All Along the River
It was a strange bow. I had always imagined bows being made of wood, like the kind Robin Hood would use. I imagined bows capable of shooting arrows that would rip through a man and still have enough force to lodge into a tree behind. I imagined something simple: a piece of wood and a string. This was much different. It had to be assembled with several bolts and an Allan wrench and the materials were either plastic or synthetic. The arrows were blunt and couldn’t possibly kill anything larger than a rabbit. It had a typical bull’s eye style sight that could be adjusted and the arrows it came with could be clipped to the string so that one could simply draw the string back without worrying about stabilizing the arrow. My dad told me that it was “something to do” and that if I didn’t like it I could just sell it and try something else.
My family and I had just moved to Beirut and were going to stay for six months. I felt this was unforgivable at the time. Because of my parents’ selfish desire to have a very expensive adventure (much of which they paid for with savings originally meant for my college education), they were ripping me away from the friends that I had loved for nearly a decade. I would have to finish my high school education in a country where almost no one spoke English and then return to the States and listen bitterly to my friends rave about Grad night and Graduation and Prom. I remember my Lebanese mother saying that it was to “experience your culture” and “learn about the world.” I pretended to agree with her while knowing that it was her desire and that I was simply along for the ride. My father was a professor and was temporarily working at the American University of Beirut and my mother, though not a full-time professor, was doing the same. We stayed in a reasonably sized apartment in a quiet, nameless street near AUB and I went to school at International College, an English speaking school, for the second part of my senior year.
I knew after the first day of school that I would be a social outcast. I was naïve, and despite my father’s orders to tell everyone that he was a Roman Catholic, I told the kids at IC that I was proud to be Lebanese, to be half-Jewish and to be a boy from America. However, it didn’t matter who I was or how I acted. My classmates seemed to know that an American boy was coming before I arrived, so they immediately branded me as obnoxious and arrogant. They saw me as an ambassador of the Great Satan; a symbol of America’s infinite will to meddle in what was none of their business. They abhorred me and feared the possibility of me corrupting them. In return, I decided to torture them by casually saying things like “God doesn’t exist and you’re stupid to think it does” or “In the States we don’t have to deal with this;” things I did believe but maybe didn’t need to engrave into their fragile, Christian minds.
The one person who found these ravings acceptable was Ali Markawi. He had preceded me as the school outcast. Despite his rich Lebanese heritage and parents with typical Lebanese features, he had blond hair, blue eyes and silk skin. This, along with his unofficial status as the smartest boy in our grade, his massive front teeth and thick glasses, made him just as much an outcast.
One day during recess he walked over to me and said, so why do you hate God so much?
I don’t hate God. I just don’t think it exists and that people who believe it exists are just too stupid or scared to question bullshit like that.
You’re calling a lot of people in the world stupid my friend.
Well, there’s a lot of stupid people in the world.
Ali paused for a moment. Alright so you don’t hate God. But why not believe in him? I still don’t quite understand.
Well think about it this way. First of all, there’s no way to prove God exists. Second, people created God. I mean, the concept of God came from us. So how could something that we created have created us, you know what I mean?
I understand. But that’s why it’s a belief my friend. You can’t prove beliefs. You can’t prove God doesn’t exist. Oh and the last thing is that you’re saying people absorb religion from others and aren’t smart enough to invent their own beliefs but am I wrong in thinking that you got your beliefs from your parents?
I was surprised by his unorthodox response and I took a moment to retort.
First off, my parents didn’t tell me anything about what to believe. I just came to it on my own. Yeah and you can say that ‘can’t prove it’s not real’ shit about anything. I can’t prove fucking unicorns and Santa Claus don’t exist, but that doesn’t mean they could. Ali laughed heartily.
We continued to talk and our topics shifted frequently. After half an hour we had covered abortion, foreign policy, and the death penalty. We decided to end with Palestine after agreeing that Israel and America were in bed together and that Palestinians had it rough. I must say I was amazed by his intellect. He could speak English more fluently than I could and spoke excellent Arabic and French as well. While we discussed Israel/Palestine, he would use words like ‘idiosyncratic’ and I would pretend to know what he was saying.
Over the coming weeks Ali and I became close. We spent more and more time discussing topics like Israel/Palestine and we would walk around campus and have lunch together. We would stare out onto the coast while we ate. By far the most redeeming quality of my life in Beirut was the beauty of the city. Though Lebanon was a third-world country, Beirut had all the aspects of a booming city in America. The downtown area next to the Corniche coast was luscious and I could see the tall buildings from the school. The boardwalk ran alongside it and I could see puffs of smoke coming from cart vendors along with lines of people shifting about, making way for bikers and roller skaters. I also managed to observe a go-cart track, a hot air balloon station, a beach with a wall that split it into sections for the two sexes and a square with a beautiful marble clock tower placed in the center. When I first gazed upon the city, Ali explained to me that the former prime minister had spent a portion of his wealth gained by his television enterprise on rebuilding the coastal area and that he was generally respected and loved in Beirut. He then asked a sequence of questions about America and I answered grudgingly and as briefly as I could, not wanting to feel homesick.
Hamra, the less grand but still bustling area where I lived, sat inland and I would attempt to point out my apartment building but could never quite find it. During the weekends, Ali and I would walk down Bliss Street in Hamra. Bliss Street was a miniature Mecca of food. There was a delicious ice cream shop that was efficient since ten people worked what I assumed could be a two man operation and surrounding it was a plethora of schwarma and falafel shops that I could smell from blocks away. The scent would invite me and I would pass by the ritzy, two-story Starbucks and McDonalds that always had a soldier guarding it (apparently someone had bombed a McDonalds before I arrived in Beirut). I was always happy to wait in line since I could pass the time looking at the female American University of Beirut students that walked by during their daily commutes. I was always delighted when one of them smiled at me, believing I too was a college student. The first time we went, Ali began explaining why it was called Bliss Street. I tuned him out, thinking that the answer was quite obvious.
I looked forward to spending time with Ali and tried to make the time before and after lunch go as fast as possible. There were basically three people who made my experience at school miserable. The first was my math teacher, who would openly mock me in class. He would speak in Arabic even though he was required to speak in English and then grin while he asked if I understood. The worst time was when he saw me scratching my nose and decided to stop the class.
Attention everyone. Mr. Ross is doing some mining in his nose. I no want him to be bleeding it so make sure you watch him so he’s careful.
As he looked across the room, there was a wave of laugher before he returned to teaching his lesson in Arabic.
The second person was a girl named Basma who hid my things on a regular basis and once slammed my hand in a wooden door. I was gripping the edge of the wall where the door closed in order to steady myself as I reached deep into our classroom cupboard. Pieces of wood laced my fingers and she laughed before seeing how badly she had damaged my hand.
The last of the trio and perhaps the most vile person was Assef. He would attempt to find Ali and I during lunch so he could take our meals. When he found us, he snatched away our food, ate pieces of it, and then threw the remains on the ground in front of us. The worst days were when he found us when no one was around.
He would pull out his cock, piss in front of us and then say, this is my shit now so I don’t want to see you gays hanging around here. Fucking Jews and freaks coming around here ruining our shit. I’d piss on this whole school, on this whole fucking country if it meant you roaches would stay out.
He then pulled his shirt up, revealing a small knife, if he detected even a scent of hostility.
Overtime, what amazed me most about Ali was not his intelligence, but his ability to deal with the abuse we shared (the joke about Frankenstein and Dracula meeting and having sex was especially tiresome for some reason). When people teased him, hid his things, and even shoved him to the ground, he would smile. He would forgive them and laugh with them as if to ask for more. He even kept a secret second lunch that he would prepare early each morning so he wouldn’t go hungry if Assef got to him. I once brought a small kitchen knife from home in hopes of intimidating Assef, though I doubted I had the nerve to use it. Ali noticed it in my pocket and offered to buy me an extra lunch if I would put it away and promise him never to bring such a thing to school. I saw the worry in his eyes and decided to comply. Despite his kindness, the only thing that kept me from loathing him was the hope that his Job façade was just that.
I became obsessed with archery and spent as much time as I could going down to the black top at the bottom of the school after Ali and I were done eating lunch and enjoying the view atop. There was a small, foam target that I would practice on. As I aimed I would always imagine the trio of people who most wronged me lining up in a single file and standing in front of the target. They would confess their sins, apologize to me, and admit they were inferior before asking that I grant them an instant death. I would tell them to close their eyes and that I would shoot between them thus granting their wishes. Then as they closed their eyes and relaxed, I would lower my mark and shoot them through the neck so they would see me grin as their eyes burst open and they were forced to cling onto several painful moments of existence while their lives ebbed away. I loved this fantasy. The feeling of exercising a silent, clean, judgment that didn’t even require me to pretend to sully my hands with their filth was wonderful. They could not hurt me so long as I told myself their lack of compassion and ignorance made them inferior, that they were mere ants nibbling at my feet. Ali saw this attitude in my eyes and I could see him pity me when we shot arrows together (though he mostly watched).
While I was focused on the trivialities of high school, Lebanon was experiencing a prominent moment in history and for a brief period, took its stage in world news. The former prime minister was assassinated by car bomb while he was riding in his motorcade along the Corniche River, which was barely a mile from our school. I witnessed the ripples of this tragedy as people were rushed up the hill and into the university hospital adjacent to my school. The view from IC was especially breath taking and I felt much too close to the explosion even though I was unharmed. I watched the black smoke billow into the sky in cadences. I saw people with faces like puzzles from shrapnel dancing about being carried up the hill when the ambulances seemed to run out. People generally believed the Syrian government was responsible and the event sparked a spirited revolution where millions gathered in squares and the people of Lebanon were finally able to cast off the long-standing Syrian occupation. However, the main thing I noticed was that Assef was absent for several weeks. I later discovered that the falling glass caused by the explosion had baptized him. He returned to school and proudly showed his scars like badges of honor. He would often show them to Ali and I and then call us fags as he pulled up his shirt and spat in front of us. Despite this, my day-to-day life did not change very much and the docility of a routine made the coming months blur together.
The last day of school came and we read a poem in English class that I wish I had given more attention at the time. It had been translated from Arabic and the author had never taken credit for the piece. It read:
‘I was the hunter,
I consumed lesser creatures
So I could live on.
I thought I was superior,
That there was no stronger creature to hunt me
Yet I must have passed in the night
For then I saw you.
You cackled uncontrollably,
And you told me you had always been there,
Waiting, waiting with your hammer above my head,
Waiting to humiliate me on nothing more than a whim of a whim,
Whether I was hunting or eating my catch under a shady tree.
You are so much greater
So please take me into oblivion.
I will let go of all I knew.’
The teacher called on me and I gave a fluffed up answer about how being a hunter isn’t so great and how there is always a bigger fish. The school day ended, my last day in Lebanon began, and the realization that I would never see any of the people at IC again gave me a powerful courage and catharsis. First, I walked up to my math teacher and told him that he was a worthless piece of shit and that he would die from his smoking. He was understandably shocked since I had never confronted him before and his cigarette nearly fell out of his mouth. I took a mental photograph of this justice, but did not linger as my time was precious. Then, I decided to find Basma and steal her backpack, placing it in a dumpster on my way home. Lastly, I insisted on walking home Lara, the girl who had taken me to the nurse when my hand had been injured.
She was perhaps the only person besides Ali who had shown any kindness to me during those six months. When tears ran down my eyes and blood along my arms, she helped take out the pieces of wood and then waited in the hall as the nurse applied disinfectant and bandages. Despite this, she never spoke to me once or acknowledged me after or even before that incident. She must have been deeply ashamed that she felt affection for an American Jew who didn’t even believe in God.
I thanked her and hugged her before I told her I would miss her. My primal instincts roared for a minute and I decided to kiss her roughly and fondle her breasts as I ended our embrace. She was outraged but still blushed slightly as I turned and walked away without saying another word. I couldn’t find Assef so I decided to head down with Ali to the Corniche and shoot my bow one last time. I picked it up from the storage near the gym and dissembled it so I could bring it in my backpack. Ali happily accompanied me and set up pieces of garbage as targets along the riverbank in exchange for getting to fire it but once himself.
The Corniche was a strangely beautiful place. Although the Corniche was an inlet of the Mediterranean, many people I met called it the “Corniche River.” I eventually deduced that they called it a river because no one swam in it. I suppose there is something about the words “Ocean” and “Sea” that implie purity. As I became familiar with the Corniche, I found myself calling it a river as well. Pieces of rubble from the relatively recent Civil War had mixed with natural limestone formations and both had eroded and molded together to the point where they were indistinguishable. They were stacked crudely onto each other like a child playing with building blocks. This created an intricate network of cracks and crevices. Bits of garbage floated around in communities and scratched against the shore while the salt water went ahead. Despite this, fisherman would sit for hours and fish would actually swim through the garbage only to be killed or humiliated and thrown back into the river. It was fascinating. I wondered how they could even survive in those disgusting waters. I felt no sympathy for something as insignificant and worthless as a fish, but I still wondered how any creature could wade through an ocean of filth with only an uncertain reward acting as motivation.
Ali and I loved watching the residue from the small waves sizzle on the rubble in the hot sun and we practiced gracefully hopping around the rocks so we could play chicken with the tide. I nearly tripped as I was shocked to see Assef approaching. I realized he must have followed us so he could say farewell in his own way. He acknowledged me only with a glare and began talking with Ali in Arabic. The conversation seemed light until Assef casually took out his usual knife. Assef seemed to think that his brush with death had basted him in the fires of hell and he hungered to see if he was capable of becoming a more sinister demon. He tossed the knife up carefully so it would complete the same number of rotations each time, with the blade nearly skimming his palm before he caught it. Assef continued to steal glances at me and it seemed he was giving Ali a chance to sell me out and avoid further prosecution. The conversation became more heated until Ali mumbled a word I had heard my Arab mother use once when she was very upset. Hara. It meant shit in Arabic and I was surprised to hear Ali use such a word, though I suppose this was only because I couldn’t understand what led to it.
The moment Assef heard this, he lunged at Ali with the knife. I froze in panic as Ali darted amongst the rubble, trying to avoid a direct fight. After a moment or so, I gained composure and chased after them with my bow and my last arrow. Assef cornered Ali at the bottom of the river and paused before tackling him and attempting to stab. The adrenaline gave me incredible decisiveness and I shouted out to Assef so he would look at me and be distracted momentarily. Before he looked I had already aimed at his back and decided to release the string once he paused. However, my hands were twitching so I missed my mark and struck him in the forehead.
I must have given him a concussion, because he staggered around and vomited before collapsing on the ground. He appeared to have immediately lost consciousness. Blood seeped down his nose, skewed off in different directions like a river delta, and formed haunting patterns after running through his scars. Ali and I took a few minutes to calm down before checking his pulse and breathing. He seemed fine and we tried to decide what to do with the situation.
Shit man, what the fuck are we gonna do?!
It’s alright James. Just calm down.
I almost felt angry with myself since a man who had just been attacked was telling me to calm down, but once again I decided to comply with Ali’s wisdom.
Alright I’m calm. It’s just…what’s gonna happen when he wakes up? I mean, I’m not gonna be here… but he’s gonna kill you man! He’s seriously gonna kill you!!
Ali looked down at the ground for nearly a minute before speaking again.
We’ll find a cop, he said after taking a deep breath. We’ll find a cop and tell him what happened. We’ve got proof after all. He cut me a little and if we can do it quickly enough he might still be asleep by the time we get a cop here.
Fuck man. How can you think of shit like that right now? I feel like such a pussy.
It’s alright James. You saved my life, my friend.
We smiled at one another and began searching for cops. We ran all over town for what must have been at least an hour, until the sun had almost gone down, but found none. We didn’t know where the police station was. Between pants, Ali told me that there wasn’t much of a police force in Lebanon since there were almost no violent crimes. He also explained that Syrian soldiers had substituted as policemen for years but were not around now that the revolution had succeeded. After what seemed like hours, we headed back down Bliss Street and found an officer in a coffee shop.
Ali recounted the situation to the officer in Arabic and the man raised his eyebrows at me as he listened. The officer agreed to follow us to the scene. I began to accompany them but my phone rang and my father said I needed to get home or we would miss our flight. I told Ali this and he said it was all right and that he would straighten things out and make sure it was clear I had done nothing wrong. He turned to the officer and explained that I had to go. The officer was apprehensive about letting me go before seeing the scene but calmed down after Ali talked to him a little longer. He decided to confiscate my school ID so that he would have my name and picture in case I did end up being guilty of anything but generally seemed sure of my innocence. After all, what kind of criminal would report himself to the police? I said goodbye to Ali and told him that he should not take to heart any of the things I said to him and that he was human. Look man, don’t you ever change, I said to him. Ever!! I know I said a lot of shit to you and put down your beliefs but don’t ever think I was right about anything. I was just blowing smoke. Honestly, I don’t think I could’ve survived in that shit hole of a school if I hadn’t met you.
You’re a good guy James. Don’t be so hard on yourself and don’t let people get to you so much. That will be the last thing I nag you to promise me, my friend. Ali smiled and I smiled back. We shook hands, hugged, and parted ways. I watched him walk along Bliss Street until he shrank into nothing.
After that I headed back home and lived a typical American life for several years. I went to college in my hometown and never dreamed of having any sort of adventure ever again.
Once Facebook was invented, Ali and I found each other. We caught up and talked about our jobs, our schooling, our social life, his girlfriend and my lack of one. Eventually I asked about Assef. Ali responded by saying: I’m not telling you this to make you guilty. It’s not your fault but I think it is best you know. I think I would feel much better if I told you. Ali proceeded to tell me that Assef had gone missing that day and had long been presumed dead. My heart beat fast as I remembered that we had left him at the Corniche for quite some time and that the tide used to pick up dramatically as night came. My heart continued to accelerate as I imagined the tide dragging Assef’s body further and further into the labyrinth of the Corniche’s shore with each wave. I imagined him slinking down between the rocks. I imagined him waking in a prison of water and struggling for the surface as his life and breath slipped away. My heart felt as though it would crawl out of my throat and I nearly fell onto my floor. I laid down on my bed with my hand on my chest for ten minutes or so and waited for my heart to slow down.
I told Ali that he did the right thing in telling me. I reached under my bed and brought out the old bow. I threw the pieces into the back of my car. I drove around various alleys and threw each piece of the bow in a different dumpster. I left my car running in the alley as I made each stop. The last piece was the sight. I crushed the flimsy, black plastic in my palm and let the wind carry the pieces into the alley. Then I waited; waited until a mixture of finely powdered garbage and dust washed over it and removed it completely from my sight.