A Red Staircase of Imagination?

Longing for a home we never had

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A Red Staircase of Imagination?
Illustration by Joanna Andreasson for Newlines

We first found, or returned to, Lebanon in 1992. We were émigré-exiles, coming home to a place we’d never left in our minds and hearts. We were children, awkwardly mimicking mores, testing out our hodgepodge of frozen dialects and local slangs. We were the rotating cast of Others: overwhelmed spouses, bewildered business colleagues, giddy buddies and doomed romantic partners who all “loved to visit” but “could never imagine living here.”

We, even the children, spoke of return. We were back: Lebanon, a place we had never been, a place we were from, and a place to which we were destined — or so said the parents — to return. That year, we — like hundreds of thousands of others in those days — entered our palace of memory, myth, imagination and imprints.

We played on the beaches, throwing toys at one another and stomping through the sands or — usually — rocks. We raced up to the top of Mount Sannine, taking in the summer snow and eating — not drinking, but eating — peasant’s lemonade right out of his hardened hands: bunches of snow, a few lemons and a heap of sugar. We snuck onto trucks with Lebanese soldiers, touring towns and pointing a rocket-propelled grenade launcher at our horrified parents. We wandered around those hills and plains, hiding our watches with our grandfather so we could pretend we had lost them when we showed up late. We snuck away to grill meat during Lent before going in and pretending the salads and beans were oh-so-satisfying. We kissed girls, who promised as we did to keep secrets, and returned home to kinfolk holding mock weddings, ululating that the American Boy had found himself a bride. We walked into restaurants and ate and drank what we wanted, thinking it free, while my grandfather silently paid the bills (threatening others with sublethal violence if they so much as glanced at the amount owed).

We took on the world! A Syrian soldier hit me in the face with a rifle, for the great crime of running through a fence to greet my arriving father; my grandfather threw him through that fence, picked me up, and walked me through a stunned waiting area to hug my father. On our way out, gramps — a man who never spoke English — looked at the unit stationed there and snarled: “Ahlan, ahlan. Welcome to Lebanon!” Looking down at me when I laughed, he grinned and repeated it with joy: “Welcome to Lebanon!”

When we were done — with the world, or with the Lebanons that seemed to begin and end on each hill — we would turn back. Eagerly, expectantly, we’d follow the familiar roads to that place where the mountain met the plain, turn left, and climb up one last hill. Making our way through the warren’s alleys and closes, dodging churchmen, nuns and barbers, we’d leap — and, sure, sometimes stumble — our way up the steepest road on the block. We’d find that little garden, turn again, and see the house on that hill.

We’d spot a red staircase. And we’d know that we, at last, had made it home again: in our grandfather’s house, and in the lands we discovered, explored and came to know and love.

A snow-capped mountain, on the way home in Lebanon / Anthony Elghossain

Our inheritance remained, and remains, as rich as ever in at least one sphere: the myths, legends, stories of our past. Our stories are crazy and absurd, funny and tragic, and dramatic and dumb. They beggar belief, even when lived — let alone when told and retold to incredulous family and friends, who in turn have lived and been disbelieved and should know better than to question Lebanon’s script, improvisational flourishes, and cruel and comical ironies.

And while they still search for an author of their futures, stumbling around like the characters in a goddamn Pirandello play, the Lebanese need no help with their pasts — personal, political, communal, national or otherwise. They need no help coloring the daily grind, painting the personalities of their fellows and friends — or fathers and grandfathers, the legends whose phantoms they struggle to grasp. Clever wordsmiths, charming raconteurs and lively narrators who double as the colorful characters in their own much-too-aggrandized lives, the people who have surrounded us for decades imagine their villages a stage for a world they have otherwise escaped.

Every man, a giant or a mouse. Never merely a man. Every woman, a prize, vision or siren. Never a person. Every village, a citadel of light. Every house, a fortress of the virtuous. Every victory, a triumph. Every defeat, a bitter betrayal. Every tale, an epic.

Every myth, a truth?

Details differ. Sure, exaggerations and hyperbole abound. So, too, do the omissions — though we would never know, and may only guess and question later. Timelines are fuzzy, flipped, edited or just abandoned. Names change and change again. If a story, or life, goes on long enough, the omnipresent “they” and “them” emerge in the narrative to replace the “we” and “me” — responsibility rarely a possibility, and indeed sometimes seeming like the only impossibility, in these tales we spin of our world. Perceptions depend on so much, such as age, perspective and different tolerances of — and thresholds for — the joy, tragedy, conflict and humiliation.

Our stories reveal much of our inheritance, of which they are a part. After the Beirut blast, an old man in Beirut — a man who never knew me, who came from a different Lebanon, and who had and has a different vision for the future — told me one such story. He spoke of a legend from my place of origin. He spoke of the past that made me and, indeed, us. He, a stranger, spoke of a man who made the life we knew.

The boy was born just after his father died. His mother named him Joseph. He was far younger than his other siblings — all eight of them. He never really knew why his father died. Some said he died in a skirmish. Others recalled a feud. Or an accident. Another man had a simpler explanation: “People love to talk. He was just old. He was old, understand? Nothing more and nothing less.”

Coming up in a dirt home, straddling the barren mountain of his unknown father and the fertile fields of his unborn children, Joe sometimes allowed himself to hope that life in the lands “beyond Lebanon” — meaning the mountain — would be as easy as folks told him, his relatives and wanderers from around the world. Having lived through the Great Famine, surviving her now-deceased husband and eventually outliving most of her own children, Joe’s mother looked at the plains as a blessing. If they had been riders, fighters and herders, and then farmers, farmers and farmers, with the odd trader, peddler or wanderer thrown in just to keep it diverse, folks in her family could now all till the fertile flatlands just below their hut — until some of them became merchants or shopkeepers or something.

Alas, “The Lebanon” was now “Lebanon.” In moving through and beyond the mountain, people helped bring that mountain — with which they had a dissonant relationship, in which they had a dualistic existence, and because of which they had developed a particular political order — with them. They could not let it go. And it could not let them be. The mountain broke the promise its people — or some, whatever — had seen, heard and found in the fields to its east.

Young Joe would not have an easier life. Dropping out of school at the age of 6 (if he ever went to school at all), Joe helped cultivate crops right where the mountain ends and the plains begin. He walked up and down the hill, which locals had named after the father he never knew. He watched as others sold off lands, which he would never own. He rode horses, which is why a few folks — a dwindling, precious few — still call him the “horseman” or “rider.” Eventually, he started driving trucks.

He met, learned from and began besting all the harsh teachers. Starting to farm when he was 6 years old, Joe had to fight to keep older boys — even men — from stealing crops. He beat one man to a pulp, with a shovel, and then went around asking about the man’s health. They got the message: Never put yourself in the position of having old Joe check up on you. Men stole his money; he cut a deal with another “good man” — that is, country tough with a heart of gold — to hold his cash until he came of age. The man kept his word to the boy; young Joe paid him back with a few favors later on. When he was about 10, Joe started driving trucks around Lebanon. When he was 16 years old, Joe “created a company.” (He bought another truck, hiring someone to drive it while he drove his own. Big deal.) As precocious in love as he was in business, Joe almost eloped twice — with the same girl or with different sisters, cousins or neighbors. Nobody knows; everybody declares. He only spoke of one. “Beautiful,” he later recalled, thinking back to that time in his life. “Like the sun! But I was filled with regret, immediately. I felt something was wrong. I stopped the car and took her back to her parents.”

Joe soon faced another choice, in the early 1950s: to stay or go. Indeed, he was the first man in his line — though not in the family, or clan — to contemplate a now-ritualized, generational choice. One day, Joe and his sister drove down to Beirut — “it was dirty then and is dirty now; fuck its stones!” — to sail away.

Destination: Brazil.

They would go on to the New World, branching out while their roots remained in Lebanon — that purported sanctuary from which everyone kept trying to escape.

Folks from his family were already there. His sister and her husband had arranged for a journey by sea. (The husband, from one of a few families they had intermarried with over time, had already left.) They would go on to the New World, branching out while their roots remained in Lebanon — that purported sanctuary from which everyone kept trying to escape.

And they did just that. They, these few families, kept moving to Sao Paulo, to Rio, to the inland rain forests and beyond. They set up shop in the cities, moved through the rain forests, tapped trees, cultivated coffee and cacao, and built businesses great and small. They joined the social clubs others had already been keeping for decades, and still keep today.

Not Joe, though. Not Joe. He never made the trip.

Standing on a ship docked in Beirut’s port, he felt a pit in his stomach, a pang in his chest, an ache in his eyes — welling up, though he never admits it. He was uneasy. “It was wrong. All of it was wrong.”

Of course, others had told him that he should leave. He had told himself all the smart things, even wise things, people tell themselves as their minds work to smother out their hearts. They told him that they would — even were they in his shoes, not just their own — leave as soon as possible. They wondered what future he could make, or be content with if others made it for him, and if he would regret not steaming towards yet another distant promise.

But he was not them. And they were not, and could never be, him. Negotiating his own feelings on the ship, or the dock, or wherever he was actually standing, Joe once again let the ladies decide his fate. Seeing a “pretty woman in the crowd, waving to someone on [the] ship,” he projected into fate or fortune the decision doubtlessly percolating in his mind already. “I don’t know how to explain this to you, but I knew from her eyes — her eyes, do you understand me? — that I could not leave this land. I could not leave. She was so sad; someone was leaving. It was as if … she was Lebanon to me!”

Joe jumped off the boat. He again made his way through Beirut, “fuck its stones” indeed, and back up his hill. And he stayed.

He stayed in Lebanon, in a place full of people who mythologized him to mythologize and lionize themselves, “fighting for my land, my food, my money and my family.” Not just fighting in a proverbial sense, Joe beat up people, ramming his truck into cars, tearing at faces, dueling and more. He was, an old Beiruti shared just a few months ago, “Robin Hood, but righteously angry!”

He fought for his rights, or what he believed and felt were his rights, because he lived in a land where might was right, where inherent dignity was rendered as good as his self-assertion, and where everything was both inviolable and negotiable. He hated doing what others championed him for doing, but he did it anyway. Once, fellow pickers took their day’s wages and ran away from a job in the northern Bekaa Valley. Although he usually paid people after the job, Joe “would give a bit more and upfront during Ramadan. Most men were honest, or not [brave] enough to cheat me. Sometimes, men would run away. But not after that day. I will tell you what happened. When I got to the field, half of the truck was empty! They had jumped off the truck, on the road over. We were busy driving and did not pay attention. I beat them, threw them on my truck, and made them do the work … but let them keep the money.”

He stayed, once taking a shovel to four — or five, or six — men’s faces after brawling with their boss in a market, or in a field. “What do you want me to say? They were strong. Kurds, understand? As stubborn as we were, those days. I needed the shovel!”

He stayed, as men from nearby neighborhoods and villages attacked his neighborhood during different wars and skirmishes. He stayed, as foreign armies and militias came and went.

He stayed, when militiamen commandeered his house, threatening to dynamite it himself unless their boss — an infamous snake and thug, now dead and in a dustbin reserved for scumbag opportunists — cleared his stooges out within 48 hours.

“We are still here, correct? We are still here. So do not concern yourself with [what happened], chief!”

He stayed. Like most of the men in his family, he was tall, dark and striking. Like all the men from his clan or — some say — his village of origin, Joe had dark hair, fierce eyes and a magnetic personality. Swaggering around, he “shook the earth every time he took a step.” He was “crazy,” one of his neighbors remembered, “and sometimes we wondered if he even understood the concept of danger. We were scared for him, all the time, especially during the war. Did we tell you about the time he fought 20 cops? No? What about the time a local thug insulted him? He shut down the road with his truck, put a whiskey bottle on the hood, and told the bastard that he would shoot him dead if he did not apologize before the bottle was done!”

He had children, then watched them leave. They had children of their own, and he wondered when they would bring them “back.” He built a big — or bigger, these things being relative — house, reminding himself and his descendants that “beautiful things are not beautiful without ugliness or pain” and that “those who tire live, while those who seek comfort die [slowly].” He set up a staircase. And he painted it red, so his grandchildren could find the house he built and make it home.

In the Beirut blast, we all lost something. Some of us lost everything. Since then, overcome by loss and lostness, people have just fallen into sudden silences from time to time.

Their silences might linger.

Silences can be as stunning — and, indeed, as soul-shattering — as the sonic booms, airstrikes, bombs, gunshots and knife-slashes that have interrupted, and yet shaped and defined, our people’s lives for 50 years.

We, together, understand these specific silences. We understand the pauses between tears, perhaps of a father who regrets bringing his family back to the motherland. We understand the skipping gasps, perhaps of a friend who regrets bringing his baby into this world. We understand the suspended disbelief, perhaps of a friend who has lost his businesses four times since the 1990s — never mind before then. We understand the halting, slow creep of misery — and then docile, almost drugged, calm others might mistake as serenity or stoicism. We understand the hushed humility of those who’ve dared to dream, to dare, to plan, to live, but now feel foolish for having asserted their agency in a place like postwar Lebanon. We understand where the mind wanders, to the horrors of the past and present, when it once dreamed almost defiantly of the future — erecting glass towers atop the rubble of Art Deco and red-roofed buildings, themselves intruders sitting atop crumbled stone houses, clay huts and ruins upon ruins seemingly dating to the dawn of time.

We sense these silences, longer and deeper with each visit. And we, perhaps only then, say nothing. Having once tried to fill the silence, or to joke, or to ask earnest questions, we might now just shut up and just join a strange, shared solitude.

A few weeks ago, though, my father sensed a different silence in me: a happy one. We were playing backgammon and, apparently, I kept smiling at nothing. “Where are you?” he snarled when I took too long to roll.

We played on, taking in a sunset together and enjoying the moments that are, still, Lebanon’s greatest gifts. After a while, I shared what it was that had me smiling: “I was thinking about that red staircase!” I blurted out. “Alright? I was just thinking about the red staircase we used to have in [the village].”

“What red staircase?”

We talk.

He seems confused, the more and more I speak; I become frustrated, the more and more he seems confused. We talk some more, voices rising and heads shaking.

And then, I see his face change: realization.

“What?”

He sits quietly, a while, before stabbing me in the heart: “It was rust.”

Not even nostalgia survived the past year. No, we were suffering through anemoia all along, longing for a place and time we have never known — because they never were, certainly not entirely, what we saw, felt and imagined.

Anemoia.

Peering back into childhood with angry eyes, I see the Lebanon that lurked behind — or beneath, pick your own damn descriptor — mine. I see it all, anew.

I see the tears of joy my mother cried, now revealed and rendered as tears of shock, pain and despair she felt because she no longer recognized the city she grew up in: Beirut. I see the jokes others in the family made, to make her feel better; they were scorning a city they, men from the mountain, saw as an unvirtuous cesspool of mediocre hustlers and two-bit sellouts — until reminded that one of their favored sons was a sellout to a sellout, back then. I see the decorative marks that my cousin — J.P., the cooler and older one in the family — pointed out on our way up through the hills, now revealed as pockmarks, bullet holes, many of which still let the rays of light pierce our daily darkness.

I see the toys my grandfather threw around at the beach, until my mother — from the proper side of the family, see — asked him to stop. They were pieces of trash, part of the plastic covering the shore and water alike. I see the bullet an uncle gave me, until my grandfather confiscated it, and now remember it came through the windshield as he parked his car; I see the bullets we shot into the sky, celebrating this or that holy day, and how we never saw — or asked — where they landed. I remember his question: “Better than America?” What then felt like self-assured jokes, or a bit of standard and yet teasing inquiry, now seem to be sad, desperate attempts to get another brattish boy — the prodigal son of a dutiful son — to love his own home.

I see the struggles I glorified, the men I lionized. I see how they spoke of their own hope, defiance and strength, now knowing they did so because they never knew grace, respect or recognition. I see and feel the tears I cried, trembling, every time I left the Lebanon I chased as a happy boy, only now remembering the tears of those who stayed, sad men abandoned — by those who came before them, and again by those who came after them — to a cruel land they insist is home.

I see the red staircase. And I see the rust.

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