Monday night at R. and L.'s house in Mar Elias.
I invited R. and L. over to my house, but they declined. "We're staying away from Jesusland for a while." Nearly every car bomb during the past two years has occurred in the "Christian areas" where I live. I took a servis from Achrafiye at around 9 or 10 pm. The streets in Saifi and Gemmayze were almost empty, save a street cleaner or two. "Nobody is out tonight," the car driver noted, expressing his displeasure with the fare we had agreed upon during this lull in business.
At R. and L.'s house, we sat in the living room and discussed the situation. "What are we going to do?" I asked. "You mean where are we going to hang out," L. replied. "We are not going out." "I am not going out ever again," R. said. "It's house party season from now on."
"I've been preparing myself. If a war starts, I will not start smoking again," L. said reclining on the couch as R. and I puffed away. Fifteen minutes later, L. left the room to fill a pitcher with arak in the kitchen. R. and I were deep in conversation, when we heard a thud in the distance. We continued speaking for a few seconds. "Did you hear that?" L. rushed in from the other room. "Did you hear something?" The landline phone rang. R.'s mother, who is also known as "Information Central", walked in puffing on a cigarette in her robe, and answered the phone. She spoke for a few seconds and then hung up. "It's in Verdun"-- an upscale shopping district-- she said and left the room again.
We turned on the TV. Nothing on the news yet. I sent a text message to a friend in Dubai, to my roommate who was at home in Achrafiye, to another friend in Zahle. The lines were already overloaded. I had to re-send each message five or six times. "It will take a few minutes before its on the news," R. said, flipping through the channels. The phone rang again. "It's in Verdun. Near Scoozi restaurant." New TV interrupted its broadcast and confirmed that an explosion had occurred in Verdun, that security guards were pushing people away from the scene of what might have been a targeted assassination. "Who could it be?" We listed the politicians who live close or nearby. Saad Hariri, Nabih Berri, Ghazi Aridi. "Please let it not be Saad Hariri. I won't be able to stomach the campaign-- father and son, reunited in heaven."
"Now they have consecutively targeted both the upper crust Christian and Muslim areas in Beirut. I bet over in Achrafiye they're relieved its not in their neighborhood again," I remarked. "I passed by there twice today," L. muttered as we watched a chaotic scene unfold on TV. Dozens of people and policemen gathered around torched cars; flames spit from a commercial high rise building. The camera scanned across the fearful face of a woman of southeast Asian origin, perhaps a tourist, and zoomed in on the smoking facade of Joe Raad's salon-- the hairdresser to the stars. "Where is Nancy Ajram going to get her hair done?" L. remarked. "Perhaps a rival beautician is behind this one."
"This can't be Al Qaeda. Why wouldn't they target Starbucks or Dunes mall instead of a side street?" I posited. "Al Qaeda don't do damage control. They aim for maximum casualties. Usually they ignite a bomb and then wait until the paramedics have arrived, then set another one off. If they did that in Beirut, with all the by-standers rushing to film the explosion on their cellphones, we'd really be screwed."
Twenty minutes later we were channel surfing again, in search of entertainment. "How short our attention is dedicated to such events. After twenty minutes we have already come to terms with it. It seems like old news."
The numbness has set in again. I woke up in the morning and looked at my reflection in the mirror. That slight tan, the detached gaze, the dusty early summer sunlight pouring in through the window-- it was all too reminiscent of last summer.
Somehow it's a relief to be absorbed entirely by outside events; you abandon all other concerns and complaints, when you see 15,000 desperate Palestinian refugees fleeing on foot and by car. But that knot in my stomach has returned-- that sensation of dread and helplessness. And anger.
I promised myself not to spend twenty-four hours a day glued to the TV. If something happens, I will know before it's broadcast on TV or over the Internet. In Lebanon, you either hear an explosion first hand, or someone calls you; at the very latest, a cab driver or shop keeper informs you. The Lebanese are professionals at rapidly dispensing information; everybody knows that you have to be the first to call, because the system will be overloaded within minutes, as an entire nation simultaneously messages and calls their friends and relatives.
The pressing need to know will eventually subside if this continues. Perhaps we will all go about our business during the day and ensure to be safely home before nightfall for the rest of the summer. Maybe we will experience a lull as the wheelings and dealings pick up behind the scenes.
It seems ironic that in a place with as many intricate and entrenched variables for conflict, a phantom group would appear on the scene as the greatest threat to stability. And at the end of the day, I suspect the moment will pass and Fatah al Islam will be overshadowed by other developments; their affiliation with Lebanese Salafists with whom highranking government officials enjoy close ties, will ensure that the threat is played down. A policy of "tolerating" them will ensue in exchange for God knows what. Or the Lebanese Army will announce "a victory"-- at what expense?-- and we will never see the evidence.
In the meantime, I will listen to sirens whiz by and try to predict where the next attack will occur. I will recall the nauseating patriotic display in the US after September 11th, and with a heavy heart accept that it is perhaps all too human to rally behind the troops and state apparatus, to so desire a simplistic narrative involving good and bad guys-- "our boys" versus "the terrorists" and their alleged Syrian sponsors, and to reap satisfaction in the futile display of indiscriminate and overwhelming force against "them", whoever they may be. Perhaps 40,000 helpless Palestinian civilians deserve a break.... You're either with us or you're with the terrorists, an idiot once said.