Early Memories - Lebanon - Beauty is in the eye of the rifle holder

Mount Lebanon - Jabal Lebnan - Le Mont Liban
Summer of 1991

My new friend Rabie' and myself were very close in age, his father said he had brought him along to entertain him. I was happy to finally see a kid near my age, it felt more normal to talk to him than to the adults. The restaurant had a large terrace that connected to a small playground where kids could go play. We were to go play and leave adults to their own thing, so we stepped out.

"It is my first time here" I proclaimed to Rabie' trying to get him to talk to me. "Baba brings me here often, he has to work." I wondered why he thought his father was working in this restaurant; he wondered why I talked funny.

"I don't talk funny, in Jordan almost everybody talks similar to me." I explained as best I could. "So you are not form here? That is why!" Rabie' understood and he seemed to want to ask a million question as the same time. "Baba told me that the Palestinians ruined your country too. Is that true? Is your mother alive? How long did the war last in Jordan?" He blurted out in rapid succession before he could help himself. I realized that I had just bitten more than I can chew and so I just said "Yes!" to nothing in specific.

What did he mean by my country? How can Palestinians ruin my country? Didn't he mean Israelis? What does my mother have to do with all of this? So many questions popped into my little head and I knew I couldn't process them.

In hindsight, the conversation was between a young Jordanian kid of Palestinian heritage who never even heard of any conflict between the two components of his upbringing and a young Lebanese kid whose father was poisoning his impressionable mind with war stories about how bad the Palestinians were.

After an hour of goofing and playing around, I found something interesting in the dirt. It was a pendant with a picture engraved on it. I ran back to Rabie' to show him what I found, the lady on the pendant looked like the lady at dinner table and I told him so. He said she looked like the "Virgin" but I knew that couldn't be true.

We went back indoors to give the pendant to an adult. Rabie was telling his father that I found a pendant with the "Virgin" on it and I was telling my mother to give it to the lady sitting across the table. "Why do you think I should give it to her?" She asked and I had to admit that she looked a lot like her.

"Listen to this: Radi thinks Antoinette looks like the Virgin Mary, he thought it was her pendant." My mother announced to the table. I squealed in embarrassment while hiding my head in the seat cushion. Everyone thought it was cute, Antoinette seemed proud of herself all of a sudden. I just couldn't help but wonder who is this "Virgin" everyone keeps mentioning. I knew I should ask my father later on, he probably knew her as well.

I was so embarrassed and told my mother to ask Rabie's mother to have him go back with me to the playground. "I'll ask Rabie' after dinner, don't mention his mother for now"  my mother whispered back.

The dinner table was opulent, the Levantine Mezze as varied as the people surrounding the table. My father never seemed to stop working, although he seemed to have fun while at it. The only way I knew he was working is when he pulled his business card holder out of his pocket. He seemed to be able to carry a conversation with all the other adults. My conversations with Rabie' were a lot less fruitful.

Our chaperone was introducing my father to an endless array of Messieurs, "Abu"s and "Estaz"s. I was watching my father fire off a few jokes and tales that made everyone around the table seem enchanted.

I was again told to go and play with Rabie outside, I thought the playground looked rather aged and I told him so. "Before the war, we had many playgrounds, they were big too!" Rabie' replied and I knew this wasn't coming from him, he was just repeating what adults were telling him. "Did you live in Lebanon before the war?" I asked back, being an expat in the UAE, I assumed his family would have taken him to another country to live.

"I was born in the war, but then my mother lived with us back then, this was before the Palestinians  and Israelis gave her to God." Rabie' confidently answered, like he had rehearsed that line a million times.

"Israel took my country took my father's country too." I retorted, since my mother told me not to discuss his mother.
"It was the most beautiful country in the world." I said confidently, knowing what I said to be a fact.
"Lebanon was the most beautiful country in the world!" countered Rabie', he seemed shocked that I had the audacity to challenge the conventional wisdom.
"No! It was Palestine and I know it! If you don't believe me ask Rabab!" I motioned to my sister who had told me about our old country Palestine.

Rabie' instead ran to his father inside the restaurant and asked: "Wasn't Lebanon the most beautiful country in the world, Baba, before the Palestinians came in?"
Silence loomed until I said: "Palestine was the most beautiful country in the world until the Israelis came in!" looking at my father for buttress.

The adults all kept their tongues to themselves, until my father tactfully replied. "Switzerland is the most beautiful country in the world, it always was and will be." To which the adults laughed in relief from an awkward silence that was making them hold their breaths. Rabie' didn't understand what was going on.

"If it wasn't for the Palestinians, Lebanon would have been much more beautiful that Switzerland or whatever." He insisted. To which his father immediately yelled back " A'ib!". A world roughly translated as "shame on you," but most kids understand it to mean that you should just be quite because you said something you shouldn't have.

"Pardon Monsieur Khalil, I apologize from you" Rabie''s father addressed my father, "his uncle and mother where killed in East Beirut by the Fedayeen, he just doesn't know any better." I felt bad for Rabie' he seemed too young to have lost his mother. I also learnt that Rabab -my eldest sister- probably didn't know everything. She was a fan of those very same Fedayeen -Palestinian Guerrilla fighters- that had killed Rabie''s mother.

My father smiled and nodded and took the whole thing in stride, he probably knew that this thing was bigger than any of those on the table.

Driving back from the mountain in the evening, "They were with the Katayeb (Phalanges) in the war, didn't you see the sticker on his car?" My father asked rhetorically. "That triangular tree cut into three with the brown trapezoid, that is the Phalanges' flag, it was the same one they sprayed on bodies in Sabra and Shatila. They are not so innocent themselves!" My father explained to my mother who felt bad for the kid, she resignedly uttered: "How sad!"

"How sad!" was all she could come up with as the Sabra and Shatila was a massacre -genocide even- committed by the people of Rabie''s mother upon the people of my mother. It was sad because innocents were paying the price of yet another war they didn't choose. My mother lived through the 1970's events in Jordan, that was another "How sad!" moment to her.

The grey areas in Middle Eastern politics were always confusing to the layman, more so when they divided across sectarian, religious or partisan lines. Emotions ran judgement and not common sense.

Those words, Phalanges, Sabra, Shatila, East Beirut, West Beirut, Fedayeen, even A'ib turned out to be a riddle wrapped in an enigma. They stuck to my mind as a kid and it took years for me to understand what they meant. They still shape the Middle East of today.

Pity the nation is a good book to start if you are interested in the dizzying state of affairs that is Lebanon

Pity the nation that acclaims the bully as hero,
and that deems the glittering conqueror bountiful.
-Kahlil Gibran

Peace, Out!