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T & T Story Writing Contest 2019-20

The Last Martyr

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Chapter 1

July 2006 :

It  was by far,the hottest summer  since I arrived in Lebanon, twenty years ago. Sweat

beads started to   pop up on  my forearms and stain myabaya as I kneaded the

dough for the spinach sfeeha patties. Soon, the stfling heat and the patties baking  in the

oven would turn the kitchen into a  steaming sauna.


The next day,the 13th, was Yusuf’s birthday. My  son was  turning seventeen.His best

friends,Sayeed, Mohamed  and Ahmed, had come over two nights ago. They were planning

to go down to Tyre,  late in the afternoon, and hang out at Al Jawad seafront café, famous for

its sharwarma sandwiches.

“Mom,  have you washed my blue jeans ?” “ Where’s my yellow t-shirt ?” he  yelled out

excitedly, rummaging through  his cupboard.

“ I wish you could  remain a little boy and never grow up”, I told him playfully. He gave a funny

smile, “Oh mom, you grow up!”

But Fate had different plans !


Chapter 2

August  1986:

I was twenty-three, newly wed, excited.  A new chapter  was unfolding. My husband’s

younger  brother,Khaled, picked us up from Beirut airport,  in his father’s dark- green

Mercedes.He was twenty- five, exuberant  with an air of impatience.

“ Khaiyi, brother, there are several checkpoints manned by the goddamn Syrian militia —

one atDamour, Sidon and Latani. So I think its best we get home quickly,  before sunset!”

He told Omar, grinning widely.

“ Better keep your papers and documents ready for checking, Leila”,  warned Omar.My eyes

widened,  not out of apprehension,  but for the real  experience.

As Khaled drove down to Tyre,  along  the only coastal  highway that connected the  North to

the  South, Lebanon’s  vibrant beauty  struck me with a sensory explosion. Ruins of shelled

buildings lay on either side,  relics of past  wars, gray-green olive groves  and the

shimmering, aqua green Mediterranean mesmerized  me;  it was exactly like the glossy

pictures in National  Geographic magazines !


It was an hour  before evening prayers when we drove into Tyre.  Omar and Khaled had

seen their  father  sitting  with some  friends in front of a coffee shop. My husband rushed

out of the car  to kiss his father’s hand. His father hugged him tight and kissed his forehead.

An emotional well of tears stung my eyes watching them.I had imagined my father- in -law

to be tall, commanding  with a  stern looking face,but I  stared in total amazement.At fifty-

two, Yusuf Abu Omar was stocky  and robustly good looking.His wide open smile

crinkled  the sides of his light hazel eyes in a  sun burnt,  weathered face. His short cropped

 hair had streaks of silver.  His strong hands were calloused when I grasped to kiss them.

Hadikinti min Hind,” he  introduced me to his friends, laughing. “ This is my daughter- in

-law  from India.”


After everyone had washed and said their evening prayer, Omar’s two younger sisters,

Fatmi and Fadia  laid out the sofrah dinner on a plastic  cloth on the floor:  plates of olives,

freshly  bakedkubzbread, tomatoes and beetroot pickles.   Omar’s mother,Soraya Um Omar

brought out an aromatic tray of delicious grilled chicken and potatoes garnished with

rosemary and thyme.Omar ’s eldest sister Nadia and her family joined us.  She  came carrying

her baby son Ali in one arm and a dish of steaming mulukhiyah mallow  in the other hand. At

first, her four- year old  daughter, Eman,  and two- year old son,Ameer,   were too shy to

venture close. They  stuck to their father’s side.  Eventually, Omar lifted them up into the air,

with them wriggling and squealing  in his arms.


Fatmi and Fadia were inseparable peas in a pod,  a year’s difference between them.  They

worked in tandem, shopped  together, shared secret  jokes and  giggled at the drop of a hat.

Relatives and friends dropped by for the after-dinner coffee and tea. They were curious to

meet Abu Omar’s Indian daughter-in-law.

Keefhalik ? How are you?,”shouted  Omar’s  khalto Miriam.   I looked at her nonplussed,


Bursting into hilarity, Bassem told her,  “Aunt Miriam, Leila can hear very well, but she doesn’t

understand  Arabic.” Bassem,Omar’s youngest brother, was sixteen and an inveterate


“ We love flam hindi,  Indian films!  Amitabh Bachchan, ShahRukh Khan ………”,  blurted out

Omar ’scousins, Salma and Sameerah.

Excited,the girls  crowded around me, a barrage of words,  gestures and giggles.“ How do

you say ‘ I love you’ in Hindi?,”“Can  you sing a Hindi song?,”“ Do you henna your hands?”.

“ How much do you love cousin Omar ?”,   they teased me.

“ Akeed, ad el bahr, certainly  as wide as the sea”,  giggled shy  Rania.

“ La, ad bahr rain,  no, she crossed two seas  to be with him !”  Zeina’s teasing reply

brought on more laughter.

I had never felt so much at home : no ice, no barriers.

Later that night, lying in my husband’s arms,  he murmured in his deep voice,  “ We are  home

at last, habibte Leila. This is your family now.”  My heart was soaring. I had travelled halfway

across the globe to meet my destiny  here.


A month later, Omar  took me, Bassem, Fatmi and Fadia to visit his aunt, his father’s sister

Khadeeji,  who lived  in Tripoli, near the Syrian border. On our way north, we spent some time

sightseeing Beirut: historical Martyrs Square echoed with unstilled voices;  Downtown  Beirut

with its  high-end  fashion houses, posh restaurants, commercial centres and museums;  and

the congested  southern suburbs of Beirut,  teeming with shoppers, markets, mosques  and

residential buildings. We  sippediced  tea  and gazed at the  Raouche Rocks, iconic  sentinels,

imperiousto the constant crashing of  Mediterranean waves.Despite her battled- scarred,

shelled- pocked face, Beirut   had an aura of exotic mystique  and  French elegance.


AmmtoKhadeeji was a widow. She had a married daughter, Amal, and two sons, Fareed

and Maher. They  were butchers and  ran their own butchery shop below   their mother’s house  on the main market road.On the verandah of  her  house overlooking the noisy

marketplace, we chatted and drank coffee.

“ Leila, it’s bad manners to stir your coffee clockwise,”  said Bassem.  I looked up, surprised,

reddening.All  eyes were riveted on me. “ We stir our tea and coffee  anticlockwise.  Like

this,”he demonstrated.

I began to stir, when  I heard stifled  giggles from Fatmi and Fadia. Then splits of laughter.

“ Bassem, you rascal,  stop teasing your poor  sister- in- law,”  laughed AmmtoKhadeeji..


Chapter 3

Along the coastline of South Lebanon arelarge  acres of orange groves,bistaans.  It was in

these orchards where Ammy Yusuf Abu Omar, worked as an overseer. He hired  his

brother  Abdullah, cousins, brothers-in-law, nephews  and sons to do the pruning, watering,

picking  and packing the citrus in crates – a strenuous, continuous tending  throughout the

seasons. Plump tangerines, juicy mandarins,valencias and clementines hung heavy on

branches;birds twittered over the  plentiful fruit and  bees hummed contently during blossom

time.  Oranges fell off  trees onto the highway, yet no one took them.They just rotted on the

roadside. Thebistaans were Ammy Yusuf’s paradise, passion and pride. He was down to earth

andbrutally  outspoken; he never minced words yet everyone respected him  for his shrewd

judgment .


The Bikir season, the first harvesting of the citrus fruits began in November and lasted till the

end of December.  It was a crucial  and busy time for orchard overseers.Under the shade of

groves, Ammy Yusuf, along  with  his brother, cousins and brothers-in-law, sat on the grass

and packed rows of plastic crates, bantering good naturedly  with  each other. They sorted

out tangerines,clementines, lemons and mandarins,  wrapping   each in tissue before

packing  them in crates. His sons and the younger men scattered  around the bistaan, with

buckets slung over their shoulder to pick fruit. The heady fragrance of the  ripe,  plucked

citrus drove the flies in a  frenzy of buzzing.


During one  noon-day  break, while everyone munched on falafel sandwiches and drank tea,

I picked up a big,  luscious tangerine from a pile on the grass and sniffed its tangy fragrance.

“Imagine that is your last tangerine on earth, Leila,”  called out Ammy Yusuf, sipping his

black coffee. “Yalla,  go ahead, eat it,savour the juice,  roll it in your mouth and  remember

itstaste. Zaqgriha!”


Chapter 4

Ramadan, the holy months of fasting,  were the best times. Two hours before the sunset

boomwent off,  we started preparing sumptuous iftaars :  kneadingtheburgulsoft  for the

lambkobeh,roasting chicken withfreekhi green wheat, baking  kubz,  choppingtomatoes,

parsley, cucumbers, green leeks  and mint for Tabbouleh, squeezing  jugfuls of orange juice

and roasting  eggplants for babaganoush, making sure it had generous amounts  of olive oil

over it. This was Ammy’s favourite starter.


Omar’s uncles’ and aunts’ families were always invited and the house hummed  with the

hustle and bustle.

“Yallayabanat, come on girls,  get the iftaar ready, it’s almost time”, called Ammy, looking

outfrom the verandah at the flaming, orange  orb sinking into the molten Mediterranean.

After iftaar,  the menfolk  departed for prayers at the mosque while the women cleared and

washed. They got the coffee brewed and layered  the kanafeh dessert with fine golden

strands of semolina, butter  and white goat’s  cheese. It was baked  a few minutes before the

men returned and served hot so that  the melted  cheese pulled into long  strands  as we ate it.


The evening saharah began with  rounds of coffee and dates.  Tables laden  heavy with

baklava, and kanafeh soaked  insugar syrup, flavoured with mazahar – orange blossom

essence.Whiffs of strong, cardamom coffee permeated the ambiance. Wisps of apple-

scented smoke from gurgling arghilli floated into the night skies. Women’s chatter and

children’slaughter filled the air.

“Fadia,  get some more hot coals ready for your uncles’ arghilli,”  and “Leila, brew another

pot of coffee”,  were Um Omar’s constant reminders.

On the eve of Eid,  the last evening of Ramadan, Ammy asked, “So you fasted the whole

month ?Did you find it difficult?”

It was not an easy question to answer and  I wanted to give him an honest reply. Without

waiting, he continued  “ Leila, can you eat an elephant, a fil? Well, you can do it,  if you eat it

bit by bit.”

I thought I understood what he meant.It  took me till years later  to  realize I had

subconsciously and effortlessly  morphed;  the cultural  lifestyle  grew on me and fitted  like a



Chapter 5

Three years later, on 13th July,  to the azan of the predawn  prayer,  resounding from a

nearbymosque,I delivered my first son.  We named him Yusuf  after his grandfather;  I

became known as Um Yusuf.


In the spring of 1996,  the Israeli  Army shelled  several  villages on the southern border. It

was the 16- day operation, they called the Grapes of Wrath. A few days  later,  I had a

miscarriage and lost a baby  when Islipped down the stairs. My husband  rushed me to the

city hospital. We stood inthe crowded, blood streaked  corridor, Omar  holding my shivering

shoulders.My knees shook.I  tried to press  my quivering lips tight from crying or was I

screaming ?  TV images were nothing compared to what I witnessed.


Blaring ambulances;  Red Cross  paramedics rushing gurneys,  loaded with torn  mangled

bodies of massacred  martyrs from the  villages of Qana and BintJbeil; blood dripped

down the wheels; agonized  wails of women, nurses mopping gaping wounds; and for the first

time I saw grown men crying; twirling tashbeeh beads in their hands.

Doctors emerged,  in blood stained gowns, trying  to assure  the crowd,  “ We  are doing our

best to save your loved ones. Pray and have sabr, patience.”


For days, I never left my house. I felt  drained,  disheartened, listless.Nadia told  neighbours

and friends  I was unwell.  A stream of  empathetic  and generous hearted visitors descended,

fillingeveryseat in my living room and  kitchen.   I found strength and solace  in their

stories of resilience and courage. In their daily struggle  and undying steadfastness.


That weekend,Ammy Yusuf and Soraya visited us. They never came without bringing

some delicacy with them.   This time it  was ‘warahdawali’,grape leaf rolls stuffed with rice

and minced lamb, layered with lamb ribs.Soraya had a calm face with pleasant unhurried

manners. Her gentle eyes peered at me anxiously.


“You look so pale and thin. Are you not eating ? I’ve made warahdawali,  it’s your favourite

Leila”  she said,  putting the dish on the kitchen table. “ You’ll find them tender with a tinge  of

sourness. Fadia picked the first batch of fresh  leaves this morning from the grapevines on

the rooftop.”

Ammy   took out a folded  hatta,  a black and white checked headscarf.  He would

usually   tie one  around  his head to protect himself  from the hot sun while working.

He carefully removed the folds and  there in the centre, lay  an old, heavy,  slightly bent,

iron key, about six inches long .

“Leila, this is my family heirloom.  It belonged to my mother and it is the key to her home in

Palestine.Omar  is my eldest and you are now like one of my daughters.  I want you both to

keep it.”  Stunned by the enormity of the trust,  I burst into tears, speechless.


During  ethnic cleansing operations  carried out by the  Zionist Movement   in 1948,millions

of Palestinians fled their homeland but  with hopes of returning. They threw their barrels of

wheat and grain down the wells and trudged miles,across borders to reach  neighbouring

countries.All they possessed were meagre belongings and   keys to their erstwhile

houses. Tragically, history changed and created it to the State of Israel.Their  homes, as well

as their agricultural lands and  villages,   were razed and  obliterated from maps.


Hundreds of villages were torched. Men, old and young, were rounded up and executed.

AmmyYusuf  was thirteen when he witnessed  his father, grandfather, and sixteen- year old

brother, shot through  the back of their heads.  Terrified, his mother Huda, eight-months old

baby brother Abdullah, and three younger sisters, Khadeeji, Yasmeen and Nisreen, fled to join

the  Palestinian exodus of 1948 –  coated in dust, exhausted, traversing a wasteland of dreams

to live in another country as refugees.

Entrusted with an enormous  responsibility, far greater than his young  years,  Ammy Yusuf

took up the mantle as  head of his family. With sheer grit and unparalleled maturity, he

nurtured, protected  and supported his family.


Chapter  6

In his mid-sixties,   Ammy stopped going to the bistaan to work.  He spent his days visiting

his friends at the citrus wholesale market. Inspring, after the rains had lessened, he took

Yusuf, Ameer and Ali to the damp  groves  to forage for mushrooms  and asparagus shoots.

He went there mainly to see the orange blossoms. The trees were in bloom, an

abundance of tiny white flowers bursting with fragrance. Hewould  wander  through the

groves, feeling the texture of leaves,  crushing  the orange  blossoms between his fingers to

sniff  their oily  essence and often bending to crumble the soil  near the trunks –  his little Eden.


On Yusuf’s thirteen birthday, Omar drove us to Marjayoun, a southern town perched on a high

hill, bordering Palestine. We explored Marjayoun’s historic 1000-year old crusader castle,

visited mausoleums of ancient prophets, majestic  mosques and churches.

Sitting  at an al  frescoterrace café,Ammy looked tired.  The cool sea breeze kept tugging at

my headscarf.   He pointed across the undulating fertile farmlands, watered by the criss-

crossing Latani river,  and said wistfully, “Can you see the coastline there ? That coastline

stretches all the way south to Palestine. If it was possible, I could walk the entire length of  that

shore, to Acre and Haifa, just  to pick up a handful of sand from Palestine.”

I felt the longing in him. “Inshallah, God willing,”  I whispered to the wind.

 Sometimes, Ammy took us  on  meandering drives around the southern bordering villages of

Naqoura,Maroun el Ras, SrifaandKfarKila.   There, on the hillsides,Fatmi, Fadia  and I

collected  velvety gray-green sage, thick  green zaataaroregano and rosemary  sprigs, and the

spikythymbra scrub for herbal tea. On grey boulders satAmmyand Soraya, talking, cupping

their thermos of tea. Orphans.Soulmates sharing a past era.


Chapter  7

July 2006

Suddenly,everything  changed overnight. We woke up to the sound ofIsraeli fighter jets

streaking  across Lebanese airspace. There was an air strike on  Beirut. The 34 -day war

had erupted.

Our landline phone never stopped ringing.  Loved ones from India. The Consul from the

Indian Embassy in Beirut called, asking me  to evacuate immediately.  He said there was an

Air India plane waiting, specifically  for the evacuation of all Indian nationals.

“ I’m so sorry Sir, but I can’t leave. I have a family now, a husband and son. I have  a home


“ Look  Ma’am,  this is an emergency alert. The situation will worsen,”  he urged me.

“I’m so sorry, I am not leaving. Thank you for letting me know.”

Ihad  madea choice;  a choice I would choose  a thousand times over.


We  laid down mattresses on the floor in two rooms. Ammy and other male members  slept

in the living room.  Every night we huddled  together,  the women holding their children, hands

cupped over  their ears  to shut out the   terrifying rat-a-tat-tat  of staccato gunfire.

Blazing balls of missiles whizzed past the windows and over the rooftops, shattering


shards of glass somewhere.  I held my sontight around his stomach,pulled himclose to my

chest,  smelt  his hair, and prayed.

“Don’t be afraid,habibi,  it’ll soon be over, inshallah,” I whispered. Our earshad  become

accustomed to the deadly  whistle of falling shells, savage  rumble of explosions, and  with the

sight of men digging bodies and body parts  out of the rubble. It could be ours  tomorrow.


There was an explosion  some blocks away. Bassem rushed home ….a  red hot flying

shrapnel  sliced  his left arm just below the elbow. He didn’t realize he had lost an

arm,untilKhaled, running  behind him,  picked up the bloody limb  and screamed for an

ambulance. Bassem survived  with a prosthetic arm.


Aunt  Miriam’s daughter Zeina,Soraya’s niece,  was on her way to our house with a bowl of

boiledfeva beans,  when she was struck by a stray rocket. It blew her to pieces. We

screamed. Aunt Miriam  raced  down the street, screeching hysterically,  collecting pieces of her

daughter’s flesh in her abaya.  Some days later, slivers  ofZeina’s scalp with tufts of hair,

were found decomposing  on our rooftop. Poor Zeina,lively, witty.  Engaged to be

marriedin autumn.


Our food supply  was almost depleted. Some  of the women were even skipping meals.

Fatmi managed todig out some gnarled carrotand turnip stumps  from our backyard

garden.  After weeks of  surviving on tinned meals, the steaming carrot shoraba soup with

boiled rice was heaven-sent.





We became  war weary and haggard, waiting  for a ceasefire that  took so long in coming.

Finally, on August  14,  the UN announced a ceasefire. The  verynext day,  Israeli fighter jets

zoomed in for  their final concentratedair raid on Tyre city.


We heard a giant roar and a flash of white light scything through the air.   Something hot had

zipped past my right cheek, sending  glass shattering. I grabbedYusuf and fell over him.

The ground lurched from under my feet and a hot powerful blast slammed us against the wall.

A shower of bricks, wood  and glass covered us.


Through the swirling dust, shell-stunned  and  disoriented, I heard Yusuf coughing under me.

They had found Ammy’s body buried under the rubble. The left side of his face was smashed;

hisleft leg was mangled, twisted horribly;  his turquoisetasbeeh beadsclutched  between   his


Chapter 8

The unfathomable reality that he was no longer alive was devastating.I  remember him still in

the richness of remembrances. In the orange blossoms, he gave me last spring, their tiny,

pale yellow  petals pressed flat  and dry, between the last pages of my diary. A lingering



Martyrsmade  by war and martyrs seeking peace never die. They  live on,  in Promised

Gardens, in the cool shade among Talh trees, with fruits and flowers  hanging in abundance,

by bubbling waters flowing eternally.










Hanan Sooting

Hanan Sooting was borninShillong 1948 studied in LoretoConventpassedSrCambridge Exam GCE 1964 Lived in Lebanon 28 yrs travelled to Jordan UAE & Far East Autodidact & possesses significant life experiences Lives in Shillong & works as an educator teaching English in an Inclusive School for children with a diversity of different disabilities Interests reading travel culture history archeology meeting people She has a son & 2 grandchildren

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