Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Tales of the absurd

Of towels

A shipment of hundreds of towels arrived today to the Nasra school in Achrafieh. Hundreds of hundreds, bagged-up by the dozen, creating a small multi-colored mountain in one corner of the open yard. No one is quite sure where they came from; apparently some lads arrived in the early hours of the morning, deposited them all from a small hatchback, and left without a word.

“They’re certainly not from the Memory-of-the-Martyr-Rafik-Hariri-Institution,” joked Abu Ali, “or the martyr’s face would have been sewn into each one.”

The population at the Nasra school is fairly small, and the distribution system well entrenched, so the towels just waited there, for Walid or one of the other organizing volunteers to hand them out according to family size. But Walid was late today, and the towels tempting.

“I want to talk to you,” said Imm Hassan, pulling me aside into her family’s corner of one of the larger classrooms. Imm Hassan and I haven’t interacted all that much. She’s from Aitaroun, in southern Lebanon, and seems to spend most of her time yelling at her veiled 10 year-old daughter, and reciting incomprehensible – to me at least – aphorisms a propos of nothing.

“I need the pink towels,” Imm Hassan says.

“We’ll be distributing them very soon,” I reply.

“No, it’s important,” she says, “I need the pink ones.”

“Look, there’s lots of towels,” I say, “I’m sure you’ll all get enough.”

“Listen to me,” she says, gripping my shoulders and speaking louder, so I’ll understand. “I need the pink ones, to match the set I already have back home.”

Of towels, II

A similar impossibly large shipment of towels apparently was also made to the Karm El Zeitoun school down the road. Mahmoud, one of the volunteers, was trying to count them when he was interrupted by Khalil.

“We need them,” Khalil says, his son on one shoulder, two bags on the other.

“Let me finish counting them,” says Mahmoud, “and we’ll pass them out.”

“No,” Khalil says, “we need them now.”

Mahmoud looked around, but everything seemed normal.

“Please,” says Khalil, “I’m begging you.”

“Look, we’ll hand them out in a little while. What’s the rush?” Mahmoud asks.

“We’re leaving,” Khalil says, “up to the village. I want to go now, before they start hitting the road. But my mother-in-law, she says she won’t get in the car until we get our new towels…”

From the Dahieh

Imane is 11, and self-possessed. She tells me when my sneakers don’t match my outfit, and explains that if I veiled, it wouldn’t matter that my hair always looks so untidy.

“We visited home today,” she tells me. Imane’s family lives next to Hart Hreik, Israel’s main target in the Dahieh, Beirut’s southern suburbs.

“We went home to shower, because our bathroom is cleaner. But all the windows are gone. Mama said it’s ok, that everything is safe. So we showered. There’s nothing better than a shower in your own bathroom. But the towels were so full of dust that I got all dirty. Then the Israelis came back. We could hear them because the windows are all gone. So we came back to the school, and Mama made me shower all over again.”

From the Dahieh, II

We have a family staying with us, a mom and dad and two energetic little boys. They’re from southern Lebanon, but spend the winter in Hay el Sellum, another neighborhood in the Dahieh, currently threatened by Israeli bombings.

Our neighborhood is overflowing with refugees and new residents. Their children play on the streets, arguing over football and who’s taller/older/stronger. Our family won’t let their boys outdoors, despite their pleading, because they don’t know the neighborhood. Last night, we convinced them to take a walk on the cornice, by the sea.

Ten minutes later, we had managed to walk approximately one block. I had run into exactly no one that I know; they had met three families they knew from Hay el Sellum.

“You’re here, too?” they asked each time. “Of course. And by the way your neighbor from the fourth floor is staying two buildings down.”

From the Dahieh, III

The Israeli military talks a lot about its precision, its laser-guided explosives, its pin-point targeting. Khalo Ayman just got back from a visit to the Dahieh, where Israel’s precision is potently evident in the numerous buildings collapsed onto the ground.

“I met Fadi today,” he says, “he was walking down the middle of the street.

“‘You’re still here?’ I asked him.

“‘Of course’, Fadi said.

“‘I was asleep at home on the 8th floor when they bombed. I woke up falling, and landed in my hallway. I stood up, and the doorway was gone. Then I walked outside. The building was gone, under me, so I walked down the hallway from my apartment that had been on the 8th floor, and directly onto the ground outside’.”

From the Dahieh, IV

Most of the apartment buildings in the Dahieh are completely empty of their residents these days. In the window of a ground floor apartment near the main street of Mouawad, a family left their parakeet behind.

Hanging in its cage, the parakeet squawks if anyone comes near. If you get close enough, apparently, you’ll hear a difference in the squawkings. At first, it’s normal parakeet noises. Then it changes. “Booom! Booom!” the parakeet shouts. “Squawk, squawk, BOOOM, squawk.” And it ducks it head under its wing, hopping around the cage.

Sonya Knox

West Beirut

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