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A Normal Way to Live

It seems absurd now that we were house hunting—after days and nights in the stairwell during artillery battles, after the sniper’s bullets made little puffs of smoke as they struck the pavement around my speeding car, after staring into the black barrel of a gun, without breathing, until an incredulous militiaman lowered it and said, “I almost killed you!”

Thirty thousand Syrian soldiers were occupying Lebanon—bivouacked under pine trees along mountain roads and in confiscated, battle-scarred apartments on city streets, controlling all movement with their roadblocks and rifles and tanks. In 1976 they had intervened in the fighting between Lebanese militias and aliens camped in Lebanese territory, rescuing the Christian forces that had been nearly overwhelmed by the Palestinians. Then they had settled down, claiming to be peacekeepers, and since then we couldn’t leave home without encountering them, slouched in the middle of the road, beside little huts decorated with their black, white and green flag and pictures of Hafez al-Assad. With bored faces and lazy gestures, they obstructed traffic, cost us valuable time, made everybody angry. They had become the butt of all the best jokes, though they could shoot us or make us disappear.

My work could not be done just sitting in an office. It could not even be done staying on the mountain where both my home and office were located. Frequently I had to go down the hill to Beirut. Keeping safe on this or any trip required up-to-date information, because a drive of a few miles would take me, not just past the Syrians but through the turf of several armies or militias.

Beirut’s one million souls crammed into about seventeen square miles, depending on where the lines were drawn through the suburbs. A more complex city would have been hard to find. Some of its maps named seventy communities within its roughly rectangular space. These areas were like villages, with cultures and accents and vocabularies that distinguished them from one another.

The streets were not laid out for the comfort of strangers. They angled across one another, plunging into bewildering intersections with no lights and no lanes or losing themselves in clogged traffic circles. Sometimes they split into one-way alleys lined with parked cars and peddlers’ carts, and often they curved around hills or cemeteries or old structures that stood in their way.

Back in the lovely days of the early seventies these streets fascinated me. It was interesting to cross a street and find another language or religion or political persuasion. In the atmosphere of war these same streets terrified me, their slashing patterns and manifold divisions expressing the political milieu. One could cross the street and suddenly be in enemy territory. Added to all that, a scary no-man’s land stretched through the middle of the city, dividing West and East Beirut. The Lebanese called this the fire line; the western press called it the Green Line. I saw a lot of fire there, but green was scarce. Some areas of the no-man’s land were reduced to gray piles of stone. In others the buildings were standing but riddled and gutted, empty like skulls, black inside, but still holding the heart-stopping memory of beauty and life. It was a barrier, a buffer, and a desert in the middle of the city. I got a knot in my stomach every time I drove through it.

Mostly, Beirut was a rowdy city, with shouts and loud bartering, music with stirring rhythms, and laughter and clanging and screeching and beeping—constant beeping, along with color and jaywalking and sudden dangerous disobedience of the rules—a child chasing a soccer ball, a car double-parked or pushing upstream against the traffic. And abruptly there was the Green Line with its scary absence of all this commotion.

On the way to the press, I drove past the magnificent houses of Ashrafieh, with their tall pointed windows and decorative iron grilles, their gardens enclosed by stone walls. Big trees sheltered the street that narrowed and curved, and then the traffic dropped away and I was in a quiet, lonely place. Up ahead huge metal containers, stacked one on top of another formed a wall, shielding this East Beirut street from the West.

One day two young men with guns stood in that part of the street, lifting their hands to stop me. These were Kata’ib militiamen, Christian boys, cordial and concerned, and I felt glad to see them. I told them I was going to Calfat Press and asked, “Is it O.K.?”

One of them said, “Yes, but don’t go any farther. If you go three meters past the door of the print shop you may get shot.”

I took time to think about that, because this was a one-way street and usually I would return by making a right turn around the next corner and drive for a hundred meters just beside the Boulevard Fouad Chehab.

“Come back on this street,” the boy told me, pointing at the ground under his feet.

“A sniper,” the other one explained, and gestured to show me the approximate location of the gunman. By that time I was more afraid of a sniper than I was of big artillery. Sniper fire could be very personal.

I parked in front of the press, and had a good view of Fouad Chehab, a wide divided road, a big city thoroughfare, empty, controlled perhaps by just one man with a gun.

Stepping within two meters of the sniper’s vision, still protected by the building across the street, I entered the shop and its distinctive atmosphere, its waves of warmth and energy, its smell of sweat and metal and ink, its tinkling and clacking and roaring and thudding and the crunching of the big trimmer through five hundred sheets of paper. All these busy men had gotten there the same way I had. Edmon, the shop foreman, looked up and greeted me without surprise, convincing me that the world was in order and I was not crazy.

Edmon used a roller to ink a galley of type and then pressed a piece of paper against it. I checked the proof, drank a cup of coffee with Mr. Calfat, asked about his children, answered questions about mine, got the latest estimate on when my work would be ready and came out again.

As soon as I shut the door the whomp and clack of the presses were gone, and a few meters to my right the wide road was empty and the city as quiet as death. For an instant the true state of the world was a surprise, a terrifying surprise, and I froze, staring at the faces of the buildings in front of me, flat and gray like the pavement, their windows shuttered. In the whole visible world nobody was home. With my skin prickling, I got into my car, backed away from the curb, turned around in the narrow street and drove toward Sassine Square against the pointing arrow, as the militiamen had instructed me. They waved at me as I passed.

I wrote it all down, though not in a letter home. One had to protect people who were far away and not equipped to understand that this could be a normal way to live and, like anywhere else, one had to find a suitable house.