All this week I’ve been watching events in Bahrain unravel – and I’ve had the nagging feeling that we’ve been here before. I spent 10 years in Bahrain and still have many close contacts there – until recently they’ve been telling me the ‘troubles’ will soon pass. What’s that word – troubles?
The Lebanese Troubles isn’t really a war novel – it’s about men and women rather than guns and bullets. But war is the background scenery to the story: like so many of my friends today, these expatriates think the ‘troubles’ could never really affect them – until they do.
This sample is posted as a reminder that bad history can repeat itself if we allow it to. Novelists don’t change anything much. I can probably do nothing to prevent the slide into chaos which now appears inevitable in Bahrain and perhaps further afield. But if you’re anywhere near the front-line, whatever your allegiance, just think about the similarities between this sample from the book and your own experience … and then consider whether you really want Bahrain to become another Lebanon. Maybe you can be an agent of change.
In the novel it’s April 13th 1975. A busload of Palestinians has been ambushed in the South of the country, with 27 killed. As night falls, sectarian fighting breaks out in the Beirut suburbs, and the BBC is expecting big trouble. Expats Richard and Claire Devine, new in the city just a couple of months ago, make for home with their baby boy, Jason:
We drove back on the now-familiar route. It was getting late. The streets were almost deserted.
Or they were until we reached our street and our apartment block.
There must have been a hundred people gathered there, most of them male. Many of them wore the chequered kaffiyeh, the Arab headscarf, wrapped around their necks or their waists, gleaming black and white in the streetlight and the floodlights from the building site.
Two of them approached the car as I drove slowly up, and motioned me to roll down the window. They leaned in, scanning Jason in the back seat, then the two of us in the front.
- Al ingleezi. OK. OK.
Their thumbs beckoned us into the parking space at the bottom of our building. I stationed the VW in the tight space between the pillars usually reserved for me, and we got out.
Two more men were shining torches on us as we lifted Jason out. We walked around the building to the front entrance, lit by its naked bulbs – nobody had ever bothered to add the final touches that make a place habitable. Down the street two or three men were shouting and there were a few guns. I spotted the wizened old guard for our building among the crowd, and he waved to us cheerily.
We put Jason to bed, then went to stand on the balcony in the darkness, to find out what was happening. Across the street, we saw the silhouettes of several neighbours on their balconies too. A cigarette point glowed there, and there a light flashed on, then quickly off again.
Claire huddled up against me. The night was cool.
- Now what’s happening?
- I don’t know.
- What an extraordinary day. It’s scary Richard, don’t you think?
- Looks like something big.
A truck came up the street, blaring out something in Arabic from a loudspeaker. The angry words bounced off walls and windows and echoed up the street toward us. There was no mistaking the incandescent rage, the crescendo of hatred which, I was beginning to understand, Arabic expresses so well.
The truck slowed as it approached our rabble and there were hands stretched down from the windows for shaking, fists beaten against the bodywork. The lines of a big gun mounted at the back glinted in the light. A shot was fired, not near, and we jerked back from the railing.
- Don’t worry.
- But I’m frightened. What’s happening?
- I don’t know, darling.
- I wish we had a phone.
There was a phone, next door at the bottom of the building site, on a rough trestle table where our concierge played cards and drank tea all day. The receiver was locked in place and we would have to get the key from him.
- I could call Lawrence from downstairs.
- No Richard. You’re not going back down there.
- No, I don’t really want to.
The rhetoric was rapidly fading down the street, heading for the Bourj, the old city centre where the markets mingled with the money-houses and where the victims of Lebanon’s struggle for independence were remembered. Old ghosts in the Place des Martyres, who had also screamed for war. Below us there were no more shots but a steady murmur of excitement and movement. A voice was calling instructions, and there was a regular thud as something dead hit the ground.
- Richard, please don’t look out.
But I had to see what was happening. Almost everyone now was milling around the entrance to our building. The orders came from inside, yes, from our parking area or from among the rubble of building materials and workers’ mattresses next door. Another thud. Part of the crowd shifted and seemed to flow under the building. I saw two men struggling to carry a large sagging white sack, then dump it next to several others.
- They’re dumping a load of sandbags in the street.
As Claire joined me, another bag was hauled out, and a wide semi-circle began to take shape in front of the site. More arrived, and a second row was started, on top of the first.
- Looks like they’re expecting trouble.
- D’you think there’ll be fighting here, Richard?
- I don’t know.
- I think we should go somewhere else.
- I don’t think we should go anywhere tonight.
- No. Oh Richard, what’s happening?
Claire’s hand found mine. I remembered the balcony in Chioufi, just before we met Lawrence and Monique. I wondered if Claire realized how much our relationship had changed since then, only six weeks ago. Rain began to fall in large drops.
- Well, there’s not much we can do, is there?
- I’m going to bed.
- Are you coming?
- Not yet.
The rain fell heavier, then heavy. There were new shouts below, and people running across the street, into buildings, into shelter. One last sandbag was lugged into place, then the last three men scampered out of sight. The wall was three bags high, about six yards in diameter, jutting out into the road. It would hold about ten men in firing positions.
Rain was pelting down, hissing on the road. A few weeks back, it had rained so hard that Hamra was flooded in five minutes. We’d seen people walking on car bumpers in the traffic-jam to get across the street. The city had no drains – or none that worked.
These beautiful, hopeless people.
From this ledge before, I’d seen delivery boys cycling down the hill with loaves of flat Arab bread balanced on a pannier, piled high above the handlebars. Once a boy lost his balance and the loaves tumbled off and rolled all across the road. He scurried around picking them up, reloaded, and set off again. Ever since then, every time I bought bread, one of the pieces seemed to have a tyre-mark across it.
The water ran in rivulets down the street.
Once, after a storm, I’d come out of the school to see the mad caretaker, Abdul Haleem, dashing around on the pavement with a broom in his hand, roaring. He was chasing a rat. The fat brown creature made a run for it, or rather, a waddle. But Abdul Haleem’s club crashed down, smashing it into a puddle. As it lay there dead, the old man danced around it, whooping in triumph, hitting it again and again. Then he picked up the bloody, wet carcase and hurled it into the road. Students were leaving the school too, girls pretty and elegant and eighteen. They clapped and cheered Abdul Haleem’s victory.
- Richard, come to bed. It’s late.
There was no easing of the rain. At least it seemed to have quietened things down for the night.
Far across the city, in Ain Rummaneh, Chiah and Dekwaneh, it was anything but quiet. Families huddled together in their apartments, comforting themselves against the rattle of machine-guns in the hollow streets, the shudder and the splintering of another shell gashing through a building. Frightened excited children trembled and wept while parents told them of the multitude of devils coming – Muslims, Christians, Palestinians, Leftists, Rightists, Druze … the legions of Death. Outside, grim-faced fathers and eager sons hunted in packs together, nervous vigilantes who would shoot at the shadows of their own ghosts.
Four men were shot on the streets that night, two of them accidentally by their own neighbours. More than ten times that number lost their lives in the safety of their own homes. The reports didn’t mention the wounded.
No – the whole novel’s not as heavy and gloomy as this. It’s just the mood I’m in right now. The Lebanese Troubles is a tragedy, but there’s lots of fun to be had on the way to disaster. If you’d like to read more, head on over to my Smashwords page, where you can sample the first 20% of the book for free … or download the whole novel to your preferred reading device or PC. If you’re a Kindle user, you can find me at Amazon and Amazon UK too.)
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You might like to sample more of this blog too – devoted mainly to left field book-marketing – with articles like How To Publish God.