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from the March 2008 issue

Dinner Party in Beirut

The druggist has closed up shop without a word to anyone, the scoundrel, and it's not even five o'clock. Am I to wait here on the sidewalk like this, with my legs swelling? His shutter is drawn, black, buckled, and discolored. There's broken glass just about everywhere; someone could hurt themselves. I peek inside to see if I can make something out: it's an awful mess, merchandise scattered over the floor. That man is really letting himself go.

Here comes my neighbor, Monsieur Antoun. And look at me, hardly decent at all. He's yellow, somehow, his eyes bulging. Madame Fawaz, what are you doing here? He always addresses me in this fashion, though we've known each other for twenty years—there was a time, he would have liked . . . Yes, I'm sure of it! Good evening Monsieur Antoun, out to do the shopping, you know, I have to take care of everything in my house, with four mouths to feed you've no idea what it's like . . . There's a little do at our place tonight, nothing special, a small dinner party . . . Why, he doesn't let me finish! He takes me roughly by the shoulder: Madame Fawaz, you must go home right away.

It makes no sense at all; he's never taken such liberties with me before.

There are stones strewn on the street, too, debris, cables swinging back and forth. A cleaning lady is what they need here. Well, I'm not going to hurry, I've not got the breath for it. Luckily, I come across a grocer's cart, where I buy a few onions, potatoes, carrots and four kilos of apples, though the grocer didn't even want to let me choose. I can't imagine what the matter was; he was in such a rush.

It's the same story everywhere, it seems people have gone mad. In front of the baker's there's a crowd of people piled one on top of the other, and I fully intended to go inside. But it's impossible! They virtually push me back. All of a sudden there's a horrid noise, deafening, and they take to their heels like rabbits, running hither and thither. Well, that ought to teach them. There's Monsieur Antoun again, he's following me or something, pretending insouciance. He tosses a kilo of bread he's just bought into my arms. Why, M. Antoun, what do you take me for? He's in my face, crying, Madame Fawaz, for heaven's sake, don't leave the house anymore, you don't understand . . . He's a bit worked up, I think. I don't know what to do, he insists, and without a thought I invite him to my dinner party. I'm sure I have no idea if I did the right thing.

There's nobody left in the street. I make my way home, where my little Karim is waiting for me on the sidewalk. He takes my bags and cries hurry, hurry, pushing me toward the stairs. You didn't go to school today, Karim. Again! That won't do. It's been days now, and just how much longer is this going to last? He puts everything in the kitchen and turns to me. He doesn't say anything by way of a reply. He's looking a little pale and I pass my hand over his forehead. He shoots off.

I wash the plates from last night though in truth it is Salwa's job. But when she's not eating, she's busy preparing her dowry: my dresses, all my young woman's clothes. She alters them, but she's never going to get into them, there's simply not enough fabric. She'd be better off learning how to cook, to do the housekeeping, but she does nothing but stuff herself with food. And this is how she hopes to find a husband!

One after another, the plates pass through my hands, automatically, as I look outside. The kitchen door gives onto the veranda and I notice the buildings across the street have today an air of being abandoned. I'm out of water. I should send Karim to fill a pail for me—the faucets have been on the blink for weeks. Karim! He comes into the kitchen, running toward me, very nearly slipping, and yanks closed the sheet hanging in the doorway. He's blocked my view of the street completely. He has tears in his eyes. Don't wash the dishes like that, Maman, there are snipers over there, do you hear me? He pants.

He's been worrying me lately. I don't know what's gotten into him, or what world he thinks he lives in; he's always talking about armed men, bombs, kidnappings. Sure, it'll pass . . . little boys have always loved playing war games, but he goes too far, he's too imaginative, he's jumpy, closed up in himself, he doesn't eat anymore. I hope he's not coming down with something, thin as he is, like he could be blown over. I don't want to worry him, so I act as if nothing is wrong: Go and play, Karim. He shoots me a strange look. Yes, I know him like the back of my hand: he'll go sit in a corner and stay there for hours. God, what am I going to do with this child.

I suppose it's no longer wise to use so much water washing. I've my feather duster, my broom. Of course, it's been ages since Selwa deigned to lift a finger. She's still in her dressing gown at this hour, almost six in the evening. Get yourself dressed, Salwa, your father will be coming soon. He no longer goes to the office, and yet he's an excellent accountant. He brought his work home with him and put a table in our bedroom. It is forbidden to disturb him while he's working.

I hear him stirring now, he comes out of the room; his suit is too tight on him, the seams are splitting, but he doesn't even notice. He's happy. He's holding an open file in his hand. I've never understood an iota about these numbers of his, but he wants to show me at all cost. Debit, Credit, April 13 1952. It's clear as day, look here, it's written here, seventy-five lira and twenty-five piastres written in letters, 25 lira and 75 piastres in numerals. He looks at me triumphantly, but it's Greek to me. He slaps his hand on the table. Here's the error! I have the proof, the proof that was needed, somebody falsified the entries and put the difference in his pocket. The cashier, Grégor, it could only have been him.

I don't want to be a party pooper, but Dear, 1952 was more than twenty-six years ago, and that Grégor has been dead for years. My husband takes it badly: What are you going on about? Accounting is accounting, time changes nothing. I've already been through the years '49, '50, and '51. I'll soon be done with '52, and everything will be sorted out, every little detail, it's the most prudent course.

I can't disagree with him there. No, he's touched on my weak point. I can't stand mess, like him. It's why we get along so well.

I've decided not to tell everyone the news until Nabil arrives. Nabil, my oldest, almost thirty, and I love him more than anything else in the world. He didn't want to get married, and never leaves the house. I wonder where he could be now. Then Karim spies him from the window and gets awfully excited. I really don't know what's gotten into that boy lately; maybe it's the onset of puberty. Here comes Nabil, he cries, and takes off down the stairs. Perhaps I'm worrying over nothing. Kids have heaps of energy they have to burn.

Nabil is all red and covered in sweat. My boy . . . Maman, I can't breathe, I'm too fat. I can't even walk anymore. What are you saying, Nabil? Come on, it's almost dinnertime, don't think about it. Look at your father, look at your sister, they're plump and rosy, even more than you, and you don't hear them complaining. But where have you been, why the long face, what's that in your hand? He sniffs. I wanted to surprise you. I found some lottery tickets in my stuff, entire booklets that I had left over, you remember, three years ago, when I was working. I went to sell them because I'd like to earn my keep, too. I stood at the corner yelling ya nassib! No one refuses a chance to get lucky. But not a soul stopped, they were all running, nobody wanted to buy . . .

I put my arms around him, my good little boy, I caressed his hair. Don't worry, Maman's here. It's not the end of the world. I too have a surprise. Try to guess . . . Well, I invited our upstairs neighbor, Monsieur Antoun, to the party tonight. Perhaps he'll come.

Salwa pulls herself out of the armchair, fretting. I've got nothing to wear, what am I going to put on?

We all go off to get ready, except Karim, naturally, ever the spoilsport.

I empty out the drawers of my bedside table. It's shameful! After all this time I no longer have even a touch of makeup, no rouge, no foundation, nothing. Luckily I happen upon a small bottle of Mercurochrome, dab a bit on both cheeks, and it's not that bad, it at least gives me a bit of color.

Well, dinner ends, we wait a little while longer, then, oh well, let's begin without him. As usual, Salwa and Nabil carry the table off and push it up against the wall. I call Karim over to help me pick out some records, but he just sits on the sofa, his face a mask of fear. Too bad for him!

I put on Ramona to start. We're lucky because the power's on tonight. Salwa is excited. Perhaps she thinks that Monsieur Antoun is coming because of her. She's so naïve, poor thing . . . She asks her father to dance, Nabil takes me in his arms. I put on Guarda que Luna, Toi ma petite folie, Volver, Petite Fleur, I dance with Salwa, Nabil, his father. I dance to pass the time. Monsieur Antoun will come, I know it.

Karim suddenly starts shouting, Stop it! Stop it! they're shooting in the street. A genuine attack of nerves. And at that moment there are rapid footsteps in the hall. It's him, I'm certain of it, I open the door, and indeed, there he is!

Monsieur Antoun comes into the living room; it's his first time here. I smile, I want him to see that there's a pleasant atmosphere here, but he doesn't even notice me. He appears haggard, he knocks over the record player, he cries: There's not a moment to lose, come, all of you, up to my house, I'm a Christian, they wouldn't dare enter. I am furious, the record is terribly scratched, it was Le Plus Beau Tango du mondo . . . Shame on you, Monsieur Antoun, what a way to behave! I am sorely disappointed in you, there is no talk of religion in this house! He holds his head in his hands, trying to calm down, and says: Listen to me carefully, outside . . . outside, there's a war going on, it's been going on for a while, but this time the neighborhood will fall, the militia will be here any moment, so I beg of you, please, come with me, you'll be safe . . .

What is this all about? I have no desire to move, I've always lived peacefully here, we're comfortable here, what on earth is he saying? He loses his head, stands up, and doing so, overturns the table. He runs to the sofa, grabs Karim and carries him out.

Oh, now I no longer understand a thing. I invite this man to a party, he comes, perhaps even for Salwa, okay, but for Karim! We look around at each other, paralyzed; we really don't know what to think. The door is wide open and in the stairwell there's a lot of noise. All of a sudden, four men in green come in without knocking, rifles in their hands, covered in sweat, their eyes full of blood. I don't know them, have never seen them before. We've never been introduced.

Read more from the March 2008 issue
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