Unsafe Haven, An, page 9
—Were you hurt, Brigitte? Was anyone hurt? Anas said his mother told him you were all fine when he phoned.
—All the glass in the apartment shattered. I got a bit cut up but it’s the children, Peter, they were absolutely terrified. I couldn’t stay another moment after that and I knew if I called and told Anas that he would just come rushing over and try to persuade me not to leave.
—It must have been very difficult for you, Brigitte, but it’s important now that you get in touch with Anas and let him know what’s going on, allow him to talk to Marwan and Rana.
—Yes, I know. It’s just …
—Look, Anas is at the gallery working on the exhibition. He said he’d be home later tonight. Call him on his mobile phone then. I won’t tell him that I heard from you.
He hears her take a deep breath.
—Brigitte, Peter says. It won’t be easy but talking to Anas is the right thing to do. I can’t tell you how he might react to your call, but that’s a risk you’ll have to take.
Making his way home, Peter feels slightly uneasy, wondering if he might have made a mistake in trusting Brigitte to telephone and talk to her husband. An image of her standing in the doorway of Anas’s studio in Damascus the last time Hannah and he had visited comes to him like an old black-and-white photograph: her fair hair stark against the varying shades of grey that surrounded her, the outlines of her body slightly faded too so that she seemed almost unreal, vulnerable, with Anas, standing with an arm around her shoulders, appearing more solid, growing rather than fading with the light.
If she decides not to call back as he asked her to, how will he be able to justify himself to Anas and Hannah? Surely, he continues to muse, the situation is largely out of his control and he couldn’t have said more to persuade her? But had he betrayed his friend by not being more insistent?
Before he can reassure himself on this point, however, he senses what Hannah’s objections to it might be. You may not be able to decide the outcome of this situation, Peter, he hears her say, but you are still required to do your part.
He eventually finds himself in Ras Beirut’s main shopping district, on Hamra Street, and decides to go into a café for coffee and a sandwich.
Sitting alone at an outside table, Peter observes what is going on around him: people coming and going, cars moving in the cross street, numerous sounds filling his ears and a kind of fast-paced hum underlying everything. He recognizes the advantage in anonymity, the opportunity a city as large and busy as this provides for him to watch while remaining unnoticed. He is aware too of the speed with which he always manages to make himself comfortable in this detachment and wonders how much it still defines him as a man, how deep beneath the surface it really lies. In the eye of the tempest that is living in the Middle East, it is not so much the pace that often leaves him breathless but rather the intensity of life, the necessarily concentrated state of being that at once tosses and tames his soul. Within this turmoil – or at least with the constant threat of it – he has often felt himself lost with only Hannah as his anchor. And although he had once thought it would, work provides little comfort. He was never meant to be a bureaucrat, he tells himself. He became a physician because he wanted to work directly with those most in need. He is suddenly aware of a deep dissatisfaction rising in him, a longing to escape these thoughts, though he knows it might be impossible to do so now that they have occurred to him.
He puts the remains of his sandwich down and stands up to go.
If there is a possibility of living somewhere between the two extremes of being, of disconnection from or a sinking in reality, he finally asks himself, then where am I to find it?
In the morning, Peter joins Anas on the balcony overlooking the building courtyard. It is so early that quiet reigns, the breeze coming from the sea behind them tempering the air. Below, the landscaped garden is beautiful too so that the two men, sitting together in silence now, acknowledge release from what lies ahead.
—Up early, Peter says after a while.
—Brigitte phoned me last night, he says.
—Oh, Peter says, feigning surprise, that’s great. How is she? How are the children?
—The children are well, very well. I spoke to them too. They’re at her parents in Berlin.
— Oh, so she did go there. What did she have to say for herself?
—We didn’t speak for very long before she put the children on.
Peter waits for him to continue.
—I’m beginning to think that it’s over between us, Peter. I don’t know what to do to put things right again. I’m not even sure I want to sort it out because part of me is still very angry with her.
Peter senses that his friend is feeling too hurt to listen to reason, though he is certain Anas’s willingness to compromise will come in its own good time.
—But, Anas, you want your children back, don’t you?
—Yes, of course. I’ll just have to find a way of getting them home, that’s all.
—And how do you think you’re going to do that? protests Peter. Kidnap them from their mother and return them to a country at war?
—My mother was right, Anas continues, ignoring Peter’s remark. I should have married someone from my own culture, someone who would have fit in better with the family. They just don’t understand us, these foreigners.
Then, looking at Peter and realizing what he has just said, Anas laughs.
—I’m sorry, my friend. It doesn’t apply to you.
—Why do you think that is, Anas?
—What do you mean?
—What is it that makes me belong more, makes you think of me as one of you, and excludes Brigitte?
—That’s a strange question. I’m not sure what to say to that.
—I’ll answer it for you, shall I?
—You sound upset.
—I came to this part of the world for the same reason Brigitte did, to be with the person I love, and, like Brigitte, I took that huge step in good faith. It’s true there are times when things haven’t been easy but I’m convinced I’ve been very lucky.
—Well, for the most part, I haven’t been made to feel that I have to struggle against my true self to gain acceptance. But it’s only very recently that I’ve realized why that is.
He leans forward to emphasize his point.
—It’s not just because of the kind of woman Hannah is, Anas, and because of how much we love each other. You and Brigitte have these things in your favour too. But I really believe it’s been easy for me because I’m a man. For women like Brigitte, there are any number of conditions and rules they have to abide by before they’re recognized as worthy of being the wives of Arab sons and mothers to their children.
Peter leans back in his chair.
—Brigitte left her home and stuck by you all these years because she cares about you and despite the rejection she faced. Can’t you give her credit for that, at least?
—Of course I can, but she ultimately chose to leave me, didn’t she? You would sympathize with her, of course, because you’d like to get away from here as well, just like you said the other night.
Peter feels hurt at his friend’s mocking tone.
—This conversation isn’t about me, Anas, he says. I’m just trying to make you understand your wife’s point of view.
Peter is suddenly aware of Hannah standing in the doorway of the balcony but he does not look towards her. Anas seems flustered and unsure of himself now, the determination visible in his expression earlier fading.
—I found her in tears when I got home one night not long ago, Anas says after a pause. It took a while before I got her to tell me what had happened, but she finally admitted that Marwan had said something very hurtful to her.
Anas shakes his head.
—She had been trying to get him to do his homework and he
I tried to comfort her by saying that all children say hurtful things to their parents but she insisted it was much more than that. ‘I can cope with disapproval from everyone, even from you, Anas,’ she said, ‘but my own child thinking that way about me is just too much.’
Hannah moves to stand behind Peter and places her hands on his shoulders.
Anas looks up at them.
—What do I do now? he asks.
—You have to phone her back as soon as possible and arrange to go there, Peter says softly. People are what’s important, Anas, not places.
In her mother’s face, in its gently sloping lines and heavy-lidded eyes, Maysoun sees elements of the past and the possibility of a more accommodating future; and if there are hints of dissatisfaction there, if life has left traces of shadow on features where light had once been, it has not managed to diminish its beauty, nor robbed it of its grace.
Like many women of her generation in Iraq, Nazha married young to a man nearly twenty years her senior and has now, in outliving him, discovered opportunity in aloneness, seen a gateway to herself that often leaves her breathless with joy, though it is enjoyment that is not felt without some degree of guilt. In this final stage of her life, the years move slowly, do not impose undue demands or rush her into decisions she has neither the desire nor the will to make. It is not that she is merely awaiting the end – she remains vital and strong – but that she is content to go through life one day at a time, with little expectation of happiness besides that which she derives from simply being, from observing and taking part only when and in the manner she chooses.
I know all this about my mother, Maysoun ponders, because understanding her state of mind is a preoccupation of mine, because for some reason I believe that grasping what motivates her may help repair the opening into the soft tissues of my own heart that has been hollowed out by heartbreak.
Her parents’ marriage had not been ideal, had experienced moments when Maysoun, having grown up to become her mother’s confidante, thought it might come to an end.
I want more than this, Nazha would protest, having stolen into Maysoun’s room late at night to talk. Look at you, working now and with a life of your own. I never had that opportunity, Maysoun, and I want it now.
But Maysoun had never known just how she should respond to these confessions, had felt that, though she sympathized with her mother, siding with her would be a betrayal of a father whom she had always loved, and continued to love even after his death.
The unease between mother and daughter these days is not because they do not get along – Maysoun often despairs at how alike they really are – but because now that Nazha has come to Beirut at Maysoun’s insistence and largely against her own will, they are at an impasse, caught in a place beyond which they cannot move forward. Their conversations go in circles, beginning in anger then relenting into reluctant recognition of one another’s point of view, then moving again towards stubborn intransigence, a pattern at once familiar and exhausting and one from which neither knows how to extricate herself.
—But, Mother, you couldn’t possibly have stayed a moment longer, Maysoun protests one morning over breakfast. Do you think what’s happening in the north is going to stay there? The extremists are now threatening to advance on Baghdad.
—Don’t be ridiculous. There’s no way they’ll let them get to Baghdad. Anyway, I never venture out much so it would have been perfectly safe for me to remain there.
—Who is ‘they’, Mother? Do you mean our corrupt government or is it Western countries that you’re relying on to come and protect us, the ones who invaded and destroyed the country ten years ago?
—Don’t talk to me as though I were a fool, Maysoun. I understand very well why we find ourselves in this position now. And it’s not just Iraq; the whole region is on fire. You insisted I come to Beirut but how safe is it here really?
—Despite all the problems in this country, the situation can’t be compared to what’s going on back home. You watched the news with me last night. Those the extremists don’t kill are either being expelled or forced to fight with them. How can you want to go back to that?
—Suffering is an inevitable part of living, my darling. Surely you know that.
—But, Mama, says Maysoun, her voice softening now, you and I are lucky because we can improve our situation if we want to and not continue to live our lives in fear.
—What are you suggesting we do exactly, Maysoun?
—I don’t know. Maybe leave this part of the world altogether and live elsewhere.
A look of frustration passes over Nazha’s face.
—How easy do you think it was for me to leave my home, my country, this time, at my age and after all I’ve been through? It’s the only home I’ve known, Maysoun. Isn’t it enough that relatives of your father’s who escaped the fighting in Mosul moved into our house as soon as I left and are still living there now? How do I know they’ll leave when I get back? How can I be sure I’ll even have a place to go back to?
—But you’re safe now, Mama. Isn’t that what matters most?
Nazha stands up.
—You know, I’m not sure that survival is what matters most any more. Not any longer and not for me, anyway. Sometimes the price that has to be paid merely to survive is not worth it.
—But what is important for you, Mother?
—You are, of course, Nazha says. But you don’t need me any more, Maysoun. You’re perfectly capable of taking care of yourself and I thank God for that. I spent most of my life doing what I was expected to do, looking after you and your father. I … I’m not looking for new adventures, new places to go to. All I want is to be left alone in my home, my little corner of the world. That’s all I’m asking for.
Maysoun looks into her mother’s eyes and notes the kind of resolve there that she has not been able to find in herself. Is that what old age does, she wonders, convinces us that life lies not in the variety of outcomes we perceive for ourselves, but rather in our determination to survive the very lack of them?
The road to Damascus begins in Beirut, a two-hour journey that climbs eastwards from the city’s suburbs, through the towns of Aley and Sawfar and then to a highway that leads down to the Bekaa valley and on to Syria.
Peter witnesses moments of extraordinary beauty as he looks out of the car window. There is the point at which drivers make the descent either side of the mountain, to the left for the northern Metn, or right and towards the border, where the landscape on one side is green with trees and bush, villages appearing here and there on the mountainside, and on the other lie the barren lands of the jurd. This dry countryside, covered in snow in winter, now looks stark and dazzles in the sun as cars carefully make their way above the one-thousand-foot drop; it is impressive in the way that only seeming emptiness can impress, rock and dirt as far as the eye can see, and every now and then a herd of goats picking its way through the sparse vegetation.
Then suddenly, round a bend in the road, the patchwork basin that feeds the Lebanon comes into view: fields of wheat and corn, of green and gold and rich red earth too. This valley is home to dairy farms and vineyards, to the Roman ruins of Baalbek and the remains of an Umayyad palace in Aanjar, to nomadic tribes that pitch wide tents of animal hide on the sides of roads, in and out of which run children, barefoot and dirty, and somewhere also, to tributaries of the Al-Aasi river: fragrant waters that are born in the belly of Lebanon’s highest mountains and emerge here to nourish the land before continuing northward into Syria and Turkey.
The first time Peter had come across this view, years ago when Lebanon was for him only a passing interest, he had looked upon it all with a healthy detachment, as a scene that pleased his senses but did not touch his heart. Now, as the car dips downwards and into the busy market town of Chtoura,
You are no longer fooled, Peter, Hannah said to him recently, by the natural beauty of Lebanon or the effortless warmth of its people. He thinks that she is absolutely right, that in expecting more than this country can give, he has truly become one of its people.
—It’s taking a lot longer than I thought it would, Hannah says, reaching out to touch Peter’s hand.
They are sitting in the back seat of a hired car and she looks less than her usual self, tired and anxious and her hair in disarray. They had rushed out of the house very soon after receiving the call once a car and driver had been arranged. Peter is still unsure what they will be able to do to help Anas, who was apparently arrested by Lebanese security forces while on his way to Damascus the day before. The man who phoned to let them know had been a passenger on the bus with Anas. ‘He asked me to speak to you, said you would be able to help him,’ the man had said. ‘He’s worried he’ll be deported and won’t be let back into Lebanon.’
At first, they had been too upset about Anas’s sudden departure and news of his arrest to work out what to do but Hannah had had the presence of mind to ring her father and he had arranged for a friend of his, the mayor of a village near Zahle, to meet them there and help to get Anas released.
—Baba says this man is very well known in the area, Hannah tells Peter, and has connections with the army as well as the local militias. It’s a good idea to have him with us.
They meet the mayor at a café on the main Zahle road. He is almost as tall as he is round, has a black-and-white kaffiyeh wrapped around his head, and a moustache that he periodically smoothes over with one hand. He greets them and begins the conversation by praising Hannah’s father and their long friendship.
—Your father is an exceptional man, says Abou Mazen, and I owe him a great deal. I am glad of the opportunity to be of help.