‘The Arsonists’ City,’ by Hala Alyan: An Excerpt

Tonight the man will die. In some ways, the city already seems resigned to it, the Beirut dusk uncharacteristically flat, cloudy, a peculiar staleness rippling through the trees like wind. It’s easy to costume the earth for grief, and tonight the birds perched upon the tangled electricity wires look like mourners in their black and white feathers, staring down at the concrete refugee camps without song.

There are orange trees in the courtyard, planted by the children the previous year; the NGO workers had wanted something bright and encouraged the youngest children to tie cheap ribbons to the branches, but they’d forgotten about the muddy season, and now the ribbons flap limply, streaked in dirt. The man himself — Zakaria — knows it, or doesn’t. He notices the queer feeling of the camps, the way his mother’s makloubeh tastes perfectly fine but seems to be saltless, the meat stringier than usual. His sisters are gathered in the living room, cross-legged on the carpet, his mother’s mother’s carpet, the one that earned them a cuff on the ear back when they were children if they dropped crumbs or spilled Coke on it. You think my mama, Allah rest her soul, Allah take her and Allah keep her, hauled this on her back, her back, all the way from Jerusalem to Ramallah to Amman to this godforsaken armpit of the world so that her heathen grandchildren could spill soda on it? His mother hates the camps, hates Beirut, all of Lebanon, hates their neighbors, the aunties with their tattling and boring lives, always reminding her children, We used to have gardens in Palestine, trees that belonged to us.

[ Return to the review of “The Arsonists’ City.” ]

His sisters are watching an Egyptian soap opera, one of their favorites, the one where the ingénue is kept from her love interest by his wicked mother. The screen is cracked from where one of his sisters — they always disagree about which one — threw a curling iron at it years ago, and it slices the starlet’s torso in two as she cries on a park bench.

“What’s wrong with you today?” Zakaria’s mother asks him.

“Nothing,” he lies. “I’m just not hungry.” The truth is he’s distracted. Something is nagging at him as it does when he forgets a song, the wispiest tune tugging at him. He thinks of the house across the city, the one where his mother has worked as a housekeeper for twenty years, the one he spent countless afternoons playing in as a boy with the son of the owner, the courtyard they’d transform into a battlefield, an ocean of sharks, lava. Idris was his first friend, his closest friend.

Whenever Zakaria thinks of the house, he sees it at dawn, the hour his mother would arrive for her daily duties after taking two buses from the south and walking from the final bus stop through the West Beirut streets, ignoring the vendors selling cigarettes and that sweet candy that made his teethe ache, to reach the gate, always latched, always easily unlocked.

He loved playing with Idris, of course, but he also loved those first couple of hours when the house was still quiet with the sleeping family, when his mother would fill buckets with warm soapy water to toss across the veranda, take down clothes she’d hung to dry in the garden the day before, whispering to him, “Silent as a mouse.” When he was alone in the courtyard, it became his; he was the ruler of this inexplicable, beautiful place, a house with four bedrooms, bathtub faucets the shape of swans’ necks.

Tonight he feels the house beckoning him with an invisible hand, feels

greedy for those rooms, the silk-soft sheets that he’d slept in many times. But his best friend isn’t speaking to him, their recent fight still raw as a burn, the insults they’d hurled at each other still echoing, each saying and not-saying the truth.

“You know what you did,” Idris had finally said. “I trusted you. I’ve always trusted you.”

Zakaria had fallen silent at that. He felt guilty and yet also unrepentant — how to apologize for the only truly good thing that’d ever happened to him? — which Idris had sniffed out like a dog. He’d called him a traitor.

“Not even a little plate?” his mother asks now, interrupting his thoughts. “I’m just not hungry,” Zakaria repeats. To stave off further questions, he tries to appear absorbed in the soap opera that his sisters, sprawled on the large sofa, are watching. The three girls are younger than him, all unmarried, with large noses and dark curly hair. They are branches of the same tree, rooted and yet always apart from him.

He must fall asleep at some point. One second, he is watching the woman on the television, and then he is with the woman, telling her he can’t marry her, he’s marrying Mazna. He’ll never hear her response; he is shaken awake, and this is the last dream he will ever have. The television is off now and his sisters are huddled on the sofa, their faces alarmed and pale. His mother is leaning over him, blocking his view. He meets her eyes and sees panic.

“What have you done?” she murmurs.

He tries to sit up, but she keeps her palms on his shoulders. “What?” He shakes her off. “Mama, what—” She finally steps back, revealing what is behind her.

Zakaria understands. It’s been three years, and yet everything falls into place in an instant — the night he and his friends manned the checkpoint in Beirut, the Maronites they stopped, the man who later died. He and Idris and the others, they’d hurt that young man for no reason other than that people were hurting people. The civil war had left the country riven— Shi’ite, Sunni, Maronite, Druze. Now they’ve found Zakaria. Not as an act of war, but one of love, of revenge. The tallest man is unfamiliar yet recognizable, the same comically thick eyebrows as his dead brother, his hair spiked with too much gel.

“Come, brother,” the tallest one says, his voice almost languid.

“I told these men they have the wrong house. That you don’t know them.” The man holds up his hand, and his mother falls silent. These men aren’t dressed like soldiers, but they are strangers and they are taking her son.

“Auntie, trust me, we’ve knocked on every door in this camp.” His voice is surprisingly polite, earnest, and for some reason this strikes Zakaria with the first real needle of fear. The tall man fixes him with a steady gaze. “Brother, best for you to come now.”

“Come? It’s after ten. Come where? My son has work tomorrow. Zakaria, what are they saying?”

The man doesn’t speak, simply holds out his hand as though helping a child who’s fallen at the playground. Zakaria moves like a puppet, tipping forward until his fingers touch the other man’s, letting himself be pulled up, gently, firmly, until they are standing a hairsbreadth away from each other, so close that, if this were a movie, and they were different men in a different city, they might have kissed. But instead, the tall man speaks in a low voice meant only for Zakaria.

[ Return to the review of “The Arsonists’ City.” ]

“Say goodbye to your mother. Say goodbye to your sisters.”

Zakaria waits for more fear, but there is a surprising absence. He understands. They will kill him in front of his mother, his sisters, or they will kill him away from them. This is the choice he has. It is the only choice he will ever have again.

It’s not that Zakaria is particularly brave. But a few years ago, when those Phalangist men pointed their guns at the bus and killed thirty Palestinians and the country fell into the hell it deserves, as his mother says, he understood that his life had changed. The war made him understand his place in this country. He is a good man, or believes he is— most of the time. He has done only three terrible things in his life.

The first was the summer he’d spent stealing things from other inhabitants of the camps — a wristwatch and a pair of eyeglasses and other items that had no value and were thus priceless to their owners, things they’d clung to since arriving from Palestine. He was thirteen at the time, and angry; he had just read Marx and was certain that his people, the clear proletarians of the city, were chaining themselves to their possessions, that everything the world had

robbed them of should be regarded with distaste, that they should not feel gratitude for what little they’d managed to keep. He’d kept his loot in a cookie tin under his bed. Then, toward the end of the summer, he took the box to the beach. One by one, he removed each item, gripped it in his fist, swam out into the cold and dirty water as far as his legs would allow, and let the object sink to its death. When the box was empty, he lay on the sand, panting, his muscles twitching with exhaustion.

The second terrible thing had happened this summer. This time he’d taken something — someone — from his best friend. A person he loved.

He’s not all that familiar with love. If asked whether he loves his family, his three sisters and mother, he’d say yes. But there would be something rehearsed in that answer. He loves them because he ought to, and Zakaria is at heart an obedient man. (This is why he is following the men out of the house; this is why he walks deferentially to his death.) Love is what fills tables and waters gardens. It is Darwinian.

But this isn’t how he loves Mazna. It isn’t compliant; it’s disruptive as a shark. He loves her hair. Her lips. He loves the way she says the word for tomato, bindura — “ba-na-du-ra” — and the way she is tired of Damascus. He loves the one time he made her cry, one hand clenched in the other as her eyes filled. He loves the way she sulked the day she forgot her sunglasses. He loves that she wants to be an actress, to fill screens with her pretty, heart-shaped face. He’d spent twenty-five years in the camps, where the most ambitious people you came across were the likes of Abu Zaref, who wanted to open his own barbershop near the American University, so meeting someone so resolute and unembarrassed by her hunger — Did you know Vivien Leigh started off as an extra? she’d asked him the second night they met — was narcotic. He wants to write scripts for her. He wants to learn how to use movie cameras.

His mother is still prattling on about the time, her voice steady enough but her fingers, curled into fists, trembling, a tell (some primordial part of her brain must have been expecting her son to be taken). “Come where? ”

“Mama.” Zakaria’s voice is convincing to his own ears. “These men are customers from the bakery. I promised our friend here that I’d help him with something.” He turns to the tall man. “Ready?”

“When you are, brother.”

“No,” his mother whispers. Then, louder, “No! It is nearly eleven. You’re not going anywhere with these men.”

“Mama,” he rasps. His throat is dry. His mind spins. “I’ll be back soon.

Yes?” He turns to the tall man, silently pleading. “Twenty, thirty minutes.”

He nods. “An hour, tops.” He gestures toward the door. Zakaria passes his mother, smells her familiar odor of fried onions and baby powder. He wants to kiss her temple, wants to tell his sisters to send a letter to Damascus. He passes his father’s large framed photograph, the older man’s eyes — frozen, forever, at forty-three — dark and wry as he watches his son walk out of the room.

The third terrible thing Zakaria had done happened soon after the war began in Lebanon. Idris had two close friends at his private school, Majed and Tarek, and the four boys had grown up together. Tarek’s older brother Ali was a sergeant in the army, and even before the war, he’d known how to hold a rifle. Now, all over the country, men were getting involved. There was no longer one army; there were several, depending on which God you worshipped.

There was a checkpoint near the Green Line — the line that split the city into two, east and west, Christian and Muslim— and one night Ali told them they could join him. They were excited, pretending to be real officers. A car of university students — a young man and two women — pulled up.

Zakaria hates the memory of it. He can’t explain how it happened, only that it felt like a game, the men egging one another on, forcing the man out of the car.

“I could make this Maronite trash do ballet for me if I wanted,” Zakaria remembers Ali saying. The women had started to cry at some point; he’d felt nauseated. He knew they’d made a mistake.

It all happened quickly after that. The young man spat at them, shouted to be let go, and Ali rammed the butt of his rifle against his face. He did it over and over, the women screaming for him to stop. The boy staggered into the back of the car afterward; one of the women got behind the wheel and sobbed as she drove them off. He’d ended up dying from a brain injury. His family had money, and money bought information; it made finding the men

at the checkpoint a matter of asking the right questions. They’d come for Ali a month later.

They walk Zakaria to the edge of the camp, near the plot of meadow flowers the NGO workers had planted last year. They’re all dead now, the stems brown and chalky. Zakaria thought the men would turn at the white gate, walk him to the city outside the camps. But no, they stop at the flowers, everyone looking to the taller man, waiting for him to speak. The man says nothing, simply pulls a knife from his pocket and looks at it closely.

“This was my brother’s.” His voice breaks.

Zakaria feels his knees buckle. The fear that surges in him is so full, so lushly animate, it’s almost sensual, nudging up the hair on his arms. “This is slaughter,” he croaks. “What you’re doing. It’s slaughter.”

The man nods, almost kindly. “Yes, brother. Slaughter. Your men did it to mine. My men did it to others.”

“I don’t know your brother,” Zakaria whispers. He remembers how the boy had cupped his broken nose, whimpering.

“This knife,” the man continues, “it was on him when he died. But he never pulled it out. You bastards never gave him a chance. His face was mangled. Even my mother couldn’t recognize him in the hospital.” He began to move toward Zakaria. “But I have my God. I will leave your face alone.”

“Please.” Zakaria feels lightheaded. He remembers blood everywhere, Ali yelling at the women. “I had nothing to do with that, I swear.”

“We’ll find the other men as well,” the man says caressingly, almost to himself. He looks around the camp as though one of them might appear. “After.”

The men circle Zakaria, and he understands that they are blocking him from the view of any neighbors who might walk by. They are allowing him to die near his home; they won’t make his mother search the hospitals for him. He is grateful; his mind is still understanding that gratitude when the tall man rushes toward him, and Zakaria feels something cold and gasping in his stomach. He registers moisture before pain. A week ago, he was drinking tea with Mazna and Idris in the garden; she’d gone off sugar and they were teasing her.

He looks down and sees the blood as the knife is pulled out, then plunged in, then pulled out, then plunged in for a third and final time. He sinks to the earth.

Minutes go by. The men leave; he can hear their footsteps. Someone cries out a name. His name. It slices the night, his mother’s voice, the air suddenly alive with bird wings and footfalls, his name, his name, it is the last thing he knows of the world.

[ Return to the review of “The Arsonists’ City.” ]

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