The Call: A Short Story

[Rawi Hage is a Montreal writer. Born in Lebanon, he immigrated to Canada in 1992. His work has appeared in Mizna, a literary journal in Minneapolis, and Al-Jadid, a magazine in Los Angeles].
A call rang out over the whole world; the splendor departed from every city. Manda d’Hayye revealed himself to all the children of men and redeemed them from darkness into the light.
The Mandaean Book.

Dear K:

I left suddenly last night so I would be no further cause of embarrassment to you. It seems you prefer that references to my land of origin, the topic of religion, and other social comparisons be confined to certain gatherings. My remarks on society were not those of criticism, but came from the sentiment of belonging. I am Canadian now, after all, and I thought that I was entitled to voice my opinion.

As for your remark, “Why did you come here, anyway?” it did take me aback. Nevertheless, it is a question that I have often pondered, and it certainly kept me ill and thinking all last night. But now I know the reason for my journey, and I trace it to the call that took my lover’s life and bestowed on me the fate of a wanderer, who, when invited to a feast, is expected to be grateful and remain in silence.

Now, dear K, let me tell you the story of that call which was the cause of my departure and the reason for my coming here.

In my neighborhood stood the ruins of a Byzantine church that had been built on the foundations of a Roman temple that had itself conquered a previous Greek god who had once abolished the Phoenicians and their altars.

The church was surrounded by a large fence, a war city, blue sky, the Mediterranean Sea, and a land filled with mountains, red rivers, and traces of past warriors. On the south side of the church ruins, beyond the fence, one could see Middle Eastern men covering yellow chairs with their resting bodies, ancient faces hidden in newspapers full of hopes, promises, and illusions. Above their heads was a ceiling. Alongside them stood a series of vertical walls, all joined in a straight line and simple shapes to create a coffee shop known as Abu-Pierre’s café.

Inside and outside the café, men sat and waited. While some played cards, others checked their bets and horses, smoking argyles, which were placed on the ground at their feet, and kept eternally lit by the flame boy, Adel the Copt. Like a Zarathustran eager to keep the fire dancing, Adel, swift and agile, hovered among the men, a restless spirit anxious to comfort. Here and there, a bold old man, with small, repeated efforts, sucked up and inhaled the scented fumes, savoring tobacco and witnessing time pass, light change, children grow, the young leave, the old die, and memory fade.

Across from Abu-Pierre’s café was a candy store owned by Vartex the Armenian, whose father had once run south to our land in despair and hunger, fleeing massacres, long knives, wailing, dead bodies.

Above the candy store, on the first floor, a family of ten lived poorly. They all had foreign names like Lisa, Albert, Tony. Even the mother, a simple farmer who had left the fresh land of the mountains to settle in the city, was named Violette. She was loud and spontaneous and often dressed in black. She protected her children, occasionally slapped them, and constantly ordered them about.

Now Violette’s daughters are married, and her sons have carried their seed to higher lands, to a Western land from which they will never return. During my occasional trips back home, Violette would ask me if I had seen them. Was that land that once called like a siren to her boys a just land, a welcoming land? Would it comfort Tony the way her own arms could? Would it see Albert through her eyes?

There were four buildings on my street, two on each side of a paved road that lay beneath the pedestrians’ feet and carried their weight in silence. From my window, I heard merchants and beggars on that road calling out in the most enchanting Eastern melodies: “Baby finger, you cucumber!” “Fresh fish still dancing!” “Suleiman, the sweet knife sharpener, is here. Ladies, bring it down; do not throw it!” “May Allah give it back to you in gold and longevity! You merciful, you generous, you tender souls . . . have pity on me, the poor and needy.”

But of them all, none sang like Hassan, Mustafa’s son. Some said he was a reincarnation of Billal, the slave who was freed by the Prophet and sang the call to the believers. Others described him as another Om-Kalthum, the famous singer — for no one called in the name of vegetables and fruits as did Hassan, the son of Mustafa. He was young and had curly dark hair, green eyes, a dirty face, and a short body, all wrapped up in Western cloth given to him by mothers who had seen their boys grow and leave.

Beirut was submerged in war and flames as if the wrath of the gods had fallen upon its soil; yet Hassan and his father, Mustafa, came from the West Side, through the divided city. No one knew how Hassan and his father crossed the war lines. Legend had it that Hassan sang to the fighters to soften their lost-blinded souls and pass through in peace.

Everyone knew Hassan. Everyone loved his sublime chants. Everyone knew too his father’s wooden pushcart, decorated all around with pieces of broken mirrors, glittering ornaments and calligraphy verses of praise and wisdom: “This was bestowed on me from the Merciful. May the envious and jealous eye be struck with blindness.” “I am your humble servant; praise be upon you, the mighty . . . ” “Hassan, my son.”

Across the hills, among the shattered buildings, Mustafa and Hassan pushed their laden cart through the segregated city, in defiance of it all. Like persistent ants, like graceful butterflies filled with a lion’s courage, the father and his son reached the forbidden side to sell fruits and vegetables. They stood at the corner down from my house, across from Kaaie, the butcher. Hassan called the buyers and sang: “Pearls, O tomato! God’s gift, you lettuce, fresh from Eden’s gardens! A glance, and the eyelid blooms. Savour, and the heart flowers.”

With each call Mustafa stood, proud of his son’s assets, and released a smile that unveiled his golden tooth and hid his precious eyes. Soon mothers, sisters, wives were drawn to the call like converts to their master. Hassan sang, and Mustafa filled each woman’s bag with food and offerings.

Through my window the sky changed with every season. Beneath that sky and within sight of my window stood a four-story building that had been green until the rain washed its brightness and drifted its color to distant streams and immortal oceans. On the fourth floor was a woman who lived alone, dyed her hair, fixed her nails, and read the future in coffee cups that were held by mothers’ fingers and touched by the love-longing lips of virgins. This woman talked to saints and lit candles. She watered her plants and waved to passersby. She loved rain and hated wars. She drank wine and danced with the flames. Until one sunny day she came to our house and announced her departure. “I had a vision of horses swimming in red swamps, surrounded by men with no wives,” she said. And so she left in tears, and never came back.

On the third floor lived a family of four who were known for their high spirits and eccentric ways. All through the war, when bombs thundered and fell like rain, they held feasts, danced, and turned in circles and sang, “Drink! Drink! It is better to meet one’s maker in good spirits than with gloomy faces.”

Below them lived a prince in abjection and past glory. He was quiet and calm, and lived with his daughter, who often sat outside, reading books that whispered of defiant lords and long-haired women.

Underneath the prince and his daughter, on the first floor, was an old woman who earned her living by sewing torn and used socks. She possessed dim light, thick glasses, a wooden egg, a flat table, a sofa, and a bed.

On the ground level, below them all, were two shops. The one on the left, a room filled with gray metal desks and the black rotary phones used to place bets and find out results of the horse races, on Sundays was crowded with the weary bodies and loud voices of the gamblers. They placed their bets on horses named Jarbouaa, Chat-Algharam (“Lover’s Shore”), Antar, Al Zanab Al Zahabi (“The Golden Tail”), Hib Al-Rih (“Swift Wind”), Abou Alhol (“The Sphinx”), Cleopatra, Dalida, Georgina, Hiba (“Gift”), Rim Al Fallah (“The Orbit’s Sphere”), Ramshit Aein (“Blink of an Eye”), Fairuz (“The Precious Stone”), Um-Kalthoum, Sufi, Ummi (“Mother”), Sayadd Al Zehab (“Fisher of Gold”), Romeo, Diwan Al-Sultan (“The Sultan’s Palace”), Malek Al Moulouk (“King of Kings”), Habib Al-Sahra (“The Beloved of the Desert”), Aein Al-Ghazal (“The Eye of the Deer”), Nar Al-Oueiuon (“Flame of the Eyes”), Andalous, Rimh El-Allah (“God’s Arrow”), Saout Al-Raad (“Thunder”), Dallas, J.R., and Zorro.

I remember how, on a barren day, Zeina, the wife of the gambler Youssef, rushed to the street, dragging her two children by the hand. She stood in the middle of it, across from the gamblers’ den, shouted at her husband and asked him for money. “Filth, look at your hungry kids,” she called to him. She cursed her fate, she cursed the horses, she cursed the gamblers and their mothers’ wombs that had carried them in vain. She threatened to go and shoot those dirty animals and their rich owner. Then she pulled her hair, pounded her thighs, tore off her apron, and began whipping the men with it and telling them to go home to their miserable wives. Finally, she turned on her children, who were frozen in tears, and hysterically started slapping them.

The ground-level shop on the right side, next to the gamblers’ place, was a framing store. Its owner was known as George, the framer. He was in his thirties and balding. He played loud Western music, dressed in tight jeans, and constantly looked at the young women passing by in the street.

George was the only framer in the neighborhood, and during the war his business prospered. It was the custom for people to frame images of lost ones, and certainly at that time many were lost. It was also the custom to hold an image of the deceased in a funeral parade to the cemetery. The relatives brought images of their dead ones, and George surrounded them with fine wood and silver and black paint.

“Look,” he said to me once. “Look. In the name of the Virgin, look. Don’t they look as if they know they’re going to die? Look at their gaze; look how they look at you. This one is so young . . . look, look,” he said, shaking his head and holding the photograph.

George always refused money that came from the parents of the dead, but they insisted on paying him as their last offering. George, obliged, would accept their money and then run next door to play the horses. “Judas’s money,” he used to say. “Those people were crucified. Conspiracy, America, it is all America,” he would say.

My lover had wavy hair that landed on her wide shoulders, long lashes that touched my eyes, hands that guided me, a mouth that smiled through the bewilderment in my spirit. When the neighborhood slept and the moon was awake, my sweet one and I met at the altar amidst the Byzantine ruins. We hid our bodies in shattered pillars, weakened our voices with broken walls. When I gazed at her flesh, she lowered her eyes and said, “It is just a garment that I have to leave one day.” Then she ran to the altar and lay at its feet. “I am your sacrifice,” she said to me playfully, and giggled.

Let me tell you about the day of The Call. The moon was absent. The bright one slung drops of light that slashed through darkness and lit our street like a glowing pearl. That day my lover’s face outshone the gold necklace that she wore. The merchants came and Hassan sang. The bright rays touched women’s souls and carried his call. They all went to fill their bags at the pushcart.

Then came a loud explosion. Then silence. Then wailing. I ran down the street, only to be lost in fumes and the shattered glass that covered the pavement. I saw flesh splattered like an open wound on the walls. Visions of spirits ascending through the seven gates held my soul in horror.

Our street was in mourning. Chants of the Gnostics and hymns for the spirits were sung at night. The tears and the women in black drove me away. Since then, I have run and roamed in distant lands.

Now, dear K, if ever you visit my neighborhood, you will see at the corner a shrine inscribed with names — Mustafa’s name, Hassan’s name, Zeina’s name, the name of the Prince’s daughter, the name of my lover, the names of many others. On its side is an image framed in cedar wood that has been painted black and silver. Beneath the image are words carved in gold: “In memory of my beloved mother,” signed, “George, the framer.”