Hanan Al-Shaykh, an award-winning journalist, novelist, and playwright, is the author of the short-story collections I Sweep the Sun Off Rooftops and One Thousand and One Nights; the novels The Story of Zahra, Women of Sand and Myrrh, Beirut Blues, and Only in London; and a memoir about her mother, The Locust and the Bird. She was raised in Beirut, educated in Cairo, and lives in London.
Walking down the numerous steps leading to the beach, I reflected on how the sea is the only natural element that can shield me from my memories of leaving Lebanon because of the civil war and the continuing horrific news from the Arab world.
The vast Mediterranean, stretching endlessly in multiple shades of blue, its rhythmic ebb and flow calmed and reassured me. I began my life here but I am living in Europe; yet I belong not to two places but to the universe. I had become used to relying on the sea to reinvigorate my spirits, rather than giving in to nostalgia and sentimentality. I tried to insulate these memories of the past with each step I took.
Suddenly I froze — in front of me were three girls, the eldest no more than twelve, sitting on the steps where I was walking, one was smoking a cigarette and the other two were trying to light mutilated dog ends with their infant hands. The tiny embers ignited then died out.
“No, no, my daughters, you’re far too young to smoke ciga…”
“Leave us alone Hadjee,” the youngest, who was a mere ten or eleven, interrupted me before I had finished the word cigarettes. Then, in a whisper, she said, “We’re being watched.” Her accent was Syrian.
“Who is watching you? Tell me, who is watching you?”
“Hadjee, just leave us, someone is watching us, it is better if you go.”
“But you haven’t answered my question and…”
The smallest girl sang happily to herself as she swayed her legs in a dancing movement: “We’re so happy smoking, we love it. Yalla Hadjee, leave us to do what we like doing.” Then she whispered, “We’re being spied on from the building facing us. No, do not turn round and look otherwise we will be punished.”
“Listen to me girls, do not worry because I will help you. I am going to protect you from whoever is frightening you. I will give you money so you can buy clothes and proper shoes.”
The girls stood up, clearly afraid, whilst jumping like startled rabbits, then they scuttled away.
“Don’t even try opening your bag, help us by leaving us, you’re attracting attention by talking to us. Yalla Hadjee, ma’salaama.”
I found myself following the instructions of a ten-year-old girl whose voice was honest, fearful, yet assured. At the bottom of the steps I saw the hungry eyes of young and middle-aged men asking themselves “Are these three apples ripe enough to be crunched?”. I stood facing the indifferent sea, which ceased to be indifferent all of a sudden.
The faces of the three Syrian girls were reflected on the shimmering water, the hair of the youngest bleached by cheap peroxide. Another was biting her nails and the third urged me to flee back up the steps swiftly. Whoever controlled the tiniest movements of these girls like a ruthless hawk was selling their fragile bodies.
For several days I kept going back to search for them at different times of the day and night but to no avail. I did not catch sight of them again. The sea within me raged and one tear drop managed to swallow the entire sea.