Beauty of the rain
The testimony of one man speaks volumes, writes Serene Assir in Bint Jbeil
With the first rains, the fine thread that had held the mood together in towns across the southern belt of Lebanon snapped. Embraced by dry mountains peopled by olive trees, ochre-coloured rocks and twisting roads that always seem to lead upwards, Bint Jbeil was eerily empty as families ran for shelter from the sudden showers. But one woman with lines on her face from age and worry refused to let me find my own way back to Tyre, though I had grown accustomed to doing just that on numerous reporting trips to the area. "We don't want you to end up getting in a taxi with a stranger," she said.
Five minutes in the rain, and she, her husband and I were drenched. An old red Mercedes pulled up, and the driver, dressed in black, asked us if we needed a ride. Umm Hussein and Mohamed Bazze got in the back, whispering to me not to tell the driver I was a journalist. "You never know," they said, exercising extreme caution and care for me. "You're young; we don't want anything to happen to you."
The haggling started, as did the warnings. "You'd better take care of her, you hear?" And as they climbed out, back into the thrashing rain which seemed to pour down on us from an ever-nearing sky, Bazze called out, in an act of fatherly kindness, "Send our regards to your family!". I had spoken with the couple for less than 10 minutes, and they had of course never met my family. The predisposition they had for helping a complete stranger was extraordinary.
The driver looked across the road at the couple as they scuttled for shelter before he turned the ignition key. "I hope you're not worried. I'm the brother of a martyred fighter, so of course I can be trusted." His face pockmarked with freckles and his hair mountain red, Hassan (not his real name) began to talk about his younger brother Jamal (again, not his real name), who was among the first Hizbullah fighters to be killed during the summer war. On the rear windshield of the car, Hassan had pasted a poster with a photograph of his brother. He wore a Palestinian kuffiyeh and the designer had placed an image of the Dome of the Rock behind him, a permanent symbol of pan- Arabism.
All the while, as he spoke Hassan kept his eyes fixed on the road, as though talking through the tragedy required enormous amounts of concentration. By the end of the war, 19 Hizbullah members had been killed in Bint Jbeil. "The night he was martyred, I was with him," he said. "We were both on our way out of the house. Missiles and rockets were raining all around us, and to start with we were safe under the storm. But soon enough, he was injured. I tried to carry him to Bint Jbeil Hospital, which was still up and running. Jamal was the one who told me to leave him there, on the roadside, to die." Hassan sighed, his eyes remained transfixed on the road, and he stopped speaking for a good two minutes. As I hadn't told him I was a reporter, I felt unjustified in urging him on. I also felt that if I told him now, the trust bond that had been established between Hassan, the elderly couple and myself would be broken. I remained silent.
Soon enough, it was clear that Hassan needed to tell his story, as he had probably already told it to countless passengers in his taxi to and from the border villages. I felt as ready to listen as I was to share his honest account of his experience of the summer war, which would have invariably changed had he known I might divulge it. But this story is about Hassan as much as it is about scores of people in south Lebanon wearing black today, still in mourning over the loss of a brother, a friend, or a father, still living in uncertainty. For this reason, it is worth listening to.
"Jamal was already drenched in his own blood, but I couldn't heed his request at first. But then, he told me that one of us had to survive, to take care of our mother, and to continue fighting. 'I can already see the Imam Ali: I'm not coming back,' he told me. I walked away," Hassan said.
I ask him how he feels. "How do I feel? How do you think I feel? I am fire inside. My life is not worth living any longer," he said, with clearly restrained but explosive anger in his voice, his hands clutching the wheel, the rain still battering the windscreen. "He was my little brother, and my best friend. My mother doesn't go a single night without dreaming that he has come to her, begging her for forgiveness. When she prays, she says she sees him too. When we sit at the table to have lunch or dinner, she still lays out a plate, a fork and a spoon for him. Every day, I ask her why. Every day, she says she knows Jamal's coming back. Her eyes are swollen, and she cries all the time. But the tears, they won't come out any more."
Hassan went on to talk about his own condition after the war, saying he cannot eat without feeling sick. "Dealing with my mother's pain is in itself incredibly difficult. So much so that I only have time to think about my own when I'm out on the road. Simply put, I feel completely alone in the world without Jamal. I have lost so much. Bint Jbeil has also lost a great deal. He used to work with the disabled through a Hizbullah charity -- now those he used to care for come to the house and cry in our arms. They're the only ones who are being honest about it. Everyone else, when they come and visit, they say 'haniyyan', and walk out again." Haniyyan is the term used during visits to the family of someone who has been killed in fighting, as opposed to 'Allah yirhamo', or may God rest his soul, which is used as the general term of condolence in Arabic. Haniyyan implies a conferral of positivity, similar to God bless you, suggesting a means of congratulating the family on the fighter's advent to paradise. "That's like someone visiting a friend who's on his last legs, dying of cancer, and saying to him, may God grant you a long, prosperous life."
The dark turn in the tone of Hassan's voice prompted yet another silence, but meanwhile the storm had started to abate, giving way to the creation of a rainbow stretching all across the sky and the mountains beneath it. He noticed my attention was no longer with him as I scrambled for my pocket camera. He stopped the car to let me take a picture of the rainbow, whose colours, to my eyes, literally transformed the scene from one of misery to one of intense hope. "Do you know what that rainbow means?" he asked. After I offered my interpretation, he shook his head gravely and replied, "It can only mean one thing, and that is rain." We drove on.
With the anguish in his face subsiding into something a little calmer but no less pained, I asked him whether he regretted the loss. On this, he was clear. "We do not fight Israel for any reason other than the fact that it has targeted our people. When it stops, we will too. The loss has caused me so much pain, but we have no choice. We are just people, the people of the south, and we grew up poor. But it is our responsibility to not give way. Otherwise our children will grow up in the same misery we have witnessed all our lives, whether under occupation or under threat of occupation."
As we came closer to Tyre, he stopped to pick up a woman in her forties in Bazouriye, coincidentally enough on the exit of the native town of Hizbullah chief Hassan Nasrallah. And he started to tell his story all over again, with her reactions much more marked than mine had been. On hearing that his brother had died without having borne children, she showed visible distress. The way he told his story this time round was similar in content, different only in tone -- with references to the glory of martyrdom and speculations on whether martyrs truly spend eternity with the Prophet Mohamed and Imam Ali decorating the narrative.
She got off a few minutes before I did, just in time for me to get one last question in. Do you think there will be another war, I asked Hassan. "Of course there will be another war with Israel. With Israel there is nothing but war. All I can do now is look forward to it, for I too shall become a martyr in the next war." The rest was silence. As I got out of the car, he apologised. "I am sorry if my story has upset you, if it was too sad. You look like you have a long life ahead of you. Don't worry about me."