The cars were aligned haphazardly along the sides of the usually-serene street. The sun’s amber rays hugged the street’s sidewalks, permeating the air with benevolence. Cats waltzed on the sidewalks as pedestrians skedaddled around; Matne Street was unusually crowded and buzzing with life. The street deliberately bear-hugged a rather squalid area on the outskirts of Mar Elias, and I always thought my street suffered greatly from being a bold lifeline between a popular shopping street and a filth-strewn wormhole. At two p.m., grocers barked orders to Syrian kids, and the infamous plumbers – who had long conquered the sidewalk – still sat there with their hefty bags of equipment at the ready and their rusty sign, which had two phone numbers scribbled with cheap chalk, hanging loosely under the first floor’s noire banister.
I paced again in the hallway as I made my way to the balcony, still mesmerized by the liveliness of our street. At around six p.m., however, it was as if the street were replaced by its unusually quiet twin. Clawing cats waited for a scurrying rodent’s ambush, with hurried, light steps echoing wanly into the quenching silence. The street was suddenly devoid of life save for the merchant who sat on the porch outside his grocery store. Gossamer clouds of grey now supplanted the sun’s reign in the skies above. As I gazed at the street, a tall and quite fit individual entered my line of sight. He had an excessively black tight on. His arms were a mixture of cliché Arabic tattoos and hair that climbed over his bright untanned skin. His face was painted with an aggressive frown and was embroidered with a badly-shaven beard. As he nonchalantly held a sawed-off shotgun in his right hand, as if a professional arms dealer, he masterly made his way to the innocent grocer on his porch, who stomped out his excessively long Gauloises cigarette as he stood up to meet his hostile visitor.
“Close your store and go home,” he ordered.
“I do not want to,” the grocer replied with stupefying confidence. He always was a hot-head, and I frankly couldn’t blame him: his customers’ haggling seldom ended in his favor. Nonetheless, I did not expect him to be this confident and aggressive with a threatening mercenary at hissugar-spice-and-everything-nice filled porch.
That confidence was fairly short-lived, for just after his bold reply, the assailant fired two shotgun shells in the air and barked his order again – this time with many more veins throbbing on his tattoo-riddled neck. The grocer turned around quickly, closed his store in seconds and was off, never looking back. By then, the audience, on balconies and sidewalks alike, were beckoning for their children to get into their houses and close the doors. Our concierge willingly closed our wide building gate and went inside, shaking his head and cursing as he did so.
I solemnly watched as my city cast itself into its deepest of holes. A hole flooded with blood, iron, and a sleepless malice.
As my father came hurriedly home asking about each and every one of us, gunfire affirmed the volatility of a typical Beirut night. At the corners of the street sat the heirs to the plumbers’ throne – two black-masked individuals, much like the one who had threatened our innocent grocer, with raggedly-torn jeans swallowed at their ends by masterfully black army boots. They chatted and chortled rowdily, as if mocking the gulping and sweating inhabitants of our neighborhood. My sister crept up beside me and stole a quick glance outside before my mother, tightly yet hastily, closed the windows.
A sleepless night of failed rest. The sound of gunfire, trucks and warthogs gnawed at my worthless attempts. I woke up to peek through the window and heard my father make his way quite uneasily out of bed, his back hunched and aching for a night’s rest. Not a lick of wind nor electricity gushed through that day.
“Put on some slippers, kid. We’re heading to the roof. Stay close.” I heard my father’s deep voice as he peeked quizzically into my room, disappearing before I could turn to say how bad that idea was. I sleepily followed.
We went up, anxiously trying to find anything interesting the mercenaries might have caused to the capital, and gasping for some cool air. I ached to ask my father why in the world we would be heading up there, especially with hordes of mercenaries flooding the streets and the building entrances for any unusual events, but I sensed a sour disappointment on my father’s sleepless visage. Be it from sleepless hours or from ruthless attacks on his beloved city, I could not guess, and so I let it go. The night was occasionally interrupted by flamboyant gunfire. We could also hear screams of a woman from afar, causing the multitude of stars to shiver with lifeless disdain.
“Corruption is a plague that has changed Beirut into a wormhole, a dwelling for wretches and vermin and their elk. In this war, I fear Beirut will take the mightiest blow,” my father muttered apologetically to me. I put my hand on his shoulder then quickly realized how awkward that was and removed it.
“It’s okay, dad. We can always go back abroad and leave our family and friends behind and risk not seeing them forever,” I joked.
The joke again threw an awkward veil atop our conversation as my father grazed his fortnight-unshaven beard and looked at me sardonically.
From afar, the mountains that encircled Beirut were embraced by dots of light and the city seemed to spew a rather cadaverous fume. We maneuvered between broken pipelines, long dangling wires and large water tanks, carefully sidestepping puddles of fetid water as we descended from the roof to the building entrance. As we made our way through the murky street, I carefully strode closer to my father, still wondering why we were being this nosy, yet making sure I didn’t leave him alone. Just as I was fumbling to my father’s side again, our loose-tongued concierge Jalal appeared from under the building, his oversized nose much redder than his usually rosy and plump face.
“My brother Mohamad, quick, get inside. You might get into trouble if you stay here!” I looked around and listened to the quietude if our street, which me all the more skeptical about the whole situation.
“What is going on?” I could feel Jalal 's distress seep into my brain, giving me an instant headache. I waited for an answer, impatiently.
“Two masked men are causing a racket on the next block. The custodian over there might be in trouble and he has been calling me for hours now.” He took hold of my shirt, his urgent yet clearly cowardly request piercing through one ear. “Come on kid, or they’ll attack us here.”
“Ya bheem… He called for your help and you’re giving us this ‘get inside’ pish-posh?” My father, a loyal son of the capital, barked. And in a glimpse, I heard the stomping on the damp circles of water that I had cautiously tried to avoid, and the running of a shadow: my father’s. I mustered up some courage, breath and energy despite all my instincts telling me to do otherwise, and sprinted after him.
My father ran to the rescue, I at his side and Jalal trying to keep up. As we made our way just around the block, a street lamp flickered on and off, wondering whether to cast its light upon the police officer – who stood right under it – or not. I recognized him from his frequent yet sluggish patrols around our neighborhood, claiming he always liked to keep a protective eye for any mishaps that might befall the cherished citizens. He was shouting from afar, and albeit the fact that his face had been fancying a smile, I could not fathom if his shouts were orders or praise. Around ten meters away, lay the other concierge’s daughter, Amina. I recognized her from my frequent visits to the drugstore on that block, whose vendor always threw watchful eyes at female passersby, my nose tickled from the smell of the Asian concoctions of food and spices Amina devised. She was a tall, young woman with hair that was painted an exciting blend of black and a very bright yellow. She was sprawled on the ground and shivering in the middle of the street, her left cheek swollen from both tears and a hefty punch. Her mother was hiding forlornly in her husband’s embrace, both standing in their building’s shade and overlooking the street.
The two who stole the show however, stood right above the girl. The first was like a twin to the molester of the shop: he was heavily built and had more gel than combed hair, both rotting atop his head. A flurry of tattoos clawed at his skin and he smelled of cheap, concentrated alcohol. The other had a scrawnier build, with long hands, excessively elongated palms and humungous rings arrayed on his thin fingers. His front teeth stuck petulantly forward and his lips showed no effort to resist their vulgarity. Both, as if ritually, had a black scarf with ominous red markings that sat comfortably upon their shoulders. The heavyweight was standing above the horrified girl, her legs between his, his pants half-down while the other stood aside and was flirting with an almost-empty bottle of booze, obviously enjoying the show. I nauseatingly and rather uselessly stood watching as my father instinctively ran towards the skinnier of the two and strangled him from behind. I glanced quickly behind my shoulder to see the official twitch uneasily and shift his whole body ever-so-slightly towards the scene, seemingly a bit more interested with what was happening. The bottle fell from the assailant’s hand and broke into several pieces, one of which was a fairly large one. Jalal rushed to the muscular vigilante who wavered sideways momentarily, also seemingly drunk from the tonic his comrade was sipping.
“Come and help you stupid ibin haram!” Jalal snarled at the official who was picking his nose and staring toward us. He woke up from his trance and meandered to Jalal’s aid indifferently.
Meanwhile, my father and the skinnier attacker were still at each other’s throat, cautiously moving in circles, with my dad appearing to have a hold of this, until the scumbag freed himself from my father’s frail grip on him, regaining some of his balance just an arm’s-length away from me. I looked on, confusingly pinned into place and tediously trying to move my frozen bloodless legs.
“What now ya zbele?” the assailant spat. A fine line of drool and alcohol swung from the corner of his mouth. After those words apparently, all our mothers turned out to be whores he wanted to fuck.
He babbled on with rosy language for what seemed like hours as my father stood in a battle stance pondering what to do next and wiping sweat off his burgundy-swollen face with his fanela, which now had more question-raising stains than just coffee. Still unable to shake off that initially rush of fear and shock my father shouted my name to do something. I looked at my useless self just then, and ran to my father’s side where a field of glowing shattered glass surrounded us. I picked a shard up and hurled it at the attacker: it struck his left arm and dug itself deep into his bicep. He howled in pain and then strolled down rosy language lane again, this time at quite the higher pitch. My father and I volleyed shards of glass as he ran away and eventually collapsed to the floor in a pool of blood and alcohol. The scarf lay next to him, stained like his body with blotches of blood. The other one was also sprawled on the ground from Jalal’s fist, which had contacted with his jaw and had spattered drool and mucus on Amina’s cerulean Kashmir overalls. The official finally arrived to the scene. He helped Amina up and walked her towards the building as her mother ran to meet them.
I sat next to my father on the sidewalk after we had made sure the girl and her family were all okay, echoes from my exhausted body pounding at my brain begging for some rest, the last verses of the athan fading away into the starry night. Jalal was still helping his friend as the official made his way toward us. His hair was glued tightly to his scalp except for some hairlets which came down upon his sweaty forehead, but much of his hair was hidden by the typical grey beret Lebanese officers wore.
“Ya sayyidi al Karim, that was a heroic thing you did there. Come down to the station near Hobeich prison down in Hamra so we can get you all cleaned up and dandy. Follow me quickly to my car. We need to get the guy to the hospital.” He smiled a sly grin and patted my father a little too amicably on his back, the other hand still digging into his nose for some prize.
I could not help but notice the black with the same red markings, carelessly stuffed into his back pocket.