Reliving the terror, once again

20 July 2006

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Najla Said

How do I even start this? How do I write about my Beirut? My heartbreak, my home, my safety, my loss. Again.

I suppose I just start.

I have experienced true terror a handful of times. The first was in 1983 - the first time I evacuated Beirut. We had gone to visit my jiddo (grandfather) Emile and my teta (grandmother) Hilda, as we did every summer. Just after we arrived, the airport was shut down, Israeli soldiers were everywhere, the mountains were filling with smoke. We spent the next week in the staircase of our building as shells fell around us. Wadie was almost hit by shrapnel. Daddy was in Switzerland. He knew we were in danger. I had no idea he wasn’t with us because he was Palestinian. I didn’t understand. Although I was born in 1974, I never knew about the war until the summer of ‘82 - the first summer we didnt go; the summer we spent in Illinois. I did cartwheels in the living room trying to get mommy and daddy’s attention, but all they did was watch the news and eat nuts and look worried. I wish I’d known how my mommy’s heart was breaking. I know now.

We got on the boat and fled to Cyprus, leaving my family behind. The boat was filled with pilgrims going to Mecca. I didn’t know who they were. I didn’t understand. I didn’t know Muslim or Christian or Jew. I didn’t know anything. I knew fear and I knew confusion. I knew the sound of bombs - an inexplicable sound if you haven’t experienced it before, for it is a sound you feel and not a sound you hear. It is terrifying - your body shakes. You feel helpless and you cry - that’s what happens. No sound effect can really replicate what it feels like when they’re real. I never thought I’d hear that sound again.

I went into my mommy’s bed the night before we left. I was scared. The balcony door was open because there was no air conditioning, no electricity. As the curtains fluttered behind me I shivered and shook in my non-existent sleep. I felt the breeze behind my back and knew for certain the bombs would get me as I lay there, vulnerable. But I was frozen in terror, shivering and shaking, teeth chattering. I wanted to move to the other side, switch places with mommy, have her wrap her arms around me and keep me safe - but then she would feel the bombs on her back, I reasoned, and she would die. I can’t lose mommy, I thought. I’d rather die than lose mommy. I’m so, so, so scared.

I wrote about that experience and it got me into Princeton. Wadie, my brother, did too. I didn’t see Beirut again ‘til 1992.

I was 18. It was awful, destroyed. Where were the beaches, the fruit, the vegetables, the clean water, the fun, the bikinis, the people, the joy? I remember feeling like I had walked into a cobweb-ridden home, frozen in time. I cried.

Each year after, though, I went back. It got better and better. It became home again. All the things I loved: the cucumbers, apricots, watermelon, sunshine, beaches, laughter, love, warmth, family, perseverance, resilience, strength, beauty and joy. They were there, and they continued to come back, along with the people who had fled - stronger than ever, year after year.

The most wonderful summer ever was twenty years after the scary escape. In 2003, mommy, daddy, Wadie, his wife Jennifer and myself were all in Beirut - laughing, playing, fighting, eating, drinking, beaching - being a family. Back home.

My parents orginally fell in love in Beirut. In the late ’60s/early ’70s. In fact, daddy, who is so revered as a “great Arab,” actually rediscovered the Middle East he had lost as a child through Lebanon, through mommy - who is, as I love to say, 3,000 percent Lebanese.

And so we buried daddy there, four months later. In Brummana, in the mountains next to jiddo’s home. In the Quaker family cemetary.

That’s where he wanted to be.

It was terror that came back to me when daddy died, and oddly, beautifully, it was Lebanon that saved me from it. It was the same quaking, shaking, shivering feeling I experienced in the bed with mommy 20 years earlier. When Jenn walked into my bedroom and said we were going “to go say goodbye,” I fell to the ground with the same feeling I had then in Beirut in ‘83 - convulsing, shaking, crying, gasping.

But the beauty was that when daddy died, Lebanon became what I had. All I had. My safety, security; my home, my family, my everything. My good times, my laughter, my healing, my wholeness, my fun. My roots. My security … that’s the only word I can write.

And now this summer. Evacuated again. Throwing up, shaking, fearing, hurting, crying. Again.

And again the feelling I keep having is that terror. That terror that I had twice before. The feeling that it is gone, it’s over.

You summon your courage, your optimism, your humor - the things that people love you for. You decide that tomorrow Beirut will be back, that you will see daddy again (oh how I kept turning my brain away from thoughts of him when he died - it was too difficult to fathom the reality). The idea that you will never see something or someone you love again is unbelievably terrifying when you know really that it’s over, it’s gone, and it’s getting worse every day.

And now I’m here in an Internet cafe in Damascus.

And what now?

This is what I think of when I think of Arab terror. My terror. Our terror. Do people know how much we hurt too?

— Naj … Life in general is pretty awful, but in particular may be made OK, and that’s what I want for you and I’m sure it’ll work out. Je suis confiant/ j’ai confiance. Love, as ever, Daddy

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Actor Najla Said is a founding member of Nibras. She has appeared in The Comfort And Safety Of Your Own Home (International WOW), Love’s Labours Lost, She Stoops to Conquer, God and Mr. Smith (Kaleidoscope Theatre Co), ReOrientalism (Northeast Tour) destiNATION: America (Second Stage Theatre), and Salome (Lincoln Center Directors Lab.) Her film credits include: The Seige, The Contestant, Femme Fatale. Television credits include Party of Five. Najla was trained at The Shakespeare Lab at the Public Theatre, The Actors Center. She is a graduate of Princeton University.