes taxipulled over in Hamra, a formerly splendid commercial district in Beirutwhose heyday had expired many years before.“Cola,” I said, referring to the neighborhood in southern Beirut named for a Coca-Cola bottling plant that had closed some time in the distant past.“Taxi?” came the response, the driver wanting to know whether I wanted thevehicle to myself for 5,000 Lebanese pounds (about $3.33) or was willing toshare with others for 1,000 pounds.Sharing meant the possibility of detours to other passengers’ destinations,and it had been a very long day. I nodded and hopped in the front seat ofthe battered sedan. We rode in silence until we were very near to Cola, whenyet another thunderous explosion went off further south in the Dahiyeh.

The driver inspected me out of the corner of his eye, trying to gauge my reaction to the destruction of his country. Was I one of those foreigners who thought the Lebanese were getting what they deserved?I muttered a colorful curse at Israel with a shake of my head. That broke the ice. He asked if I had a family and where they were, and Itold him I had moved them from our flat near Cola to one in Hamra, muchfurther away from the Dahiyeh. Then I asked about his family, which eliciteda deep breath and a clenching of teeth.“Dahiyeh.”My heart sank. I had just been to see my own 4-yeard-old daughters, and thebombs falling on the Dahiyeh had been enough to frighten them from severalkilometers away. This man’s children had a front-row seat.“Get them out of there,” I said, motioning with my hands. Between his broken English and my pathetic Arabic, he managed to make meunderstand that he had no other place to put them and no money to rent one. I told him he didn’t need money because the government had opened all publicschools as shelters for civilians displaced by the Israeli bombing campaign. Apparently unaware of the announcement, he thanked me profusely for theinformation and said he would go straight to his home to evacuate his family.

We had arrived at the corner of my street, so I told him to stop, handed him a 10,000-pound note and held up my hand to indicate that he could keep thechange. He wouldn’t take it – any of it. He insisted that I had saved his children and that he could not accept my money. Honor meaning what is does for many Arabs, it was a delicate moment, but we didn’t have enough language in common for me to argue the point, so I got out but tossed the note back into the car just as he began to pull away. Realizing what I had done, he stopped again. I think my expression told him I wouldn’t be taking no for an answer, so he touched his fist – clenched around the precious cash – to his chest and gave me a look of gratitude that cannot be described. Then he drove off toward the Dahiyeh.The feeling was instantaneous: In all likelihood I would never know if this man reached his family in time. I still feel it now, and I can’t imagine itever going away.

Marc J. Sirois

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