The following is a story from Zein El-Amine’s Is This How You Eat a Watermelon?. El-Amine is a Lebanese-born poet and writer. He has an MFA in Poetry from the University of Maryland. His poems have appeared in
In cold months Sharife spends her time on the other side of the house, in the communal courtyard that opens up to the valley. In that expanse, she has her meals, makes her tea, and washes for prayers. Walking into that space you would think that it was decorated by Dali. A sink attached to the exterior wall with a mirror reflects the green valley back at it, giving the impression that the wall is opening to a lush landscape inside the house. A frayed towel hangs at an angle from a rebar jutting out of the wall. A bare lightbulb dangles from the concrete canopy like a misplaced idea. Sharife stores things that she wants to keep out of reach of her relatives in a straw basket anchored at an impractical height on the wall with a metal hook, which doesn’t make sense since she is the shortest member of her family.
The other side of the house faces the heart of the village. There is a balcony that has been painted off-white with maroon trimmings. From that elevated vantage point, you can look out on a small rectangular plot, the main asphalt road that cuts through the town square, and the winding road that branches from it to the western reaches of the village. At the end of the tobacco harvest season, that small expanse between the house and the main road is covered with low-slung tobacco leaves, strung between wooden square pegs to dry. After the tobacco is dried, it is moved to a two-story building bordering it. There the tobacco is hung from the ceiling like giant brown leis. Come October, the field will be transformed again, the site of the annual harvest ritual. Large bulbous black metal cauldrons are propped on stones atop a fire to boil portions of the grain yield.
In the summers the balcony that looks out at that ever-changing terrain serves as Sharife’s main perch, a place that she sweeps daily, where she drinks her tea and smokes her cigarettes. It isn’t her first choice, she much preferred the courtyard with its view of the valley and the crusader fort. But she abandoned it for the balcony when the rivalry with her sister, who shared that space, reached an unbearable pitch.
Being who she is, a tiny tendon-wired woman with salt coursing through her veins, she reproaches and critiques whoever dares to get caught in her crosshairs. Shouldn’t you wear socks? Aren’t you cold? And under her breath, These people let their kids run like wild animals. Or, aren’t you so and so’s daughter? Where is your mother? Let her come see you in this state. Aren’t you ashamed? As a woman who never married and never had children, she expresses whatever maternal instincts she might have had through caring for her nephews and for the children of other people. She does this in her own way, by chastising the parents for not caring for their kids and setting them loose like livestock as she informs anyone who stops by for her famous tea. Her tea is that good, enough to keep people returning despite being subjected to her venting sessions that leave no member of the village, or her own family, uncriticized of their conduct, their unsanitary living conditions, and how they abuse others, mainly her.
Sharife once lived in the room just below the balcony, one that still carries the characteristics of the original house: the cut stone walls, the exposed timber beams, and a decaying leaning closet. But because of her friction with her sister, she decided to ask her brother to have a room built for her separate from the house. The new room, which opens out to the courtyard, is small, six feet in width and twice the length. But it took more than three months to finish this tiny building because Sharife appointed herself as the general contractor and pecked at the workers all day long. Every week there would come a moment when one of the three laborers would walk off the worksite, march up to my uncle’s room and beg him to get her off their backs for an hour or two so they could get some work done.
In July of 2006, Israel invaded South Lebanon in a military operation called “Summer Rain”. The IDF always wanted to demonstrate their literary prowess to western powers by putting literary labels on their invasions—a previous operation was actually called “Grapes of Wrath.” The poetics here lie in the fact that Lebanon does not have any rainfall in the summer. In fact, all the rain is confined to the winter months. So “Summer Rain” is code for planned carpet bombing. The plan was to subject the Lebanese to a deluge of destruction for seventy-two hours and rout out the popular resistance that had expelled them from the country at the turn of the millennium. They would destroy every bridge on the main coastal road that connected the rural south with the rest of Lebanon. They would strafe the countryside, flattening thousands of homes. They assumed that this would force the Lebanese to fight among themselves and blame the armed resistance. Then they would sweep away anyone who ever took up arms against them through a massive ground offensive. All in three days.
Things didn’t go as planned and the war lasted thirty-three days instead of three. Everyone in the village left in the first day or two and managed to zigzag their way to the city or the mountains where they were taken in by relatives and friends. Some did not manage to make it as their convoys were bombed along the route.
Sharife’s two brothers and their families packed up as soon as they heard the thunderous approach of the bombers. Sharife’s nephews took turns running down to her room to plead with her to leave with them. Her answer to their pleas was the same: “I would rather die in my home than live in that city of strangers.” Her brother made one last attempt to sway her after his family and their essentials were loaded into three cars. Sharife just dismissed him with a wave of the hand. “May God protect you, be on your way. I am too old to be spending what little of the time left on this earth scurrying around like a cockroach.” They finally gave up and headed north to Beirut.
A chain smoker, Sharife rolled her own for three decades and then began to buy L&M cigarettes, an American brand, when homegrown tobacco was not as abundant and her arthritis made it difficult to roll. Her hyperactive daily routine includes several tea and cigarette breaks. She would sit on a low stool, gather up her scarf on her lap, extend her tiny head over the kettle and glasses and burn away the tobacco with the same intensity that she does everything else in her life. This is the only time that she is still. In between these times, she is a blur of activity. It is a mystery how much “housework” she could generate daily. The outside observer would think that she runs a whole household with children and such but it’s just Sharife and her OCD. She would make a hundred-yard dash from morning until 2 pm, when she would knock herself out with a dosage of valium that could knock out a cow.
She depends on her nephews to buy her cartons of tobacco from the general store which is a short walk away. Every week someone coming in from the city would stop at the general store to get a carton for her. All in all, she has been smoking for seven decades, and the miracle of it is that we never hear her cough. Her brother jokes that she probably suppresses both cough and cancer through sheer hard-headedness.
Day six of “Summer Rain,” drones buzzing night and day targeting anything that moved, and Sharife doggedly sticks to her routine. During nights, the villages are submerged in darkness as light itself is targeted especially if it is mobile. There are no innocent lights, all light is tried and executed on the spot. Everyone knows the drill: don’t drive at night, not even a motorcycle, especially a motorcycle, don’t turn on the porch lights, and shut all windows with wooden shutters.
Sharife sits alone in her tiny house, listening to the Arabic broadcast of Radio London on her transistor with the mangled antenna and manically eating her last piece of chicken, bone and all. She reclines on the wall, grabs her Bic lighter and her pack of smokes, tips her L&M hard box and out slips her last cigarette. She has never lost count of them before. She curses the devil, puts the cigarette to her lips, winces as it sizzles and lights up her face. She looks under the bed and in the closet, looks around her small space, and peaks out at the courtyard. She curses herself when she realizes that there is no one else around to blame. She crushes the pack and asks out loud, “What am I going to do with myself?” She reaches under the bed and pulls out one of the many different-sized makeshift boxes. There she finds her silver flashlight with a slim long grip and a big bulb worthy of a headlight. She grabs the four size A batteries sitting on the window sill where she suns them to extend their life. She turns the flashlight to look into the bulb and switches it on but nothing happens. She examines the bulb and gives the flashlight a smack and it comes on. She is momentarily blinded. Even when she recovers her sight a few minutes later she can see the ghost of the filament seared into her retina. She curses the manufacturers of practically everything that she owns, the Chinese. “The Chinese are going to be the end of us!” She crosses the courtyard with the flashlight on and the last cigarette dangling from her mouth. She goes up to the second-floor balcony to look out over the main road. A drone buzzes above like a giant bee, but she is too fixated on the burning end of her last L&M to care.
Then she hears the sound of potential salvation, a whispering among men, and a stomping of feet on the move. The sound is coming from the south end of the main road but is buffered by the only house on that end of the village. She spots them soon after, about a dozen men, some in full regalia with helmets and all, and some in fatigues and t-shirts, one of them carrying a rocket launcher over his shoulder. The minute they reach the open road with the clearing on one side and the tobacco field on the other, Sharife sets her light on the lead man. In the first seconds of silence, she starts to wonder if the Israelis had reached this far, this soon. She moves her light along the whole length of the platoon. When she sees that they aren’t accompanied by an armored vehicle or a tank, she is assured that they are her people. She moves her spotlight back to the lead man.
“Is that the Hamade boy?”
“Is that the Hamade boy?”
“No, there is no Hamade here. For god’s sake Haje shut that light off and go inside.”
She moves the light to the source of the voice. “May God give you good health young men. Can one of you run down to Im Ali’s store and grab me some cigarettes? I am completely out.”
The man in the lead moves into her line of light and shouts through cupped hands, “Listen Haje, Im Kamil is hovering above us and we have to move on. For god’s sake shut off that flashlight before that thing spots it.”
“This thing?” ringing the flashlight like a bell, ”This thing is nothing—this thing is practically a candle.”
“We have to go Haje. Goodbye, go with peace. Shut off the flashlight and go inside, may God save you!”
“Do me a favor… aren’t you a son of the village? Help out this old woman… I finished my cigarettes and I just need one pack. Just one, to tide me over until tomorrow. May God save you, my brother.”
“Haje, we don’t have any cigarettes and we don’t have the time to get you anything right now. Hear that buzzing? That is an MK drone—they’re armed these days. They shoot at anything that moves and any light that flickers. Do you understand?”
“Yes but the general store is just two steps from here and Im Ali will open it up for you if you knock. I know that it looks like the store is closed but knock on the side door and she’ll come down. I have an account with her so you don’t have to pay, she’ll put it on my tab. Just say that it is for Sharife.”
“There is no strength but in God! Haje! We are in real danger—this lull won’t hold much longer. We have to make it to the next village. For god’s sake shut off that flashlight before they hit us. They can spot a candle from these drones … stop shaking the thing, may God preserve you Haje, stop shaking it!”
“The whole affair will take a minute.”
The man turns back to the men as they try to stifle their laughter. “This is unreal, this same house was bombed in the last attack,” he tells them and waves to march on.
“Are you the Party of God?” Sharife shouts at them.
“What?” the man answers knowing what she just said but cupping his ear for the insult.
“You call yourself the Party of God?”
“What is your problem woman?”
“The Party of God, you say? More like the Party of Satan! Go ahead, march.” She rings the flashlight like a marshaller guiding a plane into its dock, “March on to red hades if I care! If it wasn’t for this catastrophe that you got us into I wouldn’t be without cigarettes.”
“Unbelievable, let’s go men!” the leader of the platoon waves them on.
“Go! Why should you care about a miserable old woman like me? Why should you care if I die of deprivation? Am I a fly to be swatted? I am just going to go into my dark room and wither away. Is that what you want? You want me to wither away in darkness …” her voice trails off as she slowly realizes that she is talking to the now vacant street.
Someone shouts from the neighbor’s house across the way, “Go in Haje Sharife, I hear them buzzing again. Go in, God preserve you.” A mistake, as Sharife turns her searchlight to the houses around her, trying to locate the source of the voice.
“Turn the light off!” the voice shouts.
“God curse you all,” she whispers and turns the flashlight off, “There is no humanity left in this world.”
She goes back through the house to descend down the back stairs to her room. She resumes her search, turns the place upside down trying to find a single cigarette to no avail. She walks out into the back courtyard and sifts through the ashtray and finds a cigarette butt that still has a stub of tobacco on it and carries it back into her room. She sets it on her window sill and considers when she should smoke it. As she does this, she hears the sound of a boy yelling below the balcony. She hurries to the metal gate next to her room and peers through a square opening at its center, which is at eye level to her five-foot stature.
“Who’s that?” she calls out.
“It’s me Haje, I brought you cigarettes.”
She winces at the boy in the dark but does not recognize him. “How did you know I needed cigarettes?”
“One of the men that just marched through told me. I was knocking on Im Ali’s place and he gave me money and told me to run a carton to the old lady at the end of the road. I think he meant you.”
She scans the boy head to toe through the peephole. He looks left and right, shuffling his feet as if he has to pee. This makes Sharife suspicious and she hesitates for a minute then opens the gate. Sure enough, he has the cigarettes, not just a pack but a whole carton, and not any carton but her brand of choice, L&M.
“May God preserve your hands,” she tells the boy. “God bless you and bless the resistance. Let me give you some money for it.”
“It was paid for. I need to run back home. My mother is having a fit,” he yells as he runs back home. Sharife peels back the cellophane, tears the end of the carton, pulls out the pack, gives it a couple of taps on the back of her hand, pulls out a cigarette, lights it up, winces with relief, and exhales, “Gratitude be to God.”
When Summer Rain ended the landscape was littered with hundreds of bombed-out homes and villages, every single bridge along the coastal road to Beirut was destroyed, farmland was scattered with cluster bombs. All the families returned south to settle back in the villages. The first weekend after the end of the war, there is bumper-to-bumper traffic on the few intact roads heading back from the cities and northern mountains to the rural south. Some already knew that their homes were hit and yet they return with mattresses strapped atop their cars because they still want to spend their weekend in the country like they did before, even if it meant sleeping on the floors of the skeletal remains of their ancestral homes.
Sharife’s relatives were safe with the knowledge that she had survived the assault because they had contacted the Red Cross and were assured that although the balcony of the house was hit in the last days of the war, Sharife was alive and kicking.
The man sent by the Red Cross knew the village well. He was dispatched with another man to check on her. The two men entered the courtyard from the valley side and found a dented and burned water tank in the middle of it and called out for Sharife. She had been praying in her room which seemed intact except for the curtains which were shredded by fire, singed strips waving in the breeze. Sharife emerged cocooned in her prayer white wrap, bundling her tightly wound scarf on her head sealing all her graying hair from view. Without a greeting, she launcheed into a long lecture about knocking and announcing oneself before entering. The startled volunteers realized that they would have to let her finish and return to report that she was ok. Only after the lecture did she pause to ask, “What is it? What do you want?”
“Only to ensure your health and safety.”
“Ok, you ensured, now go with peace. You could have ensured my health weeks ago when I nearly died for lack of cigarettes and food, there would have been some use for you then. No, but you wait until those dogs bomb the Karake house next door, launching the water tank into the courtyard and blowing away my windows setting my curtains on fire. It is a good thing I took my valium that day because I slept through the whole thing. Look at this mess,” she complained, pointing at the tank and scattered chunks of concrete, “no amount of sweeping can clean this stuff. I’ve swept for a week and nothing has changed.”
Sharife’s brothers make their way back along with their families, three cars in a row, in a line that backed up for miles. They stop at a coffee shop, just before the final turn to the village. They heard that the general store in Deir Keifa was out of almost everything.
Sharife’s nephew Wissam enters the coffee shop and finds it empty except for the owner behind the counter and a handful of men in civilian clothes gathered around a table sheltered by a grape arbor. The customers are sipping tea and talking loudly as if they had been served spirits. They had that air about them. Locals could always tell who belonged to the resistance even after they shed their military garb to return to their farms and their mechanic shops and businesses.
Wissam greets Abu Hassan the owner, “Al-Salam Alaykum”
“Wa Alaykum Al-Salam,” Abu Hassan replies.
“A carton of L&Ms if you please.”
“Here you go. You’re from Deir Keifa, right?”
“No, his nephew.”
“I know your uncle. You look just like him when he was your age.”
Suddenly the men’s chatter comes to a halt and all turn to examine Wissam. The oldest one among them, a man with a broad tanned face, receding hairline, and a closely trimmed salt and pepper beard, motions to him with a flick of the wrist. “Come here, I want to ask you a question.”
Wissam walks up and greets the men.
“You’re from Deir Keifa?” the man asks.
“Is your house the second one on the right past Husseinieye?”
“Do you have a grandmother, yay high, that stayed there during the fighting?”
“Yes, that’s my aunt.”
A young man sitting in the back of the circle leans back his chair, a cup of tea steaming in his hand, and asks, “So where were you during the war?”
“We all went to Beirut.”
“And you left your aunt behind?”
“We asked her to come with us but she refused. We begged and pleaded but she has a hard head.”
“Really?” The young man interrupts him scanning the men as they break into laughter.
“Yes … you have no idea.”
“No, we do.”
He looked at them puzzled, waiting for the other shoe to drop. The older man waves at him to come closer so that he can speak directly into his ear. “Listen to me son, the next time this happens, do your country and the resistance a favor and take your aunt with you.”
Excerpted from “Sharife vs. The Party of God” from Is This How You Eat a Watermelon? out from Radix Media, November 08, 2022. Used with permission of the publisher. Copyright © 2022 by Zein El-Amine.