ressing an ear to his Mama’s belly, the little boy listens again, hunting for signs of a beginning.
Mama kisses the top of his head and warns him that enough is enough. She has tried to keep typing with his head under her elbows, to no avail, and so she is left with little choice but to brush him away. Though she would much rather proffer her affections unconditionally, between the growing baby in her belly and working from home all day, the insistence of the little boy often leaves her feeling strained. "Go play in the other room,” she instructs him. She must finish before the courier arrives to collect her work. "Go see Baba.”
Doing as he’s told, the little boy runs into the next room, if only to please his Mama, who recently informed him, during a mild outburst he’s since taken to heart and she’s since regretted, that her delivery of his new friend depends entirely on how he behaves. Fearing he’ll lose the friend he so desperately wants, the little boy has gone out of his way to be good.
He runs into the next room and pounces upon his Baba like the cunning tiger he imagines himself to be, and roars proudly into his father’s neck. His Baba, who up until then was lost to a hypnotic plume of black smoke outside the window, bridles and guffaws under the sudden weight of the little boy, who has gotten heavier and rounder, a bit like his mother, in the months since the schools closed.
Baba, who lies on the sofa most days now, takes him by the armpits and raises him over his head
"And what’s your name?” Baba chides him, as part of a routine of questions that the boy has grown to expect, even anticipate.
"Niko!” the little boy shouts his name. His name is not really Niko, but Nahkle Karaam, the same name as his father Antoine, and the same name as his grandfather and great-grandfather before him. It’s a name that’s been handed down to every first son in his family, all the way back to the first Nahkle, who worked in Adam’s fields. Or so Baba tells him when he tells stories.
"And how old are you, Niko?”
The little boy shouts, "Six!”
"And what would you rather be doing right now?”
"Going to school!” But none of them can spend much time outside. The little boy is trapped inside this apartment most days. It’s December, and he’s been waiting to attend his first class of the school year for more than three months. Soon, his parents fear that the year may be cancelled again.
From the kitchen Mama protests that she has a deadline to meet, and that if her husband and son can’t keep quiet for the next hour, then one of them will have to drive to the television studio in person to drop off her work. And the other, she adds skeptically, after some thought, may not get a new friend after all.
The little boy covers his mouth with his hands. Not only does he want his new friend, but he also does not know how to drive. His Baba brings him down to rest on his chest.
"And will you be a good student?” Baba whispers.
He promises he will. Together, Baba and the little boy lie on the sofa and watch the black plume of smoke trail off in the blue sky. The boy gazes wonderingly at the horizon. Then Baba burps. Baba has the worst breath of any man he’s ever met. Baba looks sad lying on the sofa. He used to run a camera equipment shop at the base of their building, but a few weeks ago the storefront was bombed out. So the little boy snuggles under his father’s arm and feels conflicted, because he does not like to know that Baba is still sad about his store, especially when he enjoys how Baba now spends his days in the apartment with him, four stories up, watching cartoons. And so the little boy changes the subject to a recurring conversation they’ve been having behind his mother’s back recently.
"Boy or girl?” The boy knows there is no answer yet, but he likes to ask anyhow to hear the stories Baba will make up.
"Ah, yes, the question of your new friend,” Baba says. "Well, you know, it’s funny you should ask. Yesterday, I was driving to Jounieh, you know, for a job, and who stops me at the checkpoint but God himself.”
"Stopping cars?” The little boy looks stunned.
"Yes, God himself waves at me from the checkpoint to stop my car, and so I stop, and he asks me to roll down the window, and so I roll it down, and then of course he asks for my papers, and once he sees that I am one of his, only then does he smile at me and puts his rifle on his shoulder and we begin to chat.”
"What does he say?”
"You know, things you expect God to say. This war is taking too long. My condolences for your shop, Antoine. It’s a nice day to drive to Jounieh. Things like that. Then he says, well, what can I do for you, my friend? So I tell him, I want to know: will I have a son or a daughter? So he laughs, he says to me, you know, no one in Beirut has any patience left, and it’s true, so we laugh together, and then God says, you will have your answer soon enough.”
"Then what?” the little boy asks excitedly.
"Then nothing,” Baba says. "He slaps the hood of the car twice, bam bam, and I drive away.”
"What did he look like?”
"Oh, you know, nothing special.” Baba considers a worthy description to fit an already tall story. "He has the beard and the eyes, you know they feel like sunlight when he looks at you, like his eyes have been watching you all your life.”
Mama holds her belly and shouts. "Stop telling him stories. He believes every word you feed him.” Then she’s back to clacking away at the typewriter again.
Baba sets the boy down on the carpet. The little boy crawls across the room and grapples with the large knobs of the television, to see if any channels have come through the perpetual snow. He’s in luck. Quickly, he finds a madcap episode of Tom & Jerry and immediately delivers all of his attention to the cartoon. Soon his father, with nothing else to do, is watching the show as well.
During the last three months of sitting in the apartment, the little boy’s friendship with this cartoon cat and mouse has deepened; he finds Tom and Jerry to be dependable animals, defiant and full of life every weekday afternoon, provided the channel comes through. He prefers Jerry to Tom. When neither is around, he has told Baba that Popeye amuses him as well, though he still does not like spinach. Also, though the little boy would rather reserve his final judgment for several more episodes, he doesn’t mind laughing with the Pink Panther, whose sole occupation, it seems, is to paint a world of blue back into pink.
As he follows the cat-and-mouse adventures he forgets the world outside, with its black plumes of smoke and intermittent gunfire. Then there is a knock at the door, and Baba gets up and peers through the peephole.
"It’s only the courier,” Baba says, sliding the bolts from their locks. "Elise,” he calls into the kitchen. "For you.”
Even though it’s only the courier who has come to collect his Mama’s pages for the day, the little boy abandons his cartoons and rushes to the bedroom, where he shuts the door behind him and he lies on his bed, which is right next to his parents’ bed. He is intensely shy around adults. His head propped against the wall, he opens a tattered copy of Le chat dans le chapeau and studies the pictures he already knows so well. He also owns a hand-me-down copy of Green Eggs and Ham, and though it’s in English he still enjoys the illustrations, which he often compares, with great care, to their counterparts in the French Dr. Seuss. Would he eat green eggs or green ham? Never.
Later in the afternoon, when he opens the bedroom door again and finds his Mama and Baba have fallen asleep together on the sofa, he quietly mounts the fire-red Miele canister vacuum in the hall and, activating its wheels, he turns the appliance into a fire engine. He is small enough to straddle its hood, and normally he can replicate a revving engine simply by turning it on. This he does not do then, with his parents sleeping peacefully. He knows that they do not sleep well in the cellar at night. So, as quietly as possible, he pushes the vacuum cleaner throughout the apartment with his feet, now an ambulance, now a police car, now an army jeep, pretending to suck up soldier figurines with the hose attachment, as if theyare the dead below.
Riding the vacuum cleaner, he wonders what else he can do to pass the rest of the afternoon. The possibilities are limited: he is the proud owner of a fly swatter. When his parents nap, he often spends time hunting flies around the apartment. Usually, the flies buzz away before he can manage an ambush, and he’s forced to plot his trap all over again, in another corner of the apartment. But once or twice he has succeeded, and so he keeps trying. Later in the afternoon, the eternal afternoon, he will ask Baba if he can ride the old tricycle back and forth across the balcony, even though his knees now scrape the handlebars. He would be happy to just stand out there and fire caps at birds through the lattice of chicken wire that obscures the balcony from end to end.
His parents still sleep, and there are no flies in the apartment. Tired of pushing the vacuum cleaner, the little boy lies down on his bed once more and thinks that, if all else fails, he can always go back to watching Mama’s stomach grow, and again he hopes, with all the sincerity of a prayer, that he has behaved well enough for his mother to give him a new friend. If she’s making him a new friend, through a mystery he cannot even begin to decipher, he knows only that he won’t be so alone anymore. He falls asleep this way, waiting patiently just as God told his Baba, imagining new friends climbing out from his Mama’s belly.
Later, Baba rocks him gently awake and places the still sleepy boy upon his shoulders. As he yawns, they duck through the doorway, and in the kitchen he sees that his mother has cleared her papers from the table, to a pile atop the fridge, so that she can prepare supper.
"Come,” Baba says, "let’s go downstairs and have a cigarette.”
Baba bends down like a camel to set the little boy back on the floor. Niko scrambles from his father’s shoulders and bounds across the hall to fetch his plastic ball.
"Don’t stay too long,” Mama calls, because soon supper will be on the table.
The little boy runs down the stairs ahead of Baba, eager to venture out into the parking lot behind their building. Once, the back door of his father’s shop opened directly onto the courtyard, and the little boy used to play down there every day. Now the little boy only gets outside every few days, and he kicks a plastic ball against the wall as Baba has a cigarette in the blackened doorway of his old life. Then Baba ventures deeper inside and looks around, remembering what the shop looked like with counters and displays. The storefront is boarded over. From the street, no one can tell a store ever existed here.
At the sound of the ball bouncing off the wall, more children run down to join in. They too have been standing on the balcony, staring out through chicken wire. Four buildings line the courtyard, each at least six stories high. Baba says that, if not for the gaping hole of bright blue sky above, the parking lot would be almost as safe as the cellar.
Within minutes, there are four boys taking turns kicking that plastic ball against the wall. Four years old or fifteen, age doesn’t matter as they play rounds of soccer or hide-and-seek between parked cars, until they are beckoned back indoors, sometimes by their parents for supper, or sometimes by the caustic drill of a machinegun’s stutter, the shrill whistle of a shoulder-mounted missile, the throaty guffaw of mortar blasting through the side of a building. Today’s game ends when the little boy’s errant kick drives the ball into the side of a neighbor’s Audi, leaving a dent in the door. All the other children scramble away, and as his Baba rushes out from his old store, Niko knows that, no matter what happens now, his Mama will be angry with him, and his chances at new friendship diminish before his eyes.
One day in January the schools in their neighbourhood of Hamra reopen. That morning, Baba takes the little boy out on the balcony and has him pose for several pictures, because the first day of school, he says, is an important day in a student’s life. The little boy hasn’t seen his father this proud of him in many weeks, and he decides that Baba is happiest when he has an excuse to use the camera.
"Perhaps this will be the most important day you have lived so far,” Baba muses. "You never can tell.” He tilts the camera and asks for a big smile.
The little boy smiles, and Baba clicks away. They set the camera on a tripod and pose for a family portrait: Baba, Mama, belly, and the little boy together. One, two, three, four. Then he kisses his Mama and her belly good-bye and follows Baba down to the parking lot, bounding down the stairs two, three steps at a time. In the parking lot, other boys and girls appear dressed in their finest clothes, pressed shirts, shined shoes, combed hair, new notebooks, ready to attend classes.
They drive through checkpoints, to the front gates of the school. Even though the little boy has been here before, he cowers shyly behind Baba’s legs as they enter the building. It has been a long time since he has seen so many people in one building. His Baba leads him down a long hall to a door covered with colorful drawings, where Niko meets his teacher, Mme. Murr, a young woman with thick eyebrows and a bored smile. She asks him to sit cross-legged in a circle of fifteen other children, all as excited and nervous and frightened and eager as he is.
The school day is only four hours long, yet they still manage to do a lot, and after his initial reluctance to be left alone subsides and his father has slipped away from the bench outside the classroom door, the little boy is pleased to be in a room with so many other children his age.
Their first school day begins with a game that involves whistling, which only two students can do well. The little boy, though he tries, is not one of them. One girl asks how pushing air through pursed lips produces sound. The teacher has no answer for that. "It’s one of the magical qualities that fills our otherwise normal lives,” she says. The girl decides right then and there that she wants to be a magician when she grows up.
The teacher says, "The best way to start a life in magic is to learn how to whistle.”
Together, they all push air through their teeth.
Once they’ve tired of whistling, they learn the words to the national anthem that no one sings anymore. After a round of practice, Mme. Murr brings out a record player from the cabinet, and the class listens to the official version. The second time through, they all sing along.
Then it’s time to have a snack and play outside. The school has its own courtyard, where giant willow trees grow. Niko joins others who jostle in line to swing from vine to vine. The courtyard also has two large sandboxes, a slide, monkey bars, a swing set, and a merry-go-round. Over the course of the half-hour break, he plays on all of them, laughing and shouting and jumping. If only every day could bring such pleasures.
After the break, he and the rest of his class (for they are now, after the recess, an unbreakable bond in everything they do) take assigned seats around two large tables for an Arabic lesson. On the board, the teacher writes a letter from the alphabet: aleph. The little boy copies it onto draft paper. One long line.
The Arabic lesson ends, and Mme. Murr draws the class’s attention to the wooden shelf at the back of the classroom, where fifteen yellow flowerpots, filled with soil, wait to be seeded. One by one, each student walks over and chooses a pot. The teacher passes around a bag of seeds. With his thumb, the little boy pushes the seed down into the soil.
A bell rings and the little boy’s first day of school comes to an end. He is finally in school, though it passes quickly, too quickly. By and by, mothers, fathers, and housekeepers pass through the room to pick up their children. Soon, he’s the only one left. Niko sits outside the classroom, alone, studying the drawings pasted on the door by the previous year’s students. Soon, he imagines, his work will be up there, too.
He walks through the corridors to the bench right in front of the school’s main doors. He sits there instead. An hour passes, and the little boy’s stomach rumbles with anxiety. It occurs to him, for the first time that maybe his parents have forgotten him. Where could his Baba be? The little boy thinks of going back to the classroom to ask Mme. Murr that very question, but here she is, walking down the hall.
"I’ve been looking for you,” she says. "You should let me know whenever you decide to walk off. There’s a war beyond the school walls, let’s remember.”
He nods, aware that she’s aggravated with him. He apologizes; he can’t bear to have an adult disappointed in him. She says nothing. He needs to go to the bathroom, but now he’s afraid to ask. Mme. Murr takes him by the hand to the superintendent’s office. The superintendent sits him down.
"Listen,” he says, "your father, he can’t come. I will drive you to your grandfather’s.”
As they walk to the superintendent’s car, the little boy apologizes yet again for not waiting in the right spot.
"Don’t worry about that,” the superintendent assures him.
As the car maneuvers through the streets, the superintendent and the little boy pass an apartment building where a gaping hole of twisted balcony railing gives way to the innards of what was once a family’s living room. On the next balcony over, an elderly woman hangs laundry to dry. Some of the other buildings they pass are unscathed. Baba once told him this is because the landlords can afford to pay for security. His Jidduh says that war remembers too much, and the last thing people need here is more to remember. Long memories will be the death of us all.
The superintendent drives by the Corniche for a few blocks, where the sea breeze coming off the bay would normally fill the air with the smell of salt. But nowadays people only drive here to throw out their garbage, and the harbor is now a landfill. Waves push plastic bags and swollen islands of toilet paper against the rocks, like tangles of seaweed. With his hands pressed against the window, the little boy squints to see if he can recognize the logos on the bags. What store have they come from, he wants to know, and has he been there with Mama. Food is expensive, she often complains. The little boy doesn’t like powdered milk. He gags every time he hears his Mama boiling water, portioning the powder into the glass.
Soon they pass the little boy’s church, its dome and big doors standing unharmed among the rubble. Should he tell the superintendent that they’re passing through his neighborhood? The superintendent looks worried; his eyes are darting around every corner. He’s driving cautiously. Even though it’s bright out, the streets are empty.
If we’re going to visit Jidduh, the little boy decides, then my parents must be there as well. He speculates that they’ve all planned a surprise party for his first day back at school. He hopes someone, maybe even his Jidduh, has decided it’s time to pay for lamb. He’s had weeks of thin chickens. Now they’re passing Mama’s bank, and now they’re in familiar territory: the cigarette store, the pharmacy, down the street the little boy spots the side of their building. Militiamen and Red Cross ambulances have blocked off the street. He wonders if a car has exploded on their street. As the superintendent pulls away, down another street, the little boy sits up on his knees and looks out the back window at the mess they’re leaving behind.
Soon they arrive at his Jidduh’s apartment. Waiting in the doorway, Jidduh, his Mama’s Baba, the oldest and wisest man the little boy knows, steps outside as soon as the Citroën pulls up to the curb. Somewhere not too far off, a machine gun sputters. After Niko gets out of the car, the superintendent speeds off without waving goodbye.
The little boy asks his Jidduh if he can expect lamb for dinner, and Jidduh says dinner can wait. "We have somewhere to go.”
"Where is Baba?”
"Waiting for us. Come, we must go, quick. They’re all waiting.”
In his Jidduh’s car, his thoughts racing with possibilities, the little boy can already smell a restaurant with lamb and a toilet, where he and his family can sit down and eat and laugh and celebrate his new skill, whistling, and the growth of plants. He expects that other students might be there as well, celebrating their first days of school with their own families.
They’re driving fast again, now past a group of boys dodging into doorways, pistols in hand. Jidduh, whom the little boy loves for his long stories and his many vests and for the smell of his pipe, says almost nothing during the drive. Where are they going, the little boy wants to know. But Jidduh is reluctant to say anything at all.
Soon after they leave their neighborhood and arrive at a checkpoint. Jidduh shuffles through his fake identifications, while they wait in the line of cars.
Jidduh rolls down the window, holds his card out.
"Where are you going?” asks the guard.
"The hospital,” says Jidduh.
The young man looks intently at Jidduh, then back at the identification card. He bangs the butt of his pistol twice on the hood of the car. "Yellah, get out.”
Hesitant to leave the car, Jidduh instead tries to reason with the fiery young man by explaining how he must deliver this little boy to the hospital, to see his mother. He nods in his grandson’s direction. The young man leans down and looks inside the car. The little boy holds so still the guard must feel that he is looking at a statue. In the end, Jidduh reaches for his wallet and produces several bills. The young man takes the money, counts it, and waves his pistol at his friend manning the barricade.
Now the little boy knows they’re driving to the hospital to see his Mama, and his mind is racing with speculations of brothers, or maybe even a sister, which wouldn’t be so bad after all. They make a turn onto a road he recognizes from the visits his Mama makes to the doctor, to check on the baby. The little boy shudders with excitement. Within the hour, he concludes, he’ll finally meet his new brother or sister. He wants a little brother more than a little sister, but in the end he’ll settle for either one. As the older brother, Niko plans to come home from school each day and share all he’s learned. By the time his new friend has his or her school photo taken on the balcony, he’ll know more than even his teacher. He imagines a boy and a girl, a brother and a sister, standing side by side on their balcony, with frozen smiles. He imagines an entire playground’s worth of children, like the playground he witnessed earlier that day at the school, stepping out of his Mama’s belly and lining up to embrace him.
After they park the car, the little boy asks if he can pee against the hospital’s wall, but his Jidduh tells him, "No, there’s no time.”
Somewhere beyond the buildings, a thunderous roar blazes and the ground shakes. Jidduh picks up the boy and runs into the hospital. People everywhere scatter as a billow of smoke rises from the west. The little boy holds onto his Jidduh’s neck, wrapping his legs tightly around the old man’s waist, eager more than ever to see his Mama and his new brother or sister.
Once they pass through the hospital doors, Jidduh slows to a cumbersome jog, breathes deeply, coughs, and begins to explain to the little boy the situation at hand. "Inside,” he warns, "you’ll see things you may not understand, that I won’t even understand. Nobody knows what the future holds. Our only choice in the matter is to live, to continue living, to find out how things are going to turn out. All we can do is hope.”
As they pass briskly through the hospital corridors and up two flights of stairs, Jidduh gives Niko an urgent squeeze, as if to impress the sadness of their surroundings, and the little boy hugs him back, oblivious and joyful, eager to start this new episode in their lives. His Jidduh, after all, is right. The little boy has no say in the matter: brother or sister, he will love them both equally. He already knows that hospitals are not only for new babies, but also for the sick and the elderly and those who stumble and split in the streets after explosions. And so he assures his Jidduh not to worry by pressing his hot palms into the elderly man’s neck. On previous visits to the hospital, his Mama has instructed him to shut his eyes when passing a stranger who might rather not be seen.
Jidduh pats the side of Niko’s head, says, "You have a good plan. Don’t be afraid to close your eyes for a long time if that’s what you want to do.”
The little boy nods. "Tell me when to open them again.”
Jidduh says the little boy will know on his own. If that’s what his Jidduh says, then Niko will know. Together they walk through a series of doors and curtains. Peaking through his fingers anyways, they pass a boy no older than the little boy, sitting in a chair with his eyes rolling back in his head. His face is almost blue. He must have missed the first day of school. If they were in a cartoon, the little boy imagines, he could paint the pink back into that boy, and he would beam to life all over again.
There’s a man on a stretcher. He has no leg below the knee, just a pale bone snapped off. The woman holding his hand is covered in grey dust. The little boy closes his eyes and thinks instead of his yellow plant pot at school, its seed growing at that very moment. Will the soil bulge like Mama’s stomach? Soon he will find out.
When Jidduh sets him down, he knows that it’s officially time to open his eyes again. The little boy finds himself in a room with twelve beds. It is full of people who have big bandages. Many are sleeping. Baba is there, and so is the little boy’s grandmother. He sees one of his cousins, covering his face. No one says a word.
In the bed lies Mama breathing coarsely, whose entire head, apart from the right side of the face, is covered in gauze. It takes the boy some time to come to terms with the fact that his Mama is so broken. Suddenly he feels confused. He wants to scramble away, under the bed, out the door, anywhere. If he runs fast enough, maybe he can run back to this morning. But his Baba and Jidduh catch him before he can escape. Baba tells the little boy that he has to say goodbye to his Mama soon.
"But where’s she going?” The little boy begins to weep. All of his muscles pull and he feels that if he cries any harder, he will implode, and so he chokes his tears to a whimper. He can’t hide and this is no time to run away. If indeed this person is his Mama, then he’d rather not cry in front of her. He turns toward his Jidduh’s thigh and bawls into the leg of his grandfather’s pants. Jidduh strokes his hair. He buries his face in the leg of Jidduh’s pants for what feels like a long time. Then Baba scoops the little boy up in his arms and whispers gently that Mama has something she wants to tell him.
He sets the little boy down on the bed beside her. How ghastly and pale and frightened she looks, like a ghost waiting to be set free.
"Ya habibi,” she whispers. "My sweetness.”
She tries to move her arm from under the blanket, but fails. Jidduh helps her untangle the arm wrapped in white gauze from the sheet. Once free, her stained fingers touch the little boy’s chin. She brushes the matted hair from his hot forehead.
"Be a good boy for your father,” she whispers. "Grow up and be a good man.”
On her left side, he now realizes she has no arm. Where did her arm go? He can feel her, ever so gently, pulling him closer, maybe to shield him from all that’s happening, maybe to start all over again, some other time. Her warm breath on his cheek is a comfort. He crawls into the bed beside her and curls up under her arm. This is how he usually falls asleep when she reads to him at bedtime. He kisses her. He kisses her again and again. He wants her to know that he loves her deeply, without compromise. He holds her tightly. And then, exhausted, he falls asleep. They both fall asleep.
The little boy dreams he’s swimming through the garbage bags in the harbor. When he wakes up again, Baba is holding him by the armpits. His pants feel damp. Below, the sheets are wet. Jidduh uses them to cover Mama’s brown eyes.