We met in a restaurant in Beirut, overlooking the sea, December, perfect crisp warmth. A rock jutted violently out of this particular patch of sea, known, my aunt told me, to be a favored spot for suicides. I can see why. Turning back from there would be embarrassing and difficult. Crawling back squeaking sorry guys I changed my mind, life is worth it after all.
I hadn't been to Beirut for thirteen years and had bad memories of diarrhea and cold chicken. It was some time in the early nineties when I saw my father's weeping reflection in the car window as his hometown sped and stopped in ruins outside our little yellow cocoon. Scrappy pre-teens in donated t-shirts reading Coca-Cola or Nike flicking cigarette butts and kicking footballs. This time as we walked through new, reconstructed parts of the defiant city he pointed out the bullet holes still in buildings, distinct from the new embellished facades of recovery.
My aunt, at lunch, nervous with sickness and intelligence and excited to see us after so many years of letters and birthday cards scrawled in French-educated, shaky script having been tampered with by doctors for an inconvenient condition. Years of internal and external shocks, treatments. It always seemed, from the stories I'd heard, to be the most likely or honest consequence of the situation she was in. Dreaming of husband and children, seeing strange men in the corners of her eyes, bombs crashing where the sea should be. Now she jumped from memory to memory, leapt into the present, into the tabbouleh and hummus, her brother allowing her half a beer for the special occasion, then back into her long-haired, slim-waisted past, I was a beautiful woman you know.
I stayed with her, listening, trying to make contact, holding her hand. She gave me random objects from her tiny flat as presents and showed me photographs of her in Russia as a young woman, where she ran away and had to be recovered. She proudly showed off the luxury shopping districts in her town and laughed at the Lebanese capacity to rebuild. Her hair is still black, she reads fiction and makes tea in dirty cups. When I hugged her goodbye I fell for Beirut.
Mira Mattar is a tutor, freelance writer and reviewer for the TLS and other publications. Her fiction has recently been published in Spilt Milk Magazine. She is also one third of Monster Emporium Press. She lives in South London where she is currently working on her first collection of short stories. You can read her at http://hermouth.blogspot.com