ONE NIGHT IN BEIRUT
“But it was Sunday and the streets were empty. This little boy was so shell shocked and stunned that he was almost oblivious to our presence.”
LONELY IN LEBANON
By Tara Jane
Photo (Top) Beirut at Night
One night in Beirut I found myself leaving the pub very late. While walking I wandered by this tiny, sad, shivering Syrian child on Mar Mickey. The kid was in the midst of a total shut down; like a visible complete mental break. He was maybe about six? Filthy, exhausted, and completely shivering and shaking and just…off. Like in a world of his own. I sat down next to him. He was dazed but I asked if he was OK.
He didn’t understand a word of my crappy Arabic; so I just sat and held him for a good twenty minutes and kept repeating “ana hun, ana ma3ak.” Without much more than a whimper, he buried his head in my lap and didn’t utter a word. He just went limp; a crumpled mass of skin, bones and total despair. I spoke calmly, reassuringly, rubbing his tiny back and head and kept repeating that it would be OK. It would be OK….
After a while, a few guys wandered by and saw my friend and me trying to coax any words out of this quivering, tiny, crumpled boy to find out any information about him or where he lives. But he just curled up, silent. One incredible Good Samaritan got him to talk and open up after a good ten more minutes…the kid kept rambling about “Khaled” (his handler) and how he’d be in big trouble if he didn’t make enough money tonight.
Street in Gemmayzeh (above) at night. From disoriented.net
But it was Sunday and the streets of Beirut were empty. This little boy was so shell shocked and stunned that at one point he stood up, almost oblivious to our presence, and I noticed he was sitting on 21,000LL. I quickly grabbed the cash and stuffed it in his pocket. He didn’t even seem to notice or care. I offered to take him home to my house, give him a nice warm bath and a hearty meal and return him to his people in the morning after he had a good night’s sleep. He just kept shivering…eyes glassed over and…well…that wouldn’t work. That wouldn’t be allowed. He’d likely be beaten if he didn’t return home at the appointed hour. So we just continued to sit…and I continued to hold him.
It went on like that for what seemed like much longer than it probably was. Me – the stupid privileged, drunk, white American girl holding this tiny, broken child in her lap…and absolutely dumbfounded as to what to do next. With the help of the Good Samaritan, we earned this little boy’s trust. We convinced him to let us take him home to his “family” – or whatever was left of it. When he spoke, it was like a whisper. So quiet. So frail. So, completely over it. At only six.
After all the coaxing in the world, we took him in my friend’s car, stopping at Crew Hut to buy him a little sandwich and some water. He was stiff in the car. Terrified. I wondered what it must be like to be him – a disoriented young child getting into a car with two completely strange adults (who both had been drinking) at 2 am on a deserted street. I wondered what might have been if we hadn’t have managed to get him into the car with us. Would he have just sat there, doubled over all night on the pavement?
We asked for the sandwich to be cut into small pieces so he could fit them in his tiny mouth, and when I handed it back to him in the back seat he just barely nibbled around the edges. He was “full,” he said, he didn’t need to eat -though he was but skin and bones. He just sat there, now completely still, holding his tiny sandwich in his hand and staring out the window as we drove.
The “Green Line” (or “no man’s land”) is the dividing line of the Lebanese civil war in Beirut from 1975-1990. A ‘no man’s land’ developed between the Christians in the east and the Muslims in the west.
Grass and plants sprouted among the deserted streets in the small belt of land that separated the two halves of one world, and it became known as ‘the Green Line’.
Over time, ‘the Green Line’ widened and stretched right out into Beirut’s suburbs and beyond. The people eventually moved out as the conflict raged over the years.
Image and text from Kangaroobie
We set off. He roughly described where he “lived” – but the directions were spotty at best. We headed to Da7yeh…my friend and I shaking our heads, not sure where we were going and wondering what to do with this fragile creature. He was completely helpless, and so were we. He didn’t really know where he lived, just the general area.
Along the way, I kept reaching back behind my seat to lay a hand on his knee to remind him it was okay – that he was safe. He probably thought I was creepy, but he didn’t let on and kept staring off into the distance out the window. A complete blank. At one point, I said something silly and made a joke. He probably didn’t understand, but I laughed and he smiled, but only for a brief moment. One singular moment – but that smile cut through my heart, and I will never forget it. Then he took a bite of the sandwich.
After a bit, my friend announced that a check point was coming up and our situation was a bit sketchy. It definitely was. A Lebanese man and me, an American without a passport…both a bit tipsy late at night, and Ahmed, the tiny, filthy but sweet faced Syrian boy with big, terrified eyes, alone in Beirut, in the back seat. My friend explained to him in Arabic how we couldn’t go through the check point…that he needed to think and try to remember where he lived, and that we needed to find another way around – but we didn’t know where we were taking him.
He didn’t really seem to know where we should take him either. He truly didn’t know where he lived. He mentioned in his soft, whispering voice that his father was dead…I couldn’t hear the rest. I told him (my friend translated) that he can be anything. No matter what he’s been through, or how terrible things seem right now, he is very strong. Then he told us that one day, he wouldn’t have to be a street beggar any more. He would go to school and learn a skill. My heart sank.
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To avoid the check point, we put the car in reverse along the highway (in classic Beirut style) and went back a good half mile or so before he told us to stop in front of a seedy looking hotel in his barely there voice. My friend quickly shoved another ten or fifteen thousand into his tiny palm – worried that he’d maybe be beaten for leaving his post earlier than he was supposed to, but surely coming home with enough money might make things alright.
Without much ceremony, he got out of the car. I got out quickly as well giving him the rest of the cuts of sandwiches in a little box to take home. I had hoped to hug him, look into his eyes and feel some sort of closure, or any sense that he’d be OK after we parted, but he was silent and dazed and eager to set off. Without even a word or so much as a shrug he wandered down an alley alone. We watched as he disappeared…I got back into the car and cried on the way home.