beirut—The workday is over, and I’m standing in the driveway beneath my worn concrete apartment building, digging in my pocket for keys. A headlight flashes from the street to my left — a moped pulling up to the entrance. The driver, who sports a black balaclava and an AK-47, drops off his hefty, similarly attired passenger. Slipping a key into the lock of the gate to the lobby, I am acutely aware of this faceless gunman waiting impatiently behind me.
I pause. Shouldn’t he produce his own keys to get in? I opt for polite — he does, after all, have his hands full — and give the bars an extra push, allowing him to follow through behind me. He returns the courtesy by stretching the eyehole of his mask down and hooking it under his chin, revealing the clean-shaven young neighbour I met on the elevator one afternoon last month. He says hi, I say hi, and we both take a step toward our reflections in the mirrored wall of the small, Italian-made lift.
“Big day today, huh?” I ask as we start to climb.
“Yeah,” he replies blankly, rearranging his grip so as to hold both the AK and his extra banana clip more comfortably.
On my balcony at 5:30 this morning, I watched bulldozers construct huge earthen barricades across the arteries feeding into a roundabout just south of me. Next came the car wrecks and tires, dumped behind the mounds for gathering swarms of youth to set ablaze. By the time I walked to my office opposite the Hôtel-Dieu de France, coal-coloured smoke billowed from many such intersections around Beirut, choking the sky. Gunfire rang out over the rooftops at mid-morning, explosions of rocket-propelled grenades in the mid-afternoon.
“What about tomorrow? What do you think will happen?” I ask my companion, thinking of the press conference called by Hezbollah’s secretary-general, Hassan Nasrallah.
“It’s dirty, very dirty,” he broods. “Go to work in the morning, then later…shway, shway.” This is Arabic for “slowly,” and he means to tell me that however well integrated I think I am, the streets I’ve been strolling and shopping along may not be safe for me tomorrow.
The elevator draws softly to the seventh floor. The cheb leans his shoulder into the door and spins out into the dark hallway. Feeling I should take this opportunity to secure my friendship with the well armed in my neighborhood, I ask, “Chu ismak?” What’s your name?
“Ralph,” he says.
“Spencer,” I reply, putting my hand over my heart and nodding slightly.
Ralph nods back, and the door closes as he stretches an index finger for the light switch on the wall, the AK dangling awkwardly. I press the button for the eleventh floor and continue on up.