Christmas Eve, Beirut
We’ve been told to do things we don’t usually do. I do this every year, but you’ve probably never experienced a Lebanese Christmas.
I realise I left the book I’m reading at home. I pick one out of my grandmother’s collection, a French classic printed in 1972. Its pages are yellowed and its lovely old book smell reaches my nose as a whiff of treacherous dust makes my eyes tear up. I’ll read it if things get boring. But the truth is, I just want to find out if this year, again, I’ll be told off by my mother’s cousins for being an antisocial book nerd while their own children are elbows deep in their iPads.
Family starts arriving. I last saw most of them in August. They’re sweet and I’ve missed them. They tell me I’ve lost weight. I start explaining that I’ve done way more interesting things than lose weight since they last saw me. They’ve stopped listening, my hair looks nice but I could use a haircut.
We’re sat around the fireplace, the whole atmosphere is cocoon-y. I feel like I’m in a room padded with big plushy pillows.
My mum’s cool cousin’s wife is pregnant again. He’s a great father. I wish we weren’t related.
Elton John got married. Why bother at his age? They watch French TV and they’ve followed the French gay marriage debate as if it were happening in Lebanon. It’s outrageous. I keep my mouth shut. People who are against gay marriage are the ones being vilified now. How did we get there? I wash down my replies with some wine. There is no point arguing. At this table, it comes down to decibels. My voice is neither loud nor annoying enough to get a point through.
My great uncle is sitting next to me. His palms are turned upwards and he’s mumbling something. He’s praying. I turn away awkwardly, as if I had seen him naked. I struggle to understand my uneasiness. I medicate it with more wine.
Someone asks me if I can still understand Arabic or if I’ve forgotten it all. In Arabic. I guess we’re good.
The cool cousin is now drunk. Says he has to drink for his pregnant wife too. I sit next to him and finish my wine. The conversation has now moved on to how much alcohol the ‘new’ generation drinks. I ask the drunk cousin for some whiskey. He scoops up a single ice cube from his glass, throws it in mine, and pours a generous amount of spirit on top of it. ‘Your mother is giving me dirty looks’, he chuckles. But he’s just being paranoid, she’s busy gossiping about an absent cousin’s divorce. Of course, she knew it would happen eventually.
On my way out, I pass by the living room to put the book back on its shelf. I find it sprawled on a sofa with a page ripped out. Damn kids. It survived the civil war, but not a Christmas in Beirut.