I listened with shock to my carpenter relating the events of his weekend. His young brother-in-law and wife were killed in a car accident, leaving their three-year-old-child an orphan. The bewildered boy kept calling for his mother.
‘That’s terrible,’ I said, on the verge of tears.
My carpenter nodded his head. ‘Terrible or not, it was meant to happen,’ he said. ‘Don’t waste your tears. It was written that they should only live so many years. Nothing could have changed that. We must accept it.’
And there it was again: fate. Most Lebanese are great believers in it. Your life, they believe, is written for you before you were born. Que será será. Fate dictates everything that happens to you: your birth, marriage and death.
‘It’s sad but don’t dwell on it,’ said my carpenter as he continued his job.
I’ve seen it many times before: strength in the face of death. Some years ago, I covered the aftermath of the April 1996 massacre at Qana where over 100 Lebanese civilians were killed in an Israeli artillery bombardment as they took shelter in a United Nations base. The 17-day-old baby of Fatmeh Balhas was decapitated by a lump of shrapnel as she held him in her arms. Fatmeh’s husband, 16-year-old brother and her two other children had also been killed in the shelling
I personally don’t think I could have gone on with life, but Fatmeh did. She eventually remarried and had another baby.
‘It was my baby’s fate,’ she told me sadly. ‘It was meant to be.’
A few years later, I was covering an Israeli air strike against a Lebanese electricity plant. Flames were billowing from the wrecked machinery and a group of journalists was begging the army to let us in to look at the damage. As the army refused, fire engines arrived. We stood aside and looked at the firefighters rather enviously. The younger firefighters had heard our pleas and smiled sympathetically at us. I remember their faces well. No sooner had they entered the burning electricity plant than we heard the sound of returning Israeli jets. I saw a lightning flash followed by a huge explosion. We ran screaming in all directions and took shelter behind some fuel tanks in a gas station. The stupidity of hiding from missiles in a gas station sent us running away again. When the sound of the planes disappeared, we approached the electricity plant trembling. In silence we stared at it. None of us dared to ask. Then we knew. Most of the firefighters had been killed. Ambulances rushed in.
‘It was their fate,’ I heard someone murmur behind me. ‘It was their fate and not ours. Not ours.’
The next day I was assigned to cover the funeral of one of the firefighters. He was 19. Unfortunately I showed up at his house as his mother was being told that her son was dead. Apparently, no-one could bring themselves to do it during the night. Her screams echoed through the neighbourhood. Family and neighbours did the only thing they could. They held her and kept repeating that it was fate, hoping that that would bring her comfort.
For weeks afterwards, many journalists who had been begging to go inside the plant were asking themselves why fate had spared them.
Fate, or nassib as it is better known here, also dictates your choice of spouse. I have seen many women suffer in marriages with abusive husbands. ‘It was our nassib,’ they would say. ‘What can you do?’
‘A lot,’ I would respond passionately. But they would only look at me with pity.
‘Accept your fate,’ they would reply.
When a woman does not marry – still considered strange in this society – the parents’ excuse is invariably: ‘There was no nassib.’ In other words, her fate in life did not include marriage to a suitable man. This immediately lifts any embarrassment at having an unwed daughter.
My marriage to a British man five years ago displeased many acquaintances. ‘Aren’t Lebanese men good enough for you?’ I was asked. Or: ‘How could you marry someone with different values?’ The questions were endless.
At first, I would patiently explain that I fell in love and that my husband has become quite familiar with Arab culture and I with the English one. But to no avail. The frowns and questions would continue.
Finally, I realized that there is only one word that would stop them in their tracks: nassib. That’s all I needed to say. Nothing else. In reply, they just nod their heads in understanding and walk away.