In the comfort and quiet of my sitting room in Montreal I watch the late night news about the riots in UK. I watch as hooded youths burn and thrash the streets of London. I watch images of shops and homes burning and residents cowering in their homes. Cars burning on the streets, men trying to defend their property beaten to death. Among the looters were children, two of them as young as eleven years old. Supposedly most of these hooligans came from poor neighborhoods. And I think how can this be reason enough to destroy what you have or even kill people for?
“You cannot continue to victimize someone else just because you yourself were a victim once — there has to be a limit” Edward W. Said
As I see a building completely burnt and destroyed I ask my husband, “Is this Beirut?”
Watching a news item like this always takes me to a dark time in my life and a darker place in my memory. A time when the streets of Beirut were filled with hooded gunmen who looted buildings and businesses and shops, kidnapped civilians and robbed and killed them, spreading fear and creating chaos everywhere they went. And they got away with it. Because the country was at war with itself. The different militias were fighting each other over religion, over politics, over social status, over anything they could put their fingers on. And witnessing those days, as Mahmoud Darwish wrote,
“… have taught you not to trust happiness because it hurts when it deceives.”
Kawkab helped her sit back in the car. Then turning around she screamed at the gunman with black sunglasses, hysterically. “See what you’ve done to her? Why? Why you do this to innocent people always? My son is in this with you. I don’t want him on the streets. I don’t like his being one of you. If only his father were alive, Zaki would never have dropped out of school and joined your gang.” A tear rolled down Kawkab’s cheeks. “This is all so stupid. This is madness. The whole country has gone crazy.” She wiped her eyes with the back of her right hand and in a desperate voice asked the gunman, “Do you like what you do, son? Honestly?”
“Calm down Aunt Kawkab. I only do what they order me to.”
Kawkab took a deep breath. “You know Nayla, when he came and told me about you and your husband I called Zaki. I asked him to talk to his superiors about Samer. You know what his answer was to me? He told me that at times like this there was little, or in some places, no control at all over what the gunmen did. It was a matter of personal loss. There was nothing any superior could do about those gunmen’s motives to kill anyone. It was all a matter of luck. Let’s just pray that Samer will be lucky today,” she looked at Nayla’s ashen face and shook her head.
Nayla could feel the tears that were accumulating behind her already wrinkled eyelids. Would she and Samer be lucky? Nayla thought. Your luck ran out on you the moment you fell into the hands of these gunmen. She remembered having read a scene from Hemingway’s “For Whom The Bell Tolls” about the Spanish civil war. It described a mob killing some men, pushing them over some cliffs. The more frightened these men became, the more the crowd cheered. Terrified Nayla looked at the woman.
At that moment the gunman with the black sunglasses came and took the driver’s seat. He didn’t have a kalashnikov but his pistol hung from his belt. He started the engine. Once again Nayla was in the car with a gunman and a woman she had only met that morning. They were taking her to see her husband. The only familiar thing around her was her husband’s blue Renault in which they were driving. This feeling of fear and loneliness reached deep inside her. She shivered and a small cry escaped her tightly closed lips. Unable to hold the tears that piled up behind her eyelashes, she started to sob, her whole body shaking. (The Lost I)
And now that the riots are over and the police are in control once again it’s time to clean up and repair the damage. But fear and chaos have shaken the civilians, and fear recognizes no religion, no nationality, no social status. A shattered society is hard to put back together.
“My argument is that history is made by men and women, just as it can also be unmade and rewritten, always with various silence and illusions, always with shapes imposed and disfigurements tolerated.” Edward W. Said