Disproportionate Responses

by Jad Ziade

My plane landed midday and in the back seat of the taxi I read the article my brother had sent me. “Lebanese reconstruction commences,” the author wrote. “Corruption rife, one mile of highway more expensive in Beirut than in Los Angeles.” The Israelis had destroyed the country again and an enlightened liberal was explaining the faraway war to America, leading us to the only respectable truth: the Israeli government had found itself in an unfortunate situation and might have gone too far in its reaction. Whatever horrors the Arabs suffered, they had only themselves to blame.

I was back at Mom’s house before dinner, hugging her as she pulled me through the house to the garden. First she showed me her five new lettuce plants, explaining the difference between each. Then she took me to the carrots, tomatoes, grapes, and yams. I feigned interest as best I could and she laughed. “Your mother is now an old lady.” She nudged me to pick the lettuce and we ate it with tabouli alongside her latest triumph — vegetarian nouilles. The dogs waited at her feet as we ate and she proudly insisted I meet the new cat, the one in the garage who was too afraid to greet anyone but her. I lifted my plate to show her my unfinished meal and she pointed to the small birds outside. She reminded me of each of their names as they visited the various contraptions she had built for them. “You want to know more?” she said.

Yalla,” I said, affecting an accent, “Tell me more.”

It did not surprise me that the kitten trusted only her. We left the dishes and went to find him, my mother leading slowly, whispering softly, looking between the boxes and stacks of canned tuna that she always kept piled in the garage. “There he is,” she said, gesturing for me to stay back as she bent down and picked him up. “Say hello.”

Afterward we washed the dishes and when we finished she tapped me on the shoulder. “I’m going to see if Jim needs anything. You must call Fawwaz.”

“I don’t know,” I said. “We barely know each other. What am I supposed to say to him? Especially now.”

“He needs family,” she replied, “He’s lost everything and you’re his cousin. Call him. You can use my phone.” She left to see what my step-father might want and instead of following her orders, I walked out to the backyard where the birds were still singing and had a cigarette.

When I returned she was back in the kitchen with the phone against her ear, nodding and speaking quickly. Then, she thrust the device into my hand. “Fawwaz is on the line. He wants to say hello.” I put the phone to my ear.

“How are you?” I asked, keeping my voice as even as I could. Something came back but I couldn’t make out what it was. Then, another attempt.

“Hi, Nabil. This is your cousin. Do you remember me?”

“Of course I remember,” I said. I tried to recall his face but I couldn’t. The last time I had seen him we lived in the homeland. I was five years old and he was fifteen. He took me fishing. “My mother told me you left Lebanon,” I said. There was a pause.

“Yes, I’m in Canada. Did she tell you that?”

“Yes.”

“What else?”

“She told me everything,” I said. There was another pause and then a long string of words, some English, some Arabic, all unintelligible. Fawwaz cleared his throat.

“I’m drunk,” he said. “Everyone is gone, and I’m drunk.” I rushed to think of something to say that wouldn’t sound contrived. Before I could, he continued. “I had to leave. I couldn’t stand it there anymore. I’ve been drinking since she died. Nadine got sick of it and left me. I don’t have money anymore. I’ve been here for one week and my sister already wants me gone. I don’t blame her.”

“She doesn’t want you gone,” I said.

“How do you know?” he replied, his voice suddenly sharp. At first I thought to acquiesce.

“She’s your sister.”

“Yeah, you’re right,” he said, “but habibi, you know nothing.”

He started laughing then, and wouldn’t stop so I went to find my mom on the couch and she smiled. “Speak to him,” she said. “He only wants someone to talk with him.”

I covered the receiver. “What the hell do I say to him?”

Fawwaz’s laughter turned to muffled sobs.

“What was it like?” I asked, more loudly than I intended.

“Thunder,” he said, “for hours. Rolling up and down the street. And in between, everyone screamed. It didn’t matter if you were hit. After two weeks of it, you screamed. Then after every bomb, I counted the buildings from memory. Then I counted them again, and then again.”

“Wow,” I said, “I don’t know . . .”

He ignored me. “One night I came home from work. That’s how crazy I was — I still went to the paper. But that day she died. The bomb hit across the street. Nothing hit her. Not even scratches, but the sound stopped her heart and she fell over dead. She was ten. We weren’t sending her to school anymore.”

Haram,” I said. “I’m sorry, Fawwaz.” He laughed, and suddenly embarrassed, he mumbled something as if to apologize, then demanded I give the phone back to my mom. I left her to speak to my cousin.

Outside, it was quiet. I lit another cigarette and searched for the moon. The dogs followed me out and chased each other around Mom’s bird bath, and when I didn’t join them, they loped back and sat at my feet. The moon was rusty-red from the brush fire some miles north. Mom told me they’d have to evacuate once the ash rain reached them.

“I told him goodbye for you.” She appeared behind the screen door. “Don’t get smoke inside the house.”

“I won’t,” I said. “Mom?”

“Yes, my dear.”

“How many of these phone calls are left?”

She nodded. “That was probably the last. Everyone else is gone or dead. But it’s important to talk. Otherwise you forget who you are and when you lose your courage you lose those you love. Then one day you are old and weak and no one will remember you or love you.”

I laughed. “Let’s say hi to that cat again.”

“His name is Felix,” Mom said.

“Felix,” I repeated.

“You can say hi to him as often as you want, but in the morning, when your cousin has his head again, call him and talk.”

“I will,” I said.

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