Congress of Idling Persons

Bassem Saad

Unnamed - Courtesy of Bassem Saad

The races had stopped some months earlier and the horses had been laid off. Most of the owners had private stables, but some horses remained at the horse track, where they roamed around in groups of three, making their demands in sad horse argot before meal time. In the afternoon, their braying sounded, at least to me, as though it betrayed deep vexation at this recent influx and unrelenting presence of humans at the site.

In September, due to whatever whim or affliction, Mezna and I joined the rabble—the groups newly relieved of work duties and those that had always had one foot out of the productive cycle, those with and without citizenship, the ranks of former construction workers, waiters, delivery boys, janitors, porters, schoolteachers, university faculty, students of schools and universities, marketers, call center operators, lab technicians, theater technicians, housewives fleeing domestic arrangements, migrant domestic workers fleeing domestic arrangements and bureaucratic purgatory while attempting to leave the country, a few Syrian refugee families who were not intimidated by the rising hostility directed at them, lower-ranking public sector employees and pensioners, NGO employees of the country’s 2000+ NGOs, bank employees of the country’s 60+ banks, as well as embassy, airport, travel agency, and visa service employees, some of whom were at TLScontact which was right across the street, boarded up and no longer contracted with the Schengen zone embassies. They formed loose associations: the employees of the American University of Beirut Medical Center laid-off en masse; the Ethiopian, Kenyan, Senegalese, and Sierra Leonean domestic workers who had been expelled from their houses and dropped off at their respective embassies; and the Bangladeshi and Indian sanitation workers who had left RAMCO, among others. To say that it amounted to an occupation would be to ascribe unanimous political will and adversarial intent to the congregation,requiring the participants to be in some sort of active alignment or agreement. This wasn’t the case to any extent. There was evidently nothing in the way of shared vision or commitment between those who wanted to return to their home countries as soon as circumstances allowed them to, those who, in fact, didn’t want to return to their home countries, and the nationals who had neither recourse to foreign passports nor exit plans. Most of the people I spoke to could not explain why they were there, and would instead resort to vaguely delineating the misshapen circumstances they had survived in the fallout of the past year. When asked about the pandemic, they either maneuvered into denialism or pointed at their masks. Here they were all in the same open field, biding their time.

Among the activities at the site, the assembled were operating kitchens, setting up tents, climbing trees, playing cards and backgammon, knitting, and having half-serious debates. But, primarily, they were watching the news from the multiple viewing stations set up across the park. No one knew exactly where the money came from, and at that point few cared enough to ask. As was often the case, there were some local benefactors and individuals sending money in US dollar from abroad. There were no plans for the coming winter. In the open air, the screens streamed the little wars: the occasional warehouse explosion, more protests and commemorations, detected activity from Islamic fundamentalist sleeper cells in the north, a mutiny in Roumieh Prison where the prisoners demanding general amnesty uploaded a video making sure to identify themselves as the prisoners at Block A and not at the infamous Block B where the imprisoned Islamic fundamentalist have been kept since the fall of the ISIS caliphate. It’s not that the events were inconsequential, just that they were not the annihilating blow, which had in fact already taken place. In the park, some Scouts or civil society people were still always making a show of cleaning up the trash that everyone else had left behind. The Youth Sector of the Lebanese Communist Party was screening Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove.

I met three acquaintances who were stationed around the empty swimming pool of the abandoned Residence des Pins, which was to the west of the horse track. Mezna and I used to run into them at the Medo bar, where they’d either been contagiously despondent or loudly inebriated, as most of us. Now they seemed to sustain a new warmth when speaking, delivering their words swiftly and building each other up, almost to the point of mania. They spent their days making memes. One of them, the Armenian chef, presented me with a personal theory. He said that the city had kind of short-circuited in August, that its two poles were the port and the pine forest, that it was like an open-pit mine where operations had ceased, the manpower had left, and the autochthonous neighbors had come to assess how the landscape had been transformed by centuries of brute force, that it was fitting that the pine forest, the last piece of unbuilt land in the city, was replanted in the 1990s, after the 1982 Israeli invasion and the civil wars left little of Emir Fakhreddin Maan II’s reforestation efforts in the 1600s to revive the ancient forest of Aleppo pine trees described by archbishop and chronicler William of Tyre in the 1100s that was gradually exterminated after centuries of providing timber for the trade and war vessels that allowed Beirut to enter into mercantile activity under Phoenician, Greek, Roman, and Arab rule, and that there was a history to be written in this same plot of land about half the city deserting itself overnight. Mezna, as averse to lofty visions as ever, despite all that had befallen us, said that the chef was stoned out of his mind.

Later, Mezna and I sat among a formation of Roman column ruins where some families were watching the late-afternoon soap operas. A hugely pregnant woman and her elderly parents came and sat close to us. She introduced herself, Nermin, and asked if we could guide her around. She carried a foldable chair because she could not sit on the ground this late into her pregnancy. She and Mezna spoke at length. Nermin was Palestinian, had left an abusive husband some months earlier and moved back in with her parents. She brought them to the park after they could not bear to be inside the house any longer, but they would still be returning home to sleep at night. At some point in the conversation, her father asked where we were from. When I named my father’s village in Aley that I never visited, Nermin took pause. Later, she told us that two years ago she had had a stillbirth. It was difficult to have the child buried in any of the Palestinian cemeteries so her husband arranged to have them buried in his friend’s terraced plot of land, in that same village. She said that she never visited, and that she had almost decided to never become pregnant again, yet here she was. She was not terribly excited about the child being born at this time, but she was making do—exhausted but not entirely unhappy. Nermin’s parents complained that the dubbed Arabic voice of the main character Lamis in the Turkish soap opera they were watching had been changed.

Some members of the Syrian Social Nationalist Party set up a provisional base in the Collège Saint Sauveur school, toward the east. The red Swastika-shaped whirlwind on the black flag was as menacing as it had always been, but they no longer instilled the fear that they did a few years ago, even in the mind of the pedestrian on Hamra Street, where their headquarters were located. At the moment, they stood on imaginary ramparts and feigned self-defense, an anachronism among the living. Who are these genteel people who still look at the map and think, with the exterminating fervor of National Socialists, that so and so peoples and lands are cut of the same cloth and must be sewn back together, and that this is a worthy doctrine and life cause to adopt, against the wishes of almost everyone else involved? Do they inherit the totalizing impulse from zealous fathers? What are their ruling planets? Every Monday they rehearsed a minor military parade, in  khaki pants, black t-shirts, and visibly frayed boots. Some of them were members of the armed wing, the Eagles of the Whirlwind, but no arms were included in the march. They took no part in the exchanges that happened in the area, and were content being left to their performances. Most of the people I knew there simply ignored their presence, passing by the base solemnly and making sure not to dally or let eyes wander.

A few days later, I ran into someone I had yet to see in public or in daylight. His name was Jalal and he was someone I had met through a hook-up app last year, before deciding to become celibate. He had a foot and shoe fetish that he led with when arranging to meet with someone. (There is an oral consensus, at least among my friends, that an outsize portion of gay men in Beirut have foot fetishes, but I have yet to hear a reasonable explanation.) When I met him, he was studying biochemistry at the Lebanese University and working as a lab technician. I recognized the interiors in the photos he sent; he was apparently living in Mezna’s old apartment below the Geitaoui Hospital. To confess, that was a large part of why I decided to go over, even after he accepted to pay a hundred dollars. He said he enjoyed paying for the act and that the transaction was part of the kink. I arrived at the address and found that he had moved out of the apartment and into the building facing it. He said that he had only recently moved out of his parents’ house, that he was earning a decent wage with the amount of overtime hours he was doing. I was unemployed as I periodically was, since well before the rapture and before that was the case for every other person. He was tender in conversation with me, but he also came off as someone who is exceedingly stringent in his personal life. He lay on the floor under the coffee table and asked me to keep my shoes on throughout, as he welcomed all of the city’s dirt into our private exchange, as though he wished to muddy his tongue in retaliation for something.

A year later, reclining on the ground under a pine tree, he appeared unburdened. He recounted how his previous occupations had ended, and joked about how him paying a hundred dollars in cash for sex now, after the local currency collapse, would be unthinkable. Mezna called as I left Jalal: Nermin had gone into labor and was rushed to the Moroccan military field hospital, which was set up adjacent to the Lebanese Military Hospital to the east of the park. The field hospital required no paperwork, but it was neither equipped nor staffed for childbirth. One of the Moroccan nurses was trained as a midwife, and two other midwives who happened to be at the park came to assist. In the October sunset, the sand was red and there was hardly any traffic on the highway. We kept Nermin’s parents company as we all waited. She was expected to have a normal delivery, and four hours later, she did.