Solitude Atlas #3 Beirut/Lebanon


Gaza, Day 2, Round Too Many to Count

Every time they start bombing Gaza again, I think about how this new list of casualties are all people who survived the last round, and the one before it, and the one before it. They huddled in doorways, in hallways, in bathrooms, in those places you’re taught to shelter when you have no shelter; they held each other, they prayed, they probably laughed or cried hysterically at one point; they drank (water, tea, alcohol), they played grim-faced rounds of cards during nights that never seemed to end; they clutched well-worn talismans or repeated certain phrases or recreated patterns of movement that they hoped were ritual enough to help ward off the bombs. And they waited. And waited.

(I know this waiting, I remember this waiting, this sustained vibration of the body as you work to hold yourself together, to hold yourself to a single point in space as the world explodes around you and you feel you might fly apart with it at any moment; you will yourself not to think about it, about what it really means, lest you start screaming and never stop. I know it and yet it is nothing compared to what the people of Gaza live, have lived, are living.)

I think about how they survived before and how that survival must have seemed like some sort of triumph, even as it felt like a cheat, and when the bombing ended and they went back out into the world of the living it felt like this escape (like every escape before it) meant that they were meant to live, meant to go on, that they still had something yet to accomplish, to feel, to be. That their survival was somehow evidence of their continued survival, that they had been overlooked by death as much as they had been chosen by life. That even as they mourned their friends and houses and neighbors they said, “Alhamdulillah,” and looked around at their families and thought, “we have come through, Alhamdulillah.” Because we do this, we humans, we build these narratives lest we go utterly mad, we convince ourselves we mean something, that our lives mean something, even in the midst of war. This is what these latest victims (and the ones to come) have survived. They have survived not only countless rounds of bombs, not only the sear of animal, acrid fear, not only a brutal occupation in the world’s largest open-air prison, not only siege and deprivation and oppression, not only erasure of their history, memory, land and food, not only the callousness of world governments and the cold, reptilian gaze of the international media, not only Arab leaders using them as nondescript bodies piled atop one another to help them claw their way to the top and who were then promptly forgotten (even as those leaders sit on their thrones, crushing those very same bodies with their catchphrase-leaden weight), not only the vileness of an Israeli state-sponsored racism so commonplace and virulent it has become as inevitable and incurable as the cold, not only the inhuman generalization that would have us believe that they are all terrorists, from the youngest babe-in-arms to the oldest teta and jiddo. Not only all that. They have also survived the complete obliteration of meaning and come out alive – only to finally die in this, the latest round of bombs.

Here are their names, lest we forget they have them:

Character Sketch II

I once knew this woman who was incredibly bitter. Everything she did was out of spite. She cleaned her house like a surgeon out of spite for her children, to shame them into being neater. She bathed and dressed her children like little angels out of spite for her husband, to make him regret not spending more time with them. She had sex with her husband every night out of spite for her best friend, who was on Prozac and had lost all her sex drive. The result was she had a clean home, beautiful children, and a happy husband, and all of these things only served to fill her with more bitterness. She dropped dead of a heart attack the day she turned fifty, and her husband has refused to look at another woman since, saying no one else could fill her shoes.

Character Sketch I

There was this girl I knew who used to be extremely messy. Her place got to be such a pigsty that she rarely brought anyone up anymore, or barely stand to be in it herself. She would leave early in the morning and come home late at night, and always when she came home she would shut her eyes and listen for rats at the door before wading in. When she finally moved to a new place she decided she’d had enough of everyone saying she was messy. She began to clean her place up everyday, and she even discovered she enjoyed it. She could now have people come over, and whenever they finished their cup of coffee or tea she would pick the mug up and wash it up immediately.
“I can’t stand any mess or dirt anymore,” she told me, wiping the spot in front of me where I’d just let a crumb fall. I noticed her hands were chapped and raw as an old washerwoman’s.

Misguided things that I have done and the lessons learned (I)

Misguided thing: My first year of university, I minored in theology for a semester so I could better bury biblical references into my prose in order to enrich it. I thought that this was just what I needed to overcome my muteness and start speaking in tongues, so to speak. Carried around Walter Kasper’s The God of Jesus Christ and made sure to place it at the top of any pile of books I happened to arrange.

Lessons learned: That belief in god is even more a mystery to theists than to non-believers. That if you want to study theology, at some point you come to a dark woods where you have to set the baggage of your rational mind down and venture forth alone, with nothing but feel and heart to guide you. That if you are not prepared to do this, you’d best turn back while you can still see a horizon. And I learned also (still learning, always learning) that writing cannot be approached like a hoax civilization: carefully placing bones and shards of Jerusalem pottery into the soil and scattering the earth above them just so, hoping they will be found by some intrepid explorer who will then marvel at the advancement of your culture. That one must dig and build with whatever tools one has (spades, nails, broken crescent moons) trusting to intuition to a degree higher than what rationality is actually comfortable with. That writing is very much like faith, true faith, the faith of madmen ready to kill their sons at a word from the beloved, the faith of dark nights and doubt and discomfort. That this word-divination is probably the closest I will come, and ever want to come, to the divine.

Warghetti: A Recipe

What you’ll need:

– Two bottles of Sohat water*

– 1 package macaroni**

– 1 tin Al-Tawoos Al Zahabi tomato paste

– zaa’tar

– 1/2 cup (or more) olive oil

To make:

Pull two bottles of Sohat water out of the cabinet under the sink and tug on the little white sealant tag with your teeth to open. Keep one of these in your mouth the whole time–it’s a good oral marker of time, it keeps hunger at bay, and is a perfect stand-in for Huck Finn’s ever-present blade of chewing-grass.***

Now pick a pot. Make sure this is not the pot used to sterilize the baby’s bottles and pacifiers. Otherwise, you’ll never hear the end of it. Empty the water into the pot and pour a very generous glug of olive oil into the water. Set the pot aside while you light the burner. Be very careful, using only the long-nozzled stove lighter and clicking it on just as you turn the knob. Place the pot of water on the burner and cover it. Now pull out the saucepan. Pour olive oil into the saucepan, to a depth that would make a nice wading pool for a person 10 cm tall. Make sure there are no floating bits of Teflon in the oil. (If there are, pull them out with your fingers after they’re done with their “Singing in the Rain” routine and then wipe your fingers on the counter.) Place the pan on the burner and wait two minutes, or, in the absence of a working clock anywhere nearby, wait as long as it takes to have fully flattened the Sohat sealant tag with your teeth. Now add the can of tomato paste.

At this point, the water should be boiling. Take all the macaroni out of the package and break the strands in half before you drop them into the pot. (A few well-placed prods of the fork at this point helps avoid them cooking up in gummy clumps.)

Turn your attention back to the pan where the tomato paste is now sizzling and spitting red pinpricks of fire on everything within the vicinity, including the clean counter, your clean shirt, and, worst of all – right into the baby’s pot. Hiss with frustration as you dump in a handful of zaa’tar and a generous toss of salt. Realize how this reminds you of an illustration in your Favorite Tales from Shakespeare and embrace it fully, shaking the pan around like you’re casting a spell and expecting it to ruin someone’s life any minute now. (A cackle is optional, but highly recommended.)

Turn off the burner, wipe down the counters, wipe down the pot and take your shirt off, rubbing it desperately with the fat, unwieldy square of olive oil soap under the running water, remembering only too late that grease stains should be treated first while dry. (Stand there shivering in your bra and remember suddenly an absurd punishment your mother once meted out for some similar transgression. Category: carelessness, mess and irresponsibility; possible resentment of the baby manifested in a lack of respect for his safety. When she took away and hid your Longman’s Simplified English version of Rebecca right when you were at the point where the narrator descends the stairs wearing the costume the devious Mrs. Danvers had suggested and Maxim de Winter goes crazy, thinking his new wife was deliberately trying to extract information about the mysterious Rebecca’s mysterious death. Remember that afterwards you never finished Rebecca out of spite, never found out what really happened to Rebecca, going on instead to the Longman’s Simplified English version of Lorna Doone. And while you have a clear memory of standing in Four Steps Down and ragefully picking it out, mostly for the shape of the muskets on the cover and how they seemed to capture the full curve of your resentment, you have no actual recollection of the book itself, and certainly nothing like the crystalline image of the new Mrs. de Winter in a dress she had had especially replicated from a portrait to impress (or so she was led to believe) her restless, brooding husband, descending the stairs at Manderley during the costume ball and raising hope-brimming eyes to meet a roomful of shocked guests and an inexplicably furious Maxim, with Mrs. Danvers watching and smirking from the shadows. Resolve to finish that damned book once and for all and find out what happened at Manderley, though you know by now you’ll probably have more sympathy for the impetuous Rebecca de Winter and not the simpering heroine trying to apologetically fill her shoes.)

Turn your attention back to the macaroni, mushy now to just this side of baby food. Drain all but the last few dregs of water from the macaroni and mix it with the sauce. Everything should be a bright, oily orange, the sort that will leave a thin film of grease around your lips that will blot a warning on any napkin brought to your mouth for days and days afterwards.

Before you dig in, don’t forget to set the right mood! This is a dish best enjoyed by candlelight. To recreate the full, authentic experience, switch off the circuit breaker so that not a single ray of electric light might relieve the darkness. The ambient roar of generators may be replicated by the relentless, pounding music that emanates from the neighbor’s house (remember to tell them to turn up the bass so it rattles your diaphragm and unhinges your thoughts) while the sense of sinking, Sunday-night despair requires nothing but a hangover. Just make sure to plan ahead.

Once the conditions are perfect, you may raise a forkful to your mouth. As you do, think suddenly about how, in a way, it was much better back when you had both reason and resource enough to live inside your own head. When you learned to set aside the hope that the world outside might offer any comfort except in those moments of permissiveness afforded by chaos. And how pressing that hope down, burying it into the molten reaches of your deepest self, created a new hope, a hope compressed so hard and sharp and small it emerged sparkling like faith. The faith that you could, with nothing but your own mind, create everything you might need that the world was unable to give. Remember, with a jolt, how that faith was once pure and vital, not the counterfeit of habit. Feel your stomach growl.

Now taste the heavy, oily past and be transported.


*You may use any other brand, or even tap water if you now live in a place where it doesn’t taste like rust and (what you assume to be) mammalian corpses

**What your mother and everybody else calls long spaghetti noodles

***Of course, a cigarette performs all these functions equally well, and, unlike the Sohat sealant tag, is not obsolete as of this writing


Forthcoming in the October 2013 issue of Rusted Radishes.

Reprinted here with permission.