Further Reading: For more in this month’s issue on the war in Lebanon, see also Rita Leistner’s “War Stories”A
li al-Akhrass was never one to make rash decisions, and this dilemma was a vexing one. Across the ocean, a world away from the oppressive heat and day-to-day banalities of Montreal, lay the beautiful village of Aytaroun, in southern Lebanon. His thoughts drifted from his parents’ house in the hills to the beach outside the city of Tyre to the courtyard of his grandparents’ home in the village. There, he could sit and drink tea, his children playing around him, his problems fading away under a steady, cool breeze. Were it possible, Ali would move his family to Aytaroun forever.
But he had problems to deal with in Montreal. Ali’s pharmacy in the working-class district of Snowdon was undergoing extensive renovations, and, as owner and chief pharmacist, he hated to have the place out of sight. His house needed an addition to accommodate one-year-old Salaam, who was growing like a weed and didn’t have her own room. He worried about the health of his flower garden, which he’d just tilled for the summer planting, and he was anxious about what a trip might bring for his family. The last time they visited Lebanon, in 2002, it had rained continuously, and both his kids got chicken pox. They left early, expectations dashed.
The thirty-five-year-old pondered this decision for several days, discussing it with Amira, his wife of nine years, and his brother-in-law, Ali Blaidel, an assistant manager at the pharmacy. “Maybe we’ll go this year during the renovations, because next year we might not have a chance to go,” he told Blaidel over a round of 400, a popular Lebanese card game, sounding as if he were trying to convince himself.
“We might be going ourselves, you know,” Blaidel answered. Ali nodded distractedly and looked over to Amira. The next morning he reserved six return tickets to Beirut, and after readying the house for the children’s return to Montreal — they would begin school shortly thereafter — he thought about how his visits home were too infrequent. To hell with his problems. Heaven on earth was waiting.
The al-Akhrass family arrived in Beirut at night, exhausted from the long trip and the seven-hour time difference. They perked up, though, when they saw their families waiting for them. Amira hugged her parents for the first time in four years and promptly introduced them to Salaam and three-year-old Ahmad. “It’s like meeting angels,” Amira’s mother said after doling out chocolate and chips to the kids.
Amira was especially happy to see Manal, her youngest sister. The seventeen-year-old had become a young woman since Amira last saw her — suddenly there was makeup and talk of boys — and she was as sassy as ever. Amira’s older children, seven-year-old Saja and five-year-old Zeinab, took to her instantly.
Ali’s brother Mohammed, who had travelled with the family, bade the group farewell and left with his fiancée for southern Beirut. Ali and his family were staying in Ansar for the night; the next day, he and Ahmad would make the hour-long trip south to Aytaroun and prepare the house on the hill for the rest of the family. Then he would drink tea, maybe smoke a shisha
, the traditional Arabic water pipe, and do little else.
ytaroun is a village of about 7,000 set in the sloping mountains and red earth of southern Lebanon. Ever since Israel’s military retreat in 2000, an almost preternatural calm had emanated from its narrow streets and squat houses, a welcome tonic for the thousands of former residents who returned every summer. The families who left Aytaroun tended to be part of the educated, worldly, and fairly well-off Lebanese diaspora, and Aytaroun’s economy relies, to a considerable degree, on those who return.
Ali’s father, Ahmad, had built a three-storey villa in the hills, one of a dozen or so dotting the landscape around Aytaroun. An avid gardener, Ahmad coaxed lemons, olives, apricots, and tomatoes out of the rocky terrain around the house, all of which figured prominently in his wife’s cooking. During the occupation, Israeli tanks often rolled by not far from where the house now stood. The Israeli border was only a few kilometres away, but in the early summer of 2006 it might as well have been 10,000 — a distant, immaterial thing. Aytaroun was the picture of serenity, but still Ali was finding it hard to enjoy himself.
In the week that followed, he travelled back and forth between Aytaroun and Ansar, buying supplies, ferrying children from grandparent to grandparent, visiting cousins and in-laws, and bringing his wife and Manal to the huge Thursday bazaar in nearby Bint Jbeil, where they shopped for Mohammed’s wedding. He did all this by cab, as the only thing Ali hated more than borrowing someone’s car was having to drive the lawless Lebanese roads himself.