I’m desperately trying to find a way to tell my little girl that she will not be graduating from pre-school. She has been practising her dances and songs for the past few months now. She can’t wait to wear her little graduation robe. Or for her parents and grandparents to come and see her perform. I have told her so many lies since last summer that I don’t have any more in store.
‘That’s just thunder,’ I told her over and over again as Israeli planes dropped bombs on Beirut last July. Yasmine and her little brother, Alexander, would run to the window every time to look out for the rain. The rain that never came. Instead, we watched mesmerized as two missiles fell on the port of Beirut not far from our home.
‘That’s fireworks,’ I exclaimed. Yasmine looked at me suspiciously. For a little person just turned four, she was amazingly perceptive.
‘Didn’t you know that some fireworks are so strong, they make houses shake and windows rattle?’ I added. But the windows wouldn’t stop rattling and we fled to the mountains. The windows rattled there, too. Sonic booms.
‘Lots of wind up here,’ I lied to the children. We were in the midst of a hot July summer. There wasn’t any wind. I could see Yasmine puzzling over my statement.
By then, my journalist husband had disappeared to the south of Lebanon – which was bearing the brunt of the Israeli attacks – to cover the war. As thousands were massacred, I would sometimes hear from him and sometimes not. Roads to and from the south were shelled. There was no way for him to return home.
‘Where’s Daddy?’ Yasmine asked.
‘He’s doing some interviews,’ I lied.
The days and weeks began to blend and Daddy’s ‘interviews’ didn’t finish.
Beirut airport was bombed. My parents, who had gone to Spain for a two-week holiday, couldn’t return. The children kept asking about them. ‘They decided to travel to other countries,’ I lied.
A few days into our refuge, our household help and friend decided to be evacuated with other foreign nationals. We begged her to stay but in vain.
The children were in tears. ‘Why is she going, Mummy?’ Yasmine cried. ‘I want her to stay with us. I love her.’
‘She wants to visit her mummy and daddy,’ I replied.
‘And then she’ll come back?’ asked Yasmine.
‘And then she’ll come back,’ I lied.
We were now well and truly alone in our mountain refuge.
A third of the dead were children. Their pictures blazed over the television. Yasmine managed to glimpse some scenes before I quickly shut it off.
‘Why are those children all sleeping?’ she asked. ‘It’s still light out.’
‘They’re just so tired, Yasmine,’ I lied. ‘They want to lie down a little.’
‘Then why are you crying, Mummy?’ she said, looking at my puffy eyes.
The images of dead children, who looked so much like my own, were still in my head.
‘I just have a cold, that’s all,’ I lied.
The war ended in mid-August. My husband came back to us after 33 days and we returned to Beirut to rebuild our lives. The damage to the country was tremendous. Thousands of people lost their lives and homes. For weeks, people walked around in a daze. It took a while for life to resume but it finally did.
Four months later, in early December, the Government became divided. The opposition group rallied its masses as thousands of demonstrators took over the downtown of Beirut that houses the government buildings. They set up their tents and started a long vigil. Downtown – a busy hub of shops and cafés – was effectively closed.
Sectarianism reared its ugly head. Deeply divided, the country seemed on the brink of a civil war. From our home, we could hear the angry mobs.
‘I hear lots of noise outside,’ declared Yasmine.
‘Oh, it’s a wedding,’ I lied.
My instinct, my full instinct, was to keep the children ignorant of the country’s instability. My earliest memories of my own childhood were of the Lebanese civil war, the pervasive fear, the sleepless nights. Yasmine and Alexander must never experience this devastating fear. And so I continued to lie.
Somehow, we got used to this new lifestyle. The tents were still there and the Government remained divided, but we managed to live our lives rather normally. Social events resumed and the children couldn’t keep up with birthday parties. My sister arrived from the US in late May with her two young children for a two-month stay. The family was elated.
A few days later, Islamist militias with ties to al-Qaeda in the north of the country attacked the Lebanese army. Intense fighting between the two continued for weeks.
And then it began.
I jumped from my bed as the sound of the explosion resonated in our flat. A bomb had been detonated in front of a busy shopping mall just before midnight.
Over the next few days, four bombs exploded during the night and one during the day killing a pro-Government politician. And they continue.
Fear, panic, but mostly depression has spread in Beirut. The streets are almost deserted. Parents rush their children home from school and we all basically stay indoors. A frantic husband back in the US insisted that my sister leave the country immediately. She did.
And, of course, I lie to the children as I rush them past parked cars. They all look like potential bombs to me.
Several unrigged bombs were found around the country, triggering many schools to end the year suddenly. Other schools cancelled their planned events. Among them was Yasmine’s pre-school.
And now, I face the biggest lie of all. I know only too well how it feels to practise for a school dance or recital which never happened because of ‘the situation’. I distinctly remember the bitter disappointment of not having my family watch me perform because it was too dangerous. And now, I have to watch my own child weep in disappointment.
I haven’t yet decided what to say to her. It has to be a good lie. A convincing lie.
It’s the only way I know how to protect my children.
Next month we start a new Letter from Cairo series.