Thursday, September 22, 2011

The Little Things (Lebanon)

My first week here I slid quite happily into Sabine’s daily rhythm of walking down the street to her parents’ for dinner, spending weekends at their 2nd house in the mountains, and nipping downstairs to her sister Cynthia’s apartment for coffee in the morning or a bite around lunchtime. When Sabibi left for Jordan, I expected to step back into a more solitary routine, as my direct link to the family was temporary severed, but to the contrary the hospitality only grew more generous and insistent.

Sabine’s mum calls me every day, at the same time, like clockwork. The clock she follows doesn’t correspond to the hour of the day so much as the time that’s past since I last ate (usually, it’s in the 5-10 minutes after I’ve unthinkingly scarfed a bread-and-yogurt wrap between calls and emails upstairs). Our pattern has taken on the air of a small but important daily ritual. The phone rings. My stuffed stomach chides me as I sigh and pick up:
- Ammiiiiiraaa!”
- “Ailin, where are you?’
- “I’m just upstairs.”
- “Ok. Come and eat.”
- “Oh no, I’ve just eaten!”
- “You’re not coming?”
- “Um, I’m not hungry…but I’ll come for a coffee.”
- “Ok, Y’alla, bye.”

I actually think the eating beforehand is a subconscious strategy on my part to communicate that I’m going over there for more than just the food. I carry an enormous affection for the Choucair clan, due in large part, I think, to the similarities between Sabine’s family and my mother’s family in Japan, with whom I spent every summer of my childhood. I struggle to express this affection, however, and this bit is due to the differences. In Japan expressing love is very easy, you just do chores. Here all of the chores are done by Rahima and Hannah—the live-in maids—who are constantly shooing me away from the sink, incredulous laughter dancing in their eyes. So instead of doing the dishes, I just hang out. I play with Mada and Georges, Sabine’s adorable Niece and Nephew (ages 7 and 3), whose fluency in French actually allows for more nuanced and adult discussions than those that I am able to have with their grandparents. I sit beside Naoum, the content, quiet patriarch, and watch the news in Arabic, entertaining myself by trying to recognize the letters of the backwards lilting script as it scrolls across the screen. I ramble about my various projects to Cynthia who—despite her years as a documentarian and her deep knowledge of the complexity of subjects I treat so simply—nods and listens and politely refrains from correcting me.

On Saturday Amira took me shopping to her favorite secret hotspots—a new department store (the kind that is already advertising 50%-off sales within the first week of opening), followed by a tucked-away “All American” store which, she bragged in whispers, was chock-full of US good at US prices—the import taxes magically evaporating under the mysterious dealings of Hezbollah.

The funniest things will melt your heart. For me, it was watching Sabine’s mother picking her way through these stores for deals, like an intense and curious squirrel, reminding me so much of my own mom on her shopping trips in Japan. “What’s this?” She asks, holding up a pair of BBQ prongs. “It’s for barbecues; for picking up meat.” I explain. “Ah very good,” she states, checking the price despite the fact that cooking outside to be in the sun is a totally foreign concept in this country, where people take every opportunity to hide in the shade, “and not expensive!” After a second of thought, she puts it back. We do this for literally an hour and a half, each passing minute making me simultaneously more bored and irritated, and more totally in love with her.

I find myself thinking about 2006, trying to imagine what that year was like for Sabine. I was in London with her that summer, when she received the news that the war had kicked off, and that her ticket home was unredeemable as the airport had been bombed. That whole month Sabine was stuck in London with us, and I am realizing now that I will never know what she was going through, not ever. It is incomprehensible to me to imagine my baby nephew and niece and sister and parents in a far away country in mortal peril at the hands of other human beings. It is not because I lack compassion or imagination. It is because war is utterly senseless, it has no place in people’s lives, least of all in the sacred and vulnerable space of one’s family. I think of all of the images of war that reach us; images of veiled mothers wailing with their bleeding children in their hands. I figure the journalists missed a trick. No one who has not lived it can connect with the image of a person 5 minutes after they’ve been bombed. The picture they should have shown us is the one that was taken 5 minutes before, as the child ran off giggling with a stolen piece of knefe; his grandmother looking up from her game of “bejeweled” on her ipad to scold him and tell him to finish his rice first.

Amira finally feels satisfied with her selection, and I follow her, relieved, to the till where she pays. She opens her wallet, and I am jolted by one silly little detail—the big bills at the back are clipped together by a paperclip. I know without having to ask that the paperclip is used to mark out some round number of dollars. 100 or perhaps 1000. I know this because it’s the exact same system my mother uses, and Amira is buying her carefully selected deals out of the exact same carefully organized bounty that my mother carries around with her back home. So funny that after all of the stories and photos and bleeding children and wailing mothers have failed in any way to move or even touch me, thinking back on this tiny little paperclip has me literally sobbing as I write this.

The funniest things will break your heart.