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Personal story: Zidane, football and war

I'm familiar with lockdown – I remember the nights spent hiding with my family in our bathroom, as Israeli airstrikes hit Beirut. 

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I know about lockdowns and quarantines and isolation. I know about them because as a young Lebanese man growing up in the Noughties, I spent a good few nights in our bathroom huddled with my family. Back then, it was of course not coronavirus we were hiding from, but the Israeli shelling by air and sea of the Lebanese capital as war raged on.

It was the summer of 2006. Italy had just won the World Cup in Berlin and Zinedine Zidane of France had been sent off in the final for headbutting the Italian defender Marco Materazzi in the chest. The Italian had insulted Zidane’s mother or sister (that much is still unclear). My father was fond of repeating the already rapidly tiring half-joke: “You do not insult an Arab man’s sister/mother.” This was in reference to Zidane’s Algerian heritage. My father was fond of meandering jokes like these. His highlight of the year, leading up to the Israeli bombardment of Beirut and the World Cup final, was when Dick Cheney, the US vice-president, accidentally shot a man while out hunting. When George W Bush had a pair of shoes thrown at him by an Iraqi journalist at a press conference, a couple of years later, my father could not get enough of the footage, doubling over in laughter and only sparingly catching his breath. 

I had just returned from the beach that night and was washing the salt water and sunscreen off my skin when my younger sister banged on the bathroom door. I was 16, she was 15. As I turned off the faucet, I thought of a girl from school. I thought I might invite her to go to the beach with me tomorrow or the day after. I thought she would probably refuse and when she did I would contact my best friend, Samer, and we could plunge into the Mediterranean again, as we had done that same day, and the day before that. I wrapped my Simba (from The Lion King) towel around my waist and flung open the bathroom door. I made a mental note to buy a new towel if I was serious about inviting the girl from school to the beach. I also made a mental note to leave the bronze sunscreen bottle at home.

I was still dripping with water when my mother and sister informed me that Lebanon had been hit by Israeli airstrikes. Artillery fire would soon follow. And so would two months of being locked down in a shelter with my family. Except it wasn’t a shelter. It was our bathroom. So back in I went, a little drier and a little less enamoured by the thought of a love interest on the Beirut coastline on a hot day. Power had not been consistent even before the war, but with the naval blockade and the bombing of the Jiyeh Power Station – causing the largest oil spill in eastern Mediterranean history – the prospects for electricity proved bleak. And with hardly any running water to be had, the pungent summer months stretched long before us.

My sister and I would look to our parents for cues on how to interpret the sounds of the airstrikes in lockdown. They were veterans of the long civil war that had stretched over 15 years. A cringe meant that the bomb would land somewhere else, on someone else’s home. It was when my parents looked up that we feared the worst. I could never quite tell whether they raised their eyes expectantly or to hide their facial expressions.

When the shelling dragged on for hours, the sensation of fear was replaced by the unbridled urge to use the sole bathroom, which under the circumstances was problematic. There were other urges too: hunger being one, so, too, the urge to shower; to move, to leave the apartment and run down to the coast and leap into the cool, gentle waters of the now oil-sodden Mediterranean.

Even the existential fear of death by shrapnel, which was very real to us, could not stave off boredom. I resorted to Football Manager, electricity permitting: a pirated computer game that allowed me to take Nottingham Forest all the way to the first division. Then I abandoned the football club, and let them plummet two or three flights down, just to feel alive. In the Football Manager world, I had control.

My parents told us civil war stories. Most of them ended with an acquaintance of theirs dying or of being lost forever, which also meant dying. There was one particular story about my parents almost dying themselves, but their mere presence had long since spoilt the ending somewhat. These stories were meant to distract us from the tediousness of life under siege, as a country, but also as a family. My mother said that we were fortunate to be alive. My father said that we were alive. He was an old-school journalist and no fan of hyperbole. If fortune operated in a cramped, decaying Beiruti bathroom, he wanted no part of it. This despite our last name, which means “fortune” in Arabic.

There were excursions to the kitchen and the bedroom. We would generally start every night sleeping in our own beds, then rush to the hard marble floors of the bathroom around midnight when the shelling intensified.

After nearly seven weeks, the shelling subsided, and we were allowed out. The beaches were off limits, because of the polluted waters and the Israeli warships, but I called Samer to see if I could persuade him to break the rules. He said that he would be leaving for Canada, permanently. His entire family had had enough. Think about it, he said. How many more lockdowns?

Over the years, I lost contact with Samer. We were a pair of inseparable Lebanese teenagers. Now he’s a Canadian man, and I haven’t seen him for 15 years. I made other childhood friends. But they, too, have all since had it with Beirut lockdowns, instability, rampant corruption and economic crises. One is in Budapest, another in London and a third in New York. My last remaining friend is soon to leave for Connecticut. Or he was, until the pandemic happened. 

I have often thought of Samer since the coronavirus outbreak. I wonder if he prefers Canadian lockdowns to Lebanese ones. And I wonder, fortune permitting, whether my friends will ever come home, if it’s all the same to them. 

A Naji Bakhti’s novel “Between Beirut and the Moon” will be published in August by Influx Press

This article appears in the 12 June 2020 issue of the New Statesman, A world in revolt