30 July 2006

 

‘Slowly,’ the townspeople had cried to the man driving the bulldozer flattening what remained of their town. ‘Slowly, slowly.’ It seemed that I heard in their voices all the others of those I had known over the years who had lost their homes.

Some suffering cannot be covered in words. This had become my daily fare as a reporter in the Middle East documenting war, its survivors and fatalities, and the many who seem a little of both. In the Lebanese town of Qana, where Israeli bombs caught their victims in the midst of a morning’s work, we saw the dead standing, sitting, looking around. The village, its voices and stories, plates and bowls, letters and words, its history, had been obliterated in a few extended moments that splintered a quiet morning. In the path of a bulldozer clearing the wreckage of lives was what would remain: a bag of onions, a can of beans, a blood-stained blue mattress, a teakettle, a photograph of a young boy, posing uncomfortably, backing awkwardly into manhood.

Slowly, slowly. The request repeated itself to me as, searching for some telling detail for another story to appear in the Washington Post, I noticed the fragrance of cedars and pines. Their smells seemed fresh and bracing, promises of renewal, until I discovered that the actual trees had been destroyed hours before.

I had arrived in Qana to see webs of wire dangling along the suggestion of a street. Some Lebanese believe that it was here, amid grape arbors, olive groves, and fig trees, that Jesus performed his miracle, turning water into wine. Yet on this summer day, olive trees with gnarled trunks perhaps a century old were split like toothpicks. A tattered Persian rug jutted out the back window of an old Chevy, hurled from somewhere by an explosion. As a donkey brayed, a terrified cat shot through the rubble while Israeli shelling thundered in the distance. Moments later, a rescuer rose from the ruins, back slightly stooped. Cradled in his arms was a one-year-old child, Abbas Hashem, the twenty-seventh victim of the bombing of Qana. A blue pacifier dangled from his green top. A bruise covered his forehead, and his tongue hung listlessly from his mouth. Behind him lay a book, The Keys to Heaven, the corners of its pages charred.

Most of the dead had choked on flying dirt and other debris. Their bodies, intact, preserved their final gestures: a raised arm called for help, an old man pulled on pants. Twelve-year-old Hussein Hashem lay curled in the fetal position, his mouth seeming to have vomited earth. Mohammed Chalhoub sat on the ground, his right hand broken. Khadija, his wife, and Hasna, his mother, were dead, as were his daughters, Hawra and Zahra, aged twelve and two. As were his sons: Ali, ten; Yahya, nine; and Assem, seven. ‘I wish God would have left me with just one child,’ said the bereft former father.

 

*

 

War had come home again to Lebanon, where, since World War I, it has been more familiar than peace. For eighteen days I had covered Israel’s latest attack. With my fellow reporters I had followed a campaign deadlier and more destructive than any here since the Israeli invasion of 1982, which began an eighteen-year occupation. Israel had stormed in after Hezbollah — the militant arm of the Shiite Muslims in Lebanon — infiltrated the heavily fortified Israeli border, killing three enemy soldiers in an ambush and spiriting two others away. In retaliation, the pretext for reprisals that are never proportionate, the Israelis unleashed a thirty-three-day barrage that destroyed entire villages and left more than 1,100 dead, most of them civilians. Their Merkava tanks plowed ahead as unmanned drones hovered, buzzing like swarms of insects. Most of the weapons were American — the F-16s and Apache helicopters, the Sparrow and Sidewinder missiles, the cluster bombs that left four million bomblets sown in the ground, waiting to kill and maim long after the war ended.

 

*

 

When my group said goodbye to Qana, I hoped for a quick trip on twisting roads through the hills and smoky greenery, flying fast away. Traveling in my old Jeep Cherokee, we headed to Tyre, where, upon arrival, we spilled out. What I noticed was not more death, though eighty-six faces lay in cheap coffins baking in the blazing sun of south Lebanon. What moved me was, in the corner of the scene, a row of women mourning in black. As the heat climbed, a few lifted their veils, moving cautiously, as if they feared a single gesture might discomfit the world. The women in Tyre did not flinch, did not speak; they did not ask that their sorrows be noticed. They were here for others, and as long as the caskets remained, waiting to be interred in the same gaping hole, the women would not depart. Their presence said that life was still sacred, that the loss of it mattered, even now. In the Middle East, the first lesson is the meaning of silence. In the silence of the women was faith.

 

*

 

In my silence there was my family, on my mind since this war had started. Maybe it is because my relatives are emigrants that I rush my departures, which I believe are best made early in the morning, in the dark, before babies cry out, or wives awaken, or callers from Bangalore demand payment of credit card invoices. I would rather say nothing and run. Better silence than words second-guessed across the globe. Grab the suitcase. Watch for the taxi’s headlights. Smoke a forbidden cigarette. Go.

But the place I was usually headed to was no longer the one with which I had once been so enamored. The Middle East that had fascinated, preoccupied, and saddened me for decades was gone. I had first come to know it when I was in college and spending a summer in Jerusalem. Then and later, excursions took me from the crumbly Ottoman outpost of Suakin, on the Red Sea, to the oily sprawl of Riyadh and, stretching across the desert, to Sanaa. From that magical old town, with its toy-like houses of stained glass and white gypsum washing over cream adobe, I traveled on, to capitals of surreal modernity on the turquoise waters of the Persian Gulf. Especially compelling to me was something difficult to articulate but that underlay everything, an approach to life — an ease, an elegance, an absence of the unnecessary. Anything hurried, superficial, purely mercenary, or delusory was rejected. Central was a slowness allowing for the consideration of every choice. The state of the spirit, it is believed, reveals itself in small tasks, rituals — all the things that war interrupts.

Old traditions that represent values, daily habits that calm the mind, are not perpetuated when war stops time. Life goes unattended. What might have been lasting is lost. The old ways of the Levant have dwindled down here, as war — or the threat of it, or the wait for it, or the loss that follows it — has become a way of life. By the time I arrived in Lebanon in 2006, few cultures intersected here. Politics was refracted through unyielding religious discourse or more ancient affiliations, and identity flowed exclusively from them, irrespective of culture and language. It seemed we had been left with tribes bereft of citizenship. Home, united, as other generations had known it, had long been lost, though an older architecture still whispered of times glimpsed in broken masonry and solitary arches.

 

*

 

At 3:30 a.m. on 10 August 2006, a grim Thursday, the Israelis entered Marjayoun, whose name, in Arabic, means Field of Springs. War was about to hit home, and of course I wondered whether Isber Samara’s house would be wrecked. I knew I had to go, and days later I set out to visit that stately old home perched at the foot of Mount Hermon, known to all here as Jabal al-Sheikh, the Mountain of the Old Man. The house had been abandoned for years.

The drive to Marjayoun should have been leisurely; it was just a few hours away on hilly roads to the market town of Nabatiyeh, then through the Litani Valley to Marjayoun. But en route from Tyre that day, no one could say what roads would collide with the war. We traveled an out-of-the-way, serpentine route, trying to locate a clear, safe passage, sheltered from the sky. They say you don’t hear a missile before it strikes your car, but I listened anyway. I was trying to stay quiet. If I spoke, I would have almost certainly lost patience with someone.

Fresh from three years reporting the conflict in Iraq, I had been grazed by three wars and was suddenly covering — with the help of enough cigarettes to keep the Carolinas out of the meth business — the grisliest conflict I had tried to describe. The gray strands in my hair were not, at that point at least, signs of aging, but keepsakes from Ramallah and Baghdad, not to mention the final six months of my marriage. I think it was the last that left me with the most gray. The battles with my wife had been accelerating for what seemed like ages. My daughter’s mother had been understandably obsessed with the lethal aspects of my career since March 2002, when I was shot by an Israeli sniper in Ramallah.

Even before I had heard his bullet that day, I fell, momentarily deafened and disoriented. A stun grenade, I thought at first. I couldn’t move my arms or legs, but soon felt a sting on my spine, grazed by the round that was probably aimed at my head. ‘I think I was shot,’ I remember saying to my Palestinian colleague, seemingly hours after I had realized it, though only moments had passed. He lay next to me, desperately patting my body and looking for hemorrhaging.

The warm blood that soaked my dirty clothes felt almost soothing as I lay crumpled under a cemetery-gray sky. I recovered, for the most part. My wife did not. Our home was breaking, broken, finally broken up. By the time I arrived in Lebanon, I was a suitcase and a laptop drifting on a conveyor belt.

 

*

 

To get to Marjayoun, occupied by the Israelis, we sped north to the Litani River, but couldn’t find a way across. The bridge was in ruins — like the makeshift road over the water, blown by bombing. Though not much of a river, the Litani is too deep to ford, even in summer. But someone spotted a temporary bridge, apparently erected the night before (probably for guerrillas to transport their weapons), and we managed to cross. We made it to the capital, Beirut, with no reports filtering in from our destination.

In Beirut at that time, one song, by Majida al-Rumi, was often heard: ‘O Beirut, Lady of the World.’ ‘Rise from the rubble like a flower of almond in April,’ Rumi sang, voice soaring. ‘Rise, O Beirut!’ But driving toward the city, I knew the Beirut of tomorrow would never be the same as the one that, only recently, had been so buoyant. By the time we reached it, fuel depots were still burning at the airport, with columns of white smoke billowing over its seaside. After each guerrilla attack, Israel stepped up the bombings, systematically dismantling the capital’s infrastructure, displacing hundreds of thousands and instilling a sense of foreboding, fear, and defiance in those quarters where militant politics merged with the deepest faith.

In homes that we drove past, residents watched on television the attacks a few miles away, which they could hear and feel. In the streets, the tire tracks of ambulances cleared paths through broken glass. The call to prayer echoed across suddenly deserted alleys. The occasional car that passed mine was usually headed for the Syrian border, the last way out of the country.

 

*

 

From Beirut, we crossed the mountains to Zahle and down the Bekaa Valley and its vineyards, always in search of gasoline for our cars. We plowed past abandoned checkpoints and over hilly, moonlit roads. There were no cars. No one was in the streets. The Lebanese soldiers had long fled, before the rotors of choppers beating the air and the drone of surveillance planes.

By midnight, we came close to Marjayoun but had to turn back. A crater was carved into one road at the spot where it bent around a hill of crumbling terraces and worn stones. Rocks blocked another road, impassable but by foot. The one path to the town was a sandy trail that arched over a deserted quarry, across a ridge, and into the valley near Marjayoun. But the Israelis were still there, occupying my family’s old town, and no one could pass for now.

From the roof of the house of a small-town mayor, who reluctantly offered us shelter, I could see the hills that drew my ancestors from Syria in their exodus many centuries before. Mount Hermon stood like a sentinel, no longer capped in snow. Marjayoun was a half hour away, but I knew the olive trees there were full, their bounty not yet ripe. Recalling the exploded branches of Qana, I wondered whether the fruit would survive until the fall harvest. Though shaped by history, Marjayoun had never faced the full wrath of Israel, nor would it, probably, but war’s trump card is unpredictability: In Bint Jbeil, a day or so before, I had seen rubble swept against houses like snowdrifts. Flies landed on lifeless eyes, and hundreds had taken shelter in a hospital near a Crusader castle, huddled in the dark, having followed rumors of elusive refuge. Elderly women, their swollen, bloodied, and bruised feet wrapped in gauze, waited in basements lit with candles that shone on sweaty, shiny cheeks.

‘O Lord!’ cried sixty-year-old Saadeh Awada, leaping up from a tattered cushion. ‘God stop the bombs!’ Her screams made the children cry harder, the heat seemingly to move closer.

‘Shut up!’ one man shouted from a crowded hallway, barely lit by sun.

 

*

 

Everything in war here becomes personal. Behind today’s skirmish or bombing lies an event that happened to a family yesterday, or decades back. ‘You have to understand,’ said the Israeli novelist David Grossman, whose son Uri died in the conflict of 2006, ‘that when something like this happens to you, you feel exiled from every part of your life. Nothing is home again, not even your body.’ What befalls a trained soldier during combat between nations is one thing; what occurs at home — on our street, in our yard, and on our land, to family — is not the same. In Qana, those who died would not flee, would not leave their homes. That is what bayt means.

‘Slowly, slowly,’ they had cried in that old sad town as the bulldozer crushed the remnants of lives. I remembered the chorus of broken dishes, shattered pieces. Would Marjayoun become another footnote of war? I was still days away, but the town, and the house that Isber Samara had built long ago, mattered to me. I wanted it to survive.

 

*

 

The first time I walked through Isber’s door, only a few months before, I had not been impressed; in fact, I felt no connection, and the place was trashed. During the occupation, my family had abandoned the house. When I tried the door, the key didn’t work. Finally, after a long struggle, it creaked to the right as a plume of dust came after me. I recalled intricate cobwebs worthy of some ancient archaeological relic.

After Isber died, the house had been divided in two. Upstairs was the family home, where my grandmother Raeefa was born and where her mother, Bahija Abla Samara (Isber’s wife), lived until she passed away in 1965. Before Isber died, when the house was new, Bahija devoted almost every moment to its upkeep. Her embroidered pillows decorated the house; her beige curtains adorned the windows and arcade. Day in and day out, Bahija toiled on her hands and knees, polishing the marble floor. The house never shined, it reflected: Faces floated on the surfaces when guests visited, and flames from kerosene lamps glimmered in the glass.

On that first visit, I couldn’t really appreciate Isber’s house. I wasn’t ready for an encounter with it or its creator. Yet tentatively I stepped out onto the balcony that had been my great-grandfather’s favored spot. Not far off, in the foothills that surrounded me, interspersed among the crumbling villas and fallow fields, were the town’s smaller springs: al-Tini, al-Safsaf, and al-Shibli. They had given Marjayoun its name: Al-Ain al-Kabira was down a sloping road to several nearby villages. Al-Ain al-Saghira was a short distance away.

My great-grandfather had been dead since 1928, before some of his children — Nabeeh, Nabiha, Raeefa, Ratiba, Najib, and Hoda — had reached maturity. I had never met him, but I remember trying to piece him together. This effort would continue for years — on trips, through letters, family journals, and stories. Whatever relationship emerged, it was Isber’s land that was the catalyst. The beauty of Lebanon neither shouts nor declares. There is a gentleness to the landscape of hills rounded by age and terraces crumbling for centuries.

I scouted for Mount Hermon, where winter still reigned, but the peaks lay across the valley where the land gave way to the horizon. The picture went on and on; it seemed indefinite, like those Chinese paintings where the horizon recedes into the clouds so gradually and vaguely that it is impossible to clarify exactly where the land subsides. My eyes followed it, back and back, searching for the end and never finding it.

 

*

 

The trip back to Marjayoun had finally ended, but the questions that had driven me there remained, repeating themselves in my dreams: What was left? What survived?

Words can’t quite re-create the smell of war. I have found myself trying to wash it out of my hair, off my fingers. More than once, I have run water over the soles of my shoes. On the previous afternoon, by the time we got there, the Israelis had gone, but tatters of smoke still snaked through the streets. I smelled war in the square and in every breath. I did not want to smell it at my great-grandfather’s house.

The damage inflicted upon Marjayoun, as it happened, paled before the destruction visited on other Shiite towns, though Marjayoun had not had it easy. After a few fighters allied with Hezbollah — or claiming to be — fired a few rounds at an Israeli convoy, the Israelis struck back hard, firing randomly, cratering buildings downtown, in the Saha, which was gutted by fires. Samir Razzouk’s shop in the town square was no more; gone was the lottery machine, the shelves stuffed with decade-old oddities hoarded by the merchant, a notorious pack rat. The trail of the Israelis’ destruction followed the road they entered; house after house was left with craters and bullet holes. They occupied a few places, sometimes defecating on the floor.

‘They came with tanks, of course,’ said the mayor of Marjayoun, Fouad Hamra, his glazed eyes seeming to lag behind his words. For those who weathered the attack — perhaps four hundred residents, mainly elderly — the Israelis were ghosts, mostly hidden by smoke, darkness, or ominous headgear. Until the soldiers left, the Marjayounis, hidden in their houses, spoke only in whispers. They knew the drill: Voices attracted bullets.

After interviewing the mayor, I set off to Isber’s along a buckling asphalt road, ignoring work, calls, reporting, stories due. As I entered Hayy al-Serail, Isber’s neighborhood, where clouds of flowers once barely broke the stillness, I wondered how I was going to tell the cousins what had happened. My relatives are people who can fall into an argument over the choice of a toothpick; or, at an unexpected moment, smile buoyantly and clutch your cheek; or imply with a glance that you will soon be languishing in prison. (Not unjustifiably.) They are natu-rally mercurial, passionate. In Marjayoun, the citizens who remember say it flat out: ‘The Shadids are crazy.’ I didn’t think my family insane. I believed simply that their secret mission on earth was to drive everyone else to the brink and then say, of the decades of therapy necessitated by their complexities, ‘I am not paying for this!’

Sometimes my relatives tell stories, but God forbid you should ask for one. Information is not something they surrender easily, and the past is not something they are always willing to recall. Clustered around the same several blocks in Oklahoma City, my family are separated by only a few houses, and are never far from each other. No one has suffered the curse of drifting off alone. Together is the way these people, my people, have lived since coming to the United States. Together is the way they will die. Community is everything; home is everything. If you have lost your own.

 

*

 

Minutes after leaving the town square, I was at the house of my great-grandfather, but it was my grandmother Raeefa, who spent her first twelve years here, who was most on my mind. Hers were the rhymes brought to the bare plains of America from Lebanon and sung to children, including me. Oh Laila, there are no eyes like her eyes and the magic in her eyes. I heard these simple songs on that strange, complicated day as I sat on the step near where, less than a century before, Isber had lifted Raeefa up into the buggy that would take her away, past Mount Hermon and down the Litani Valley. It was before she became someone else, before Beirut, the ship, or the sea. It was before Ellis Island, or Mexico, or crossing the river to America. It was before Oklahoma with its cowboy belt buckles and women with red lipstick under hair-dryer helmets. I wondered whether the ancient olive trees on either side of me were ones she might have glanced at as she parted.

And then, my eyes turning to what I had instinctively sensed was awaiting my inspection, I found myself wondering what my grandmother would have made of the half-exploded Israeli rocket that had crashed into the second story of her father’s house, taking out a good chunk of wall before bursting into flame. The Lebanese stonemasons, hailing from Dhour al-Shweir, Khanshara, and Btighrin, who helped bring the home that Isber imagined into reality, considered the limestone used on the old house to be impenetrable, but with new technologies and old antagonisms in play, there is nothing war cannot crumble in a heartbeat.

 

*

 

A few hours after discovering the rocket, I returned and, with a borrowed shovel, started digging. The topsoil was poor and friable, ravaged by the elements. As I dug further, the rocks turned to pebbles, and deeper, the soil became rich and fertile. The olive tree I had managed to purchase cost me $4, probably too much. Its trunk was no thicker than a pen, and its branches arched no higher than my chest. But set in the hole, ten feet from the trees dating from my grandmother’s day, this late arrival, I hoped, might somehow make the statement to my daughter and her generation that Isber’s house, whatever its condition, remained a home worth care.

What I felt was bayt, and it led me to make a promise to myself, a commitment that I still cannot believe I honored after all these years. You see, I have not always been a man who kept his promises, and I have never been the type to stay home.

 

Artwork © Murray & Sorrell FUEL


The above is taken from Anthony Shadid’s House of Stone. Order your copy here.

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