I felt foreign to myself. Doubt, that blind mole, burrowed down my spine. I leaned back on the car, surveyed the neighborhood, felt the blood throb in the veins of my arms. I could hear a soft gurgling but was unsure whether it came from a fountain or a broken water pipe. There was once, a long time ago, a filigreed marble fountain in the building lobby, but it had ceased to exist. Poof.
I was a tourist in a bizarre land. I was home.
There were not many people around. An old man sat dejectedly on a stool with a seat of interlocking softened twine. His white hair was naturally spiked, almost as if he had rested his hands on a static ball. He fit the place, one of the few neighborhoods in Beirut still wartorn.
“This was our building,” I told him, because I needed to say something. I nodded my head toward the lobby, cavernous, fountain-free, now perfectly open-air. I realized he wasn’t looking at me but at my car, my father’s black BMW sedan.
The street had turned into a muddy pathway. The neighborhood was off the main roads. Few cars drove this street then; fewer now, it seemed. A cement mixer hobbled by. There were two buildings going up. The old ones were falling apart, with little hope of resuscitation.
My building looked abandoned. I knew it wasn’t—squatters and refugees had made it their home since we left during the early years of the civil war—but I didn’t see how anyone could live there now.
Listen. I lived here twenty-six years ago.
Across the street from our building, our old home, there used to be a large enclosed garden with a gate of intricate spears. It was no longer a garden, and it certainly wasn’t gated anymore. Shards of metal, twisted rubble, strips of tile, and broken glass were scattered across piles of dirt. A giant white rhododendron bloomed in the middle of the debris. Two begonias, one white and the other red, flourished in front of a recently erected three-story. That building looked odd: no crater, no bullet holes, no tree growing out of it. The begonias, glorious begonias, seemed to burst from every branch, no unopened buds. Burgeoning life, but subdued color. The red—the red was off. Paler than I would want. The reds of my Beirut, the home city I remember, were wilder, more primary. The colors were better then, more vivid, more alive.
A Syrian laborer walked by, trying to steer clear of the puddles under his feet, and his eyes avoided mine. February 2003, more than twelve years since the civil war ended, yet construction still lagged in the neighborhood. Most of Beirut had been rebuilt, but this plot remained damaged and decrepit.
There was Mary in a lockbox.
A windowed box stood at the front of our building, locked in its own separate altar of cement and brick, topped with A-shaped slabs of Italian marble, a Catholic Joseph Cornell. Inside stood a benevolent Mary, a questioning St. Anthony, a coral rosary, three finger candles, stray dahlia and rose petals, and a picture of Santa Claus pushpinned to a white foam backboard.
When did this peculiarity spring to life? Was the Virgin there when I was a boy?
I shouldn’t have come here. I was supposed to pick Fatima up before going to the hospital to see my father but found myself driving to the old neighborhood as if I were in a toy truck being pulled by a willful child. I had planned this trip to Beirut to spend Eid al-Adha with my family and was shocked to find out that my father was hospitalized. Yet I wasn’t with family but standing distracted and bewildered before my old home, dwelling in the past.