The new apartment we had recently moved into was located at the foot of the mountain in a neighborhood whose intriguing name, Fanar, the ‘lighthouse,’ promised a helping hand through difficult times. This neighborhood spoke of safety and prosperity in the face of the one we had just fled. The living room and the kitchen benefited from a wall of windows looking at the Mediterranean Sea. Sometimes during the day the horizon would vanish, as the sea clasped the sky to its bosom and released it at sunset with fireworks of pink clouds. On the other end of the apartment the bedrooms enjoyed little balconies, except my room that had a large window where I liked to contemplate the valley from.
A forest of pine trees inhabited by singing jackals covered the valley including the remains of a shepherd’s old refuge that children had secretly converted into their hideout. The valley introduced the mountain to the landscape. That mass of rock was imposing, grounded, undisturbed as if it was pledging the existence of a magnificent world right behind it. The mountain gave the illusion of something to be longed for, like an escape from the rough waters everyone was thrown into. The country had become an ongoing battlefield for several years. Many had found a way to elude the conflict; others found themselves in the midst of it. We had recently moved to Fanar and that year I was left alone with my father, the neighbors, and their children.
The radio was blasting the familiar tunes of breaking news with a static noise the cracked antenna could barely get rid of. The soothing voice of Fairuz punctuated the announcements with songs of sentimental love and patriotism. Schools had been closed for weeks throughout the country. Not having to slip on a yellow striped smock every morning, a heavy schoolbag on the shoulders, a few treats in the pocket and rush after the bus, filled me with joy. Not having to do homework every night by candlelight when electricity would leave households in the dark for countless hours made me smile in content. Every child in the neighborhood was thrilled by the same aspirations: admiring the valley from the window, climbing trees all day long, picking up lemongrass in the shepherd’s old refuge, breaking the pines to eat the nuts, and hiding under the blanket listening to the jackals before going to sleep.
The neighborhood was not exempt from hostilities, as initially believed. The staircase of the building we lived in seemed to better satisfy the need for security and was soon elected as the new residence for whomever remained in the premises. The area was first occupied by a few chairs, the screaming radio, and a cardboard box that served as a side table, bearing a receptacle filled with nervously crushed cigarettes. Soon cushions and blankets came into play; the neighbors then dragged a mattress from their apartment and placed it on the floor. A plant settled on a perfect spot by the elevator and children were excited by this newfound playground. Playing cards had become our favorite collective activity to pass time; it only competed with a small television whose images on the screen had unexpectedly turned black and white. The lively dynamic the staircase had allowed for some time aroused the conviction of a short-term conflict about to end and triggered the eagerness of a life back to normal. The children were starting to miss climbing trees and running in the streets. I had missed looking through the window.
Everyone was wondering if the shepherd’s old refuge outlasted the conflict and why the jackals were not singing anymore. As the battlefield gradually got louder the building would shake at the rhythm of missiles smashing against concrete. We had gotten used to this orchestration. Sometimes with a ghost of a smile the neighbors would entertain themselves trying to guess the location of the target while playing cards. From the doorsteps of the apartment we could catch a little glimpse of the outside world. The horizon appeared as a distinct demarcation separating the sea from the sky. The city, burning into flames, had outlined dark clouds of smoke lacerating the atmosphere.
The staircase had determined the perimeter of our doings. Going to the kitchen to fetch food and water or venturing in the bedroom to grab a toy squeezed against a pillow had turned into heroic tasks. I would never miss an opportunity to run along the hallway leading to my bedroom and rush to the window to keep an eye on the old refuge at the corner of the street. I had noticed the glass windowpane above my bed was perforated to the size of small bullets.
The half-broken radio was now emitting inaudible sounds followed by piercing noises. We would use our hands and press them tightly against our ears sometimes with amusement. Our hands would then reach the shadow of the candle and shape theatrical silhouettes on the walls. We soon found ourselves huddling closer to each other,
deeper into the staircase. Those stairs we thought would be a temporary lodging suddenly looked too narrow. This newfound playground we once enjoyed suddenly looked dull. Even the shadows seemed restless and were swinging across the walls in swift movements that scared the children. These walls had grown into the headquarters of our new reality.
For the first time I could hear the clock ticking slowly and heavily.