We are walking by the Riad Solh Square. I see colors on the other side of the square, mostly darker shades of gray and green created by the old houses and shops. I hear passersby, their loud conversations mixed with car noises. I am watching my breathing; my eyes are on the street looking out for diesel Mercedes collective cabs that spew bluish brown smoke as they go in and out of traffic picking up and dropping off passengers. It’s hot, but not hot enough to make you sweat.
This is downtown Beirut in the sixties. On my left, rising high from the narrow sidewalk and occupying a whole city block is a tall building dressed in light beige marble-like polished concrete slabs covered with a thin layer of black dust chipping away at its claim to newness. This building facing the Sunni Muslim Basta district lives in my memory as the Capitole Building because of the name of the movie theater it houses.
I am taking this walk with her some half a century later halfway across the world in San Francisco. I would have taken the real walk alone had I gone to her funeral. I wanted to go or maybe it was just a passing thought to distract me from the sorrow of the news of her sudden death. We were friends, classmates, a long time ago — like millions of others who part ways after school to begin new lives in new places and never see each other again. Maybe I am imagining we weren’t like millions of others because of all the conversations we had and the correspondence we carried on for a few months after we ended up on two different continents.
I have chosen to walk by the side of this building because this is where I walked with her from our high school which was founded by some of the few educators and writers who had survived the Great Catastrophe. And this is where her funeral procession would have passed by on its way to the cemetery after services at the Armenian church on the flank of the hill overlooking the Square.
Reconstructing this virtual walk out of countless others, I am accompanying her to the streetcar station further down the road that will take her home to the Armenian district at the edge of the city. The conversation is lively as it always is in any other memory of her I construct. On this occasion, the talk is about Albert Camus who had died a few days earlier.
I am ridiculing the French teacher who had spent most of the class that day mourning with tears and theatrical gestures his sudden death in a car accident. She saw in his reckless high-speed driving the true artist’s determination to exceed limits, to reach the summit for the sake of his art and in his passing a monumental loss for mankind, of the masterpieces he would never produce. In this cinematic eulogy, she included a supporting cast of local Lebanese literati, citing their admiring opinions of the dead writer, expressed in conversations they’d had with her at literary soirées. Many years later, she too died in a car accident caused by an impatient driver who rammed into the cab she was riding in.
I am saying the teacher’s feelings cannot be genuine given who she is and where she lives, and my friend is saying with conviction that that is not true. She is chiding me for being a mean cynic, citing examples from past conversations. At times like this, her roundish face reddens, and her deep black eyes open wide as her voice rises.
We are passing by Cinema Capitole. There is a café above the lobby sandwiched between the orchestra and the balcony. It’s one of the places the boys and I went for coffee to talk politics and books. I remember one topic that stayed on the table for several days — the French theologian Teilhard de Chardin’s view of evolution. His philosophy had been reduced in our café meetings — at least in my distilled memory of it — to something like the following: Once men and women learn to master their impulses, and they are reduced to pure intellect free of emotions like jealousy and envy, anger and greed, in this perfect world they will also be free of fear of death. The conclusion of this analysis was that we were evolving in that direction or was it that we should strive to evolve in that direction? Was this the group’s interpretation of Teilhard de Chardin’s philosophy or was it one invented by one of the boys?
We reach the end of the block where Cinema Amir is, the basement movie theater, an art-house cinema, though it was not referred to as such. For one thing, the term didn’t exist in our vocabulary. This is where I saw Louis Malle’s “The Lovers” as she did. We linger, and I look at the posters on both sides of the stairs that lead down to the lobby. She’s wearing a sandstone-colored dress with a dark red collar, and she’s looking at me with a trace of a smile, knowing my “love,” as she calls it, for movies and perhaps remembering our conversation about “The Lovers.”
She said she didn’t like the movie because it was unrealistic and pretentious, just trying to be different for the sake of being different. I thought she was referring to the film’s heroine leaving her husband and child with a man after having met and slept with him the previous night. I wanted to ask — although I didn’t — if she didn’t admire, maybe even envy the wife’s audacity. In those years she’d established for her classmates that she was a liberated girl not bound by our inherited conventions, but I also knew she wouldn’t do anything to confront entrenched beliefs in the community that gave us our public identity. I assumed the limits of her liberation wouldn’t go as far as sharing my admiration of the wife’s audacity.
My decision to end our discussion of “The Lovers” could have also been based on my belief that her limited interest in movies was colored by whatever she’d gleaned from Hollywood movies. Her idea of a real movie, I assumed without much evidence as I remember it, was a Hollywood movie where even the unbelievable is believable. Perhaps I am being too hard on her, but that’s how I remember it today.
I also remember seeing the gangster movie “Touchez-pas au grisbi” at the Amir, but the only memory I have of it is the title and the name of the principal character Max, played by Jean Gabin. The reason I remember this movie is that the nickname Max got tagged on to the chauffeur of an Armenian deputy in Parliament whom my friend supported enthusiastically because he was a “modern man,” which translated in our minds to “enlightened.” The chauffeur, who doubled as a bodyguard, was given the nickname because his tough-guy but dignified manners and looks, as well as his sartorial style, reminded his friends of the character Gabin played. I thought he secretly liked being compared to Gabin.
I’d met Max at a political rally I’d attended with her. He’d recruited me to run some errands, and I was happy to oblige out of party loyalty and to please her. In my late teens, I’d come to think of Lebanon as a modern feudal state, a collection of fiefdoms each ruled by a political party or a wealthy old family, some more powerful than others and each with its own militia. Grosso modo — a phrase the deputy was fond of prefacing his opinions with — this meant that any issue one had, be it legal, social or even domestic, he went to the vassal or the political party before going to the appropriate government department. Not too long ago, when I was looking on the internet for a book on the last Lebanese civil war, I came across Max’s obituary. He’d been assassinated a few years after I’d left Beirut by members of a rival political group. In the same search, I came across a news item about the assassination of another Armenian belonging to that rival party that had taken place a few weeks later.
She often lamented these assassinations, which she called “fratricide,” and chided me for not being as outraged as she was. Calming down after a while, she brought up our ongoing exchange about ways to bring all the rival groups together and put an end to the violence. No one particular conversation comes to mind. All that remains is a canvas of dots in various colors varying from dark somber purples and reds to bright blue and shades of orange. Sometimes the colors fade, revealing the long, blurred seven-syllable Armenian word for fratricide.
We’re standing in front of the theater, and I see the tall cubic brownish-red Azarieh building down the street — was it once the site of a Lazariste monastery or school? It rises high before my eyes, surrounded by old one, two-story buildings, some of them perhaps from a previous century. The shops and offices the Azarieh houses are clean and neat, and the demeanor of its occupants says they belong to a superior class of merchants and professionals, free from the inconvenience of running a business in a dilapidated structure.
I am hesitant about asking her to cross the street to the Azarieh building, the shortest way to get to her streetcar stop. She would want to cross the street, perhaps hoping we would run into Shooshig whose father’s clothing store is on the ground floor. Shooshig is her closest friend and my girlfriend. She could be at the store delivering something to her father. My friend assumes that I’d want to see her.
I don’t want to see her. Every conversation I have with her ends after a few sentences. New topics I introduce to get things going are impersonal and contrived. I have no memory of being physically attracted to her, but I assume I must have been at some point. Over the years, I must have completely eradicated all fragments of memories that can help me put together a narrative, a picture or a feeling. I remember not a single kiss — that would have been the extent of an intimate contact — not even flesh touching flesh, warm or cold. Yet the relationship went on and the myth of the two of us being in love a la Romeo and Juliet or some other literary couple continued until the day I left for California.
And she — my deceased friend — was responsible for keeping this fiction alive. Many of our conversations were about my relationship with Shooshig, I, never saying I wanted to terminate the relationship, but skirting around the subject of ending the love story which was playing in our friends’ heads as they projected their fantasies into the fiction to flesh it out.
She and Shooshig were intimate friends. Often, she would make an aside about Shooshig’s feelings toward me, to which I would just nod, memory tells me, with some embarrassment. If I said anything at all, it went something like, perhaps it would be best if Shooshig and I became just friends. Why didn’t I say I don’t like her anymore? I no longer read the letters she writes to me — the ultimate measure of a serious or passionate relationship — that I once looked forward to receiving.
My dead friend was a loyal advocate of her best friend. I never thought about why she would be so determined and insistent about seeing my relationship with Shooshig go on. My memory of the person that I was says I was already convinced such intense advocacy of another person is really about oneself.
My friend argued like someone who was fighting for the preservation of a sacred monument. To my exaggerated accounts of my arguments with Shooshig, she’d tell me “les courroux d’amoureux, c’est un renouvellement d’amour” — lovers’ quarrels, it’s a renewal of love. Was that a quotation from Molière? Or something she’d picked up from her pen pal in Boulogne-Billancourt, a suburb of Paris? She’d chosen to correspond with this French student solely because of where he lived. My friend and her family spent their summers in a mountain village in Lebanon known as Bois de Boulogne. She said she liked the sound of the name which she enunciated in a faultless French accent by first bringing her lips together and then playfully enunciating every syllable. I always wanted to kiss those protruding lips every time she mentioned the suburb or the village. Or I am imagining that I wanted to kiss her? Is this an instance of the more time separates us the closer we get?
Having decided that I don’t want to cross the street to go to the Lazarist building, I ask her to have coffee with me, and we reverse course and go to the entrance of Cinema Capitole. We stand by the marbled floor entrance. I am disoriented and can’t find the way to the café. Of all the cafes we frequented, I favored this one the most. I also liked going by myself with a book or a newspaper and a notebook. She is standing at the entrance and looking intently at the stills in the windowed cases. I turn around and walk to the street next to the cinema which gently slopes down to the Parliament.
Some years earlier I was standing in the same spot when I saw a group of men chanting and shaking their fists, led by a man sitting on the shoulders of a sturdy man, who was heading toward the Square. Suddenly, half a dozen Land Rovers zoomed in forming a tight barricade that blocked the exit of the street. Surly looking policemen wearing red berets carrying compact automatic rifles jumped out of the cars and formed a straight line along the entire width of the street. In unison they unshouldered their rifles and pointed them in the direction of the oncoming crowd. This police force was known by its emergency phone number, 16. It was formed after the Civil War of 1958 with the consent of all the political factions and given unusual powers. In its short existence, it had established its reputation for standing above all the factions in the country.
From behind the line of policemen, the commanding officer stepped forward, turned around, looked at his men and began walking toward the protesters. He raised his military stick and told the man who was being carried to stop. This is as far as they could go, he told the demonstrators, and ordered them to disperse. Loud enough for all his followers to hear, the leader of the demonstrators told the officer, No, they would continue the march to the Square. The exchange was repeated several times until the leader of the demonstrators signaled his followers to march forward. The officer walked back to the police line and ordered his men to shoot. I heard a series of popping sounds, not the blasting bang of movie gunfire. The man who was being carried dropped motionless to the ground. As the crowd began to disperse, the policemen broke rank and started chasing the demonstrators, hitting the slower ones with their rifle butts and kicking those who had fallen.
The moment the man dropped to the ground has been reduced to one photograph in my memory, that one single instant the bullet hit him and his body crumbled, his head and hands collapsed. Just one pop and he was gone — never to come back.
This is not how she died, not instantly. She had a massive heart attack, and death came days later. When I was debating about going to the funeral, I wondered what her final thoughts may have been. Undoubtedly about her children I decided. The article about her death in the Beirut Armenian newspaper, to which she contributed pieces from her new home in Montpellier, France, about the French literary scene and French politics, said her death was peaceful. Her husband was by her bedside throughout. They’d gone to a conference in Armenia and had decided to return home by way of Beirut, her birthplace. Memories must have rushed to her mind. I wondered how she decided which ones to tackle first. The man being carried had one thought when he was brought down: to reach the Square, which he never did.
The Parliament street is now empty, and I turn back and see her standing under the marquee above the entrance. She says one of the girls in the stills looks like Shooshig and wants me to see it. I look and say yes without thinking. She says I haven’t answered any of Shooshig’s letters, and I feel like telling her I don’t want to write to Shooshig, I want to write to you — that I have composed many letters on paper and in my head that I never knew how to pass on to you.
Have I invented this narrative over the years, adding to it, eliminating unpleasant or conflicting details? Did I really want to write to her confessing a love that may have been created by a trick of memory decades later on another continent?
I am back in San Francisco contemplating her last wish to be buried in the Armenian cemetery in Beirut. I consider the effort involved in transporting her body to Montpellier and decide it is trivial. Didn’t she want to be buried near her loved ones? I surmise finally that she decided to be buried in Beirut to link her children to the place that made her. I decided she chose to be buried in Beirut confident that her children would make periodic pilgrimages to her grave and make that city part of them just as it was part of her.
I remember a book I bought years ago in a used bookstore. I haven’t read it — it’s one of those postponed readings. It must be somewhere in my office. It is by William Saroyan, some of whose stories she’d translated into Armenian from their French translations. If my memory is not deceiving me, it is entitled I Used to Believe I Had Forever, Now I’m Not So Sure. I don’t know exactly where it could be in the office, but I am confident I will find it.