At the Age of 14
Pierre and Mahmoud are behind me whispering. Mademoiselle Simone is reading a story in French; one of its heroes is named Philippe. Beautiful lady. Captivating voice. My senses are scattered: My eyes watch Mademoiselle Simone moving back and forth in front of the blackboard and my ears pick up bits of the conversation going on behind me. Pierre tells Mahmoud that he got new “Ranger” boots like those used by the recruits training in Tal al-Zaatar camp. Mahmoud asks his classmate and neighbor on the school bench about his family’s position on his training round with the Palestinians. He replies: “They are oblivious”.
Pierre continues to astonish Mahmoud by telling him that he has learned to disassemble a Kalashnikov and reassemble it in minutes, a feat that impressed his trainer. “If you are interested, we could go together next Sunday”. The bell rings. Mahmoud and Pierre go to the playground of Achrafieh First For Boys Secondary Public School, the playground of my difficult adolescence, and hide in a corner as if they are plotting a conspiracy at the onset of April 1975.
Pierre is almost a year older than me. Mahmoud was perhaps my age but twice my size. Both were my friends: The first was my neighbor and the second was my classmate. In the war, “comrade” Pierre fought with the “Kata’eb” Party as a rebel fighter and, for a while, there –was no news of Mahmoud! I heard later that brother Mahmoud joined the pro-Palestinian Amal movement in its early days and trained with its members in military camps under the supervision of Palestinian trainers. The year 1975 stole our teenage years for good.
I went frequently to Tal al-Zaatar camp, where Pierre trained, with my father Mr. Abdo (Mouallim Abdo), who worked in a factory in Mkalles, the camp’s neighboring town. My father had one hobby in his life: the discovery of butcheries. There, in the alleys of poverty and chaos, my father found his muse: a butchery that sold mutton meat at cheap prices. As a consequence of personal effort, I found a thrift store where I bought a white winter jacket that warms my memory to this day.
The distances, for those our age, were negligible. One day, five of us decided to walk from Ashrafieh to the Sports City to attend a match between Al-Nejmeh and Homenmen (brother team of Homenetmen). We chose to walk not for the love of walking but to save some pennies. Everyone depended on me, and ever since I was young, I got lost on roads I was familiar with. After an hour and a half of speed walking, we found ourselves in the alleys of the Sabra and Shatila camp. Gunmen, mobs and loudspeakers calling for mobilization greeted us. Mobilization against whom? I felt dread. I sensed the signs of war. I smelled danger. My heart pounded heavily. A thousand dark thoughts haunted me. I calmed down only when we entered the gate of the Camille Chamoun Sports City. Perhaps in my subconscious, I trusted Camille Chamoun to protect me and bring me back safely to Achrafieh.
At the age of 14, I marched in the famous pro-Lebanese Army demonstration called for by the Lebanese “Kata’eb”, the National Liberal Party and the National Bloc (the Helf Alliance). It was the first time I had enjoyed the sweetness of the human tide at the age of 14. A day later, I stood in front of a newspaper kiosk where I used to read the headlines for free, and I remember exactly what one newspaper wrote: “The entire Maronite Lebanon took to the streets to support the army of the category”, I smiled and said to myself: “Are the Greek Orthodox Maronite?” If, by chance, I found 25 piastres in my pocket, I would buy a copy of “An-Nahar” and its literary supplement. I remember exactly what Ounsi el-Hajj wrote that year: “If the Lebanese were one and not two halves, there would have been no war”. And the following thought quickly crossed my mind: If I was born in Basta to Sunni parents, which half would I be with?
At the age of 14, I witnessed the very beginning of the multifaceted war. I remember my father telling us somewhat gloatingly that he had visited the family of one of the Palestinians who had been killed in the Ain al-Rummaneh bus massacre and offered his condolences. There, he heard someone swear over the body of the martyr that he would exact revenge for his soul from Pierre Gemayel!
At the age of 14, I carried the weapon (and later the pen) against armed Palestinian groups. At that time, I was fond of the song “Zahrat El Madaen”, a Feirouz song written to Jerusalem. I still am.