Watching the waiter

At an unexpected restaurant in County Leitrim, Owen Sheers discovers the reality behind a televised

The restaurant is a surprise. A low, peach-coloured bungalow isolated at the side of the road outside the village of Jamestown, County Leitrim. Everything else in that evening scene is to be expected - the silhouettes of the three men fishing on a curve in the river; the static of the white-watered weir; the black lung of a starling roost expanding on the breeze. But the peach bungalow with a sign outside, "Al-Mezza, Lebanese Restaurant", here in the middle of the fields and the sheep, that is a surprise.

As we sit to our table, Dorothy Serhan hands us a menu each. On the first page is a map of Lebanon. I catch my girlfriend's eye and register our shared reaction. A month ago, when we left to travel through Europe, this map would have been unfamiliar to us. We would have known only the name of its capital and perhaps the rough outline of its borders. But now, after the past three weeks of watching TV screens in hotels, bars and airport lounges, we are all too familiar with this map, and especially the names of its southern towns and villages. Tyre, Mansoura, Bint Jbeil, Qaraoun. After three weeks of watching a war, we not only know the locations of these places, the beaches they overlook and their hills at the back, we also know how many people have been killed in them.

I look up from the menu at the framed photographs of Beirut hanging over each table. The views of this city are also familiar to us now. Here, in the picture frames on the walls of al-Mezza in Jamestown, Beirut is a living city: the circuit board of high-rise buildings at night, mast lights reflected in the water of a harbour. The Beirut we have seen framed on those TV screens these past three weeks, however, has been a very different city. An empty city. A city with clouds of smoke hanging over its buildings. Often there has been a flak-jacketed man or woman, standing in the foreground and describing in measured tones which part of the city behind has been destroyed today. Sometimes we have seen the Beirut of these photographs framed in another way, too: the city's dimensions flattened to an overhead image of grainy monochrome, a hairline cross etched at its centre, which, after waiting for a second or so, plants a sudden flower at its intersection that blossoms then fades among the rooftops and streets.

When Dorothy returns to take our order, my girlfriend asks if she has any friends caught up in the fighting. "Yes," she says, tight-lipped as she pours a bottle of deep-red Beqaa Valley wine. "My husband's family are still there. My brother-in-law managed to get out, though. He flew in from Syria yesterday."

It is Dorothy's brother-in-law who serves our starters, fattoush, jawaneh and sujok. For three weeks now, we have watched the news from Lebanon, listened to commentators speak about it, become intimate with the details of who has been killed, where and how. And now, serving at our table, is a man who has come from there, a man born from the news. I can't help watching again as he moves through the restaurant, the one piece of information Dorothy told us about him electrifying his quiet presence. But what do I expect to see? Some sign of the conflict on his face? At times I catch a hint, the faintest quiver under his skin, but I know I'm imagining this. There is no sign of war upon him, other than our knowledge of where he is from.

When we are leaving al-Mezza later that night, Dorothy calls her husband, Milad, to come and say goodbye. He emerges from the kitchen in his chef's hat and tunic, bringing a scent of its heat and spices with him. We thank him for his food and say we hope his family will be all right. "Yes," he says with a tense smile, pushing his glasses up the bridge of his nose. "So do I. But their home is gone. It has been bombed, so they are in the hills now. They have some food from the fields and we are trying to arrange visas for them, but the children -" He pauses, looks down and wipes his hands on his tunic. "Well, the children are very frightened." When Milad raises his head again, a different look is in his eyes, as if he is watching something further away, beyond the restaurant. Dorothy also looks away for a moment and I can feel the heat of her quiet anger, like the heat of the kitchen emanating from Milad's tunic. "It is so frustrating," he says eventually with a sigh and a smile at the same time. "Innocents are dying on both sides. Innocents," he says again, looking at us and shaking his head. "On both sides. While the world watches."

It isn't until we are in a cab, driving along the country road back to Jamestown, that I realise that, as with the map in the menu and the framed views of Beirut, I am already familiar with what Milad has just said. I heard it before, spoken in a different language, in different words, when Condoleezza Rice appeared on one of those hotel TV screens; when she explained why now was not the right time to call for an immediate ceasefire. I didn't really understand what her words meant until Milad said the same thing. That's because her language was dislocated from meaning, while Milad's was not.

The cab winds its way between ancient oaks. As we pass a lake, the driver taps his knuckle against his window. "Look at that moon," he says. "When did you last see a moon like that?" I look out at the moon, full, pitted and startlingly white above the ink-black lake. My girlfriend does not look at the moon. Her head is bent and she is crying, for Milad's nieces and nephews, frightened by the warplanes in the hills above Beirut. The road's white dashes slip under the cab's headlights as my girlfriend and I make promises: to send money, to write to an MP, to do something. But, for now, as the houses of Jamestown grow about us, I just hold her in the back of the cab, watching the moon rise, ridiculously grateful that I can at least do that.

© Owen Sheers

Owen Sheers is a poet and prose writer. His first novel, "Resistance", will be published by Faber & Faber in June 2007. A longer version of "Watching" is published in the anthology "Lebanon, Lebanon" (Saqi Books, £10)

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