Rabih Alameddine: “Remembering Nasser”

15 June, 2022
Joana Had­jithomas and Khalil Jor­eige, from the Won­der Beirut project (1997–2006), as seen in their film Mem­o­ry Box.

 

Rabih Alameddine

  

While read­ing, I was remind­ed of a walk I used to take when I was much younger, dur­ing the sum­mers in my father’s home­town. Mem­o­ries of Nass­er kept inter­rupt­ing any attempt at con­cen­tra­tion, so I put the book down.

We run from the house before any­body can stop us for chores, through the back, behind the fig trees, which pro­vide us with good cov­er, and over the back fence to the back road — to the fam­i­ly ceme­tery, my family’s not his, for he will be buried, is buried now as a mat­ter of fact, in Barouk, his father’s home­town, which was high­er up, far­ther west, than my father’s. I am alive, but he is dead. Who would have bet on that out­come? I feel the stone in my hand as I read, sit­ting on my sofa, in my house in San Fran­cis­co, the sharp­ness of it, the weight, as I throw it at the grave­stone, lap­idary phras­es seared in my mind like sen­tences in my book. My cousin Nass­er, on one of those walks, stands atop a stone and reads, “Sheikh Nadim Tal­houk, 1903–1957,” as he counts how many years that makes. “I can beat that,” he says proud­ly. He did not. Like a bas­ket­ball announc­er who tells us how well a play­er shoots his free throws right before the play­er miss­es, Nass­er jinxed him­self. On the walk, that day, he took his penis out and peed on Sheikh Nadim, des­e­crat­ing what I once thought to be sacred, urine cleans­ing the old stone, mak­ing cir­cles, my eyes fixed, aghast. Seduc­tive blasphemy.

⬪ ⬪ ⬪

My moth­er saved pic­tures of all her chil­dren in pho­to albums, each orga­nized with dates and descrip­tions. Almost half of all my pic­tures in the albums includ­ed Nass­er. There is a series of four pic­tures dat­ed March 1961. I was eigh­teen months old, he was twen­ty-two months. A pro­fes­sion­al child pho­tog­ra­ph­er must have tak­en them, for most of the pho­tos looked ter­ri­bly con­trived. We sit close to each oth­er, should to shoul­der, and look at a small bas­ket. I put var­i­ous toys in the bas­ket. He waits for me to fin­ish, after which he takes the bas­ket and stands up. The last pic­ture shows me try­ing to get up, to fol­low him most prob­a­bly, his dia­pered butt framed in the pic­ture as he leaves.

⬪ ⬪ ⬪

I recall a pok­er game at Ann Arbor. It must have been 1978 or 1979. Nass­er was vis­it­ing from Eng­land where he was attend­ing some pay-for-a-degree col­lege. The game was in my apart­ment. I was in my room, out for a cou­ple of rounds, try­ing to reac­quaint myself with my lungs after a heavy bout of cig­a­rette-induced cough­ing. The whole table was Lebanese, as most of my acquain­tances were at the time. This was long before I came out. Nass­er felt at home. Some­one made a joke I did not hear. I heard Nasser’s voice though. “No, no, no. I’ll not have it. Don’t make fun of him while I’m around. I’m his cousin.”

⬪ ⬪ ⬪

Fred, my lover, was jeal­ous of him. It com­plete­ly con­fused me. Fred used to say my face would light up when­ev­er I spoke of Nass­er. If he called, I would run to the phone. He was like my twin broth­er. How Fred could be jeal­ous was beyond me. Some­times I won­der whether I should have blamed Fred for what hap­pened. What dif­fer­ence does it make? He is dead now, too.

⬪ ⬪ ⬪

A clas­si­cal pianist who was once a stu­dent in our school came back one day to talk to each class about piano play­ing. He then test­ed sep­a­rate­ly each boy and girl. When it was my turn, he had me turn my back to the piano and played a note, then a sec­ond note. I had to tell him whether the sec­ond note was low­er or high­er than the first. I got them all right. I knew I was doing well because he stayed longer with me than with any of the oth­ers. With Nass­er, the test only last­ed about half a minute. The pianist test­ed me for at least five minutes.

At the end of class, he want­ed me to deliv­er a note to my par­ents. In it he told my par­ents that I was tal­ent­ed and I should be giv­en piano lessons. Nobody else in class got a note. I gave the note to my mom when I got home. She wait­ed till after din­ner to tell my father. I was sit­ting in the den, play­ing with Nass­er qui­et­ly, which we were sup­posed to do when my father was home. We heard my moth­er tell my father that I should be tak­ing piano lessons. We heard my father say that he did not think it was a good idea. He thought I was too effem­i­nate as it was with­out piano lessons. I felt Nass­er move clos­er to me. He did not say any­thing. We sat next to each oth­er and played with the Match­box cars in front of us.

⬪ ⬪ ⬪

A phone conversation:

– I have to get married.
– Why?
– What do you mean why? It’s what I want. Peo­ple get married.
– I know that. I meant why now?
– Because it’s time. I’m tired of being a bachelor.
– Why all of a sudden?
– I don’t know. I don’t have match­ing plates.
– What are you talk­ing about?
– I have no idea. Issam slept over at my house while he was here, and then when he went back to Beirut, he told my mom I don’t have match­ing plates. I don’t even know what match­ing plates have to do with any­thing. Moth­er called and said I need­ed a wife because I don’t have match­ing plates.
– You’re get­ting mar­ried because your moth­er wants you to have match­ing plates?
– Fuck you. I need a wife. What’s wrong with that? I want some­one to greet me when I come home. I want sex. I’m tired of look­ing for it. We don’t all live in Amer­i­ca where every­body fucks like rabbits.
– I thought you were fuck­ing that woman I met.
– She’s mar­ried. I can only fuck her when her hus­band is not there. I need some­thing more permanent.
– So you want to get married?
– That’s what I said. Why are you mak­ing a big deal out of this? I want to get mar­ried. We’re all going to get mar­ried. Why not now? It makes sense. I’m not a young buck any­more. Nei­ther are you, you fuck­er. You should start think­ing about get­ting mar­ried. It’ll make your father hap­py. You should be hap­py for me. I tell you I want to get mar­ried. You should be hap­py. What kind of friend are you?
– Hey, I’m hap­py. If you’re hap­py, I’m hap­py. I only want­ed to know why now. Who’s the unlucky girl?
– Fuck you. The lucky girl. She’ll be damn lucky. I don’t know yet. We’re looking.

⬪ ⬪ ⬪

One of my ear­li­est mem­o­ries is of an occur­rence in a bath­room. I do not know where, or in what house. It is evening. Nass­er and I are in the bath­room with a maid. She must be Egypt­ian or Lebanese because the lan­guage is Ara­bic. The tub is full. We are sup­posed to take our night­ly bath, but we are using the toi­let. Both of us need to shit. Nass­er sits at the com­mode for a while. I feel real­ly uncom­fort­able. I tell the maid that I need to go. She tells Nass­er to get up and let me have a go. He com­plains that he is not done, but gets up any­way. He turns around to plead his case and I see a small, green­ish-coloured turd in his anus. I tell him he can go back to the com­mode and fin­ish. I can wait.

I must have been no more than three.

⬪ ⬪ ⬪

In 1976, before either one of us left for school, dur­ing a lull in the fight­ing, we were in Chouiefat, dri­ving towards Beirut. Nass­er was dri­ving his father’s car with­out his father know­ing. When­ev­er his father had a card game, Nass­er stole the car for a cou­ple of hours and we took turns dri­ving. A well-dressed man waved at us to stop. 

He asked us nice­ly if he could ride with us to Beirut since he was in a hur­ry. He sat in the back behind Nass­er. He was charm­ing as we con­versed with us. He treat­ed us like adults. As we drove, we noticed a new check­point on the road. Nass­er start­ed curs­ing. He hoped nobody would recog­nise him and tell his father. I thought maybe they would fig­ure we had no license. Our pas­sen­ger calm­ly told us not to wor­ry. It was not us they were after. He looked dis­tract­ed. At the check­point, a man in civil­ian clothes with a big hand­gun put his head in the win­dow. He smiled at us. He said some­thing about the dan­ger of pick­ing up strangers. The man then bent Nasser’s head with his left hand and with the oth­er shot our pas­sen­ger until the bul­lets ran out. Blood spurt­ed every­where. Our pas­sen­ger died with a smile on his face, as if look­ing for­ward to death. It was the clos­est I would get to see first-hand the new breed of Lebanese fight­ers, those who would ded­i­cate them­selves to the ulti­mate sac­ri­fice. I sat with my back to the win­dow, fac­ing the man with the gun, mouth agape. He let go of Nasser’s head.

“You nev­er saw what I look like, right?” he asked us. He sneered. “I don’t want you young boys get­ting into any kind of trou­ble. Do we under­stand each other?”

Nass­er could not even look at him. He was star­ing straight ahead. He could not bring him­self to move.

“Do we under­stand each oth­er?” the man repeat­ed more sternly.

Nass­er still could not move. He seemed par­a­lyzed. “We didn’t see any­thing,” I screamed in a high-pitched voice. “We didn’t see nothing.”

“That’s good. Now why don’t you dri­ve home.”

Nass­er still stared ahead, unable to move a mus­cle. The man want­ed us out of there, but Nass­er could not move. Final­ly, I struck the back of Nasser’s head with my hand. “Move,” I screamed as loud­ly as I could. Final­ly, he looked at me. “Dri­ve,” I yelled again. He put his foot to the ped­al and we were out of there.

We drove for less than a kilo­me­ter. When we got to Khalde, I told Nass­er to stop at the side of the road. I got him out of the car and walked him over to the beach. I dragged him into the water, both of us ful­ly clothed. I washed him, washed the blood off. He let me dunk his head in the water to untan­gle the blood. I washed him, punc­til­ious­ly and rit­u­al­is­ti­cal­ly, like wash­ing the dead, or a blood bap­tism, the col­or inten­si­fy­ing in the water sur­round­ing us and then dis­si­pat­ing quick­ly. I tried to remove as much of the blood as possible.

Once done, I took his hand and he fol­lowed. I walked him home, hand in hand, all the way. We left the car. It took us an hour and a half to get to his house. He was still unable to say any­thing and I did not talk to him, just walked him home. By the time we arrived our clothes were dry. We looked hag­gard, but that was not unnat­ur­al for us. Nobody noticed the remain­ing blood­stains. I undressed him and threw the clothes out. No reminders were left.

We did not say any­thing to any­body. The car was found with the corpse of a man who betrayed a mili­tia leader. Every­body knew which handy-man had killed him, but nobody would have been able to touch him in any case. It was assumed the car was stolen to kid­nap the man and kill him.

We were free.

We nev­er ever spoke of it.

 ⬪ ⬪ ⬪

Anoth­er ear­ly rec­ol­lec­tion. Nass­er and I shared a room, as well as a bed, in the moun­tain house, when we were younger. Through our win­dow, when we first arrived, we always saw a blan­ket of red. The pop­pies cov­ered the slop­ing field. Nass­er and I would look through the win­dow try­ing to find the one, lone­some pop­py that was not part of the larg­er blan­ket. There was always one, some­times two, rarely three, inde­pen­dent pop­pies, not like the rest, dif­fer­ent. We loved that poppy.

Years lat­er, I was remind­ed of that pop­py while read­ing. Proust saw it too. He called it the pop­py that had strayed and been lost by its fel­lows. As I read that, the mem­o­ries came flood­ing back.

 ⬪ ⬪ ⬪

I met Fred in grad school. More pre­cise­ly, I met Fred while I was attend­ing Stan­ford and he was there to give a speech on the economies of the Mid­dle East. I was in his hotel room with­in an hour of the end of his speech. I sur­prised myself. I was still clos­et­ed, but allowed myself to be seduced. He came on so strong that not one of my class­mates had any doubt as to what was hap­pen­ing. He asked me to leave with him while every­one was still around. He out­ed me, so to speak.

We were togeth­er until he died in 1993, eleven years, only sev­en of them healthy though.

 ⬪ ⬪ ⬪

I can be walk­ing when all of a sud­den some­thing reminds me of him. It can be any­thing, a flower, a man wear­ing a pair of jeans in a cer­tain way. If I see a paint­ing, I think of McEn­roe, who is now an art deal­er, which would of course bring me back to Nasser.

I remem­ber him as he was when he was young, with­out the mous­tache, the fat, the alco­holism; four­teen, fif­teen maybe.

⬪ ⬪ ⬪

“Brother…my hand trem­bles so I can­not write. I can­not face you either because I will do harm. I am furi­ous. How could you do this to me? I will leave you two…”

The note was crum­pled and thrown in the waste bas­ket. He said he did not want me to see it, but he left it in an emp­ty waste basket.

He could not stay in an apart­ment with my lover and me. Fred was furi­ous. Nass­er was furi­ous. They both blamed me.

From the begin­ning, Fred had want­ed me to come out to my fam­i­ly. He thought as long as I did not tell my fam­i­ly about our rela­tion­ship, I was not real­ly com­mit­ted to it. I could not. I was out in the Unit­ed States and clos­et­ed in Lebanon. My two lives were sep­a­rate. I felt it was bet­ter for every­body that way. When I met Fred, I cut out any­thing in my life that was Lebanese. Lebanon became this place I vis­it­ed twice a year. To this day, I have not told my family.

When Nass­er had come to the US for a busi­ness meet­ing, he thought he should come and stay with me for a week in San Fran­cis­co. I tried to clean up, to remove any trace of gay­ness in the house. Fred was livid. He did not allow me to move any­thing. My clothes and I were to remain in our room. Noth­ing would be hid­den. He thought Nass­er, if he loved me as much as I thought he did, would accept the sit­u­a­tion. I told Fred there was no way Nass­er would accept the sit­u­a­tion. Once he knew, all he would be able to see when he looked at me is some­one who takes it up the ass. Fred said there was more to being gay than tak­ing it up the ass. Not for Nasser.

⬪ ⬪ ⬪

In the begin­ning it was Ilie Nas­tasie, the great Roman­ian. Nass­er idol­ized him. We played ten­nis con­stant­ly. I do not think either one of us could ever have been a great play­er. We were not ath­let­i­cal­ly gift­ed, nor were we ever tru­ly coached. Lat­er, Nass­er dropped poor Ilie for John. No one was more Nasser’s alter ego than McEn­roe. I loved Borg, but Nass­er breathed McEn­roe. To Nass­er, he rep­re­sent­ed every­thing that was great about the world.

⬪ ⬪ ⬪

I remem­ber I was at Nasser’s house vis­it­ing. Fred was sick back in San Fran­cis­co, but I need­ed a break. Nadia was mak­ing break­fast. Nasser’s two-year-old daugh­ter, Lay­la, came in from the kitchen laugh­ing loud­ly. “Abed is here,” she kept repeat­ing. “Abed is here.”
Nass­er picked her up and swung her around. “Don’t embar­rass me in front of your uncle,” he chas­tized her jokingly.
“Who’s Abed?” I asked.
“The dri­ver,” he said. “She has an infat­u­a­tion for our driver.”
“Lay­la, you lit­tle tramp!” I joked.
He looked at me funny.

⬪ ⬪ ⬪

Nasser’s father, Habib, was the fam­i­ly clown. Every­body loved him because he made you laugh, every­body except Nass­er. I remem­ber Nass­er once telling me, after he had a few drinks, “How can you respect a man who left absolute­ly noth­ing but debts for his wife and chil­dren?” He tru­ly abhorred his father, which I did not real­ize while Habib was alive, but which became appar­ent after his death. My father paid for every­thing when it came to his sis­ter and her boys. They lacked noth­ing. Nass­er began to idol­ize my father. It was only grad­u­al­ly that I real­ized I was being replaced.

After col­lege, Nass­er went to work in Kuwait through con­tacts that my father pro­vid­ed, while I stayed in the Unit­ed States. First I stayed because of grad school, and then it was a great job with Booz Allen, a man­age­ment con­sult­ing firm. At one point my com­pa­ny want­ed to trans­fer me to Sau­di Ara­bia think­ing that as an Arab, I would be able to han­dle things bet­ter than the last cou­ple of exec­u­tives, who had burned out. I refused. They dan­gled mon­ey, sta­tus, and all they could think of, but I did not budge. I was start­ing a fam­i­ly in San Fran­cis­co with Fred. My father could not under­stand my want­i­ng to stay away. At first, he con­ced­ed it was not a bad idea because the war was drag­ging on, but still he want­ed me clos­er. Europe would have been prefer­able for him. I did not wish to tell him that the East Coast was too close to Lebanon for my taste. It was not that I dis­liked my fam­i­ly. I loved them dear­ly. I want­ed a bar­ri­er, dis­tance being the best I could think of, between us. I could not see how I could pos­si­bly be a com­plete per­son, let alone a gay one, if I hung around. Nass­er hung around.

Slow­ly but sure­ly, he became the son my father wished I were. He got mar­ried to a nice Druze girl from the moun­tains. They had a real house with match­ing plates, and she gave Nass­er two boys and a girl. When the war was over, Nass­er moved his fam­i­ly back to Beirut. Every time I went back to Beirut, I saw as much of Nass­er as I did my fam­i­ly. He spent all of his time with my father.

Nass­er picked up my father’s man­ner­isms. He talked like my father. He walked like my father. He gained weight like my father. He combed his hair like my father. He smoked like my father. And he drank like my father.

He died of heart dis­ease and liv­er prob­lems, exact­ly like my father.

⬪ ⬪ ⬪

I nev­er liked con­fronta­tion. When I was a young boy, Nasser’s moth­er would always try to get me to fight oth­er chil­dren. I nev­er want­ed to fight. All the oth­er kids would fight just to please her and oth­er adults. They would con­stant­ly wres­tle. I could not. My aunt would try to shame me by sug­gest­ing that her daugh­ter could beat me. She prob­a­bly could. She was a tomboy then, and years lat­er, even after a mar­riage and four kids, I could swear that she was a les­bian. In a dif­fer­ent cul­ture, she would have been a true butch dyke, and a hap­py one at that.

In 1972, Nass­er and I start­ed a neigh­bor­hood soc­cer team. We called our­selves The Fire­birds, an exot­ic name. We played a cou­ple of games against oth­er teams. In what would turn out to be our last game with the team, we were play­ing against anoth­er team with an old­er boy who must have tak­en offense at the way I looked or some­thing. He want­ed me to fight him. He was cussing and harass­ing me the entire game. At one point, while the game was going on, he start­ed called me names and stood direct­ly in front of me, face-to-face, not allow­ing me to go around him. I was unsure what to do. All of a sud­den, Nass­er came out of nowhere and punched him.

I had to enter the fray. While both teams watched, and no one tried to stop any­thing, Nass­er and I beat up on this guy. I nev­er fooled myself into believ­ing that I added much to the fight. Nass­er alone could have tak­en him out. But I tried to help. I held on to one of the old­er boy’s arms so Nass­er could beat him up eas­i­er. When the dam­age was done, the rest of our team made fun of the way I had fought, limp wrist and all. That only made Nass­er more furi­ous, scream­ing at them for stand­ing around and not doing any­thing. We stopped play­ing soccer.

Ten­nis suit­ed us better.

⬪ ⬪ ⬪

I dream about Nass­er. He is a con­stant land­mark in my dreams. I even have recur­ring dreams with him in them. In one, Nass­er and I, as teenagers again, walk along until we arrive at a fork in the road. We don’t know which road to take. Each road has its own entic­ing fea­tures. We decide that he will go right and I left, and then we can tell each oth­er what it was like when we get home.

⬪ ⬪ ⬪

As a young boy, I would walk alone for hours. I would take a book and read as I walked. I would go out of the house to be by myself. I told myself sto­ries of escape. I fan­ta­sized about being some­where else.

⬪ ⬪ ⬪

One after­noon, in 1974, Nasser’s moth­er was play­ing cards at a friend’s. We skipped school. We had some hash stored up. We end­ed up in his house, on the sofa, get­ting wast­ed. The house reeked, which we thought was total­ly hilarious.

His father walked in, shock­ing the hell out of us. “Hi, boys,” he said as he went straight to the bath­room. Nass­er looked at me, shrugged, and we start­ed gig­gling. When Habib came out, he was about to leave again when he looked at his watch.

“Aren’t you boys sup­posed to be in school?” he asked.
“We’re home to do a sci­ence exper­i­ment,” Nass­er replied.
“That’s good. Okay then, I will see you boys lat­er.” He turned the door han­dle and was about to leave when his nose twitched. “What’s that smell?”
“Smell?” Nass­er asked.
“Must be the oven,” I said.
“The oven?”
“Yes,” I replied. “The sci­ence exper­i­ment was in the oven.”
“We were try­ing to dry a bird’s nest,” Nass­er added.
“Except we burned it, which is why it smells.”
“It was wet because of the rain.”
“So we put it in the oven to dry,” I went on.
“But there were no eggs, just the nest.”
“And it burned.”
“So it wasn’t a com­plete fail­ure because we fig­ured out the com­bus­tion point.”
Nasser’s father just kept nod­ding. “That’s good. I’m glad you boys are so stu­dious. Keep up the good work.” And he left.
“Com­bus­tion point?” I snick­ered. We gig­gled for a cou­ple of hours.

⬪ ⬪ ⬪

He told no one about Fred. He tried to pre­tend he did not know and nev­er saw. Nonethe­less, the wall went up. It might have seemed to the naked eye that it was the same, but since that day, it nev­er was.

⬪ ⬪ ⬪

I was there when he pro­posed to his wife, if you could call it that. Once Nass­er decid­ed he was going to get mar­ried, his moth­er began the req­ui­site search. Before Nadia, he had gone out with two girls. He flew to Beirut for both dates. They met all the cri­te­ria so he asked them out. I had heard rumors, which he denied, that he was propos­ing on the first or sec­ond date and being reject­ed. He did not deny the rejec­tion, only that he had asked so ear­ly on in the game.

With Nadia, I saw it hap­pen. It was their sec­ond date. I felt like a Lebanese mezze so I went to a restau­rant and they were both there. Nass­er could not under­stand how I would want to be alone in a pub­lic place. I had to sit with them. She was pret­ty. That was the only thing I could be sure of about her. Two hours lat­er, Nass­er was talk­ing about the time to get mar­ried. He was twen­ty-eight. She was nine­teen. He told her he would be inter­est­ed in mar­ry­ing her. She said she had to think about it.

She did look up to the ceil­ing at one point and whis­per to her­self, “Nass­er and Nadia,” and sort of nod­ded her head.

⬪ ⬪ ⬪

Years lat­er, when I brought up the over­heard con­ver­sa­tion about piano lessons, Nass­er was shocked that I still remem­bered, sur­prised that I still blamed my father. He said I final­ly left home and if it were impor­tant that I take piano lessons, I would have. He said if it were such a big deal, I should take piano lessons now. Wasn’t I the free one now?

⬪ ⬪ ⬪

A con­ver­sa­tion at the sickbed:

– You know, Nass­er was that way too. He was always grumpy when…
– I know. I know. When you both had mumps, you were put in the same room and…
– Okay, okay. I get the hint.
– And you looked like match­ing book­ends, with both your necks so swollen, and they kept you in that room for three weeks…
– I get the pic­ture. I shouldn’t have brought it up.
– And you had a won­der­ful time, both of you, even though Nass­er was grumpy at times, because he’s always grumpy when he’s sick.
– I’m sor­ry. Okay?

⬪ ⬪ ⬪

In anoth­er pic­ture, dat­ed the same in 1961, def­i­nite­ly by the same pho­tog­ra­ph­er, Nass­er and I are look­ing up, some­thing above cap­ti­vat­ing us, prob­a­bly some toy. We look longingly.

⬪ ⬪ ⬪

How old were we then, nine, ten? The ceme­tery was our favorite place. Few peo­ple went through there, so we had the place to our­selves. Our favorite grave was unsigned. It was built like a small pyra­mid with only three lay­ers of mar­ble. We tried to move the top slab numer­ous times. It was incred­i­bly heavy. As Nass­er got stronger, the mar­ble slab frus­trat­ed him more and more.

Years lat­er, after the war, I got Nass­er to come walk with me through the ceme­tery. I want­ed to see what it looked like. Explod­ed shells lit­tered the grounds. The clean-up crews had removed the mines but not the “lit­ter.” Our favourite grave was dam­aged, large holes and chips in the mar­ble, yet the slab itself was unmoved.

“How could any­body do this?” I asked rhetorically.

“I did that. One time I got real­ly angry, I came here and shot the fucker.”

⬪ ⬪ ⬪

I took him by the hand once — we could not have been more than five or six, maybe sev­en — and led him to his sister’s room. Every­body was out of the house so it was com­plete­ly safe, but still he was ner­vous. I took out all her Barbies.

“You want to play with her dolls?” he asked me.
“Yes, it’s fun.”
“What if we got caught?”
“No one will know.”
“I don’t want to play with dolls.”
“It’s ok. You can be Ken.”

⬪ ⬪ ⬪

There is a word in Lebanese that has no cor­re­spond­ing word in Eng­lish. Halash, or Yihloush, with a heavy h, means to pull hair out, or to yank someone’s hair. I always assumed that there was a Lebanese word for it, because we do it often, both to oth­er peo­ple and our­selves. All you have to do is attend a funer­al and you will see what I mean.

I began to won­der why a word did not exist in Eng­lish when I saw Nass­er pull his new­ly-wed wife’s hair and take her to the bed­room. I was vis­it­ing them in Kuwait. They had been mar­ried for about sev­en months. It was about 9:30 at night. Nass­er asked if I want­ed to get high. I agreed. Nadia had this look of utter dis­be­lief. Nass­er went into the bed­room. She fol­lowed him. I did not hear what she said, but she seemed per­turbed. I heard Nass­er say calm­ly, “What’s the big deal?”

Nass­er came out with a pipe. He lit it and gave me a hit. We both smoked. Nadia came out of the bed­room, slam­ming the door, and went into the bath­room, slam­ming the door. She obvi­ous­ly had not locked the bath­room door because Nass­er fol­low­er her and dragged her out by her hair into the bed­room. I heard a slap. Nass­er came out as if noth­ing happened.

“I guess you have not smoked in a while,” I said.
“No, it’s been a while.”
Next day, Nadia was as chip­per as ever.

⬪ ⬪ ⬪

My father grew sud­den­ly old and sad, fast, with full sail. It hap­pened in only a few months. One trip he was fine; the next, six months lat­er, he seemed engulfed in a sea of sor­rows, his face sag­ging, crushed by the bur­den of idle­ness. He had stopped work­ing between those two trips.

One time, my father sat in the den, in his chair, with Lay­la on his lap. He rocked her as she played with his sparse, white hair. She pulled a strand for­ward towards his eyes. “Ouch, you lit­tle dev­il, you,” he said, and tick­led her. She gig­gled and tried to do it again. Nass­er crouched next to my father. “Be care­ful when you do that,” he told his daugh­ter. “You don’t want to hurt Grand­pa.” He blew his daugh­ter a kiss, and seem­ing­ly uncon­scious­ly, he flicked my father’s lock of hair back in its place. My father closed his eyes.

I had to return for his funer­al two months later.

⬪ ⬪ ⬪

When Fred start­ed get­ting sick, he with­drew. I could not get through to him, did not know how to talk to him. I took care of him, but I was unable to be there for him. When he start­ed get­ting sick, I began to feel lone­ly again.

⬪ ⬪ ⬪

Nass­er and I used to play phone tricks. We were good at it. One of my all time favorites is call­ing some lady and pre­tend­ing we were phone tech­ni­cians. Nass­er would tell the woman to put her fin­ger in the num­ber four and dial. Then put it in, say, num­ber sev­en and dial. Final­ly he would tell her to put her fin­ger in her ass and dial. My oth­er favorite was call­ing the phar­ma­cies. I would call one and ask the phar­ma­cist if he had a ther­mome­ter. He would say yes, and I would tell him to shove it up his ass, then hang up. Then Nass­er would call ten min­utes lat­er and in all seri­ous­ness ask the phar­ma­cist if some kid had called a while back and told him to shove a ther­mome­ter up his ass. The phar­ma­cist would say yes in a huff. Nass­er would tell him it was time to take it out, then hang up.

⬪ ⬪ ⬪

When Nass­er got mar­ried, he began to get rounder till he final­ly achieved his final pachy­der­ma­tous heft. The last time I saw him, I realised that some­where in there was the boy I used to know. My father suc­ceed­ed in killing him­self with excess, but it took him a lot longer than Nass­er. My beau­ti­ful Nass­er was a quick­er study. He died at thir­ty-eight, a cou­ple years after my father, a cou­ple years after Fred.

⬪ ⬪ ⬪

While read­ing, I was remind­ed of a walk I took when I was much younger. Nass­er and I were in the ceme­tery. He was being his usu­al mis­chie­vous self. He chal­lenged me to throw stones at dif­fer­ent graves. He looked at a grave of a Tal­houk. “I don’t like any of them,” he said. He took his dick out and peed on the grave, on the entire fam­i­ly. “Don’t keep your mouth so open,” he said, “or I will pee in it.” He laughed.

We sat on our favorite grave, the pyra­mid. He took out his hunt­ing knife. “I have to cut you,” he said. I resist­ed. I did not under­stand why we would need actu­al blood. Wouldn’t call­ing our­selves blood broth­ers be enough? He cut the tips of my two fin­gers and put them in his mouth. He looked me in my eyes the whole time. Shiv­ers ran up my spine. I made small cuts on the tips of his fin­gers. I put them in my mouth and sucked. He let me suck on his fin­gers for as long as I wanted.

“We are now broth­ers,” he said.

 

First pub­lished in TANK ©2000 by Rabih Alamed­dine. Reprint­ed by per­mis­sion of Rabih Alamed­dine and Ara­gi Inc. All rights reserved. Spe­cial thanks to Malu Halasa.