Elyssar pushed through the haze in her head. After last night’s champagne, she’d be better off surrendering her body to science than trying to get any work done. But bubbly overload or not, she had no option other than to read her sacred corporate email. She sipped her coffee as new messages downloaded, hoping that the dark Turkish brew would revitalize her mind.
Well, at least she could work from home today – a benefit of being the first employee in the recently opened Beirut office. Not to mention that she only had a few more weeks to wait before she jetted to Paris to realize her lifetime dream: see Madonna in concert…
A new email popped up at the bottom right of her screen: a CNN breaking news alert.
“Beirut airport under attack. More news to follow.”
She ran to the living room and switched the TV on.
“Israel raids runways in response to kidnapping of their soldiers by the Hezbollah. All flights suspended,” the announcer read.
Images succeeded each other, displaying the destruction from various angles. Then the broadcast moved on to show terrified passengers rushing out of the terminal.
Elyssar suddenly remembered that her friend Rouba was travelling today. She called her.
“I’m alive,” Rouba said as she picked up the call.
“Thank God! Were you at the airport when it happened?”
“No, I was still at home. Isn’t it strange that we didn’t hear the planes approaching. How bad is it?”
“They’ve bombed both runways, but no casualties.”
“Is this a one off like they’ve done before, or will there be more attacks?” Rouba said.
“No one knows.”
Depressed silence on both ends of the line.
“Let’s try to think of something else,” Elyssar said. “How did it go with your family last night?”
“I mustered the courage and told them.”
“It was more of a monologue, they barely uttered a word. And there I was, expecting to have to argue it all night. It’s almost as if they didn’t care.”
“Divorce just isn’t what it used to be,” Elyssar said.
Rouba chuckled. “I got Mom’s crying and other dramatic sighs and sound effects when
I told them about my first one. This time they just took a long look at me and went on silently with dinner.”
“You’ve lost your ability to scandalize your family. I’m mortified.”
“So what do I do now? My plan for a swift exit to the airport has clearly failed. I haven’t left my room all morning because I don’t want to face anyone.”
“There’s nothing you can do. Just stay put for the time being.”
Elyssar was pounding away at her laptop wrapping up a submission for a new bid when her sister Reem put her head through the doorway.
“What are you doing?” she asked. “You should be packing.”
With mounting rhetoric between Israel and the Hezbollah, Elyssar’s extended family had decided to leave Beirut for the relative safety of their summer homes in the mountain village of Dhour.
“I need two minutes. I have to send this email.”
Now that the business in Lebanon looked set to come to a screeching halt, she just had to get this deal if she wanted her employer, a multinational US software maker, to keep the regional office open and her as its manager – although currently she was the only employee.
“Send it later, people will understand your circumstances,” Reem replied.
Elyssar kept her eyes glued to the screen. She loved her family, but at times like this her domestic situation drove her up the wall. For the millionth time she promised herself to do something about it. Whether the social norm allowed it or not, she had to find a way to leave her parents’ home and live on her own. She and her sister were now in their thirties and having four adults in the same household made things too stressful.
“This is for a project in Jordan,” she said. “No one will wait for me to resolve my little issue with international politics.”
“Then make it quick, we’re leaving in 45 minutes.”
Reem disappeared to help her mother pack the supplies in the kitchen.
An hour later the family took to the road, their two cars filled with three months’ worth of clothes and wartime supplies: canned foods, rice, sugar, salt, powder milk, candles and matches. Elyssar drove behind her parents’ SUV and they joined the heavy, yet unusually orderly traffic headed out of the city.
They drove along rows of tightly packed building blocks. They were1970s eyesores in terms of design, but their reinforced cement walls saved many lives in the war and were still bullet ridden; several also carrying gaping holes caused by shells and bombs. This part of town, with the Hippodrome at its centre, hadn’t been fully reconstructed after the civil war ended in the early nineties, but, in a testimony to the recent economic boom, brand new modern banks had been erected in between shells of bombed offices. Sadly this area remained a far cry from other districts of Beirut where old souks had been renovated to their former glory, or where modern towers lined the wider, cleaner streets.
“Running away like this reminds me of the civil war,” Reem said. “It’s 1989 all over again.”
Elyssar gave her sister a wry smile. “And 1984 and 1982 and a few others…”
“At least this time we’re of driving age.”
“Yeah, but our metabolism is slower, we’re worried about wrinkles and it's much harder to get dates
With no traffic jams to slow them down, they soon exited the city and started on the winding mountain road.
“I’d forgotten how nice this road is,” Reem mused. “I always take the sea road and turn at the Khaldeh crossing because it’s faster.”
“Dad came this way because the sea road is a prime bombing target,” Elyssar replied.
“Glad you’re enjoying the view.”
“We only really look at this country when something terrible takes place,” Reem sighed.
Elyssar nodded in agreement. She tried to look around as she carefully steered the car. Typical of this part of the Mount Lebanon chain, oak trees and pines surrounded the narrow and winding two-way road on both sides. To her right, beyond the hills, she caught a glimpse of the Mediterranean sparkling in the sun; a quick calculation told her they were now at around 700 meters above sea level. Her old geography schoolbooks came to mind; they referred to Lebanon as a “green jewel” in the vast desert of the Middle East…
Okay, she was getting too sentimental now. She switched on the radio.
She pulled up behind her father’s car in the family property in Dhour forty-five minutes later. A look towards the villas next door told her no one had arrived yet, but they’d all called to say they were on their way.
“I’m glad the cousinettes will be here,” she told Reem as they each carried their luggage upstairs.
“Yes, it will make things bearable,” her sister replied.
Bearable was an understatement. Reem and she shared a special bond with their female cousins, built over the many summers spent together in Dhour.
The new arrivals started coming in shortly after she’d unpacked: the cousinettes but also uncles, aunts, male cousins and their children. The property filled up with the familiar chatter as they all helped each unload the cars and settle in.
Uncle Jaber and his French wife, Aunt Bernadette, arrived towards the end of the afternoon, the latter reeling from her phone call to the French embassy.
“They said they don’t have evacuation arrangements in place yet.” She sounded scandalized. “You’d think they have emergency plans for a country like Lebanon.”
She continued to complain as everyone helped carry her luggage inside the house and was still grumbling when she finished unpacking and joined the group for coffee.
“It’s a disgrace to France,” she said. “The embassy is too busy spending our tax money on cocktail receptions.”
The cousinettes tried not to smile. Aunt Bernadette loved referring to “her” money being misspent by the French government although she’d been in Lebanon her entire adult life and never paid a cent in taxes.
“I’m sure other governments have already organized everything,” she continued. “But ours…”
Her husband, who’d had to suffer this rant all day, ran out of patience.
“Look at all of us,” he said pointing to the dozen family members around them. “Do you know what our government is doing to help us right now? Nothing. So find something else to complain about.”
Elyssar woke up to the sound of voices outside. She grabbed her mobile to check the time: three a.m. Still clasping the phone, this time to use it for lighting her way through the power cut, she rushed downstairs and found everyone gathered around Cousinette Maya and Aunt Hala who looked dishevelled and scared, but safe. They’d just arrived from Beirut.
Aunt Hala wore a robe over her nightdress while Maya flaunted a pantsuit and high heels.
“Is this the new dress code for dodging bombs?” Elyssar teased.
“A shell exploded so close I woke up thinking it was in my room,” Maya replied.
“This is the first thing I got out of the closet. The pants were quick to put on and I’m wearing the jacket, because, well… I didn’t have the time to find a shirt.”
“So you’re wearing the jacket with nothing underneath?” Elyssar whispered.
She looked closer in the near darkness. Her cousin’s blazer barely covered her cleavage and midriff.
“You’re lucky the power’s out.” She glanced at Uncle Jaber. “If he sees you showing skin in the village, we’ll have our own nuclear blast to worry about.”