Chapter IV: The Dog
There’s the clatter of the ancient truck lumbering through the hazy Beirut morning, the sea, and the mingled smell of salt and fish. Sky, gray clouds and waves. Engine clacking, its wheels pitching the ruts, the truck rumbles along. Zayn Alloul is sitting next to the driver up front. Mohammad al-Kharoobi and Saleh Ahmad are suspended on two small fenders at the back-end of the vehicle.
The aroma of Virginia blend tobacco suffuses the front cabin: the driver, known as Nabeel al-Hallaq – Nabeel-the-barber – is smoking. Zayn is finding this unpleasant, and even though he is fanning his face with his hand to try and disperse the smoke, it still penetrates his nostrils. When he coughs and opens his window, the chill air is like a slap on the face. Rolling the window shut, he turns on the driver: “Now, really, tell me, is this normal… to be smoking at four in the morning?!” The driver turns towards him, inhales deeply, and carries on driving, unperturbed. Zayn Alloul rolls the window down again, breathing in the sea air, as the vehicle rumbles slowly on its way.
Thank God – al-hamdulillah – Zayn says to himself, things are back to normal. A big city like Beirut with the garbage collectors off work and the rats practically eating people alive, doesn’t bear thinking about! Zayn’s neighbor, in Hamra, told him he’d seen a rat big as a cat once. ‘It’s because of the garbage everywhere,’ Zayn told him.
The neighbor, an old Beiruti who runs a juice shop on Hamra Street, went on to say that he’d seen rats emerging from the sea! “I tell you, I saw them with my own eyes, can you believe it, rats actually swimming in the sea and then coming ashore? No way anyone can eat fish these days, it’s out of the question! No wonder people get sick after eating fish… clearly, the fish have been bitten by rats infested with disease…”
Although Zayn Alloul himself doesn’t believe that matters have come to quite such a critical pass, he’s not all that bothered about it. Grumbling comes naturally to most people but, as he likes to say, the poor too have to live, and dirt is like a vaccine.
He remembers the pediatrician at the American University Hospital pocketing his 50-Lira note being amazed that he hadn’t had his son vaccinated against polio. Zayn, for his part, tried to explain to the doctor that he had seven children. None of them was immunized. The doctor was appalled and he spoke sharply to Zayn standing there, holding the baby in his arms. “But dirt and germs are like vaccines, doctor,” the nurse butted in. “They raise one’s immunity.”
“We are not dirty,” Zayn told her. “We’re cleaner than you are, ma’am.”
It’s true, though, the nurse was right, dirt acts like a vaccine. His mother was always telling him to let the children play in the sand. “But they’ll put it in their mouth, mother… think of it, all that dirt.”
“It’s pure penicillin, son. Let them be. Penicillin is a kind of mold, and dirt is pretty moldy. Leave them alone.”
“Mother, that’s irrational.”
“It’s true though. The nurse told me all about penicillin.”
So he lets the children be, and his mother prattles on about the olives up in the village. Zayn does his best to comfort her. He tells her it’s really dangerous to go up there at the moment, what with the shelling everywhere. “You can’t possibly tend the olive trees in these circumstances.”
But she simply doesn’t understand. “I’m going anyway, my dear,” she says to him, lying in bed. A partial stroke has left her bed-ridden, her face contorted, her mouth lop-sided and a semi-paralyzed arm. And Husniyyah, his wife, constantly complaining that living like this is becoming intolerable, and him trying to calm things down.
Honestly… all that talk about it being intolerable! Zayn thanks the good Lord that they all managed to escape Nab’aa alive during the fighting – before it was overrun, and all those atrocities took place. They went up to the village at first, and when they returned to Beirut, they found a place to stay in Hamra. Now, honestly speaking, how could Nab’aa possibly be better than Hamra? True, there they had their own house, even though it was a rental, and here they’re only refugees….
But at least now there’s no rent to pay, and what’s more, here it’s a building, a high-rise – even though there IS the landlord, damn him, and his petty ways… he’s always coming around to “inspect” the building, casting those sideways glances at everybody, as if we had the plague, Zayn thinks; always eager to make his distaste obvious at the way everyone’s washing hangs from the balconies – well, what does he expect, that the clothes should remain unwashed? He says it mars the beauty of the building! I suppose he thinks we should be dirty so the view can remain unspoilt. Still, when all’s said and done, Hamra’s better than Nab’aa: there, the house was small, just one room and a poky kitchen, here it’s large and airy. There’s three rooms … two bedrooms and a living room, plus it’s furnished … fridge, stove, armchairs, every amenity. And with all that, Husniyyah still says that life was better in Nab’aa!!! “There, people were human beings at least!” Well, what to do? To Nab’aa they can’t go back, and living in the village is out of the question.
The only thing that bothers Zayn Alloul about their new home is the cinema under the building, with its lurid posters of bare women, and the laughter and noise into the early hours. That truly is a thorn in his side. ‘We’re decent folk, we are, with young daughters!’
The smoke from the American cigarette envelops the front cabin, as the truck plods along the blue-gray, seemingly endless, shore. Joggers, in navy tracksuits or shorts, gradually populate the beach. Some are running, others are walking briskly, heads held high, arms swinging vigorously back and forth, the early-morning stillness broken only by the sound of the passing truck and the rolling sea.
“What do they do out here every morning?” the driver asks.
“Exercise, man! Exercise!” Zayn tells him. “I don’t know, but doctors apparently recommend jogging so people don’t get fat… Just another fad,” he goes on. Cursed times.
You know Jameel? The son of Imm Mohammad al-Saqa–they say the doctor told him he should jog, he was big as a bull. They thought it was his glands, but the doctor told him the only solution was jogging… so he went out and bought himself one of those navy tracksuits… but he’s just a wimp, he did it a few times and then he stopped… they said it was because he couldn’t face getting up early in the morning!”
The truck comes to a halt beside a mound of garbage. Mohammad al-Kharroubi and Saleh Ahmad jump down and start shoveling the trash into the back of the truck. Zayn remains seated next to the driver – he doesn’t like working this strip of the Manara Corniche: it’s littered with empty beer cans which makes him feel nauseated early in the morning; and anyway he’s the senior-most man amongst them in the business, he’s been a garbage collector for twenty years, and he’s entitled to a rest. Glancing out of the window, he sees al-Kharroubi ogling a young girl. Wearing blue trousers, blonde and fair-skinned, she’s clearly a foreigner. These foreigners, strange creatures they are!!! Fancy getting up at the crack of dawn to jog!
The girl is alone. There’s no one else about. Mohammad al-Kharroubi goes up to her. “Mmm… Ni-i-ce, very nice…” Then a wolf-whistle. Then allah-u-akbar! God is great that has bestowed this morning on us!” Al-Kharroubi draws closer, the girl steps back. Leaning nonchalantly against the front of the truck, he bares all his teeth in a smile. He edges towards her, makes an obscene gesture. All of a sudden, a young man appears, seemingly out of nowhere; grabbing the girl by the wrist, he glances menacingly at al-Kharroubi who continues his approach undeterred until the young man releases the girl’s wrist and comes right up to him.
“Looks like we’re in for a bit of trouble,” the driver says, watching the scene impassively as he puffs on his cigarette. Zayn hops out of the vehicle and tries to pull al-Kharroubi back. “Leave them alone, man.” And looking towards the young man, he adds: “Really sorry about this, my apologies, brother.” The young man turns towards the sea and goes on his way with the girl.
The truck rumbles on. Zayn Alloul doesn’t like trouble, he’s sure the young man escorting the foreign girl must be in some position of responsibility or else he wouldn’t dare to be out with her so early in the morning; what’s more, he was armed. If this Mohammad al-Kharroubi had persisted, the man would surely have fired a shot and al-Kharroubi would have died like a dog without anyone even bothering to ask about him.
He’s got to be someone important, Zayn is sure of that. A neighbor of his in Hamra – a young man about the same age as this one – with a senior position on a newspaper has told him that the best thing about his job was the foreign women. “They come as reporters to witness the revolution, the toiling masses and the armed struggle,” he said, “and when we take them to the training camps and the military positions they go nuts – they start caressing the guns and firing them. God only knows what gets into them, all they seem to want is to bed the boys … Maybe it’s so they can feel proud that they slept with a revolutionary, or that they can tell everyone back home how they participated in the national struggle, or that they… this or that.”
“We only just averted trouble there,” says Zayn Alloul out loud. Not that he was scared. Not him. Even at the height of the Israeli shelling of Sharqiyyah, when everyone in the village was running helter-skelter, screaming and shouting for dear life, his heart was like granite… that day he absolutely refused to leave the house with the rest of his family, despite his wife’s entreaties.
Still, though, Zayn hates trouble: meddle in something that doesn’t concern you, trouble is bound to follow – and you end up with a bruised face. Zayn Alloul feels his face gingerly.
Like that day, when he got back home – they were still in Nab’aa then – and instead of jumping for joy that he was safe, his wife started wailing. “Ya msibati, ya sh’haari!1” He tried to calm her when she started on about his face. He knew how it looked – even though he wouldn’t look in the mirror, he knew his face was black and blue, all swollen and puffy. That was his mistake. He should have kept his big mouth shut.
Zayn Alloul hadn’t done anything: the battles were raging, and everyone huddled around their radios, listening to the broadcast from Cairo, incredulous that the Egyptian army had managed to cross the Suez Canal and that the Arabs were now poised to defeat Israel. Zayn and a few other men were standing outside Abu Khalil’s shop, drinking tea and talking, when the conversation shifted to the Bank of America incident. A unit of the Lebanese police had launched an assault on the bank, two gunmen had been killed, two others arrested and the hostages released. As a result, the bank had been spared having to contribute to the Arab war effort, the demand made by the now slain leader of the armed group.
“It was wrong to do that,” Abu Khalil was saying. “The war is with Israel. Why attack the bank?”
“It’s an American bank, isn’t it? And America is Israel. Whether it’s over there or over here, it’s the same war, can’t you see?” said one of the young men gathered around the shop.
Newspaper in hand, Abu Khalil edged towards the shaft of light pouring out of the shop. “Listen, you young ones, Ali Shuayb takes hostage this American man, who is innocent, and then he kills him. And that’s wrong.” Then he read from the paper: “It was Ali Shuayb who killed the American, John Conrad Maxwell, after explaining, with help from one of the hostages who translated as Ali knew no English, that he was going to kill him because the deadline he’d given the authorities had expired. The American begged for his life to be spared but Ali Shuayb shot him in the back. The American fell to the ground, screaming and pleading with the gunman who, along with another armed man, thought to be Jihad Assad, kicked him about the floor. Then, aiming at his chest, Ali fired again and the American breathed his last.” “Now, you tell me, how can that be right? It’s outrageous, Abu Khalil added. ‘We are fighting Israel aren’t we, so the war’s over there. This is not right.”
“Lies, nothing but lies!” Zayn Alloul retorted. “Ali Shuayb didn’t shoot the American in the back, he shot him in the chest. We don’t shoot people in the back. It’s nothing but a lie, the government is lying.”
“Ali Shuayb! By God, now there’s a man for you!”
“A man to feel sorry for nevertheless. He was poor, and it’s always the poor that die.”
And thus it was that Zayn Alloul began to recount all his stories about Ali Shuayb and about guns and weapons, answering everyone’s questions, as if he knew it all. He’d known Ali Shuayb as a child playing in the dirt, and then as a young man, when Ali discussed politics with him.
Ali always said that without the armed struggle there was no solution. But Zayn hadn’t known that Ali was involved with the feda’iyeen and that he was the leader of an armed group and that he could occupy a bank in the center of town and kill one of the hostages and then die like that.
Zayn got quite carried away. “I swear to God, tomorrow, I’m going down to the village to attend Ali’s funeral. And everyone else should do the same. Ali’s a martyr: a martyr who carried arms, fought and died for the cause.”
The others questioned him about Ali Shuayb, and as he answered them Zayn Alloul felt immense pride: Ali was from his village after all, and Zayn knew him really well. Now the others would no longer look on him as a mere garbage collector, doing a despicable job.
Then they moved on to questions concerning municipal services. Work was proceeding normally, Zayn told them, but they needed more trucks – the city was spreading rapidly. He added that, really, they should be armed, well he didn’t say that exactly, but he said things that were understood to mean that he was calling for an armed uprising against the government.
That night there was a police raid.
A military jeep outside his house, policemen banging at the door violently, their rifles cocked. Sleepy-faced, Zayn opened the door in his pajamas. They grabbed him, and dragged him out by the arms and legs. Alarmed, his wife got up, the children awoke, while he was led away in his pajamas. He didn’t know what was going on, he asked the officer, but they shoved him into the jeep under a torrent of blows, punches and curses and took him straight to the Internal Security in Badaro.
“But I haven’t done anything… I don’t know anything!”
They pushed him out of the jeep and into a dark cell, slamming the metal door shut behind him. Zayn began to wail, he’d done nothing, nothing at all, he had no links with anyone suspect, why had they thrown him in here? He fell into a fitful sleep, dozing off and then waking with a start, as if someone had punched him in the stomach. He tried to doze off again but he was desperate for a cigarette, so he began pretending to smoke, bringing up to his mouth the two fingers that usually held the cigarette, drawing them close to his lips and inhaling deeply. Then he tried to sleep again. A night he was not about to forget. That’s what he’d told his wife when they brought him home three days later: the three nights in that cell were unforgettable. “How shall I describe it? It was revolting. I had to urinate in the room I was held in, into a little tin can which stayed there for three whole days.”
Then they took him off for questioning. But there was no questioning. Just beating and kicking. There were four of them in the room, with him in the middle, like a football; first, one would punch him, then the next one would catch him, and so on. After that, they gave him a taste of the “chicken2.” One of them said they’d make mincemeat out of him. “You Godless wretches, atheists, Communists, sons of bitches, the lot of you.”
“I’m not an atheist…” He could hear the blows, and couldn’t go on.
“Don’t talk back, you son of a bitch.”
He was more than willing to talk but they weren’t asking him anything. Not one question. All they did was beat him. And then they took him to see the officer. Standing behind his desk, he appeared at the ready to start beating him.
“My respects, sir.”
“Out with it now! And quickly! Tell us everything you know about the organization.”
“I swear I don’t know anything.”
“What do you mean you don’t know?”
The officer told Zayn they knew everything about him. They knew that he’d been standing outside Abu Khalil’s shop talking about his acquaintance with Ali Shuayb; they knew he was married to Husniyyah and that he worked for the municipal authority; they knew that he was thinking of selling a piece of land he’d inherited from his father; and they also knew he was involved in smuggling arms from the South to Beirut, and that he kept the weapons hidden somewhere outside his home.
“Where are they, you dog?”
“Sir, there are no weapons.”
Now, the officer set to him. Zayn stood absolutely still as the officer beat him, shouting and cursing, spraying his face with spittle. The officer then took him back to his cell. Zayn’s nose was bleeding.
Oh God, now he’d lose his job with the municipality. In that dark cell of his, Zayn was feeling very sorry for himself. “If I lost my job, then what would I do? Nothing. There’s nothing I know how to do aside from being a garbage collector. And the municipal corporation is a state body. But I haven’t done anything against the state, I’m not against it, on the contrary, I’m all for it. And I don’t know any Ali Shuayb. Poor Ali, calling him a dog when he’s a martyr… they’re the dogs… and even if he weren’t a martyr, he’s dead, and they killed him… and the dead may suffer only mercy! Some God-fearing officer he is! …oh, but why won’t they let me smoke?”
In the evening, a man in civilian clothes came and unlocked the cell and told him to come out. Zayn was sure he was in for another beating.
“Sir, honestly, I know nothing.”
The officer in charge of the so-called interrogation had told him that if he confessed and told the truth, the beating would stop. So he made up his mind then and there to confess. He would tell them that he was a member of Ali Shuayb’s organization. And then surely the beating would stop.
“I have something to say,” Zayn said.
“Shut up,” said the man.
“But sir, it’s something really important.”
“Shut up, will you! And listen. A jeep is on its way here now, and there’ll be a First Lieutenant Nujaym asking for you. You are to go with him, understood?”
“But, sir, I have something to tell you, I want to talk to the officer who interrogated me.”
“It won’t be necessary. Not necessary, you hear. First Lieutenant Nujaym will be coming here to take you to the Military Tribunal. There, you’ll sign some papers and then you can go.”
“What do you mean, go?!”
Zayn Alloul couldn’t believe his ears. They were lying to him, they were going to take him off for more questioning and another beating. “But, sir…” The man in civilian dress was walking away.
Zayn Alloul sat on a wooden bench in the empty hall, waiting. “When first Lieutenant Nujaym arrives, I will confess.” Night fell and still no one came for him, and he sat there waiting, a knot in the pit of his stomach. Then, there were footsteps outside, and craning his neck, Zayn saw an officer running in and shouting.
“Walk in front of me.”
Zayn started up. Surprised, the officer asked: “Where are your clothes?”
“They took me from the house in my pajamas.”
He was bundled into a station wagon, the officer sitting in front and Zayn at the back, beside a soldier with a rifle between his legs. The officer was speaking to the driver and Zayn tried to listen to make out what they were saying. The officer was saying that the question of Ali Shuayb and his extremist Communist group was really getting to him. “We’ve arrested a hundred people, and not one of them is linked to the organization. So where is this organization then? All our information seems to be false. The organization has disappeared, vanished into thin air. Yet they’re still out there killing people. It’ll be our turn next.”
Clearing his throat, the driver ventured to the officer that it had nothing to do with them whatsoever. “It’s between them and the authorities.”
“What do you mean it’s nothing to do with us? We are the authorities. You want the country to fall apart? We are the country, and it is our duty to eliminate every single one of them.”
The station wagon reached the Military Tribunal. “Get out,” the officer barked.
Zayn Alloul got out of the vehicle and followed behind the lieutenant. They entered a luxurious office. The officer took the salute and stood to attention. The man in civilian clothes sitting behind the desk was yawning ostentatiously. “Where is he?”
“Here he is,” replied First Lieutenant Nujaym.
Zayn stepped forward, he could see there were papers on the desk.
“What are these?”
“Hurry up, will you … you don’t need to know everything! They’re papers, just papers. Sign.”
Zayn Alloul took the ballpoint pen from the man in civilian dress and signed.
“You can go home now.”
Joy slowly enveloped Zayn Alloul. He’d never felt as happy, not even on his wedding day. Of course he was happy the day he got married to Husniyyah, but he was also consumed with embarrassment. The young men from his village were being bold, slapping him around the neck and shoulders as he cringed with shame. He knew they were all thinking about how he was going to sleep with her that night. But his happiness now was different: it was pure and unadulterated.
Zayn took a step towards the officer, who held his hand extended. He felt so grateful that he bent down to kiss it, but the officer quickly withdrew his hand. “Go on, man. Beat it.”
Zayn stepped out of the large hall into the street, in filthy striped blue pajamas and a pair of old slippers with holes in the soles. He wanted to dance for joy at the thought of his home, his job and, even the truck. He stood waiting for a cab to pass, but then realized he wasn’t carrying any money. So he walked, past the Museum, all the way past Sinn el-Feel, finally reaching Nab’aa. He felt exhausted, as he walked home in his pajamas, in the dead of night, like a beggar. Ignominy, that’s what it was. And then when he arrived, instead of being happy, she started to wail; she didn’t know how to be happy, that was her trouble, he always told her so. After having a wash, a proper one with soap and water, he had something to eat, and went to bed. He ate without appetite though, as if he hadn’t felt hungry during those three long dark days. He went to bed, but instead of waking early as was his habit, he slept until seven.
“Why didn’t you wake me up?” he asked her, irate.
She said she wanted to let him rest. But he wanted to go to work, he was afraid they’d fire him because he’d been absent for three days without a valid excuse. However, when he went down to the to municipality building, everything was quickly settled. His boss said they would just deduct the three days from his leave and then advised him not to get mixed up in politics.
Zayn wasn’t upset about the deduction. He was happy just to go back to work, in fact he was happy about the deduction, as it meant that the whole nightmarish episode was over. So he was back, and the truck was on its way, as usual.
Except that things had changed, they were different now. You needed everyone’s wasta3 to stay out of trouble. The biggest problem nowadays was that they fired at you if you so much as moved. They neither heard you nor understood when you spoke to them. Where had these goons come from, it’s as if the earth had suddenly spawned them out of nowhere! There were bullies everywhere, nothing but bullies in this city. Zayn Alloul certainly was no bully, besides which he hated that kind of stuff. And all those repeated atrocities….
As he told his friend the juice-seller, the best thing to do was to steer clear of everything. Even the question of Ali Shuayb wasn’t important to him, anymore – true, Ali Shuayb was different from the others, Zayn was all too aware of his importance since he’d been released from jail. Ali had obviously known people in politics well enough to compromise them. But now, everything was up for grabs, daylight robbery was the order of the day, and it was all done “in the name of the people” and “for the just cause of the nation.” What cause, what crap!
The thing is, though, Zayn wondered, why wasn’t the municipal corporation buying them those handsome, red trucks anymore. The ones where you piled the garbage in at the back, then when the driver switched on the engine, great big rolling blades started churning it into the belly of the truck. Like that the vehicle stayed pretty clean and there was no smell – or at least it was bearable. But now, they’d pushed them back a couple of decades with these open dump-trucks. It made the job so much harder, there was no pleasure in it anymore. And what to say of the new workers, who took no pride in the job whatsoever? They all assumed, like everyone else, that a garbage collector is just someone who doesn’t know how to do anything else. That’s not at all the case, it’s an occupation like any other, requiring both skill and experience. The Lord alone knows where they got these new recruits from, such an ignorant lot, mixing everything up together, tin cans with tomatoes, bottles with shoes. That’s no way to work!
And then when you get this old, battered truck to Shuwayfat to the actual dump, people come along and set the garbage on fire. That’s no way to do this work – there’s no comparison, no comparison at all, between Shuwayfat and Qarantina! Now that was a proper garbage tip: a clearly delineated area, with a name, where the garbage was dumped and then sorted, well, at least to some extent. Even though the garbage was piled everywhere, it wasn’t harmful, because there were people who sorted it. They sorted it out properly, putting each thing in its place. Nothing gladdened our hearts more than seeing the rag-picker children jumping up and down in excitement when they sighted the garbage truck… as if it were laden with presents.
As soon as we’d emptied the trucks, the tip would swarm with children. Children of all ages, girls and boys, squatting over the piles of garbage and working quietly, no fighting, it was like watching a silent game being played – hundreds of children aloft that garbage mountain fashioned by our elbow-grease, sorting and making an income thanks to our work. So we earned a living and they earned a living. They’d take things and re-sell them, and it was from them that we too learnt to set certain things aside, like shoes and bottles, before shoveling the garbage into the truck. And however much we took, there was always plenty left to go around; we filled our bellies and so did they – all of us made a living. Scattered across the hills we created, were the children, the men, and the women of Qarantina.
There were people who said the stench was foul, but it wasn’t: yes, it smelled, but it wasn’t foul, it was quite bearable and the children could play. I’d watch them sometimes playing house perched on the top of the garbage hills: they’d visit and take presents to each other, eye-glasses, combs, whatever, all valuable things the rich threw out because they’re godless and ungrateful for their lot. For our part, we counted our blessings… we’d kiss the ground in gratitude for the bounty we enjoyed. All people ever talked about was the smell: the guys in Nab’aa, they were always wondering how I put up with it. As if their jobs were any better, what did they think they were doing down at the docks? They were stevedores, mere beasts of burden – yapping on about the smell! I don’t think the smell was foul then, but it is now, it’s disgusting. We dump the garbage in Shuweyfat, right by the seashore, and people come and burn it. Then they douse the fires with water and that’s what produces that foul smell and causes all manner of disease – not to mention rats!
I don’t like the work on the Corniche by the sea. The sea’s gone, there’s no more sea, they’ve blocked it off with all those roadside stalls. An eternal breed those shop-keepers! And what’s worse, they parade themselves on TV as refugees. Some refugees! Their downtown shops were burnt to cinders? They’ve opened new ones, where the prices are dizzying, which means that they’re making profits many times over what they were used to in old Souq Sursock. And then they come on TV and bemoan their fate and claim they’re poor. They’re the rich, not the poor! They’re the ones complaining about poverty, while we keep our mouths shut and our heads down, and thank the Good Lord for what we’ve got. But they, what are they, they’re just shameless mercenaries, greedy and rapacious, no shame whatsoever – and living in filth to boot! It’s unbelievable! Fancy being a high and mighty fabric merchant and not even capable of sweeping up in front of his shop: he wants us to do it! He doesn’t even ask himself how it’s possible to live in such filth! It’s disgusting, I told them it was filthy, and that I refused to work on the Manara strip of the Corniche. Oh, they replied sarcastically, what do you expect, for us to do your bidding? Who do you think you are, the president of the republic? Even the president doesn’t talk to us like that! So I shut up. But these new guys, they know nothing about this job, that’s why they agreed to do it. But I won’t. The boss said we first had to sweep up the litter off the Corniche and take it to the truck. No way, I told him, we’re not street sweepers. Sweepers are one thing and we’re another.
I flatly refused, I have my work-pride. But those two at the back, they agreed. Of course, things won’t be like this forever; everything comes to an end. The war will end and, in the fullness of time, good will prevail over evil. And when our occupation recovers its standing, then they will appreciate my integrity. They might even promote me to become a supervisor. Then I’ll sit behind a desk and not have to move, just answering the phone, registering people’s complaints and settling their problems. Still, we must bide our time and wait: everything in its own good time.
But these new fellows, especially that devil Mohammad al-Kharroubi… who does he think he is?! Just yesterday, he asked to sit beside the driver, leaving me to hang off the back of the truck! What complete disregard for age or seniority! Me, a garbage collector of twenty years’ standing, and him scarcely out of his teens… if I’d married a little earlier, why, he’d be no older than my own children.
I regret not having listened to my mother’s advice now. She always told me to marry early, but I wouldn’t. I wanted to have some security before getting married. How could I marry with nothing more in my pocket than a fifty-Lira bill? I said no. My mother said I’d be too old, but I still said no. Then, may he rest in peace, my uncle Hajj Mahmoud Alloul came to visit; we all sat down and he spoke to me and my mother, then put his arm round my shoulder: “Husniyyah is your cousin, Zayn, and you’re not married. I’ve kept her for you.” (But I never asked him to keep Husniyyah for me.) “Your late father, before he died, made known his wish to me. ‘Husniyyah is for Zayn, Mahmoud.'” Turning to my mother, he asked, “When shall we sign the contract, my dear?”
“Tomorrow, with the blessing of God Almighty,” she replied.
So they signed the contract, and I married Husniyyah. A good woman she is, Husniyyah. Cooks, cleans, looks after the children. But she’s come to hate my mother. “Don’t you fear the Lord, woman?” I tell her.” Were it not for her, I wouldn’t have married you!” But Husniyyah just grumbles on. And what can I do? Throw my mother out on the street? I can’t do that, a woman of her age, and paralyzed – from that stroke. The doctor said there was no hope, so we brought her home. But as she can’t walk, every time she has to pass water, Husniyyah grumbles. No, bless her, she doesn’t complain, she’s tired though. An invalid is a burden. My mother doesn’t complain either, she spends all her time reading the Koran and offering prayers… And now, this al-Kharroubi fellow here wants to take my place in the truck, does he, as if there were no grades or seniority! I’m the boss round here. Mr Kabbani said so, he said it in so many words: “You’re like the captain of a ship,” he said. I am responsible for the entire area’s garbage collection, and al-Kharroubi expects me to stand on the fender at the back of the truck! He insisted, you know, and if it weren’t for the driver’s intervention we would have come to blows. A fine man that driver is, and he’s fond of me too, he knows I’m conscientious and that I always try not to make them work too hard. Anyhow, the driver stepped in and al-Kharroubi went back to his place, behind. I sit beside the driver and ask him to stop whenever there’s a proper pile of garbage to collect, then the two at the back hop off and shovel it onto the truck. I don’t always get down… I used to before, but I’m tired now and I’m entitled to a rest. When the pile is really huge, then I get down and help: I take the shovel and let one of them rest while I work in his place.
“What are they doing, all these people, sitting in front of their cars, sipping their coffee?” the driver asks, as he puffs on his cigarette in the front cabin.
Yes, thinks Zayn Alloul, what are they doing there? People have become so… oh well… the Lord preserve us from people!
As the truck rumbles on its way in the early morning haze, it passes a group of fishermen and fishmongers. Zayn asks the driver to stop, and gets down to enquire about the price of a kilo of fish. “Forty Lira,” the fishmonger replies, lifting up the large wooden crates and pushing the ice aside for Zayn to see.
Zayn doesn’t buy any fish, and walks away. How is he supposed to come up with forty Lira just like that? He sees a child crouched next to a crate full of fish, selecting a piece and dipping it in a bucket of water.
“What’s this?” he asks.
“Why the water?”
“So the fish defrosts and we can sell it as fresh.”
White, dead fish. Zayn picks one up but it slithers from his grasp and he hears al-Kharroubi yelling, “We’ve got to get a move on. We’re late.”
Zayn is tempted, but the feel of the fish makes his flesh creep, like that time when he kissed his dead father’s hand before the burial. He gets back into the truck. It continues on its way. The driver says he thinks frozen fish is OK, it’s cheap. The truck rumbles on, it is now almost at the last stop, at the UNESCO roundabout. There’s always a big pile of garbage here, so all of them get down and shovel, and when they are done, they head for Shuweyfat. Zayn sighs with relief; soon, he’ll be home, with a glass of tea and a cigarette. He doesn’t like to smoke on the job. A cigarette doesn’t taste the same when you’re working. At home, with a glass of tea, then it’s a cigarette.
The vehicle brakes, everyone jumps out, and the clanging of the shovels begins. Zayn too hops out of the truck. “It’s an even bigger lot than usual.”
Mohammad al-Kharroubi and Saleh Ahmad grab their shovels, and the garbage starts to fall into the truck.
“Boy, what’s that smell?” Saleh Ahmad asks.
“Burning,” replies Zayn, as he bends down and gestures to the charred contents of the garbage.
“No,” the driver says. “It smells like… a dog… a dead dog.”
Zayn takes a step towards the statue of Habib Abi Shahla. Yes, it really does smell like there’s a dead, putrefying dog.
“That’s not part of our job,” Saleh Ahmad says, tossing his shovel aside.
“Take it easy, man.”
“No! Let them bring in the bulldozer. I’m not about to pick up a contaminated dead dog.”
Mohammad al-Kharroubi hops gingerly across the garbage towards the statue.
“Uh-oh!” the driver says. “He’s going back to his filthy old habits. Last time, he picked up a rat by the tail and dangled it under our noses. It was disgusting!” The driver climbs into the truck and rolls up the window.
Al-Kharroubi takes a step forward and, with his bare hands, pushes the garbage to one side and chuckles loudly. Pushing and toiling, his clothes gradually blacken as the soot from the burnt and charred refuse rubs off onto them. Then, an almighty exclamation as the man’s voice shudders and his face freezes.
“There’s a man!”
“What do you mean, a man?”
“The corpse of a man. A man’s corpse.”
Mohammad al-Kharroubi lurches back and is violently sick. Hands holding his belly, spurting yellow-green liquid, he backs away towards Zayn Alloul.
“I tell you it’s a man… the corpse of a man. Dear God in heaven!”
The driver gets out of the truck and stands next to Zayn Alloul. Saleh Ahmad approaches cautiously, reaches al-Kharroubi, and then backs away, spitting and cursing.
Zayn goes forward. He can see the corpse: a man lying on his back, his chest completely bare, with traces of burns on the hands, his body looks like it’s pierced with bullets.
“What are we going to do?”
“Listen, fellows,” the driver says, “we should notify the police, or else they’ll frame us for it.”
“No, we should just leave; we’ve neither seen nor heard anything, and that’s all there is to it,” al-Kharroubi says.
To al-Kharroubi and Ahmad Saleh, Zayn says, “You two, stay here. Me and the driver are going to Hobeysh police station.” Zayn’s head is spinning. ‘God damn, goddamn this bloody job! Fucking country falling apart… look at that! Dumping bloody human beings in the garbage! I swear to God, a dog’s life is better than a human’s.’ The driver is mumbling under his breath, presumably in prayer. Finally, the truck reaches the police station.
Zayn jumps down, the driver follows. They enter the police station, where the guard on duty questions them.
“We want to see the officer on duty.”
“There’s nobody here,” the guard tells them.
“Well, we’ve got to see someone; we have a crime to report.”
The policeman pouts indifferently and gestures them towards a room inside. They go in. A man in military fatigues is sitting at a desk. After exchanging greetings, Zayn speaks.
“We’ve come about a murder.”
“Sergeant Hassan Fakhreddin,” the man replies, looking from one to the other. He reaches for pen and paper, notes down their names and asks about the circumstances of the crime. Zayn does all the talking as the policeman takes down his statement.
“You are both garbage collectors?”
“And what does the corpse look like?”
“It’s decomposed, sir. We couldn’t see much, but we think it’s likely that the death occurred some time ago.”
“Do you know the victim?”
“No, not at all.”
“Had either of you ever seen him before?”
“OK, then. Alright.”
The policeman closes the register in front of him and asks them to sit down.
“But why, sir?”
“You’ll have to stay here until the officer arrives.”
“We can’t,” Zayn replies. “We’ve left Mohammad al-Kharroubi and Saleh Ahmad at the garbage site, we’ve got to let them know. We’ll go and come back with them.”
“No, you’ll both stay here. The officer will have to question you.”
“But it’s nothing to do with us.”
The police sergeant picks up the telephone receiver, dials a number and speaks. “Yes, yes. In an hour, then. OK. As you say, sir. At your service, sir.”
They sit for a long time.
“But the corpse should be removed,” Zayn says.
“Everything in its own good time,” the sergeant replies.
Some two hours later, the officer walks in, yawning. He asks them a few questions, then requests that they get into the truck and follow behind him. Accompanied by a few policemen, he rides in his jeep, following the truck. When they reach the garbage mound, they find al-Kharroubi and Ahmad sitting on the pavement across the street, smoking. The officer goes towards the corpse, bends down over it, chalk-marks the road beside the statue, and asks Zayn to remove the garbage covering the corpse. Zayn works alone, without anyone’s help. The officer marks out the contours of the corpse.
All of a sudden, the place is swarming with cameras. Journalists and photographers are everywhere. One of them takes a picture of the corpse and then of Zayn, while a man stands nearby making notes. He asks Zayn how they discovered the corpse. Zayn repeats what he told the officer, but adds on the bit about the dog, and how they had all assumed that the putrid smell was because of some dead dog. Then it’s some other journalist’s turn and Zayn goes over his story once again, but includes the bit about al-Kharroubi hopping across the garbage to catch hold of what he presumed was the dog’s tail and how the driver had warned him off.
Then, an ambulance arrives, and three men in white spill out. They cover the corpse with a white sheet and stand there as the photographers click their cameras furiously at a white sheet.
“Why don’t you remove the corpse?” Zayn asks.
“We’re waiting for the forensic expert,” the fat one replies. “He has to examine the corpse before we remove it.”
“To the graveyard?”
“No, to the hospital, for the autopsy. Then we’ll hand it over to the relatives, if there are any.”
The officer asks the crowd of bystanders gathered around the corpse to disperse. Then he turns to Zayn and his colleagues and, sounding irritated, tells them to leave. Zayn is puzzled by the officer’s behavior, but they all get into the truck and drive off.
“But we’re the ones who found the corpse,” Zayn says to the driver. “It’s ours. What right does he have to prevent us from watching? That’s what he was doing. Sheer meanness, that’s all it is. I hate police officers.”
The truck reaches Shuweyfat. Engine still running, it tips its load onto the garbage mound and goes on its way.
Doctor Marwan Bitar, a 65-year-old surgeon, was head of Surgery at the German Hospital in Beirut for the longest time. He stopped practicing in 1973 after his hands grew unsteady, and now he’s a forensic pathologist – a semi-retirement of sorts, but a remunerative one. He doesn’t like this work: handling corpses and conducting autopsies, and then having to write up his findings. Still, Doctor Bitar has convinced himself that it really is of no consequence: it’s just the same as conducting a surgical operation. After all, a patient under general anesthesia is like a dead corpse, he feels nothing. The difference though is in the blood. In an operation, the scalpel is for real, but here, it’s nothing: there’s no blood, no responsibility; you can cut a corpse up any which way you like, and mistakes are not an issue.
“I have a error-proof job,” Dr. Bitar tells his son, Ghassan, who’s become a gynecologist. He had advised Ghassan against that specialization, but the boy went ahead and did as he pleased.
“Son, how can you sleep with a woman after that? ”
“I manage. Work is one thing and sex another.”
The boy has become renowned, and wealthy. After only eight years in practice, he owns an entire apartment block in Ramlet al-Bayda. While, he, Dr Bitar, who’s been working for over thirty years now has no more to show for it than that lousy old building full of refugees in Kantari. There are rumors that Ghassan has come by his money in a rather unsavory manner – doing abortions… they say he aborts on demand. It goes like this: the woman turns up at the clinic, asks him to do it and he goes right ahead without the slightest hesitation – with no shame or fear of the Good Lord. Of course, Dr Bitar hasn’t ascertained any of this for himself, he’d rather not know whether his son is an abortionist or not; as far as he’s concerned, Ghassan’s free to do as he pleases and may God forgive him. Still, the boy hasn’t married – and that line of work has to be the reason why.
“You haven’t married because you feel nothing but disgust for women,” the old man tells his son, reminding him that he’d warned him; but Ghassan just laughs.
“Hey, I get to sleep with the whole of womankind! After administering the anesthetic, I have sex with the woman before carrying out the operation. Medically speaking, it helps. Having sex with a pregnant woman before an abortion is helpful. I sleep with her and she feels nothing, I operate and she pays.
Instead of me paying for it, I do what I feel like and get paid for it. Why get married?!”
“God forbid! ” Doctor Marwan Bitar can’t believe his ears. “You’re not serious? ”
“Sure I am. Why not? Look at it this way: she’s asleep and feels nothing, so it’s not like she’s being unfaithful to her husband. And anyhow, most of them aren’t married. Sex is like food, father, it’s of little consequence!”
“God forbid! ” Dr Bitar exclaims once more. “You’re just making it up!”
And Ghassan simply laughs.
He’s got to be lying, though. He can’t be doing it. Medicine is a sacred vocation – a medical practitioner takes an oath to honor his profession. In ancient times, it was the priests who practiced medicine, treating both the body and the spirit. And that’s the way it should be. Medicine wasn’t debased until it became just another job. But it’s a sacred mission, and Dr Bitar can’t believe that his son does those things. No, no, it can’t be possible. He must be making it up, look how he just laughs. But why hasn’t he married? I’ll find you a girl,” Dr Bitar tells him, over and over and again. But Ghassan just makes fun of him.
“Those days are over, Dad,” he says.
He’s right, of course. But why doesn’t he marry the way people do now, for love? Go out with a girl and then marry her. He doesn’t have a girlfriend – he’s never brought a girl home with him when he visits. And, anyway, why won’t he live at home? He says he prefers living alone, but a bachelor’s house is like a devil’s den. Of that, Dr Bitar is certain. Not much he can do about it, however, except offer his advice, which the boy disregards in any case.
As for this revolting job of his, dissecting corpses that is … well, … What to say, but al-hamdullilah – thank God – that the war broke out and it more or less spared him from having to continue with it. Pathologists aren’t needed these days: everything’s fallen apart – people are killed and tossed into graves just like that, no autopsy, no nothing. No more phone calls in the middle of the night, no more police officers requesting his presence. So he sits at home doing nothing.
Once in a while, Dr Bitar goes over to the American University Hospital to visit his former student, Dr Saleem Idreess, who’s now head of Surgery. Dr Bitar trained him personally and he’s become an excellent surgeon. Whenever he goes to see him though, Saleem grumbles about the chronic shortage of doctors. “They’ve all fled! Sometimes, a surgeon has to perform 10 operations in one day! More sometimes. It’s exhausting!”
And when he asks Dr Bitar about his new line of work, the old surgeon tells him there’s not much to do nowadays. “Forensic pathologists don’t have a role to play anymore. The courts are closed and no one needs us.”
Once, Dr Bitar put a proposal to him. He suggested that dissections should be carried out using some of the corpses that are brought into the hospital from the fighting. “It would certainly be better than working on corpses that have been preserved in formaldehyde, the way we used to do it when you were still a student. It would allow the medical students to see for themselves spinal cord injuries, cranial traumas, liver ailments, all manner of things.”
But Dr Saleem stunned him with his answer. “They’re of absolutely no value to us those corpses.
Nowadays, we train our students on the real thing: they participate in real-life surgical operations. You know how it is, we get a lot of hopeless cases, and we let the students practice on them. Some of them even do cranial surgery and you know how difficult that is. ”
“What’s that you’re saying? ”
“Dear Dr Marwan, you’re from the old school. We have new training methods nowadays.”
“But that’s criminal,” Dr Bitar replied. “It’s illegal. I didn’t teach all those years for you to end up doing that sort of thing! It’s a complete violation of our professional ethic. A surgeon’s not a butcher, Saleem. God is my witness, butchers aren’t as barbaric!”
Dr Bitar left the hospital and never went back. He won’t visit Saleem anymore … that man’s no former student of his, he’s just a common criminal… How can they let students play around with people’s brains and organs like that, even if they are hopeless cases … and anyhow, there aren’t any hopeless cases … doctors do everything in their power and the rest is up to the Good Lord. It’s an act of blasphemy against the Creator, that’s what it is. What a generation! Doctors nowadays aren’t what they used to be, as Dr Bitar says. Where are the likes of the famous Dr Pruciani, who could diagnose a patient’s ailment just by looking at him? This modern lot know nothing!… ”
And so it was that Dr Bitar spent all his time at home. The phone no longer rang for him and he didn’t go out.
People have been saying the war’s over. But where are the authorities, Dr Bitar would like to know. Some return to law and order, it is, if a driver can scare a policeman! Every kind of army in the country but the legitimate one! Still, at least work has picked up again and Dr Bitar is paid five hundred Lira for every report he produces. It’s better than nothing! How he wishes he were in charge though: he’d have brought out the gallows and hanged all those doctors! But in charge he isn’t, and 500 Lira is better than none: the building doesn’t bring in a piastre (5) anymore, it’s full of refugees and he won’t take money from Ghassan, he couldn’t, not from his own son.
Ghassan came to him one day to tell him that if they paid him 100,000 Lira, the local politico said he’d get the refugees out. But Dr Bitar wouldn’t do it. He wasn’t paying anyone off – and in any case, he had no need for money. The refugees would leave eventually, he’d get the building back and then Ghassan would inherit it and become the landlord of several properties. But the boy really should marry … otherwise, who was going to come into all this wealth? They had to get him married off, he kept telling his wife. She should be on the lookout for him, but she doesn’t give a damn … she spends all her time playing poker – and losing! So, here he is, chasing around after corpses while she gambles. Where does she find the money, he wonders. She must get it off Ghassan. Still, he wishes she’d take an interest in marrying off her son – she’s his mother after all. But she’s not interested in anyone beside herself! All she cares about is to put on her make-up in the morning and wait for evening to come. She often invites him to join them but he doesn’t like playing cards, he’d rather go to bed early. Staying up late shortens life expectancy and it’s not good for your nerves.
But then, the telephone had started ringing again and there was work to do once more. It was only seven o’clock in the morning when the telephone began to ring! It was Lieutenant Yasseen on the line.
Dr Bitar dresses quickly, runs a comb through his hair and without even bothering to wash his face, he picks up his doctor’s bag and hurries down the stairs. He switches on the car engine, waits a little for it to warm up, and drives off. When he reaches the UNESCO roundabout, he parks the car a little way from the statue of Habib Abi Shahla, gets out and walks over to shake the officer’s hand. After bending down over the mound of garbage, he straightens up, walks back to the car, puts on his white doctor’s coat and a mask over his nose and mouth, and then returns to the corpse. He squats down, pulls back the white sheet covering the corpse, lifts one of the hands and lets it drop. He nudges the corpse over slightly, notices the red ants crawling on the back of the neck; he tries to brush them away but they stick to his hands. He straightens up again, rubs his hands and blows on them, then blows on his white coat, and gets back to his job. He turns the corpse over onto its stomach and inspects the back.
Standing up once again, Dr Bitar steps back, then he squats down one more time, turns the corpse one more time, and finally covers it back up with the white sheet.
Dr Bitar goes over to the car, opens one of the rear-passenger doors, takes off his coat and mask, and tosses them onto the seat. Lieutenant Yasseen comes up to him. The doctor tells him the murder must have occurred at least four days earlier, as the corpse has begun to putrefy and decompose, and that there are clear traces of beating and torture. Lieutenant Yasseen nods.
“When was the corpse found?” the doctor asks.
“Just now, about half an hour ago.”
“That’s impossible … unless, the corpse was dumped somewhere elsewhere initially and then it was moved here. ”
“What should we do?”
The doctor says the corpse must be removed to the hospital morgue. “The autopsy should be conducted immediately, before it decomposes any further and it becomes impossible to determine the circumstances of the crime.” The doctor gets into his car, the officer leans against his rolled-down window and they finish the conversation. “You should advise the hospital administration that I’m on my way so that they get everything ready.” The doctor drives off. The ambulance men lift the corpse onto a stretcher and remove it to the ambulance. As the ambulance sounds its siren through the busy streets, onlookers gather to watch. “It’s not for real,” says a passerby. “Ambulances sound their sirens even when they’re empty. There’s never anyone in there … it’s just the driver who’s in a hurry, or who wants to show off … or some other such thing. ”
Below is the verbatim text of the report by the forensic pathologist, Dr. Marwan Bitar, which appeared in the Beirut papers on the morning of April 23, 1980.
1- The principal obstacle to the proper examination of the body at the site of discovery was due to the extensive burns to the body, inflicted after decease.
2- The abdomen is covered in burns, while the trousers covering the lower limbs are wet and torn in several places. The tears may have been caused by large stones or by gunshots. Owing to the absence of gunpowder burns, however, it would appear that the projectiles were cast from a distance of over one meter. There are clear traces of blood on the back of the neck.
3-Rigor mortis has begun to subside. It sets in within hours of decease, and starts to diminish two to three days later, with the onset of decomposition, which is manifested by bloating from internal gases and the appearance of greenish patches on the abdomen.
The lower abdomen:
1- Bluish hematoma found on the lower left side.
2- Superficial grazes to the stomach and traces of deep incisions, presumed to be from the use of a sharp implement.
The thoracic cage: 1-No bone fractures.
2-Bruises and grazes on the left side of the waist, with narrow longitudinal lacerations, caused by a whip or cane. These are thought to have occurred before death, as the bruising persisted after the wounds were opened and cleaned.
3- Circular burn-marks on the chest. The burns clearly occurred before decease, as they are full of pus.
4- Redness to the front of the neck and the upper frontal third of the chest. This is known as post-mortem lividity, or liver mortis, and is due to sedimentation of the blood, which starts one hour after death and is complete within six hours.
The left hand:
1- Bone contusions and cartilage fractures.
2- Ring finger severed at the base with a sharp implement.
1- Swelling of the forehead, and jagged burn wound measuring seven centimeters long by four wide. No burns or traces of gunpowder around the wound. Fracture of the frontal cranial bone and deep cerebral lesions.
2- Nasal deviation, with bruising and swelling – an indication that it occurred before decease.
3- Gunshot wound to the outer right-hand side of the neck, five centimeters below the earlobe, piercing the right cheek. The wound is only skin-deep and could not have been fatal.
1. The closest English equivalent would be “Woe is me, woe betide me!”
2. A method of torture during interrogation, where the detainee is hung upside down by his ankles.
3. Political influence or backing. In effect, someone pulling strings for you.