TEN THOUSAND BOMBS HAD FALLEN AND I WAS WAITING
for death to come and scoop its daily share from a bowl of
limbs and blood. I walked down the street under the falling
bombs. The streets were empty. I walked above humans hidden
in shelters like colonies of rats beneath the soil. I walked
past photos of dead young men posted on wooden electric
poles, on entrances of buildings, framed in little shrines.
Beirut was the calmest city ever in a war.
I walked in the middle of the street as if I owned it. I
walked through the calmest city, an empty city that I liked; all
cities should be emptied of men and given to dogs.
A bomb fell not far from me. I looked for the smoke,
waited for the moaning and screams, but there were none.
Maybe the bomb had hit me. Maybe I was dead in the
backseat of a car, my blood pouring out little happy fountains
and mopped up by a stranger's clothes. My blood drunk
by a warlord or some God whose thirst could never be
quenched, a petty tribal God, a jealous God celebrating his
tribe's carnage and gore, a God who chooses one servant over
the other, a lonely, lunatic, imaginary God, poisoned by lead
and silver bowls, distracted by divine orgies and arranged
marriages, mixing wine and water and sharpening his sword
and handing it down to his many goatskin prophets, his castrated
saints, and his conspirator eunuchs.
On an old lady's balcony I saw a bird in a cage, a cat
crouched beneath it on the ground, and a hungry dog looking
for cadavers to sink his purebred teeth into, looking to
snatch a soft arm or a tender leg. Human flesh is not forbidden
us dogs, those laws apply only to humans, the unshaven
poodle said to me. I nodded and agreed, and walked on some
more. I heard rifles and more bombs. This time the bombs
were heading toward the Muslim side, to inflict wounds and
to make more little girls' blood flow. Bombs that leave are
louder than the ones that land.
I stood in the middle of the street and rolled a cigarette. I
inhaled, exhaled, and the fumes from my mouth grew like a
shield. The bombs that came my way ricocheted off it, and
bounded and skipped along the sky to faraway planets.
NIGHT CAME, as it always does. George and I decided to go
to the mountains. We drove up to Broumana, a high village
that had been turned into an expensive refuge for the wealthy.
Bars and cafés were everywhere, with round tables and fast
waiters. Half-naked, painted women walked the narrow village
streets, and militiamen drove past them in their Mercedes
with crosses hanging off the mirrors. Loud dancing music
flowed out of restaurants. We entered a club, sat at a table, and
watched couples dancing, people drinking and not talking.
No one has anything to say; don't you know that war spreads
silence, cuts tongues, and flattens stones? the drink said to
me. George and I both smelled of deodorant, silk shirts, fake
watches, and foam shaving cream. George pointed at a woman
in a blue dress. That one I want, he said. I ordered two glasses
of whisky while he smiled at the woman. She turned her face
to her girlfriend, then they both looked back our way and giggled.
Let's go, George said to me. He stood up and walked
toward the women. While he talked to the woman in the blue
dress, I stayed at the table. I paid for the drinks and sipped my
whisky and watched everyone. George was moving his hands,
and leaning his chest against the woman's shoulders. On the
dance floor, women were shaking their hips to Arabic songs.
A man with a thick moustache put his hand on my shoulder
and said, There is nothing in this world, my friend. Nothing
is worth it; enjoy yourself. Tomorrow we might all die. Here,
cheers. We banged our glasses, and he entered the
dance floor waving his arms in the air, an empty glass in his
hand, a cigarette on his lower lip.
George came back to our table, leaned on me, and whispered,
Why didn't you follow me? Her friend is alone, and
they asked about you, in French, my love, in French! I got
her number. Is that my drink? You should have come. They
are rich and they are leaving now. If only we had a car we
could have driven them back to my place.
I drank, and George went onto the floor and danced
alone. He drank a great deal while he danced.
Eventually he came back and called the waiter. He pulled
bills from his pocket, paid, and drank some more.
Fuck them all. I will fuck them all.
Who? I asked.
God and all the angels and his kingdom, George said.
He was very drunk by then, delirious and violent. He
pulled out his gun and shouted, I will fuck them all. I
grabbed his hand, pulled it under the table, aimed the gun to
the floor, and whispered to him softly, On your mother's
grave, I am asking you . . . me, your brother, me, your brother,
who will spill blood for you. Give me the gun.
I kissed his cheek, wrapped my arm around his shoulder,
and calmed him down. Then I pulled the gun slowly from
his hand and hid it against my belly under my most expensive
silk shirt. I tried to make him leave, but he resisted. I
begged him again. I showered him with sweet talk, praises,
We will fuck them all later, I said. Tomorrow, not to worry,
we will fuck their cars, their mirrors, and their round tires.
By Allah, Jesus, and his angels, come, let us leave.
We walked outside. George was cursing, pushing people,
and shouting on the streets. I have no father, and no mother,
and no God, you ya wlad al-sharmuta
(sons of bitches). I have
money, you whores, to pay you all off! He pulled more bills
from his pocket and threw them in the air.
I dragged George off the main street and walked to the
side street, where little village shacks had turned into cafés
and fancy whorehouses with velvet sofas and pink neon signs.
I stopped a young man, who was trotting his way toward the
music, and asked him to recommend a place for us to stay.
The man pointed me to an inn, and we walked in that direction. I left George outside, leaning on the curb, and walked
inside the place. I got a room, took George upstairs, and laid
him on the bed. He slept.
It was still dark outside, still noisy. Still the neon lights in
that village flickered and called the young. I ignored all that
temptation and took George's motorcycle and drove toward
The wind kept me awake. I drove like the wind that kept
me awake. I drove faster than the wind that kept me awake. I
was escaping time and space, like flying bullets. Death does
not come to you when you face it; death is full of treachery, a
coward who only notices the feeble and strikes the blind. I was
flying on the curved road, sliding down rugged mountains,
brushing against car lights, forgotten trees, and wildflowers
that closed at night. I was a bow with a silver arrow, a god's
spear, a travelling merchant, a night thief. I was flying on a
mighty machine that shattered winds and rattled the earth
underneath me. I was a king.
A YOUNG KID at a checkpoint pointed an AK-47 at me. Your
papers, he said. I gave him my birth certificate, with my age
and the place of my birth and my ancestors' births, and the
colour of my eyes, and my religion, and a photo of me smiling
to the Armenian photographer, looking at his beloved 4 x 5
camera that his father had brought from Russia and carried
through the Syrian Desert while the young Turks slaughtered
his cousins on doorsteps, and aimed their rifles on high crosses,
killed all the goats, and sang glorious modernity chants.
Who does the bike belong to? asked the kid.
My friend, I said.
Lift your arms.
I did. The kid searched me, and when he touched my gun
he put his hand on my throat and grabbed the gun fast. He
stepped back and pointed his rifle at me.
Come down off the bike slowly and lie on the floor, he
Who is your friend?
George, nicknamed De Niro, I said.
You have a release paper for the gun?
Wait here, the kid said. Stay on the floor and do not move.
I will shoot you if you move a toe. He called his superior. A
man in his thirties in a black T-shirt, army shoes, moustache,
and a beard walked toward me. He held George's gun in his
hand like it was his own.
Is this gun stolen? he asked me, waving his flashlight in
No, I said.
What is your name?
Where do you live?
What do you do?
I work at the port.
So you are a thief.
No, I said.
Yeah, you work at the port and steal things, don't you? You
are a thief.
We are all thieves in this war, I said.
You are answering back! The man slapped me, then
dragged me and pushed me inside his green jeep. He puffed
like a hyena as he left, swinging the gun toward the sand on
THREE HOURS PASSED, and I was still waiting in the back of
the jeep. At dawn, when the night was painted with brightness
and slowly erased by the early sun, the little militia boy
drove the motorcycle away and disappeared into the hills.
The checkpoint was dismantled and I was in the back of a
moving jeep, feeling the mountain air and my hunger.
The militiaman in front drove like a madman, as if he was
rushing a wounded person to a hospital. The jeep jerked and
flew in the air, and my body tossed and bumped against the
seats. I clung to the metal bar like a monkey clings to a branch.
I swung off the bar, and my feet flew like those of a dancing
horse. The militiaman drove the wrong way through narrow
one-way streets, forcing cars to retreat in fear. He broke off
and the wheels shrieked against the asphalt. My hands slipped
off the bar and I flew across the back of the jeep. I moaned in
pain. The militiaman got out the jeep, pulled out his gun,
aimed high, and shot in the air. The cars in his way started to
retreat, honking in panic. He stood in the middle of the
street, his legs apart, his gun in the air, his shoulders lowered,
his head like a row of bricks fixed in one direction. He lowered
his arm, waited, lifted his arm again and shot a few more
rounds. When the way was clear, he climbed back in the jeep.
He cursed all the Christian saints in one concise sentence and
drove us up the hill to a military base.
I was marched into an office. A photo of the highest commander,
known as Al-Rayess, hung on the wall. I could see a
cedar tree and flag behind it.
Sit down. Now, who is the gun for? the militiaman asked.
He walked around me. Where did you get it? And who did
you steal the bike from?
George, known as De Niro. He is my friend, he works with
Abou-Nahra. He owns the gun and the bike. I did not steal
Abou-Nahra, the commander? the militiaman asked.
I will call Abou-Nahra. And why do you have your friend's
He was drunk. I took it from him.
I will check with Abou-Nahra. If you are lying to me,
you're going to rot in a cell, understood? What is your friend's
George. If you tell the commander "De Niro," he will
know who you are talking about.
And what is your nickname? Al Pacino?
MY CAPTOR LED ME to an empty room with a foam mattress.
I slept, and when I woke up I stared at the concrete walls.
The mattress was dotted with cigarettes holes. I pulled a box
of cigarettes out of my pocket; it was flattened by the weight
of my body. I searched my pocket for matches but couldn't
find any. I banged at the door. No one answered. I stuck my
ear to the door, but all I heard was a distant radio. I recognized
Fairuz lamenting through the corridors.
THE NEXT DAY, De Niro came with an order of release from
Abou-Nahra, and I was freed.
George and I drove the motorcycle down the highway.
The heat was unbearable. Taxi drivers were waiting in their
old Mercedes on the corners of the streets, in the shade of
dirty walls. We zoomed through traffic jams. We drove on
sidewalks, through alleyways, and in the middle of lanes,
across dusty and unpaved roads.
Dust flew onto shop windows, dust landed on silky, exposed
thighs; everyone inhaled it, everyone saw through it, dust from
the undertaker's shovel, dust of demolition, dust of fallen walls,
dust falling from Christian foreheads on a holy Thursday. Dust
was friendly and loved us all. Dust was Beirut's companion.
LET'S EAT, I said to George.
? he asked.
We stopped at a store with a screen door and we sat at a
round table. The mirror on the wall above us was stained and
barely gave off a reflection. The worker behind the counter
had a large moustache and wielded several knives. I drank
water. George lit a cigarette. A woman with a baby in her arms
walked in. The news was on: two were dead, five injured; an
Arab diplomat was visiting Beirut; an American diplomat was
also visiting Beirut. The moon was round, and the diplomat's
flag was on it, and an extraterrestrial sniper was using it for
We ate our kunafah
plates. I watched the baby play and
nibble on a plastic gun. I needed a shave and a bath, and we all
needed water. I gave back George's gun, under the table.
George's cigarette burned in an ashtray; mine was still in
George's box. His sad eyes reminded me that his mother was
dead, that his father had left, that my father was also dead. I
thought about how, after my father's death, my uncle Naeem
had visited more often. I had watched him on Sundays, giving
money to my mother, and my mother, with her eyes lowered
to the floor, took it and shoved it down into her bosom.
Naeem took me for long walks, bought me clothes and books.
And when I said to him that my father was with God, he said
to me that there was no God, that God is man's invention.
I finished my plate; George gave me a cigarette. I thought
about my mother, how she would cook all day, complain, and
ask my uncle for money. My uncle was a communist. One
night, he fled to the West Side. The militia came looking for
him. They knocked at my mother's door in the middle of the
night and asked for Naeem the communist.
I contemplated the flies barred by the store's door, longing
to come in. Only dust flew in and out as it pleased. Beirut
is an ancient Roman city, I thought. There is a city buried
under our feet. The Romans also turned to dust. When I
opened the door to leave, the flies rushed in.
GEORGE DROVE ME BACK to my mother's home. And I slept
above ancient Rome, dreaming, while the city still breathed
Copyright © 2006 Rawi Hage
All rights reserved
First published in Canada
in 2006 by House of Anansi Press Inc.
For information about permission to reproduce selections
from this book, write to:
Steerforth Press L.L.C., 25 Lebanon Street
Hanover, New Hampshire 03755