I didn’t think the stories we would tell you about your childhood would be like mine. I thought yours would be about cobbled streets, afternoon teas, the books that your father and I took too long to write, all the extra days you stayed in and all the extra hours you took on your way out, three countries, four apartments, and one indefatigable little stroller.
The stories your teta and jeddo told me were different. They related how, when your uncle Mehdi was ready to be born, on the day of the Israeli invasion of Beirut in 1982, they had to raise a white flag from the window of their Volvo on their way to the hospital. Mehdi came out both beautiful and screaming—he was in a foul mood for weeks. Bread was hard to find in the country then, so they saved up what the hospital gave them to take back home.
There is also the story of when, just a few weeks before Mehdi’s birth, they tried to escape to Cyprus through Damascus with my aunt and uncle and cousins. There was only one seat left, so it was agreed that your teta would take it and that your jeddo would come back to the airport for the next day’s flight. He said goodbye and walked away, heading out to find a hotel to spend the night. Just before leaving, he thought of exchanging money and turned back. Just then, he saw her coming out of the gate—it turned out that there were no seats left for her either. She had no money on her and had no way of reaching him in this foreign city. The way I always imagine the scene involves her, heavily pregnant, walking alone on an empty runway, silent, tears running down her face. But I always also tell myself that your jeddo was bound to spot her.
Then there are the scenes I remember myself. I can still see people running up and down the dark stairways of our building, candles in hand. I can visualize your jeddo sitting by the hallway door as I huddled with Mehdi and your teta under the stairs in the living room. I can hear the screeching radio, the grave voice of the presenter, his formal intonation, the sound of bombs exploding outside, the sirens. I can smell the dampness of the basement shelter, the candles, the smoke.
Or is it the photos I have seen from those shelter days that suggested the dampness to me? Is it that I only remember sleeping under the stairs because of the stories I was told later? Does it matter where those memories came from? In the photos in the basement, Mehdi and I look happy, surrounded by our parents and the neighbors and their children.
You too are very happy these days, too young to notice anything different about the world. You did not even flinch when, walking the empty neighborhood streets, we passed your shuttered daycare the other day. My heart sank thinking that only a few weeks ago you were walking gingerly in that hallway, sauntering into any room with an open door, distributing smiles to everyone you saw. But then here you are, at home, running down the hallway from the kitchen to our bedroom, yelling like Tarzan. You enter the room with so much glee, as if you discover your dad or me anew every single time you open that door to find us sitting at our computers.
Both of your grandmothers have said they are happy you are now getting round-the-clock parental attention. I rolled my eyes at this—as you, one day, will no doubt be able to picture me doing. I confess though that I am thrilled you have learned more Arabic words in these past three weeks than ever before: fruits, utensils, animals, body parts, a ball, a book, rain, a window.
You still move your hips only to Baby Shark and Down by the Bay, and shake your head vigorously in protest whenever I intone an Arabic song (the one about the chicks—what else). But we still have weeks to work on this.
The main song that your teta and jeddo have taught you during our daily breakfast chats is Frère Jacques. I did advocate for an Arabic song, but they insisted Frère Jacques was not French but “universal.” Just as they reported feeling when your uncles and I did it, I welled with pride when you, finally, and unexpectedly, executed the hand gesture for dormez vous. Your jeddo has also taught you other tricks, including gurgling your water and raising an orange to make a toast. It does not seem to faze you anymore that you can only extend your hand to give them a mouthful of your corn flakes until the spoon hits the iPad screen. So it did not seem to faze you either when your gram and grandpa also moved into that screen, as did Old MacDonald, the eight little monkeys, and the itsy bitsy spider.
A few years ago, your jeddo found, hidden deep in one of the busy bookshelves that have lined the living room wall since we were children, old cassette tapes with recordings of your uncle and me. In one, we were playing house—I clamored to be the “mama”—the drill of your teta’s sewing machine in the background. Then artillery fire broke out. What is that sound? your jeddo asks. Someone is shooting birds, Mehdi answers.
In the video I took of you this morning, playing in the sand by the lake, the sound of the waves and the chirping of seagulls can be heard clearly. The beach is empty. A few people walk by, but they never make it into the frame. Their dogs bark. You repeat after them: “Aaw-aaw!” (You know by now that dogs only say “woof-woof” when you are with your dad). You cannot see it in the video, but the passers-by give you especially big smiles as they pull their dogs away.
I follow you around, back and forth along the lake, then we take the longest route to the house. As soon as we get home and I open the door, you shout “dada” then run down the hallway and into his open arms. Some days I do the same, and the three of us huddle in your giant panda’s corner, just between the hallway and the kitchen. Sirens whistle by as we go about our mid-day routine of anxieties and shenanigans.
It is still too early to know what stories we will tell you and what memories you will make. I hope to at least pass on the penchant for happy endings.
Evanston, IL, USA
Loubna El Amine
Loubna El Amine is from Beirut, Lebanon, and teaches political theory at Northwestern University. Her essays have appeared in The Boston Globe Magazine, The Chicago Tribune, The Chronicle of Higher Education, Litro Magazine, and Lava, as well as in Arabic outlets.