Sunday, November 3, 2013

Inter/Sect: The making of a "terrorist" by Tarek Chemaly (Part 6)

Based on Tawfiq Yusuf Awwad's seminal novel "Tawahin Beyrouth" (or "Death in Beirut" as it has been translated), we will follow the story of Tamima Nassour a Muslim Shiite girl from the south of Lebanon as she goes to Beirut - a Beirut already in turmoil (the novel was published in 1973 and saw the war coming).
Tamima ends up joining the Palestinian Fidais (or Kamikaze). In a world today where "terrorist" is slapped on anyone and everyone these series of 12 monologues aim at recounting Tamima's story backwards, as if from a police investigation with protagonists who knew the victim. And with these 12 facets, we shall know or try to understand why is that someone so young and beautiful would end up taking such a desperate measure.
Called “Inter/Sect” these monologues collectively refer to Tamima’s relationship with a man from a different sect, but also talk about the intersection of the destinies of all these people orbiting around that central elusive character after the fact.


When she opened her eyes, I was between the doctor and the nurse who were treating her after she had been hit at the manifestation. I am not sure she remembers any of it. Or the bullets. I smiled at her. I stood by her as they moved her to another room.
“Who are you?” She asked.
“Your brother but my name is Hani el Rahi.”
Then I told her what happened. She was walking in front of me after the crowd dispersed following the manifestation. I was looking at her feet keeping up with her pace. A boy threw a rock at a soldier who was left behind to keep an eye at the students. Another rock. And the boy came down from the tree and the soldier chased him. And there you were, lying on the street. The first rock had hit you and you were bleeding. “My sister!” I screamed at the taxi. I say to her: “I just hope that stone that punk threw didn’t go to waste.”
I told her I had gone to the university to be part of the manifestation. I was a student at St. Joseph University, third year, engineering. And if the Lebanese university had any engineering department I would have joined I told her.
“I am from Deir el Mtoll. Of course you have never heard of it, a small village in the Metn North.” I said. “I live with my aunt and my grandfather. I live in Achrafieh. My father is a contractor in Lybia.” She spoke of Mehdiyye, her studies in Saidon, the baccalaureate, and the Lebanese University next year.
“Already six o’clock!” she screamed. “My mother should be worried sick.” I took a taxi and got her to the corner of a street. We agreed to meet the next day at three for her to change the bandage. She never came. She also stood me up another time when we had agreed to meet if she passed her baccalaureate. Later I knew she did, and with honors, but she never showed up as agreed – and on the Sunday that followed as well.
It was already the end of summer. “Mr. Hani, I am late in replying to you, me too I cannot forget. How can I thank you in congratulating me in passing my baccalaureate? How can I thank you for everything you have done before that? All I can say is that you treated me like a “sister” as you already had said. But a sister one cannot choose. She imposes herself the way brothers do. And I have not treated you the way a sister should. But no, you are not my brother, you are farther than that and closer. Since we parted many rocks have fallen over me, it is not their wounds that bothers me but their scars. Promise me you will not insist on knowing more when we meet. How was your trip to Lybia? I got your postcard. Why did you choose it to represent that Lybian woman behind her veil? Women here in some of our regions, even with the veil removed from their faces, still keep it on their souls. I am still in Mehdiyyeh counting the days to go down to Beirut to go to study education. Could I possibly see you in October? I am suffocating in the village.”
I replied to her about that incident that was splitting our village. The ministry of education assigned a Shiite Muslim teacher to our Maronite Christian village. The mayor is chocking over it. The man was the son of the bleacher who used to come to our village and women would entrust him with their precious utensils to get them cleaned. Hassib, or Hasbo as we used to call him, reminded me of the time I gave him my own casserole to him – not to his father – showing him proudly my initials “H.R. 1945” engraved inside it. How he grew up and learned and became a teacher is a long story. Eventually, the head of the monastery sided with me and got him to stay with the monks.
She had already moved to Beirut and it was in Antoine library at Bab Idriss that we had agreed to meet. “Well, it is the fault of the students, they have not manifested for a long time and no street punk has thrown a rock, so there was no reason for us to meet!” She proposed a seaside excursion, and “you will officially inaugurate my new car. Would you ride with this capitalist? A Fiat 125, I agreed to it with my father in Lybia. Lybia is unbearable in summer, I could only stand it for one month. The latest Fiat model with a custom color: that of the olives of Deir el Mtoll during harvest time. It was supposed to come after my own graduation at the end of this year. Isn’t it great when promises get broken this way? But my own promise -the graduation - is left hanging in the whim of the political situation. Are you reading the newspapers? They promise us a feisty October. Lebanon’s October after France’s May of ’68.”
“Madness? Of course this is madness. But behind this madness is a great revolution. A denial of the values that people have believed in so far and made it sacrosanct. A rebellion on every authority. A rejection of every principle. A breaking of everything? And what for… No one knows.” And then I go about the June war and about how “Israel is the number one nightmare. The biggest challenge. The new plague from the bible’s mythical plagues.”
The following day, the 20th of October, we go to the Riviera. She liked the sea and I liked the mountains.
“We shall disagree on many things. Let us agree to disagree.”
She was wearing her black bathing suit. And I talk to her about the revolution once more, about Ramzi Raad, about his book “Masters and Slaves” about his revolution. “He brings chaos, he plants doubts. He ignites fires. He rides liberty to pornography.”
She speaks: “Your nose. What? Determination and will.”
“Throw your rocks upon me. I only have the first of them so far.”
She replies: ‘Leave us with just the sand.”
She spoke of Mehdiyyeh, of Saida, of dreams, of Africa. She said she dreamed of “being buried in flowers rather than rocks. I am buried alive and flowers cover me all over. Why do I say those things to you? Silly poems. Tell me in prose, you engineers do not like poetry.”
“I forgot who predicted this, but it went “whenever woman is going to take her freedom, the kingdom of poetry shall move from men to her.” Until then, do you know what I wish?”
“For woman to take her freedom.”
“I wish to ban all poetry from the Arab world. For a generation or two at least, until a generation comes along free of the microbe. We are infected with poetry, addicted to it, poetry was worse to us than hashish before the June war. Poetry rhymed in lovely verses and a prose no less invoking… But you don’t care about politics.”
“Who said so?”
“You said so yesterday in the car.”
“Mehdiyyeh is the sister that Deir el Mtoll never knew it had. Even if Saida went back to its Phoenician glory, I wouldn’t live there. At school we were two parties. The Arab party and the Phoenician party. I even asked the teacher the difference between Arab and Phoenician. He shut me up. I was twelve.”
“You wouldn’t find anyone who would answer you. But it all boils down to this: They are both more stupid than the other. The only question worth asking is the one Israel is asking: To be or not to be? I sometimes feel the Fidais are striking us, the Arabs, more than they are striking the Zionists and they are awaking our consciences with their bullets. And you wish to ignore politics?”
And then later as I am swimming, I can hear her call me by my first name for the first time: “Hani! Hani!” as she looks for me.
 Once after we went to a movie she said: “I get so engaged in the movie and I feel it with all my heart. I live the life of its heroes including the monsters. But as soon as I go out of the movie theatre they leave me and I go back to being myself. It is wonderful for a person to live someone else’s life even for an hour.”
“The other life, the movies and the books that you love, are all hashish. Is it so great for someone to live another life? The greatest thing is to live one’s own life!”
Out of nowhere she goes: “Would you kiss me?” I never answered.
Then was the day we attended that debate about “Sectarianism: then and now” and we listened to the survey that Outlook magazine from the American University of Beirut did. There were two questions: “Are you with or against marrying someone from a different sect?” the second was “Are you with or against civil marriage?”
Someone came between us. “Names, names – we want names” the crowd shut him up. The speaker announced “the quasi majority, males and females, support marriage between people from different religions and the overwhelming majority agree to the civil marriage even if percentages differ among religion and gender. 78.6% are in favor of civil marriage and 21.85% are against.”
The intruder wouldn’t let go: “I want to see the heads. I was to know the heads that such thoughts go into. I want to see faces not numbers. I want to know each student with his full name, and that of his father and mother and I wish to ask him the question and then I would want to see the answer.” And then he pointed out at Tamima: “You, for example, the Shiite Moslem from Mehdiyye, would you marry Hani Rahi the Maronite Christian from Deil el Mtoll?”
“Take your hand off my shoulder” I tell him. And the crowd pushes the intruder out.
“Do you know him?” I later ask. “Houssein Kammoui, a cousin of my father’s and Jaber’s appointed agent, while he travels, of the honor of Mehdiyye. My own custodian and that of my mother’s!”
“Houssein Kammoui is a leftover from the past. They incite students for revolt? This is the revolution that Lebanon awaits. After the age of the clash between Moslems and Christians that remained even under the French mandate, and after the pacific cohabitation and the acrobatic equilibrium since independence, now came the time of fusion between sects.”
As we drove to Tripoli, I stopped midway. She just broke down. And cried. And cried and buried her face in my lap still crying. When I put my palm over her hair, she just resurrected and planted an enormous kiss on my mouth.
26th of December 1968. Tamima and her flatmate Mary Abou Khalil got to Deir el Mtoll. There was a play in that big underground room converted into a theatre. I was introducing them to everyone, young and old until we got to the front row. These are the “tawatem” of the village. “What are tawatems?” asks Tamima. “It is the plural of totem which does not exist in Arabic. Ramzi Raad must have the full story as he is the one who coined it in his chapter “I despise my father” in his book “Masters and Slaves.”” Then the play. And the festivities and the people. And then I invited them for dinner but Mary said she had to be at the AUH at 6 p.m. as it was her night duty, “unless Tamima would wish that.” “Would you drop me off to Beirut if I stayed here?” “Tamima is only joking, the Taxi we came in is waiting.”
She was in Mehdiyyeh after the new year, and I went to another student meeting – this one seemed promising. Ramzi Raad inflamed them with his words.
“Long live the Arabic unity!!” not everyone agreed to that. “Long live the free sovereign and independent Lebanon!!” not everyone agreed to that too. Fine, “long live the Fidais!” someone screamed. Everyone went after him in unison.
The crowd was about to disperse when someone shouted: “Close down all the foreign institutions including schools and universities for they are nothing but dens for spying and manufactures for agents!” – that took care of it. Someone disagreed naturally, punches started. The last thing we needed was for the student movement to lose its cohesion now. I go to break them apart. I recognize Houssein Kammoui from the “Outlook” debate. He also recognizes my face now.
Early February already. I don’t like that jazz music hammering me in that cafĂ© on Bliss Street next to the American University. I am nursing my coffee cup and she is having a sandwich with cola. The corniche is but a stone throw in the Fiat. I park and jump over the fence and help her do the same.
“You don’t say anything!”
“I am speaking with the sea.”
“But the sea does not speak our language. It never talks to us anyway. So basically we talk to ourselves. With ourselves we always talk.”
“And those who speak to God... Tell me, are you a believer?”
“Do you follow the reports in the newspapers these days? One of them says “our crisis is socio-political and sectarian on its surface, but the truth is that is roots are anchored in the unknown, in the migration from heaven to earth.” In doubting God, Tamima. But is God but a symbol of values; that set of values that make a human worthy of that name? I wish you had heard Ramzi Raad in the debate during your absence in Mehdiyyeh. Ramzi Raad is a precursor of our migration from heaven to earth, but he did not go down on a rope. He was not parachuted. He just fell, on his head.”
When we reach the car, she looks in the side mirror and she rushes me: “faster!” for no apparent reason.
“God is a one of our biggest problems. Not the God who divides us Christians and Muslims, or we divide him, we take him one bit at a time, each one of us wanting the lion’s share. That sectarian God, the political god and the one for distributing official posts. And not the God who stands between us to stop marriage between people from different sects or who raises his finger against civil marriage. I am speaking of the real God you have just asked the sea about…”
One day, I get this scrap of paper as I was with her in front of my attic in Achrafieh. She took it much more seriously than me: “To you Hani Rahi. Cut the relationship between Deir el Mtoll and Mehdiyyeh. This is but an advice! If the advice is not taken the medicine will come to you from the undersigned. The red hand.”
Much later, already late March. I stop the car at the edge of Abdel Aziz Street where Tamima lives with Mary. “Tell her by yourself today. Next Sunday we have dinner all of us by the sea. It’s my invite. I will call you in the morning to confirm after you talk to Miss Mary and Oustaz Jourdi.”
Then it was the last meeting. One day before the funeral of Abou el Hol. Aziz Yafawi. “Why are we afraid of the truth? Between Lebanon and the Palestinian movement is a marriage of hypocrisy. She pretends virginity and he pretends to love her and be devoted to her. A marriage based on hypocrisy definitely leads to these tragic results.”
After the meeting – when all the political friends had gone from the attic – she stayed there and spoke to me until the early morning hours. She told me everything, stayed on the roof of the attic till dawn. I finally slapped her.
Still standing, I watched her trying to open the gate. Standing.
A little later in the day, I got to the car and went to Abdel Aziz street. Two policemen intercepted me: “a man had tried to kill his sister on the third floor. There, the apartment to the right. He wanted to get rid of her because of her deviant behavior. Her name is Tamima Nassour. She lives with a nurse at the American University Hospital, the nurse wanted to protect her and she got the bullet instead. Her name is Mary Bou Khalil. They took her to the hospital – the nurse that is…”
“And his sister?”
“She was saved by the man who lives in the apartment next door. He was on the door going out and saw the quarrel on the other doorstep. He is the one who caught the murderer and screamed at her: Run! God only knows where she is now.”
I ran down to the hospital. Miss Mary had already passed away.
By eleven a. m.  as I went out of the hospital, the streets of Beirut were barely recognizable. The convoy of the funeral of Abou el Hol Yafawi did not reach Bourj Square. It fell on a demonstration against the Palestinians. But Beirut is still dealing with the news: At night the Israeli troops have bombarded Chebaa, Kfarchouba, Al Freydes and Al Mehdiyye. Soldiers were also parachuted and they fought with the army and the Fidais and the population in heavy combat. They speak of tens of dead people and hundreds of injured.
The Red Cross convoy that was going to the south headed by the first lady was stopped by a barrage of people who fled to Saidon banning it from continuing its way to the devastated villages, shouting:
“We want arms not flour!”
The slogan was repeated among others in the manifestations:
“We want arms not flour!”
I saw Lamia Sharon somewhere among the demonstrators and we rode the Fiat to the burning heart of Beirut.

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