Every two weeks we will be showcasing original fiction from an emerging writer, as part of our New Voices feature. The next in our series – ‘Reconstruction’. Read an interview with Lana Asfour here.
There’s nothing like watching the summer sunset with a glass of jellab.
Maya squints as the sun descends to eye level but it’s gentle and it warms her cheeks, and with a spoon she chases the floating pine nuts in the sweet raisin and date concentrate. For seven minutes the balcony is under a shadow while the sun hides behind the Dream Tower to the left – only two-thirds built and already eighteen floors high. Eighteen floors of concrete and pink stone, misplaced windows and stunted balconies. The sun reappears, lower and redder, and the view is best when she focuses on the patch of sea that isn’t blocked by one of these highrises. The traffic is heavy along the Corniche, car horns compete with the generators and drills of the construction site, and the few joggers who have ventured out before dark sweat in the heat. To the right, the shabby beauty of an Ottoman house stands out against the sea with its crumbling stone walls, tall windows, spacious balconies and arched colonnades, dignified beside its newer neighbours.
Alex follows her around a corner in the eerily empty downtown area. Perfect Ottoman buildings rise in clusters in flattened sections of land. The whirr and clamour of construction surrounds them. They stop in front of a building, an office block that retains the façade of a mandate-period embassy.
‘This is it,’ Maya says.
The external structure is close to completion, apart from the top two floors and the stairs.
‘We wanted to include the memory of the civil war within the renovation,’ she explains, ‘so we cleaned the stones but didn’t repair or replace them. See how craggy they are? Those are bullet marks.’
Alex nods. Indeed, he finds that the overall effect is ghostly and provides a strange but not unattractive contrast to the sharper outlines of the neighbouring reconstructed buildings.
‘It bears its own history, but also looks forward. It’s solid enough to carry a modern penthouse.’ A sleek top floor made of glass and steel will crown the spectral edifice, complete with a light-sensitive shutter mechanism. It will be used as the firm’s office as it expands and takes on new projects.
She leads him into the building site, but moves off to discuss the next stages, the completion of the stairs and top floors, with the site manager, Walid, who is eager to show her what they’ve done since yesterday. She’s annoyed that the fourth floor still has no floor and the steel reinforcements haven’t arrived, but Walid seems to assure her it will all be done on time.
It’s the first time Alex has visited her in Beirut. She only moved here a few months ago and it’s striking how much authority she commands. The Syrian workmen look up at him for a moment. He carefully steps through the loose chippings and climbs the staircase until it stops suddenly on the fourth floor. Downtown spreads out before him through a large gap in the wall. Yellow cranes slowly rotate over half-buildings, scaffolding covers damaged sections of mosques and churches, and the excavated centre of Martyrs’ Square exposes Roman ruins. The synagogue stands surprisingly untouched, and he can just make out the site of the Phoenician wall.
Next to him, a workman hangs precariously out of a window hole to measure something, and another blowtorches a strip of metal without wearing a visor.
‘Be careful,’ Maya says as she appears on the stairs and follows Alex’s gaze to the view. ‘Many of the badly damaged façades have been entirely rebuilt. Perfect replicas. Some buildings are just fantasies: as long as it has three arches and a red roof, the Saudi engineers think it looks like an old Lebanese house. All around the city the real ones are knocked down by highrise developers. Campaigners only manage to save a few.’
Walking back, Alex is quick to dismiss the airbrushed renovations. It’s like Disneyland. And not all the firms are like Maya’s – the workers are rarely insured. They’re paid cash, good sums for them back home, but they’re hardly going to go to court if they’re injured. Anyway, he’s more interested in the scars of war on the city he discovers on long walks while she is at work: chaotic bullet hole patterns on walls and trees, bomb-collapsed roofs, paneless windows, buildings without façades revealing hanging washing and displaced families squatting in rubble, skeletal structures along the wartime green line and at east-west crossing points.
Maya teaches him some Arabic phrases to use on his excursions, and in the evenings takes him to the bars and restaurants of Monot. There’s a buzz, an excitement, and plenty of late-night discussion. Everyone’s talking about the reconstruction, everyone is reconstructing – architects, entrepreneurs, journalists, lawyers, UN, NGOs, plastic surgeons. It’s the generation that came of age with the Taif peace. Some have been here all through, but many are returning after the exile of the war years, throwing themselves into a new life with a voracious energy inspired by a hopeful city.
He asks almost everyone he meets about the civil war and each discussion helps to fill out the picture, and complicates it, with all the players and endless twists and turns. When they can explain no further, he entertains them with the story of how he got lost: an hour’s joyride with a manic taxi driver who ignored his choice of destination and offered him girls and drugs with wild gestures. Uninteresting, he was dropped suddenly in a suburb along the old airport road – Ouzai, he learns – where above the uncollected rubbish rotting in the sun, the yellow and green flags are still flying high for the first anniversary of the liberation of the south.
‘I don’t think we have a future together,’ Maya says flatly after a night out.
Alex wonders what she’s playing at. She looks serious. Sounds serious. But she can’t be. He storms out to the balcony, betting with himself she’ll follow, and has the foresight to grab the cigarettes and bottle of gin he bought at Heathrow. She doesn’t follow, but busies herself tidying the apartment, washing the dishes, probably going through her notes on the building site. So conscientious.
He throws himself down in a white plastic chair, which bends to his movements. He picks up a forgotten jellab-stained glass, fills it with gin, gropes for cigarette and lighter. He stares at the black sea and the Dream Tower.
She’ll follow, he thinks, if he waits long enough…
Maybe an hour later, she comes out, experimentally. There’s a hint of anxiety in her dark eyes. He soon drives it away: ‘Come back to London and marry me.’
‘Let’s just enjoy your visit,’ she answers, closing the balcony door against mosquitoes. ‘I live here now.’
Yes, why did she move? Okay, she was born here. And designing hospital wings, shopping malls and underground carparks for the firm in London was beginning to grind her down. But wasn’t meeting him enough?
‘How long are you going to stay here?’
‘I don’t know.’
She’s serious. There must be someone else. An enthusiastic architect, no doubt. Or a sharp banker. He fills another glass. This needs a clear mind. And some strategy.
‘Listen,’ he ventures, ‘I haven’t cheated on you. Well, only once and I regretted it.’
She leans against the railing and looks out. Not quite the response he wanted. He can see that she doesn’t care. Or there’s someone else and she’s not telling. Either way, it’s not good. She stays like that, so he rambles about his feelings, whatever they are – he’s not really sure as another hour passes and he fills a third glass.
Finally she turns to go in and for a half-second meets his eye. She’s tired, pale. There’s sadness perhaps, and bewilderment, but mainly absence. She wants to move on. He’s causing a scene, he knows it, but he makes his decision. He won’t be swept under. She’s not better than him.
If he waits long enough…
Maya wakes early, disorientated and unrested. The memory of the night before brings nausea with consciousness. Why can’t he go away? Why did he confess? She was right to have had her own fling, after all, inconsequential though it had been. But there he is, still on the balcony, with pale, contorted face: a statue of a satyr at a fête galante. She pads to the kitchen, nibbles bread, zaatar and olive oil. She needs the strength.
She thinks he doesn’t get it, this place. He takes things for granted – employment rights, zoning laws. But the country has hardly been born. These things have to be fought for and created. And here there’s more potential for change than anywhere she’s ever been. Downtown just needs more time. The stones will age, the paint will peel, people will fill the streets. It will encourage reconstruction in other areas, and social services will follow. It’s a new millennium: the south has been liberated, the younger Assad might loosen Syria’s grip, good things are possible.
She steps outside. He’s still in the plastic chair, black circles under eyes that are heavy with exaggerated reproach. She looks away. On the fifth floor of the adjacent block, a similar 1950s building, yellow shutters are pushed open. A rotund woman moves about the kitchen. A man in a suit appears, they exchange a few words, a kiss, he disappears again. A minute later, carrying a briefcase, he steps into the street, footsteps on the broken pavement, the echo of the heavy glass door slamming in the coolness of the morning. For a moment, revulsion throbs in her throat and behind her eyes. She agreed to Alex’s visit, but she won’t be stuck with him.
Behind her, he moves in the chair. “I’m going to leave,” he announces, slowly unfolding himself and standing up.
Humility at last? Before she decides, he shows her his wounded eyes.
On Saturday they rent a car and head north from Daoura roundabout, along the stretch of highway to Jounieh, where the motorcycle boys race each other. She’s seen them ride two together, bare-headed, weaving between cars at high speed. They rev their engines and raise their front wheels and scream, exhilarated, against the wind.
Alex drives nervously through the anarchy of the highway, through Jbeil and Batroun and finally to Tripoli. They enter the city on a main road lined by towering palm trees and bulky concrete blocks built at an angle from the street like quills of an arrow and dominating the suburban and commercial districts outside the centre. Unlike downtown Beirut, the heart of Tripoli’s old city wasn’t destroyed by the war. The winding alleys of the souqs smell of baking bread, spices, raw meat and fish. Rows of yellow-gold jewellery gleam in the windows of the Souq el Dahab, whose old stone walls were recently renovated by the municipality. In the Khan el Saboun, first built as an Ottoman barracks, soap is made in the traditional way and scented with almond oil, amber or flower essences. Shafts of light fall through the arches of the fourteenth-century Souq el Khayateen, illuminating the cobblestones and stacked rolls of coloured cotton, wool, silk and polyester. And in the Souq el Haraj, a Mameluk bazaar with Byzantine granite columns, a team of German restorers work on the dilapidated vaulted ceiling.
Outside the city, they find the Niemeyer International Fair, which had not quite been completed when the war started. The stark concrete forms, with metal reinforcements still protruding, sit neglected in a well-tended garden. They climb to the flat top of a trumpet-shaped structure and look out over the colonnaded pavilion, the slender arch, pyramid and dome, at the messy rows of the city highrises and beyond them to the mountains.
They have a late lunch in one of the run-down seafront restaurants of Al Mina. It’s on the first floor, above an ice-cream parlour, and has a faded, pre-war elegance. The discoloured fleur-de-lys wallpaper, mirrored stairway and heavy European tapestry chairs sit comfortably with the Mediterranean functionality of the slim tables, the oriental glass lanterns, ornate ceiling, and large open windows looking down to the sea. The waiter, in rolled-up shirtsleeves, offers them the half-empty restaurant with a graceful gesture. He gives Maya the menu in Arabic and Alex the French version as they choose a table by one of the open windows. A sea breeze lifts Alex’s fine brown hair, his face serene.
He was in the year below her at the Bartlett, but they didn’t know each other because he left the Architecture programme after the first term. They only met last year at a conference on the development of the East End. He had become a lecturer in Urban History. In his presentation he argued for modernization with local awareness and, catching her eye, pointed out that Covent Garden would have been demolished during the seventies if it hadn’t been for local campaigners. Of course, she loitered afterwards to ask questions. For the next six months they walked all over London, talked about every building and debated with his students at the college bar.
There’s an office lunch behind them, men in tired suits with gelled hair, maybe local politicians. Their voices are carried across the restaurant on the warm, damp air, deep and indistinct. A drop of lemon juice trickles down Maya’s wrist as she licks her fingers, savouring the pure flavours of grilled shrimp and Sultan Ibrahim. Alex laughs, his blue eyes teasing. She looks around the room, through the window, but finally returns the gaze, laughing at the insolence, and reaches out to pinch his soft suntanned arm.
On the last day of his visit, Maya takes the morning off and waits while he endures the interview she’s arranged for him at the American University. She walks down to Bliss Street and breakfasts on a manousheh from Faisal’s. Then a stroll through the campus, with its vista down over the grounds all the way to the sea, the tall pines and clusters of oleander along the winding paths, the sports oval at the bottom. She follows the pathways and stone stairways, circling the old green-shuttered villas, the dean’s house and newer dormitory blocks. The odours of the hibiscus and jasmine, the pine trees and warm red earth are still faint and fresh. Students sit on benches in the shade of carob trees, reading or flirting, and stray cats gather at a safe distance around those who fumble with sandwich wrappers.
Would he start over?
Inside the Urban Planning department, Dr Kamal delicately scratches his ear with a long-nailed pinky finger while examining Alex’s CV. It’s impressive. The young man across his desk waits with an unnerving stare. Kamal decides not to look up before finding the right words. At least this one isn’t Lebanese, he thinks. A foreigner is worth more – gets paid more – even if he’s from an obscure state college in the Midwest. There’s no competition. But a Lebanese who returns from abroad is harder to deal with. Like Kamal’s new colleague Rania. With her winning smile and PhD from Columbia, she’s well versed in the latest theoretical discourse. They come back, with their confidence and bad Arabic, and change all the standards. And Kamal has been here all along, lived the devastation, hidden in the mountains, returned to the broken city, packed up the children and stayed in Cyprus for months at a time because the visas for France never arrived quickly enough.
But this one is English. There’s no need to give him too hard a time. He’ll want tenure. But he can start part-time for a semester or two.
‘Are you watching?’ Alex shouts as soon as she picks up the phone.
‘Of course I’m watching. We all are.’
The whole firm is gathered around the TV in the penthouse office downtown. Alex is watching in Stoke Newington. The pictures of the second plane silently penetrating the tower play over and over. Debris swirls over the city while panicked newsreaders comment. The experts are beginning to turn up, with speculations.
There’s not much talking in the office though. They’re still staring at the screen. But Maya senses that the shock contains something more, some undercurrent. It’s fear, she thinks. For the reconstruction. She slips out into the corridor. Walid is pacing at the other end with his mobile phone, still unable to get through to his brother in New York, a banking intern on one of the upper floors.
‘I’m worried,’ she whispers urgently into the phone, watching Walid’s tireless dialling. ‘It will lead to something else, somewhere.’
The air is cooler, more autumnal, and the days are getting shorter. It’s usually dark by the time Maya gets home from work, but she can still sit out on the balcony with a shawl. Alex has been calling a lot lately, after the pub.
‘When are you coming home?’ he finally asks.
He didn’t take the job Kamal offered. He couldn’t go from a tenured position to part-time, just because the campus was idyllic.
The city moves on without him. Downtown is bustling with businessmen, Gulf tourists and high-heeled ladies. Every day a new office, shop or café opens. But the Council for the South is stalling on Maya’s proposal to rebuild a cluster of villages near the border. The plans are ready but there are hold-ups. In the meantime, they hire more bureaucrats in Beirut instead of investing where it’s needed.
‘I’m not sure,’ she replies. ‘When the project is approved.’
She hears him breathing tensely and waits for a negative remark.
‘You’ll never build those villages.’
Above the highrises, along the coastline, an Israeli drone – another airspace violation.
‘Yes we will.’
The Dream Tower is finished, but she only ever sees lights on in three or four apartments. Next to it, a parking lot has been dug up and the foundations laid for a new block. Before the parking lot, there was a plot of dust and rubbish, and before that, she remembers, an old family house. A red tiled roof, stone walls and wooden shutters, very similar in structure to the house in Jerusalem, which stands framed in silver on her grandparents’ bookshelves. A date tree with cascading branches rises as high as the rooftop, and in its shade, in a wicker chair, a dark-eyed girl sits sipping lemonade.