They met next to that famous theater in Beirut. It was in May of 1976, when bombs rained down from the sky, and people lit many of their nights with candles. Camille sang in the theater. Tareq worked in his father’s café across the street.
He had never wished for more than the quiet life he lived. When he walked, his head was always bent, and his shoulders hunched, avoiding the stare of those who passed by. His life had become the café, and he had welcomed it willingly. He had finished school seven years ago, and had decided to help his father. He did everything he could to please him. His sister, Jana, was very unlike him. She spent her days dreaming about the bright future, where there would be no war, no bombing, but the smallest chance for life. His mother was all too interested in the rumor around town to notice anything else. His father was a hard man, who scarcely ever let on what he thought. He, too, worked in the café, taking care of the business and the family.
Tareq spent most of his time hovering around his clients. He loved the vivacious atmosphere that reeked of cigarette smoke and coffee. Old and young came to the café to unwind, engaging each other in endless conversations about this leader or that one; about this strategy or that one, trying to convince one another that war would not last long anyway. Tareq enjoyed those moments, for he liked his customers to bring light to the place with their talk, smiles, and loud laughter. Yet it seemed that whenever that happened, the mood changed for the worse, and all that could be heard were the hushed whispers and the silent prayers.
Camille, a singer from the theater, was a regular at the café. She came everyday, smelling of fresh jasmine. She always sat on the same round table by the large glass window, and ordered hot tea with a spoonful of honey. Her gaze wandered outside, to the streets, and it seemed as though sadness surrounded her like a lion stalking its prey. Tareq never dared talk to her, so every time she asked for her tea, he nodded his head courtly, then stumbled back into the kitchen to prepare it. He was ready to serve her without concern for the others. Everybody knew that her father was from Palestine. And that he had become a fighter. They knew that he spent more hours loading a gun than taking care of his wife and daughter. They feared him, and directed this fear at his daughter. So they all drifted as far away from her as possible. Others who pitied her often tended to ignore her. But Camille never reacted. Tareq saw her walk with pride, never giving anyone the satisfaction of replying to their comments.
One evening, the bombings got so close that Tareq could see the smoke a few meters from the café. His father sat at the back, in his office, going over paperwork. It was one of those days where there hardly were any clients, because they almost foresaw that something bad was bound to happen. But Camille was there, sitting at a table by the wall. Tareq was cleaning another table. He hoped that no one else would come, so that he could close the place. But like in a dream, everything went still, and, for exactly three seconds, all he heard was the squeaking of the rag towel that he was wiping the table with. Then a bomb landed. Glass shattered. His heart made a quick thud when he saw Camille jerk away from her seat with a scream. He threw down the towel in his hand and ran towards her.
“Are you okay?” he screamed through the noise.
“I-I’m fine, I’m fine, I guess,” she answered, checking her arms and legs for any wounds. “But your window isn’t.”
She stepped over the shards of broken glass with care, and started walking towards the now-non-existent door.
“Wait… Wait! Don’t go! It’s too dangerous to go out like that,” he yelled.
“But I can’t stay! The bombs might not stop for days! What if I’m trapped? My parents are going to be so worried!”
“Tareq!” he heard his father yell. “Tareq, are you hurt? Are any clients hurt?” Tareq saw him running towards them.
“No father, I’m fine – we’re fine.”
“Then let’s all go to the shelter.”
Tareq was used to his father’s composed reactions. Whatever the situation, his father retained his calm, which somehow comforted Tareq. The first bomb was soon followed by another and another, and another. The last three did not appear to be as close as the first. Tareq turned back to Camille. She just could not leave.
“Please, don’t go. You can go home when the bombing is over.”
Tareq grasped her hand and they both went outside the café. He covered her head with his hand as they ran into the entrance of his building He did not really know what to do. He was surprised at his own confidence, but he was not about to let it go.
They went down the stairs in complete silence. It was only one floor below. His father walked behind them, followed by a customer, who was too dumbfounded to know what to do. The underground served as a parking lot for the few lucky car owners. There were four cars in total, one of which was a white Peugeot 204. That one was his parents’. It was parked in the corner. The shelter was the only room on the left. The door was closed. Tareq knocked on it, then screamed: “Mama, it’s us. Please open up! ”
The door opened to reveal his mother’s frightened eyes. She muttered an “Oh, thank God” before she held his father. The room behind her was too small to be occupied by that many people. The residents of all six apartments were sitting on mattresses spread across the floor. There were plastic bags, canned food, batteries for light, and covers everywhere. Tareq stepped inside, with Camille following behind him. Jana sat in the corner, hugging a pillow tight to her breasts. When she saw her father coming inside with Tareq, she breathed a sigh of relief.
“Father, Tareq! Oh, you’re both safe! We thought–” She got up to hold them both.
Tareq’s father settled down next to his wife, leaned his head against the wall, and started murmuring prayers. The man who followed his father inside the shelter was eying Camille with disdain. Tareq noticed, but did not want to provoke him, so he asked Camille to sit before the man could mutter anything.
“What about the café?” Jana asked.
“There’s been some damage.” Tareq gave Camille his covers. It was not so cold outside, but he thought that the covers might help her feel safer.
“Oh.” Jana’s eyes widened.
“So is it all gone? All broken? All burnt down?” his mother whispered.
“No, Mama. It’s not all gone.” Sadness filled him. Everything was blurred now. Everything. Except for the fact that Camille was sitting next to him.
So he made sure that she was comfortable. For three hours, it seemed they could only hear the buzzing of the radio, and the sound of bombs. Everyone else in the room was still. Camille stared at the floor, her arms around her legs. Tareq stole glances her way every now and then. He felt guilty that she came with him. What if the bombings really never did stop for days? No, there was no point in thinking that way. She was safe and sound, sitting next to him. And wasn’t that what he had always wanted? Just one chance to talk to her? A small voice inside his head was nagging, “Ask her, ask her, ask her,” over and over again. But ask her what? He knew her name; was there really anything else to ask?
Finally, he forced a courageous smile and spoke.
“It’s Camille, right? I, um, know you from the theater… and the café, of course. I hear so much about you. They say that you’re extremely talented. Is anyone in your family a singer?”
He did not mention her father. She looked at him for a while, as if she was examining him for the first time. But she did not answer. She looked down at her shoes.
“Camille? Are you all right? I promise, the attacks won’t last, and you’ll go home before you know it. I just wanted to bring you here out of precaution, really.”
“No, I’m fine, don’t worry,” she said. “I’m not angry at you, Tareq.”
That startled him.
“Oh. How do you know my name?”
“Everybody knows Tareq from the café.”
This is when she looked at him and smiled. He turned his head away, and then looked back at her.
“So, you enjoy singing at the theater?”
“Yes, I do. It’s my only chance to get away from the sounds of the war. See, my father always said that there was no chance to walk away from war. That no matter where we hid, or what we covered our ears with, it would cut through the walls begging for us to be a part of it. Begging for us to bring the freedom and justice that we sought. But music builds walls around me. Strong walls that never allow war to come near me.”
Tareq nodded his head. She started playing with the edge of her dress. Tareq’s mother was talking to his father. The latter was nodding intently. Jana was reading a magazine. But whenever she heard a sound, she fidgeted in her place, and hugged her pillow closer. The others were having side conversations. Sometimes they looked at Tareq, then at Camille, but it didn’t matter to him. He was not one to care for people’s gossip. When he noticed that she tensed, he decided to speak again.
“I – I love my job, too. I mean I love the business, and I love the customers. And I can never think of anything that I might do other than run the café. Once, of course, my father decides to give it to me.”
“That’s good. But are you just going to run a café for the rest of your life?”
“Well, yes. There isn’t anything else to do anyway. I guess maybe if I had gone to college, things would have been different.”
Camille was now listening to him with interest.
“Yes,” he continued, “I could have been a lawyer or something, or maybe, I don’t know, a teacher.”
“I would have loved to get out of the country, sing elsewhere,” she said. “I know that no one truly appreciates what I do here. But I could never leave. My mother would never let me. Oh, she must be going crazy now!”
Tareq could not help but feel guilty.
“We’ll go back as soon as this is over. I’ll take you to your house myself,” he promised.
“What are you talking about?” Jana interrupted, looking up from her magazine.
“Nothing, Jana; nothing that has to do with you anyway,” Tareq said, annoyed.
Camille gave her half a smile. “We’re talking about life, and the future, and all that stuff…”
Jana raised her eyebrows and said: “Are you talking about love?”
“Oh, Jana, you’re such a baby,” Tareq said, rolling his eyes. Jana dismissed him and focused her attention on Camille.
“You know, my friends and I always go to watch you!” she said, excited. “And everybody says that you perform the songs better than the originals!”
“Oh… Thank you. But to tell you the truth, nobody sings better than my mother. You know, she used to sing in her village before she got married.”
Camille’s voice was filled with love. Her mother was French, which gave the neighbors yet another reason to snub her daughter. “But she used to sing for me. When I was younger, and we were alone, she sang for me.”
Tareq and Jana looked at each other, aware of the shift of mood. They did not want to interrupt Camille’s faraway thoughts. But then she turned back to them.
“She taught me all of the songs I know, all of the songs I sing. She always made me sing Léo Ferré songs. He’s her favorite singer. Now, I end each one of my performances with one of his songs.”
Camille turned quiet. Jana attempted to lighten the atmosphere: “I’ve been trying to convince my brother here to go with me one day, you know, to one of your shows. But he keeps pretending that he has a load of work. The thing is, I always knew that he liked–”
“Quit it, Jana. Go away. Do something useful. Study or something.”
She scowled and returned to her magazine.
Three hours went by, and the bombings stopped. Everybody went home.
Tareq stepped out of the door of his building. He stood on the sidewalk, and faced the café. The façade was torn down. And the building had some holes in it. Camille was standing by his side, and Jana was right behind her. Neither one of them said a word. The roads were almost empty, the debris of broken glass, metal, and stone were everywhere. Smoke lingered in the air for a while. Tareq took a moment to examine his surroundings before he dared walk inside his café. It was not entirely destroyed, and he thanked God for that. The bombings had been really vicious this time, he thought. He did not want to imagine just how many people had died that night, but he thanked God that he was still alive. Looking at the pitiful state the café was in made his eyes ache. Camille and Jana walked inside, their feet crunching the glass. Some of the chairs and tables were broken. Tareq walked inside to check the rest, and saw that what had remained inside had not been as damaged. Cups and plates had fallen to the floor and were all broken. Jana took her brother’s hand and lead him away. She reminded him that he still had to take Camille to her house. He heard his mother scream, once she saw the condition of the café, but was too weary to turn back and comfort her. Camille walked next to him as they crossed the street and headed toward her house. At the entrance of her building, she turned to him and said: “Thank you very much for today.”
“Just stay safe… And I’ll expect to see you in the café soon. I know it’s in real bad shape now, but I’ll fix it up.”
“I’m sorry about the café, Tareq,” she said. Before she turned to leave, she said she hoped to see him at her next show on Saturday.
Tareq stood there for a few moments, looking at the entrance of her building, smiling. He had finally talked to her. But his joy died as soon as he walked back to the mess that was his own building. He wanted to start cleaning right away, but he could not. There was no electricity; and he was tired, so he went back home instead.
Camille came to the café the next day. She stayed with Jana while Tareq and his father discussed lists to replace the things that had been broken, and called people to fix the walls and doors.
Tareq went to the theater the next Saturday. That night, the air was warm, and the people were many on the streets. There were no sounds, no bombs. Tareq considered this a good sign. He walked straight to the theater, his hands dug inside his pockets. He bought a ticket and waited outside. He had come early. The air inside smelled of cigars and cologne. When he saw people entering, he followed them inside. He sat down and kept his eyes fixed on the stage.
The lights dimmed. And there she was, walking toward her audience in her simple blue dress. He told himself that he got used to her smile, but the truth was, he could never tire from looking at it. It beamed, even when her heart did not. People started clapping, and he joined them. He could not wait for her to start singing.
Camille welcomed her audience, and introduced the set of songs that she was about to sing. She thanked everyone for coming, and thanked the band. Tareq’s eyes were on hers, unwavering. She waved a hand in the air, and the projector lit the place where she stood, while all other lights turned off. Music pierced through the silence in soft waves, and Camille’s voice filled the air a few seconds later. She was glowing. How was it that such a powerful voice hid beneath the veil of frailty that she wore? He did not know. He could only stare at her with his heart beating so loud inside his chest. She gave her voice with generosity, and her hands occasionally let go of the microphone to swirl and dance on their own. And so, the time flew by quickly. One moment they were clapping for her to start singing, and the next she was announcing her final song, Avec le Temps, by Léo Ferré. Tareq watched as she sang about time that takes love away and blows it in the wind, and felt his heart sore. She kept her eyes closed, and did not move her hands away from the microphone. When the song ended, Tareq stood up with the rest of the audience, clapping his hands. Camille thanked her audience, before running backstage. He wanted to go to her, but instead, he sat there in his place. All the other spectators got up and left the theater. Soon, Camille returned and approached Tareq.
“Did you enjoy it?” she asked him.
“You were wonderful, Camille. Wonderful!”
“Thank you, Tareq,” she replied. “Will you walk me home?”
“Yes. You needn’t ask.”
Ever since he went to see her at the theater, Tareq spoke to Camille everyday in the café. Gone was the shy attitude, and the quiet confused manners. She was happy every time she saw him, and he was even happier when he could see her smile from across the street. When she sang, she was lively with joy. And he went to watch her whenever he could, watching others consume her with hungry eyes. Tareq realized that though they had hatred for her father, many still came to her performances. He did not know what to think of their attitude; which is why sometimes he felt as though he needed to protect her from them. Jana mentioned Camille to him with mocking dreamy eyes, but he knew that she was happy for him. His mother, on the other hand, never missed a chance to pester him about distancing himself from Camille. She refused to talk to her, and invited home girls he had never seen before, hoping to turn his attention away from her.
“She’s no good for you, Tareq! Her father is a fighter. Her mother is a stranger. I can’t have my son marry the daughter of a stranger! What will people say?”
Tareq told his mother that she had no right to meddle with his life. His father was not fond of their attachment either, but he trusted Tareq to make the right decision.
“You’ve no reason to judge Camille, Mama. You’ve never even spoken to her!”
“I know her family well enough to judge her, Tareq. I hear what people say about them. You may not know that, but her mother has done vile things to bring money into the house. Her husband, of course, knows nothing of that, because he’s too busy with other matters. Even Camille isn’t innocent! God knows what she does after she finishes those shows. People talk all the time, Tareq. And I know the truth when I hear it.”
“You know nothing, Mama. You hear those lies and then weave them into useless stories.”
Jana witnessed their disagreements, but did not interfere. Tareq was stubborn, and his mother much more prejudiced than she knew. Their fights would come to an end, Tareq thought. Maybe by the time the war ended, he would have been able to convince her and his father that they could not force anyone on him.
Days passed, and the more Tareq saw Camille, the more he was assured that she was his future; that his entire being depended on her comfort. He knew about her father from the stories told by others. But she had yet to say anything to him about that subject. Many times he wished he could destroy all of those barriers that stood between them. Many times he wished that she trust him with her story, because he knew that she was nothing like the person his mother thought she was. He was comforted by the fact that he supplied her with this strength. Despite the instability of the country, he knew that Camille and his job at the café made him happy. He sometimes dreamed of asking her to marry him. But he knew that he would never do that. Not until his parents consented on his choice. And judging by the amount of girls that his mother brought home to make introductions, hoping for a happy match, he knew that his dream was unlikely to happen now.
And then one day, Tareq and Camille were in his father’s Peugeot, taking a trip outside Beirut, when they saw armed soldiers approach them. The expression on Camille’s face had been indescribable. The soldiers were just checking for Tareq’s papers, and then they let them go. But Camille was shaken. He pulled the car over to the side of the road and took her hand in his.
“Camille, what is it? Are you crying?”
“They are dressed like my father. I– I haven’t seen him in weeks.”
“Camille. Please don’t cry,” Tareq said. But he felt that her tears would not stop. He had waited for her to open up about her father for a long time, because he could not bring up the subject on his own. For with all of the gossip that people indulged in, he was afraid of dismaying her without intending to.
“My father is a fighter, you know that, of course. He – He was forced to leave Palestine in 1948. So he came to Lebanon. Now my mother still begs him to take her back to France, to her home, to her family. But she loves him so much that she doesn’t want to leave without him, and he refuses to go with her.” Camille paused to stare at the empty road ahead of her, at the two soldiers that stood on the other side of the road, under the heat of the sun. “Many days he doesn’t come home. He’s very tough, my father. And when he’s not home with us, I sit in the dark crying, thinking that maybe he has reached his end. And when I sleep at night, I pray for him to come back alive. To come back to us.”
Tareq exhaled a long breath. He wanted to say that it was all right. But he knew that this was not all right, so he merely kept his hand in hers, and waited for her to continue.
“I don’t really like to talk about it,” she said, “because whenever I do, the image of my father keeps coming back to me. He’s hurt. He’s dead.”
“Is that why you froze when those two soldiers came?”
“I’m scared of seeing them. I’m scared that they might recognize my father. That they might blame me for things that he has done. Sometimes I’m scared that they might give me news about his death.”
She looked away from Tareq. He pulled a tissue from his pocket and gave it to her.
“The thing is, he’s convinced that by fighting, he’ll be able return back to his home.” she said.
June, July, and August went by, and the summer birds flew away to places where their melodies could be heard. The winds of September and October cooled the air, but nothing was cold enough to remove the heat of the fire that played in the skies of Beirut. Tareq and Camille’s attachment to one another grew stronger by the day.
And then one night, Tareq was staying up late in the café, finishing his tasks. The night before had been catastrophic. He heard that many people had been hurt. His parents had gone to the apartment, two floors above the café. He had almost finished cleaning the cups and dishes, and drying them, when someone knocked on the door. The café was obviously closed. Who was knocking at two? Unless it was… But no, it could not be. She would never come at this late an hour. But then who was it? He set down the towel and cup he was drying and walked swiftly to the door. The wooden tables around him were clean, and he had carefully set the chairs on top of them. The building was thirty years old, and his father had vowed to keep it well preserved “for your own kids, Tareq.” So Tareq had cleaned and wiped the place everyday without objection. And when his dear café had been hit, he had worked hard to restore it. He was grateful that no other attack had ever come close to it so far.
He walked to the door, peering from afar through the glassed façade. The lights on the streets were still on, and sometimes he heard the faraway sound of cars. The street was devoid of any movement. Tareq could not decipher a single silhouette against the backdrop of the night. He slowly opened the door, and the chilly November wind rushed to cool his face. There was no one. Tareq was not surprised. People were still afraid of going out at night; beggars often hid in the entrances of some buildings. They were even scared of going out in plain daylight. Suddenly, a shadow shifted through the haze of the dim lights.
“Tareq!” Someone whispered.
“Camille? Is that you? What are you doing here?” Tareq said. Camille’s silhouette then appeared to him. Her face was pallid, and her eyes filled with tears. “Camille! What’s wrong? What happened?” he murmured before embracing her. She remained silent for a few minutes, and then she started sobbing.
“It’s my – my father! He – he’s…!”
“Your father? What happened to him?” But he already knew the answer. “Oh, my sweet Camille, I’m sorry. Come, let’s go inside. It’s too cold out here.”
He lifted two chairs from a table and placed them on the floor. They sat down. Her hand remained clasped around his for a long while. Finally, she spoke.
“The news just came in. They said … that he died.”
“It’s okay, dear, it’s okay! Don’t weep, I’m right here.” Tareq gently let go of her hand before going to the kitchen to pour a glass of water for her.
“Here, drink this…” She took the cup with trembling hands.
“Oh Tareq, he never went back home! All that he fought for crumbled to his feet, like a sand castle!”
“There is nothing we can do about it now, Camille.”
Camille was not even listening.
“Oh but my mother, she knew better. She constantly told me that nothing good would ever come out of this. She saw this happening. She imagined the day in which they would knock on her door bringing her husband’s dead body to her… And that day has come.”
Camille fell silent. She fixated on the mustard-yellow pattern of the floor. “Yesterday, Tareq, remember? You gave me my tea, and I went to the theater. I sang, like any other day. And while I was busy entertaining my spectators with music, he was preparing to fight. And at night, when I closed my eyes and my ears, to push away the sound of the bombs that still pierced through the covers of my bed, some bullet pierced through his chest, and he surrendered to death.”
Tareq kept repeating, “It’s going to be okay” over and over again to his beloved. Yet he was not sure that he believed things were going to be okay after all. He was weaker than he had ever been, and she was the ephemeral rose at the end of spring, shedding her petals one by one. He held her close for so long, rocking her back and forth, wishing he could steal the sadness from her eyes and her heart, and throw it far, far away. She let go of him, and decided that now was the time.
“I’m leaving, Tareq…”
Tareq froze, then looked at her.
“My mother wants to go back. And I have to go with her,” she said. “I want to go with her.”
“You want to leave? But what about… us?” Tareq questioned, feeling his heart fall and tumble down a set of unending stairs.
“Come with me, Tareq. Come with me to Grasse; it’s beautiful there. Maybe we can forget about the past, maybe we can even have a future. This war will not do us any good. It’s killed so many, and God knows how many more it will kill.”
“But my future is here. Camille, I can’t go anywhere, this is my home! I love you so much, but I can’t leave my life here, I just can’t…” Tareq was choking on his words.
Camille stared at him.
“At least I tried,” she said, smiling uneasily, “I’m leaving the day after tomorrow. The ship leaves at noon, just in case you change your mind.”
Her eyes lingered on his for a few seconds. He saw it there, the fierce determination that was not about to falter. He realized that nothing would ever make her change her mind.
“Do you have a ride to the port? At – at least let me take you there.”
“I think my mother knows a cab driver.”
“No need for her to pay. I can take you, Camille. Please.”
“I’ll tell her then.” She rose from her chair and walked to the door. Her face was serene, her eyes still wet, her shoulders straight. This time, he did not run after her, and try to stop her. Instead, he covered his face with his hands, and wept. Afterwards, he stood up and went to finish his work like an automaton. He went outside, closed the door behind him and went to his bed. His head landed like ten pounds of lead onto his pillow, and for a full hour, he was unable to sleep. In the morning, he woke up early, having hardy slept at all, and went down to work. He saw the people pass by the streets like they did every day. He saw his sister sit on one of the tables with her friends, and write down all of the things they would do when war would end. He saw the regulars of the café, discussing the newspapers over the coffee that he had brewed earlier. But he did not see Camille. She was still in Beirut, yet she did not come to the café. He walked outside, onto the pavement, wondering if he would feel the way her smile warmed him.
The next day, he woke up engulfed with thoughts of Camille. He went down to the parking lot, turned on the engine of the Peugeot, and drove to her house. It was seven o’clock. He climbed the stairs and knocked on the door. Her mother opened.
“Hello Tareq. How are you doing? Camille told me you were going to take us in your car. Come on in.” Although she had spent many years outside of France, Tareq noticed that her Arabic accent was still not perfect. Camille, he remembered, spoke both Arabic and French really well. Camille came out of her room, and when she saw him, she ran towards him. He held her hands in his.
“I promised to take you to the port,” he said.
She hesitated to throw her arms around him in front of her mother. But that was the very last time she was going to see him, so she did not stop herself. He held her tight, smelling the scent of jasmine on her skin.
“Our boat is set to leave at nine,” Camille’s mother said. “If you could only take the heavy bags down, Tareq, Camille and I’ll manage to carry the light ones.” She had interrupted their embrace. “Thank you, Tareq.”
“Oh. You’re welcome.” He carried two bags and headed downstairs.
Camille and her mother soon followed, and after he settled their luggage inside the trunk of his car, they left to the port. He drove in silence, while Camille looked outside the window of her seat in the back. He wished he could watch her sing just one more time.
At the port, he helped unload their luggage and then he was looking at her for the very last time.
“Jana says she’s going to miss you. I’m going to miss you, too, Camille.”
“Tell Jana I said hi. And thank you again.” He held her hand, like he had done a thousand times before. Then he let her go, just like that, and watched her as she walked to the ship with her mother. She waved once, from the dock, before turning her back to him. He waited for the boat to leave, before he walked back to his car, to his café, to his life.
A sound detonated from a very far distance. He looked up at the sky of Beirut, at the appearance of yet another plume of smoke.