A writer reflects on her relationship with her home in Beirut.
Why the room’s windows weren’t broken in the August 4th explosion is still a mystery. The building is only five kilometers from the port of Beirut and the windows of the neighboring apartment are broken. In other buildings nearby, even the aluminum frames came loose; Photos in circulation showed the large pieces of metal, mixed with shards of glass and drops of blood, that covered disorganized furniture.
My nursery is all provisional. It was built from the large balcony on the second floor of my parents’ apartment when my little brother arrived. I went through the room I shared with my older brother to get there. A weak accordion door separated the two and was replaced by a sliding glass door years later. An artificial ceiling covered the tin roof, and half of the walls were windows.
The civil war had just ended, and slowly the cityscape was filling with such closed balconies. They made larger living rooms and tiny housekeeping staff. None of this was legal. The luxurious skyscrapers that were built by the sea and blocked my little view of the water could not be seen either. I had a view of the cityscape littered with antennas and electrical cables, but also two buildings down the street, a pigeon farm on the roof and, directly in front of me, across a parking lot, the thoroughfare that led to the east of the city. From the street you could see the two protruding rectangles of aluminum frames filled with gray blinds that I kept mostly closed.
Thunderstorms became a constant reminder of the bombings and threatened to break the glass over my headboard.
When it rained, I heard every drop of water leap over my head, and when it thundered, the whole room shook. The tremors felt the same when Israeli bombs fell outside and inside the city when I was twelve, fifteen, and twenty-two. Thunderstorms became a constant reminder of the bombings and threatened to break the glass over my headboard. It never broke. Nor was it when, at thirty-six, on a sunny summer morning in Evanston, my two-year-old and I received a WhatsApp message from my parents telling us about a big explosion. My phone beeped over and over again with videos of the mushroom cloud, the crumbling buildings, and the screams and screams of the wounded and drugged.
Every time I returned home since I went to graduate school when I was twenty, I found that something had changed in the room. For a year the room was painted apple green. It was unbearably green, so one of the walls had to be whitewashed a few days after my visit. On another visit, the oak cupboard was gone, the floor of which had disintegrated from the rain that seeped into the room. In its place was a massive new one with a darker color, the first step in dismantling the matching bedroom set. Not long after that came the new, bespoke shelves that fit right under the wide window. Books migrated there from different corners of the house, and I often spent the first morning of my return as the bright Beirut morning sun warmed the room, clearing away the books that weren’t mine, and adding the new ones I brought back. Years later, our bedrooms were reconfigured to create a narrow corridor that leads to both. My room now has a wooden door with a lock.
Shortly before our last visit, the second floor of the apartment had been flooded due to a blockage in the drain from the remains of the balcony. Days later, water rose from under the wooden floor and soaked my toddler’s travel cot, which was left in a corner because he refused to nap in it out of excitement about playing with his Teta and Jeddo. To get back to lying on the new king-size bed that takes up half of my expanded room, trying in vain to get my happy child to sleep and then bring them down to my delighted parents to hear more songs and Playing games and videos and eating was comforting in a way that could only be at home.
As a child, I hid under the covers with Letitia, the doll I named after my only school friend in Paris, where we fled for a few months during the civil war. Letitia was then placed in the ever-changing closet, but her mere presence allowed permission for childlike suffering even in later years. I was home one summer when my relationship ended up being particularly painful. I remember the harrowing feeling of emptiness that haunted me in those days of heartbreak and crept on me at the first light of dawn, accompanied by the call to prayer and the cries of the mating cats. But slowly the morning noises of the city began to emerge, the drills, horns, screeching motorbikes, screaming neighbors, loud peddlers and radios that exploded with pop songs. And then, as the morning grew, the noises rose from the lower floor of the house, doors slammed, washing machine beeped, telephones rang, laughter and conversations, everything penetrated my room. They invaded and dissolved the years I had not spent at home. Downstairs, my father was reading the newspaper in the wicker chair, my mother was working on her laptop on the couch in the living room. I went downstairs, kissed both of them on the cheeks, went to the kitchen to make coffee, and then went about my day sad but calm.
The friends I saw on this last visit all said they wanted to leave the country. But I had become a stranger to the wounds they spoke of, their memories of the explosion, their lived experience of a country in constant and relentless decline. My life was elsewhere, a romantic distance from hers. All I wanted in the past few months was to go home.
Until last year I had returned home every year after leaving seventeen years ago. I had brought letters from my adult relationships and kept them on the bedside table in the only room that had remained constant in the mix of apartments and cities that was my life. Deep in the drawer of a new vanity are the remains of my sporadic childhood efforts to keep a diary: a light purple Barbie diary with a lock, one with a lined plastic cover and scented papers of different colors, one made of cardboard and decorated with flowers, one simple red notebook with the word “College” on the cover and a small, pink, spiral-bound diary. I flip through them every time I come back, embarrassed by my troubled younger self, but I always see my present self in them too.
Going home felt risky and not depressing to go home.
A few weeks before this trip, I learned that I was pregnant with twins. The news overwhelmed me. Going home felt risky and not depressing to go home. I chose the glass and aluminum refuge that towers over six rows of mismatched curtains and awnings in a rocky city.
No doubt furniture will have to be pulled out to make room for two more cribs. No doubt rainwater will continue to leak and the room will tremble with the roar of thunder. And I will no doubt ask myself beforehand whether or not to go home. I just don’t know how to have two little girls and don’t want them to brush Letitia’s hair, stealthily discover her mother’s teenage notebooks, or wake up to the sunlight falling into their nursery.