The Reincarnates

By GHASSAN ZEINEDDINE

 

Hani Nuwayhid first heard the professional mourners sing at his sister’s vigil on a winter night in ’84. He was ten. His older sister, Serene, lay in a white dress on a bed propped in the middle of the parlor. Her cheeks were powdered red and her silky dark hair scented with rosewater. Female relatives dressed in black and covered in wool quilts sat in chairs around the bed in the dim light of kerosene lamps. Every so often, a few stepped into the winter room to warm themselves by the stove and feed it with pinewood. The icy north wind howled through the trees of the village, banging at the frosty windows.

Hani sat next to his mother among the ring of grieving women. His mother held onto Serene’s hand, rocking back and forth in her chair. Serene had died of pneumonia.

Marwa Salha and her daughter Nivine, the professional mourners, sat across from the bed. The largest women in town, they wore long-sleeve dresses and white shawls over their shoulders. Each had a coil of braided black hair reaching down to the small of her back, tied at the end with a scrap of cloth. They took turns chanting prayers. When one tired, the other sang, and as they sang, they marveled at the crystal chandelier and vases, the marble tables and ornate furniture, the silver-framed portraits hanging on the wall, the Persian carpet with gold tassels. They had never set foot in the Nuwayhid mansion until tonight, their songs for the dead their only means of entry into the homes of those more fortunate.

“There is no god but God,” Marwa chanted. “He causes life and death and has the power to cause all things.”

Marwa’s voice was deep and gravelly from years of hookah smoking. Her throat suddenly filled with phlegm, and she coughed. Nivine took over.

“There is no god but God,” she chanted. “Muhammad is the Messenger of God.”

Nivine’s voice was high-pitched. Some said it soared like that of Fairuz, who sang for a war-torn Beirut.

An aunt began slapping her chest, and another wailed hysterically.

Nivine’s chanting rose above the sobbing and wailing as she transitioned into an improvised verse about Serene:

Down the main road Serene would go,
as beautiful as the women of the big screen
with her double-dimpled smile.
But grieve not, my sisters—
she has been reborn, and is wailing in the
clutches of a wet nurse. A few years from now,
she’ll come knocking at our doors, having remembered
where she once lived.

As Nivine chanted, Hani recalled the time Serene had rescued him from a pack of older boys, who surrounded him in the schoolyard, shoving him back and forth.

“You’ve got the look of a shit-in-his-pants girly-boy,” one of his tormentors said.

Hani had a droopy face and big, round eyes with long lashes. He was the smallest boy in his class. Like his sister, he had double dimples.

“Touch him again and I’ll break your fingers,” Serene said, pointing at them.

Villagers in Ras-el-Metn thought Hani was too puny to be the heir of Hikmat Nuwayhid, whom everyone in town called Hikmat Bek in honor of his feudal history. Hikmat Bek owned large swaths of land and a string of grocery stores in Mount Lebanon. He also owned a Mercedes-Benz, and was driven around by the gardener’s son, who sat emboldened behind the wheel, inhaling the leather interior. Hikmat Bek sat in the back, dressed in a three-piece suit with a watch chain, his distinctive profile visible through the window: a crooked, aquiline nose and protruding jaw. Not even Hani’s family name spared him the wrath of bullies. But the bullies couldn’t contend with Serene.

Nivine was chanting to Hani, her eyes locked on his. She had a bushy unibrow that the women encouraged her to wax. She had been Serene’s classmate in her final year of high school. Unlike Serene, she had no plans for university.

An aunt began serving refreshments. Hani approached Nivine as she sipped a cup of Turkish coffee. The cup looked like a thimble in her hand. He told her he liked her voice. She stroked his face, her palm warm and moist.

“You’re very handsome,” Marwa said, clearing her throat. “God, I need a hookah,” she whispered to her daughter.

“My sister was beautiful,” Hani said.

Is,” Marwa said. “She’s been reborn. Weren’t you listening to Nivine’s song?”

The Druzes believed that the moment one died, one was reborn into another body—men reincarnated into men and women into women. In tears, Hani’s mother had told him that those who died young remembered their past lives in vivid detail.

“My father is coming back, too,” Nivine said. “I was around your age when he died. One morning, he rode his mule into the Christian villages to deliver goat milk. Mama and I begged him not to go; the civil war had spread into the mountains. But he didn’t listen. We later found him hanged from a willow tree, his tongue sticking out. One of his boots was missing. He died seven years ago, which means Baba is now seven. He had a lovely unibrow.”

Hani wasn’t close to his own father. Hikmat Bek had tried to teach him how to throw punches—a jab, a hook, an uppercut, and a liver punch. Hani’s father had been in many boxing matches when he was younger, and although his nose had been broken in one fight, he’d punched out the eye of his opponent. “Left the bastard a cyclops,” he said.

“As Druzes,” he once told Hani, “we come from a line of warriors—our ancestors battled against the Ottoman Empire and won! Start acting like a warrior and not a damn stableboy.” He put up his hands. “Punch, Hani.”

Hani shut his eyes and swung wildly, missing his father’s hands.

Hikmat Bek twisted his ear. Hani screamed.

“Get mad and punch my hands!” his father said.

Hani ran away, weeping, looking for his sister. That night in her room, she put up her hands and he punched them softly.

In the dimly lit parlor, Hani asked Nivine if she’d sing more.

“My mother and I will sing all night for you.”

 

The evening following Serene’s burial, Hani asked his mother to take him to the house of the professional mourners. When she refused, he broke down.

“Warriors don’t cry,” Hikmat Bek said, scowling. If only pneumonia had taken his father’s life and not his sister’s, Hani thought. If only he could live in a house of women where the clinking sound of a watch chain never frightened him.

“Please relax, Hikmat,” Hani’s mother said. She wasn’t one to challenge her husband, but grief had given her some courage. “Consider the circumstances.”

“She was my daughter, too, Waddad,” he said, his voice trembling. Serene had never blinked when he yelled at her or told her what to do. She stood in silence, and only when he lost his breath did she turn away, ignoring him for days. She was stubborn like him, and for that he loved her even more. As he sat in his armchair in the evenings to review his accounts book, Serene would walk up to him and kiss his forehead. The first time she did it, he flinched.

“It’s just a kiss,” she said.

She had never understood how much those kisses meant to him.

Hikmat Bek told Waddad to take the car.

The gardener’s son drove Hani and his mother along the snowy main road, which wound around the mountaintop. Burning pinewood scented the night air. Kerosene lamps illuminated windows. The gardener’s son parked at the dirt trail that led into the woods. Bundled in wool coats, Hani and Waddad got out of the car and walked to a small limestone house with rotting shutters overlooking the valley. Ribbons of smoke drifted from the chimney.

Before knocking on the door, Waddad told Hani that they couldn’t stay too long. “These people are beneath us,” she said.

Marwa answered, cloaked in a quilt. Her eyes widened.

“My son wants to hear your songs.”

“It’s an honor to host the wife and son of Hikmat Bek,” Marwa said, smelling of hookah smoke. They were led into the winter room.

“Hani!” Nivine said, standing up from the couch. “What a surprise. Hello, Madame Waddad,” she said, bowing. She kissed Hani on the cheek. He smiled, flashing his dimples. He could have stood there for an eternity absorbing Nivine’s kisses, which felt like wet feathers brushing across his skin.

Marwa served tea and sesame cookies, thinking the Nuwayhids were probably more accustomed to delicacy cakes. With her metal tongs, she placed a piece of burning coal on the head of her hookah and inhaled, the water bubbling in the urn. Puffs of smoke hung in the air like unspoken thoughts.

Waddad sipped her tea, sitting at the edge of her chair, hoping the seat wouldn’t stain her dress. The wood of the furniture was flaking. The walls were grimy, the curtains frayed at the edges.

“I watched Serene for years from the back of the classroom,” Nivine said. “All my teachers make me sit at the very back, because I’m big and they don’t want me blocking students’ views. Serene had a front-row view of the blackboard. Her hand would reach for God every time the teacher asked a question. I wished I knew all the answers like Serene.”

“You know a lot more than I do,” Marwa told her daughter.

“Serene was admitted to the American University of Beirut to study French,” Waddad said. “She would have been the first in our family to attend university….” Despite the war, the university area was relatively safe, so Waddad and Hikmat Bek had felt comfortable sending Serene down to the city, where she would have lived in a dormitory. It was as Waddad and Serene were considering various dormitories in the university brochure that Waddad began to imagine herself as a student, as a Beiruti walking down the streets in tight jeans and heels and sipping an espresso at Café Paris on Hamra Street as she overheard intellectuals discuss poetry and politics. The one time she and Hikmat had visited Beirut for a wedding, she grew embarrassed at the make of her brown dress, which had puffy sleeves and reached down to her ankles. But she had never seen so many lights and heard so much noise, and she wondered if she could live in such a place. She wanted to visit more often, but Hikmat preferred the mountain air.

“Can you sing for my son?” Waddad said now.

Nivine sat up straight in her chair, took several deep breaths, and sang, her voice filling the room with melancholia. Hani drifted off into a bittersweet reverie in which his sister was teaching him how to pronounce words in French. He had repeated after her: “One day we’ll eat éclairs on the Champs-Élysées. Just you and me.”

When the song ended, Hani opened his eyes, not realizing he had closed them. His sister disappeared like a flame in the wind. He wanted Nivine to continue singing, to never stop, because it was only through her songs that his sister would return to him.

“Your sister is now two days old,” Nivine told Hani.

“I wish I could hold her,” Hani said.

“One day you will. After my father was killed, I went around the entire mountainside looking for his reincarnation. I searched houses for newborns. I found some, but their births didn’t match the time my father was killed. Over the years I’ve gathered many stories about reincarnated souls who’ve reconnected to their past loved ones. It’s only a matter of time before my father finds me.

“Every Thursday evening, I go to the majlis to listen to the Sheikh’s sermons. The Sheikh said we are all manifestations of God, and that as our souls transmigrate, we experience different circumstances in each life, from poverty and sickness to affluence and health. The body is a temporary shell our soul inhabits to continue the quest for knowledge, knowledge of life, of people, of God.”

Hani thought Nivine sounded like Mr. Abbas, his Arabic teacher, who spoke in the poetic language of the Qur’an. But unlike with Mr. Abbas, Hani wanted to listen to Nivine.

Marwa burped, releasing a whiff of garlic. “Excuse me,” she said. “I shouldn’t have had that third bowl of porridge.”

Waddad gave a strained smile. “Thanks for your time,” she said, standing up.

Hani craved Nivine’s voice. “One more song.” One more kiss, he thought. He remembered the feel of her warm skin against his face when she stroked his cheek at his sister’s vigil. As cold as it had been in the room, Nivine radiated heat.

“Enough, Hani. Let’s—”

“Down the main road Serene would go,” Nivine sang, “as beautiful as the women of the big screen….”

 

At school Hani became distant with his friends. His mother was unable to console him, for she didn’t know how to console herself. Even when she cooked his favorite eggplant dishes, he barely ate. When his silence turned impenetrable, she took him to the mourners’ house. Hani’s dimples reappeared in breaks of sad smiles as he listened to Nivine sing, not only about his sister but about her lost father, too. He swayed in his chair with his eyes closed, filled with delicious melancholy.

When Hani tried singing alone in his room, hoping to revive his sister, he heard only the sound of a wounded calf. His father was right. He was nothing but a stableboy.

 

A year later, Hani was still small and scrawny. He was the only boy in class without a mustache. His mother feared his grief was stalling his growth, but what she didn’t know was that Hani had discovered a curl in his crotch, and that he fantasized about Nivine’s sagging bosom, which swung in her blouse as she walked around town. During the day, she and her mother cleaned houses, and to make extra money, they cracked pine nut shells, knitted hats and scarves, and crocheted table covers. They never charged people for their songs for the dead. But the grieving compensated by leaving bags of pine nuts or wheat porridge or other food items at their doorstep.

One day after school, Hani visited the mourners alone. It was spring, the season for cherries and apricots. Wildflowers and purple-covered shrubbery bloomed on either side of the roads. The river bubbled in the depths of the valley.

Mother and daughter sat outside under an oak tree in their front yard, drinking tea. Marwa smoked her hookah. Nivine pulled out an extra chair for Hani. He smiled.

“Your dimples are heartbreakers,” Marwa said. “But don’t look so sad when you smile.”

“I can’t help it, Auntie.”

“That’s exactly what Nivine says when I tell her to look happy. Maybe, if she looked happy, men would call on her.”

“Men don’t call on me because I’m bigger than all of them, Mama.”

But it was precisely because of her size, Hani wanted to tell her, that he felt safe in her company.

“Do you think Nivine is pretty?” Marwa asked Hani.

“She’s as beautiful as the women of the big screen.”

“You’re too sweet, Hani,” Nivine said, blushing. He was the first male to compliment her. At school, students had called her “the death singer,” and although she knew it wasn’t a compliment, she pretended that it was, because she felt recognized for something.

Hani stared at her bosom. “Can you sing for me?”

When Nivine sang about Serene, Hani closed his eyes but could no longer see his sister. He could only feel a yearning for Nivine.

 

When a death was announced over the loudspeakers, Hani wondered about the songs Nivine would sing later that night. He asked his mother if they could attend the vigil.

“We’re not related to the dead,” she said.

One night, Hani snuck out into the cold and walked to the home of the grieving. He peered through a window and saw a ring of women sitting around a bed, on which a young man lay, his head wrapped in gauze. Marwa’s chants were muffled. Nivine’s voice reverberated through the windowpanes. Once she started singing about the man, a militant killed in action, Hani pictured him battling in the streets of Beirut. The man took cover behind a barricade of barrels and sandbags, sweating through his green fatigues. He fired his Kalashnikov at a building across the street, the hot casings clattering to the ground, sulfur in the air. But then the gunshots were replaced in Hani’s mind with the sound of Nivine striding down the main road.

Hani stood outside until sunrise.

 

One afternoon, Hani hiked in the pine forest with his cousins, Raed and Firas. They climbed up to a rocky ledge at the most northern tip of the forest and looked west beyond the mountain ranges at the Mediterranean, its deep blue waters shimmering under the sun. Other boys and young men stood nearby, gazing at the sea with longing. Hani and his cousins imagined themselves on boats headed to the Americas or to jungles where treasures were buried. They never dreamt about visiting Beirut, because the city was ravaged by war. It had been ten years since the start of the fighting, and although there was talk that the war would end soon, the militias continued to launch rockets at one another.

Standing alone in the shade of the trees was Nivine. She wore a black dress and was singing a song about her father delivering goat milk, her voice drifting down the mountain.

Hani left his cousins and walked over to her.

“Have you ever been to Beirut?” he asked, looking across the mountainside.

She looked surprised to see him. “I’ve never left the village.”

Sunshine broke through the pines, casting her face in fractured light. “Come feel the sun,” she said, pulling him into her. He leaned back against her bosom. She laid her pawlike hands on his shoulders.

“I come here every now and then to sing for my father, hoping he’ll recognize my voice on the wind. He used to take me hunting in these woods. I shot plenty of sparrows.”

“Do you still think he’ll return?”

“That’s my belief—our belief.”

Hani believed. Or at least he thought he did.

“The bear is molesting Hani!” someone said.

Startled, Hani and Nivine turned around. Hani’s cousins and the other boys were staring at them.

“Run, Hani! She’ll eat you alive,” Raed said.

Firas threw a stone at her.

“Stop it!” Hani said. “Don’t hit her.”

The stones bounced off Nivine. One inadvertently struck Hani on his forehead, breaking the skin.

“Sons of bitches!” Nivine said, and charged the boys. They scattered in the woods. She returned to Hani, who sat on the ground, blood dripping down his face. A knob swelled above his left eye.

She wiped the blood from his face with the hem of her dress. “It’s a small cut, habibi.”

His lips trembled. “I’m so sorry.”

“It’s not your fault. Besides, I’m too big to get hurt, my little hero.”

But he had been unable to protect her. He hugged her, pressing his face against her pulsing heart, inhaling a scent of wildflowers in the rain. She caressed the back of his head, wondering if this sweet, sad boy would continue to care for her as a man. She insisted on carrying him home. He rode on her back, his arms looped around her neck. Her coil of braided hair snaked down his body, swinging like a cat’s tail between his legs.

 

Hani’s mother was informed of his vigil spying. She turned on the transistor radio to an Arabic pop song and told Hani to listen to the music.

“It sounds terrible,” he said.

Hani’s father walked in. He looked at his wife and then his son. They had cast him out of the family, that Hikmat knew the day Serene died. Every evening he sat in his armchair with the accounts book in his lap, waiting for a kiss that never came.

He put up his hands. “Punch, Hani. Let me see how strong you are.”

“Please leave him alone, Hikmat,” Hani’s mother said. “He’s not feeling well.”

“Quiet, woman. If you keep on defending him, he’s going to remain a moping stableboy, and I won’t have anyone to inherit my business.”

“I’m not interested in running your business,” Hani said, barely able to breathe.

“Don’t answer back,” his mother whispered loudly.

Hikmat Bek lowered his hands. “What are you good for?” he asked Hani. He wanted his son to stare at him the same way Serene had when she dared to challenge him.

Hani pondered his father’s question. All he knew was that he found meaning in life when he listened to Nivine sing about the dead. Instead of answering, he left the room.

From that point on, Hani visited the homes of the mourners in secrecy. Once, as Nivine was serving him tea, her blouse hung loose, and he glimpsed a plump mole on the curve of her right breast.

“Look up, Hani,” Marwa said, grinning, smoke curling from the side of her mouth.

“Oh, I was…”

“I like your mustache,” Nivine said, saving him from further embarrassment.

He barely had a mustache—a few scattered bristles.

Hani turned sixteen shortly after the end of the war. His cheeks were still soft and rosy.

 

Two years later, with a few more whiskers on his upper lip, he told Nivine and Marwa that he had been accepted into law school at the Lebanese University in Beirut and was moving down to the city. He had chosen law to prove to his father, and to himself, that he had the ability to pursue one of the most challenging courses of study. He might not win a boxing match, but he’d become a lawyer. A city lawyer.

“You’ll forget us,” Marwa said.

“I’ll never forget you,” Hani said, looking at Nivine.

“I’ll make you tea,” Nivine said. As she boiled water, she blamed herself for believing that her songs would keep Hani in the village. He had dreams to chase. She had the dead to sing over. This might be their last evening together. As she poured him a cup, she knelt to let her blouse droop.

“Do visit us,” Nivine said. “I know you’ll be very busy, but whenever you get a chance…. Our home is your home.”

Hani flashed his dimples for her.

“Oh, I forgot something on the fire,” Nivine said, and rushed to the kitchen. She let out a wrenching sob.

Hani leapt up from his chair, his heart about to burst.

“Sit, Hani,” Marwa said. “She’ll survive.”

 

Hani rented a one-bedroom apartment across from Sanayeh Garden and bought his first Walkman. The garden was gated and dusty and covered in parched grass. Willows and palm trees provided pockets of shade. Every morning Hani bought a cup of Turkish coffee and a kaak filled with thyme and sumac from the vendor, who parked his trolley at the front gate, and had his breakfast on a bench under a tree by the fountain. The trees reminded him of home. Sometimes he became so homesick he lost his appetite and left the half-eaten kaak for the pigeons. He slipped on his headphones and pressed play on his Walkman. Although it was Fairuz who came through the speakers, he imagined Nivine singing to him about the countryside and young lovers and a village boy named Shadi who went missing during the war.

Beiruti women intimidated him. They walked with bristling confidence down Hamra Street in business suits and heels and wore strong perfume. A classmate said he’d have a better chance of meeting women if he dropped his village accent and flaunted his money, maybe bought a fancy car. Hani was afraid to drive in the city and preferred to walk.

He didn’t have much time for women, or pleasure, consumed as he was with his studies. He also didn’t connect with his classmates, most of whom were from Beirut and had survived the war together and exchanged stories of near-death experiences. For fifteen years, they said, they had been confined to one side of Beirut. No one ever dared cross the green line, the dividing line between Christian East and Muslim West. People had been slaughtered because of their religion, which was printed on their identity cards. Hani now heard the comparison of Beirut to the phoenix: Like the mythological bird, the city had repeatedly risen from its own ashes, in search of a new beginning. This once-Phoenician port city had survived earthquakes, famine, and plague; the raids of Crusaders and the colonial thirsts of the Ottoman Empire and the French Republic; Israeli invasions and Syrian occupation; and recently a civil war that had left over a hundred thousand civilians dead.

But Hani could barely tolerate the heat or the swarming of mosquitoes at night, or the sound of interminable traffic and the shrill cries of stray cats fighting and copulating in the alleyways. At the end of the day, his clothes smelled of sweat and his skin was sticky. He relished cold showers.

On lonely evenings, he wandered the busy streets with his headphones on. Buildings pockmarked with bullets and mortars were constantly being razed. Cranes pierced the sky. Drills tore up the earth. He coursed up and down the Corniche in the yellow light of streetlamps, maneuvering around families sitting in plastic chairs arranged in wide circles, cracking pumpkin seeds between their teeth and smoking hookahs. The scent of tobacco wafted from their gatherings, as well as the laughter of children. Packs of young men dressed in cheap clothes stood against the railings, scoping out the scene, cigarettes dangling from the corners of their mouths. Pop music emanated from parked cars. The mountain ranges glimmered in webs of light. Hani spotted young lovers stealing kisses and sharing ice cream cones. He bought a cup of coffee from a vendor and stood at the metal railings and looked out at sea as Nivine continued singing to him and he sang along, belting out the words. It was only when he turned away from the sea that he saw a group of teenage girls looking at him and giggling. He quickly moved along.

One night, he came upon Gemmayzeh Street on the east side of the city, up from the port. The one-way street was lined with French-colonial-style buildings. Flowerpots hung from ornate balustrades. He stepped into the Glass Café, a corner restaurant that served traditional Lebanese food. Floor-to-ceiling windows looked out onto the street. Hani sat at a window table and ordered fried eggplant and a beer. Dozens of waiters squeezed through the tables, trays propped on their palms. Men and women feasted on mezzas, drank arak and beer, and smoked hookahs. In one corner, men played backgammon, the dice clicking against the wooden board.

Hani was about to leave when the musical entertainment arrived: a lute and derbake duo, and a singer in a black, long-sleeve dress. The lute player and the drummer sat in chairs, lowering their propped microphones. The singer strode up to the standing microphone, her heels clopping against the tiled floor.

Hani stood up to see her better. Her dress was tight around her potbelly. In heels, she was as tall as Nivine. Her dark ringlets sparkled under the lights. She placed her hands around the microphone and began with a cover song of Umm Kalthoum.

“My sweetheart, my sweetheart, my sweetheart,” she sang.

“Allah, Allah,” the crowd cheered.

Her voice was as deep as Umm Kalthoum’s.

Let us live in the night. In a night of love as sweet as the one thousand and one nights, the one thousand and one nights, oh the one thousand and one nights.

She sang with the anguish of the heartbroken, infusing Hani with sorrow that swelled in his chest. He closed his eyes and was taken back to Nivine singing to her father on the mountaintop, sunshine dappling her face. He had been helpless in the face of her grief, and for that he felt tremendous sadness. He left the café at closing time and walked down the Corniche, searching the promenade for lovers.

He returned to the Glass Café the following night, then became a regular.

One night, a waiter passed Hani a folded napkin. He opened it and read: Meet me at the bar during intermission. It was signed: Juwan.

He met her at the bar in the back of the restaurant. She sat on a stool, wiping sweat from her brow and arms with a hand towel. She downed a cold beer.

“Excuse me, Madame Juwan?” Hani said.

She turned around. She had a mole on her upper lip.

“There he is,” she said. “The sad-looking boy I see here every weekend. Oh, how cute. You’ve got double dimples. And a village accent.”

Hani’s face turned red.

“Yassir,” she called to the bartender. “Get me two beers.”

Yassir placed two Almazas on the bar, and plates of pumpkin seeds and salted carrot slices saturated in lemon juice.

Hani sat down on the stool next to her. She towered over him.

“Cheers,” she said, clinking his bottle. “You remind me of my son. He’s cute like you. But he lives with his father, who’s turned him against me. I left the family to pursue a singing career. I tried to go back, but they closed the door in my face.”

“I’m sorry, Madame Juwan.”

“Just Juwan. Or better yet, Mama Juwan. Yes, call me that.”

He smiled for her.

“How adorable!” She kissed his dimples, pressing her lips hard against his cheeks.

Hani stayed for the rest of the show. On her way out, Mama Juwan told him she’d drive him home. She drove a broken-down sedan.

“Did you eat anything?” she asked.

“Eggplant. My favorite dish.”

“You need to eat more, Hani. No wonder you’re so small.”

She parked at an all-night café on the Corniche, overlooking the Pigeon Rocks, and ordered two greasy roast chickens, French fries, and bowls of hummus and tabbouleh. The sound of the sea came through their open window, the midnight air scented with grilled meat and the smoke from hookahs. Waves lapped the bluish shore, the swaying lanterns of fishing boats dotting the water.

“We’re not leaving until you finish all your food, Hani,” Mama Juwan said.

He ate with a ravenous appetite.

“Do you always wear black?” he asked.

“It hides my fat.”

 

Following another late-night meal, Hani took Mama Juwan on a walk down the Corniche. The palm trees swayed like dancers on the wind. Hani told her about his search for young lovers.

“Oh, Hani,” she said, and held his hand. “You’ll soon meet someone special.”

“I’ve met you, Mama Juwan.”

“But—” She pointed to the lighthouse. The beam from the tower spread over the sea like moonlight. “He’s got the best view.”

“I’ve got the best view,” Hani said, looking up at her, smiling.

“For God’s sake!” She knelt down and kissed him to the sound of crashing waves. Hani loved the feel of her tongue inside his mouth.

“Fucking incest,” a man said, walking by.

Hani turned around. “She’s my girlfriend, you son of a bitch.”

“What’d you call me?” the man said. He wore a sleeveless undershirt, his arms furry.

“You heard him, sisterfucker,” Mama Juwan said. She took off her heels and approached the man.

“I don’t want any trouble,” the man said, and walked away.

“I was about to sock him in the face,” Hani said, his fists raised, hungry for blood. He wouldn’t have let this man harass his love.

 

Hani met Mama Juwan after his classes, leaving his Walkman at home. They drank coffee on his favorite bench in Sanayeh Garden and strolled down the Corniche at sunset. Mama Juwan also showed him the rest of Beirut, taking him through the narrow, clustered streets of Burj Hammoud, the Armenian quarter, where they gorged on greasy sujuk and burped the sausages for the rest of the evening. They ate tiramisu in a café in Verdun and window-shopped the area’s overpriced clothing stores.

“None of these stores carry my size,” Mama Juwan said.

Mama Juwan showed Hani the churches in Ashrafieh on the east side of the city and the neighborhood’s historic colonial buildings. In Sassine Square, they ate hamburgers made the Lebanese way—packed with coleslaw and French fries soaked in ketchup—and washed them down with Almaza. One Saturday afternoon, they went into the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps to explore the bazaar, where everything was sold, from cheap clothes and electrical appliances to caged chickens and Kalashnikovs.

Hani let Mama Juwan drag him shopping in Hamra.

“You’ve got to start dressing like a lawyer,” she said, and helped him choose an entire wardrobe: three-piece suits, collared shirts, ties, black socks, leather belts, handkerchiefs, cufflinks, and Italian loafers. She bought him a Panama hat with a pink feather in the band, because she thought he looked adorable in it.

Hani showed up at the university in his new attire.

“This is what a winner looks like,” Hani’s law professor said at the beginning of the lecture, pointing at him. Hani sat at the front of the auditorium. He stood up, turned around to face his peers, and tipped the corner of his hat.

As Hani studied for his exams, Mama Juwan stocked his fridge with fried eggplant; eggplant stuffed with rice, minced meat, and tomatoes; eggplant over a bed of pita chips in garlic yogurt, garnished with roasted pine nuts; eggplant and potatoes in tomato sauce; eggplant in layers of rice, chickpeas, and lamb; eggplant parmesan; eggplant jam; baba ghanoush; and a cold eggplant stew. She pickled baby eggplant stuffed with garlic and walnuts and kept it in a jar on his kitchen counter. Hani grew a small belly.

After they devoured eggplant at her place one night, the mole above Mama Juwan’s lip fell off.

“My God!” Hani said, reaching for her face, searching for blood.

“It was fake,” she said.

She retrieved a small tin can from her dresser and twisted off the lid. Inside were adhesive moles of various sizes and shades. Hani took one, peeled off the plastic from the backside, and stuck it on the curve of her right breast.

Mama Juwan then taught him how to make love. As he straddled her, she clamped her hands around his waist and moved him in and out. He peered down at her breasts flapped to the sides, hardened nipples pointing east and west.

Hani fell asleep in her arms, and as he slept, Mama Juwan stroked his hair, wondering if her son would ever forgive her. He was fifteen now, and although she hadn’t seen him in years, he must have grown tall. When she used to bathe him every night, they’d sing duets together, his voice as delicate as the sound of water swishing about in the tub.

“I want to be a singer like you,” he once told her.

When Hani woke up and looked up at Mama Juwan, she was crying. He quickly sat up in bed and reached for her hand, but before he could utter a word, she kissed him hard, her tears spilling onto their tongues.

 

Hani took a taxi up to Ras-el-Metn to visit his parents. He wore his Panama hat and a three-piece suit. He opened the front door of his family house and walked into the parlor, where his parents were watching TV.

His mother rose from her chair. “Excuse me—I didn’t know we had company.”

Hani took off his hat. “It’s me, Mama.”

Hikmat Bek stood up, peering intently at his son. “You look like a tap dancer.”

“He looks like the handsomest man in Lebanon,” Waddad said.

Himat Bek turned to his wife. “Don’t lie to the boy. He needs to learn how to—”

“I’m a man,” Hani said.

“You don’t even know how to throw a punch.”

Hani took off his coat and asked his mother to hold it along with his hat. He rolled up his sleeves.

“Put up your hands, father,” he said.

Hikmat Bek put up his hands. Hani curled his left hand into a tight fist and swung with all his might, his punch crashing into his father’s jaw. Hikmat Bek flew back, landing on the floor.

Hani’s mother shrieked and rushed to her husband, kneeling down.

“I meant to strike his hand,” Hani said, and looked down at his fist as if it were a foreign relic. Where had such power come from? What else lay buried in him?

His mother looked up at him. “I’ll make eggplant for lunch.”

 

After law school, Hani found a job with a real estate firm in the city and bought a Peugeot. He finally considered himself a Beiruti, having adopted the dialect.

He told Mama Juwan that he could support her.

“I can support myself,” she said.

“We can move in together.”

She pinched his cheek. “You’ll never meet the right person if you’re with me.”

You are the right person.”

“I’m a lousy mother and a second-rate singer.”

“I love you, Mama Juwan.”

She shook her head. “You’re a kid.”

“I’m a city lawyer!”

“You’ll always be a kid to me.”

Mama Juwan stopped visiting him. At her next show, she spotted Hani standing in the back, singing along to her lyrics. When she saw him dabbing his eyes with a napkin, she abruptly ended her song, and with the audience members staring at her, she walked up to him and opened her arms. He leaned into her embrace.

“This is killing me, too,” she said.

Hani lost his appetite; his belly shrunk. He was grieving for the life he once shared with her, for the lover he had become. In loving her, the melancholy of their lives had become a burden they carried together. They had fed off each other’s sadness, and now he was left to eat alone. A thought then occurred to him. He drove up to the mountains, up the winding roads and onto a dirt one that led into the woods, and parked at the house with rotting shutters.

He knocked on the door. The light in the foyer turned on. Marwa answered in her nightgown, her braid uncoiled.

“I’m terribly sorry to wake you up, Auntie, but I—”

“Hani?”

He took off his Panama hat. “Yes, Hani.”

They sat in the parlor. “I’ll make tea,” she said.

Nivine shuffled in, sleepy-eyed. Her hair was fanned over her back. “Hani!”

He ran to her. She hugged him tight, lifting him off his feet, filling him with warmth. He tasted wildflowers in the rain. She still had a unibrow.

“Why didn’t you visit us all these years?” Nivine asked. He could have at least sent her a letter. “I hear you’re a lawyer now,” she continued. “You’re all grown up!”

Instead of explaining himself, Hani thought of something better: He smiled.

“Oh,” she said, and kissed his dimples, grazing the edge of his mouth.

Her mother came in with the tea. “Something must have happened,” she said, eyeing Hani. “Are your parents okay?”

“They’re fine,” Hani said. “All is well.”

“All is not well. Confess, Hani.”

Hani looked at Nivine. Nivine looked at Marwa.

“I’m getting my hookah,” Marwa said.

Nivine led him outside, where she set two plastic chairs under the oak tree. In the distance, streetlights dotted the mountain ranges. The north wind stirred through the leaves.

“When one dies, we believe they’ll return to the world,” Hani said. “But what happens when you lose a lover? Do they ever return? Are they lost to you forever?”

He spoke of Mama Juwan and how she had broken his heart. If there were light, Hani would have seen the heartbreak on Nivine’s face. She had thought he had missed her for all these years.

“I have the cure for you,” Nivine said, and began to sing. 

Oh, he came back, the handsome lawyer from Beirut.
He came back with a broken heart on a night filled with sad stars.

As Hani listened to Nivine, he saw himself standing with Mama Juwan at the spot on the Corniche where they had their first kiss. They were watching the tide come in, the spray of seawater arching over the railings, misting their faces.

He hummed Nivine’s song on his drive back down to Beirut. He returned to her the next night, and the night after that, listening to her songs under the oak tree as her mother puffed on her hookah. He considered moving back to the village. He’d start a small firm, buy his own land. When he mentioned his plan to her, she asked what he was looking for.

“Your hand,” he said, surprising himself.

“Oh, Hani,” she said. “The village would never accept our union. You deserve so much better.”

Even as Nivine said this, she hoped Hani would prove her wrong, that he’d remember all the nights she had sung for him and know that she’d never break his heart. But Hani didn’t insist, and later both would wonder if it was truly her station in life that had prevented him from marrying her. Maybe Hani wasn’t so different from other men, Nivine would think.

 

Hani’s nighttime visits to Nivine came to an end when he met Randa Maalouf in the summer of ’97. She was ten years his senior, and twice his size. He met her at a colleague’s wedding service at the Maronite church in Ashrafieh. Randa stood in a white robe in the back row of the choir, singing hymns with the cathartic passion of the heartbroken, her operatic voice soaring over the organ. Her red hair burst from her scalp like the fronds of a palm tree.

During the recessional, Hani remained in his pew while others followed the groom and bride down the aisle, listening to Randa sing. When she was done, he grabbed his Panama hat and approached her as she was stepping down from the stage.

“Who are you?” she asked, looming above him, her face speckled with orange freckles.

“Let me buy you dinner, and I’ll tell you.”

“I’ll see you at the wedding reception.”

Hani waited for Randa at the opulent hotel by the sea, feeling despondent with every hour that passed. She finally appeared at the serving of the cake, wearing a strapless dress that cut above her knees. A silver cross hung above the parting of her breasts. Hani walked over to her.

“Hello, little man,” she said.

“How about a drink at the bar?”

Over rounds of gin and tonics, Randa said that she hated weddings. “It’s become a competition,” she said, “of who can put on the most expensive show.”

“You don’t intend to get married?”

“I am married.”

Hani took a sip of his drink to ease the despair creeping over him.

“Don’t look so sad,” Randa said. “I’ve got an idea. Follow me.”

Randa picked up her leather bomber jacket from the coatroom and led Hani down to the parking lot, where a red Kawasaki motorcycle was parked in a corner. She climbed over the bike and told Hani to hop on. He had never been on a bike before. Randa read the concern on his face and extended her hand. He held it and climbed behind her, wrapping his arms around her wide waist, pressing his face against the soft leather of her jacket.

Randa slipped on fingerless gloves, put on her helmet, turned on the ignition, and revved the motor, the roar of the bike echoing through the lot. And then they were off, tearing down the Corniche and through downtown, leaving the city and heading north along the coast. They rode past pine-covered mountains where, in the high reaches of Harissa, an enormous statue of the Virgin Mary, her open palms extended to the world, stood tall, glowing pearly white in the spotlights trained on her frame. Whenever Randa picked up speed or cut between the cars and trucks on the highway, Hani broke into hysterical laughter. In Byblos, Randa parked at the Crusader castle and the two walked down the cobbled streets of the souk to the small ancient port from where Phoenicians had once launched their ships into the Mediterranean. They bought Almazas from a café and sat down on the pier amid the docked boats. Out by the rocks, a lone fisherman stood with his line cast out at sea, a plastic bucket by his feet, the orange glow of his cigarette flickering like a fleeting memory. Randa removed her heels and skimmed her painted toes in the water.

“Where’s your husband?” Hani asked.

“I’ve been asking the same question since 1986.”

Randa took a swig of beer and told Hani that her husband, Charbel Maalouf, had been a sniper for the Christian militia. As his men fought over city blocks, he sat in an upstairs room in an apartment building overlooking the battle scene to take his shots, pop, pop, pop, and Muslim fighters fell with their heads like split figs.

Charbel’s kill shift was from dawn till dusk. As soon as his shift was over, he rode his red Kawasaki motorcycle, which he called his red horse, to their apartment, where Randa waited for him on the balcony.

“The sound of his bike was the sweetest sound of all,” she told Hani. “It was the sound of my love returning.”

Randa would climb behind her husband, and they’d escape the city and head north to Byblos, to this very same spot on the pier.

“We’d watch the sea and look up at the stars,” she said. “Charbel never mentioned his work, and I never asked questions. He woke up most nights screaming.

“‘I can see their faces,’ he’d tell me, covered in sweat.”

Randa turned to Hani. “I’m not sure why I’m telling you all this.”

“Tell me more,” Hani said.

“One day,” Randa continued, “as I was waiting on the balcony for my love, I didn’t hear the red horse. Later that night, a militia commander came by to tell me that Charbel had gone missing.” Randa sipped her beer. “I was terrified that I’d find Charbel’s body dumped on Damascus Road with his eyes gouged out and his fingers missing, but I never did. A month following his disappearance, we got word that Charbel was being held captive by one of the Muslim militias. This was good news, because it meant that we could get him back through a prisoner swap. But the Muslim militia never contacted us again, and I’ve been waiting for the sound of the red horse ever since.”

Hani reached for Randa’s hand. “Were we riding the red horse?”

Randa shook her head. “I bought my own.”

That Sunday, Hani attended Mass at the church in Ashrafieh, sitting in the front pew.

“Holy God, we praise Thy name,” Randa sang with the power of broken angels. In his mind Hani was on the red horse, clamped to Randa’s back.

As the service came to an end, Hani glanced up at Christ nailed to the cross and felt that he, too, could suffer for Randa if it meant that they could be together; bring out the hammer and nails and the wreath of thorns—he’d do anything for love. He took his first Communion in order to be closer to her onstage. As the priest placed the wafer on his tongue, he made eye contact with Randa, not wanting to move from his spot.

“You only get one wafer, son,” the priest said.

Following service every Sunday, Randa and Hani rode up and down the coast. One evening, they returned to Randa’s apartment. The walls were covered in photographs of her and Charbel. Wherever Hani turned, Charbel peered down at him. The man had emerald green eyes and curly black hair. Looking up at one photograph of Charbel and Randa standing against the railings of the Corniche, Hani was surprised that Charbel appeared as small as him.

“He never wanted to be a sniper,” Randa said, looking up at the same photograph. “But after all his friends joined the militia, he felt obliged. He used to manage his father’s stationery store.”

The more Randa spoke of Charbel, the more Hani felt that Charbel was still alive. Hani wondered if he could ever shoot someone in battle. All he’d ever done was knock out his father with a lucky punch. What if Randa preferred men with guns?

When Hani turned away from the photograph, he found Randa staring at him.

“I haven’t kissed another man in eleven years,” she said.

As they lay naked in bed, Randa asked for forgiveness. Hani understood that she was speaking to the sniper on the bike.

During the week, Randa worked as an accountant at a local bank. They met in the evenings for dinner and to make love.

“What if he’s dead?” Hani once asked.

Randa slapped him across the face and ran to her room. Hani never asked her that question again. He also never missed Sunday Mass.

“Are you even baptized?” the priest asked Hani following one service.

“Randa’s my only religion,” Hani said, lost in the throes of her voice.

Randa once asked him if he’d still love her if she didn’t sing. He paused, struck by her question. She didn’t press him further. Both were afraid of his response.

Soon it was 2005, Hani now a senior lawyer at his firm. Every month his mother came down to Beirut to visit him, spending the morning cooking eggplant dishes for him and the afternoon touring the city in heels. She drank espresso at Café Paris on Hamra Street and ate ice cream on the steps down from the Main Gate of the American University. Hani rarely visited Ras-el-Metn, but when he did, he never left without kissing his father on the forehead, remembering how Serene had once done the same.

In his free time, Hani took long strolls down the Corniche and through the neighborhoods of the city. Beirut was back on the world map. When the prime minister was assassinated by a car bomb blamed on the Syrian regime, the Lebanese people took to the streets and drove the Syrian soldiers out of the country, ending nearly thirty years of occupation. The city was now electric with the hope of a new government not bullied by a foreign country. And Beirut looked different, too. New neighborhoods blossomed, like Monot, which was filled with restaurants and pubs. Downtown had been completely rebuilt, though only the rich could afford to shop at its fancy boutiques lining the cobbled streets.

One night, as Hani and Randa were drinking a bottle of merlot at her place, there was a knock at the door. Randa answered the door and screamed. Hani rushed to the foyer and saw a hunched, bald man standing at the entrance, his sunken face dotted with liver spots. He had emerald green eyes.

“May I come in?” the man said, his voice as broken as his body.

“Is it really you?” Randa asked him.

“What’s left of me.”

Charbel looked at Hani. They were the same height. Hani couldn’t believe that, instead of his sister or Nivine’s father, Charbel was the one to return.

“Are you a friend?” Charbel asked. He wore an oversized long-sleeve shirt and baggy pants, clothes clearly donated.

Hani exchanged glances with Randa. Her lips were purple from the wine, her eyes filled with pity for him.

“May I have a glass of water?” Charbel asked Randa.

“Follow me.”

Charbel followed her inside the apartment. Hani remained stranded by the open door, listening to Randa grab a glass from the cupboard and fill it with water from the cooler.

“Hani?” she called out.

He joined them in the parlor, sitting next to Randa on the couch. Charbel sat in an armchair, clenching the glass of water.

“How’s your health?” Randa asked him.

Charbel gulped the water, a drop sliding down his chin like a reluctant tear. He wiped it with the back of his hand. “I’m alive. That’s all that matters.” He looked at the two glasses of wine on the coffee table. The only sound was of a buzzing mosquito.

Hani understood that nothing more would be said if he remained, and so he left the apartment and made his way to the Corniche and walked up and down the promenade until his feet blistered. He kept checking his cellular phone to see if Randa had called. She didn’t call until the morning.

They rode to Byblos and sat on the pier. She told him everything Charbel had told her. After being kidnapped by the Muslim militia, he was shuttled every night from one basement to the next, until he was driven, blindfolded, across the border into Syria, where he languished in an underground cell in a suburb of Damascus. Once the Syrian army withdrew from Lebanon, they released him along with other prisoners.

“I can’t leave him, Hani,” she said. “Not after what he’s been through.”

“What about our history? Doesn’t that count?”

“But he’s my husband until death.”

Hani stood up to save his heart from sinking into the sea. For all these years, he realized, he had been Charbel’s understudy. “Please, take me back to Beirut.”

Hani abandoned the church. One day, as he sat back in his chair to listen to songs over the radio, he came across Fairuz and heard his first love sing to him. When the song ended, he got in his car and drove up the mountains to the house with rotting shutters.

“Why?!” he said, pointing at the space between Nivine’s eyebrows.

“It was time for a change,” she said. “I hear you’re a successful lawyer.” She also had heard that he was still unmarried.

Hani nodded. “Where’s your mother?”

“She passed away. Lung cancer.”

“I’m so sorry. No one told me. God rest her.”

“We’re poor. People don’t talk about us.”

“Do you still sing over the dead?”

“I retired. I can’t sing without my mother.”

She looked down at her hands folded in her lap. Hani had never seen her so somber. He sat next to her. Her braid was uncoiled.

“Who broke your heart this time?” she asked.

“No one.”

“You only visit me when your heart is in pieces.”

Hani was wracked with guilt for letting Nivine waste away as he searched for love in the city by the sea. She who had cared so much for him, who sang for him, would die a lonely woman with no one to sing over her body, no one to wait for her possible return. He asked Nivine if she was now waiting for her mother’s reincarnation, along with her father’s.

“I’ve waited nearly my entire life for my father, and he remains absent. I know where his body is—in the catacombs—but I don’t know the whereabouts of his soul. Maybe all the stories of returned souls are simply a manifestation of what we want so desperately: to hold onto those we love, to never let them slip away into oblivion. I always thought that if my father were to return and walk into this house and recognize the life he once lived, he’d make up for all the time I’ve spent waiting for him. Although he’d be younger than me, he’d promise to look after me.… I don’t know what to believe in anymore.”

Neither did Hani. He had always found solace in the voices of the brokenhearted, but now he wasn’t so sure if these voices hadn’t done him more harm than good.

Thinking she understood what Hani needed, Nivine sat up and began to sing.

Oh, he came back, my hero from Beirut.
He came back with his heart as—

“Stop singing,” Hani said. She looked stunned. He traced his finger across the ghost stubble of her unibrow.

“It’ll grow back,” she said.

He kissed her. She had been waiting for this moment since she first noticed him peeking at the mole on her breast. “Kiss me again,” she said.

He held her hand and led her to her bedroom. She lay on the mattress.

“I’m a virgin,” she said, not wanting him to stop. He taught her how to make love. As they lay in bed, the room smelling like a forest of wildflowers, Nivine wondered if, this time, Hani was here to stay. At least he had returned.

At dawn, Hani drove back down to Beirut, hoping no one spotted his car. As he made his way down the mountains, passing through pine forests, the sun gilding the treetops, he pondered the prospect of endless returns, an infinite number of second chances. Maybe in his next life he’d meet the right person with the right voice and live a fulfilled life. Or maybe people were expected to enact their own reincarnations on earth, reinvent themselves as they incurred emotional scars. Hani feared he had remained the same person, even now that he had made love to his very first crush. But perhaps he was on the brink of a reinvention, one as inspiring as a city rebuilding itself from the ashes of its own fire. Beirut appeared around a bend in the road, the city a triangle of concrete buildings backlit by the deep blue sea.

 

 

Ghassan Zeineddine lives in Dearborn, Michigan, where he teaches anglophone Arab literature and creative writing at the University of Michigan-Dearborn.

[Purchase Issue 17 here.]

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