At an armed checkpoint, sectarian tensions come to bear on one man's suspect identity in this excerpt from Jabbour Douaihy's novel Chased Away.
Nizam went with Olga to Jounieh Saturday morning in her red and white Mini Cooper. She’d barely finished introducing him when her mother launched her assault.
“You just can’t get your fill of handsome young men, can you, Olga?” she shouted, having grown very hard of hearing.
Olga responded full force despite her mother’s age.
“Like mother like daughter!”
Olga could see that her mother was in good health. She’d claimed she was dying so Olga would come see her. She preferred not to stay overnight at her mother’s because they would spend the time quarreling over every little thing.
Her mother invited them to stay for lunch but apologized for having to leave for an hour to go to Mass.
They decided not to wait for her and headed back to Beirut. The streets at that time of morning were jam-packed with pedestrians and cars, so Nizam signaled for her to take the coastal road toward the port. That’s when they suddenly found themselves stuck at a makeshift checkpoint.
Up to that time, Nizam had never shown his ID to anyone, except the police sergeant who’d barged in on them at the apartment in al-Manara. Touma had procured the ID for him from the Sérail in Tripoli. Touma was always telling the story, in front of his friends, claiming it was the Civil Registry Officer who entered all the personal data information into the application, based on what Touma told him in Nizam’s absence, but Nizam's ID didn’t reflect what he’d said. Touma also tried to get the employee to leave the part about religious affiliation blank, but he insisted on following the rules. And so Touma resorted to erasing the phrase “Sunni Muslim,” which the registrar had entered under “Religion,” himself. Nizam remembered seeing the phrase on his ID at one time, but then noticed it was gone, with some evidence of tearing where the paper had been rubbed with an eraser. Nizam had passed through numerous armed checkpoints before, and every time it was the same. The soldier or policeman or armed militia man who was in charge of checking the IDs of all the car passengers, waiting for him to signal and peer through the window at each one’s face, would get to Nizam, take a quick glance, and look away. Generally speaking, the guards at checkpoints were comfortable with Nizam’s appearance. None of them ever asked to see his ID.
The gunman who now had his ID wasn’t looking at people’s faces. He was looking all about, preoccupied and nervous about what was going on around him, worried there might be some threat to his own safety. No actual checkpoint had been set up. Gunmen appeared from side streets or nearby buildings and pounced on the cars. Just like that, the place was suddenly swarming with them. They were dressed in civilian clothes with belts of ammunition strapped around their waists, some with hand grenades or revolvers, too, in addition to automatic rifles. They spread out. Some performed patrol while others pounded on cars signaling the drivers to stop.
“IDs. Quickly!” the gunman shouted at the passengers, without looking at them.
The young man who’d given them the order was agitated, flustered, afraid. He frightened them. Olga winked at Nizam and handed the young gunman her ID. He glanced at it, then leaned in to get a good look at its owner. The car was low to the ground, and he was tall. It was hot, and Olga was wearing a lightweight dress that showed her shoulders and a bit of her back and chest. His stare lingered. Then he glanced over at Nizam. He liked Olga. All men liked Olga.
Nizam felt that older men did not see him as a barrier when they were hitting on Olga. He appeared small and nice and was most likely a relative, worst-case scenario. He did not provide her with sufficient protection in the face of those with sudden desires. Their hungry eyes gobbled her up while flitting past him in contrast, merely to ascertain what his relation to her might be.
Cars were lining up behind them. He returned her ID, bidding her farewell with a piercing stare. He was about to wave her along when he remembered Nizam.
“You. Give me your ID.”
He started looking around again, troubled. He was quick to lose his patience.
Nizam heard the first round of gunfire from somewhere nearby. A gray-haired man in the car that was stopped behind them stepped out of his car. The gunman yelled at him to stop and get back in his car. The man obeyed.
Nizam could see that the armed man was Christian by the cross dangling from the gunman’s neck as he inspected IDs. He was holding Nizam’s ID and still hadn’t taken a look at it, due to his preoccupation with the situation developing around him in the street. Nizam reached out to take it back. Only then did the gunman lean in to take a look at him. As usual, he did not find anything in Nizam’s appearance to cause concern. He had the ID in his hand but wasn’t reading it, as if he’d really been taken by Olga and didn’t want to let them go in that sea of cars and was searching for some pretext to keep them there. They heard some more gunfire from behind the customs building. The popping sound of the exploding ammunition was somewhat muffled: bullets hitting their target, not fired into the air. Dozens of cars were backed up in line, waiting for the gunmen’s decisions. No one dared speak or get out of the car as the gunmen hopped between the cars, barking out orders, and calling to each other by their first names, more like neighborhood buddies than members of a political party.
Rather than reading the ID, the gunman asked Nizam for his name. His eyes were darting about incessantly. The name Nizam didn’t faze him. Just as he was reaching to hand back the ID and reluctantly let them go, he caught sight of Nizam’s father’s name on the ID.
“Mahmoud!” he suddenly shouted, as if finding what he’d been searching for. “Get out!”
Olga said his name was Nizam, not Mahmoud. He looked at the ID to check and then ordered him again to get out of the car. Nizam got out, and the gunman signaled for Olga to move along. Flustered, she tried to shift the gears, but the motor stalled. He shouted at her to get going. The sound of gunfire in the nearby streets was accompanied by distant shouting, like someone pleading or protesting. Traffic was jammed, so one of them fired his machine gun into the air while his buddies screamed at drivers to get moving. The gunfire subsided. The gunman who ordered Nizam to get out of the car spoke to one of his buddies.
“George. Take him . . .”
George was holding some black cloth sacks. He quickly put one over Nizam’s head and started nudging him along with his hand. Most likely he was taking him to where the voices and sounds of gunfire were coming from. George was a gigantic, heavy-set man with a beard but not one of the killers. His job was to hand people over to his comrades hiding behind the building.
He ordered Nizam to walk. Nizam wasn’t sure where to step on that crumbling sidewalk. He could hear Olga’s voice in the distance, from where she’d driven ahead. She was saying that he wasn’t a Muslim and he was innocent. She added in Nizam’s direction that she was waiting for him up the road a little way and asked him not to be afraid. She was forced to move forward quickly beneath a flood of shouting from the gunmen. Nizam held his composure and kept silent for a few stumbling steps, the bag over his head having turned him into a blind man. They were getting closer to the customs building. His escort had his hands on his shoulders, guiding him in the right direction. As long as Olga was driving parallel to them and he could hear her telling him not to be afraid, that they would let him go, he felt he was still hanging on. But when one of the gunmen yelled at Olga to shut up and drive away, and they nearly reached the source of the gunfire, Nizam broke down.
He came to a complete stop, unable to move his feet forward any longer. George called out to him. Nizam reached in his direction, searching for him, groping from his darkness. He suddenly blurted to George that he was Maronite. A Christian, like him. He pleaded for him to believe him. True, he’d been born a Muslim, but his grandmother on his mother’s side was a Christian from Syria and he had become a Christian. Nizam was speaking loudly enough for his escort to hear. He tried to remove the bag from his face, but the gunman prevented him. He was speaking quickly and nervously. True his father was called Mahmoud, but he didn’t grow up with him or any of his father’s family. They never asked about him, and he never asked about them.
The gunman grabbed him and firmly pushed him forward, forcing him to keep walking. Nizam took one or two steps with a great deal of difficulty. He remembered his ID and begged him to look at it to see there was no religion listed on it. The gunman took the card, looked at it quickly, and put it in his pocket. The sounds of machine guns firing increased. The man told Nizam to be quiet, but he didn’t obey. Instead he told him how he’d been baptized in a church up in the mountains near Hawra.
“You know Hawra?” the gunman interrupted.
Nizam continued his story, about the priest pouring water over his head, how he was twenty-one years old at the time. The gunman was still pushing him, but Nizam felt he was slowing down a bit. Nizam was blabbering on, saying anything that came to mind. He told him the woman driving the car was a Christian. He was planning to marry Janan Salem, whose father was in charge of protocol at the Lebanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, he said, waving his hand in the general direction of where he guessed the ministry was located. He told him to check her phone number, which was written on the back of his ID. Nizam didn’t stop at just talking; he slid his hand inside his shirt, wanting to pull out the little medal Rakhima had given him before he set out for Beirut—the medal of the Immaculate Conception. He felt around with his trembling hand, being careful not to pull out the Ayat al-Kursi pendant with its Koranic verse by mistake. The Ayat al-Kursi was square, with sharp edges. The medal was oval. There was the blue-eye pendant, too. He fished out the little Immaculate Conception medal and pulled it out from inside his shirt. He yanked it from his neck, breaking the chain, and started kissing it like a lunatic. He practically started gnawing on it with his teeth. He gave it to the gunman, who slipped it into his pocket with the ID.
His escort stopped pushing him, giving him a little rest, but Nizam didn’t stop talking. They were definitely getting close to the customs building. Nizam started reciting the Our Father and the Hail Mary. He didn’t say the whole prayer, just the opening line of the first one and the opening line of the second one, to prove he knew them. He felt compelled to heap on proof, so he moved on to, “We believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of Heaven and Earth . . .” He said all his friends were Christian and that he’d gone to a school run by Lazarite Nuns. He started rattling off the nuns’ names—Sister Basile, Sister Francesca, Mademoiselle Laure. He no longer felt the gunman’s hand on his shoulder pushing him forward. Encouraged by this, Nizam put forth his biggest piece of proof: he started chanting funerary prayers in Syriac. He intoned them the way he’d heard them, in a loud voice, amid the intermittent gunfire and commands barked at drivers and their passengers in the line of cars.
“Choboho el morio kolkhon aame w el etran besme tobe w rih mdoran nasimo nehwen . . .”
George shouted at him to stop, but his tone was much softer this time. Suddenly, he removed the bag from Nizam’s head and looked him in the face.
“It seems you’re a Christian. Get out of here,” he ordered and then added, “And don’t come this way ever again.”
Nizam reached for George’s face, to kiss him, but George barred him with his shoulder. Nizam grabbed his right hand, brought it to his mouth to kiss it, but George wrestled it away. He yelled at Nizam to get going and warned him not to run.
The situation and manliness and death all made kissing out of the question.
Olga had been watching them from the distance. She saw Nizam try to kiss the fat gunman’s hand. George turned to head back to where his buddies were making many other passengers get out of their cars. If they happened to find one they were looking for, they’d turn him over to him. Nizam was left all alone there on the sidewalk. He didn’t run. He walked quickly, barely looking right or left, expecting a bullet any moment. As he passed in front of the customs building, he heard voices and clamor and a shower of gunfire. He trembled with fear. He felt there was nothing left of himself except his head and his two eyes nailed to Olga’s car parked waiting for him. She opened the door for him and he collapsed into the car. He sat down, drew in a deep breath. He said the man who let him go was called George.
“Bless his namesake!” Olga cried. Nizam rested his head on his knees and sank into utter silence, as if he’d said everything he had to say to that burly gunman, in one go. Olga asked Nizam if he’d seen what was going on behind the customs building, but he didn’t answer. He had seen, but he didn’t tell her. He’d seen them piling the corpses on top of each other. Lots of men and some women, too. There was a young man among them wearing military garb. They would bring the detainees over, with a bag over the head, to another man who would shoot them—perhaps the shooter didn’t want to see his victims’ faces. Then they’d remove the bag from the dead person’s head and toss him aside.
From Charid al-manazel. © 2010 by Jabbour Douaihy. By arrangement with the Raya Agency. Translation © 2018 by Paula Haydar. All rights reserved.