Beirut, 12 November 2015
Alexis Dubuisson tiptoed cautiously over the lettuce strewn across the ground. In fact, he moved so cautiously around it anyone who didn’t know what was going on might have thought he was playing an impromptu game of hopscotch, prancing clumsily in his pair of deck shoes, once a shade of dark green, but now covered lightly in dust.
He didn’t show it, but he was almost angry that he was paying such attention to the limp shreds of green that lay all over the street. Moments ago those shreds of green were vibrant balls of green, piled high in carts, covered from the heat with colourful cloth awnings, with disinterested merchants on their mobile phones shooing away flies with a flick of the hand. Nobody else seemed to care about the lettuces now; they were charging from one side of the street to the other, barricading themselves in their shops and houses, or perhaps they were their neighbours’ shops and houses, abandoning the stalls and carts that were, until recently, their livelihoods. Alexis didn’t move quickly, not like most of the other people around him. I must be stupid, he said to himself, to care so much about litter at a time like this.
He felt a sudden tug at his wrist. A woman in a headscarf, surely almost half his height, looked at him intently with her grey eyes and cried something in Arabic. He froze. He couldn’t speak Arabic, and even if he did, all words would have been lost. Her eyes, like headlights, were all he could see, all he could think about, not least the apparent fear that glistened within them. She took him by the wrist again and led him away from the street, down a side passage that smelt of sewage, and forced him through a half-open door, locking it swiftly behind him, and pulling the curtain so hard he was surprised it didn’t come off its railing.
She shouted something up the stairs. Two young boys of six or seven – twins, he assumed – appeared almost straightaway, jabbered something to their mother and were sent back upstairs after a kiss upon their foreheads.
‘Vous venez d’où?’ She said to Alexis.
‘De la France.’
‘De Paris,’ he replied, sitting warily on the chair she had drawn up.
There were no words spoken as she went to the kitchen, concealed by a few strings of beads hanging from the doorframe. She emerged moments later, with a glass of clear, sweet-smelling liquid and sat beside him. Alexis stretched out his hand to drink it, but immediately she began dabbing some cloth in it, wiping the cold, perfumed fabric on his arm.
‘You’re bleeding,’ she said, calmly. ‘You must be in pain.’
He hadn’t even noticed. It didn’t hurt, but was bleeding quite profusely. A long, thin line ran the length of his left arm, blood slowly trickling from it onto his trousers.
‘French resilience,’ he said. ‘Do you work on the market?’
‘What do you sell?’
‘I sold parsley.’
Alexis tried to remember the scenes on the street just footsteps away. It seemed like a year or so ago since he was aimlessly walking through it, listening to the loud conversations in foreign languages that could have meant anything to him, the faint hum of cars, the even fainter sound of seabirds cawing. And then, it all stopped. Like a heart beating for the last time, all of the sounds he could remember cut out, giving way to chaos: to cries and shouts and coughs and sirens. There was nothing else he could remember about that moment, other than the rolling cloud of dust that engulfed the street, but he could remember the patches of lettuce he carefully trod around. Perhaps there was parsley scattered across the floor, too, much like it would be over a bowl of couscous, if anybody had got round to buying it from her. He couldn’t remember.
‘I saw there was lettuce at the market,’ he went on, confessing he hadn’t seen any parsley.
‘Oh yes, lots of lettuce,’ she interjected, almost enthusiastically. ‘This market is famous for lettuce. But you must have been only been to this part of the market; most men on this street sell lettuce. Further up they sell carrots and lemons and further down we sell herbs.’
‘Which is where you trade,’ he said.
Again, she nodded.
There was something reassuring about this woman’s nods of the head, he thought, but at the same time something terribly sad. It was though the weight of guilt or pain or sadness made her head hang.
‘Monsieur, why are you here, in Beirut? What business do you have here?’
‘I am a photographer.’
She scanned him. ‘But where is your camera?’
It was an obvious question, but he looked at her almost shamefully. ‘I didn’t bring it with me this afternoon. I don’t know why.’
She had managed to wipe away much of the drying blood, and got to work on cleaning the bright red slice along his arm. ‘I suppose you regret leaving your camera at your hotel this morning. These scenes are not scenes you see all the time.’
‘I don’t know what to suppose.’
‘I find it interesting, however.’
He was curious. ‘What is interesting?’
She paused for a short while. ‘You are a Frenchman. A Frenchman from Paris. You come from a city that is loved and cherished not only by its own citizens, but by its own countrymen, and not only by its own countrymen, but by Englishmen and Americans and Germans and Australians and Russians and the Japanese and even us, the Lebanese. You live in a city that is photographed by millions of people every single day. You live in a city that is obsessed with art and image. You live in a city where, should you wish to, you can surround yourself all day with art and beauty on every day of the year. You live in a city that has inspired writers and poets and artists for centuries, and you live in a city which they tell me is beautiful in spring, summer, autumn and the winter.’
Alexis visualised his home city, perhaps shrouded in drizzle at this time of year, but nonetheless the most beautiful place on earth.
‘But I don’t understand what you mean.’
Her eyes remained fixed on his arm. ‘You live in that city, but still you are not satisfied. You crave more than just the streets and gardens of Paris, it seems. But why? No, I do not think you understand me…’
Alexis narrowed his eyes slightly. He was questioning if indeed he understood what she meant. ‘I don’t think I do.’
‘My sister studies in Paris now. She wishes to become a doctor. Ever since she was a girl she dreamed of living in your country. Many young Lebanese people do, you see. What they dream of is safety. But can you blame them? Here they have a country remembering its frightening past and living in its shadow, and then today happens. I suppose you look for something different, no? Something exotic, perhaps? And so you come here, to the streets and markets of Beirut. It is very unlike Paris, I can understand that. But you abandon all that safety, opportunity and beauty for this? This unsafe place, where we people live in constant understanding that people wish to attack us? It is very interesting, monsieur.’
‘Who says that there is no beauty here?’ he replied.
She remained silent, a tear running down her cheek, carefully dabbing the wound.
‘And who says there is always safety, opportunity and beauty in France? Or in America? Or Britain? There is beauty to be found in everything. I do not know why I left my camera at the hotel this morning, but I regret it now. What I saw this morning was inspiring. I saw the colours and sights of this market, I saw the bright sun over the Mediterranean Sea, and I saw the strength of its people. They are remembering their past and living in the shadow, perhaps, but they remain strong.’
‘We are strong, yes, but as you have seen, there is no safety or beauty here. Not today,’ she said, her eyes meeting his.
‘You may think so. I do not know your name, madame, but I feel safe now. I may not be truly safe here, but your kindness has made me feel safe. And I find it beautiful, as a matter of fact.’
For the first time since they met less than thirty minutes ago, she let a smile pass across her lips. He didn’t know if it was a smile of happiness, or sympathy, or perhaps even pity, but she smiled. Alexis smiled back and watched her now dress his arm, evidently haunted by what she had seen during what was always meant to be an ordinary day at work.
‘You know, I don’t see you, or this city, or these people as any different to me, or to Paris, or the French.’
‘You are very kind.’
There was silence. Alexis listened carefully, knowing that there is never really peace, because there is always something that wants to be heard. The commotion of the street around the corner was still audible – just. There were sirens, engines, people crying – at least that’s what he assumed; there were far too many thoughts in his head to hear what was going on.
‘Tomorrow I will fly home to Paris.’
She smiled again, perhaps thinking of her studious sister. ‘Perhaps there you will see a different type of beauty.’
Humbly, she got up from kneeling beside him. His arm was dressed.
16 Nov 2015