I pick up the telephone to dial Carol’s landline number. All day, the fan has been switched on, but the apartment is still suffocating. Underneath my white chemise and black trousers, I am sticky and impatient.
No answer. Soon after I put the phone down and mentally prepare myself to get a glass of cold water, the phone rings, startling me into a gasp.
“Carol?” I ask, breathing slowly. My body feels stiff, too stiff even for these sixty-six-year- old limbs.
“And what if it weren’t me?”
“No one else calls.”
“You love to victimize yourself, ya Salma.” I can hear my sister’s exasperated sigh, the one she often punctuates with a teasing smile. “I’m sure plenty of people called in the past couple of days.”
She is right. Ten people alone called the night of the explosion — two neighbors; Carol and her kids; a French colleague from my teaching days; some cousins; and even Tania, my Saints-Coeurs Sioufi classmate from decades ago, who handed the phone over to her husband Nadim because he wanted to personally tell me hamdella ’al saleme. Over two dozen people came up to check on me as well — mostly people who live nearby and volunteers from the Red Cross or scout groups.
“How are you today?” she asks, almost distractedly.
“I am fine, hamdella. And you?”
“No one is fine these days, Salma. Has your apartment been cleared? Do you need me to send you people who can help?” She sounds tired, her voice a shrunken version of the usual intrusive sound. I want to joke that we sound more like sisters now.
“No, it’s fine. I’ve been cleaning all morning.”
The day after the explosion, at around nine in the morning, a group of teenagers had come up to clean my apartment and help move the glass, throwing the shards into oversized garbage bags and sweeping the dust with their brand new brooms. They carried the broken couch over their shoulders and above their heads, as they walked down the stairs. I wistfully watched them go down two floors, smiling at them, thanking them over and over again, noticing how loud and playful they were with one another, as though they weren’t cleaning up an old stranger’s apartment after an explosion but simply at a fun, after-school group activity. I wished this same group would come back.
One of them was particularly sweet and playful, a gangly teenage boy with curly brown hair and a crooked smile. He was the one who had left behind an unopened box of double-sided tape rolls on my kitchen counter, telling me I’d probably need them in the next couple of days. I must have reminded him of his grandmother because he acted like he’d known me before, casually commenting every now and then, Ah, tante, you looked lovely when you were young or Tante, did you used to play the piano?
“What a nightmare, what a country, what a country,” Carol mutters. She still sounds preoccupied. I imagine her watching television or scrolling through her phone. “Are you sure you don’t need any help?”
I take a gaze around the living room, with the phone still on my ear, as though willing Carol to see exactly what I am seeing, to show her how orderly and hollow the apartment looks when only four days ago, it was a complete wreck. The old paintings and photo frames, the vases, the window sills, the ceramic pots, the cactus plants, the cutlery and my favorite teapot, the piano’s keyboard cover had all been blown into the air before landing on the floors of the living room and kitchen, forming dusty mounds, making it near impossible to figure out which piece of furniture the fragmented bits had once belonged to. Even the pale green couch, the one which had been in our family home ever since Carol and I were little girls, somehow cracked into two. The floor of the living room was coated with layers of glass shards.
Before going to bed that night, I looked at the glass and remembered that one February winter in Beirut, decades ago, when I had woken up to a city shrouded in hail. The hail was everywhere: on the cars, on the trees, on the sidewalks, even inside the dark pockets of my coat. I wondered why I remembered that day. The hail, the glass, it looked pretty from a distance.
Carol had insisted the night of the explosion we sleep together at her mountain house in Broumana, but I told her my house was not too damaged. My house, which had once been our parents’, which I’d then inherited after they had died, which she rarely ever visited. I didn’t mention spending a night with a huge hole, the shape of an oversized ear, in my door. Even today, only a black garbage bag covers the hole.
“I still can’t believe what happened, Salma. I keep crying. Tell me, remind me, where were you sitting when it happened? How are we still alive?”
Although I know she was terrified for me, as I was for her, her question manages to irritate me. How there is an infinitesimal trace of amusement in her voice that I am still alive. How she neither came over nor pushed too hard for me to sleep at her house the night of the explosion, somehow comfortable with the idea of her older sister sleeping alone in a house with a hole in the door.
I was in the bathroom, on the toilet seat, when the first explosion happened. I had thought it was an earthquake and stayed on the toilet seat, eyes closed, and prayed and prayed that the tiles quivering and the bathroom door swinging were simply dark thoughts that would pass as quickly as they had come. But when the second explosion hit, the mirror in the bathroom shattered and I rocked forward, almost falling to the ground. The door swung again, closing in with so much pressure that I still cannot believe, days later, it didn’t fall over my head and flatten my body into paste. I called for Inalam, my house-girl from Ethiopia, to come help me. When the house had stopped shaking, and I removed my hands from my ears, I remembered she was on her way to pick up my medicine from the pharmacy.
“Did you know Inalam broke her hand?” I respond instead.
When Inalam returned home fifteen minutes later, gasping, her forehead bloody and her entire body covered in silver dust, she had been shouting for me, Mama, mama, are you okay? By then, I was seated on the small stool, the one outside the bathroom, limp like a cushion. I hadn’t gotten up since then, not even to check the rest of the house, not even to call Carol. I wanted to remain right where I was until I evaporated, until everything just stopped. I don’t remember if my landline was ringing, I don’t remember how I moved from the toilet seat to the stool, whether I opened the door, whether I cleaned myself up after the bathroom. The only thing I could recall was that there was an overwhelming buzzing sound, the one old analog television sets used to make when there was no signal. But then I saw Inalam’s face, how horrified she looked, and I must have snapped out of the trance. Call Carol, I shouted, Call Carol, her house is next to the sea. Soon after, people began knocking on our door to check on the two of us, our neighbor Bassam even driving Inalam all the way to a hospital in Jounieh, where her arm was wrapped in a cast.
“Yes, Sami told me about Inalam. Poor girl, habibti, is she alright? You know Qassem, the Syrian delivery boy who used to always get me food, he died. He was on his motorcycle, near the port. He died immediately. Akh, ya Salma. They found his body yesterday. He was so kind, so so kind — and three young daughters, so pretty and so sweet.”
We are silent after this. My head hurts and I drum my fingers on the Bible’s hardcover. My left shoulder already started, since earlier in the day, with its familiar spasms.
“You should see Sanad’s eyes, I couldn’t look at them when I went downstairs. What do you tell someone after this? Imagine leaving Homs to die in an explosion in Beirut.”
Carol often speaks in monologues. I picture her lying down like Cleopatra on her beige sofa, the one with the elegant gold legs, looking through her huge glass windows, the ones which turn the Mediterranean Sea into an oversized painting that exists for personal amusement. Is she wearing her silk robe, the purple one with strangely patterned crescents and triangles? And then I shake off that image because it seems absurd that after the explosion, anyone, even Carol, is in a silk robe.
Carol moved into her Ras Beirut apartment from Paris several years ago, after her husband, Omar, had passed away. Her apartment is unnecessarily large, filled with exotic antiques she has collected over the years and never bothered to properly clean or arrange.
“You know, Salma every time Sami and I speak on the phone he breaks down again?”
Sami is Carol’s only son. Up until he was maybe four, she always had him on her hips, his small fingers clinging onto her dangling necklaces.
Sami reminded me of his father, Omar, when he was young. Kind and quiet and persistent. But, somehow, always distant. He asks how you are and then pauses, eyes squinting, to show you he really wants to know. Hana and Lama, on the other hand, like to pretend they don’t know why their mother and I drifted apart, that it somehow happened throughout the years — after the Civil War and as seasons changed, when people arrived to and left from Beirut. I sense it, how her daughters see me as an irrelevant woman, stuck in her old ways, unnecessarily complicated and bitter. But Carol and I did not just drift apart. Here, in our world, at least for our generation, two sisters don’t spend a lifetime angry at each other.
“My phone has been buzzing nonstop, all my group chats. The entire world is shocked, Salma. And how can they not be? The biggest non-nuclear explosion or something. Sami, he won’t stop. I’ve never heard him this way.”
“He opened the topic of you moving to Dubai again?”
“Of course. He told me the day of the explosion, ‘Mama, I booked you a flight, you are coming to Dubai tomorrow.’”
Carol will never leave Beirut again, this I know. Especially not for Dubai. Every time she visits Sami there, she returns dissatisfied, rambling on about how fake Dubai is, how she worries about her grandchildren growing up in a city without a cultural identity. Me and you will die here, she would laugh, in this rotten city — if not by some sort of explosion or stray bullet then because of cancer, from all the pollution and garbage residue and generators.
In her years in Paris, Carol and I were the closest we had been in decades. The distance made it easier to forgive her. We called each other maybe once a week for around twenty minutes and I would fill her in on gossip from the school where I taught French, other times updating her on our cousins or Arab celebrities. She would tell me about the farmer’s market on her street in Rue de Rennes, how the plum tomatoes were like rosy cheeks (she loved to speak in similes), and the sellers were friendly, unlike everyday Parisians. Carol loved to make it seem as though she didn’t care for rude Parisians or Paris even, and that in fact, the highlight of her day were simply those tomatoes, how they tasted with salt and organic Palestinian olive oil she had bought from the shop. But I know, I know that she went to dinner parties with glamorous French-Lebanese and Algerians and Tunisians in Paris, that her funky jewelry was expensive, that she disappeared on long weekends with Omar and their friends to different places in Italy, staying in cabins and whatnot.
But even then, we never spoke much of Omar, who, at the time, was a professor at the American University of Paris. History of the Middle East with a focus on the Ottoman Empire. I always wondered how difficult it was for her to avoid bringing him up. Or was he simply not as central to her life, simply another accessory in her overwhelming lifestyle?
“These young children rebuilding Beirut, they make me happy and sad. But thank God all my grandchildren live outside this country. I would never wish this place on anyone.”
I think again of the gangly teenage boy, his brown curls and awkward smile, wiping the dust from my kitchen counter. The way he picked up the old, framed photo of me at thirty-two, smiling at it with an appreciation that seemed almost too mature for his age.
How different would my life have been with children? This country’s perpetual misery, how it sinks and pulls us down with it, sometimes makes me feel like I made the right choice, if it were a choice, of course. There were options, but not many. Although twice divorced, the Math teacher, Eddie, was quite romantic. He bought me an Edith Piaf CD wrapped in silver paper one Valentine’s Day, and he always smelled of fresh eau de cologne. I wonder whether the CD is still intact after the explosion. It should be, because it was in my bedroom. But anyway, Eddie was fired later for unclear reasons. The years passed. Perhaps I was too self-conscious and plain looking. It’s not that I wanted a husband. Not since Carol and Omar married, at least. Never since then. But after retiring, my days started to feel long and empty, like endless Sunday afternoons. Sometimes, when I pass by a mother and her daughter during my walks in the neighborhood, or observe Carol and her daughters — how naturally they seem to orbit one another, even when there is tension between them (which is often) — I would feel a deep, uncomfortable ache.
“Now everyone plans their exit strategy. And another wave of immigration. Who will want us anyways? But watch how the Gulf will suck all the Lebanese doctors in, Salma, everyone knows we have the best doctors in the region.”
“St. George is completely gone. This is what they told me yesterday.”
“Remember, I gave birth to Lama in St. George? I still remember the nurse who held my hand when I was shouting, green eyes and a very soft voice, like an angel.”
“They took everything away from us. But we thought things would get better. We thought our children would live in a better country, we kept pretending and pretending and pretending, but tell me how can things get better as long as the same men control everything? Akh, akh, akh.”
The sound of pain in Arabic, akh, reminds me of gas, how it swells and swells like a heart of its own, choking, nearly impossible to control — indefinite and shapeless, painfully colorless — occupying rooms you never knew to have existed in your body.
As though reading my mind, Carol says, “You know, I’ve been thinking of moving to the mountain house soon, get some fresh air.” I inherited the Achrafieh house, Carol the Broumana one. “Have some distance,” she continues in a breeze. “Who knows what is in the air here anymore? All these chemicals, ammonium nitrate and whatnot. You should come.”
“Why not,” I add, although neither of us will go.
Several years ago, during early spring on Mother’s Day, Sami booked a hotel room in the Chouf mountain area as a surprise for Carol and me, one of his many attempts to reconcile our relationship. He informed me late at night of the booking for the next day, and I was mortified, but what could I have said?
That next day, the taxi came to pick me up from Achrafieh after it had stopped at Carol’s house. Before entering the car, I could see her in a straw hat with a black bow. As soon as our eyes met, we both burst out in laughter. Ma cherie, ready for our getaway? She winked at me as I raised my left eyebrow — something we often did synchronously as children. On the way there, we humored the taxi driver, chatting loudly and flattering him with questions about his private life, and he played Mayada Hennawi from one of his CDs, and we sang along, Ana ba’sha’ak ana, as we drove through the checkpoints and into the layers of Chouf’s spiraling mountains. That evening, soon after sunset, Carol and I walked through Deir el Qamar’s cobbled streets, stopping to buy espresso from the square. I wanted to pretend we were in some French village far, far away.
Both of us had put on kohl and burgundy lipstick after blow-drying our hair at the salon right next to the hotel. It was cold up in the mountains and we sat on one of the stairs watching people go by, old Druze men in their black sharaweel and stylish young teenagers with bright blonde highlights and cheeky smiles. A huge statue of Camille Chamoun stood tall to our left. He was a good one, I murmured to Carol, shaking my head. She responded, with an air of conclusiveness, None of them are, Salma, none of them are. So we sat in silence and I wrapped my thick black scarf around both our shoulders as we sipped overly sweetened coffee.
The town looked golden and antique and the mountains next to us were covered with thin pine trees. Beirut, from this bench, was like a dream, a winding staircase of awkward memories and people who no longer were, who one day would no longer be. When we returned to the city, the day after, I took sleeping pills and went to bed before six p.m.
“One catastrophe after the other,” Carol pauses, “Who even knew what ammonium nitrate was?”
“I still don’t know.”
For weeks, there will be nothing to talk about but the explosion. Everything will come back to it, how it displaced and shook us all. And still, even the conversation we are having now and the sentences about to follow, feel familiar, too familiar. I know them like the corners of this room, I want to tell Carol.
There is something I can’t wrap my head around, a repetitiveness to Lebanese history, a sense that it is one broken cycle after the other but with interludes of grace — sometimes even forgiveness — lasting a brief moment before being sucked back into the relentlessly spinning wheel.
She continues, “And now what? What about everything that came before? Do we just forget? What do we do with the fact that even our money is no longer in the banks? What will those poor poor people do?”
Carol and Omar had saved a fortune in Lebanese banks but like everyone else in the country can no longer access it. Months ago, when the decision to stop all transactions in dollars had come out, Carol called me laughing. Who would have thought Salma, that your decision to never open a bank account would be the smartest one of all! Now I know you have government connections — how else did you know they would steal all our savings? Yalla, you’re going to have to spend on me while I live the last decade of my life poor. Of course, that is nonsense. I have never opened a bank account, yes, but my sorry savings in cash are nothing compared to the money she and her children have stashed around the world.
“Sometimes I feel the civil war was better than what we’re living through today.” I open the Bible in front of me to a random page. Psalm 143:8. For I have put my trust on you.
“I don’t know if that’s true, but I think the damage this explosion did to us in one day is almost the same as the fifteen years of war. As baba, Allah yerhamo, used to say, Judgment Day will arrive before this country changes.”
I slightly soften at the mention of baba, a kind and tender man who saw me in a way no one else would. He lived a long quiet life, stacked like well-built shelves into the walls of this apartment. Unlike everyone else, he was proud I had studied French literature, reminding me until his last sane years that one day I would publish a novel in French. I have been thinking of him a lot these days, his thin veiny hands, the way he would shake his head when he disapproved of something. Thank God he isn’t alive to witness — he believed in this country, he truly did.
“Do you really think nothing will change after this? How can this not be their last call?”
“I don’t know,” She pauses as though to seriously consider my question. I switch the handset from my left ear to the right one, noticing the sweaty surface. “How many times did Sami say this was the last call and then nothing happened? Can you imagine how many people have died, Salma, how many people are going to die? I can’t stop watching television. This was a massacre, not an explosion. Let us stop calling it an explosion, eh?” I wonder at what point I called it an explosion. "I hope they die, every one of our politicians, every single one of them, I hope they die. Thieves. Criminals. They took everything.” Her voice is urgent again, almost desperate, and I prefer it to the shrunken tone she had greeted me with. “There is a protest today, actually, it begins in Gemmayze I think, not too far from your house, and then they will march towards Martyrs’ Square. Sami was saying we should go and wear double masks, that maybe it would help me feel better.”
“I don’t know,” I say. “I am not turning the television on. I am tired.”
“My friends in the U.S. are also organizing a virtual meditation for Lebanon tomorrow night. They want me to lead it, so we can pray for Lebanon and send it some positive energy.” I really don’t understand my sister sometimes. The things she does, this meditation stuff she believes in.
“How is your house now?”
“Yes, we were saved by the grain silos, I swear. But I didn’t tell you, the main chandelier — you know, the crystal one in the living room — it fell on the floor. If I were under it, you know how I always sit on the dining table to read, I would have died!”
Suddenly, I imagine Carol had died and as though a barbed wire threatens to prickle my throat, I press my fingers to my neck to protect myself. It flickers in my mind: Carol’s funeral, and Sami, Hana, and Lama all gathered to bid their mother a farewell, because a chandelier had crushed her to death. And then I think that her children might not have even been able to attend the funeral in Beirut because flights these days, with the coronavirus and all, are not easy.
“Carol, be quiet.” My tone is snappy and Carol laughs.
“Don’t worry, Salma,” she says, her tone appeasing. “But you know what I mean. I keep saying this to everyone, that this explosion could’ve killed any of us.”
During Omar’s funeral, the three children sat next to their mother like eggs in a carton box. They looked so sad, and I spent the funeral avoiding them, crying into my black scarf, reminded of Carol’s face when she was just twelve and I had found her in the school’s bathroom stall, face flushed and tears streaming down her face. Salma, she’d said, in between sobs, All the girls in my class hate me. And then without thinking, without thinking at all, I had held Carol’s hand and marched towards the classroom where I punched the class bully right in front of Mrs. Ellen.
Omar’s death had been triggered by a brain aneurysm, a shock to everyone. When I got the news, I felt myself split in two: I was terribly sorry for Carol as a wife and mother, but I was also terribly sorry for Carol and me. Too much time had passed for me to mourn the love I once had for Omar. But his death was a reminder of how much Carol and I had lost because of him. If Omar had never come into our lives, with his long complicated sentences and perfect marble teeth and painful charm, Carol and I might have still been those two young girls in school, arriving hand in hand. But I loved him, and then he loved her, and then she loved him. And no one knew of this fact, other than the three of us—not their children, not our parents. During his funeral, I thought of the days preluding their wedding. How our parents spent nights begging Carol not to go ahead with the marriage, my mother’s voice turning so coarse I worried she would never be able to speak normally again. Mama would pull at her thin hair dramatically, moving around the house frantically like a wild chicken, screaming that Carol was going to ruin everything her and her father had built for us. But Carol, unlike me, didn’t care that Omar was Muslim, didn’t care that her marriage with him would shame our parents and break their hearts and push them away from their community. Later, as the years passed and Carol and Omar gave birth to Hana, a plump little girl, my parents seemed to forgive her, as though they’d somehow forgotten how dramatic the whole marriage affair had been, the year leading up to it and the one that followed.
We are both silent for another minute and I wonder where my sister’s thoughts have taken her.
Two years ago, when there had been a youth-led national campaign for civil marriage, Carol was interviewed on television and announced a national hero for marrying a Muslim man in the middle of the Civil War, back when the religious affiliation on your identity card or even your first name was enough to have you killed at a checkpoint. In the interview, my sister said that her marriage had been the best decision of her life. She was so poised in front of the camera, grey hair falling over her oval face like silk, fingers clasped gently over her crossed legs. My sister is not beautiful, both of us inherited large noses and broad shoulders from my father’s sisters. And she is always overdressed, sometimes ridiculously so in bright Moroccan djellabas or silky teal kimonos. But she moves like a peacock, with lightness, even innocence. It always made people want to follow her. Salma, how is Carol, where is she off to now? How are her children, what are they doing with their lives? I saw Carol, she’s as vibrant as ever, starting another new project.
“Yesterday I cooked bazella w riz, two huge pots, enough to feed the entire neighborhood,” I continue, frustrated at my desperation to keep our dying conversation going. I had burnt most of the rice and spent a long time scraping off the black grains from the bottom with my nails. It was nice though, distracting, and what remained was still enough to feed all the volunteers walking in and out of the building.
“Yeah? That’s nice. But Salma, I really can’t stop thinking of Sanad’s eyes, I swear, something about them.”
Another long pause. That image of her funeral is still there, floating like a lifeboat in the middle of an ocean I am drowning in. I want to tell her something, but whatever that something is, it feels hard to extract. I can’t even see the words, only an abstract shapelessness somewhere in the distance.
“Salma, you know, I’ve been thinking a lot of baba for some reason. Since the explosion, he comes into almost all my dreams, always smiling as though he has a sweet secret he knows time will reveal to me soon. But I don’t know, it makes me feel even sadder. It’s the same expression he’d have on his face when he would tell us stories. Do you remember his theory, the one he liked to repeat with a cocky smile, the one about the blackhole?”
Of course I remember the theory, perfectly well in fact, but I doubt you do. It is part of a longer story he used to tell, mixing science and fiction, starting in one setting and ending in another, but you were never patient enough to stick until the end, Carol.
“Which one?” I ask her.
“The one about being born as — ah, look, Hana is calling,” she says. And then, “Habibti, I will come and visit you soon, okay?” The only person I needed to speak to after the explosion had been you. All these years later, decades and decades after your betrayal, and still you are at the center of my life while I continue to be on the periphery of yours.
“Let me know if you need anything,” I say curtly.
“Take care ya Salma, please. And call me tomorrow. Okay?”
I get up from the wooden chair to stretch, massaging my left shoulder with my right hand. Night has fallen quietly but I can hear people on the streets, loud, still sweeping the glass. In the room next to me, Inalam is on the phone with her daughters in Ethiopia, her tone light in her native language. Maybe tonight we will play cards on the balcony as we often did before the explosion. It is her left hand, after all, that is broken.
Before heading to the kitchen, I walk towards the entrance of the apartment and bend down to peer through the hole in the door, pulling out the black plastic bag. But quickly, as though caught by a group of observers, I stuff the bag back in and stand up to redeem myself, straightening the framed painting of a fruit bowl over the door. Dusty-looking peaches and apples and grapes.
The house looks much bigger now that so much of its furniture has been removed. There is more space to walk around, and there are less surfaces to wipe. A couple of mismatched chairs here and there, and the grand wooden table has survived too. I always wanted to adorn it with two sunflowers placed elegantly next to each other in the center, but I never did. Maybe now is the time. I wonder what happened to the flower shop down the road. Did its red roses and orchids survive? Will anyone else come up to check on the house today or tomorrow? Will they fix the hole in the door? Or will I have to eventually find a carpenter who can do it for me at a good enough price?
Nur Turkmani is a Lebanese-Syrian researcher and writer in Beirut. Her research looks at climate change, gender, social movements, and development in the Middle East. She is also Rusted Radishes' Webzine Managing Editor and currently studies creative writing at the University of Oxford. Her creative work has been published in London Poetry, Muzzle Magazine, The Adroit Journal, Discontent Magazine, and others.