Karen O’Reilly

Karen O’Reilly

It was just after midday when I checked in to the Mayflower. The hotel had been the main base and drinking-place for hacks in Beirut throughout the civil war. Black dial-phones were fixed to shiny wood-veneer booths. Tattered leather armchairs, each with a standing ashtray, were arranged in untidy groups in the lounge.

The receptionist found my booking and pulled a brass key from a rack. Third floor. He pointed, not speaking, to the lift.

Three people sitting opposite the front desk leaned towards each other and spoke in low voices. One of them, a white-haired man, stood up as I moved to the lift. A young, darker-skinned man remained seated with a woman of about thirty, who had sandy streaked hair.

The white-haired man began hesitatingly.

‘I just wanted to – my name is Franklin.’ He smiled and pushed his hair back from his forehead. He spoke with an American drawl.

I responded warily, ‘Karen.’

He paused, then nodded. ‘You’re staying here?’

‘For the weekend. Just visiting.’

He persisted. ‘Just a visit?’ I nodded, smiled, and turned towards the lift.

‘And where have you come from?’

I turned back to face him. ‘I just came from Jordan, where I work, but I’m Irish.’

He nodded. ‘Really? I’m American.’ He turned then to the others, still seated, but watching us. ‘This here is Kristen, and this is Ahmed.’

They both smiled.

‘Ahmed’s a Palestinian refugee. We’re trying to help him with’ – he rubbed the back of his neck – ‘with some things.’ I looked to Ahmed and back to Franklin. I nodded, then turned to the elevator door. Through the frosted glass panel I could see the bottom of the lift slowly descending. It dinged finally and the light turned green. I pulled the door open and pushed my case in. I smiled at Franklin. ‘It was nice to meet you.’

‘Likewise,’ he said, and then again, quietly, ‘Likewise.’

Kristen and Ahmed waved from their chairs. Franklin lifted his hand to wave, then let it drop. He stared at me. The door swung shut and I pressed the button for the third floor. I could see him, a blur through the frosted glass, still watching me as the lift began to ascend.

The carpet in my room was frayed at the walls, the curtains and bedcovers mismatched. A door to a small balcony with two plastic chairs had been left open and the curtains flapped in the breeze. I stepped outside. Apartment blocks faced the hotel from across a narrow street. The balcony opposite had a faded striped awning and laundry hung from a plastic line. A skinny grey cat was walking carefully across the metal railing.

I went back into the room and sat on one of the two single beds. The TV had been left on standby, but the control wouldn’t work. The TV cabinet and the dressing-table were layered with dust. I thought about the white-haired man downstairs. What did he want? An American tourist just trying to make friends? And who was the woman? His girlfriend? She had to be twenty years younger than him. His daughter? I pressed more buttons and waved the control at the TV. Still nothing. Maybe she was the girlfriend of the Palestinian guy. Did they want me to help them with whatever they were doing with him? I opened my case, rubbed dust from the dressing-table with the side of my hand and laid out my clothes.

The sun was still high when I left the hotel. I walked to the American University, a few blocks away. The campus was spread across leafy grounds overlooking the sea. Walking through the gardens surrounding the red-brick buildings, I remembered Brian Keenan’s book about being kidnapped in Beirut. I had read it when I was eighteen. Wasn’t he working here – at this university? I tried to picture it: strolling along the grassy slopes of the campus, books under his arm, on his way to teach a literature class. Then, one day, being seized from the street, held captive in desolate buildings, blindfolded and chained for more than four years. I remembered that the civil war in Lebanon had started in 1975, the year I was born, and lasted until 1990. Brian Keenan was abducted in 1986, the year I started secondary school. Two years after he was released, he gave a talk at my university in which he said he’d written the book by recounting everything into a microphone, and later writing it down. He read an extract, about having to defecate on the floor in the corner of the cell where he slept. I could still picture the image that came to my mind, my disgust. What, I thought then, should I do with this knowledge? Why did he share this horror with us?

The university notice-boards were crowded with posters, overlapping, thumb-tacked on top of each other. They advertised music gigs, rallies, meetings, discussions of atrocities in Palestine. Groups of students walked past us, clutching books to their chests, laughing. They had messy hair, torn jeans. A McDonald’s on the street opposite shined through the arch of the university’s front entrance.

I left the campus and made my way downtown. The Mediterranean was glittering through gaps in the narrow streets. The old Holiday Inn was still standing, close to the sea, ruined by mortars and pitted with bullet holes. The rooms were empty shells. From the front you could see squares of blue sky through the windows at the back. I remembered another Holiday Inn, blackened and bullet-riddled, that I’d passed in Sarajevo five years after the war there had ended. That hotel had been used by Bosnian Serb paramilitaries to fire on crowds protesting across the street. This Holiday Inn had been destroyed in the ’70s by Christians and Muslims fighting for its control. Why was it still here, rising tall and monstrous into a postcard-blue sky? I took photographs as a man in a woollen cap walked past me, staring. On the outskirts of the city, I had photographed a bridge in ruins, blown to rubble by Israeli forces in 2006, thirty years after the hotel was shelled.

The afternoon was cooling. I walked slowly back uphill and stopped at a mosque. A guard outside eyed me warily. The blue tiles with Arabic inscriptions above the arched windows matched the blue of the flowers planted thickly in front of the mosque. I walked towards the open door. The guard gestured for me to step back. There were three men inside, prostrating themselves towards Mecca. The sound of their prayers mingled with the squawks of seagulls wheeling overhead.

From the mosque, I turned on to Martyrs’ Square. The martyrs, I’d read, were Lebanese nationalists hanged in 1916 for revolting against the Turks. The bronze statue of the martyrs was riddled with bullet holes, their heads splattered with bird shit. Why had the holes not been repaired? Could they not be filled in with more bronze? I thought back to the holes blasted open by mortar shells on the streets and pavements in Sarajevo. The scattered indentations, many marking the spot where someone had been killed, had been filled with red resin. They came to be called Sarajevo Roses. I pictured the holes in the bronze martyrs filled with red resin, little poppies pinned to their suits.

At the Place de l’Etoile, further downtown, I sat outside a café. The square was packed – families with children on tricycles, groups of young people laughing, shiny sunglasses holding back their hair. I ordered shawarma and drank cold Lebanese beer until it grew dark. The muezzin called evening prayers, scattering birds from minarets. The young people left in flocks, headed for clubs and bars. Parents carried tricycles over their shoulders, taking their children home. I walked along emptying lamp-lit streets back to the Mayflower.

Breakfast was served in the basement of the hotel. A counter was laid out with white bread, cheese that had hardened around the edges, boiled eggs, tiny cartons of marmalade and jam. I took two slices of bread and cheese and filled a cup with lukewarm coffee and milk. I sat in a corner by the window, alone.

As I was eating, a girl sat down at the table next to mine. She sipped at a cup of coffee and opened her laptop on the table. I turned to look at her. It was the girl from the previous morning, the girl in the lobby, with the white-haired man who’d spoken to me. She was scrolling through a document, occasionally stopping to add or delete a word. She left to refill her coffee, then returned. She smiled to me as she sat down. Nodding to her computer, I asked her, ‘Are you working here?’

She set her coffee cup down. ‘Kind of. Not exactly.’

She spoke softly, an American accent barely discernible. ‘I’m a journalist in Istanbul. I’ve come here to do research for a story, but it’s more of a personal thing.’

She looked at the computer screen for a moment. ‘I had an aunt who lived here. She was a journalist and activist. Janet Stevens. She was killed in the U.S. Embassy bomb in 1983.’

‘Oh god.’ I stared at her. ‘That’s awful.’

She tapped at the space key but didn’t press it down.

‘When she died she was working on an investigation. It never got finished. So I wanted to come here and follow that up, to write about her work and what happened after her death.’

‘What was she investigating?’

‘The illegal sale of weapons by the US to Israel during the civil war. She had collected serial numbers of weapons, everything. And the massacre of Palestinian and Lebanese civilians in the camps at Sabra and Shatila in 1982. How the Israeli army allowed Christian militias into the camps they were controlling, knowing they’d kill the Muslim civilians there.’

I stirred my coffee, slowly. I’d heard of the massacre but knew little about it. ‘And this is what you want to write about?’

‘Yes, the work she was doing, and what’s happened since. There have been lots of investigations into the camps, but a lot of controversy. I want to write about that. The sale of weapons by the US has been followed up less. I want to find out what I can.’

She stared at the computer screen then turned to me. ‘I didn’t catch your name before. I’m Kristen.’

I smiled. ‘Karen’.

Kristen looked to the window then back to the screen. She picked up a napkin and folded it diagonally, into a triangle, then folded it again. She looked up.

‘Do you mind if I tell you something? I don’t want to freak you out.’

I shrugged and looked around. ‘Of course.’

She returned to the screen and scrolled down. She turned the laptop to face me. There was a black and white photograph, taken perhaps in the 1970s, of a woman in her early thirties with long hair. The photo caught my breath.

‘I don’t mean to be weird, but do you see it?’

I nodded, biting my lip.

‘Isn’t it uncanny – how she looks like you?’

I stared at the photo and pushed my hair behind my ears. ‘What’s funny is – people say I look exactly like my mother. This photo looks like a photo of her when she was my age. I would think it was her.’

Kristen turned the laptop back to face her. ‘She looks so like you. It’s just – it’s eerie.’

I leaned forward, still looking at the photo. ‘I’m flattered. She was beautiful.’

Kristen looked up. ‘Thank you. It’s very nice of you to say that.’

‘No.’ I shook my head. ‘Really – she’s beautiful.’

Kristen tapped at the computer and enlarged the photo. ‘I have to tell you – Franklin? The man who came up to you yesterday?’

I nodded.

‘He was her boyfriend. That’s why he had to speak to you. When he saw you, he was taken aback. He couldn’t believe the similarity. He said he had to talk to you, find out who you were.’

I sat back and lifted a teaspoon from the table, then placed it down.

‘He was her boyfriend when she died?’

Kristen nodded. ‘She was pregnant with their child’.

I stared at her. ‘That’s terrible.’ A waiter came and took my plate. I held on to the cup, half-full of tepid coffee, as a reason not to leave.

‘The thing is, he wasn’t living in Lebanon. He flew from the US to visit her, and arrived on the day she was killed. He didn’t get to see her. Three days later, he identified her body in the morgue. She’d been crushed under collapsing concrete. It took them that long to recover her remains.’

Kristen traced her finger in circles on the computer touchpad while the cursor blinked. ‘He stayed on in Lebanon and never returned to the US. Quit his job there, everything, to stay and continue my aunt …’ She gazed at her fingernails on the touchpad, then pulled her hand away. ‘To continue Janet’s work.’

I stared at her. ‘He’s been here since 1983?’

Kristen nodded. ‘Twenty-six years. At the start he was investigating the massacres at Sabra and Shatila – interviewing eye-witnesses, survivors, writing reports. He published the reports in papers, sent them to governments, brought the information to anyone who’d listen. And many who refused. He still publishes articles each year around the anniversary of the massacres. But he writes about many other issues – about Palestinian refugees, the Israeli incursion in Lebanon, articles about human rights abuses and war crimes.’

She asked about my work in Jordan. I turned the handle of the coffee cup towards me. I told her I worked with refugees from Iraq, Syria, Somalia and Darfur, and had even had clients from Lebanon and Turkey. I described how I tried to persuade countries like the U.S. to take them in.

‘Huh.’ Kristen smiled. ‘It’s funny – that you do this work. The connection with Janet.’

I bit on my knuckle. ‘What Franklin is doing – maintaining awareness of the issues Janet was working on …’ I brought my hand down and rubbed a smudge of coffee on the saucer. It had dried like watercolour. ‘It’s very admirable. He’s trying to make something good come from something horrific. I’m sorry. That sounds – I’m sorry. I don’t know what I’m talking about.’

Kristen shook her head. ‘No.’ She paused. ‘For him it’s the only possible …’ She looked away. A family tried to squeeze behind her chair and she pulled it in. ‘I don’t know. Redemption.’

A waiter came past and I let go of the cup. The table was empty. Kristen smiled. ‘I shouldn’t keep you. But I’m so glad we got to talk properly. Yesterday morning – I’m sure it must have seemed strange.’

I laughed, then looked at her for a moment. I told her I was glad to have met her and to have heard about her aunt. I said I would look up Franklin’s articles. Kristen took my hand. ‘That’s all he wants, I think, to keep Janet’s work in people’s minds. He believes that not letting people forget – that it can prevent these atrocities from happening again.’ She let my hand go and turned to leave.

Later, I walked down to the seafront and sat on a bench on the promenade. It was Saturday afternoon and crowded. Women in full chador held hands with men in tracksuits, children roller-skated in groups, teenage girls in headscarfs and shiny T-shirts and jeans walked arm-in-arm. By the wall overlooking the sea, couples sat on plastic chairs smoking shisha and men stood alone, hunched over with fishing lines. I walked to where the promenade turned in a corner to the south, and leaned against the wall. Boys in baggy shorts were jumping from high rocks into the foamy green water. Girls watched from the rocks and cheered.

I turned to walk back. The traffic on the main road along the seafront was slow, cars cruising, watching the people on the promenade. The buildings on the other side had been restored haphazardly – a Hard Rock Cafe with a giant plastic guitar out front, a bombed-out building next to it with grass and trees growing through the windows.

That night back in Amman, I looked Franklin up. I found articles he had written on the Sabra and Shatila massacre and the plight of Palestinian refugees. There were also angry letters, including one addressed to Janet and his unborn son, crushed under concrete in the Embassy bombing. I looked through my photographs of Beirut: bullet-riddled buildings, a ruined bridge, children racing on roller-skates along the promenade, couples looking out to sea. I watched Waltz with Bashir, a film depicting the massacre through an Israeli soldier’s eyes. I looked up Brian Keenan. It seemed he had returned to Beirut in 2006 for the first time since he’d been freed. He had written about his trip back.

At the bottom of one of Franklin’s articles was an email address. I wrote to him, told him who I was and that Kristen had told me his story. I asked him if he could tell me more about Janet, and said that I’d like to write about him and about her work. He replied within hours, calmly, as though he’d been expecting to hear from me. He told me where I could find more information, and apologized for the strangeness of our meeting in the Mayflower. He’d been unnerved, he said, to see Janet’s double. ‘Month by month,’ he wrote, ‘I know less … and am sure of less.’

He copied Kristen in his reply. A week later, she wrote too. She said she would be glad for me to write about her aunt and the work she had done. I thought of the photograph of Janet, smiling, serious, looking into the distance. It can prevent these atrocities from happening again. I began to write, trying to believe it was true.

Read more in The Dublin Review issue No. 37 Winter 2009–10.