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 !
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
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..
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
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
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
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
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.
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.
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
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
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
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.