“The City Within”—fiction from MK Harb

2 July, 2023
After two years of living in isolation, a man in Beirut steps out of his home to a life-changing encounter.


MK Harb           


At midnight, a voice spoke to Alwan and asked him to go to the sea. “You will understand better when you are near water,” it said. He had not left his house in two years, living like a hermit, reading and rereading every book he saved from his graduate school years and opening his door only to delivery boys and pharmacy representatives. Tonight, he decided to face Beirut.

Alwan opened his living-room door and the humidity of August wafted in, carrying with it a stagnant aroma. He walked down the stairs, stopping for a moment to look through the cracked stone window of the second floor. It had ten holes shaped as stars, three of which were littered with cigarette butts and the rest filtered a view of Beirut. He gazed at the Ain el-Mreisseh Mosque lit up in green fairy lights. He remembered Jamileh, a beggar who lived off sardines and Nescafé from the Palace Café, and wondered if she had passed during those two years.

He stepped outside and witnessed a city remade without light. He walked across sidewalks littered with rubber tree leaves and shattered glass and as he passed the Ahwet El Jamal he remembered the smells of each decade he had lived through. The first was filled with the perfume of double-apple shisha as well as Estée Lauder’s “White Linen,” a staple for socialites of that time. The second decade was ripe with the smell of basil as the ahwe attempted a rebirth as an haute-Mediterranean restaurant. The third decade was full of frankincense, burned by a financier from Dubai who transformed the ahwe into a boutique hotel with an Oriental charm.

He stood in front of Uncle Deek, a corner on which many Beirutis drank the remains of the day through diluted espressos. He crossed the road towards the Corniche and saw a man selling pink and blue balloons to no clients in sight. Next to him, a woman smoking a cigarette sent a voice text to her daughter. “Ana ‘al-baher, dayeq khelqeh” — “I’m feeling a bit uneasy so I’m having a cigarette by the Corniche” she said. Her eyes were as green as the sea, and her voice as still as the night sky. He jumped over the blue metal beams and walked down the stairs towards the beach. He crossed a small fishermen’s port, still guarded by two metal dolphins, now rotted from the sun. One of the dolphin’s noses had worn away, its lips expanded, which caused its face to bear a militant laugh.

He walked over the pebbled shore covered with Pepsi cans and cracked seashells. There were a few open sea urchins, which made Alwan smile knowingly, happy that some Beirutis were still enjoying the native delicacies of the Mediterranean. He sat facing the water and waited for the voice to speak again. He wondered why it had asked him to come here, and what it wanted from him. He remembered the last time he had swum in this part of Beirut; he was fifteen, dazzled by the sun and the promise of summer. He battled a few waves to return to the shore, and in between the largest wave he met an Arab tourist, a regular to the city who, after gulping a bit of water, asked him: Do you know where the party is? Alwan pointed to the Riviera Hotel close by, and the man thanked him and left.

Alwan enjoyed the silence. He listened to the world for the first time in a long while. Shortly afterwards, a voice asked him from a distance: “What brings you here at midnight?” Alwan looked behind him and saw a well-built man sitting on a Persian prayer rug. He looked wet, as if he had just returned from a swim.

“I often come here at night,” Alwan said.

“Funny, I always come here, and I have not seen you,” the man said as he stood and walked closer.

“Well, with the electricity these days, do you ever truly see anyone?” Alwan replied.

The man laughed, sat next to Alwan and offered him a sea urchin.

“Toutia?” Alwan said.

“Yes,” the man replied. “I buy them from a few of the divers around sunset. It has the grimy taste of the coast.” He slurped it like an oyster. Alwan did not ask the man who he was and what he did, but he caught a Syrian accent and enjoyed his friendliness.

“Do you know the difference between willpower and love?” the man asked.

“I don’t believe I ever thought about that,” Alwan replied.

“Well, for me, desire is to lack something. Like when you slave away at a day job and dream of a less intense future. Finishing work early, going for a walk, fucking whenever you want, you know,” he said.

“I wish I did, but I haven’t fucked in a few years,” Alwan replied. The man laughed. “And what about love?” Alwan asked.

“That’s an easy answer; love is the sea.”

Now Alwan laughed. “I am not sure if the sea is love, but for me it is certain that the sea is a mother,” he said.

The man nodded. “Don’t you think it’s strange that we are talking about the sea while we’re on land? We should go in for a swim.” The man proceeded to get naked. Alwan stared at his torso, admiring its chiseled beauty. He decided to get naked himself, and walked with the man towards the sea.

Once their shoulders were underwater, the man stared at Alwan, swallowing him with his eyes, and said: “Now we will understand better.” They swam together for what seemed to be hours, until their legs grew fatigued and they stood in the shallows, staring at the palm trees that dwarfed Beirut’s sky. The man held Alwan’s right hand, generating a warmth that moved across their bodies. It was a luxuriant moment, and they both appreciated it in silence.

They returned to the shore and decided to sleep on the man’s rug. A few hours later an oppressive sunlight crept onto Alwan’s eyes, and he awoke. He found himself lying there alone on the prayer rug, a toutia clenched tightly in his left fist. He looked for the man, who was nowhere in sight. Some fishermen had begun to descend along the coast. One of them, wearing a red hat, offered a few pieces of bread to the rusted dolphins. Alwan, in his clothes, stood up and inhaled the daytime. He walked back towards his house with confidence, as if he had been flung out of the sea.

When he arrived, he left his door open, intending to always let the city in.


Mohamad Khalil (MK) Harb is a writer in Beirut. He received his graduate degree in Middle Eastern Studies from Harvard University in 2018 where he wrote an award-winning thesis on escapism in Beirut. MK currently serves as Editor-at-Large for Lebanon at Asymptote Journal, commissioning and writing pieces relating to Arab literature in translation. His fiction and nonfiction work has been published in The White Review, The Bombay Review, BOMB Magazine, The Times Literary Supplement, Hyperallergic, Art Review Asia, Asymptote, Scroope Journal and Jadaliyya. He is currently working on a collection of short stories pertaining to the Arabian Peninsula.

Arab fictionBeirutChance Encountersfictionqueershort stories

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