Checkpoints: My brother’s birth story is the most eventful
My mom felt the baby coming around midnight. My dad was ready, the drive to the hospital was only forty minutes if he took the direct route, but he took mountain backroads in order to avoid Israeli checkpoints. In no time they were on coastal Mediterranean road, only twenty minutes from the hospital. My mom was okay, and my brother was getting really ready. Then, there was an Israeli checkpoint.
The soldiers spoke neither Arabic nor French, the languages my dad speaks. They did speak English, the language my mom speaks, but she was in active labor at that point, so English benefited no one there. They had them step out of the car and searched the car. Then a bright searchlight shined on the car, from a nearby mountain top. My mom now was really in labor, so the soldiers let them back in the car, but they decided to accompany them. My dad sped to the hospital, with Israeli armored cars in front of and behind them, and a bright searchlight focused on their car. They made it on time, the Israelis turned around near the hospital entrance and my brother arrived safely to a doctor’s hands.
Twenty two years later, the phone rings in Beirut. I pick up.
“Hi, I am Tamar, you are accepted to NYU! I can’t wait to meet you! I am from Israel.”
Back to the Lebanese Civil War
I write about the war because the war was my entire childhood. There is no separation. When you are born into a war, as opposed to being an adult in a war, or going to participate in a war, or discussing and strategizing about war from a distance, your perceptions and conclusions are different.
One thing is, as a child, you think war is the whole world’s reality, and ideas that things are not blowing up everywhere else, or people living peacefully and going about their normal everyday lives, seem very foreign to you. The Lebanese war was particularly insane, because it was not a war where two sides are fighting each other: one good and one bad and ideally you belong to the good side. It was more than fifteen sides fighting each other, and several countries playing out their wars through Lebanon. To a child that’s not insanity, it is: I want to watch the tanks, I want to run to the highest hill to watch war planes in action, I want to sit with adults to hear about what happened today, I want to play with the new weapons, I want to shoot an RPG. I still want to shoot an RPG by the way.
When something particularly tragic happens, as in a whole hospital pancaked from the sky, or your town gets targeted for no reason- missile explosions are really really really loud- you, even as a child, think of the person who pressed that button, from distance, and wiped out a whole neighborhood. You also think of the people left behind, and their pain. You witness the best of humanity, and it’s worst, simultaneously. You learn a lot about people in their raw states.
I was in a small, cold and old bomb shelter, with my whole family, all our neighbors, and all their neighbors. I was staring at the small window with its iron bars, the big rocks making up the walls, the dirt, and waiting for the bombs to blow. Such a small space with so many people, very quiet people. I asked my dad if the walls will fall when the bombs blow. He said no the walls are strong and we are underground. I asked him what if the bombs blew near the window. He said they won’t. I asked him what if they blew near the door and blocked the door. He said they won’t. He said the house is old, but it will hold.
The Ottoman Princess
So my great grandmother met my great grandfather in Istanbul. She was Ottoman nobility and he was Ottoman officer. While I was growing up they used to tell me I look exactly like her and I have her mannerisms. So obviously, on a snowy Christmasy evening, right after I submit my grades and call it a semester, I tell her story.
They say when my great grandfather brought her from Istanbul to Lebanon, it was a spectacle. She entered town with carriages of gold and a fleet of men and horses.
Right after she settled into her new home, my great grandfather completely cut her off from her family in Istanbul. He prevented her from contacting, visiting, or even mentioning their names in his presence. That broke her heart. She pleaded with him to allow her contact but his heart was cold and his mind was set and rigid. She slowly started fading away, until she died during the birth of her second child. The women who were present during that birth said she could’ve survived, but didn’t want to. She wanted away.
My great grandfather, her husband, the Ottoman officer, was one time riding alone somewhere in the wilderness between Lebanon and Turkey. It was very late at night, very dark, very foggy, and very cold. He noticed a distant silhouette and as he got closer he realized it was a woman, alone, with a long white veil. She asked him for a ride to the nearest town. My great grandfather, enamored by her stunning face and captivated by her complete vulnerability, against his best judgment, and against all the suspicious voices telling him not to help a vulnerable stunning woman in the middle of nowhere and in the middle of the night, allowed her to ride on his horse.
She held onto him, and said, “I ask you for one thing, as we ride, no matter what happens, do not look back.”
He thought her request was strange, and kept riding into the night, the wilderness, the fog and the cold.
Soon afterwards, the horse started slowing down. The horse kept slowing more and more. She said do not look back. The horse slowed. Do not look back. Now the horse was so slow, so heavy, could barely move. Do not look back.
Then my great grandfather looked back. He saw what he saw. She was there, with him, on the horse, holding to his back. Her feet, on the other hand, where still right where he picked her up, and her legs, all the way in between.
My other grandmother, Kaldiya, had a crazy story. When she was twelve they gave her a white dress. She put it on and went out to play with the kids. She fell in the mud. She came back and they scolded her, “You can’t play in the mud! It’s your wedding day!”
So that’s how Kaldiya met her husband, my grandfather, who was seventeen at the time. For seven years they tried but failed to have kids. So Kaldiya, now nineteen, and convinced she’s barren, started looking for a second wife for her husband. She met a woman from Syria, blonde hair, bright blue eyes, with four children from a previous marriage: proven fertility. She asked her to marry her husband. When my grandfather married the other woman, the surprise was that both women got pregnant at the same time. They both had girls. A year and a half later, both got pregnant at the same time again. They both had boys.
My grandmother, who had asked the other woman to marry her husband, never forgave my grandfather for actually going through with it. So my grandfather divorced the other woman, and my grandmother went on to have four more children. Even then, she did not forgive him.
Manuela’s story is sad but she was the most fun and life loving. She had a small frame, gorgeous flowy dark hair, a gypsy spirit, walking around barefooted, and using only the thinnest sheer veils to cover her hair.
Manuela was born in Argentina, in the very early 1900’s, to an Argentinian mother and a Lebanese father. When she was four, her father kidnapped her from her mother, and they boarded a ship from Buenos Aires to Lebanon. Once in Lebanon, Manuela became Fatima, and her father married a storybook type evil stepmother.
Fatima grew up very sad, mistreated by her step mother and younger siblings. She used to tell us her true mom, Maria, visited her every night, sat next to her bed, and patted her head until she fell asleep. We wish we knew Maria’s last name, because my grandmother, Manuela, yearned for her and taught us all to love her. She used to say she had forgotten her face but not her warmth. Who knows what happened to Maria, in Buenos Aires, in the early 1900’s, after she woke up to find Manuela gone. We hope she had many other children who were a lot like my grandmother.
Manuela married happily and lived very long, more than a hundred years. In her very final year, she could only remember two names, Maria, and Soaad. Soaad, however, is another story, for another day.
I stared at my email, speechless
I was accepted to a five year PhD program, with full tuition, monthly stipend, summer salary and rental subsidy in Manhattan. A new life, in New York City, was waiting for me. I had to get a passport, a visa, a plane ticket, then tell my family that I was leaving, and fight, what I thought back then, one last battle. I had tried to follow the path they wanted for me but I failed miserably. My heart was set on freedom and I couldn’t let go of my dream. It was my dream that wiped my tears and soothed me to sleep on countless nights. My brother threatened to tear my passport. I hid it and checked on it everyday. I was marking the nights, counting down.
I did not sleep that last night. Behind me was an insanely intense life. A war, a missile that took my hair, a very religious and conservative family, two fiancés, a full time job, a masters degree in math, and a veil. Ahead of me was a dream come true, without the noise. The type of noise that makes you never know who you truly are.
The plane took off at 8:00 am, first to Paris, then to New York. As it ascended to the sky, I gazed back at our gorgeous Lebanese mountains, and the Mediterranean, and told myself to get a really good look and imprint that beauty in my heart, because I will never come back.
I arrived in the States with four thousand dollars and two bags. I was 23, different, hopeful, carrying a weight I had not come to terms with, and little did I know, at the time, all the lives that were to follow, and change, soon afterwards.
I did not tell anyone where I was going
I was calm and praying that no one would see me. I couldn’t be late. There was one chance and I had secretly saved enough money to do this only once. I told my brothers I was going to school, instead I hailed a cab to Downtown Beirut then walked the rest of the way to the exam center.
After the four hour exam, I walked to the internet café. It was so old and dirty. Most of the time it would be the owner, a bunch of guys playing video games or watching ‘movies’ they couldn’t watch at home, some mice running around like they owned the place, and me. It was uncommon for a girl to be at an internet café. The owner would bring tea and give me a quiet spot and a fast computer. He did not charge me, “This time is on me” he’d say. I never told him why I was there. I did not tell anyone for a whole year. I was too scared.
I was also hopeful, silent and waiting.
There are three stories
I need to pour them out of my mind into a white iPad screen, maybe then they’d leave. What humans are capable of doing to each other is unfathomable, and unless you have seen the dark side first hand, it is easy to think it doesn’t exist and live in a happy ‘All You Need is Love’ sixties embrace. If you think all people are intrinsically good, and all they need is a chance at a good life, then this might change your mind. Also, if you are faint hearted, the rest of this post is graphic so please do not read.
My uncle had a crush on a beautiful Christian woman when he was directing a school in a remote town in Lebanon. She liked him too, and whenever my uncle spoke of her, even years later, his eyes lit and only had fond memories of her sweetness, beauty, wit and grace. The war came and went. One day he happened at the Christian town, and reconnected with some of his old, pre-war, colleagues. He asked what became of her. They all sulked, then one finally broke a long silence:
“She became a monster.”
My uncle, shocked at the term they used, as no one refers to any human being with the term ‘wahshe’ in Lebanese, “What do you mean a monster?”
“You see her she looks like a monster. They entered their house and killed her little brother in the war, and she swore to eat the hearts of the men who did it, and she did.”
Every time my dad drove under a bridge at the border between West and East Beirut, he’d murmur, “This is the death bridge.” One time I finally asked why he said that every time we passed that bridge. He said during the war, militias would stop cars and ask for identification papers. Back then, religious identities were written on ID cards. Then they would take the people with the wrong religions out of their cars, rob them, strip them, throw them off the bridge, and shoot them as they flew down before hitting the ground, like a hunting ducks video game. I did not want to know which people were hunted like that, and by whom. I had friends from all sides, and everyone had blood on their hands. When the war ended, part of the resolution was to never print religious affiliations on ID cards ever again.
It was rainy and very cold in Beirut. I hailed a cab and rushed in, relieved to be out of the freeze and did not mind sharing it with two other passengers who were already there. I had not known I walked into a special cab, a murderous cab. The cabbie was still in the middle of his story: “He was on the highest floor of the building, and we spotted him. He was shooting men, women, children, dogs, ants if he could see them. He was full of hate. He kept on doing that for six days. No one could get to him. We tried and we died. Then we finally got to him. We tied him to the back of this cab, with a long rope. We dragged him all over Beirut, we dragged him to the houses of his victims, we dragged him for three days.”
I kept staring at the guy, I could not see the murderer in his eyes. I arrived and was back in the rain and cold, watching the cab drive away, with the sniper tied to its back.
The universe has light and dark. Humans happen to reflect both.
I was twenty when I first put on the Islamic veil
I felt embarrassed as I sacrificed my femininity on the altar of heaven and shame. I bolted through the loud and crowded streets of Beirut, in disbelief of the absoluteness and permanency of what I had done. I cried.
The soul however is a powerful place and desire is nothing but true longings of a disobedient soul. Order can emerge from chaos. Disorder, on the other hand, is alluring. It has an enchanting unruliness, unpredictability and a randomness that no order can match. Chaos prefers disorder, but also provides an addicting flavor of freedom.
Have you ever thought what is it is in life that drives you? What is it you’d fight for, never compromise on, pay any price to get, and lose anyone to have? I grew up in chaos and I craved being infinitely free.
When money turns into worthless paper
people become poor overnight. Food, medicine and gas instantly transform into a black market. The Lebanese currency collapsed multiple times when I was growing up. Sadly it’s in the process of catastrophically collapsing again.
My parents taught us about real estate and gold. Turn your money into real assets and do not rely on banks. Banks can hold your money when you need it the most. Store enough food for years in advance. Have weapons to defend your home. Have iron gates. Stay together.
When we watched poor people in cartoons or read about them in story books, like Oliver Twist, their clothes had holes, and patches sewn on top of the holes with big stitches.
One day we were playing with our neighbors, and we wanted to continue playing at their home. Their mom told us: go home and change then you can play with my kids. We went home not knowing what was wrong with our clothes. They had big yellow leather patches sewed with big stitches on top of some holes. The war had made us poor.
That Spring our house got electrocuted. Our school uniforms got burnt while on a washing line that got in contact with a non-insulated electric wire. They fell on the floor with melted collars and crumbled and hardened shoulders. My parents, whose money was now worthless, saved the house and our lives, but could not buy new school uniforms. We went to school with collarless uniforms and parts of our shoulders exposed through pinching holes.
We asked my mom not to use the yellow leather patches to cover the holes. Between patches and holes, we chose holes.
My second fiancé was from London
He was handsome, well spoken with a British accent, same age as my first fiancé and visiting his family in my hometown. I met him at a friend’s house, he proposed three days later and I accepted. When I met my husband 17 years later, he asked me: “Wow, is that all that it takes to marry you? A handsome man who lives in London?” Back then, yes, that was all it took to marry me. I wanted my freedom and I wanted to choose my husband. It was very simple.
My second engagement party was much more fun than my first engagement party. I was veiled and danced all night. When my fiancé arrived, with all the men in his double extended family, sitting at the center with all the men from my double extended family, to ask my oldest uncle for my hand in marriage, I transformed into the very refined lady I was thoroughly trained to be, and was stealing glances across our reception hall to see if he still looked like the only two times I had met him before. He did. My heart was jumping. My freedom was so close and about to become real.
He left to London two weeks after we became engaged and he was set to return five months later. He sent gifts every week and phoned everyday. Meanwhile, in Lebanon, my parents were unhappy.
When they realized I was not disliking my fiancé, and not fighting to leave him like my first fiancé, they voiced their discontent that his family in my hometown was beneath ours.
My fiancé returned from London, and he told me he had discussed with my dad setting a wedding date. He said my dad promised him six months. Later that day, I overheard my mom talking to my dad: “Will you let them marry her?”
My dad replied: “Only when they see their ears’ lobules they will marry her”, which meant, only in their dreams.
They broke my engagement few days later. It was terrible. The families fought, and in my shock and lifelong freedom dreams fading away I stayed in Beirut and threw myself into math.
Our house in Lebanon overlooks both the mountains and the sea.
My town sits on a rocky meadow at 2600ft. We grew up on the rocks, and they all had names. Our favorite was the Tank, shaped more like massive throne, but it’s top looked exactly like a tank’s turret, hence the name. We played War with any kids who were not our siblings or first cousins. We came back home only for pit stops: When we were hungry, or bleeding.
In our neighborhood the adults called us ‘Israel’, because we were the wild and untamed kids who destroyed everything in their path. But we called ourselves ‘The A-Team’. We even had the A-Team’s van: my uncle owned a chocolate factory and we regularly broke into the factory’s vehicles. My other uncle had an awesome sixties Mercedes, and that was our luxury car.
One day, I was walking on the street with my brothers and cousins in the A-Team. My dad saw us from our balcony, and asked me to come home. I felt strange since he only called for me and not my brothers. He sat me down and said: “You are starting to look like a woman now. A woman doesn’t wander around streets with boys. You sit at home.”
Before that day, I had not known there was any difference between boys and girls. For all I cared I was still Yousef’s son, whose body was now changing shape, and keeping me away from my A-Team. It all then drastically changed.
It was by a series of accidents that I became a math professor
Until now it feels like being a professor is in the background of my life, something that randomly happened to me as I was completely distracted by, or fixing, or running away from something else. I constantly tell myself that one day, I will actually focus on math.
When I was growing up my dad would bring a big orange book, with very small font size, full of math problems written in French. I’d sit next to him by our iron stove and he’d read the French problems to me, then I’d translate them to English and solve them. I loved his accent and outrageously wrong pronunciation when he attempted to translate to English math himself. I solved all the problems in that book by candle light, since we almost never had electricity. These are my first memories of serious math: with my dad, a large orange French book, warmth from an old iron stove and candle light.
My second serious math was in grade 11. We got a new math teacher, fresh out of college, from Beirut, handsome, and I had a crush. After his first class I went home and studied and solved three entire math books: Geometry and Space, Calculus, and Trigonometry. I had to solve these books as fast as I could. I thought that if I already knew all the math that was meant to be taught, I could just sit in class, not pay attention, look pretty, and flirt.
When the school year ended, my math teacher left a note in my Geometry and Space book, on the whole long side of the first page, in French: “Tu es pure comme la neige blanche avant qu’elle ne touche la sol.”
You are pure like the white snow right before it touches the ground.
When you live through events of wartime
And it’s only few meters that separate you from staying alive or dying, nothing you experience ever again, replicates the intensity. Also, none of people’s everyday worries seems to matter to you. You feel like you were born in a chaotic world, with chaotic events, and every time you survive, it feels spectacular.
My dad used to tell me, “don’t think that the best thing we gave you in this life is land, or money, these come and go, humans create money, buy assets, and create more money. What we did give you is a brain, a really good brain, that’s your real asset, so go out and use it. If you have health, and you have the brain we gave you, you’ll never be lost.”
So when I watched warplanes blow up power plants and bridges- to cut land communication- from our balcony, and as the lights went out throughout the whole region, the flames and smoke visible miles and miles away, mixed in with fabulous mountain and sea sunsets, I used to think: They did not blow us up, we are still here, and we have our health, and our brain.
“Come see the moon!”
Twelve little cousins lined up at my grandmother’s balcony mesmerized by a large orange moon hanging low in a clear night sky and illuminating bullet scarred buildings of Beirut.
Then a bomb went off.
All our parents ran to the balcony to get us inside, before the other blast, since they always came in pairs: First blast hits a target, then the next hits anyone trying to help.
“It could be anywhere! There is shrapnel you’ll get hurt!” they yelled as grabbed some of us and tried to push the scrambling others inside.
But we were too young, too happy, and too hypnotized by the moon. We did not move, our parents gave up and stood there with us, the second blast went off, and we all stayed, watching the moon.
That was my first orange moon. I see it in every beautiful moon I see today. The noise from the bombs and the sirens falls into the background, just like on that gorgeous unforgettable moon night.
When it comes to rejecting a man
women are superb artists. What’s most confusing to women is that the more she refuses a man, the more he seems to want her. That appears to be consistent across generations, cultures and continents.
I sat with my fiancé in a café overlooking Beirut and my beloved Mediterranean Sea. Until now, it is my favorite café in Lebanon. It’s on a mountain road that surreally gains elevation and changes weather in a swift twenty minute drive from coastal Beirut to touristic and lively Aley. I told him, point blank, that I did not wish to marry him. I explained how my parents had forced me into this arrangement, and that I did not want him to be my husband anytime, ever.
What happened next was one of the most shocking and horrific incidents in my life.
Fast forward couple weeks, and I was with him, at my parent’s salon, alone, with a large box full of gold next to me, and my ring. He was stating his conditions to forgive me and move forward with me, and I was silent, and nodding …
My first fiancé was from my hometown
For weeks I begged my parents to not accept the proposal, but soon enough it was the morning of a big engagement party.
I sat at the dining table wishing it all away while everyone running around busy with preparations. “You could at least put on a happy face,” my mom angrily scolded.
When I realized the inevitability of my own demise, and that people actually started arriving, I went to my room and wore a dazzling crème ball gown, a matching veil, makeup, and a smile.
I danced and watched town women wrap 21 karat gold snakes around my wrists. By the end of the party I was heavy with jewelry: on both my hands, up my arms, and multiple layers around my neck. I hated the snakes.
When my fiancé arrived, they covered me with a long soft black fur coat, and I went on my first date.
On the way to Beirut, he parked near a scenic outlook, and we stepped out of the car.
“You see these mountains?” he asked pointing at the gorgeous Lebanese panoramic view.
“Now they’re all yours.”
“Whose son are you, boy?”
“I am Yousef’s son,” not bothering to correct him that I am a girl.
“Stay away from this car.”
But I wanted to see the car. I waited till the unknown man disappeared down the hill, and ran back to the car. I had heard of this car, and that it had recently been brought back to my hometown.
At the hilltop behind our house, under a warm yellow morning sun, stood a brown eighties Cadillac, fancy, intact, except for its bullet holes, and blood stains.
My dad said our neighbors had fled to London after the assassination, and their house was left empty. It was a political assassination. I did not know whose side in the war our neighbor was on, it was too complicated, and people switched sides all the time, or formed their own new factions when they disagreed with their main parties.
I do know that one day, my uncle woke up before dawn for his morning prayers, and looked out the window towards our empty assassinated neighbor’s house, and he saw a tall man’s dark silhouette, with bright red eyes, staring back.
The officers at the Syrian border asked my dad the same questions every time, and he was always prepared. One thing I learned from my dad: to always be calm…
… and to have things they want. Any of these could work: Extra virgin olive oil from our land, fresh baked bread from my hometown, eggs, or cash. He used to say they serve at the border for long stretches of time, away from their wives and homes, and they were all underpaid. He also said we did not want to end up in ‘the factory’, a Lebanese term for where Syrian Intelligence kept Lebanese prisoners back in the war days.
“Why are you going to Damascus with a little girl, in these kinds of days?”
“Because I want her hair back.”
I used to bring a hairbrush to my mom and ask her to comb my hair, and she would pretend to comb long beautiful hair.
She’d say one day it will come back.
When the missile barely missed our house and blew up in the backyard, my parents were relieved we had all been spared, until the next morning, when my mom stood shell-shocked before my dad, with most of my hair in her palms, and the rest on the floor.
I do not remember that particular blast, the years I was bald, or my parents’ frantic search for a cure. But I remember roaming a hustling Damascus souq with my dad, inside the old walled city. The ancient Roman Temple of Jupiter magnificently greeted us at the city gates, and the Great Mosque of Damascus leave-took us at the end of its archway.
“Do not let go of my hand,” my dad would warn every time, “I’d never find you in such a place.” Then we’d find our way to my aging professor-doctor, who’s long gone now, and to whom I owe having my messy frizzy and high-maintenance black hair.
It all happened and here is how…
There were two roads to get to the Syrian border from my hometown. One was very empty- a maintenance route crossing a high peak of Barouk mountain, right below a tall lonely antenna- and dangerous.
My dad chose this route when there was shelling on the other more popular and populated road.
“This is the tanks route,” I heard our driver tell my dad as he pointed to a tiny gravel road at the edge of a steep slope.
I did not know whose tanks he referred to: the Syrians’, Lebanese’, or Israelis’? Or when or how often those tanks passed there. All I wondered was how tanks could possibly ride those windy and icy cliff-edge roads, and how neat it would’ve been to watch them, from where I was.
I am about 8 or 9, with my dad, at dawn, crossing the border to Syria through a Lebanese eastern mountain pass. Wind randomly gushes, then disappears. We are cold, we are walking, and there are upset looking Syrian soldiers
I am holding dad’s hand and he is calm, I love the long walk. We arrive at a checkpoint. I stop noticing the crisp morning chill mixed with a fabulous purplish orange sunrise, and stare at their doubting faces. They are questioning my dad and going through the papers. He keeps holding my hand. And we wait, wait, and wait.