Jog

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2011 Barrett Winner

1st Place Salah Berri

Samir the mechanic, wide-eyed and smiling, edged the motorbike from his garage and stood it on its last crooked leg. The key, a bent spoon, he tossed to me obliquely. The bike had tires thin and a hundred times plugged and mended, brakes worn and feeble, mudguard twisted outwards, tail lamp scratched and drooping, handlebars stiff and rusted, and front lights scarcely luminescent. But it was all I could afford and I loved it for what it was worth: 95,000.

Baby blue, and like many mopeds in Beirut, the word “jog” was plastered on the front fender. On it I drove everywhere. On it the nameless backstreets and alleyways of the slums were mine; the stone-paved boulevards of tourist Beirut I possessed. At reckless speeds I befriended the crooked concrete slabs and the sloppily patched asphalt mounds. Many times it broke and many times I put it back together. One graduates a mechanic in the streets.

###

“Why are you riding without a helmet?” an officer shouted from his bullet-grey police truck. “There’s a new law now. Get the hell home and don’t drive without the appropriate headgear. Got it?”

I got it, but I didn’t look it because his long and curled mustachio had distracted me. I wondered why the dyed black of it had turned pale red below the tip of his nose. One certainly must be connected to wear his mustache like that. “But then again,” I thought, “why take the trouble to reprimand me?”

“Why are you still here?” he shouted as he struck his horn. “I will make good citizens out of you whether you like it or not! Off with you!”

I squirmed on home at once.

###

The next morning I planned a trip to the junkyard, hoping to pawn a discarded helmet. My father’s sole bequeathal, the first Casio digital wristwatch, I thought perhaps I could pass for expensive memorabilia. The yard keeper, looking it over unimpressed, asked me to return by nightfall, as then he might have a used helmet at his disposal.

On my way back I avoided the safer route home, fearing my jog would further fall prey to our city’s ubiquitous landmark: the pothole. But a bad decision, as the straighter road landed me at a police checkpoint.

The gendarme directing traffic was a menace; he threw his arms up, gesticulating to his inferiors to turn inside out the laymen’s cars he had pulled over. Everyone looked suspicious to him. I guess that is what fifteen years of civil war will do to a civil servant.

The very officer, seeing from my moped and frayed blouse that I was nothing more than a commoner, pulled me over of course. My baby 2012

trouble to reprimand me?”

“Why are you still here?” he shouted as he struck his horn. “I will make good citizens out of you whether you like it or not! Off with you!”

I squirmed on home at once.

###

The next morning I planned a trip to the junkyard, hoping to pawn a discarded helmet. My father’s sole bequeathal, the first Casio digital wristwatch, I thought perhaps I could pass for expensive memorabilia. The yard keeper, looking it over unimpressed, asked me to return by nightfall, as then he might have a used helmet at his disposal.

On my way back I avoided the safer route home, fearing my jog would further fall prey to our city’s ubiquitous landmark: the pothole. But a bad decision, as the straighter road landed me at a police checkpoint.

The gendarme directing traffic was a menace; he threw his arms up, gesticulating to his inferiors to turn inside out the laymen’s cars he had pulled over. Everyone looked suspicious to him. I guess that is what fifteen years of civil war will do to a civil servant.

The very officer, seeing from my moped and frayed blouse that I was nothing more than a commoner, pulled me over of course. My baby blue Vespa he and his dark friends impounded into an overstuffed police pick-up and at length drove away. I handled myself well during the whole proceeding, and only once did I blurt out to the officer a “What do I do now?”

“Now you pay a lot of money,” he sneered.

###

I walked home. I knew I had to retrieve the old thing by other means, means other than the purse, that is. I spent the night sleepless, conjuring up ideas of how best to go about retrieving my bike. I tossed in bed until a lingering thought struck me cold: I’ll look for the well-connected moustache man and ask for his help. I didn’t care for the subordination; my aimless forays into the city on my jog were all I had in my drab and idle everyday, and I couldn’t go back to sprawling listlessly in our cramped apartment, day and night with my mother’s black and white Magnavox, lifeless, toggling between our eight channels of shit.

###

I began my stroll to the police station on a busy Tuesday afternoon. The traffic around Hamra bustled with cars and pedestrians—students, shoppers and workers alike. The July sun had scorched our Beirut sky and my blouse clenched my skin from perspiration. I had planned to arrive at Bliss Street through a back alley, but I ran forgetful of the exact route, so much was the heat and the unwavering congestion of people and cars that I could not focus on treading the right path. I arrived at the police station shortly thereafter. A young officer at the door said to me:

“What are you here for?”

“I’m looking for an officer.”

“What’s his name?”

“I don’t know.”

“What do you want to talk to him about then?”

“Nothing. I just want to—”

“I can’t help you if you don’t have a name.”

“He has a moustache. Curled.”

“They all have moustaches...”

“It’s a little red in the middle.”

This last detail made him chuckle.

“You are funny habibi. Look here, take the stairs to the third, you’ll find his office to your left. Ask for Mr. Issam el-Hajj.”

Quickly I made my way up the stairs but stopped a few steps short of the third floor. “What am I to tell him?” I asked myself. “I can remind him of our encounter in the street and how the very next day I went to buy the ‘appropriate headgear.’ He will listen and I won’t stare at his mustache.”

I walked into the office — it looked tidy, a few wooden chairs scattered about; the air was muggy and the ceiling fan was the only means of ventilation. In the corner, a young woman signaled for me. She appeared in a hurry.

“What is it? Tell me,” she said.

“I’m looking for Mr. el-Hajj.”

“Oh sorry dear you just missed him. He’ll be here at 10 tomorrow—come back then?”

“Ok.” I nodded disappointedly and turned to leave.

“Wait, what did you want from him?”

“Oh…I just wanted to say hello.”

“Hello? Are you related to him?”

When she said this, I thought for a second to lie and say that I was in fact a distant relative, but I fell silent instead. She took it for a tacit yes.

“Oh you are? Why didn’t you say so? Issam lives nearby you know—you should visit him at home. Here, I’ll write you the address.” She scribbled it on a tiny piece of paper and handed it to me.

“What if he doesn’t accept visitors?” I asked myself on the way. “What if he laughs in my face?” But having so soon arrived at his marble-stone high-rise, I thought: “To hell with it, why am I fretting over this? The moped is gone anyway. I don’t have the money to pay to get it back—not in a hundred years! I’ll just go up there for at-least-I-tried’s sake. What am I to lose?”

###

I stood between two doors on the twelfth floor landing. Mr. el-Hajj lived behind one of them, but the directions didn’t specify which. Hesitant to knock on the wrong one, I brought my ear closer to the door on the left to listen in, hoping that I might catch his voice. But I didn’t hear a thing save for the gentle progression of chords on a piano. I knocked anyways—once, twice, until a certain girl opened the door abruptly. Oh was she beautiful! Her long wavy chestnut hair flung lazily around her face, her eyes like swirls of dizzying hazel, and her soft brown complexion transfixing. She wore a long burgundy dress that cut across her body perfectly. She was my age, I figured, perhaps a year or two older.

“Sorry,” she said, “I thought you were someone else.”

I spoke quietly, my hands pressed together behind my back.

“Hello. Is Mr. el-Hajj here?”

“No. The other door,” she replied.

I apologized and turned to go.

“But what’s your name?” she asked.

I turned again and saw her smiling. I felt ill.

“Do you have a name?”

“Nabih.”

“Nabih? Like Nabih Berri.” She laughed. “I’m Dina.”

I smiled cautiously, ailed by my self-consciousness.

“Well, how old are you?” she continued.

“Fif—sixteen.”

She drew closer. “Why are you looking at me like that?”

“Like how?”

“Like you’re trying to remember me, like you know me.”

She couldn’t see that I was looking at her like she was another version of myself that I didn’t know.

“Will you knock at my door after you see Mr. Issam? We can talk more.”

“Yes, for sure,” I replied, relieved from the torture of her presence. “I won’t be long.”

I didn’t know what to make of it. What did she want with a Casio wristwatch wearing, public school boy like me? She should really have come to my old-rent apartment in the slums of south Beirut; I fathom it would be very different from Hamra, from her piano lessons and her marble-stone apartment.

I knocked at the other door immediately. The servant, a young Filipino, opened and led me to the living room where Mr. Issam el-Hajj was sitting on his mahogany chair. Still in uniform, he was engaged in a fiery exchange with a tall and very thin man whom he called Abed. Mr. Issam greeted me warmly.

“Oh it’s you, my boy! I’m so glad you’ve come, although I don’t know why, but it doesn’t matter, since we were just discussing you. I don’t mean you you, but you as in the Lebanese youth, our beacon of hope. Sit down, please sit.” Having said this in a frenzy, Issam pulled up a chair for me.

I made out a half-empty bottle of Arak on the table. “Of course,” I thought, “why didn’t I realize it before? These men are far from sober.”

Abed picked up on the conversation.

“I know, Issam, but you’re wrong to say that the system is here to help us or that we should rebuild it back to the way it was before the civil war. And I disagree with you completely. Granted the Taif Accord ended the civil war, but it was not a good step for progress. Don’t you think for a moment, my friend, that the thousands of up-and-coming youngsters who fled Lebanon are coming back anytime soon? Come on now, many have been gone close to fifteen years, they have new families, new lives in the West; we need a hundred years of stability and advancement to get them back, even to get them to send their children back.”

This man spoke in such a delicate manner, almost as a direct contrast to the obnoxious tone that Issam responded with.

“Ah Abed, you don’t give us a chance. We are rebuilding, all of the militias have disbanded—well, almost all, heh-heh—there’s hope yet. Our people no longer will succumb to the naïveté that has clouded our country for the past...well since ’58. I tell you, our people are rising above the turmoil; you watch and see how we will rebuild our Paris of the Middle East, just you watch and see... The youth will soon find education again, jobs again, and happiness again. Just you wait and see...”

Issam’s opulent proclamation didn’t stop here, but I no longer paid attention—I wanted time alone with my thoughts to think of her.

“She must be waiting for me now. So she is rich and I am not, but what if we fall in love? What about love? Love does not care for money. But what if I stay here too long and she leaves all by herself, and I never see her again? I will run to her now. I will stand up and leave. I don’t care for these yammering drunks. I don’t need their pity. I will leave with my head held high—now!” But I didn’t twitch even. I sat down and listened just the same. I reasoned with myself that I shouldn’t leave so suddenly.

“But Issam, do you know that of our late teens and twenties, women outnumber men four to one? Look at the reality of things: we are a confessional state, conceived only a few short decades ago, we have not had long-term stability in our country since Shehab, but never mind you that. Two of my cousins my uncle sent to Brazil; I sent my son Rami (he was only two!) and my wife to Paris after Black Saturday ... I spoke with him, Issam, last week, and you know what he said to me? He said, ‘I won’t come back to a country that lists your religious sect on your identity card, and exploits its youth in tedious army service. We all know our army is a cheap ploy contrived to create the semblance of whatever nation there isn’t.’ –What was I to reply to that? Don’t just sit and pretend that everything will be all right. You’re living a good life here, Issam, and I wish you the best, but not everyone has a job as yours. And do you even recall how you got it in the first place?”

Issam tried quickly to dismiss the question: “Let’s not get into that now, Abed, but I understand your point.” Frowning, he poured the remainder of the bottle of Arak and downed it in one go.

Abed suddenly turned to me and mumbled, “Go on, ask him how he got his prestigious job.”

To this I didn’t reply. I had already figured in my head that Issam had inherited it somehow, as merit held very little sway in our public workforce. But Issam took offense to our side-conversation and said pompously:

“If you don’t want to ask, I’ll be more than glad to tell you. The whole world operates in this way, young man, and our country is no different, you hear? It’s not always what you can do but who you know – since when did that become exclusive to Lebanon?” He turned to Abed and said, “You’re more drunk than me so I will forgive you for not using your head,” and then turning back to me, he said “but you my boy, what excuse do you have? Is this funny or what? You haven’t said a word since the moment you got here, which leads me to think that you are an illiterate or something. Hah but you are not, so tell me what do you think of our debate?”

They stared at me fixedly, in warm anticipation. I assembled a few thoughts with haste and spoke the first thing that came to mind.

“Sir, I’ve lived here with my mother my whole life and we never thought of leaving Beirut, but now I want to leave. I have nothing left here. Even my bike was taken away.”

Issam buried his hands in his face and laughed caustically, so much that he could not control himself and fell to the floor in mirthful convulsions. I did not understand any of it. I looked to Abed: he had a look of sympathy on his face; I didn’t know whether it was directed at me or Issam, who by now had lost himself completely. The sweat on my forehead accumulated, my palms perspired; I was dumbfounded.

“Do you see what bullshit... hahahahaha!” Issam had scarcely gathered himself to speak. “What bullshit they feed these children on the street?” He addressed his friend loudly, his back to me. “Oh how glad I am that my two boys have parents to care for them. Believe me when I say that I have them in the best of our private schools: Rawdah. They are taught three languages, Abed, and the arts and sciences. And they want to stay here to serve their country even if all she can offer them is bread and butter. They will never say foolish things like him. They believe in the future of Lebanon and they will serve their leaders faithfully, not run around begging for visas because they ‘have nothing here’ as he said! How can you have nothing, you fool? He has obviously been corrupted—precisely why our country has been hampered for the past three decades, because of self-denying homeless cowards like him. Run off to America then! Off with you, coward!”

I lowered my eyes. The previous encounter with Dina had put my emotions in flux, and the way that mustachioed monster had insulted me (all the while talking about me as if I were not in his presence) wounded me the most.

He heaved a bronchial cough and went on more spitefully. “Who let this filth into my house anyway?”

“Your mother!” I cried impetuously, bursting from my chair.

He stormed at me in a flash and tugged me violently by the collar of my shirt. I thrust my elbow into his stomach but the fat glutton had drunk himself numb. He dragged me outside to the landing and, shouting profanely, leveled me to the floor. Abed came running after us.

“Why do you do this to the boy? He did you no harm.” He spoke rather calmly.

I heard no more after that, since by then Mr. Issam had thrown me out and slammed the door.

I remember I stood there with my hands shaking in my pockets. I turned a bitter gaze to Dina’s door: it was slightly opened, and somewhere in the shadowy background was her visage fixed upon my face. I picked up and ran like I had never run before. I ran to get as far away from her as possible. Down the stairs and onto the street. I ran to cloud my gnawing thoughts. I ran to mollify my mortification.

The deafening squalor of car traffic faded into the background. I heard only the reckless percussion of my feet stomping on the crooked asphalt and the blood thumping in my ears. I discovered within me a seething energy that did not heed to fatigue. I became aware that I was in Verdun Street after I bumped into one of those rich old crones who spare no item of makeup from their wrinkled faces. (Trying to recapture youth perhaps?) She cursed at me but I didn’t apologize. I yearned suddenly for an act of subversion. I wanted to trample Hyde-like the plastic pedestrians around me. I wanted to spit on their cellular phones and cars and upper class swagger!

The idea loomed within me that Dina was the source of my anger. I felt such disdain for her that even the thought of the man throwing me out of his home appeared to me a superfluous detail, something I endured along the way to my real torment. But what was it? I had only known her a moment!

The rest of the route home escapes me. I may have fled through Mar Elias, but that’s me speculating. At home I found no one. Mother was probably out waxing the hair off rich Lebanese housewives. I had myself a gulp of fizzled-out Miranda and dumped the rest of the can in the sink. I was starting to regain my composure, the sweat on my temples had long dried, and the blood boiling in my chest suddenly heeded to a ticklish, rather cool sensation. It was here that I entered into deep contemplation: while peering from my veranda I began to see outrageous, luminous images of the world. Samir’s old mechanic garage glowed sublimely in the evening light as if it were a brilliant phantasmagoria of dirtily contented hard labor. Samir was perhaps lost between shriveled tires and ball bearings, and bent-up hoods and smashed windshields.

Cigarette dangling from my lips, eyes quietly surveying the harsh setting of Samir’s garage amidst the harsh sounds of iron and metal and the loud television newscasts and the indecipherable chatter of my overpopulated locale, I laughed aloud to myself. Somehow, when I should have been howling at the injustice in the world, I was experiencing a most fulfilling, most lulling kind of awareness.

Spent from all the thoughts that had come into my head, I threw myself on my bed and fell into a deep slumber.

###

My mother, worried sick after three days of my self-quarantine, attempted to cheer me up by taking me to see a play by an up-and-coming Lebanese playwright whose witticisms thrived on political parody. It was not so much the play as a whole that I approved of but a particular scene in which the protagonist hails his fists to the sky and, quoting Schiller, proclaims: “La bourse ou la vie, mon amour, la bourse ou la vie!”

###

At home, my mother sat me down on our threadbare sofa, patted me on the back and said:

“Nabbouha, dear, I know our life is not ideal. And I know you’re hurt because they took your moto away, but that’s the law and you will get over it. I have an appointment with a very important Madame tomorrow and I will try to ask her for help, but I cannot promise anything.”

“No Mama, don’t ask her for anything. Please.”

“Pour quoi?”

“Just don’t. I don’t need them.”

“Look, I have to tell you something. Listen to me. You’re my only son, but I don’t say this because you’re my only son. Believe me, go back a decade or so and you will see your mother working with boys your age everyday. I taught French to teenagers like you for almost eight years. But you are not like everyone—I swear by it. You are a very intelligent boy. So listen to me, d’accord?”

“Yes.”

“Don’t let it go to waste. You have potential, realize that. So come on, don’t be so hard on yourself, go out and see your friends, play and have fun, so when school starts you will be focused and happy and pay attention in class.”

I began to reply, but I knew I had nothing valuable to say. My mom had said this to me countless times before, and it seemed to me that she did not believe the words herself. It was as if by rote, an uninspired talk she had contrived to see that I went about my daily business again. In short, a speech barbed unawares with false hope and subservience. But I did not budge: she hadn’t moved me in the least. On the contrary, I almost laughed in her face. But I knew not to be derisive with my mother—however little she had to offer me, she still provided the roof over my head.

The next morning, I went down to Samir’s garage. He was painstakingly attempting to peel off the tinted film from the windshield of an old Volkswagen Beetle.

“How’s the jog holding up?” he said by way of hello.

“The impound’s got it,” I replied, very matter of fact.

He scoffed jaggedly and stared me from behind the half-effaced tint.

“The tariff’s out, eh? Well? Know someone high up? Otherwise forget about it.”

I turned to go. I spit on people like him!

“Don’t worry,” he continued, “I can get it back for you.”

“How?” I blurted distrustfully.

“How else? I’ll break it out.” He flashed his crooked teeth. “That’s the way to do things here if you’re still too little to see. But not for free, nothing here is, you know that. 50,000.”

“50,000?! How the hell do I find you 50,000? I can’t even afford a falafel. I have nothing. I gave you all my money.”

“What about your mother?” he said cleverly. “I bet she’s got it.”

###

Funny. If there was anyone worth robbing it was my mother. She was like them after all, our compatriots of “bread and butter.” Issam el-Hajj she would make proud. A peak into her little room at midnight, and there, ever so tightly in her arms, would be her shabby, blackened faux leather purse. I could steal on tiptoe into her room and gently pull the old purse from her sleeping grasp. She would turn and break off her snore perhaps, and dream on about her yuppie-Madame clientele and her long-dead-gone life as a French teacher at the Lycée National.

###

“Look here, if you can’t find the 50,000,” Samir shouted at me from across the street, “just come and work for me and you’ll make it in no time.”

How long, I wonder, is no time? a day? a week? a month? A hundred years for a bike: his idea of a fair exchange. I would dwell perhaps in the soot pits of his garage, the literal scum of the earth. Mécanicien! for the rest of my life here. Exactly why I would not know but it would be beautiful and poetic somehow. Rather live on between the suffocating refuse of rundown automobiles, everyday crawling beneath street-wrecked cab-yellow 280s, than have to worship the haves for a chance at flashing my plastic in the streets of Verdun.

The jog of course I would never have back. Mama she would die of disease undiagnosed. And I would live on in my exact skeletal apartment, an automaton smothered in coal-colored exhaust—my wearied bones thin and itching for a long and dreamless sleep, the drought from which I would have endured as well had I not been born and raised here once, a child.