Joumana Haddad: “Victim #232”

15 June, 2022,
Fati­ma Dia, “Ris­ing Angels” depict the Beirut Port explo­sion, acrylic on can­vas, 2020 (cour­tesy Fati­ma Dia).

 

Vic­tim #232 is a new nov­el by author Joumana Had­dad, forth­com­ing in July 2022 in Ara­bic, from Nau­fal Books. The nov­el fol­lows the life and ordeals of Hind, a young trans woman in Lebanon, whose life is cut short by the Port explo­sion in Beirut on August 4, 2020. Yet not only is Hind’s life cut short, but also the nov­el itself —a book where real­i­ty and fic­tion, writer and pro­tag­o­nist inter­twine to the point where they become one.

 

Joumana Haddad

 

Trans­lat­ed from the Ara­bic by Rana Asfour

 

It is the fourth day of August of the year two thou­sand and twen­ty. It is six o’clock eight min­utes and eigh­teen sec­onds into the evening in a city named Beirut.

This is when my nov­el stalled. This is when my hero­ine died.


How do writ­ers go about announc­ing the death of their pro­tag­o­nists? I sup­pose one could choose to go with the usu­al pre-script­ed announce­ment that begins with “In sub­mis­sion to God’s decree and pre­des­ti­na­tion, we mourn the demise of our dear­ly beloved whose young life was lam­en­ta­bly cut short, etc …” I sup­pose that could work. But what if this person’s life hadn’t been fat­ed to end so soon? What if “fate” and “pre­des­ti­na­tion” are stand-ins for a heinous crime?


I know writ­ers — a sub­stan­tial many — who have no qualms killing off their char­ac­ters once they believe that they have reached their lim­it: either by sui­cide in some roman­tic nov­els, or in a war in his­tor­i­cal ones, or by a sud­den heart attack, or any oth­er of the thou­sands upon thou­sands of pos­si­ble ways out there that come with their own thou­sands upon thou­sands of con­vinc­ing and jus­ti­fi­able rea­sons for such a move. But I know not of a sin­gle writer whose main char­ac­ter is ter­mi­nat­ed against their will and bet­ter judge­ment, with­out hav­ing any say in the mat­ter. And there’s worse yet. I know not of a sin­gle writer whose main character’s death takes place as the result of an “out­side of the nov­el” event! Essen­tial­ly, what hap­pens due to such a heinous, incred­u­lous state of affairs boils down to noth­ing short of a betrayed writer.


How many were killed in the August 4, 2020 explo­sion in the port of Beirut? Many sources con­firm that up until April 4, 2022 — the date of plac­ing the final full stop at the end of the last sen­tence of this nov­el – the count stood at 231 vic­tims, the last of whom was Rita Antoine Har­di­ni, who died on the evening of Sat­ur­day, March 26, 2022, suc­cumb­ing to her excru­ci­at­ing injuries after approx­i­mate­ly one year and eight months on arti­fi­cial respiration.

Every­one agrees that this num­ber is not final, as many indi­vid­u­als remain unac­count­ed for. Vic­tims scat­tered, in pieces, at sea, allud­ing the efforts and hopes of search par­ties des­per­ate to locate them. Then there are the wound­ed, the liv­ing dead, who may, per­ish the thought, yet make it onto the mar­tyrs’ list.

And yet, the Lebanese Min­istry of Health decid­ed to cease the count on Sep­tem­ber 3, 2020 lock­ing the num­ber in at 191. After all, it would seem that to our “illus­tri­ous” gov­ern­ment and its “ven­er­a­ble” insti­tu­tions and their “hon­or­able pub­lic ser­vants” count­ing out and writ­ing down all the names is a long and ardu­ous process. Besides, how could adding one more name or even sub­tract­ing one oth­er pos­si­bly make a dif­fer­ence to a gov­ern­ment who looks upon its con­gre­ga­tion as a mere fig­u­ra­tive num­ber devoid of indi­vid­u­al­i­ty or val­ue? A num­ber, mind you, that is sub­stan­tial­ly insignif­i­cant to the ones that make up the val­ue of our lead­ers’ bank accounts and the sums they hold, the bil­lions they loot­ed from the peo­ple and smug­gled abroad. A num­ber def­i­nite­ly not as impor­tant as that of their “enti­tled” posi­tions such as par­lia­men­tary seats, min­is­te­r­i­al port­fo­lios, pub­lic office jobs, mil­i­tary rank­ings, and oth­ers, that each of these sup­pos­ed­ly “out­stand­ing pub­lic ser­vants” accord them­selves depend­ing on their “weight” in our coun­try — the sor­did sway they have to dis­rupt and/or intim­i­date this unfor­tu­nate land. A num­ber not even as sig­nif­i­cant as the one that makes up their lux­u­ry cars (the small­er the num­ber on the plate, the big­ger the boost to their pal­try egos), the count of their black jeeps with dark­ened win­dows parad­ed in end­less pro­ces­sions, nor the body­guards and mem­bers of their entourage, the non­stop ass lick­ers and strut­ters, who indulge them. Like all unlaw­ful ban­dits they share the spoils and yet unlike the worst of those thieves, they rob lives. Shame on them!

No mat­ter! Mov­ing along. It’s also not uncom­mon for the media to round up the num­bers of the injured, or killed, when report­ing on any dis­as­ter, there­by adding insult to injury. When an arti­cle or tele­vised news bul­letin reports that an explo­sion killed more than two hun­dred peo­ple, does the esteemed edi­tor real­ize that exclud­ed vic­tim #201 may be a son to a moth­er whose heart has been eter­nal­ly crushed? Does the broad­cast­er under­stand that #202 may be a father to a child who will nev­er again address his “dad­dy”? Does it occur to any one of them that #203 had been some­one’s girl­friend, or sis­ter? They are not a num­ber. I repeat, they are not mere num­bers. The least we can do about the death of the inno­cent is to hon­or them indi­vid­u­al­ly rather than lob them into one shame­ful collective.

So, again, how many peo­ple were killed in the August 4, 2020 explo­sion in the Port of Beirut? Regard­less of the num­ber you choose to believe, I urge you to add one more. Her name was Hind.


Hind, or Abbas as record­ed in her offi­cial gov­ern­ment ID card, was born in the vil­lage of Bli­da in south­ern Lebanon in April 1996, on a day that, accord­ing to her moth­er Inam, coin­cid­ed with the first Qana mas­sacre. She was young with big dreams, liv­ing hand to mouth with­in lim­it­ed means. At six o’clock, sev­en min­utes and forty-three sec­onds on Tues­day, August 4, 2020, she appeared on my com­put­er screen, knock­ing on a door in a dilap­i­dat­ed build­ing in a mod­est neigh­bor­hood in the cap­i­tal. At that pre­cise moment, an ini­tial explo­sion occurred in the port, the sound of which could be heard in the entire vicin­i­ty of Beirut, its echoes rever­ber­at­ing all the way to the out­skirts of the city. Exact­ly thir­ty-five sec­onds lat­er, accord­ing to the time­line of events on Wikipedia, a sec­ond, apoc­a­lyp­tic, omi­nous explo­sion occurred, killing Hind Jaber on the spot. Only sec­onds before, she’d been about to greet her neigh­bor, Tygest, and for the first time in her life, she’d been ecsta­t­ic with joy after receiv­ing news that she would final­ly escape the hell­ish life she was liv­ing. “Tomor­row,” she was hap­pi­ly reas­sur­ing her­self, “would be anoth­er day.” Alas, that tomor­row would nev­er come for Hind, nor any oth­er. Our tomor­rows, too, have dimin­ished to replay­ing out that infer­nal day like a bro­ken record stuck on notes of lamentation.

To be clear, I’m not sur­prised you hadn’t ever heard of this victim’s name before today, nei­ther in news­pa­pers nor on the radio or TV. I am the only one who knew Hind. No one has ever heard of her or met her. No one knew her secrets, thoughts and dreams.

When the artist, Brady Black, drew pic­tures of the vic­tims and hung them in the cen­ter of Beirut — like Abel’s eyes star­ing at the con­science of a ser­i­al killer — I use­less­ly scrolled each one in the hope of locat­ing Hind’s beau­ti­ful face even though I already knew she wouldn’t be among them, cog­nizant she lay shroud­ed in my con­science where no more harm could ever again reach her. And yet, if I’d known how to draw, I would’ve placed her sketch nes­tled between those of the two vic­tims I’m cer­tain would have embraced her and eased her pain: that of four-year-old Alexan­dra, and fif­teen-year-old Elias, the two faces that sum up all those star­ing back at me and whose smiles reside in the house of my tears.

Indeed, no one knew Hind except me. No one report­ed her dis­ap­pear­ance or announced her death. With no body found it was as if she nev­er were. But she was. She real­ly was. Just ask me! You see, I cre­at­ed her, cell by cell and inch by inch, through the images in my mind and the clicks of my fin­gers. I’ve been there from when she was a baby crawl­ing towards its demise, to the embod­i­ment of the woman she would lat­er ful­ly real­ize. Hind, the trans woman who despite her short life had lived her fair share of aches and pains, repeat­ed­ly “killed” because she was dif­fer­ent. A state not of her choice, but rather, imposed on her by a soci­ety so ter­ri­fied of dif­fer­ence that it cow­ard­ly choos­es hatred, ostracism, bul­ly­ing, and racism to deal with its fear and igno­rance. Hind, who loved Dal­i­da, Sabah and Rush­di Abaza, and hat­ed war, loud voic­es and lab­neh sand­wich­es. She, of the mea­gre means who loved the col­or pink and always dreamt of glid­ing over the sea, was bat­tered by life. Yet, bruised and blood­ied she still chose love and help­ing those in need.

Chance — although quite pos­si­bly objec­tiv­i­ty or serendip­i­ty — would have it that the tem­po­rary title I had cho­sen for my nov­el had been Al-Maslakh (The Slaugh­ter­house). On the one hand it was in ref­er­ence to the name of the neigh­bor­hood in which Hind lived, and on the oth­er, it stood as a painful metaphor for those coun­tries that relent­less­ly slough flesh off our bones and hope from our souls. Was I being pre­scient? Was I fol­low­ing a hunch? Was I cursed? I can­not say. All I know is that all along my plan was for Hind to tri­umph over life’s repeat­ed flay­ings. I want­ed for her both an end and a begin­ning, in which she would final­ly able to break free from the grip of an unjust soci­ety. And yet, it was not des­tined to be. Hind slipped out of the trap­pings of my imag­i­na­tion, only to fall into the clutch­es of a cru­el and painful reality.

I’ll share with you anoth­er ter­ri­ble coin­ci­dence. The Al-Maslakh neigh­bor­hood, which as I’d men­tioned before, I’d cho­sen as my protagonist’s neigh­bor­hood, is in fact a real place, locat­ed in an area called Karan­ti­na, fac­ing the Port of Beirut. Sub­se­quent­ly, after the dev­as­tat­ing and crim­i­nal August 4 explo­sion, it was one of the hard­est hit neigh­bor­hoods in Beirut. I’d cho­sen this par­tic­u­lar area pre­cise­ly because of a per­son­al child­hood mem­o­ry which took place dur­ing the time of the Lebanese Civ­il War, when a mili­tia­man force­ful­ly broke into our apart­ment, locat­ed on the fifth floor of a build­ing over­look­ing the Charles Helou high­way, at the begin­ning of Arme­nia Street in Bourj Ham­moud, from the side of the Beirut Riv­er. Our bal­cony boast­ed the best view out onto most of the Karan­ti­na. I was bare­ly six years old at the time, and before my moth­er, amidst the chaos, fear, and con­fu­sion, dragged me into the safe­ty of the inte­ri­or rooms of the apart­ment, I saw with my own eyes how the sniper sta­tioned him­self in the right cor­ner of our bal­cony and start­ed tak­ing aim before open­ing fire on those below. Lat­er, from my par­ents’ whis­pers, I was able to gath­er that he had been hunt­ing down the Pales­tini­ans with­in the Karan­ti­na neighborhood.

It wasn’t until I was an adult that I read of the hor­rif­ic mas­sacres that had tak­en place in that area in 1976, at the hands of the Pha­langes and oth­er rightwing Chris­t­ian mili­tias, and that I was able to con­nect the dots to ful­ly under­stand that the damned sniper who had invad­ed our bal­cony had been one of those criminals.

Lit­tle by lit­tle and the more I learnt of the atroc­i­ties that had tak­en place against hun­dreds of inno­cent peo­ple dur­ing that time, a feel­ing of guilt would seize me, a guilt that although sub­tle and buried deep inside of me, was as inces­sant and loud as a moth’s flap­ping wings. I knew, even then, that it was irra­tional and illog­i­cal, but that knowl­edge did noth­ing to assuage my anx­i­ety. The guilt per­sist­ed, as if I myself, or some­one in my fam­i­ly, had been pulling the trig­ger that day. I still can’t pass the build­ing in which I grew up in with­out look­ing up and see­ing the ghost of that killer crouched on our balcony.

I spit on that war and all oth­ers, as I think of the stench they leave in their wake. A putrid­ness we are unable to shed no mat­ter how hard we each try to expel the demons that fes­ter with­in us.

In short, my choice of the Al-Maslakh neigh­bor­hood was not ran­dom. Aside from the fact that I am very drawn — one could say “exclu­sive­ly” drawn — to the worlds of the mar­gin­al­ized and the oppressed in life, espe­cial­ly the female ones, and that it is from the lat­ter that I draw my ener­gy and inspi­ra­tion, the choice of Al-Maslakh is also my attempt to atone for this invent­ed, imag­ined and delu­sion­al guilt. It could also be an excuse to sat­is­fy my patho­log­i­cal, nar­cis­sis­tic and urgent need to be direct­ly and per­son­al­ly involved in my books. This, if you will, is the fuel that ignites my writ­ing. In fact, all my works to date have been a series of either per­son­al exca­va­tions into my inter­nal psy­che or attempts to atone for my sins — deserved or not — with some endeav­ors more suc­cess­ful than others.

I’d like you to linger with me a lit­tle while longer on the word ‘slaugh­ter­house’ — Doesn’t it seem a befit­ting word to describe the events on August 4th? Some things nev­er seem to change, do they? Two mas­sacres, forty-five years apart, and almost noth­ing changed on this land. The grudges, the mis­ery, the dis­ap­point­ments and the dodgy deals haven’t changed, nei­ther has the exor­bi­tant price that tags along with them – the exclu­sive stake, it would seem, for the down­trod­den and inno­cent to bear. Dif­fer­ent sides of the same coin: a geo­graph­i­cal curse called Lebanon.

Besides, isn’t the entire coun­try, in fact, noth­ing but a suc­cess­ful metaphor for a large slaugh­ter­house cov­er­ing an area of ​​10,452 square kilo­me­ters? Look and observe: one day you’ll find us hang­ing from hooks by the mil­lions, old and young, women and men, the sage and the igno­rant, forests and rivers, towns and cities, sur­round­ed exclu­sive­ly by butchers.


It is the fourth day of August of the year two thou­sand and twen­ty. It is six o’clock eight min­utes and eigh­teen sec­onds into the evening in a city named Beirut.

This is when the main char­ac­ter dies. This is when the author steps into her novel.

The moment the har­row­ing dis­as­ter struck, the writer had been at home. A house on a street par­al­lel to the Ring cross­road, less than a kilo­me­ter away from the Port of Beirut. In a flash, the house seemed to dis­in­te­grate all around her and it seemed as if her soul would fol­low suit. Imme­di­ate­ly, the world became one made of a mil­lion shards of bro­ken glass, black dust, and twirling wood­en doors rain­ing down on every­one. It was sheer unadul­ter­at­ed ter­ror. A brief daunt­ing silence ensued before throats clogged with shock, released wave upon wave of howls that were accom­pa­nied by the cacoph­o­ny of blar­ing car sirens. The writer placed her hands above her head and screamed, “There’s more, there’s more,” ini­tial­ly assum­ing that the cap­i­tal was under an aer­i­al bomb attack.

Final­ly the writer found the strength to get up and she ran, pan­icked, to check on her loved ones. Luck­i­ly, her fam­i­ly mem­bers had made it out alive. As she phoned friends and fam­i­ly, she was told that a mas­sive explo­sion had tak­en place.

It was then that she stepped out­side her apartment.

What she wit­nessed were tens, hun­dreds, thou­sands of men, women and chil­dren stum­bling around the streets, with dazed faces, try­ing, like her, in vain, to under­stand what? How? And why? She glimpsed a head miss­ing its tor­so peak­ing from the wreck­age. A lit­tle girl’s head, per­haps, in a final smile at her moth­er. Child­hood ter­rors of liv­ing through the country’s Civ­il War assault­ed her thoughts. That child could have been her, this head could have been hers. But, yet again, forty-five years on, she’d been spared. “Why?” she thought “And for what pur­pose?” if sur­viv­ing, in Lebanon, meant a trag­ic far­ci­cal mas­quer­ade at living.

She tries to fight the mem­o­ry down and yet it refus­es to release its grip on her mind. It feels as if two hands were relent­less­ly pulling at a noose, tight­en­ing around her neck. For a split moment, she is on the point of suf­fo­cat­ing before the hands still and she is left in lim­bo, sus­pend­ed between two hells.

Even­tu­al­ly the writer returned to what was left of her home. She looked around, grabbed a broom and start­ed sweep­ing. She does not know whether she is scrap­ing up shards of glass, or ash­es from her burnt out soul, or the taste of death lin­ger­ing on her tongue. For now, it is the only thing she can do to come to terms with the hor­ror that has tak­en place lest some­thing explode inside her and kill her. Lat­er, she would real­ize that when every­one had grabbed their brooms and tak­en to the streets, they too had done so out of an instinct for sur­vival that drove them to keep busy, keep­ing the inten­si­ty of their emo­tions at bay, lest it com­plete­ly over­whelmed and destroyed them.

Fol­low­ing the first weeks of the explo­sion, after the peo­ple of Beirut man­aged to crawl their way out of the har­row­ing pit they’d been thrown into (although, whether some of us are will­ing to admit it or not, in real­i­ty no one has tru­ly been able to free them­selves com­plete­ly from under the rub­ble and human remains), the writer plugged in her com­put­er and switched it on. Imag­ine her sur­prise when she dis­cov­ered that no harm had befall­en it. She locat­ed The Slaugh­ter­house file where she’d saved it on her desk­top. She’d begun writ­ing, or birthing, this nov­el about a year ago, yet slow­ly and painstak­ing­ly, as if unwill­ing to share her baby with the world yet. It wasn’t until the rev­o­lu­tion of Octo­ber 17, 2019 that her writ­ing picked up dri­ve when she, and many oth­ers like her, were charged with an ener­gy born of a col­lec­tive sense of hope.

She clicked on the Word doc­u­ment and set­tled her­self in front of the screen, ready to write. It may have been hours that she sat there, motion­less, that day. Time spent star­ing at the last para­graph she’d writ­ten before every­thing had gone to Hell, the last word trun­cat­ed in its mid­dle star­ing back at her. Hours more passed. “What are you wait­ing for?” she asked her­self.  Was she hop­ing for a sign from Hind? “Hey, Joumana,” she’d say, “I’m here. Come on! let’s get on with my sto­ry. There’s yet so much I need to say and do.” And, yet, except for the lin­ger­ing death­ly still­ness, like the one that over­comes a deer at the moment it knows it is going to be killed by the leop­ard lung­ing towards it, noth­ing was happening.

In the days that fol­lowed, the writer would do much of the same. A dai­ly rit­u­al in which she’d sit, open her lap­top, and wait. Not once did she reach for the key­board, or muster enough courage to com­plete the trun­cat­ed word, where it remained dimin­ished, a glar­ing proof of the blow that had stalled its com­ple­tion mid­way much like a shriek cut short, sus­pend­ed in time. A divid­ing line between what was before and what came after the crime: the slow death, the pierc­ing despair, and the com­plete darkness.

One night bleed­ing into another.

And so it was that for what seemed like the longest time, the writer wait­ed for her silent char­ac­ter to speak, all the time per­sist­ing in the belief that Hind may yet be alive — for no per­son deserved to die in that way. More­over, the writer was unwill­ing to give up her pro­tag­o­nist or to let her go with­out a fight. And so, in a bid to reach some kind of res­o­lu­tion, she tried sev­er­al oth­er things in addi­tion to deny­ing Hind’s death: she even tried to per­form mouth-to-mouth to breathe new life into her protagonist’s lungs. But alas, all her efforts proved fruit­less and it grad­u­al­ly dawned on her that Hind, in fact, might be gone for­ev­er. And with this real­iza­tion, the betrayed writer had to begrudg­ing­ly lay her char­ac­ter to rest and bid farewell to the only mem­ber of her fam­i­ly who per­ished in the explo­sion that day.

It was dur­ing the writer’s mourn­ing peri­od that she real­ized that Hind, in fact, not only stood in for the part of her that had died too on August 4, 2020 but that she also rep­re­sent­ed Beirut, or at least the part of Beirut that had died on that fate­ful day which no amount of recon­struc­tion could ever bring back, nor any phoenix rise from its ash­es, and no Lebanese, could, how­ev­er eter­nal­ly resilient they are famed to be, evoke a resurrection.

With her death, Hind had tak­en away the part of the writer’s heart that had cre­at­ed her, mak­ing it impos­si­ble to com­plete the book. After a year and eight months, drained of oxy­gen, ener­gy, phys­i­cal, psy­cho­log­i­cal, and men­tal capac­i­ty, the writer had no alter­na­tive but to con­cede defeat, and admit that the nov­el would only ever exist in the world as a trun­cat­ed one, an amputee.

And so with that, com­ple­tion of this nov­el falls to you, the read­er, to dri­ve it towards an end­ing that your imag­i­na­tion or mood sees fit. And why not? We are all born defi­cient, amputees in one form or the oth­er, adrift, sev­ered from and deprived of who we real­ly are or could have been. We come into exis­tence on this Earth with­out will or say, each of us bear­ing our death with­in us. All the time tick­ing like a time bomb. Like Ammo­ni­um Nitrate.


April 4, 2022.

Here this sto­ry ends, or more accu­rate­ly, here new ones begin .

See you then in the next novel.

 

Al-MaslakhBeirut port explosionKarantinaLebanon

Joumana Haddad is an award-winning Lebanese poet, novelist, journalist and human rights activist. She was the cultural editor of An-Nahar newspaper for numerous years, and she now hosts a TV show focusing on human rights issues in the Arab world. She is the founder and director of the Joumana Haddad Freedoms Center, an organization promoting human rights values in Lebanese youth, as well as the founder and editor in chief of JASAD magazine, a first of its kind publication focused on the literature, arts and politics of the body in the Arab world. She has been repeatedly selected as one of the world’s 100 most influential Arab women. Joumana has published more than 15 books in different genres, which have been widely translated and published around the world. Amongst these are The Return of LilithI Killed Scheherazade and Superman is an ArabThe Book of Queens is her latest novel, published in 2022 by Interlink.

Rana Asfour is a freelance writer, book critic and translator. Her work has appeared in such publications as Madame Magazine, The Guardian UK and The National/UAE. She blogs at BookFabulous.com and is TMR's Book Editor, culling and assigning new titles for review. Rana also chairs the TMR English-language BookGroup, which meets online the last Sunday of every month. She tweets @bookfabulous.