The IB1 English class at International College is studying Naguib Mahfouz's MIDAQ ALLEY. Following are four short stories about life in Beirut modeled on Mafouz's style in Midaq Alley. (December 21.2010)

The IB1 English class at
International College  is studying Naguib Mahfouz's MIDAQ ALLEY.
Following are four short stories about  life in
modeled on Naguib Mafouz's style in MIDAQ ALLEY.  

1.  Elias surveyed the fossil that was currently lounging in his favourite lap lane with a mixture of disgust and irritation. The old woman was well over 60, what was she doing going around in a bikini? From the way she was swimming, it was a wonder she could still make her way down to the pool. He had seen it countless times and still it made him laugh. The fossil – he refused to think of her as human while she was stopping him from swimming – would extend her arms slowly and then “pull” herself forward just as slowly. No sharp movement. No swimmer's grace. Just that continual extend and pull which he had come to call the half-drown. 


The fossil in question was called Therese Rizkallah and she was down here swimming at 11 in the morning because her doctor said it was good for her circulation. Elias knew this and thought that the sooner the world was rid of the old bat, the better. She had complained to the life guards about him causing ripples when he was swimming laps, and they had listened to her. Naturally, because when an old woman complains the only way to shut her up is to obey. Therese thought she had been perfectly justified. After all she had just come back from the hairdresser's and did not want her hairdo ruined, especially not by this young jock who thought only of swimming. Couldn’t he see that his ripples might get her hair wet? 


Elias had been waiting by the pool for the better part of an hour and was seriously angry by now. He had interrupted his training when the old lady had taken his lap lane, not caring that there were no other lanes available. They were all taken by adults, and she did not want to antagonise adults at all, better this young boy. He would have plenty of time to practice in the afternoon along with the other  children. Elias shivered. He might as well swim in a sewer. In the afternoon, the pool was filled with one to five year olds, who would excrete certain... substances with every other breath.   


Therese continued swimming. Slowly, half-drowning along, held up safely by her noodle. She owed a lot to that noodle. It kept her hair out of the water, allowing her to keep her circulation going while still having an immaculate hair do. Suddenly her peace was interrupted by an almighty splash, as Elias cannonballed a hairsbreadth from her, and shot off with a perfect butterfly, sending a thousand mini tsunamis toward the edge of the pool. Therese was, of course, drenched. Her hair, which seconds before had been perfectly done up on her head, now lay in a soggy mess over her red face. Furious, she vowed to tell his grandparents of their descendant’s latest misdeed... Not that it would do much good. They seemed to be the only old people in the world who didn’t complain about the younger generation.  


            Elias, meanwhile, had just completed his third lap and switched to the crawl. Holding butterfly for that long was very tiring. Seeing the old lady climb out of the pool, he smiled and thought to himself: “Ah Therese... Must we do this every summer?” 


IB1 (11th Grade), IC , Beirut     



2. The Paris of the Middle East. That’s how Lebanon is frequently described, and we Lebanese take that phrase very literally. Paris is magnificent, beautiful, and remarkable, and for our country to be compared to one of the most glamorous cities in the world is an absolute honour. However, the way I see it, that phrase was probably more metaphorical than literal. The more I speculate, the more I realise that the person who came up with the saying, was perhaps comparing us more to Paris Hilton than the city of Paris itself. Let me explain.  


On the outside, Lebanon is a picturesque nation with blue green waters softly hitting the sandy shore, and rows of restaurants and cafés sprinkled along the busy streets. But look closer, and you will find that its residents are more obsessed with appearances and materialism than indulging in a happy, normal life in an incredible country. Cosmetic procedures such as plastic surgery and Botox have in fact become so common in the country, that a woman with all her original parts is an extraordinary sight.  I’m afraid that as much as I try to explain, you will never fully understand the intensity of what is Lebanon, unless I guide you through a typical day in ‘the city of contradictions’. 


I wake up to an irritating droplet trickling down my cheek. I sigh as the realisation hits me. The electricity is cut. Again. It is something extremely normal in Lebanon, seeing as electricity has actually become a forbidden fruit. Our days are planned according to when the government decides to grace us with the presence of this hundred-year-old invention, and in the middle of summer in Beirut, waking up to no air conditioning is not a perfect start to your morning. I quickly slip into suitable clothes for a standard Sunday afternoon with the family, grab my bag, tell my sisters I’ll meet them at the restaurant, and race out the door.


First stop: beauty salon. It’s known that your hair must be perfectly groomed before you go out anywhere in Lebanon, and heaven forbid you leave the house without drowning yourself in an ocean of makeup. Walking down the street, I am instantly reminded how road rules are non-existent here. ‘Giving right of way’ is an extremely hard thing to do when everyone drives in whatever way they please, and pedestrians are thought of as merely obstructions; even when it’s your 80 year old grandmother trying to cross the street. Breathlessly, I reach one of the countless salons along the busy Beirut streets, and as I dash in, I recite to the hairdresser my usual hair makeover request. ‘We’re ready for you, hayeti’, I hear the hairdresser say (hayeti meaning ‘my life’), however I can almost guarantee you that she wouldn’t really care if I were to die in my sleep later on that night. 


An hour later, I am standing on the pavement, and I raise my hand trying to get a cab. 5 hidden alleyways, 2 almost dead cats, and 10 jooras (holes in the road) later, I’m striding through countless tables to get to where my family are sitting. Now, most people would think that the average family consisted of parents and a few siblings, but here, one family itself can create a whole village. Literally. Barely even having taken a seat, I hear my father almost chanting our orders to the waiter. The men dominate the top part of the table, while evidently discussing politics and their outlook on each word and action of every political figure. A fist banging on the table is an indication that the conversation is heating up, and if one were to disagree with their ‘profound insights’, they would spend the remainder of the day lecturing you on why you are completely and utterly wrong. The teenagers and young adults of the family are found on the opposite side, with a nargileh (traditional smoke pipe) rooted in the palms of their hands. It’s the fundamental accessory to the perfect Lebanese meal, and along with the other hundred people breathing out the smoke in the restaurant, I slowly suffocate as a haze of fumes begins to form overhead. There is nothing better than frequently smelling like an ashtray.

With enough food to feed a continent, we all take no time to dig right in as soon as the plates touch the tables. With a massive selection of mezzeh (appetizers), meat, chicken, fish and salads it really is no wonder that the Lebanese are known for their cuisine. But what they aren’t known for is the fact that they take it offensively when someone declines their offer to food. It’s normally the women who do it. They offer you food, you say no thank you, they try again, and once more you tell them you’re really full. By their third attempt, it seems like they’re almost resisting the urge to shove whatever it is they’re offering down your throat, and you end up saying yes out of fear. This act of force-feeding tends to continue, even when you’re married with kids, and you are completely capable of feeding yourself. ‘Finjen ahwi?’  I look up to find a waiter offering me a cup of coffee. Never exactly understanding what people like about the unbearably bitter drink, I politely turn down his request as he continues to venture around the table. Most of the adults take up his offer and begin to drink what is possibly their 10th cup of coffee of the day. Caffeine has become embedded in most people’s daily routines, and in Lebanon, no outing is complete without this legal drug.  


As always, we make plans for the rest of the day after standing outside whatever place we were previously in. Waiting for the valets to bring the cars, my uncle asks ‘Where to now?’ Reluctantly, I agree on watching the latest block-buster movie at the cinema, and when we arrived at the mall, my cousins took the job of buying the tickets. Here, people have given ‘standing in a line’ a totally different meaning, at times, the crowds are so violent, that the skills of an American football quarterback are needed to tackle your way to the front. 


After what feels like an eternity, I am finally home, and as I step onto the balcony, I breathe in the warm summer air and a wave of tranquillity washes over me as the breeze swims through my long brown curls. The atmosphere above appears to be a black canvas splattered with a blend of whites, silvers and golds, entangled together to make up an array of constellations, each one more beautiful than the one next to it. I sit upright, as always, taken aback by the flawless view in front of me. For a moment, I can’t hear anything but the sound of the waves, melodiously crashing against the sandy shore, and as I focus my gaze, I set eyes on the city I’ve come to memorise. Street lamps outline the marina, and every now and then a car passes the aged cobbled road, the tyres having learnt by heart every groove and crack in the rocks. A land of culture, history, and generosity, Lebanon prides itself for its dignity and persistence. Even after wars, and political battles, it emerges through the ashes and proves to everyone what survival truly means. With the nobility of a determined soldier it rebuilds its broken cities, and mends the defeated spirits of its people. Magnificent, beautiful, remarkable. That’s how Lebanon is frequently described, and I am more than proud to call it home.


 Written by SARA JAWHAR
 IB1 (11th Grade), IC, Beirut



3.     On Gemmayzeh street 


It is generally acknowledged that Lebanon is one of the most westernized and bustling countries of the Middle East. Many regions of Beirut, Lebanon’s main city reflect this westernization. If for instance one wants to find a street filled with fashionable stores and good food, there is Hamra Street. If students want a place to go to after their long tiring classes, there is Bliss Street. Finally, if some are searching for the noisiest street in Lebanon, there is Gemmayzeh’s main artery: Gouraud Street. 


This street has attracted many tourists and local architects since it was one of the few which preserved its traditional cachet after the war. This has resulted in the opening of many restaurants, pubs and cafés. During the day, the street is remote and a small number of people are seen eating or sitting around. But as night falls, Gemmayzeh Street awakens. Colorful lights shine from every store and pub, and music circulates around the street along the many cars stuck in traffic.  


From the first glance, one can tell that this street is very cosmopolitan: Facing the French bakery, Paul, there is a Lebanese restaurant which has the same owner as the American Jazz pub, Louis, which sits next to Zoto, a Japanese sushi restaurant which has the same manager as the Italian pizza restaurant Olio which always competes with the facing Portuguese restaurant Lord of Wings which suspects the neighboring Argentinian café of stealing its Southern American theme. And this is only at the entrance. 


Further along the street, following the stream of people walking in between the cars, the surrounding is filled with paintings and portraits rich in texture and color which match the multicolored lights of the neighboring disco-themed pubs. These works reside next to a long set of stairs, the ‘Saint Nicholas stairway,’ where  writers come to read their works or to preform small scenes they’ve written. The blend of art, color, music and culture are what make this survivor of the war one of the most precious jewels of Beirut.


But one of the things which make Gemayzeh even more unique is its inhabitants, and more precisely, the old fiancée with the basket. This old woman has been throwing down her basket from the balcony of her traditional little blue house and asking the people below: “Would you pick up the paper over there, it’s a letter from my fiancé”. She has apparently been receiving these letters for the past sixty years. When the electricity occasionally stops working during the late hours of the morning, one of the inhabitants, a  small teenager girl with blond hair and fair skin, puts a chair on the sunny balcony of the tenth floor of the building across the street and watches as the old lady calls out to young people below and watches  her throw down her little basket, over and over again. The television isn’t working, but in the young girl’s opinion, watching the old lady is better than cable. When she is bored, she counts how many times the old lady threw the basket. Once, the basket string broke and fell on a passerby’s head. The teen laughed. She would always think to herself after counting all the ‘letters’ the woman had received: “My, my. You’ve been receiving more letters lately; it’s nice to know you haven’t lost your touch”.  


And so it goes in the life of the street. Gemmayzeh has  a unique sense of community; it should be considered like a port, receiving goods and welcoming boats from all over. The outsiders enter and exit and new visitors come the next day. Festivals and concerts, varying from jazz to rock fill the ears of the passersby, and plays are performed for the lovers of poetry and art. There is no saying what will happen night after night; Gouraud is truly the ever-changing street. 


 Written by CARA MOURANI
 IB1 (11th Grade),  IC, Beirut



4. Sunset arrived and so did the men of the refugee Berj il Barajne. It was a typical Monday when Salim arrived  home. His children Nour and Jamal, ages 6 and 4, run up to their father waiting for him to carry them and swing them around in the air. Yusra, his wife, was preparing supper for her family, which included her mother in law and brother in law. 


Yusra is a pious woman who is always faithful and thankful to God. She never complains about her situation or life; however, beneath all those smiles, Yusra is disappointed and depressed. Sad thoughts flow in her head everyday but her lips never dared to recite her thoughts. Yusra was obedient to her husband; she did everything he asked her. She never had any power in the relationship, but she was thankful he was a good man. Some of her friends' arranged marriages were horrible, and some were in a worse economic situation than she was.


Salim and his family live in a small shelter where life is simple; too simple. It made things complicated for them. His house was made up of three rooms. One room included  mattresses,  a carpet and a small TV. The second was a kitchenette that contained a stove and a mini fridge. There is a bathroom that is useless since water, like electricity is barely available in the refugee camp. 


Yusra brought in the food and the family sat on the floor ready to eat. Jamal and Nour grabbed the bread and began chewing loudly; their grandmother glanced at them but did not comment. Salim ate quietly trying to enjoy the food but his tongue was so familiar with this dish it stopped enjoying it. Salim also got used to his brother’s jokes. Everyday Zarif tried to entertain his family, he felt its the least he can do for his family’s support. Daily his mother prays that soon Zarif would find a simple job to help the family, but she knows that's far from reality. Zarif is limited as an adult and he fears the world tremendously. During the civil war when Zarif was a child, he witnessed what no one should witness and heard painful screams that would never leave his ears. Since then Zarif isolated himself and lived in a world that was only found in his bubble. 


As the family finished supper, Nour asked her father: “Baba, did you get me a bicycle like you promised?” Salim smiled covering his embarrassment and said “ the store was closed, habibteh, but I promise you I will get it soon!” Nour hugged her father for an entire minute, the thought of owning a bicycle blew her mind away. Salim remembered being a kid and asking his farther for a toy he longed for, and everyday his father would carry him in the air and tell him “I promise you tomorrow my son!” Salim never got his toy; now being in his father’s shoes he understands the pain his father must have felt for feeling as a failure. Salim decided to ask for a bonus from his boss just this month in order to buy Nour her bicycle. He did not want to ache anymore; he wanted to make his daughter happy. Salim’s boss  was a middle class person but in Salim’s eyes he was a wealthy man. Salim dreamt about being in his place,  for his boss is able to buy his children any gift at any time. Salim would know for he drives around and brings these gifts to the boss’s children. Salim shrugged at the thought of working for this man, he wasn’t very fond of him due to the way he treated him. 


Like every night, Salim went to see the neighbours, they usually met in a narrow road where their chairs were aligned together in front of the wall and the laundry was hanging above their heads. Salim arrived and settled in his chair; to his right were two men arguing, one claiming that the other had stolen his water. To his left were men smoking and exchanging political jokes. This is where complaints are shared and jokes are heard, it is a getaway for the men of the refugee camp. Salim took a deep breath and sighed, he was too tired to join any of the conversations. He sat there quietly and reminded himself “Life’s the way you make it” and though he himself knew it was only a saying, he liked to believe it was true. Without hope, Salim wouldn’t have the patience to live the same day 365 days a year. 


 Written by SALMA ZAKI
 IB1 (11th Grade), IC, Beirut





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