Grand-père said that a truck had overturned on a mountain road and bullets and guns had spilled across the gravel like milk. He had come to Beirut from the north that afternoon with a bag of flour and a prayer to the Virgin that no one would starve. Papi invited him in and he sat on the couch balancing his small cup of coffee on one knee while the other hand counted beads. From the balcony I could see Em Fifina walking her poodle, picking up the shit with a little bag.
“In ’17 everyone wasted away into shadows of shadows,” Grand-père was telling Mother. “We knew that our neighbors were dead when they no longer came to the window.”
Mother offered him a tray of dry biscuits stuffed with pistachio.
Outside, Em Fifina dropped the bag in a bin at the end of the street, heading for the public gardens, while the ladies of the neighborhood shook their heads.
“Everyone moved away,” Grand-père’s eyes fell to his lap. “Boston, Paris, Brazil, Bogotá. Then the grippe came and they closed the port. People never left their homes. Hunger and sickness became our brother and sister.”
Grand-père’s eyes only rose when he lit a candle, kissed the icon of the Virgin, and put a coin in a saint’s hand for his prayers.
“Tripoli, by the sea,” he said, counting his beads. He shook his head, “Now, in ’75.”
I liked to study on the balcony in the afternoon when the breeze came off the sea carrying the call to prayer from the west side of the city to our hill. On Sundays the sound of the bells rolled downhill, one half of the city reminding the other to be faithful. It was always nice on the balcony before the heat and sand blew across the Libyan Desert and the temperature climbed above 50 degrees Celsius, the weather we called the Fifties.
When Grand-père left, Mother called, “Dinda, go to Em Peter and ask her if she needs flour.”
I crossed the hall and knocked on her door. The mother of Peter, old and pale, never dressed in black as the other widows did. Em Peter stood tall and straight, her hair pulled so tight on her head that her eyes, wide open, never missed a thing.
She didn’t speak French or Arabic, and I didn’t speak English.
I said, “Would you like some flour?” and made a bowl of my hands, offering it to her.
She invited me in and walked into the next room.
On the table next to me was a picture of her son Peter and his wife and children, who lived downstairs. The husband of Em Peter stood in a frame, one hand on the ruins of Baalbek. Em Peter stood in another, much younger and beautiful, wearing a stylish hat outside of a pub in London. The windows were open and a breeze brought the city inside, jasmine and exhaust.
Em Peter returned with a small bowl. Closing my hand over it, she ushered me out the door. I tried to tell her but she patted my head, sending me across the hall.
Mother held the bowl in her hand, looking at me.
“I tried to tell her.”
“The woman is so English,” Papi laughed.
“I’ll give it back to her later,” Mother said.
“Did she smile at you?” Papi asked me.
I shook my head.
“The English have mouths like cathedrals,” he said.
A bus full of people was ambushed on a street corner in our neighborhood, and hours later, the city became like a man with his arms cut off. At school, Samia was chosen to sing a hymn to the Virgin as we gathered outside before classes. The sky above the buildings looked like glass before it shattered and my friend Hilda said something was going to fall to the ground. We were sent home before lunch and told not to come back.
Hilda and I wanted to go to the souk where Papi’s store was, but the radio in M. Joseph’s shop told us that the commercial center had been sealed off. The men from our building crowded the doorway of the shop with their long mouths and nervous eyes, sweating and praying. We walked a block farther, to the patisserie, and each ordered a knefeh with coffee. We sat at a table by the window and watched the salon across the street. The ladies of the neighborhood entered with their large sunglasses. We pointed as they walked by, their high heels breaking the pavement with an eb-ub.
“My father is the new manager of the Russian bank,” Hilda said.
“Your father is a Christian, not a communist.”
“He is a bank manager, that’s different,” she said. “God doesn’t care about money.”
“Communists care about money?”
“Of course, everyone cares about money,” Hilda said. “Communists especially, that’s what their whole religion is about.”
“Communism isn’t a religion, God is religion.”
“God is not religion, God is God,” Hilda said. “Religion is what God is for and the communists are against what God is for. So communism is a religion, and it’s all about what communists are for.”
A lady left the salon, a long cigarette between her lips, smoking the new color from her hair. We watched the eb-ub leave and come and smoke and go. We made up stories about all of their lives—what jobs their husbands worked, how many children they had. We left a little coffee with the grounds at the bottom of our cups and overturned them in their saucers. When the grounds had fallen in the saucers we turned the cups back over and read each other’s future in the coffee mark, then headed home.
I wanted to eat lunch from our balcony, where I could see the sea. Papi wasn’t able to make it to work that day. Samia had a beautiful voice; she was always chosen to sing.
Captain Michel told Papi that there were underground tunnels dug into the Palestinian camps that were used to smuggle guns and bullets and rocket launchers. I stood on the balcony outside Mother and Papi’s bedroom, taking down our laundry, but I could only see the camp itself: the barbed wire and electrical wires, the crumbling walls of homes, and laundry, fluttering white, like ours. Above the camp were the buildings of the surrounding hills that had once twinkled at night. The sound of the horns from the boats taking people to Cyprus was carried on the wings of the gulls. Sometimes, the gulls carried the little pops that erupted downtown and dropped them on the balcony, or through open windows, like unwanted eggs.
The phone rang and I answered it. Papi called me down to the street.
The elevator was in use. I passed Captain Michel on the stairs. He was directing several soldiers who were carrying crates and large metal pieces. He lived on the second floor. At night, a soldier stood in front of our building, dropping cigarette butts in the street.
“Dinda.” He had forgotten how to smile. “You are no longer allowed on the roof. Tell all the children in the building.”
“Is that where you will live, now?”
“It belongs to the militia, now. It is for the safety of the building,” he said.
Papi played tauleh at a table outside M. Joseph’s shop.
“Habibi, M. Joseph has a package for Em Fifina, will you take it to her?”
“Dinda, habibi, how are you?” M. Joseph handed me a small box wrapped in brown paper. “Tell her, this is from the pharmacist. All the way from America. And tell her, ‘Soon, don’t worry.’”
Over M. Joseph’s shoulders I could see into his shop. His shelves were empty but for a few tubes of toothpaste, and a bunch of small, brown bananas. Papi had an empty bag at his feet.
He put a foot on the bag, laid his hand on my arm.
“Good girl, Dinda,” Papi said. “Go, habibi.”
The building was open and I took the elevator to her floor. I knocked on her door.
Em Fifina stuck her finger through the crack.
“Shhh, Fifina is sleeping,” she breathed garlic and cigarettes. She was Greek and Hilda’s father said that’s why nothing Em Fifina does surprises him. M. Joseph said that it was because her husband was Armenian and something happens when you mix the two.
In the kitchen she served me a small cup of coffee and some biscuits. She was grilling meat in a pan with onions and garlic. The meat sizzled as she turned it, sprinkling a pinch of salt over top. She poked at it.
“Does your mother let you cook, Dinda?”
“No, she doesn’t like me in the way. I am expected to watch.”
“That is best,” she said. “The kitchen is your mother’s. You will learn how to cook from watching her and how to make the kitchen yours. Talk to your mother.”
She turned the gas off, moving the pan on the stove. She held the package, turning it in her hands.
“M. Joseph says that the pharmacist says that it came from America.”
“Oh, Fifina will be so happy,” Em Fifina’s face lit up. “She has been waiting for so long.”
“He also says, ‘Soon, don’t worry.’”
“If this keeps up much longer, Dinda, M. Joseph won’t need to bother,” she said seriously.
Em Fifina served the meat with onions and garlic onto a plate. I followed her into the other room. She set the plate on a table.
The poodle wore a pink sweater and pink collar, lifting its head off the couch. Its tail wagged as it stretched.
“Oh, Fifina,” Em Fifina said and spoke to her in Greek. She had opened the package and had taken out a bottle of pills. She spilled a small tablet onto the table and held the dog’s mouth open with one hand. With the other, she took the pill, and placed it deep behind the dog’s teeth.
“Oh, my Fifina,” she said, her face close to the dog’s. Fifina licked her cheek.
Em Fifina set the plate of meat with onions and garlic on the floor.
The wind swept over the region from the desert and the temperature rose. The heat and sand came with the helicopters and airplanes that brought the reporters from around the world and slapped rockets into buildings, bullets into bodies, bringing all of them to the ground. It made a rug that was neither Persian nor Turkish and could not be sold at any market.
The cannon on our roof made it impossible to hang our laundry on the balcony. The camp no longer heard our white linens.
Someone shot a rocket into Papi’s shop one morning and everything was stolen. He played tauleh most days with Hilda’s father, making small deals on the side, but not many, saying, “Don’t worry. Don’t worry. One day, maybe two days more, and it will be over.”
M. Joseph fed the neighborhood. His shelves were stocked and emptied, then stocked again. “Like feeding shells into cannons,” Hilda said. He lived in the store with his mother; he sold on account, was never closed, and raised his prices every time the food was hard to find.
My male cousins came to class with me after a rocket fell through the roof of their school. Now everyone studied next to everyone else’s cousin or brother. Samia was still chosen to sing before classes. The boys taught us to recognize the sounds of the cannons and rockets.
The Fifties began and we were dismissed from class early. Distant popping accompanied the eb-ub of women carrying jugs of water home. I was going to clean our flat and work out to an exercise video. The shelling would begin after noon, so everyone had time to shop, but long before that, Mother would cease to be able to do anything but sit in the basement and wait.
I was going up the stairs when the cannon on the roof began to fire at the camp. Doors opened, and people rushed passed me.
“Get to the basement, I am going for my mother,” Peter told his wife.
She pushed her children down the steps in front of her.
“Dinda, come,” she said.
Statues of saints lived in the basement. Papi held Mother’s hand in one of his, a string of beads in the other. Emergency lamps lit everyone’s faces. I sat next to Hilda and her father. On my other side stood St. Elie with his sword, St. Rita with her candle. Their outstretched hands held dust and small change. The cannon barked through the floors. Rockets hissed into windows raining harsh diamonds. Dust fell from the ceiling like whispers.
“Don’t worry. Don’t worry. One, maybe two days more. It will all be over,” Papi said.
Hilda’s father said, “The people who make windows will never let it end. They are making too much money after every ceasefire.”
Em Peter was helped through the door by her son, Peter. No one remembered her name. Not even Mother, who talked with her every day, through odd words and gestures. She had been here for more than twenty years and was just the mother of Peter.
“I am going home,” the wife of Peter had tears on her cheeks. She held her daughter, whose face was wet dust.
Em Peter sat in her chair in the corner of the basement, a chaise lounge. She rested her feet up, saying something in English to Peter. He answered.
“I am going back to England the first chance I get,” the wife of Peter said.
“I cannot leave my mother,” Peter said.
“I can,” she said.
“What about our children, you can’t take them from me,” Peter said.
“I am taking our daughter, you can have your boys,” the wife of Peter said, refusing to look at her sons. They sat together in a dark row.
Em Peter said something and the wife of Peter shook, tightening her grip on her daughter. Peter didn’t know where to sit, so he stood in the center of the basement. The cannon coughed through the floors. The ground shook and dust coated our hair. We looked more and more like the saints.
Em Peter sat calmly, brushing dust from her legs. Papi told me she had been through this before, years ago, when she was young and beautiful and wore a stylish hat.
“I will take the boat to Cyprus, then a plane to London,” the wife of Peter said.
Peter’s head collected dust like prayers. He saw no one. His sons looked to her, then to him, remaining in the dark.
The ground felt thin under the heavy booming. The city was made of paper, the pavement, dry skin. We would all be peeled away to be burned in the Fifties.
Hilda’s father said, “The country will never know peace. She is like a beautiful woman. An ugly woman knows peace and quiet. But a beautiful woman is always tormented. Everyone wants her and she must resist. She will always struggle and will always be pulled apart.”
“Don’t worry, don’t worry. One more day, maybe two days more. It will all be over,” Papi said.
Em Peter looked at her watch and said something to Peter. Four o’clock. He looked at his sons. He shook the dust from his hair, beating at his shirt. A window exploded above us; falling bricks drummed above our heads. I would not clean our flat or work out to a video, that day, nor later that night. St. Rita’s candle held no flame. Peter went upstairs to make the tea. I took the coins from St. Elie’s open hand.