The Meaning of Being Numerous

by Lina Mounzer

 

Obsessed, bewildered

By the shipwreck 

Of the singular

We have chosen the meaning

Of being numerous.

                - George Oppen, 1908-1984

 

Prologue

The man who sets up the bomb is long gone before it goes off. 

It is a standard, 50 kg TNT explosive, fitting neatly into the trunk of a car. If the car is heavy enough, a 1982 Mercedes, blue-green say, like this one, the slight heaviness of the back wouldn’t even be visible to the naked eye. The components are easily available to one who knows the right people, and he would have known all the right people. Some things bought off the black market. Some things from a mechanic he knows somewhere, or better yet, from an electrical store, where he doesn’t have to talk to the owner as he assembles all the necessary wiring. 

He has his own trajectory of what brought him there. He is just a part of the larger machine, like the fuse, or the timer. The living part of the bomb, but just a part nevertheless. If it were not him, that night wearing his father’s old sweater and a baseball cap he stole from a dead American Marine, it would have been someone else. Any number of slouched, nameless boys, driving that Mercedes and leaving it parked on a residential street on the last day of winter. I am more interested in what happens afterwards. 

The bomb goes off at 6:03 pm on a Monday night in March 1984, on a street in Haret Hreik, in West Beirut. 

There are exactly 63 casualties, and 129 wounded. Of the casualties, 54 die instantly, and the other seven die of complications either in the hospital, or on the way there. I think often about those two words: casualties and complications. The first is so flippant – it can’t help but bring to mind a whole host of other associations: casual dress, casual shoes, casual atmosphere. Two letters away from instructions to keep it simple, uncomplicated. The other, which starts off far less serious (for after all, in a situation like this, wounded means hope, means a chance of survival), soon finds itself up against obstacles that bar its way forward. Obstacles like a blood clot, say, or irreversible brain damage, or a microscopic tear in the tight cellular structure of an internal organ that bleeds its way into the body and eventually stops the heart.

The heart. The biggest complication of all.

There are other wounded who die years later, like the man who survives the initial blast, but whose legs are left behind in the rubble. Unable to work after that, he dies three years later of a heart attack caused by immobility and an increasing number of arguments with his wife, who has to take care of the kids and the house and all their various, fathomless needs without help from anyone. But he doesn’t count. Initially, he qualifies as a survivor. A survivor: someone whose very effortless, instinctive act of breathing and functioning is elevated to a status, a badge of abiding sustenance. You are no longer merely living, like all the other breathing, eating, defecating people around you. You have lived through something, and that notion of being a survivor will always remind you that your life is now clustered in some quantum way around one single moment in time, one particular episode in history, that defines everything fundamental about you from that time onwards. Whatever it does to your life afterwards, you don’t count as a casualty unless you die as a direct result of shrapnel or falling rubble.

But what counts as shrapnel, for someone such as me, tracing the trajectory of this bomb throughout the years? How do you measure the resonance of a bomb?

With a detonation of 50 kg, glass can shatter up to three blocks away from the initial site. Or, to put it in more technical terms: the major damage is incurred in the nucleus of the blast site, with damage growing exponentially less pronounced with every concentric ripple of the radius, limited to pounds per square inch times weight squared by mass over distance times pi.

But the resonance of bombs has a tricky way of escaping math equations and reverberating into people’s lives in all sorts of unexpected ways. 

Two blocks away from the bombsite, a mother is putting her ten-month old son to bed when the bomb explodes. The glass in his nursery shatters, but his crib is nowhere near the window, because his mother has known, at least, to take that precaution in a country where bombs go off unexpectedly. Neither of them is hurt, but the shock of the sound causes the child to shit his diaper and he screams wildly into the evening, inconsolable. For two years after that, he will refuse to sleep unless his mother presses her body around his and rocks him physically into slumber. Forever afterwards, he will flinch whenever he hears any loud noise – a door slamming, glass breaking, thunder, fireworks. In fact, he has a terrible anxiety about fireworks, and on New Years Eve in 2000, when the city ushers in a new millennium with twelve tons of colorful explosives, and he is thoroughly drunk and uninhibited for the first time in his seventeen years of life, he will unexpectedly shit his pants again, earning him the ridicule of all his friends and turning away from him the girl he has been waiting all year to kiss. To make up for that shame, he will propose to the first girl who is kind enough to like him, and he will have a car-crash of a marriage, driven to the ground by the deep-down knowledge that he does not, in actuality, love his wife, and that he was merely settling for the first person willing to settle for him.

Three blocks away from the bombsite, a teenage girl is masturbating for the first time when it goes off. In fact, it goes off the very second she gets off. From then on, nothing will make her come quite like the combination of electric fright and lust she feels at that moment. This will drive her to trying to recreate a scenario in which she can experience true mortal terror at the moment of orgasm, which will eventually lead to her accidental death at a hotel in London in 2007, under circumstances mostly inexplicable to the cops that arrive on the scene.

You could call all of these casualties of the war. What happens after the bomb goes off: this is what I am interested in. What happens to the uncounted, the ones who don’t end up in the newspaper as names reduced to statistics. 

This is the story of one explosion. It could have been any one of them. I’ve tried to write about the war a lot, to reconstruct it for myself. The only place to start is with one explosion. To trace its shrapnel through the years. Anything bigger is too much. Anything bigger threatens to overwhelm. 

What we all had in common was one explosion. It could have been one of many but I like to think it was this one: the same one. There’s a nice narrative cohesion in that, and it appeals to me. Because really there is no way to make sense of the war, of what happened. But there are physics and mechanics to an explosion. An arc of destruction. And then the inevitable reconstruction. One does not happen without the other. There is no crater that remains unfilled, no matter how haphazardly. No building that doesn’t get patched up, if only for function, and no life that doesn’t try to leave the rubble behind and forge onwards into the daily business of survival. 

Is the reconstruction of events part of that same drive? To forge ahead, to settle the past into its sediment and try to build something new, even when what we long for most is there in what is left behind?

See, everyone who has not lived it assumes that the pain of war will be extraordinary. It’s a way for people to distance themselves from the unthinkable, perhaps. Those who have not lived it approach it with a sort of reverence that masquerades as respect but comes dangerously close to indifference. “I couldn’t possibly understand,” they say, and so they don’t even try. And of course, there are those stories, the ones that boggle the mind with their concentration of tragedy and their occasional illuminations towards a heroism that speaks to life at its extremities. But the truth is, the things that cause pain are mundane and universal. A broken heart, failed ambition, the things one holds sacred that are never honored enough: all these can cripple a person worse than physical injury. And exile. Who amongst us has not experienced the sweet-twist woes of exile? For every moment is an exile from the one before it, every new day is an exile from the past. The law is simple, in every move forward, there is something left behind, and even pain, in the leaving, is elevated to awesome proportions because it is a moment that will never return, never be relived in its perfect, present completeness in the same way.  

What is left behind in the rubble of the past. That is the most unknowable thing. So know this, then. Two minutes before the bomb goes off, a boy falls off a wall on the other end of West Beirut. Two hours after it goes off, a father slams his glass down and makes a final decision. And in the instant it goes off, one man’s career is made, but his life is destroyed in the process. These are the stories I am interested in, from this one bomb.

The first cannot possibly imagine that the bomb will eventually kill him. The second thinks he is doing his best because he has no other choice. And the third, well, the third is the most difficult of all. Maybe because he will be the one who brings them all back together in the end.

One bomb out of 3,641 detonated over fifteen years of civil war. I am counting here only the car bombs – no bullets, no RPGs, no landmines, no experimental explosives dropped from fighter jets. After all, there must be some method to scientific research. 

Three lives then, and how they spark forward in time from that singular moment. Resonance. That’s what you actually hear, if you survive an explosion. Not the blast itself. Now listen. It’s about to go off in the distance of the past. 

Lina Mounzer is a writer born and raised in Beirut. Her first short story, "The One-Eyed Man", appeared in Hikayat: An Anthology of Lebanese Women's Writing, published by Telegram books. She is a regular contributor to Bidoun magazine, a review of contemporary art and culture in the Middle East. She has taught Creative Writing at both the American University of Beirut and the Lebanese American University, and was until recently a screenwriter for the first web drama series in the Arab world, Shankaboot. She recently completed a literature fellowship at the Akademie Schloss Solitude and is currently in residence in Budapest in association with JAK where she is at work on her first novel. Three artists are brought to their careers by the effects of one car bomb detonated in 1984 Beirut, in the middle of the Lebanese civil war. Karim, a brilliant thirty-something installation artist on the rise, Liane, a twenty-something wannabe writer, and Ashraf, a filmmaker in his fifties, famous for the one film of his that survived the war, are unknowingly linked by this singular incident of the past that continues to reverberate into the future. As they move in and out of each other’s lives in peaceful, 2004 Beirut, shrapnel from the long-ago war continues to be found scattered across the landscape of the present, shaping their work and their relationships, and threatening to undo everything they have managed to build since.

About the image

Studio Soussi portrait index

Saida, Lebanon, 1946

Chafic el Soussi

Collection: Chafic el Soussi

Copyright © Arab Image Foundation

 

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