Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Subliminal Sorrows: 6,138 miles away and thirty-seven years later.

I was around ten years old, when I last saw Muhammad, my best friend in fifth grade. Smart, but not nerdy, he had a magnetic presence, and an endearing personality. During recess, I orbited around him while he read novels. Muhammad was, who I now identify, a youth destined for big things in life.

A year after the Lebanese civil war—triggered by the Israeli-Palestinian conflict— broke out in 1975, Muhammad died. Deeper in West Beirut, on the Muslim side, a stray bullet struck his head. He had never fired a round in his life.

The surround of Muhammad’s death haunted me. Fifteen years later, I immigrated to the USA. He popped in my head frequently. Eventually, I resolved to attend to the gripping feeling of sorrow.

I called my family in Lebanon, sent emails, and Facebooked old friends searching for his family. Finally, I reached his older brother, Maher. Last year, around noon on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, he answered his cell phone.

I said, “I am Sam Wazan. I ... I am calling—"

“I know who you are.” He said. “You are my brother’s best friend.”

His instant recollection of my name tied my tongue. I labored with words, but got to it.

“Muhammad never left my mind. I am sorry I don’t mean to stir up old feelings, but I need to tell you that I am sorry that I never reached out before. You know, I ... I was too young to knock on your door to pay my respect. I didn’t know better. I just want to tell you that I am sorry about your loss.”

“No worries. I understand,” Maher said.

“I know it has been decades, but I need to ask you—“

“It’s OK! It is always like yesterday for us. My mother talks about him in the present tense. In her mind, he is with us. His pictures are everywhere in our home.”

“I understand. I mean ... I don’t, but I get it. Can you please tell me exactly what happened?” I desperately sought to superimpose words, images, and color on the bleakest visualizations of Muhammad’s demise.

Maher changed the subject. I reckoned he struggled pouring his heart out on demand. “What do you do for living?” he asked.

“What I do is not making a living now. I am a man who wants to catalyze peace—”

“Do you have a job?”

“Not exactly! I wrote a novel, and I want to dedicate it to Muhammad.”

“What is it about?”

I explained the intent, not the content.

After about twenty minutes, he said, “We will be honored to have Muhammad’s name on it."

“I really need to know about Muhammad’s last moments.”

“You remember my brother was first in the class?”

“I remember a lot.” I shared all my recollections of Muhammad. The silence on the other end was awkward.

“Do you remember at the beginning of the war when schools shut down?” he asked. 

“Of course!” I had lived in the newly formed combat zone that split Beirut into the Muslim and Christian sides. At that time, I had fell under the spell of the militiamen and modeled them. I had roamed the streets, twenty yards from our building, and flaunted a shot gun and a box of cartridges that dangled from my belt. The kids in the neighborhood orbited around me.

Maher continued, “It was around eleven in the morning on a sunny day in June of 1976. He had finished reading the entire book collection at home. He told Mama that he was going to our aunt’s home to borrow more books. At home, we heard faded gun battles. You remember how intense the Holiday Inn battles were?”

“Of course, I do.”

“Well. Mama worried. She asked me to go find Muhammad and bring him home. I went looking for him. I saw him playing soccer with two kids. You know how it was. Street kids clear out trash and make soccer fields.”

“Yes. I remember."

“It surprised me that he played along. He was either too bored or maybe the two kids coerced him. You know, Mama and Baba never allowed us to take to the streets. So, I shouted at him, ‘Your mother will be upset. We have to get back inside.’ He turned to me and instantly dropped to the ground. ‘Get up! You are on the trash. It is not funny.’ He didn’t move. It was strange. He wasn’t a prankster. ‘Mama will be upset. You are messing your clothes.’ I approached and nudged him. One of the two kids shouted, ‘Oh! My Allah! Blood ... There is blood on his hair.’ ‘Look ...look ... blood ,’ the two kids shouted in unison. I examined their faces fishing for the looks of sarcasm. They looked ashen. I walked about Muhammad and saw blood seeping from the crown of his head.”

I detected a crack in Maher’s voice. I felt my throat harden. I lost my concentration. He continued saying things like, “It seemed that the entire world closed in above me. My mother, neighbors, and people took to the balconies. You know the fire department in Tarik El-Jadidah, right?”

“Yes, of course!” I snapped out of my stupor.

“It was close to our home. Firemen rushed. I screamed, ‘Muhammad! Mama! Muhammad!’ A man rushed out of a building. He wore a white tank top. I watched him lift Muhammad’s lifeless body and whisk him to his white VW beetle. A fireman jumped in with him and they sped off.

Mama arrived at the scene. She shrieked while my father barraged me with questions. I was in shock. Muhammad was taken to the Barbeer hospital at noon that day. We chased after the VW car. We arrived to the hospital. There, Muhammad was unconscious. A bullet penetrated his skull and lodged in his brain. At 12 that night, he opened his eyes, smiled at Baba, and drew his last breath.”

“May Allah curse the war and all who fight,” I said over and over while my mind raced. How many more mothers should suffer the loss of their children and future generations live with sorrow before the peace challenged leaders get it? That their post-war peace agreements do not re-grow severed limbs and resurrect the dead. I held my peace. 

True to our Middle Eastern upbringing, Maher jailed his emotions, but as we said our good byes, I heard that same crack in his voice. I put the phone down. 6,138 miles away and thirty-seven years later, I cried.

The brother's name was changed to hide his identity.