During one of the great lockdowns of 2020, I finally convinced my mother to sit down after a long day of Zoom-ing to watch a movie with bowls full of bizr and a vodka 7UP for each of us. But my grandmother stood smack-dab in front of the TV and asked me to thread not one but four sewing needles. Her eyesight isn’t as strong as it used to be. Since my grandmother moved back from Vancouver to live with us, she has always asked me to play her music from old cassette tapes she’s hoarded over the years. I fucking hate those saxophones.
What I hate more than saxophones is the sound of her voice in the morning as she brings up the same issues and questions she’s been asking for months, while my mother drinks her morning coffee before a full day of talking to students through a screen. Hearing my mother bicker with her mother over the same things over and over again almost made me want to blast a whole album of saxophones to drown out the frustration. “No, we can’t take out all that money from the bank, I told you a million times Mom'' and “Going back to Vancouver now is impossible, al- nās b amrik am b mūtū lā waḥdun hauneek.”
My mother held me for the first time in months after the August 4 explosion. During COVID-19, we couldn’t risk infecting my 91-year-old grandmother, so hugs and kisses were off-limits. My mother is not always a touchy person and has never believed in coddling. All our hugs as children were timed: One ONE-THOUSAND, Two ONE-THOUSAND, Three ONE-THOUSAND, and by the time we got to Seven ONE-THOUSAND, she would joke about being a mother opossum and that was the end of our cuddle session. But all the love and coddling she doesn’t express physically she does by baking and cooking almost every day. When she couldn’t, she’d tell me in all seriousness that she felt guilty that there’s no dessert in the house. My mother and I were making a cake for a Christmas party on December 27, 2013, when the Starco bombing happened. We looked at each other and the only thing I could think of asking was “Can we still go out?” I remember how her eyes lowered as she continued mixing the cake batter and said, “I hope so.”
We were in that same kitchen after the Port explosion. Being held by her in those moments was the closest I’d ever felt to her. I broke down, watching legs and feet moving under a crushed house on TV. Reality came flooding through as I ran into the kitchen, my mother following me. I screamed “THAT’S A PERSON!” over and over again. Her arms wrapped around me, and she held me as my own legs felt they were missing a body.
Half an hour earlier, my panicked knocks shook the front door. As my mother swung it open and saw three girls breathless and pushing past her. “What the fuck just happened?” she asked us. Moments before, my two friends and I were standing on the street underneath my building. I was mad at Lena for wanting to go to Mar Mikhael for ice cream even though I had just come back from there.
Everyone else in Beirut told me the same sequence of events: the ground shook, it must have been an earthquake. Dragon's breath, a wall of dust, smoke, and debris came rushing towards us as we fell down the stairs to the entrance of my building.
When I doubled over in tears in the middle of the kitchen, I didn’t feel ashamed for craving attention from my mother. I screamed and cried and she held me in her arms, dotted with freckles. She often hid them, thinking they were too fat— a complex she inherited from her mother. But I love those arms. They held me together as I sobbed over the legs that were missing bodies. In 2016, my mother’s face had aged 20 years when I came home after a bombing took place while I was out walking. No one could get in contact with me, and I’m pretty sure my mom called me a little shit for scaring her so badly.
I had only seen my mother cry three times in my entire life. The first time was in 2005 when Rafik Hariri was assassinated on Valentine’s Day. On the drive home from school, after the car bomb, I saw tears roll down from the corner of her right eye. We saw a man slashing red balloons at a party supplies shop. The second time was when my grandfather died, and she hugged a fifteen-year-old me as I cried. She told me it was okay as I apologized for her loss. The last and most recent time I’ve seen her cry was in 2020, mid-pandemic, when she couldn't get her students’ grades submitted online. She sat there and cried out of pure frustration and stress and I wanted to hold her tight, but instead I leaned over and showed her how to do it. I have never seen anyone hold her.
Wrapped in her arms, in the middle of the kitchen, behind my cries hidden deep in my own inner rubble, I smiled. My mother wasn’t paying attention to our house or her mother, or my friends, still huddled in my living room. Lena ran through the hallway to the bathroom yelling out to me, “It’s okay habibi!” followed by the sound of her throwing up.
“Maya,'' my mother said, “Lena and Loubna haven’t eaten yet, we need to make them dinner.” I trudged outside to the balcony and exposed myself to the toxic post-explosion air and picked basil leaves for the pesto sauce Lena loves. Maybe it would distract her from the fact that a quarter of our city had just been destroyed. During the May 2008 fighting, my mother placed my sisters and me in that same hallway, covered us in thick blankets, and fed us pasta by candlelight while militiamen shot at each other on the street below.
On the balcony in the days following the August 4 explosion, my mother confessed intervention-style over coffee that “Everytime you leave the house, I think we are going to get a call saying you died. If you die on the street, I will kill myself.”
My mother caught me smoking on the balcony just before dinner. The sky was pink and I didn’t care. She had never seen me smoking before. Still, I wanted to let her in on all of my little secrets. I wanted to speak to her as a friend and pass my cigarette to her. I tensed up at the intrusive thought of my grandmother walking out on the balcony and catching us in the act of mother-daughter bonding, and my mother walking away because she had to tend to her. My back hunched over and my hands dangled over the balcony railing. My void eyes locked intensely with hers. At that moment, I wanted to go back into her arms and have her hug me longer than she ever had.
*Credit: Tile Photograph by Malak Jaafar