|Apr/May 2018 Spotlight|
Found: in ABQ – studio art jewelry by Jessica deGruyter
To Mira, In Memoriam: "Age does not make us childish, as they say, / It finds that we're still children." —Faust
The year was 1985, over the summer vacation, and it would be the last time my sister and I saw my father. The following year, having failed on a Monday morning in July to open the door and step out of his house in Kinshasa, Zaire, where he had been living for the past five years, the guards would break the windows, enter his bedroom, and find him seated on the floor with his hands pressed at his sides in a last—failed—attempt to stand up.
It was the end of an extraordinary life that began with a tragedy, rose to formidable promises in middle age, and ended in immense sadness and an unbearable feeling of waste. The journey was not a long one (59 years), but its ups and downs and tortuous path had been so treacherous that it seemed more like a crowned eagle had snatched him off the surface of the earth and taken him on a wild ride, violently swinging him around before throwing him back, a lifeless corpse. Thirty years later—today—the lingering sadness is the veil through which I see the world, a veil so thick it sometimes feels more like a shroud.
Throughout his life, my father would fondly recall the date he, along with his brothers and sisters (seven of them) arrived on an immigrant ship in Dakar, Senegal, in West Africa. The city, then a French protectorate, would be their home for the next several decades, and for my father, the only home he carried in his heart. That was December 15, 1935. The children had embarked from the port of Tyre in South Lebanon and made their way to the African continent via the port of Marseilles.
They were part of a huge migration of Shiite families who left tiny Lebanon for better shores, seeking fortunes wherever they could find it. The children travelled in the lowest deck near the kitchens. A big-hearted Italian Mamma with a large bosom, whom my father, then a seven-year-old child, would warmly recall throughout his life, took care of him on the Atlantic crossing. It was the only time I ever heard him mention someone who was like a mother to him.
The children traveled to the Senegalese capital to join their father and his new bride, who had preceded them. Their own mother had died five years earlier when my father was two years old, during a catastrophic event that would take on mythical proportions over time and overshadow all their lives. His mother—my grandmother, Mira—died in Tyre, Lebanon, a few hours after giving birth on a dark stormy night in February, 1929. It was one of those nights where all the elements of nature seem to conspire in unison to produce a tragedy. It was said that the storm was like no other, that the waves in their mad anger reached the sky, that the menacing black clouds were so low and somber they had almost touched the earth and blended with it; the blackness would disappear suddenly every few seconds and give way to a world illuminated like it was the beginning of time.
The storm was battering the seaside town when one of those lightning bolts hit the house sheltering my grandmother, her newborn, and the other seven children. The story goes that my grandfather, angry at having had a girl after my grandmother had begot him four boys, had left the house that morning in anger to visit friends. The house caught fire. People ran from all over the neighborhood to rescue the family. One of my uncles would later point out the house to me, or what was left of it, and describe how the townspeople were able to rescue the children one by one from the windows, but failed to reach my grandmother and the newborn, who had been engulfed by the flames. Mira was thirty-two.
I say it was an event of mythical proportions because of what happened afterwards. My new grandmother, Khanum, later would give birth in Dakar to nine boys, all of whom died shortly after birth. I still remember my father describing to us the baby boys who were born and would die within a few months. They were, he would declaim, of supernatural beauty, pointing out simultaneously that they were unfit for earthly life while the pain of their death was made more poignant by the fact that the family did not lose black, ugly little ducklings, but baby boys who could have ruled the world by their perfection.
Unbeknownst to everyone, of course, was the fact that Khanum carried the XSCID chromosome, which does not transmit to its male fetuses the necessary immunity to sustain life. It does not, however, affect female progeny. Indeed, Khanum would also give birth to two daughters who both survived. The youngest, S, my favorite aunt, with soft blue eyes and a heart-melting smile, would die 60 years later in Baghdad, a victim of US sanctions when the medicine needed to treat her leukemia was on the list of items that could not be imported into Iraq.
The death of each of the nine baby boys, all before they turned one, hit the family like a divine and an apocalyptic verdict. Somehow, over the years, those deaths were interpreted by my father and many others of his generation I met over the years as God's punishment for my grandfather's anger at having had a daughter after Mira had beget him four boys. They, said my father, had been punished by God because he was angered by the birth of a daughter and had left his family alone, without his protection, during that stormy night. So the legend grew.
Dakar in the 1930s was a French protectorate with nascent institutions. The story of the Lebanese families' immigration to Africa at the beginning of the 20th century has yet to be told. Today Senegal houses an important Lebanese immigrant community who has made their home permanently on its shores and has slowly integrated within the fabric of Senegalese society at large. But the beginnings were tough. My grandfather, who had been a grain merchant in South Lebanon, opened a grocery store, and for the first few years, the whole family would live in its back room. The children went to school, and French became their first language, a language they reveled in and cherished to their deaths. Their appetite for education was boundless as witnessed by my uncle, who, at 94 years old, would wait impatiently for the beginning of the semester at St. Joseph University in Beirut to attend and audit history courses.
Sadly, though, none of the children could finish high school. They were needed at work to support the growing family. Slowly but surely, the surviving five young men and their father would lift themselves out of poverty, saving enough money not only to get by, but also to each have their own commercial business as grocers, importers, and retailers, and to be the first amongst the Lebanese merchants to buy an important building on Avenue Maginot in downtown Dakar.
The building was sold only recently in 2010, and its proceeds were distributed among three of the surviving children and countless surviving grandchildren. Today, as I am writing these words, only one child, N, Khanum's other daughter, survives. She lives in Damascus, and is still going through the raging civil war. God bless her and her family.
In 1953 at age 24, my father, then a dashing young man with a promising future, followed the path of all young men in the community and went back to Lebanon to pick a bride from amongst the Shiite community of South Lebanon. My mother came from an impoverished but prominent family and joined him two years later in Dakar. Although the marriage was arranged, my parents fell in love with each other almost immediately. My mother would tell us later that for the first seven years of the marriage, her heart kept beating faster when she heard my father's steps climbing the stairs in the evening, signaling his return from work.
My father was hoping for six sons, and my mother gave birth to four daughters. Nevertheless, he welcomed the first one with pride when everyone around them exclaimed that she was a miniature copy of himself. He melted before the grace and softness of Ghada, the second one, was charmed by the cheekiness of N, the third one, and rolled his eyes in disbelief at the sight of H, the fourth and last one. She, however, would be his last solace in life, and during that summer when we visited him in Kinshasa in 1985, he would fondly recall her gaiety and energy and her seemingly unbound appetite for life.
Very soon my father forgot all about having a boy and declared himself happy: four healthy, pretty, and so everyone admitted, bright girls. He had great plans for all of us, woke up every morning with renewed energy to go to work and provide the best for us. He was immensely ambitious and wanted the best schooling and future for each one of us.
But if we felt that my father was a rock of strength and gave unlimited supply of love, things were very different when it came to my mother. The tune I endlessly heard from my mother while growing up was that she "loved life." If she could not be bothered to be woken up by a crying child at night, it was that she "loved life," and by extension, needed her eight hours of sleep. If she would indiscriminately accept an invitation from anyone, it was because she loved life and wanted to experience it to the fullest. Even in her appetite for food, she was indiscriminate: nothing repulsed her. She loved and ate it all. When as a grown woman, I hurled accusations of neglect and severe indifference towards the fate of her children at her, she looked at me with a blank stare. If she gave an answer, it was invariably that she "loved life."
Her "love of life," or more precisely, her hedonism—since as almost everyone knows, life, like the earth itself, is drenched with blood and tears—was actually quite monstrous, for it excluded everything related to motherhood, and would turn out to be as the future showed, a powerful death wish that destroyed her whole family. It was as if she had taken a martinet and beat the hell out of that little group of people who was gravitating around her—an adoring husband and four little girls famished for love and attention. As her eldest daughter, I took the brunt of her anger. She had been raised without a father (her father died when she was four) in an impoverished household. I had a loving dad who would do anything for us, and not only was he wealthy, but also generous and ready to meet all our needs. That, my mother felt, was unjust. He was preparing for us a great future: we will be educated, we will travel, see the world, have good jobs, and be free to marry whomever we wanted. Who was I to be so lucky? That question that would follow me throughout my childhood and my adolescence. The dice were thrown: from the beginning my mother would see life as she or I, but never she and I. Any asset I had was her liability, and any liability I had was a gain for her.
Maybe nothing illustrates her state of mind better than her reaction after she was told, a few months before she died at 77, that the rapid loss of weight she was experiencing was the result of a cancer eating away at her. She was in a hospital bed. After she copiously cried, the first words that came out of her mouth was, "So D wins at the end..."
As a child, I would see my mother a couple of months a year, and I adored her. As a teenager and later an adult, I grew to loathe her intensely. The only feeling that remained constant in my life towards her was fear. I feared her the way one fears a beast of limited understanding and powerful instincts, a blind giant who could go on a rampage, unable to master her jealousy and her basest instincts.
It would not be too outlandish to describe her attitude toward her children by quoting the philosopher Aristippe who, when urged to care for his children and love them because they came out of him, would spit in the air and reply, "That, too, came out of me." She would, however, shower love and care over her nieces and nephews and any stranger crossing her path. It was almost as if her heart was like a public garden where anyone could walk in and sit—anyone, that is, except me.
Nothing was good enough for my cousins. Their love had to be earned, and they were greedy. It was as if she had decided there was no point in caring for her daughters since, by some divine law, they must love their mothers. Such was the world order, in her mind, that children are assured to love their parents, the way the sun is assured to rise every morning.
When I used to accuse her of loving them more than her own children, she would reply screaming, "How is that possible? You are my child. I cannot but love you." The last time she told me so, there was such panic and such fear in her voice, for by not loving me, she thought of herself as a monster. I almost felt sorry for her, so I smiled and told her, "It's okay, all that shit about maternal instincts is told just to make mothers feel ashamed and guilty about their feelings. There is no such thing as maternal instinct!" My mother remained silent for a few minutes, then came back at me and replied triumphantly, "Then it is your fault. I always believed it was you, not I. You were 18 months old, and already against me, you already had different opinions than mine... Even at that age, you treated me like a stepmother. You never showed the respect you owed your own mother." I bowed my head, and it seemed to me that Reason itself, facing in her a magnificent temple built as an homage to beauty, sheer instincts, and supreme self-gratification, had bowed its head in respect and retreated into silence.
Very early on, both my sister Ghada and I (five and seven) would be locked up in a boarding school in Lebanon to allow my mother to live a carefree life in Senegal. For the next ten years, she would savor it without any serious constraint from my father, for her energy and appetite for outings, restaurants, night clubs, people from all walks of life, was unbounded, and probably contagious. My father, healthy and of strong constitution, was able to quickly build a large fortune and accommodate all her whims. The scene that repeated itself every single evening during my childhood summers comes back to me clearly: my father, coming back from work, just wanting to relax and read his papers. But the moment he reached home, my mother was already dressed, having spent the afternoon at the hairdresser for "coup de peigne" and ready to hit the town. A brief argument would ensue, following which my father would invariably capitulate, and off they were gone. They were soon dubbed the "most beautiful couple in Dakar," to be followed, for my father, by "the richest man in Dakar."
How wealthy did my father become? We never asked him, and he never told us. But Lebanese merchants who meticulously counted each other's fortunes better than their own, talked about millions of dollars, which in the '60s was indeed a large fortune. But there were whispers, too. My father's behavior was improvident and reckless, and my mother's and his lifestyle were extravagant. The whispers also told of trips my father took to the most exclusive poker clubs of Geneva and Paris, where he was welcome with open arms. Those whispers later would become hysterical laughter when it was cried out to whomever wanted to listen—and they were legions in Dakar and Lebanon—that my father had left over a million dollars on those tables.
Meanwhile, in boarding school, we joined around 50 other mostly Shiite little girls whose parents worked in West Africa and had placed their children in Catholic boarding schools under the nuns' supervision—a guarantee of both good morals and superior scholarship.
We missed our parents intensely, but the separation was softened by the friendships formed that have lasted until today. On my way to Lebanon every year, I make it a point to stop by London to see my dear friend N, whose bed was near mine in the dormitory for over seven years, and with whom I shared countless games, laughs, and tears. A few months ago, I saw on Facebook an urgent appeal for blood for R, who had regaled me during my childhood with fantastic stories about escapades from school. I never bothered to ask whether they were true or not. It did not matter. I would wait for her every day during the 10:00 AM recess at the bottom of the stairs, and she would continue the story she had begun the day before, no doubt impressed by my admiration for her nerve and courage, for I would walk mouth agape during the whole recess. Sadly, R died six months ago.
As Muslims, although very young ones, in a Catholic institution, we were aware of our religious differences, and in a show of defiance, a way of snubbing our noses and sticking out our tongues at the nuns, all of us observed the Ramadan fast under their amused gaze.
But we were little girls first, and when the Catholic girls in my class were preparing for their first communion and I saw the lovely little white dresses they would be wearing during the ceremony, I insisted I be included and wear a similar outfit. The nuns were charmed by my request and wrote to my father, who, tickled by his daughter's coquettishness, acquiesced.
Every few months, we would receive letters from my father dripping with love and tenderness, telling us how proud he was that we were growing up to be fine, educated young ladies, and urging us to study hard and obey the nuns who were looking after our welfare.
Sometimes, those letters were accompanied by little packages. The gift that most dazzled us was a pair of mother of pearl opera mini binoculars with a little note from my father saying how much he was looking forward to seeing us as educated young ladies so he could proudly escort us to the opera, and to keep the binoculars for that day.
But then, summer would come, school would be done, and we were shipped from Lebanon to our parents. My sister and I would be ecstatic. We lived for those summers. They made our daily life at the convent a bit more bearable and the grey days of Beirut winter less cloudy. The nuns, the teachers, the school food, the uniforms, all of this was left behind, far away, and we would welcome endless days at the beach, meals at forbidden hours, unlimited amounts of soft drinks, and whole days spent reading, swallowing books from my father's library without any censorship. My father was at work, and my mother was unable to focus for more than two minutes at a time. She was always preparing and getting ready for that evening's outing. Any question she was asked, no matter how trivial or critical, she always answered as if she was asked about the weather that morning.
Although he had stopped going to school after the fourth grade, my father had diligently continued his education at home. His French was impeccable. He read Le Monde daily, and Le Nouvel Obs and L'Express weekly. Besides American police novels that he consumed voraciously, his library also contained all the new French novels, along with the whole "Que Sais Je" collection.
I will not invite my reader to imagine the splendor I attach, in my memories, to the little patch of seaside where my sister and I would spend whole days playing and frolicking amongst the waves, for hours at a time, oblivious of the pinkish stinkers swarming around us. When I grow up, I will tour the world, I would emphatically declare. When she got married, my sister postulated, everything around her would be in gold. "I want a golden dress, golden shoes, would it be possible to get a golden cake as well?" Being bitten by one of the stinkers would become a proof, painful but tangible, that we were not dreaming, that indeed we were no longer in a boarding school. When stung, we would jump out of the water, screaming and gesticulating, run to our parents for a swath of alcohol to swab the sting.
But if life looked so seductive and golden from the outside, something was eating at it from the inside. Like termites invading the walls of a wooden house, gnawing at it, multiplying and forming little colonies to set the stage for an invasion that would later lead to a total collapse of the structure, something was eating at our family. It was gnawing at anything it could reach and forming big holes in our structure that would later be filled with despair and misery. And that something was alcohol.
My father came from a very devout family and, until his early 30s, had not smoked a cigarette or tasted any "forbidden liquid." With his travels overseas, his contacts with European business people, and my mother's social vampirism, he had begun to drink. He drank socially at first, but slowly accelerated his drinking until it had become one of the evening's features. A couple of whiskies before dinner and the evenings looked less dark, less boring, more... Add to this the fact that, for my mother, bringing home a stumbling man hanging at her shoulders was the height of "modernism." Today, we would say cool. But in the '60s and '70s, the word was "modern."
In 1970, my sister G, 11, was diagnosed with Wilms tumor while we were vacationing in Lebanon. My father, 43, had reached the zenith of his social ascension by then and was at the top of his game. G's illness came as a shock and brought him back to a time when children got sick and died. Out of the 27 children that my grandfather had throughout his life from three different wives, only nine survived. For the first time in many years, my father got scared. He could not hire enough surgeons to do and oversee my sister's surgery—there were nine of them in the OR—nor spend enough money to make sure my sister had the best available care.
I still remember the morning of the surgery. As G was being wheeled into the operating room, my father walked along and tilted his head toward her with a smile aimed at comforting her, telling her not to be scared, that we would be there waiting for her when she woke up. I looked at her, and I remember she was smiling, and her face lit with a glow, almost ethereal, as if she had had at that very moment the revelation of absolute love. Such was our faith in him, his love, strength, unlimited generosity and grace, that nothing could touch us while he was on guard.
The operation was a success, and G emerged with one less kidney, but victorious. That was not enough, though, for my father. A few months later, he would take her to see a specialist in Paris. He rested only when he was told—and I still remember my father's voice breaking with emotion and gratitude as he was quoting the specialist—that the "American University Hospital in Beirut had done such a good job that the French could not have added or subtracted one tablet of aspirin."
This is when my parents decided my mother would settle in Beirut along with the children, to allow for G to complete her treatment, while my father would go back to the Ivory Coast.
He had settled his mind onto a new, more modern business, a factory. That he was a disastrous manager, that he was totally incapable of policing people, that people bored him to death, that he would rather give in to an argument just to get rid of the others and be left alone, never crossed his mind. He was essentially a solitary person who did very well working on his own, managing himself. Opening a factory with dozens of workers, importing machinery he was incapable of running, let alone recognizing, was a recipe for disaster for which he would never forgive himself.
Beirut in the early '70s was what Lebanese sociologist Waddah Charara would call a "city in waiting." At the crossroads of so many civilizations, innumerable groups of people were emerging, living, rubbing shoulders without ever brushing up against each other. Yet it was teeming with political manifestos, illegal little papers, some calling for the advent of communism, another trying to mobilize people against socialism, some proudly proclaiming Lebanon's full membership in the Arab world, others trying to prove Lebanon's uniqueness by tracing its history to the Phoenicians, with some calling on full solidarity with the Palestinian people, while others sternly warning against Palestinian involvement in Lebanese politics. In the public high schools, kids were so disgusted with their crowded classrooms and their inept books that they thought nothing of skipping whole days at school to support people in Nicaragua or in Chile in their struggle against "imperialism." Beirut looked like a maze of parallel highways with crowded cars looking for an exit without ever finding one, turning around again and again. Until it finally found an outlet in a civil war.
Parallel to these underground social and political activities, Beirut offered a panoply of outings and pleasurable outlets that were nonexistent in Dakar. My mother threw herself into the "almost city" with great passion, like young Marcus Curtius dashing into the abyss that closed upon him as soon as it devoured him. The point of attraction was the "Casino du Liban," where employees on fixed salaries were forbidden entrance, but where returning emigres were welcomed with open arms. Donning long sparkling dresses, she and a friend of hers would first visit the Casino, a mere 20 minutes away from home, for dinner. After that, they would try their luck at roulette until blackjack became her favorite gambling outlet. Six months later my mother became a true professional. Long gone was the prancing in those elaborate evening toilettes and the excitation of a lovely dinner out. She would wear the same black stern wool suit every night, enhanced by a multicolored scarf to hide her factory worker status. The "coup de peigne" remained though, daily, maybe as a vestige and remembrance of days gone by. A habit, a necessary rite without which the two-piece suit would betray the vulgarity of everyday labor.
Meanwhile, my father's factories were failing. He was sinking. A general state of paralysis overwhelmed him. His whole world, his family, his work, his marriage, everything seemed to be crumbling around him. This is when my mother, oblivious of her duties, of all the riches my father had thrown upon her, of the many friendships she had struck up over those years because of him and his work, of his love and devotion to her, said these words to us: "He is your father, after all. You need to go and take care of him."
I was 17 years old when at Christmas time I boarded a plane to go and try to "rescue" my father. My mother could not be bothered and was at a stage where she could no longer miss an evening at the Casino, where she presumably had made new friends and a new life for herself.
The man who welcomed me at Abidjan airport resembled my father but was not the person I had left two years earlier. The first thing that struck me was his uncombed hair, which had turned white. My father was 46, but his haggard look, his disheveled persona had removed any trace of youth from his face. He had put on weight, his eyes were encircled by a pitch-dark color, but it was the uncombed hair that reflected his unbearable anguish, a deep malaise, and a state of awaiting. I knew this because it was a trait my sisters and I always exhibited. At the first crisis or first sign that something was not going right, we stopped combing our hair.
To top it all off, this man who welcomed me at Abidjan airport was drunk, totally wasted, and as soon as we picked up our luggage—for me a very small package consisting of a pair of pants and a couple of tee shirts I had extorted from my mother at great pains—we went to his favorite bar, where for the next three hours he went on a very long tirade about life that had neither order nor calm. He knew that my mother was spending all we had at the Casino, but he was unable to stop it. And the discovery that he had lost all control over his own life, his family, his wife, over life in general, put him in a rage that he spat all around him. Those three hours ended my childhood when I realized with horror that my father was missing and that my mother was of no use.
A feeling of arrant solitude overwhelmed me. Not that kind of loneliness that fortifies you, allows you to reconnect with your inner being, rebuild those defenses that will slowly allow you to face the world. No, it was a crushing aloneness, like someone drowning, like the world was ending because there was no more world anymore. Like someone had hit you with a massive bat, dislocating every piece of your body, like you were an ant and someone had just stepped on you, and you were spattered across the ground, not dead though, and you had to start repairing yourself, but you had no idea how to. You would rather have been dead.
Two of my father's devoted employees, M and T, had followed him from Dakar to Abidjan, and they slept at the house in a room near the kitchen. As soon as I entered the house, they jumped at me and told me that things were not going well at all. My father had become enamored with his drinking. For M, a devout Muslim, that was intolerable. He added that he believed evil spirits had taken hold of him. Then he took me to his little corner where he showed me small pieces of paper where Qur'anic verses supposed to ward off the evil had been neatly arranged. He said he would hide those papers in my father's pants and jackets to protect him. A lifeline had been extended to me. I had a few seconds of hesitation, though. I was "modern," was I not? I believed in science. In school, I chose Spanish over Latin, and my skirts couldn't be short enough.
But also, I told myself, was it not Newton himself who had spent years trying to find the philosophical stone? What about those invisible numbers I had studied in maths class a year earlier? They were not real, but somehow, they existed. I shrugged my shoulders and got to work.
At the first ray of light, which coincided for M and T with the dawn prayer, we would congregate around the wobbly red kitchen table stabilized by a thick wad of papers under one of its legs, with our heads slightly tilted, like birds. We would solemnly and faithfully transcribe those magical verses that had the power to bring my father to reason. Absorbed with that sacred endeavor, I do not recall how M and T took to the task. After all, it was their livelihood at stake, but for me it was my very existence. My identity, who I was and what I was to become, depended solely on my father, the man I adored more than anything in the world, whom my sisters and I idolized. I had no other point of reference, no other refuge, no other horizon but him. And thus, the fervor with which I took to the task. The fervor of a child whose father is dying but had been offered the chance to save him if she could write those words well enough to extend the angels' good will. It took hours to write the little papers. The calligraphy had to be perfect for the words of God, intended to save the person whom I loved most in the world. But my prayers were never answered, and the lovingly attached pieces of paper scattered on the polished floor as my father put on his clothes.
I accompanied my father to the office every day at 8:00 AM, and he would start drinking almost as soon as we arrived. Still, talking was possible during the early hours, before whisky engulfed his reason and reduced him to a drunk. The shock of seeing him in this state was too much to bear. At 17, one looks for reasons, any reason, anything to rationalize what was happening. Like all primitive people for whom the accidental does not exist, I was sure my father was at the command of sinister forces. In his book La mentalite primitive, Levy Bruhi described how for people untouched by civilization and science, the crocodile is naturally peaceful. So, if it happens to eat a man, it means that a sorcerer has delivered it to him. I told my father that certainly someone had cast a spell on him, one so evil it had wholly engulfed him. And the following dialogue between a 46-year-old man and his teenage daughter ensued. As I was begging him to stand up to those evil waves, as I was crying and telling him how much we loved him, how much we counted on him, he had these words: "Of course there is no evil force external to me that is driving me. What you are saying is totally ridiculous. If there is a God, he would never coexist with evil forces. Never. This is ridiculous. Can't you see that the evil is in me? I am the evil person. I am the one who is evil... If God exists..." The sky was falling on my head. My father was a staunch Augustinian without knowing it, and I was the one who had retreated to my Shiite, primitive roots, looking for an explanation somewhere, anywhere except in my beloved father.
Faced with this first crisis, my modernity evaporated like a morning mist under a stanching smell. It was a singing, happily growing and flying nightingale. I shot it out of the sky, picked it up, deboned it, impaled it, and placed it on my school desk as an ornament.
I did not dare tell my father that in my high school senior year, my mother had removed me from a top Beirut high school and thrown me into a public one, where I was totally alienated. I did not tell him that our fifth floor neighbor in the building had felt sorry for me and bought me a sweater because every single penny my mother had was going toward her gambling. But my father seemed to have become totally powerless, unable to even see us. And the more I insisted, the less present he was. He would retreat into a realm where nothing could touch him. I would have been less horrified had I found him with two heads or dying of cholera.
Another thing happened during this trip that deepened my hopelessness, threw me into despair, and destroyed any reserves I had left in me to face the disintegration of our family. One day, my father had drunk more than usual at the office. That night, I woke up, agitated, feeling a presence in my room. My father with his bulging eyes, looking totally haggard, but also threatening, was looking at me, and had taken a posture ready to attack me. I was scared, and sitting up in my bed, I screamed at him to shake it off: "Mais papa," I cried, "tu es fou." My father was startled, immobilized, and replied, as if someone had suddenly hit him in the head with a hammer: "Oui, je suis fou." Had he suddenly realized he was about to attack his daughter? He then retreated in silence.
I left Abidjan terrified, aware that at that very moment I was on my own, in a solitude I could never conquer, facing an unknown future. For a few months after my return, I kept my watch on Abidjan time, walked in the streets of Beirut trying to communicate with my father telepathically. I cried, I begged him, I tried to reason with him from afar, I pleaded with him, I told him that we could do without money as long as he was still with us, that he was the most important thing in our lives, that we would rebuild, that he was still young, that everyone said he was the best merchant...
My anguish reached almost unbearable levels because I knew there was nothing maternal that would catch me if I fell, but only, and the future proved it, an abyss where wild animals were waiting to devour me. In his drunkenness, my father thought my mother's family would give us refuge and take care of us. Indeed, they did. They took my mother and my sisters in, but I was left out, because I looked like my father, breathed like him, talked like him, thought like him, and he needed to be taught a lesson to punish him for being irresponsible. And so his favorite child was turned out to the streets.
So it came that my mother approached me one evening and with a half-smile to belie the enormity of what she was saying, asked me, "Do you have a place to sleep tonight?" I was 18 at the time, but had the social skills of a five-year old. Spending seven years in a convent, where you had to curtsy every time you saw a nun, does not exactly prepare you for life. To say that it was a complete surprise would be a lie. Out of pride, that night, I said yes. Still her words hit me like a lightning bolt. They still echo in my ears, and I still shiver with hatred today.
Anyone who has visited the Middle East knows that homeless kids are not part of the landscape. The family and the tribe are the only social and economic entities you can live within. Apart from them, you are a nobody. I had said yes, but I had no idea on whose door I could knock at 9:00 PM.
Where did I sleep that first night? I had taken my comforter with me, and I took refuge under a very large truck. From under the truck I could look at the fourth floor where my mother, aunt, uncle, and sisters were sleeping and see the place lit, shadows moving around, and then, finally, darkness.
Althea put her son Meleaguer to death to avenge the murder of her two brothers. But Ovid tells us that Althea filled heavens and earth with her tears and cried before she threw the billet into the fire that would consume her beloved son. She lamented the high cost of her revenge; she remembered the pangs she endured for nine months birthing him. "Where are the feelings of a mother, where are the affectionate ties of the parent?" she wailed. Four times, Ovid tells us, she attempted to throw the billet, and four times she paused, unable to go on with her resolve. Finally, "with a trembling hand and her countenance pale with apprehension," she committed her son to the fire. That night, my mother did not remember the pangs of her pregnancy, did not shed any tears, remained rosy-cheeked and with a fearless hand, took back the life she had given me 18 years earlier.
From then on, things moved very fast. They actually moved so fast that of the whole week after the first night, I have lost all memories. There is a hole in my mind. Where did I go, what did I do, I do not recall. The Lebanese civil war had begun, and I was alone in a city that I hardly knew. The terror engulfed me, a terror so great I could not even feel it, but which still grips me in the throat every morning.
To this day, I remember the time when something snapped in me and I lost my mind and myself. I slept that night at the house of a friend of mine, and throughout the night, I was scared, scared that my father would commit suicide and would die. I still do not know where this feeling that I would lose my father that very night came to me; I just felt it, and I could not sleep all night. I loved him so much, I would have gladly given my life for him—just for him to stay with us, even if he was very far away. A few years ago, one of my paternal cousins who lived in Abidjan at the time revealed to me that twice she had been called to my father's apartment only to find him on the floor with his veins open and the blood flowing from his arms. Was it that very day? Time is lost.
Very early in the morning, I left my friend's house and went to downtown Beirut where a postal service between Lebanon and the Ivory Coast was run by a former immigrant. Given the notorious unreliability of the Lebanese postal office, this was how we communicated with my father. We went to the office every week to send our letters, and he sent us, rarely, a note.
I probably looked like a mad girl when I entered the office. I was laughing with a high voice to hide my fright, my teeth chattering with terror. I was sure I would find a letter from my father telling us he had ended his life. To my relief, there was none.
But as I went down the stairs and walked in downtown Beirut, I looked around me at the high-rise buildings and felt as if they were slowly tilting toward each other, ready to engulf me. I remember thinking, "I cannot take it, I have reached the level of suffering I cannot bear." I was looking at the sky and thinking, I just cannot. That was when I snapped, like someone who would shed a skin and begin a new life without the epidermis, a raw human being, unprotected and fully exposed to life's intemperateness.
I felt something escaping from me, from my soul. At the time, I did not know what it was that left me that day. It took 30 years to figure it out. Now I know what left: my instincts.
Those instincts, or what Kafka in the The Castle called the land surveyor K's assistants, those two identical young buffoons who were constantly following him, clowning about, laughing, teasing him, and trying to help him the best they could.
"On the bar counter sat his two assistants looking as if they had not slept well but were still cheerful. It was the cheerfulness that comes from doing your duty punctiliously," wrote Kafka. Instead, the assistants succeed only in irritating him because K believes they are preventing him from performing his serious work, reaching the important people he needs to meet in order to live and work in the village. It is only after K violently dismisses his assistants that we learn they were sent to be his assistants, or guardians, "to cheer him up a little. I hear he takes everything very hard. He's come to the village and to him this is a great event, whereas in fact it's nothing at all, and you're going to show him that."
Those instincts that could have allowed me to survive, to think or to reflect, I dismissed with violence, for I was in a hurry to do something very serious: destroy myself so I could stop the suffering. That night I joined the other kids in the trenches on the line dividing Muslim West Beirut from its Christian counterpart, and under the heavy shelling and the sounds of heavy artillery, I slept. I slept like a baby, and for a whole year, I moved from one trench to another, sleeping soundly despite the enormous racket.
At that time, it was not my bed I missed the most. Mostly what made life impossible for me was the absence of my books. Zola, Balzac, Baudelaire, Colette. All those books had seen me grow up. They were a most comforting station in our household chaos, and the first thing I went to when there was no mother to look at me and worry, "Why this peaky look? Open your mouth, show me your tongue, close your eyes." A mother who would glide her fingers through my hair, calm me down, and console me from life's little miseries. Like Musset's Lorenzaccio crying "Catherine, Catherine read me the story of Brutus," to calm himself down after he was deeply shaken by his mother's account of seeing a ghost, I would, at the first vexation, take refuge in my books. My sisters would always make fun of me and wonder how I could pick up any book from my little library, open it at a random page and read it, again and again without ever feeling satiated.
But I could. The rhythm of the sentences, repeated night after night, must have had the same calming effect over me of a lullaby. Balzac, my cradle, the foundation of my existence, depicted for me a world where the sublime walked hand in hand with the atrocious. The fate of Colonel Chabert who went gently into the night without a murmur kept me awake for nights at a time. Baudelaire exalted me and put me in such a state of feverish passion with his description of flaming colors, fuliginous shades, exotic landscapes, and embalming perfumes, that I could see and smell just by imagining them. Zola told me stories about men and women engulfed in virulent passions that would unleash a thousand demons.
But it was Colette, describing a life that made me giddy with wonder, to whom I went back again and again as a model in life. She gracefully pirouetted across life, acting, dancing, miming, all while writing sumptuous books. She taught me there was a world of difference between a black, an Egyptian black, and an Ivory black. I felt the meaning of life itself must have taken refuge in those rutted interstices. She was free like air, uncompromising, and unencumbered by prejudices and bourgeois values. At 46, she seduced her 17-year-old stepson without an ounce of anxiety, and most importantly, without ever skipping a meal. For Colette had as much appetite for what she called "physical pleasures" as she had for good food, despising and pitying women who tortured themselves to lose weight. She carried herself with the strength derived from her native French terroir in Burgundy and the sensuality of a Parisian actress. The world was at her feet. I was dazzled. I squinted. And I had resolved to become a writer.
But without my father's protection, and Colette's guidance, I instead became a stranger to my own self.
A few months later, trailed by a lingering smell of Johnny Walker, my father fled the Ivorian capital, took refuge in Dakar for a short while, and then returned to Beirut in the midst of the ongoing civil war. Unable to adjust in a country where he had never really lived or worked during his adult life, he then toured the Arab Gulf countries before finally settling in Paris in a small hotel. The tab was paid by his very wealthy brother who also lived in Paris. The two, though, would never meet during that time. The stigma of alcoholism was so strong that everyone in my father's family had abandoned him to his fate. It took a mutual friend to arrange the deal.
At 54, he was broken, penniless, desperate to remake himself, but those years of nomadic existence, his acute sense of failure, and mostly the fact that his daughter had been abandoned for a whole year on the streets had opened up in him an abyss, a black hole that devoured him completely. And that black hole was called remorse. Or what Nietzsche calls "the gnawing of a dog at a stone... mere foolishness." Not because there is nothing we can do about it, but because it could not have been otherwise. We act out of necessity. Our motives have very deep roots, unknown to us, that point us to that direction, and only that one. Any other direction is an impossibility. Maybe no one has described such monstrous fatality better than Thomas Wolfe in the first chapter of Look Homeward Angel, where he writes, "You shall see begin in Crete four thousand years ago the love that ended yesterday in Texas... Each moment is the fruit of four thousand years."
We are not free to choose good over evil? Then let us go beyond good and evil, says Nietzsche, let us become wise and embrace our destiny. That is the "amor fati," the Nietzschean project, but one cut out for the "uberman." For all other people, and for my father at that time, there was the deep shame, the unbearable loneliness, the endless roaming in Paris, the rage, the scorching sadness, the awakening in the middle of the night going around his room, banging his head against the wall until he bled.
And the tears. In 1980, I went to Paris to see him. His face was invisible. The only thing facing me was his tears. They flowed from his eyes continuously, silently, slowly, and humbly. Tears that could create an ocean, but they were so quiet, you knew the ocean could not be but dead.
Where did my father get the strength to redress himself and conduct the last act of his life, an act that would restore in him some of that self-esteem he had given up on all those past years? Like all those who hate to see the day over before they are able to right the wrong in it, my father, having reached the depth of despair and self-hatred, refused to die a poor and defeated man.
A few weeks after my Paris visit, he called and said he was leaving Paris, having secured a loan for a one-way ticket to Kinshasa, Zaire.
From then on, he would call every now and then, whenever he could get hold of an international phone line, which was every two or three months.
Many people who met him during those five years before his death said he suffered greatly the first couple of years. He lived in his office the first three years, sleeping on a mat on the floor, hardly going out, and dressed in clothes torn and hand-stitched over and over again. Even after his business had started generating an income that allowed him to rent a house, buy a car, and save large amounts of money in the foreign bank all Lebanese businessmen used, he refused to buy himself new clothes. It took a revolt from his office workers, who insisted and bought them for him.
My father still drank, but only after work. And he never became inebriated again. He knew he could not redeem himself. His only concern at the end was to pay back my uncle for helping his family, which he did in full, with interest, and to leave some money for his daughters as a small compensation for his letting them down in such a spectacular way.
A few days after we arrived in Kinshasa in the summer of 1985, my sister and I accompanied my father to the coastal town of Matadi, on the left bank of the fierce Congo river, which runs through the small town and is a major port in Zaire. This was where ships from all over the world arrived and unloaded their merchandise, which was then transported by trains to the capital. During his visits to Matadi, my father would stay at the Metropol Hotel, a massive building made of brownish stones, boasting large, airy, and comfortable rooms. The hotel was a favorite amongst the foreign merchants and businessmen who used it as their little headquarters when away from the capital. This cosmopolitan atmosphere relaxed my father, who would mingle among people like himself, many of them survivors of a chaotic life who overstayed Africa because it was the last frontier for them.
The restaurant where guests met for dinner every evening was on the top floor overlooking the river. That first night, the mood was somber when we got in. An officer of the French Paratroopers had been navigating on the Congo River and had not reached his destination. His comrades were swarming the place and had conducted numerous fruitless search missions. With the river's strong current and its crocodiles, hopes to find him had faded away, and the men sat at the tables eating silently.
But the night was glorious. The full moon lit the whole neighborhood. We could see a stream of light reflected on the water like a cascade of white diamonds, and we heard the frogs, hidden in dense vegetation, croaking in what sounded to us like a joyous celebration of our reunion.
My father was talking. Five years of silence and then that night he couldn't stop. He talked about his work, his life, anecdotes and facts about Zaire, how the Belgians, who had colonized and plundered the country, listing it as a personal asset of the King of Belgium, had left it with one doctor for 40 million people and 100 beer factories, a fact that provoked in me a lifelong enmity toward Belgium. But then, as dinner progressed, my father talked about himself and his childhood.
Before the children embarked to Dakar to join their father and his new bride, they had been dispersed amongst relatives. My father was sent to live with his paternal uncle who had two wives. One of them lived in the town of Tyre, while the other one lived in a nearby village where my father had joined her. To say the two wives hated each other would be a mild statement. Annihilation was on their mind every minute of the day.
And here my father hesitated for a few seconds, and then went on, maybe encouraged by the softness of the night and a feeling of wellbeing which radiated over our dinner table.
"One year, when I was five years old during the three months of winter, she would strip me of all my clothes and would take me every night into the woods. There, I would climb over a rock, and she would tell me to pray to demand from God that he blind her rival." My father took the time to swallow his bite, took a sip from his glass, and then looking at us, simply said, "At the end of the three months, she became blind." (This was an application of an ancient belief in Islam that to have God grant a favor or fulfill a wish, you had to use a child—the younger the better—who was totally innocent, and totally naked, and direct him to request your wish.)
We all fell silent. My father seemed puzzled by what he had said. A coldness invaded me, and I felt my heart sinking and about to burst. I excused myself from dinner and went back to my room where I buried myself under thick covers and tried stop the trembling.
A few days later, it was time for me to leave and join my then husband in the United States. We went to dinner at the best restaurant in Kinshasa, but we were so sad that none of us was able to plunge a fork into our food. My father stood up, unable to contain his emotion. I joined him, took him by the hand, and we both walked along the walls of the restaurant, silent and continuous tears flowing, unable to contain the sadness and despair that had taken hold of us. We wept for a wasted life, we wept for a solitude we felt and that would never be breached. We wept because guilt had consumed him and had left no place for any other emotion.
My father knew we would never see each other again. He knew he would never leave Kinshasa again. Before going to the airport, we stopped by the house to say goodbye. My father collapsed in the living room, unable to take another step. My sister and I helped him to his bed. I embraced him, I cried, and I said, "Papa je t'aime."
For all five hours of my trip back to Brussels, I cried. In the following 30 years, though, I never cried again. That night dried my tears.
When my sister Ghada died in 1992 in a terrible car crash, I wailed, I rended my clothes, I turned my fist towards heaven and blasphemed, but my eyes remained dry. My world was ending; it was my childhood she took with her when she left me. Today, as I am about to embark on the last chapter of my life, it is she I miss the most. How soft and gentle would old age have been had she been by my side...
She had been the only speech therapist remaining in Muslim West Beirut during the civil war to take care of children in the Southern Suburbs and the Palestinian Camps. She would charge one dollar per consult. My sisters and I would get on her back, scolding her, and she would smile back, saying with her angelic face, "But that is all they can afford." She was right, like she always was. An angel who graced our family for too short a time. Ghada was 32.
In 2000 I left a man I loved with every fiber of my being, and my eyes moistened. It was one of those rare love stories where the intensity of feelings was measured by an absolute prohibition on uttering a word, let alone making a gesture. The mere idea of breaking up families that included a baby and children paralyzed me. It was what people call, with a bit of embarrassment, a "platonic" love affair, as if it was not real. The way some philosophers sometimes make a distinction between feelings, like pity or fear they have towards real people and "quasi feelings," the same feelings but elicited by fictitious figures like Jane Eyre and Colonel Chabert.
But there is nothing "quasi" about such love. It can be more real, powerful, and resist the passage of time much better than their romantic counterparts. This love has guided me like a ray of sunshine throughout the past years and surrounded me with an air of enchantment that takes me by surprise some days.
My mother died in 2008, agitated with the fear of death, resentful of the way life had treated her. There was still enough love of life in her that it would have carried her until she was 100, I was sure.
After her death, my sisters and I hoped my hatred towards her would finally abate, and I could find some consolation with her disappearance, unaware that if hate can nourish itself both from a living creature and its constant presence in the background, it can also gnaw at a corpse with equal frenzy and appetite.
After my father's death in 1985 and until today, my sisters and I have carried our father in our hearts. Many times throughout the years, I have wanted to give up—a small accident on a highway would tempt me, a plunge into the deep ocean would look like a perfect solution. At the last minute, I would remember my father's tears and say, "I can't do this to him. Not after all those tears."
French writer Paul Valery, who believed the hidden, unwritten part of a writer's work validated the truth inherent in the whole, revealing its true beauty, wrote in his diary a few days before he died that he had had a dream where an angel came to him and told him, "Here is your work." And this work was everything he had not written in his life. It was, said Valery, infinitely more beautiful and infinitely more complete than anything he had ever written.
I like to think my father's gift was everything he did not achieve in his life, a thirst for knowledge he could never pursue, and a longing for uncovering spiritual meanings beyond the materiality of everyday life. And that gift was infinitely more beautiful and more complete than whatever he had done. I know it is. I look at my sons, nephews, and niece (A, H, K, A, Y), and I can see his legacy in their eyes. And indeed, it is infinitely more beautiful.