I shouldnt have come here. I was supposed to pick Fatima up before going to the hospital to see my father but found myself driving to the old neighborhood as if I were in a toy truck being pulled by a willful child. I had planned this trip to Beirut to spend Eid al-Adha with my family and was shocked to find out that my father was hospitalized. Yet, I wasnt with family, but was standing distracted and bewildered before my old home, dwelling in the past.
A young woman in tight jeans and a skimpy white sweater walked out of our building. She carried notebooks and a textbook. I wanted to ask her which floor she and her family lived on. Obviously not the second; a fig tree had taken root on that one. That must have been Uncle Halims apartment.
The family, my father and his siblings, owned the building and lived in five of its eleven apartments. My aunt Samia and her family lived in the sixth-floor penthouse. My father had one of the fourth-floor flats, and Uncle Jihad had the other. An apartment on the fifth belonged to Uncle Wajih, and Uncle Halim had one on the second floorfig tree, I presumed. The apartment on the ground floor belonged to the concierge, whose son Elie, became a militia leader as a teenager and killed quite a few people during the civil war.
Our car dealership, al-Kharrat Corporation, the family fountain of fortune, was walking distance from the building, on the main street. The Lebanese lacked a sense of irony. No one paid attention to the little things. No one thought it strange that a car dealership, and the family that ran it, had a name that meant exaggerator, teller of tall tales, liar.
The girl strolled past, indifferently, seductively, her eyes hidden by cheap sunglasses. The old man sat up when the girl passed him. Dont you think your pants are too tight? he asked.
Kiss my ass, Uncle, she replied.
He leaned forward. She kept going. No one listens anymore, he said quietly.
I couldnt tell you when last I had seen the neighborhood, but I could pinpoint the last day we lived there because we left in a flurry of bedlam, all atop each other, and that day my father proved to be a hero of sorts. February 1977, and the war that had been going on for almost two years had finally reached our neighborhood. Earlier, during those violent twenty-one months, the buildings underground garage, like its counterparts across the city, proved to be a more than adequate shelter. But then militias began to set up camp much too close. The family, those of us who hadnt left already, had to find safety in the mountains.
My mother, who always took charge in emergencies, divided us into four cars: I was in her car, my sister in my fathers, Uncle Halim and two of his daughters with Uncle Jihad, and Uncle Halims wife, Aunt Nazek drove her car with her third daughter May. The belongings of three households were shoved into the cars. We drove separately, five minutes apart, so that we wouldnt be in a convoy and get annihilated by a stray missile or an intentional bomb. The regathering point was a church just ten minutes up the mountain from Beirut.
My mother and I reached it first. Even though Id gotten somewhat inured to the sounds of shelling, by the time we stopped my seat was sopping. Within a few minutes, as if announcing Uncle Jihads arrival, Beirut exploded into a raging cacophony once more. We watched the insanity below us and waited warily for the other two cars. My mother was strangling the steering wheel. My father arrived next, and since he was supposed to be the last to leave, it meant that Aunt Nazek didnt make it somehow.
My father didnt get out of his car, didnt talk to us. He kicked my sister out, turned the car around, and drove downhill into the lunacy. Aghast and eyes ablaze, my sister stood on the curb, watched him disappear into the fires of Beirut. My mother wanted to follow him, but I was in her car. She yelled at me. Get out. I need to go after him. Im the better driver. I was too paralyzed to move. Then my sister got into the car next to me, and it was too late to follow.
Excerpted from The Hakawati by Rabih Alameddine Copyright © 2008 by Rabih Alameddine. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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