A Short Story
By Theodore Shoebat
Thank you disillusionment. Like the sun you illuminate all things which were once hidden in the darkness. The night engulfs the earth, but gradually the rays of the sun push forward, rising above the murky abyss of night and — like a victorious army — advances itself in the territory of the sky. Mankind — being the clay of the earth — is as well subsumed in his own swamp of darkness, and as the sun breaks through the dark clouds, so disillusionment shines a light on the mind, and awakens him to things he did not know, things that terrify him, that disturb him, and hinder him from his deep slumber, things that he wishes he did not know. But yet, he finds peace in the fact that he no longer needs to sit in the shadowy abyss of the night, and he is glad that he understands that although he was once lying in the muck, through awareness he knows where it is best to repose. Not in the den of demons, not in the cave where sight is no more and monsters can claw and cut you asunder, but underneath the rays of realization, basking in disillusionment. “I turned my heart to know and to search out and to seek wisdom and the scheme of things, and to know the wickedness of folly and the foolishness that is madness.” (Ecclesiastes 7:25) To research through the lens of your own ideological biases is to notice madness (but only in the side that you hate); to be disillusioned is to see madness everywhere, even in the side closest to your own worldview. This is a story on seeing madness in all places. This is an ode to disillusionment.
Part 1 — The Driver
Not a single cloud stood in the sky. We have all heard about how lovely sunshine is, how pretty blue skies are. But here, the air was dry, the climate was arid, as if death had conquered the day. The van drove down a lonely road, and from the backseat one could see the vast empty sky, the native trees on the sides. The motor hummed in the background, and the keys in the ignition made a light tapping noise. The man in the backseat was an American journalist. “What you doing here?” asked the driver, speaking with a thick accent and dressed in a common shirt, pants and a baseball cap. The journalist pointed at himself, struggling to compensate for the language barrier.
“Me? Journalist,” he said. “Ha?” asked the driver, not understanding. “Media,” said the American, knowing that this word was more universally known. “Ah, media… media.” “Yes,” said the journalist. He then began to motion his hands as if he was typing. “I write, on Lebanon.” You write?” asked the driver. “Yes. Bad economy. I write… economy,” replied the journalist, making gestures with his hands to emphasize his words. “Yeah. Understand. Economy very bad here,” said the driver, lighting a cigarette.
Beirut was crowded and bustling, full of the kerfuffle of city life, of cars and street businesses. Smoke from food stands (alongside cigarettes) and smog from heavy traffic abounded at every turn. The cacophony of city life resounded underneath the depressing summer sky, overlooking the seemingly endless desert of buildings, some sad, impoverished or ruined; some modern and glistening with the sun’s reflection.
On a busy city street, the van was stuck in traffic. “You see this road?” asked the driver, halfway extending his arm out the window with a cigarette clenched between two fingers. The journalist leaned forward and peered out. “People were, uh…” He made a gesture with his hand with two fingers pointed, as if drawing a line in the air, cigarette still there, of course. “Protesting,” said the journalist, attempting to finish the driver’s sentence. “No. They were uh…” He placed his hands together — the billowing cigarette clamped between them — and moved them forward. “They were taken… out of car,” the driver tried to explain. He then put two fingers — keeping sure to hold the cigarette — against his throat and made a cutting motion. “They were killed?” “Yes!” answered the driver, satisfied that the American could understand him.
The driver motioned his hand, backhanding the air, a common gesture in his culture. “During war. …I was… teenager.” “Did you see this?” asked the journalist, his interest piqued. “No. I heard… in media.” “You,” said the driver, motioning his hand towards the American, “media. You come here to talk … economy.” “Yes?” asked the journalist, wondering where this was going. He wagged his hand, the cigarette between two fingers. “Here… problem is…” He struggled to convey exactly what he wanted to say, trying to search through whatever English words were in his memory. “Much deep. How you say…?” “Corruption,” answered the American, again thinking that he could finish the man’s sentence. The driver chuckled. “Like bomb… about to…” he made a gesture of an explosion with his hands.
“Explode?” asked the American. “Yes… any moment.” The journalist thought he would chime in, perhaps to show how learned he was about the political atmosphere of the country. “Because of poverty—” “Poverty,” the driver disrupted, shrugging his shoulders. “Yeah…but… there is more. How do you say?” the driver’s voice trailed off, struggling with his English. He waited a moment, searching for the right word before uttering it. “Horror.”
Part 2 — The Cafe
The cafe was packed and busy. People were sipping coffee and tea from little glass cups. Servers poured the caffeine rich drinks into these small glasses. The journalist was interviewing a man at a table on the side of the cafe. He had curly black hair, his scalp slightly bolding, and he wore a regular shirt and jeans.
His countenance spoke of stress. He had the face of someone who was educated, but saddened by something. As he sipped his coffee his hand shook a little, causing a light rattling as the cup clanked against the saucer. He looked attentively at the journalist, his forehead tensed and wrinkled. He was an academic who had studied economics at the University of Beirut, although he did spend some time studying theology at the Université Saint-Esprit de Kaslik, a Maronite Catholic campus in Jounieh founded in the first half of the twentieth century.
The economist and the journalist had already been talking for hours, and their interview faded into that moment that is common in such discourse: when its reaching its end and no longer is an interview, but a conversation. The economist lit a cigarette, as if to take off the psychological mask that our brains put on to signal that we must talk in a certain way that fits the occasion. Now he was speaking as a human being and not a mere media outlet. “The situation here in Lebanon is a ticking time bomb,” said the economist in almost perfect English. “Imagine a pot upon a fire, and the water is on the verge of boiling over. This is Lebanon.”
The journalist was jotting down notes as a camera resting on a tripod next to the table recorded the conversation. “A bad economic situation adjacent to a demographic predicament is a recipe for…” He paused. “Disaster,” said the journalist, continuing his habit of trying to finish other’s sentences. “A slaughterhouse” concluded the economist. “Can you elaborate on that?” asked the journalist. “When you have civil war, you have refugees. Its not complicated,” he said with a slight smile. “The civil war next door has sparked an influx of …” He motioned air quotes. “… the other.” “Syrians?” questioned the journalist. The economist’s slight smile slowly faded out and he leaned forward. “It wouldn’t be the first time.”
The journalist was silent. “I was a militiaman in the war, back in the eighties,” the economist explained. “My time spent in the academy in Jounieh made me something of an idealist. So I decided to become a volunteer.” “And what became of that?” inquired the journalist. There was a pause in the discussion. The distant sound of chatter and the rattling of spoons, cups and saucers was heard in the background. The economist took a puff of his cigarette, blew out a billow of smoke and rested his smoking hand on his wrinkled forehead. He paused for a moment, staring into the table. Without moving his neck, his eyes simply looked up towards the journalist. “Disillusionment.” The journalist did not know what to say, because he did not understand from where such an answer came. The economist gave a friendly tap on the journalist’s shoulder. “I can show you what I mean. But, only if you’re interested.”
Part 3 — The Video Room
It was a bland room with white walls, little lighting, and sagging ceiling tiles. The old, diminishing ceiling fan vibrated as it spun around, providing almost an ambient noise in this dull room. There was a small table upon which was a cardboard box, and next to it lied an old video cassette player connected to a vintage television.
“These old tapes,” said the economist as he opened the box, pausing to take a short breath before picking up a cassette. “These were taken from a refugee camp.” He looked at the tape. It was almost vibrating from the slight shaking of the economist’s hand. It was labeled: “1982.” “Do you have your camera ready?” asked the economist with a gloomy face and eyes somewhat tense. The television was switched on and distorted and jumbled black and white pixels popped up alongside the typical static screeching, its droning noise harmonized with the sound of the shaking ceiling fan. The journalist held up his camera and aimed it towards the TV screen. The tape was slid into the cassette player, and suddenly the white noise — the chaotic pixels — became a black screen, like a boundless void, and the screeching static suddenly fell into a dead silence. The journalist focused his camera into the vast darkness of the screen.
Video 1: The Family
The black screen shifted to the view of a man and his three children on a couch. He was in his thirties and had two boys and a daughter. The daughter appeared to be five years old. One of the boys looked to be four and the other was very young and had to be less than a year old. The visuals and texture of the film made it obvious that it was from the 1980s. This was a home video, recorded for the purpose of preserving memories. They were all laughing and cheerful. It was clearly evening from the fact that they were all dressed in pajamas. Even though they spoke in Arabic — a language that the journalist could not understand — the small table in front of the couch littered with paper showing sentences and math problems, made it obvious that the father was trying to help them with their homework. He was struggling with the four year old boy to do his math work. “He is teasing his son for his difficulty in math,” explained the economist, knowing that the American did not understand what was being said.
“The little girl, she is much more astute.” The young daughter was more assiduous, carefully writing the answers to the equations, her eyes on the homework which was pressed against the table by her pencil, although it was clear that she too was taking part in the laughter. The video suddenly cut off to a new recording: one could see military aircraft ripping through the sky. There was some talking in the background, but it was drowned out by the roars of the jets. The recording ended and shifted to white noise with its universally known screech and the cassette was ejected. The journalist began to utter. “Those planes, those are—“ He was suddenly interrupted by the economist who already had another cassette in hand. “That video was recorded by the man’s wife. But, we found another tape that was filmed just a day after the footage you just watched.”
Video 2: No Red Cross
This other cassette was labelled in Arabic. “What does it say?” asked the journalist. “Cleansing.” Silence took over for a moment between the two men; the only thing being heard was the now somewhat haunting white noise. “This was filmed by a militiaman” the economist broke the silence. The tape made that all too known clicking noise when a cassette is inserted into a VCR. The journalist resumed recording. The white noise, with its dim scratching, was glimmering on the screen. The video played: There were men dressed in military attire, and there were civilians with terrified faces. All of them were in front of a depressingly appearing building.
You could see the fear in their eyes. If you didn’t speak Arabic you couldn’t understand what was being said, but you knew, intuitively, what was occurring purely by the universal language of fear, of that inexplicable feeling that something horrifying was about to happen simply by looking at the expression of terror in one’s countenance. “They are separating them,” the economist explained. “Men stay. Women and children go.” “Go where?” “To the Red Cross,” answered the economist as a he lit another cigarette. He took a puff and as the smoke fogged the room he crossed his arms, resting his smoking arm upon the other. “The only problem… is that there was no Red Cross.”
There was something ominous and harrowing about the way he said this sentence, it was with a low volumed voice, with a pause in the middle of the statement. One man in the video grabbed the attention of the journalist. “Thats the man from the first video” said the journalist, pointing at the screen. Something was being said between the militiamen and the father of three. “They’re asking him questions. ‘Who are you?’ ‘I’m a plumber’ he says. ‘No… What is your nationality?’” the economist interpreted before taking another puff of his cigarette as the screen’s glimmer reflected against his face.
The women and children were herded away by men armed with assault rifles. Once they were out of the scene, the men were lined up against the wall, and the militiamen took their positions behind them, aimed and opened fire. The men dropped to the ground with dead weight, like sacks of potatoes being dropped on the floor; the corpses collided against each other. A man’s lifeless arm lied on top of a dead’s man’s curled leg; another man’s foot was on top of the face of a lifeless body. Blood leaked from the back of a man’s head and puddled around his bespattered hair. One could see the bullet holes on the concrete wall. The tape was ejected and the white noise returned. “That man’s wife and kids were later found, somewhere underneath a pile of bodies. The father, on the other hand, actually survived and was left for dead.”
Video 3: Copper or Gold?
He picked up another video from the box and, like the ones before it, it had a label in Arabic. “Whats this one called?” asked the journalist. “Earrings.” The cassette clicked into the player. The white noise went dark. One was suddenly looking at a gloomy concrete wall, and the camera turned slightly only to view several adults — two couples — and over a dozen children, all in the face of several armed militiamen. One of the armed men began barking orders at them. The terrified folks obediently lined up against the wall. The gunmen formed a firing squad, gunfire erupted and they all dropped. The militiamen then began looking at the bodies. “He’s telling the survivors to stand up,” the economist translated. “He’s telling them, ‘We’ll take you to the hospital.’” Suddenly, a few of them, hesitantly, got back up on their feet. One of them was a little girl no older than six who was wearing bright earrings.
The militiamen did not hesitate to open fire and finish them off, with the exception of the little girl. Some militiamen gathered around her and began viciously speaking. “They are asking about her earrings.” The economist again was interpreting. “‘Are those copper or gold?’ ‘Copper,’ she says.” One of the militiamen grabbed the girl by the back of the neck. The economist continued interpreting. “‘You daughter of a whore, is this really copper? Close your eyes.’” The man grabbed an earring and, with the most spiteful exertion, began pulling the earring, cruelly ignoring the girls screams. He continued to rip the earring off of her earlobe, until it cut the flesh asunder and tore the earring off. Her screams were silenced by a gunshot, and all one could see was the dead little girl, corpses of executed adults and children lying on the ground, bullet holes on a wall of concrete, blood splattered on the ground, and a man — grinning — holding onto a bloody earring, looking directly at the camera with glossy eyes and a sadistic smirk. The nightmare was ambushed by white noise. “One of the boys in this video survived by playing dead,” the economist morbidly expanded. “So, I guess it wasn’t hopeless for everyone.”
Video 4: The Pink House
The screeching white noise on the screen no longer felt normal. Always when such a thing was heard, the journalist didn’t think anything of it. Now, in this callous room with its sad ceiling and depressing feeling, the white noise was an utterly gloomy ambience, the sound of death and grief. He already had seen three of the horrifying tapes and it was getting under his skin. No — not under the skin — it was making the skin crawl with a disturbing sensation, as if the killers were in the room with him, with sadistic grins, staring right into his soul. Click went the cassette player and the screeching tornado of pixels was replaced by a new video. One immediately saw a pink house in the midst of a slum. The sound of static erupted for a split second and the video cut to a new recording.
A young woman was lying on the ground, lifeless, her dead hands still clutching onto a crying infant. From nearby one could hear the yammering of two men. “‘He wants the baby to stop crying.’” Two hands abruptly tear the infant away from its mother’s lifeless hands. The camera panned out and one could see a militiaman holding the baby. He spoke some more. “He says he will take the baby to the hospital.” The militiaman turned his back on the camera and began walking down a lonely city road, and one could still hear the crying of the infant. The screen suddenly cut to white noise. The camera was still positioned from behind the soldier, and was now bent over, his hands holding something. The crying is of a much lower volume, fading in and out, shifting into little gasps. The camera focused closer. Its hands were viciously squeezing the infant’s throat, its little face purple and blue, its little arms jerking with whatever life it had left. White noise put an end to the nightmare.
Suddenly one saw dozens of people walking on a road in between buildings and homes, with men on one side and women and children on the other, surrounded by gunmen. As they treaded upon the road, one could see the decrepit and sad looking homes. It was a gloomy sight, especially considering what the journalist had already seen in the previous videos. A gunmen suddenly yelled some words which brought the people to a frightful halt. He then began to exclaim some more words. “‘Women and children go. Men, stay,’” the economist interpreted. The women wailed with the most chilling cries. They knew what that meant, that their men were going to be slaughtered by gunfire, that their fate was a storm of steal arrows and the billowing smoke of gunfire. By then the men were gone.
A militiaman began to yell. “‘If you continue your crying, we will kill you, too.’” Faraway gunshots erupted in the background. The women persisted in their wails, and in fact they became louder. One of the gunmen spoke, but he was a lot calmer, as if trying to ensure them of something. “‘We are not killing people. We are questioning them first and then we’ll judge.’” One of the women screamed. The economist translated her words: “‘For the love of God, for the love of the Prophet Muhammad, don’t kill them.’” Their plaintive cries were met with an accusation by a militiaman: “‘You killed Shaykh Bashir!’” One woman exclaimed with pitiful weeping. “‘May God kill the one who killed him. We are peaceful, we don’t have any weapons, we gave ourselves up without resisting. Why are you doing this?’” With the translation of the economist, the journalist was able to understand the response of one of the gunmen: “‘There is no God, there is no Muhammad. We are God and Muhammad. Get on, now, you whores.’”
The footage cut to yet another recording. The cameraman was near a house, and near it was what appeared to be the rim of a huge hole. From a distance one could hear gunfire and screams. The cameraman began walking until he got close enough to record what was in front of him: a giant pit. The camera panned down and one could see a horrific sight: a giant mound of dead bodies. A fresh corpse was dropped onto the heap of carnage and landed with an unsettling splat. It was truly a nightmarish thing to behold. Their lifeless corpses, one on top of the other, their eyes still screaming the terror that they experienced at the moment of their murders.
A sound of static hit the ears and white noise appeared for but a mere second. The video cut to a crowd of women and children being herded by gunmen, two of whom were very close to the camera. One spoke to the other with a smirk and a laugh. “‘Choose one. Which one deserves to have her throat slit?’” He looked at the camera with his glossy eyes and winked with sadistic glee. The footage cut to a new recording to the sound of static. One could see the same crowd of women and children being forced to march on an empty road surrounded by dismal looking homes. Suddenly a bomb went off and the explosion roared through the speakers of the television. Somebody stepped on a mine. The impact blasted against numerous of the women who fell to the ground, bloodied and wounded. In the midst of screams and chaos, the rest of women and children who were being herded saw their opportunity for freedom and took off. The gunmen, still somewhat shocked by the explosion, opened fire on the fleeing victims. White noise.
A new clip commenced. One could see a pink house, the same pink house that appeared in the first clip of the tape. Six men — some young, some old — were lined up against a wall of a home next to the pink house from the beginning. Their eyes spoke: they knew death was nigh. Those eyes had to face militiamen. One of gunmen pointed his pistol- point blank rage— at his face. A gunshot erupted. A bleeding, gaping hole carved onto his cheek, bloodied flesh dangling out like gnarly sliced pieces of meat. He turned his head to stare at the camera — to stare at death. A militia man gripped this boy with one hand, and with the other lifted an axe and sunk its blade into his scalp. White noise. The clip cut off. Click went the tape as it ejected.
The journalist had enough, as could be seen on his startled and disgusted face. “You’re a journalist. You’ve had to have read about this—” “I have. I’ve read about what happened in the camps. Its just that… these tapes. I didn’t know they even even existed. How did you find these tapes?” he asked, with a somewhat shaky voice. “I was a volunteer,” he replied right before lighting another cigarette. You could see the cigarette shaking from his quivering hand. He puffed out a cloud of smoke before resuming his answer. “…Full of idealism,” the economist said with a smile. He pressed his hand on his face and chuckled, not in a sinister way; it came from a place of realization. “We thought we were going to save our country from terrorists. Sure, the other side did terrible things. But what did we do? Horror…” He turned around and took a few steps, before taking another puff from his cigarette.
“I once a heard of a murder. One of our own. His body was found near an electrical plant. It was all over the news. I volunteered not too long after that. I remember the first mission I was involved in. We set up a road block. The first fifty cars we find with those animals… we murder the males. Thats what we were told. It didn’t matter if they were terrorists or not, nor if they were with their wives and kids. It was all… indiscriminate. We took them out of their vehicles, and we slit their throats as if they were… livestock. All of your … principles, your morals, your humanity — whatever you want to call it — had to be sacrificed before the altar of some national dream. Phoenicians in uniforms… valiant Catholics… thats what we were. Thats how we saw ourselves, at least.”
He took another puff of the cigarette and blew out the smoke, eyes closed. “Idealism… it eventually will hit you. It always dissipates. We can talk about the crimes of the other side all day. But if we don’t stop ourselves from becoming the animals that we claim to hate, what good are we?” The eyes of the journalists were wide and taut. He knew now that he was dealing with someone who ran deep in guilt from his past. But he wanted to know more, especially about those tapes. “You didn’t answer my question,” said the journalist, almost begrudgingly.
The economist just looked at him, his eyes full of grief, his mind halfway stuck in the past. His thumb was pressed underneath his chin as the cigarette rested between his two fingers and his elbow rested on his other arm. “I saw the evil done by the other side,” the economist continued, “but when I actually looked at what was in front of me, all I saw… was madness.” “Where… did you get these tapes?” frustratingly asked the journalist. “I filmed them. …It was part of my job, to make sure the work was done. Ironically, the work destroyed the ideal that floated in my head — the ideal that I wanted to bring into reality. It was the source of my disillusionment.”