Where We Live
By Daniel J. Pinney
18 February 2008
In the schoolhouse, my father continued to teach the important yet useless stuff of a "liberal education." Our secular madrassa, he called it. This was a service, one he would have provided free of charge, but we accepted donations (and indirectly demanded them, from those who could afford to pay). "Learning is important," he would note, with only a twinge of guilt in his voice. "Information wants to be free. But we need to eat." I cooked for us, as I'd done since I'd been old enough to see over the edge of the stove. I went to the market, helped grade papers, and, when time permitted, sat in the back of our improvised classroom while my father taught the lessons.
Some days, there was no school. Classes were suspended on days of heavy fighting, or the waning days of Ramadan, or Yom Kippur, or the funeral of someone widely significant and beloved. On those days my father the schoolteacher and I, his helper, would fan out across the post-urban landscape—we would visit areas of uninhabitable ruin, precincts newly toxic, neighborhoods recently decimated by factional warfare or plague, to cart back whatever we might be able to salvage and sell. Like when we drove away from the Bekaa in his six-wheeled truck, I was the gunner, AK-47 in hand, while he was the unarmed finder of things.
One crisp, autumn afternoon, just before my fourteenth birthday, we visited a firebombed shantytown southeast of old Haifa. A week before, an engineered strain of Ebola had begun to eradicate the slum dwellers, and their more affluent neighbors on all sides had elected to cauterize the infection with walked-in napalm. It was an unusual example of governance by consensus.
Wearing surgical gloves and paper masks purchased from an NGO footsoldier with a key to a supply closet and an opium habit, we brought a cart drawn by mules and rode forth to sift through the rubble.
I stood sentry, high atop a blackened heap of stone, while my father descended into the cellar of an incinerated mosque. He emerged first with a crate of unburned incense, a second time with a blasphemous but remarkable painted ceramic statuette of the Prophet, the third time with a round mirror, almost a meter across, perfect blown glass backed with silver inside a ring of something golden. My father flashed it to me in triumph, catching the sun, and then he tumbled backwards. I heard the crack of a distant gunshot a moment after he fell, a moment before he released the mirror from his suddenly lifeless hands. The mirror hit the ash-drifted stones beneath his feet, and I heard it shatter. There was nothing, it seems, that I could have done.
I buried my father, in that cellar beneath that mosque, and loaded up our scavenged prizes, the incense and the statuette. The mirror I left broken in a heap of perfect, jagged shards, lying in the blood-pooled dust, reflecting the cloudless sky.
The school closed, for there was nobody now to teach in it. I couldn't, and I wouldn't. Some of the books I sold, and the ones I didn't like I burned for fuel on days when charcoal was hard to come by, or too dear to afford. Several, I kept. On my first solo scavenging trip, I found a bicycle with a bent frame but two intact wheels, and some scrap sheet metal that had been blown into the street by some bombardment or other. My cousin Abdullah lent me his welding torch. With those ingredients and some old Lebanese currency and newly-printed militia scrip my father had stashed in a hollowed-out copy of Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations, I fell back on what I knew better than anything: I built myself a falafel cart. A cart with wheels, that I could move along, whenever the precinct I occupied got too hot. I believed in getting by.
There is a café, six blocks back from the water, beyond the docks above Haifa where Rashid works as a stevedore. The café is a low, squat building, one large room with wrought-iron filigree grills over the paneless windows. Sawdust covers the floor, and weird, wailing Arab trance music drips out from tinny speakers bolted to the smoke- and soot-covered rafters. The air is filled with competing smells: coffee (strong, thick Turkish); stale, spilled biera; the cloying sweetness of the apple tobacco of the sheesha pipes; the aromas of garlic and cilantro and hot cooking oil; the ashen rasp of countless expired cigarettes.
The music fights a losing battle with the sharp rattle of dice on cheap pine tawilla boards, the clack of counters slapped down hard against the wood, the occasional ivory impact of the doubling cube being deployed to escalate a wager.
Inscrutable men with expensive German submachine guns and head-to-toe suits of body armor flank the door, rigid and faceless behind their Kevlar veils, enforcing the management's peacekeeping policy.
Arabs will never give up their weapons; nor will Jews who are drinking, or eating, or playing backgammon with Arabs. The armored bouncers keep a watchful eye on the crowd, and a clerk in a white galabeya stands behind them, keeping track of the coat check where the patrons have surrendered their flak jackets, their Kevlar suits. Firearms are permitted but armor is not. It is a curiously effective policy for minimizing violence. Shootings, here, are rare.
Rashid and I share a water pipe, taking turns inhaling the smooth, fruit-scented tobacco smoke, passing the embroidered, wood-capped hose back and forth. He drinks biera in disposable bottles, I drink heavily-sugared tea in a succession of small, thick glasses.
Rashid imagines himself a tawilla virtuoso, when in truth he is merely aggressive, which causes certain players to lose their composure. We play.
With an early, lucky set of double fives, he traps an orphaned black disk on my first point—he will not have to release that piece until the last roll of the dice. He hoots with derision when I refuse to concede, but I have already have the beginnings of a blockade on his second board, so I see a slim hope. I expand my block so that it extends from his sixth point to his twelfth, leaving only the seventh open, so that he can bring pieces onto his home board, but not vacate them. He orders another biera, and I sip my tea, smiling. Dirty sweat gleams on his hairless pate.
"Dog," he grunts, and takes the doubling cube, turning it from one to two, though we are only playing for our tab. "Concede." I double him back, and he mutters an epithet to God, and doubles me back again. I return the gesture once more. I am grinning.
It is a waiting game, now—it is in the hand of God, and the vagaries of the dice, whether my blockade will come apart before he is forced to leave a single piece unprotected on his first point. The match has drawn the attention of other patrons, and they have gathered, a loose semicircle surrounding our table. Outside, the day is waning, the sun casting the shadows of the grillwork as long stripes of overstretched darkness across the board, our faces, those of the onlookers.
Rashid tries, time and again, to run my blockade. Occasionally, he succeeds, and receives a few extra turns' reprieve as he moves the escaped piece around the board. But when he does not, the blockade tightens. Side bets are being offered and taken in the crowd. When, at last, he is forced by a six and a two to break his first point, I easily trap the exposed piece, and it is done—the game is a tie now. Cheers and cries of lamentation erupt, strangers slap me on the shoulder and murmur rough congratulations, others pat Rashid on the back and offer sympathies. It is a game that will be spoken of for years in this café, one for the ages.
Rashid shakes his head at me, disgust sharpening his dark eyes. With one thick, crack-nailed finger, he taps the worn ivory of the doubling cube. "You play for an improbable tie, cousin, at a multiple of sixteen? Allah. What the fuck is wrong with you?"
I grin, accepting with shaky fingers a cigarette from a stranger who has made a lot of money betting on my quixotic play. Adrenaline is coursing through my body, making me jittery.
"I saw the possibility, and I don't like to give up," I reply, exhaling smoke and watching it swirl between us, between the bars of shadow and the bars of orange light as the sun outside the window gives us its last rays. "And when you start so far down, to make it a tie is something pretty close to a win."
He shakes his head again, a slight grin quirking the corners of his meaty lips. After a moment he turns to spit noisily into the sawdust. We clasp hands across the board, and I order a biera, and he a glass of tea. When we finally settle the bill, each of us pays exactly half.
Sweating, shrieking, clutching my hand hard enough to grind the bones of my fingers against each other, breathing deliberately, exhaling in sharp whooshes like the discharge of a compressed-air pipe mortar, Mira gives birth to a child. Our son.
The dusty cellar has been cleared, our meager furniture pushed to the walls, the bed dragged into the center of the concrete floor. Our crank generator hums as it lights the bare bulb fixture hanging from the ceiling, the illumination increased by the cheap smart-paper flatscreens that we have pasted up on the walls, displaying pirated video feeds: the cameras of hacked aerial combat drones; a long-ago football match; an anonymous webcam overlooking Nasrallah Square; an ancient Western cooking program that Mira teases me for watching, and enjoying, because we have none of the gadgets that the man in the absurd chef's hat has in his miraculously appointed kitchen, nor access to the obscure ingredients his recipes require.
The midwife is wrinkled like some fruit left too long in the sun, stooped from many years of life and struggle, a slight hump disfiguring her spine. She is the best in the district, though—in another life, she worked as a nurse in the maternity ward at the hospital in Tiberias.
The sporadic blatting of small arms fire in the distance, the thud of the rotors of corporate gunships on night patrol, the shouts and screams and laughter and music of our neighbors' lives, are all drowned out in the moment the midwife slaps his naked, slimy bottom, eliciting a liquid cough and, a moment later, his first infant howl, a throaty yell of passionate alarm and confusion. My son. Our son.
My watering eyes fix on this little creature, then dart anxiously to find Mira's. They are open, and wet, too, and we smile at each other. Both mother and child live. It is a happy night.
"What is his name?" demands the midwife, her tone sharp, severe and satisfied. Mira, in her exhaustion, has closed her eyes. I look at the child, shouting lustily, still held in those gnarled, wrinkled hands. I close my eyes, take a deep breath, smelling the cooking oil on my clothes, smelling the cilantro and garlic that I chopped earlier in the evening, before Mira's water broke, to mix into the morrow's chickpea paste. I open them again, and look at the chef on the wall, in his funny hat. I smile.
"His name is Emeril," I say, with a wink to the wallscreen. Out of the corner of my eye, I see Mira smile.
Mira is a valued employee, a chemist. She makes a good living, for these parts. They even give her maternity pay, while she gives birth to Emeril, and allow her to return, and to leave him in the on-site nursery on days when he is not with me.
Sarda's processing facility is extensive, expansive—almost corporate. It is completely underground, a series of old cellars and subcellars, connected by newly-excavated chambers and passages where there was a need. Lead shields all of the ceilings to protect the operation from satellite overflights. Access to the interlocking network of subterranean rooms is gained through particular street-level stores and factories. This facility produces the cleanest export-grade heroin in the Levant.
Trucks arrive regularly from poppy fields in Iraq, Jordan and Afghanistan. The opiate crop is processed, refined into a dusty gray powder. The powder gets shrink-wrapped into one-kilo bricks, transported overland or underground to the tangle of piers and warehouses north of Haifa, shipped out on transports flying questionable flags, to every corner of the world.
Mira is sometimes troubled by this work, but the income is steady. It helps us get by.
The City did not exist fifty years ago. It rose, literally, from ashes—a mythic bird, a fertilized egg, the unsanctified union of two atrocities. People don't care much for history here, because life is too hard, too immediate—two hundred clicks of improvised shantytown between the northern Glow and the southern, a teeming hive of displaced peoples.
I keep a stall in Nasrallah Square. I fry ta'amia in vegetable oil over a propane burner, serve it with lettuce and tahina, and tomatoes when I can get them, in a half-loaf pocket of aish beledi. Country bread, flat bread, pita to the Greeks and the Westerners. Did you know that, in Arabic, the word for bread is also the word for life? Think on that. I think on it myself, sometimes. I can't say what I think, exactly—it depends on the day. But I do think on it. And I read history.
My parents grew up in Beirut. My father, educated at Oxford, returned home to teach at the American University there, receiving a tenured position as a professor of world history in 2021. My mother was a schoolteacher, and his childhood sweetheart from the old neighborhood. She died, giving birth to me, in 2030. I was named after the street in Cairo where I was conceived, during their honeymoon.
We had a summer home, in the Bekaa foothills, away from the city, where we would repair in the summers. It was small, but cool, with a spring nearby and a deep well, shaded by acacia trees and positioned on a ridge that caught the breeze well. We had a vegetable garden, which my mother had tended but which ran riot after her passing. The house was full of books, in Arabic, in French, in English, the three languages in which my parents, and so I as well, were fluent. My father did not speak much of feelings—he spoke of what he knew, of his theories and understanding of the world. Our summers in that house were filled with lectures, and intellectual debate, everything from Toynbee's theory of history to the British commercial conquest of the Levant to the political writings of Al-Qutb and Bin Laden's adaptation of those theories to justify his war against the American hyperpower at the beginning of the new Gregorian millennium. A high-speed modem attached to a succession of disposable cellphones allowed us the uncensored freedoms of the internet. Local worthies would come to dine every few weeks—the sheikh and the local Hizb Allah field commander and some of the more affluent landowners would come to sit around the big round table in the front room, to smoke and eat and engage in spirited but good-natured discussions of the affairs of the world.
From Sheikh Ahmed, a rotund old man with a wispy beard and an overfondness for baklava, I learned for the first time about God—my father was a dutiful observer of the faith, but in his heart a secular man. From Abu Fatma, a scarecrow of a man, upwards of two meters tall and clean-shaven, with sunken, pock-marked cheeks, I learned for the first time of warfare, and service, and what drives men to it.
On a clear day, from the summit of the ridge above our cottage, you could faintly see Bint Jebel, "Daughter of the Mountain," one of the contested settlements where Hizb Allah made successive stands against periodic Israeli incursions over the border. In the other direction, looking north on equally clear days when I was feeling homesick for my friends back in the city, I imagined that I could make out a smudge of haze that marked the smog and smoke above the capital.
It was from this vantage, on an August afternoon, midway through my seventh year, as the shadows from the acacia trees stretched themselves to breaking, striping our faces with zebra-markings of darkness, that my father and I, and the rotund Sheikh and the scrawny field commander and a host of our other neighbors, watched two mushrooms bloom against the horizon, oddly small and muted with the extreme distance, and learned, each in our own way, that the world we had inhabited had ended forever.
On the last day of July of that year, a tramp freighter sailing under Liberian flag anchored in the harbor at Netanya and, on an afternoon when a cool, steady wind was blowing in off the sea, detonated a cargo of high explosive heavily laced with plutonium dust, a textbook "dirty bomb." Three days later, having determined from a careful review of satellite telemetry that the vessel's previous port of call had been the southern Lebanese city of Tyre, Israel's Knesset issued a statement condemning the Lebanese state and Hizb Allah for perpetrating this monstrous act, or at least allowing it to happen. Beirut and the Party of God each issued denials, and expressions of regret at the atrocity, but to no avail. Israel retaliated by launching two medium-range missiles with small nuclear payloads, confirming at last their nuclear arsenal to the world. The first missile obliterated Tyre; the second blew a radioactive crater half a kilometer wide in the southern precincts of Beirut that had long been reputed to be Hizb Allah's stronghold in the capital. With the state's blessing, Hizb Allah retaliated, firing two Iranian-made ship-to-shore missiles carrying mustard gas from small boats that hid beneath the radioactive cover afforded by the fallout hanging over Tyre. Those missiles decimated the populations of Haifa and Tiberias, or those who had not yet had the sense, or the means, to flee. In a matter of days, southern Lebanon and northern Israel descended into a chaos from which neither would ever emerge.
My father and I remained in our cottage for eight days after that August afternoon on the ridge. Then one evening, after we had watched the trickle of the displaced develop into a stream, and then a flood, and then a torrent, Abu Fatma came to our door and told us what my father, I suspect, already knew—we could no longer stay here, he and his people could no longer guarantee or even reasonably assure our safety. My father had been expecting this, I think, because for the past week he had put us both to work, packing the books into cardboard boxes, repurposed produce crates. From somewhere he obtained a small Japanese panel truck, with a big back compartment and six heavily treaded tires. That night, the three of us loaded the books into the truck, and as my father and I climbed into the cab, Abu Fatma offered us weapons. My father accepted an Israeli sidearm and a box of ammunition—he was the driver, and couldn't manage anything heavier. I was given my first AK-47, a crate of loose rounds to keep between my feet, and six black, curving thirty-shot magazines.
"Go with God," he said to us, and raised a hand in farewell as my father threw the truck into gear. We made our way down to the cratered highway to join the torrent heading north. We never saw him again.
I shot my first Arab ten hours later, as the sun was rising: a man with an old Soviet carbine and a gang at his back who tried to hijack us just before the turnoff to the radioactive ruins of Tyre. I shot my first Jew six months later, in a militia skirmish in the shantytown below Bint Jebel, where my father and I had settled and he had established a school. I took my first bullet a year after that, in another neighborhood skirmish, a nine-millimeter round fired by a sidearm that knocked me down and shattered my collarbone. I don't know the denomination of the shooter. Such distinctions were still important then—Jew, Arab. Now, what's the difference? We are all inhabitants of the City. But then, still, we had not yet learned to share our space with our neighbors.
The brilliance of the AK-47 lies in the fact that it was designed to be a weapon for dispersion, a weapon for revolution, a weapon to be copied—it uses a standard ammunition, 7.62mm, which is easily obtainable in war zones everywhere, and it is functionally efficient enough in its machining that it offers a reliable rate of fire, few jams, and sufficient muzzle velocity, penetration, and stopping power to be effective in skirmishes between irregular forces and also in guerrilla operations against anything but the forces of a modern, Western, national army. At the same time, it is sufficiently simple that it can be disassembled, and reverse-engineered, and copied with no difficulty at all. In the waning years of the twentieth century, blacksmiths in Afghan and Pakistani villages with no electricity and no automated manufacturing equipment replicated this weapon by hand. A properly optimized Victorian foundry, powered by steam and staffed by waifs and orphans with missing fingers and limbs, could churn them out daily by the hundreds. The gun is, in its simplicity, a utilitarian work of art. The design hasn't changed fundamentally since the weapon was introduced in 1947. There's a reason for that. It is known, popularly, as a Kalashnikov. It's a weapon of the people.
This district is awash with AKs, but then so is everyplace else, hereabouts. This is not surprising—it's a dangerous world, and we live in a particularly dangerous part of it, or so it is said. There was a month, following Ramadan last year, when the Square was beset by snipers on the rooftops. Street traffic, and street commerce, diminished substantially over that month, even in the daytime, though the snipers generally came out only at night. I was here, though, at my stand, making and selling falafel. Even snipers, after all, need to come down from their nests and eat.
I don't have my own rifle, anymore. I could obtain one, easily, if I wanted one—there's a Korean gentleman, several stalls down, who makes his living selling everything from laundry soap to Howitzer shells. I'm sure he could sell me one. There are plenty of arms. People imagine they need them, to keep safe.
"My parents were horrified," Mira tells me, on the first night that she has conceded to dine with me, in public and with a chaperone. We are in the candlelit dining room of the Dark Ride, an abandoned amusement park that some well-connected faction or other has repurposed as a restaurant, cabaret, neutral ground where negotiations can safely and discreetly take place. It's an appropriate setting, in a way—Mira and I are, ourselves, negotiating.
At the tables around us are gangsters, militia leaders, even a handful of Westerners, mercenaries or corporate commercial factors or spies. "By the retaliation," she continues. "I remember them talking of it, when I was small. They couldn't bribe their way onto an evacuation ship. So we left our home, and, because our home was north of the drift from Netanya, we went north."
The reality that underlies her narrative is familiar—capital, intellectual or otherwise, is not cash, and is therefore useless when even a localized apocalypse transpires. Her parents, educated Jews, had emigrated from the Netherlands, sunk their money into a pharmaceutical concern on Netanya's outskirts that wound up being right under the radioactive drift. Suddenly they found themselves poor, too poor to drive to Jerusalem and hop on a plane. She is like me, except that she feels the need to explain what is, sadly, an old and familiar story.
"Tell me about it," I say to her, acutely aware of her great-aunt, sitting alone in her long, black dress, glaring balefully at the two of us from the next table, over the rim of her glass of heavily sugared tea. Mira speaks of cut flowers, of test tubes and compounds and gas chromatographs, peering through microscopes. Fleeing in the back seat of a new sedan that quickly becomes old, her mother dying of an antibiotic-resistant strain of typhus, her father teaching her his trade by candlelight in a succession of basements in abandoned houses in Haifa. They sold simple medicines improvised from abandoned chemical stores and herbs harvested in trips out to the dwindling countryside. He went out one morning in the car and didn't return. She found the burnt-out husk of the vehicle weeks later, his charred bones in the driver's seat.
Furtively, I reach out a hand for hers, give it a squeeze. Her eyes downcast, she returns the pressure.
On the other side of the wall, there is grass. Freshly cut, green, luxuriant, like a carpet, fragrant in the darkness. The air smells of moisture, of life.
One of the reasons the Square is relatively safe, relatively survivable, is that we exist pressed up against an enclave. The City is anarchic, but there is money to be made, and so the capitalist West maintains a presence in the form of walled facilities, scattered here and there across the sprawling shantytown landscape. Weapons conglomerates, telecom providers, big pharma, biowarfare labs—all or none behind those thick, smooth, faceless walls. Who knows? We are the largest deregulated marketplace in the world, and a handy R&D lab, with human test subjects to boot.
We don't know, on our side of the walls, what goes on the other side, but we wonder. The consistent availability of small arms of all sorts, of ammunition; the reliable emergence of resistant viral strains, digital and biological—how much of that state of affairs is accidental, or self-generating? Not all of it, I suspect. The enclaves are part of our mythology, how we explain our place in the world, and the state of the world we live in. They are part of the story we tell ourselves.
The boys in the backroom at Abu Akbar's Cybercafé did me right. They got me over the wall, persuaded the automated machine gun nests to look the other way, the razor wire to de-electrify, the security sensors to reboot themselves at just the right moment. They could not, however, hack the human element.
She wears sharp black fatigues, bulky with body armor underneath, and braces against her shoulder a weapon I've never seen before. I have no doubt that it will kill me dead, obliterate me in some novel way, should she choose to depress the firing stud. I raise my hands.
"Don't shoot," I say, not fearful, but sad. To be shot dead so close to so improbable and romantic a goal would be a shame. My lack of panic, perhaps, gives her pause.
"Why shouldn't I?" she asks, in smooth, flat American English. "How did you get over the wall? What are you doing here?"
"I am unarmed, and I mean no trouble," I answer, spreading my arms wide, knowing that she will see the truth of my words through the heads-up display on her combat helmet's visor. I am trying to take her questions in order. "Someone I know hacked the wall sensors for me. In your gardens, I am told there are tulips."
She laughs, a sharp, surprising snort, before noticing that I am not, myself, smiling. I cannot see her hair, her eyes behind the visor, anything but her pale cheeks and thin pale lips. Her jaw tightens in a frown and, after a moment, she touches a toggle on her helmet, switching off her comm.
"Tulips?" she repeats, incredulous, lowering weapon from shoulder, bracing the butt against her hip, barrel still trained on my chest.
"My betrothed," I say, strangely calm. "Or maybe she is, or will be. She told me of these flowers, memories of them, or stories. Her parents came to Israel from the Netherlands. I wish to bring her some."
The woman stares at me, hard, no doubt reading my biometrics through her visor. Oddly, I believe I have nothing to fear—I am indeed unarmed, I have carried no awful pathogens to infect this walled-off paradise, and I am telling the plain and simple truth. I close my eyes and wait, for a shot to rip through me, or, just perhaps, insha'allah, God willing, an acquiescence to my request.
A long silence. Crickets trill in the grass, a cool, fresh-smelling breeze ripples the lawn. At last, she laughs.
"Love in the ruins, huh? Well. You've got guts, Omar, I'll give you that. Whoever she is, she'd be a fool not to have you."
I open my eyes again. She has lowered the gun, and with a wave of its downcast barrel, she indicates a direction.
"Come on. And no funny business." I begin walking across the grass, and she falls in behind me, pressing the barrel of her weapon low against the base of my spine. "I'm loaded with explosive rounds, rip you in half. Let's go pick your flowers."
"One day you will never come home," my wife pronounces one morning, a morning much like any other. "One day I will have to come out to the Square, and claim your bullet-riddled corpse, and weep, and wail, and beat my breast. And that will be that."
The sky is not yet light, but I hear her words, even as I sip, slowly, at the thick, unfiltered coffee she has set in front of me. I say nothing, but rise from the rude table at which we take our meals, and walk to the makeshift crib where Emeril sleeps, tiny fists fiercely clenched around the tattered hem of his blanket, wearing an intense frown as if sleeping were the most serious business of all. I say nothing to Mira, because there is nothing to say. This is where we live. She steps up beside me, and we embrace, not smiling. I look into her eyes. They are blue, and somber, as deep and limitless as a cloudless afternoon sky, reflected perfectly in the broken shards of a fallen mirror.
"You're probably right," I say to her in my mind. "But insha'allah, that day will not be today."