Here’s My House: It is Not mine

"El Hay" by Sarah Richani

I don’t know the man it belongs to, my dad does. The house has seven floors.

Ground: Here is the entrance hall that is overseen by the caretaker. He locks the main door by night and opens it in the early morning hours.

Floor 1: The kind family that tries to invite me to gatherings

Floor 2: The young man with a motorcycle. His dad yells at him and tells him to find a job.

Floor 3: A family, I only know their car. It is of a sleek shade of dark grey.

Floor 4: My family and my dad, the doctor. Facing us lives the family whose dad was torn up by his job as a soldier.

Floor 5: The family with the two girls prepped for life by a well-sanitized school whose dad used to own a grocery store, which is now long gone.

Floor 6 -

Floor 7 -

The Rooftop.

In the building's backyard, spanned by clothesline ropes, there is a stone wall. The young man from the second floor leans against it as he smokes weed in broad daylight. Other than him, SUVs parked in rows populate the yard. I walk past them and enter the main hall. I once saw a hairy spider lurking to the left of the elevator; I raise my shoulders to my ears as I think about it. But the hall of mirrors is scented with insecticide. The mirrors here are longer than the mirror in my room. I want to take a quick look at myself, but as I walk towards one of the mirrors, the caretaker catches me.

The Caretaker: Hello, I have been meaning to tell you, I have been meaning to tell you this -- you have water damage.

I say: We don’t have a problem.

The Caretaker: Water. Your neighbors from the first floor, you know them, the family, yes, the family, they have water dripping from their ceiling. Your neighbors from the second and the third floor have the same problem. The water must be coming from the drain of the fourth floor, it must be coming from your drain.

I say: Thank you, I will tell my dad about it. We don’t have any water damage -- who knows.

The Caretaker: Maybe it is the piping.

I say: Thank you, I will tell my dad, thank you.

Two dads run into each other in front of the elevator. Their hands are soft and say, “You go first.” As I wait for them to travel upward, a ringing noise tells me that someone is calling up the caretaker for Pepsi. The man who once had a swollen chest and a grocery store joins me in the narrow confines of the elevator.

He asks: Are you in ninth grade by now? And your sisters? And your sisters?

I say: No, I was in ninth grade nine years ago, and they’re good. They’re good.

Nine years ago, our direct neighbor, the soldier, could still go to work. His sons used to come back late at night, and their dad had enough life in him to punish them. I heard their comebacks behind the closed door. I eye this very door as I arrive on the fourth floor. This door is attached to a golden doorknob that I am envious of, but there is no voice behind it. The door to our apartment feels loose. The keyhole is young and alive with the turns and twirls of keys. I first stepped into our apartment back in 2009 when my family and I moved to the city—I was eleven years old. I remember swallowing tears at the sight of the bullet hole in the window of my room. But I was happy to find that the couches in the living room were red, my favorite color then. It was also around then, during one of my never-ending school years when the ceiling of my room was softened by a steady stream of water. The piping of the neighbor who had just lost his grocery store suffered a burst. It is probable that my dad and the neighbor smiled at each other when they met, and that their conversation sounded like this:

Dad: I don’t want to bother you, I hate to bother you ---

The Neighbor: On the contrary, anything for you!

But the spurt that came from the ceiling did not dry up for another six months. I spent my afternoons writing lyrics on my bedroom walls with a sharpie. I often found my dad facing my walls, trying to decipher my writing. When a curse word stood out against other crabbed letters, he grew pale with anger.

Dad: This house tires me out, your ceiling is full of mold. That’s why you can’t breathe at night. And it is more than that. I want to be visited by my friends here. I want them to have orange juice on the red couches, but I don’t invite them. You throw your things all over the living room floor, pink toy horses and castles for the horses. My phone rings and it's your school that’s calling to demand tuition fees and the car is broken. I won’t answer my phone, and I won’t get the car fixed. It is full of empty Pepsi cans and candy wrappers, I won't embarrass myself. And you kids don’t raise your eyes when I come home. You raise your eyes for the screens, for your toys and the songs you listen to. Just you wait. Tomorrow I will hire a house painter to take care of your wall!

It is late in the evening, and my father has sunken into the red  couch after a long day and nine years of work without a day off. He has a wallet full of paper money, and he knows that all of it will be spent on groceries and detergent. I see that his face is relaxed during this time of the day. His phone rings. He collects his limbs from the depths of the couch, he gathers himself back together and answers the phone. In a schoolboy-voice, he says “Bonjour, maman.” I gather that my grandma has olive oil and an avocado for us and that she wants us to have them now, not tomorrow. My father gets up with heavy lids and legs, grabs his keys, and slips back into his street shoes to pick up the avocado and the oil.

My dad has often told me about the house my grandma grew up in. When my grandma was a child, her father, the cloth merchant, owned a mansion in the city that had  high ceilings, and my grandma was part of the inventory of this house. In the dark, her heart pounded like mad. She could not fall asleep, the ceiling was too far away from her. During some nights, I hear someone treating the door of the kind family from the first floor with kicks and punches. The noise keeps me awake, and then I remember my grandma’s racing heart. The neighbors never open their door when these violent demands to be let in are raised, and I always wonder whose fist, whose foot is doing the pleading. It is this mingling of different distant lives that  makes the family fathers of this building dream of owning property in the village where their parents belonged, a place where the neighbors know their names and their father's names. The family fathers choose to work in the city where they rent apartments in a gray-beige multi-story building, but work has promised a future life in the village. In the mind of a family father, it is the proper thing to keep a promise. But ownership sets its sails at the current of money. When inheritance is contested, the promise of private property, the reward for giving the power of the hands and the mind to the city, is broken. And there is no one  to account for this breach of trust. After the beating of the door in the first floor has ended, a relieved silence unfurls in the building with the seven floors and the family fathers who don't know whom to ask for help.

My dad is distracted as he drives back home. The avocado is wrapped into a balled up plastic bag and sits on the passenger seat, the gallon of olive oil is stowed away in the trunk. My dad’s phone rings and it rings once more. A woman who works at the administration of my former high school is calling. She wants to know what she can do to alleviate the stinging pain she feels in her toes.

Dad: Do you wear uncomfortable shoes at work?

The Woman: Yes, most of the time. Might this be the problem?

Dad: Try wearing flats or trainers for a while.

She thanks him. My dad hangs up and realizes that the gallon of olive oil is leaking, that the trunk, the back seats and the foot mats of the car are soaked with oil. He does not say a word. He arrives in the yard and finds a parking spot tonight. A white cat has turned grey from dust and diesel oil, and she has a gaping sore close to her spine. The motorcycle of the boy from the second floor is missing. My dad marches past the internet café right next to our house. Teenage boys have gathered in a circle of white plastic chairs here to smoke and play cards. They sit close to each other and laugh. Their gatherings are broken up by the military every other night. In passing, my dad hears the boys cursing. He walks faster, and his shoulders tense up. The hall of mirrors smells like men’s perfume.

Facing the main door, to the left of the elevator, there is a small door in the wall. The door is always locked. It might lead down to the basement, but in my mind, it is a secret doorway to the rooftop where the water canisters are stored. When our water pipes were clogged during one particularly hot summer, the plumber climbed all of the stairs to the rooftop. Surrounded by rooftop dishes, he drew an air gun and pointed it at the water canister assigned to our pipes and faucets. He shot it twice. Cascades of water came gushing down the faucets, filling our bathtub, our toilet and our sinks with a mixture of rocks and water, bloodied by rust. My dad jumped to his feet, left behind the red couch that is no longer red, but green, and rushed towards the plumber. When he shook the plumber’s hand and happily asked him how he came up with this idea, the plumber smiled and said “I learned it from another plumber.”

Seeing the rusty water made me feel uneasy. I don’t like red as much anymore, but I like yellow. Like gold.

Amina Hassan

Amina Hassan is a German-Lebanese playwright, poet, and director based in Beirut. Having grown up in a household rich in contrast has increased her ability to let her body act as a container of tension that feeds the writing process. In her work, she focuses on the movement of money and history on the ground and its relationship to our physical bodies.

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Amina Hassan is a German-Lebanese playwright, poet, and director based in Beirut. Having grown up in a household rich in contrast has increased her ability to let her body act as a container of tension that feeds the writing process. In her work, she focuses on the movement of money and history on the ground and its relationship to our physical bodies.

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