Roving thoughts and provocations

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After the Occupation

Paolo Pellegrin/Magnum Photos
Lebanon, August, 2006

In the year 2000, the Israelis withdrew after having occupied the south of Lebanon for twenty-two years. Because of the occupation, until the year 2000, I had gone through my entire life without ever having visited the village of my ancestors, Hasbaya. The village where my Grandpa Mohammad and my father grew up.

My Grandpa Mohammad built our house in Hasbaya on top of a hill. It was a typical two-floor Lebanese-style village home. The façade was covered in cut limestone squares and the roof consisted of red shingles. The kitchen, dining room, and living room were on the lower floor. The upper floor was divided into three rooms. One for Mohammad and his wife. One for the two girls. And the other for the six boys. Talking to my father today, his fondest memories always take him back to the summers they spent in Hasbaya. He says that it was there that he learnt to become a man.

It was during the long hot and dry days that his endurance and vigor were tested. But most importantly, it was there that he spent dreamy nights under their majestic oak tree, listening to Baba Sami, Grandpa Mohammad’s brother, tell tales of brave Druze warriors of the past. My father came to define himself through these stories.

In the early ’70s my Grandpa Mohammad had begun constructing a new and more modern house across from the older one. His family was growing and he wanted to make sure he could build in order to pass on real estate to his sons. The apartment complex was three floors high and built in concrete. He prided himself in the vision of his sons and their future families all living in the same building. His family was everything to him. After years of working in Mexico and Africa, he felt that he had finally earned the right to settle down and watch his family grow.

Later that decade, fighting erupted in Lebanon. The Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) had been fighting their guerilla war on Israel from the south of Lebanon, in hopes of taking back their country. The PLO, for a while, settled into our home. A few weeks later, Israeli jet planes blew up our building. The PLO retreated to another location.

My Grandpa, determined to build his dream home for his family, began to reconstruct. He poured the concrete and built the skeleton of the building for the second time. The year was 1982. The Israeli army officially took control of the entire South Lebanon region and my Grandpa’s building project halted once again. The occupiers deduced that our quaint little village home was a strategic military point. They moved in and took over. Their blue and white flag was strung up and our home was transformed into their main headquarters for that area. There is a perfect 360-degree view of the entire region from that hill.

Grandpa Mohammad passed away in 1993. It would be seven more years until the Israeli army would leave our home.

The occupiers finished building the home my Grandpa started. Except, instead of providing rooms for a growing family, they built interrogation booths, holding cells, torture rooms, and of course, bureaucratic offices. Right next to our oak tree. Right on top of the very same building they had blown up only a few years before.

Directly under our oak tree, they built a bunker in which they slept. The roof of this bunker was around two meters of reinforced concrete. Nothing could penetrate that roof. It was the safest spot in South Lebanon.

I know all this because the day after the Israelis pulled out of South Lebanon, my entire family drove down to our home: cousins, aunts, and uncles. It had been almost twenty years since an el Khalil set foot on that land. We all tried not to cry. After all, it should have been a day to rejoice. It was May 25, 2000, which has come to be known as Liberation Day.

We solemnly stepped out of the cars and each began to walk around in different directions. My father went straight to the old house. My brother and I decided to explore the larger concrete building. We didn’t know it was a relatively new construction. I guess it’s a good thing Grandpa Mohammad was not alive to see this.

Nadim and I walked into the building. I stood at the doorway for a few minutes, not quite ready to step inside. Waiting for my eyes to adjust to the dim light, I scanned the entrance of the building. It was dark and humid. And completely empty. The walls were a yellowish gray and heavily stained with dirt and what seemed to be remnants of cigarette smoke. Straight in front of me was a small window, the only light source. I opened the door a little wider to allow in more light.

Nothing. It was totally abandoned. The floor was filthy, soiled by brown footprints. It looked like whoever moved out did so in quite a hurry. I grabbed Nadim’s hand and we both stepped in together. It was as if we were twelve years old again. We crossed through the entrance and made our way to the right, towards the staircase. I looked at Nadim. He was clearly worried, but our curiosity overpowered our fear, and led us up the staircase. Our steps were slow and calculated. I kept wondering if there were any explosives or traps that may have been left on the stairs. It was very hard to see anything.

Somehow, nothing exploded and we made it to the top of the staircase and onto the next floor. The purpose of the building became very clear to us as we came face-to-face with a row of metal bars.

They were holding cells.

I was almost crushing Nadim’s hand. We walked towards the bars. A powerful stench filled the space. At first I was worried that it might be a dead body. I was terrified. Nadim told me to pull myself together as he pointed to the dark spots on the cell floor.

“Look, Zena, it’s just shit. This whole floor is covered in shit. They didn’t even give the prisoners toilets. They just let them shit on the floors.”

My stomach lurched and I put my hand up to my mouth to keep myself from vomiting. Letting go of his hand, I ran down the stairs and out of the building. Outside, I found the rest of my family huddled around the oak tree. They were furious about something. I ran towards them to see what was going on. “How are we going to get rid of this fucking bunker? The building is easy—we can just knock it down. But for this bunker…we will have to use explosives. The roof is so thick. And if we use explosives, we’ll hurt the tree. There is no way we are going to damage this tree. What are we supposed to do?”

At this point, Nadim walked out of the building and signaled me to follow him. We walked around the back and I caught Lana and younger brother Seif climbing on top of what looked to be a sniper dugout. “Zena, Zena, look at this…this is so funny.” Seif pointed to the cement walls of the dugout. They were all completely covered in scribbles and drawings. I was puzzled and leaned in for a closer look. To my horror and surprise, I found that I could actually read the scribbles. They were in English.

“Listen to this one,” Seif read out loud, “top ten things I want to do when I get back home.” I edged over to him and read:

Get laid without having to pay for it
Never wear khaki and green again
Watch a football game
Eat mom’s cooking
Take a hot shower
Go out for drinks with my friends

I had always wondered about the stories of Jewish Amreekan kids being flown to Israel for free. About the “youth programs” designed for them to “discover their roots”. Being taken to a hippie kibbutz, a kind of summer camp, where they all sat around campfires and sang songs about Israel in Hebrew. An Israel they didn’t even know. An Israel devoid of Palestinians. They were college kids and teenagers with raging hormones. They wanted to believe. They wanted to fit in. Why go back to Amreeka when you could have Mediterranean weather, citrus fruits, olive trees and Amoula’s “Sexy Semites”? Why go back when you could stay and fight for your fantasy homeland? They met others like them and fell in love. They stayed. They joined the army, mandatory for both boys and girls. They fought. They fought for a land they could never truly know, because from the very first moment they stepped on her soil, they failed to acknowledge and experience her true culture. From the very moment they were coerced to visit this Holy Land, they were conditioned with a false sense of reality. They were promised instant citizenship. And really, who could blame them? The system created to eradicate Palestinians has been exceptionally crafted. Those college kids, I don’t blame them. They never stood a chance.

“Come on guys,” I said, “let’s go check out the bunker under the tree.”

At the entrance, I found a scrap of paper. I squatted down to try and read it. To my surprise, it was a drawing. A crayon drawing of two stick figures. One, a young girl with curly blond hair. The other, a tall man with a mustache. They were holding hands. On the bottom it read, “come home soon daddy.” Again in English. It made me wonder who these soldiers really were. It was as if I was caught in some sick, warped reality. Had Amreeka really stretched its tentacles this far? Who were these people called Israelis anyway? Why were they here in my home? What on earth could convince a man to leave his young daughter behind and come and occupy my home?

Pulling myself together, I stood up and took a few steps inside. Straight in front of me, I saw the beds. I counted twenty-three. On the right, there was a small kitchen. The table was set for lunch. There were bowls of salad. Slices of bread. Bottles of water. Plates of tomatoes and onions. And a large tray of slightly burnt m’jadara. I felt like I was Snow White walking into the dwarfs’ home.

At the end of the table, there were three large plastic bottles of Coca-Cola. The logo was in Hebrew. It was surreal to see Hebrew writing on a product in Lebanon. It was surreal, but not unbelievable. At the time, Coca-Cola was still banned in Lebanon due to its support of and contribution to the Zionist state. I thought it was funny that they didn’t drink our local Pepsi.

When the decision to pull out of Lebanon was announced, twenty-two years of Israeli occupation was dismantled in a matter of forty-eight hours. I guessed that the soldiers occupying our house were just about to sit down for lunch when they got the call. It was such a strange sight. Even the glasses were still filled with water. They didn’t even get the chance to have a sip.

I remember thinking about the boy who just wanted to get laid. Maybe it was happening at this very moment. I wondered where he was: Amreeka or Israel? I remember thinking about the people in the holding cells. They were now captives somewhere else. Who were they to begin with—Lebanese or Palestinians? Where were they now—Israel or Amreeka? Would they ever see their families again? What had they done to be put into those cells in the first place? At least here, they were prisoners in their own country. Now they belong to another system, another place, with no rights and no way to get back home.

It took a year before my family could start dismantling the structures that had been built on their land. Apparently during the occupation, the Israeli army planted land mines all around our hill. This was their attempt to deter Hezbollah soldiers from attacking their outpost. It took the Lebanese army a year to clear the mines. But finally one day, it was all gone.

The occupation, the mines, the prisoner shit building, the horny dugouts, the weapons, and of course the bunker.

And I can happily report that our tree, today, is alive and well.


Excerpted and Adapted from Zena el Khalil’s Beirut, I Love You: A Memoir, published as an e-book by NYRB Lit on October 16.

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