BEIRUT

 Winner Telegraph Creative Writing Group January 2015

 

 

The party is not yet in full swing. A fellow joins the small group and asks Margot,

 “Hey, how about a game of tennis?”

 It amazes her that people constantly ask that question. Do they see around her an aura of endless quantities of balls that her parents and brother got through? Ricocheting squash balls, the endless golf balls all over the house, cricket balls, croquet balls, and her grandmother still thwacking a ball round the tennis court until she died? Margot’s a walker and hiker, very bad at ball games.

 Before she can answer, the host comes over.

“OK for drinks?” Bruce asks, unnecessarily, since Libya is dry. As a US Marine he gets booze through the embassy, so they’re crammed into his apartment shoulder to shoulder. It’s the first time in 1972 most of them have seen real alcohol. People make a dreadful concoction called Flash, so bad people have died after drinking it, particularly men on rigs in the vast desert.

 Bruce is a war veteran, different. An entire wall of his apartment has a movie running on it, which he made in Vietnam –  silent, black and white. There are many children just looking at the camera, with no expression, adults turning away. The atmosphere in the room is odd. Margot, made careless by two gin and tonics and her Kiwi genes, asks 

“Is there a message in the film?”

 Bruce glares at her, then walks over to the music and turns it up to full volume.

  “We’re leaving!” Rod grabs Sarah and Margot by the arms, marches them out the door. They pile into his car, and he says angrily,

“Can’t you just THINK things instead of saying them out loud sometimes?”

Sarah is quiet, smoking nervously, acquiescing with her boyfriend Margot feels. She’s perplexed. Why was it wrong to ask that? She looks out the window at the ghibli which has begun. A sandstorm which will obliterate the horizon within minutes, spinning up from nowhere, pervading clothes, nose, eyes and throat thoroughly. They drop her off at the apartment.

“We’ll collect you at 7, be ready,” Rod tells her.

____

 “She’s crazy going on her own, she just won’t listen,” Rod says. They’ve dropped Margot at the airport, waved as she disappeared through Customs.

“Well, my family will look after her….” Sarah’s  fragile features are accentuated by the kohl round her eyes. Rod shakes his head, exasperated.

“She’s mental, I’ve told her the Middle East isn’t the antipodes, but she just laughs.”

They snigger then, and Sarah answers “She’ll be right, mate!” in a Kiwi accent.

____

Rod and Sarah love each other but her parents would be aghast at his religion (Hindu), his nationality (Indian), his marital status (married with 2 children) so she’s told them nothing. Margot counselled her, in her child-of-the-60’s way,

“You must live your own life, not follow old rules.”

Sarah looks at Margot trying to penetrate her reality, poke at the truth, wondering if Margot’s life is really so different… her parents so liberated, life so open to every possibility bar none.

“But family is always involved! I can’t let Rod become important to me, I have to return to Beirut soon.”

Sarah’s family is Palestinian and in 1948 her parents fled to Lebanon. She and her brother were born in a refugee camp.  It’s 1972, a tricky time for Palestinians. They are tolerated but not trusted in Libya, despite being as Arabic as their hosts, and suffer clear difficulties. The Palestinian engineers of the American oil company the girls work for are treated differently in a subtle way. They appear more educated and urbane to Margot. Quieter, more careful than the Libyans, Egyptians and Syrians who are more forthright, certain of themselves.

____

The Middle East Airlines flight arrives on time in Cairo, but the connecting flight to Beirut has departed. It’s 9pm, there’s one other passenger stranded with Margot. While the airline is sorting them out, the man says in an American accent,

“Leave everything to me.”

“ I don’t need help,” she says this slowly.

“Look, men do better in these situations than women,“ he smirks.  “You shouldn’t be travelling on your own, I’ll be your protector.” She seethes but remains quiet.

”Flight boards at 8 a.m. tomorrow. You have room 502 in the Airport Hotel, ticket and key, madam,” says the airline lady.

Margot removes herself at speed to the room but the American has heard what room she’s in and, between visits to the bar, knocks on her door at regular intervals to lure her out.

“Come on, darlin’,” he sings as he punches the door, much harder now, for the third time in as many hours, the voice more slurred. She pushes the hideous chest of drawers – rough wood with gold coloured metal fittings – against the door and sits on it for extra strength. She can hear his breathing through the door! There’s no phone to call for help in the ghastly room. In desperation she screams “Fuck off! Fuck off!” praying that anyone – even the police -hear him beating down the door and intervene. She needs to pee desperately, but there’s no toilet. There’s a basin though, which will have to do. The last time he knocks is at 2.30 a.m., so drunk all his cavalier intentions have seeped away, she hears it in the leaky voice. She was warned of course against going to Beirut alone. Two other secretaries invited her to Malta, they told her she’d have problems and now……what a fool she is!  She ignores the man when he says “Good morning” as they climb the steps onto the plane to Beirut.

____

A taxi takes Margot to the St Georges Hotel in Beirut, directly on the Corniche of the Bay of St George. In the early September sun, it is a luxurious building, she’s impressed that the uniformed bellboy moves so swiftly with the case. As they arrive in the spacious room she is trying to find a tip, but he bangs the door shut, flattens himself against it saying,

“No money. I love you, you visit with me tonight.”

She gapes at him, seeing only his blue, gold braided cap bobbing up and down.

“Get out, or I’ll report you.”

He leaves, banging the door behind him. From the room she looks out across the road side of the hotel at shell-holed buildings, partially standing. A few have been missed altogether by any devices of war. She suddenly feels odd, understanding deeply why others have warned her. She leaves and sees the bellboy is standing at the end of the corridor looking furious.

____

There are a few shops near the hotel selling jewelry. Gold here is excellent quality and cheap. Margot does not wear jewelry but decides to look anyway. The shop is busy with exotic ladies taking time over their choices.  Margot’s eye falls upon a jade ring, very simple, and remembers years ago Nana telling her jade will only stay with you if it likes you, so that if you buy a piece and lose it, never buy it again. An old wives’ tale for sure, but on impulse she buys it. Simple, pretty. Also a little big.

“No problem, madam, make smaller by tomorrow evening.”

____

From the Corniche she walks past razed buildings, with undisturbed dust lying in small mountains. Arriving in Hamra Street is a shock -vibrant, prosperous, and busy. No sign of the country’s history here. Wonderful French clothes,far too tiny for her, but the materials! …… the bookshops! On Hamra Street alone there are seven or eight of them. She buys 15 paperbacks – Flaubert, Brian Moore, Raymond Carver, and Chekhov, Colette, Marquez –  what a feast.  She drinks coffee in three different cafés, watching the gorgeous people on the street.  It overflows with life, she imagines they are discussing politics, literature, and education. There is much laughter, so maybe not.  Such a contrast to Tripoli, where life is lived behind closed doors, the stunning city so unused, despite being built by those bon vivants, the Romans.

 Eli, Sarah’s brother, comes to the hotel. He’s 20, intensely interested in what Sarah is really doing in Tripoli. Margot smiles and evades, keeping her friend’s private life private.

Please eat with the family on Saturday, we’ll go to a restaurant in the mountains.”

 “That’s so kind of you.”

____

On Friday at 8 a.m. a driver collects Margot for a tour of landmarks arranged by the travel agent in Tripoli. Alyas is a young man, in love with a girl from a good family. She loves him too, but the family forbids her to marry him, as he is from a lower class.

“I’m taxi driver, no chance for education. She a chemist.”

He is so proud of her. They drive up to the grotto at Jeita. It looks like just a cave from outside. But what riches within…….she has never seen stalagmites or stalactites in reality, but these are huge, beautiful, freaks of nature. The scope and size of the place is unexpected.  It’s cool in there, only two or three other people are there, but the sound of the water is somehow different, the incredible beauty of the place is shocking.

“How old is it?”

“For sure, nearly so old as earth, the planet.” 

He has one tattered brochure in English which she reads briefly and then he tucks it respectfully back into a small sheaf of papers he’s carrying.

“Are there other caves connected to it?”

“Yes, they think, but need some work to make open for people.”

She’s soothed by the place, by the quiet, everlasting statement that nature always has the upper hand.

“Now we see Our Lady statue, then Baalbek.”

“We think of running away,” Alyas tells her as he sets out for the long drive to Baalbek. “But I want honest begin.”

They drive on to Harissa, where the statue of Our Lady, looks over the amazing city view. It is a charming statue, powerful because of the beautifully silent spot it is in. There’s a small chapel which they go into, peaceful. She will only remember this place decades on, when Harissa paste becomes a staple ingredient of cooking. There’s a comfortable silence as he drives on, she’s never heard of Baalbek, not prepared for this trip and has no idea what to expect. He’s given her a brochure, and looking through the mirror at her in the back seat says ,

“You like this place, really beautiful, very tall.”

They approach in front of the remaining pillars of a temple and, in the afternoon sun, she can see what he means. The ruins have pillars abnormally high, surely more than 20m.

“This Jupiter Temple, biggest one, we look at others also.”

There is not another person in sight. This Roman wonder is something she hadn’t expected.

“How old is it?”

They are dwarfed by the scale of it.  After Leptis Magna’s charm and accessibility, this site is on a different scale.

“Maybe eight thousand, ten thousand year old.”

“Who built it?”

“Nobody know, unknown culture, foundations so special. Romans built on top of ancient site, which remains mystery. Caesar, you know the one. He have the creation, to build more, on top, took long time.”

They’re standing between two pillars of the Temple of Jupiter, looking up, and she understands how appropriately named it is, Jupiter having the greatest mass of the planets in the solar system. King of the Gods. He points over at others, but her sense of scope is out of kilter, the magnitude impossible to take in.

“That Venus Temple, and small staircase…….” his hand points further out “belonging to Mercury, but no building no more. Also Bacchus.”

The symbolism of astrology is in every stone. The majesterial Jupiter, perfectly formed Venus and business-like Mercury honoured in the daily lives of the Romans. For Margot it is the most profoundly meaningful scenery she will ever witness. The isolation of the place enhances the meaning of these earthly monuments. The pointing of the pillars from beneath her own feet to so apparently near heaven, shows the scope of the Romans’ achievements, the power of their imaginations in making manifest and clear the connection between heaven and earth. Nothing has prepared her for that.  She sits down, stunned. Alyas takes out a cigarette and wanders off in another direction for a while.  Perhaps he is used to such reactions in this place.  He has slowly wandered back after fifteen minutes.

“Old name of place is Heliopolis….” 

  “Where did those huge stone slabs come from?” she asks of the three gigantic stones at the base of the temple.

“All, all, from quarry down over there.”  

“Just one place?”

“Yes.  Were meant to go on top of building, not underneath, people know. Now you ask me how they come up here?” he laughs. “Nobody come here believe they pull big stones up to here from there. No machine.”

“Is that true?” 

The stones are almost 20m long and about 4m high, weighing many hundreds of tons, perfectly rectangular in shape.

“Try to tell how they came.”

“Maybe ox, many oxen….?”

“No, maybe 800 ox pull one stone? No room for all,”  he laughs.

“Was the wheel invented before this was built?”

“No wheel.  They cut big trees and roll many under stone, roll and roll up hill.”

She can’t believe it.

“These must be the biggest stones on earth.”

“No, Russian tourist tell me biggest granite stone in Russia, St Petersburg, under horse statue with Peter the Great from 18 century. He say more than half bigger than these,” sweeping his arm out.

“ Trilithon blocks.”

She looks blankly at him.

“Name of these, megaliths.”

He loves the place.

“If I have chance I do archaeology study one day.”

They explore further, there are carved vine leaves at the entry of the temple of Bacchus.

“Wine…….”

“Yes, Bekaa valley good wine. Long summer, rain winters, good temperature. Phoenicians begin wine plants many centuries before.”

She regrets they didn’t come here first, it would take a day at least to get the feel, see the place properly. Dusk isn’t too far off and Alyas says as they approach the car,

“You know lady singer, Ella Fitzgerald?”

“Of course, the great jazz singer.”

“She here in July few weeks ago…….”

“What?”

“Festival of culture here every year, except when there is war. Since 1956. Lady Fitzgerald sang here to many thousand people, she have standing ovation more than twenty minutes.”

She’s speechless. They are still the only visitors, there is no shred of any intrusion into the peace of the ruins – yet Ella Fitzgerald sang here six weeks ago!  The world is strange, and sometimes wonderful. It’s 8 pm when Alyas drops her back at the hotel.  “Thank you for a marvellous day. I wish you luck and hope you win your lady, ” she says as they shake hands.

“I won my lady, now I try to win father,” he says ruefully.

____

She goes to collect the ring.  The Indian fellow, previously the epitome of correctness, says,

“Not having ring unless you eat dinner with me.” Margot’s appalled.

“I’ve paid for that ring – give it to me NOW.”

She produces the receipt from her bag but he laughs, putting the ring back under the glass counter.

“No dinner, no ring,” he smiles, with complete take it or leave it confidence. There’s nobody else in the shop of course, so she turns on her heel and marches out. She eats alone on the magnificent terrace of the St Georges, overlooking the bay, seething about how she’ll get the ring.

____

Eli arrives next afternoon.

“I’ll give you a quick tour of the city, you can get the feel of the place,” he says as they walk to his father’s car.

“Can I ask a favour?”

“What?” he says digging around for the keys.

“I’ve bought a ring in that shop, but the man won’t give it to me unless I go out with him.”

She’s hoping he will offer to get it .

“That’s ridiculous, just go and ask him for it.”

They walk into the shop, the owner is alone. She glances at Eli, he’s next to her yet making it clear she has to do this herself.

“I came for my jade ring.”

He immediately reaches under the counter, speedily placing it in a box.

“Thank you, madam,” he says formally.

Eli doesn’t speak, she glances at him as they leave and has the feeling he will be a fine man. Strong.

“It’s because you’re alone,” he says.

They drive slowly past four Roman columns, recently discovered on Nejmeh Square.

“How old are they?”

“They don’t know, our history goes back at least 5,000 years to the Phoenicians, some times are hard to pinpoint in structures.”  Next is the Grand Serail, the Government Palace, opposite the St George Greek Orthodox church. She’s bemused.

“I thought St George was English…..” she’s surprised to see the name here. He laughs out loud.

“No, he was a Roman soldier and priest….his father Roman, his mother from Palestine, from Lydda, in the 3rd century.”

She reddens with embarrassment at her ignorance.

“He is the patron saint of England, I thought he was British,” she manages to feebly counter.

“Yes, patron saint of England, but also Lebanon, Palestine, Russia also. Places like Milano, Catalonia too.  Many people called George here.”

He’s looking amused, but she’s ashamed.

“So many people smoke,” she says trying to change the subject, looking out at the young people strolling with lit cigarettes.

“Do you?”

“I tried it, but don’t like it. My girlfriend smokes, many people like it.”

 He’s excellent company, at 20 years old three years younger than her, yet much more adult.  

“That’s the American University.” He slows as they pass the impressive buildings looking out over the Mediterranean. “I dream of going there.”

“Are you studying?”

“I’m doing computing but I’d much rather do civil engineering.”

“So why don’t you?”

He says in a tired voice,

“You just don’t know do you……..Palestinians aren’t allowed to study medicine or engineering, it’s forbidden, so we do what we can do. We’re stateless, tolerated here but not given the legal rights enjoyed by the Lebanese.”

She’s humiliated by her complete unawareness of their lives.

____

The restaurant is wonderful, the family hospitable, making themselves speak English and sometimes failing. It’s a happy night. Eli’s parents, an aunt and uncle, two cousins, and grandparents are there. They all speak at once, laugh, and dig in to the mezze. There must be 40 dishes on the table and that’s only the hors d’oevres! Then Falafel, hommus, lamb, chicken, fish, rice. They drink a good Lebanese red wine, delicious, unexpected. They won’t let her pay for anything so she asks the wine waiter to give her the bill separately, under a plate. By the time the baklava arrives (why is it always in a diamond pattern or triangular?) then the jebne, delicious white cheese, they’re all stuffed.

 Margot went to the ladies’ hours ago, but looks down to see she’s forgotten to put the jade ring on after washing her hands.  That was two hours ago…..no chance it will be there. She  runs as she gets out of sight of the others, thinking what a ridiculous tale she’s believed in, just because Nana told her. It’s lying exactly where she left it.

They’ve left the restaurant in a gay mood, and say their goodbyes, promising to send photos of the evening. On the way back Eli asks,

“Are you tired?”  It’s 2.00 a.m.

“No, why?”

“You live in Tripoli, did you know there’s a Tripoli in Lebanon?”

“Really?”

“Let’s drive there now.”

It’s crazy, but off they go straight along the coastal road, passing through Byblos  (which looks like a small fishing village) on the way, talking non-stop. There is nobody about, and very few cars. After another hour they arrive in Tripoli, larger, completely deserted, with very few lights on.

“Much fighting here, dangerous place always with sects,” Eli says. They don’t get out of the car.

“Thanks for this,” she says.

They’re both laughing, aware that there was no point in doing it, except that they could.

(She will stand in her kitchen in the Hague fifteen years later and wonder how a premonition about Terry Waite –a name completely unknown to her until she “saw” a headline on her kitchen window that morning which read TERRY WAITE IS NOT COMING BACK – could have been picked up by her. He was kidnapped 12 hours later. She took weeks to work out they had probably been near the place the Islamic jihad organisation held him in for five years of captivity. The past inevitably lays tracks to the future….why else would she have got such a weird message?)

____

 Next morning, she spends hours in the National Museum. It’s cosy there. What amazes is that every single item has been found in Lebanon – nothing pillaged from other lands despite many of the artefacts being Roman and Egyptian.  Five thousand years, at least, of Canaanite and Phoenician treasures, carefully chosen, not bundled together as so often happens in other musea. A whole room full of sarcophagi, stately, impressive. She suddenly feels sad in this lovely room, and has a flash of the wall she is looking at collapsing in terrible noise and disappearing.   

          Back at the hotel there’s a message from Eli, he will collect her at 7.00p.m.  He drives back up the Jounieh road for the third time in as many days, to the Casino du Liban where they see the most spectacular cabaret she’s ever witnessed. The finale is a man covered in gold paint from head to toe, twirling slowly in his Oscar-fashion way on a pivot. They announce before this that he has to be stripped of the gold paint within a certain small time frame, or it can harm all his internal organs permanently.  Eli drops her back, he’s good company, funny.  He insists on taking her to the airport the next afternoon but he has some exams later.

“I’ll go by taxi, you need to study, it’s far better.”

“No, I’ll be here at 12,” and he will. He’s a man of his word.

____

Eli’s on time, loads her bag into the car. He’s quiet though.

“Is everything ok?”

Looking straight ahead, he says,

“I told my girlfriend last night that it’s over.”

“But why?”

“Because of you.”

No, please. Nothing has happened between them.

“I know you don’t feel the same, but…” She feels panicked.

“No, it’s because I seem different.  I like you very much, but… ”

“I know that.”

There’s silence as he gets the bag out and they walk to the terminal. She is deeply upset, can’t think of anything to say.   She’s checked in. He produces a beautiful laquer box.

“For you.”

She opens it, a superb manicure set, black bone handles exquisitely hand painted.

“Women do their nails always, when you use this you will remember me.”

“It’s expensive…”

“I borrowed…”

“I don’t understand…”  She wants to weep.

“Last night, when I was telling you about how hard it is here, that I want to get out, to go the US or Canada…..that I feel something bad coming to Lebanon……do you remember I said to you that people should not expect happiness, that happiness is a ghost? You said something I will never forget.  Happiness is a ghost within. I will never forget that, or you.”

They hug wordlessly.  After being airborne for an hour she is back in the now, analysing everything, realising she must seem to Eli to have her life under her own control when – because of the fate bestowed by birth place – that remains impossible for him. His life is prescribed, corralled, by the politics of the land he has grown up in, with no chance of personal choice.  Two weeks later the photos arrive, with a small card on which is written,

“Happiness is a ghost within.”

____

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