This scene from A Beirut Heart: One Woman’s War, we are finally returning to our apartment after an absence of almost four months. Bachir Gemeyal was just elected Lebanon’s new president and optimism filled the air.
With Bachir’s election behind us, I made final preparations to return to our apartment. This would mark the eleventh time we had fled our apartment only to return months later. Leila and I scheduled a day for the final cleaning. I was eager to resettle as quickly as possible, because I needed major knee surgery as soon as I could get our lives back in order. Leila had already done a preliminary cleaning, the most important part: she rid our belongings of rat droppings while I washed the sheets, bedspreads and towels. Miraculously, the dry cleaner was able to restore my daughter’s stuffed animals to their clean, pre-rat condition.
I arrived before Leila. Even the outside of our apartment looked inviting: the landing was clean; the walls bright, the front door a glossy white with forest green panels. I turned the key and went in. After so many repairs, I had finally discarded the tattered sheer curtains and made new ones for the living and dining rooms. Now everything in those rooms—the marble floors, the sparkling newly replaced ceiling to floor windows, the rich walnut and cherry furniture, the rebuilt bookshelf, Papa’s artifacts, the vibrant Persian carpets, the polished silver pieces on display, the china in its cabinet—welcomed me back.
I went into the kitchen to put some fruit and cheese in the refrigerator. I felt dizzy from climbing the stairs to the eighth floor in the heat, so I rested on one of the kitchen chairs. I heard a sound and stayed very still. My heart began to pound. I knew in an instant they were there, they had not left. Leila had said they would.
“When we clean an apartment, the rats leave.”
She was wrong.
I associated vermin with filth. I rubbed my arms; they felt creepy, as if something was crawling up them. I heard traffic from the street below. I even heard the wind whistling across the balcony. Then I heard what sounded like words being whispered in muffled voices. I sat up straight. It was obvious where they were—in the opening behind the oven, a perfect place to nest all warm and cozy. Anger replaced fear.
“How dare they!” I hissed. They heard my voice and fell silent.
I knew what needed to be done but I could not bring myself to commit the violent act. Leila might have been able to dispose of them, but instead I enlisted Mr. Eid, my neighbor, to carry out their execution. He brought along his wife, who carried a sack and a small metal shovel. Standing in the doorway of the living room, I watched Mr. and Mrs. Eid walk into the kitchen. Before he closed the door behind him he urged me to go for a walk, or to at least wait downstairs. I declined.
I heard a clank and realized it was the metal shovel striking the side of the stove.
Then I heard him speaking Arabic to his wife, “Well, there’s the first one, maybe it’s going to be easier than I thought.”
Then Mrs. Eid said, “Oh just wait till you find the mother. She’ll fight for her young ones.”
There was another clank, and then a squeal.
Mrs. Eid yelled, “There she is, hit her harder!” She screamed a second time, “Hit her again. She’s still not dead.”
I almost fainted when I heard the sound of the metal shovel crushing the mother rat on the kitchen floor.
Then Mrs. Eid said, “Curious, look at that white spot between her eyes.”
I had met this very rat some days earlier. It came into the light in the stairwell as I climbed the stairs, and its odd white face shown out at me. Our eyes met brrefly, just long enough for some exchange of recognition, before it vanished into the darkness.
The kitchen table collapsed, and then there were several more clanks against the tile wall. Jesus, was he actually chasing the little ones up the wall? I heard a bang against the door then Mr. Eid said, “There, that must be all of them.”
“Yes,” said Mrs. Eid. “I think so.”
She cracked open the door just enough to ask for a bucket and some Tide detergent. When they finally walked out, Mr. Eid held the burlap sack of dead rats securely in his hand. I entered the kitchen and saw traces of blood everywhere— on the white tile walls, the gray marble floor. I thought. “I’ll paint it all again as many times as it takes to erase this terrible deed from my house.”
I didn’t know why my behavior toward the rats disturbed me so much. A few days later, sitting on the balcony with a cup of tea, I realized I had created my own little Sabra-Chatilla. But rats were rats, not people, and I was not trying to delude myself they were people. Rats were pretty dangerous to have in your house. What unsettled me so much was the similarity in my mind between rats and Arafat’s PLO. If I found rats deadly, and wanted them exterminated, was it not also perfectly human of me to view a horde of fighters trying to take over a city that was not theirs with similar malice, and wish them dead in the same manner?
The way in which that rat, with her unique white spot, stepped into the light and identified herself, made me realize some things I had never considered in my war-warped mind. At first I thought the rat was a ‘he,’ but Mrs. Eid knew instinctively she was the mother.
“Look at that peculiar white spot on her,” she had said.
Looking in the direction of the Sabra-Chatilla Palestinian camps I realized with great clarity for the first time that each person in those camps was a ‘he’ or a ‘she,’ that most of them were innocent Palestinian civilians who through no fault of their own lived in squalid refugee camps and wished no one harm.
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