Listen to an audio version of this fiction story
For more audio from The Walrus, subscribe to AMI-audio podcasts on iTunes.
There is a disaster coming, and for the past twenty years, I’ve been warning the authorities about it. No one believes me—but it will happen. It will happen tomorrow, July 9. The first wave will hit the shore at 3:45 p.m. sharp. The location? Beirut.
The wave will decimate my place of birth, and I am excited to watch it happen.
Let me introduce myself. My name is Ghassan El-Hajjar and I am a geologist and ex-university professor. I graduated with a PhD in geoscience from the University of Calgary. My dissertation was on earthquakes and their aftermaths. I studied the relationships between mountain thrust faults, plate tectonics, sea floor landslides, and tsunamis. I have spent most of my life in pursuit of historical occurrences of massive waves following, to use the Latin word, brasmatia, which literally means the shaking of the earth. Nor do I exclude from my vocabulary the more current term: tsunami. As I already mentioned, I am an ex-professor and, for the last fifteen years, I’ve been waiting, with anticipation, for this big event: the wave.
As a child, I was fascinated by the fact that Beirut, in the year 551, during the reign of Roman emperor Justinian I, was destroyed by a series of gigantic waves. And I lived with the fear of another tsunami. The idea of losing my city and my family to a large quantity of water horrified me.
That fascination and horror triggered my interest in geology, which I pursued from an early age. My father, who was an enlightened man, encouraged me. He provided me with books and read to me with delighted pride. The small globe that he bought me was the only thing I kept when I left the country of my birth in 1990, at the age of twenty. As a child, I would pretend to fly above the globe while reciting the names of all the countries of the world, their main cities and capitals. It was a game that my father and I often played. As for my mother, when I was very young, the sight of my father and me extending our arms and spinning the globe always brought a smile to her face. But, when I reached my teens, the idea of me studying something so irrelevant to the world we lived in alarmed her. And the certainty that I would leave to complete my degree in a foreign land brought tears to her eyes.
My ideas about air and flight were certainly positive. My ideas about water, on the other hand, had been peculiar ever since I’d learned of its devastating effects on people and their homes. Baths were out of the question for me, although I did tolerate showers. The water reservoirs commonly found on rooftops were a necessity I accepted, though I periodically climbed to our rooftop to check for signs of rust or cracks that might result in leaks. During family trips to the beach, I would stand on a chair and watch the horizon for large waves and listen for the sound of rumblings from the deep. My fear was instinctive and may even have preceded my formal study of water. During my baptism, I was told, I refused to let the priest submerge me in the basin. My godfather and godmother had to bend my knees and force my head down in order for the ritual to be completed.
As an adult, I felt called to research and meticulously document the effects of devastating waves throughout history. This led me to conclude that tsunamis are cyclical—and not just cyclical but recurring like clockwork, able to be predicted to the second. Now, you may think I am mad. No worries—so did my colleagues at the geosciences department where I taught for many years before I was denied tenure and eventually dismissed.
When I applied for the position, the hiring committee was intrigued by the ideas I presented: ideas about cycles in nature and human development and how recurrence is related, for humans, to perceptions of the transcendental. In my interview, I impressed the committee with my multidisciplinary presentation on recurrence as metaphor, and I even introduced a new term: “Transcendental Geography: The Role of Natural Events on Human Systems of Belief and Evolution.” I suspect my emphasis on my Eastern identity enhanced, in my colleagues’ eyes, my theological arguments.
Naturally, the fools gobbled it all up. I played my cards skilfully, injecting my presentation with historical, cultural, anthropological, and theological references, but in truth, the whole thing was a deception. I had no intention of integrating any of this postmodern multidisciplinary rubbish into my work. My sole purpose in life, back then, was to save lives and cities from drowning and submersion. I took my work very seriously, and my approach was always pragmatic, rational, and above all, free of any religious belief.
After I won the position, I gave an important lecture about the formation of spatiotemporal patterns and the accumulation of metallic layers beneath the earth’s surface, and I could feel the disappointment. My lecture was, in the view of the academic community, regrettably scientific and systematic. But the big controversy came later, when I proclaimed that I could predict coming disasters to the minute, even to the second. That’s when the mockery, hostility, and accusations started. Those wretched scholars turned against me. My colleagues in the department were worse than gluttonous Roman senators, raising their heavy fists as I entered meetings and throwing their intellectual daggers at my body, eventually destroying my career. They even dragged my protegé in to take a shot at me. In time, these malicious professors ensured my tenure was denied. Eventually, I was forced to leave the department, and my life took a downturn.
I moved to Montreal and took a job as a low-level bureaucrat at city hall. I passed many years doing minor tasks in an office filled with petty officials whose sole enjoyment in life was to accumulate little victories and score small gains with their inconsequential powers. I watched them routinely berating citizens for failing to closely read forms; I watched them jeer at incomplete applications. Oh, how many great waves I’ve wished upon my colleagues. I called forth from the Alaska Panhandle the 1958 Lituya Bay tsunami with its 500-metre-high walls of water to fall upon the head of Réjean, that miserable bald sycophant with his pitiful lunch box and his meek ten o’clock coffee. I summoned the 1755 Lisbon earthquake and tsunami to humiliate that fat-assed pseudointellectual Gaétan, who never stopped reminding everyone of his postsecondary education. Once, Gaétan saw me with a book and, in his dismissive way, asked what I was reading.
“Kant,” I replied.
He smiled and said sardonically, “What about him?”
“I am reading an essay by Kant, published in the Königsberg newspaper, on the Lisbon earthquake.”
“Oh, and what about it?” Gaétan said, mocking me with his facetious interest.
“The German philosopher describes how pretentious, miserable idiots deserve to die by natural disasters above all other causes because that is the most just way to remind them how insignificant they are,” I replied. Of course, I made this up, but I think Gaétan understood my meaning.
One thing redeemed my job: it led me to Marie, my future wife. She was working as a self-employed translator from French to English. We communicated a few times by email, and I sent her text that needed translation, mostly brochures about cultural activities and local community events as well as educational literature. And then, one day, having never seen her in person, I asked if she would like to join me for a coffee. I knew she would not refuse a meeting with her main client, the city. At the café, I immediately apologized for using my position at city hall for personal ends. And then I asked her out. She told me she liked my accent and that my nose reminded her of an equilateral triangle, and she laughed. Later, I told her about the geological research I was now conducting independent of any institution. That appealed to her as much as my accent and my nose. She confided to me that, deep down, she was a bit of an anarchist herself, and that her only shame was that she needed money, which is why she had to work for the city, an institution she deeply mistrusted.
We started seeing each other on a regular basis. I cooked for Marie, and she discovered she loved the taste of Lebanese food. After a few months of dating, I told her that I had decided to quit my job and go home for a year to research tsunamis and the phenomenon of their recurrence. I explained to her that only in Lebanon could I conduct the necessary research on the tsunami of July 9, 551, during Roman rule of the region.
Marie didn’t know much about the history of my homeland—or even that the Romans had occupied this part of the world centuries ago. Like a Buddhist, she took pride in living in the present, as she often tried to tell me. Her circle was mostly artists—but the kind I considered pseudoartists, devoid of intellectual discourse. Some made costume jewellery, or faux bijoux as it is known in Montreal; others did pottery; some were environmentalists; all were health conscious and believed in niceness as a way of living. Her crowd was very different from the uptight academics and dispirited bureaucrats I had previously spent most of my time with. Smoking drugs and playing the guitar soon became our weekend ritual. And, gradually, nature became an unexpected part of my life, along with walks, composting, recycling, and tofu and other unsatisfying natural ingredients, not to speak of handmade soaps.
Marie’s favourite friends were a man named Rodrigues and his wife, Helena, both from Chile and both in their fifties when we met. Marie never stopped reminding me that they had been forced to come to Montreal because of General Pinochet. Another friend was a woman called Mathilde, a flake who was into astrology and planetary alignments and who was the most annoying of Marie’s circle. Once, at a party, I had a heated argument with Astro-Mathilde. Marie was upset that I had insulted her friend, and for a week, she didn’t return my calls. Then I bumped into her on the street, and she came back to my place. We fucked, and afterward she told me that she had almost no one in this world but her friends. They were her real family, and if I couldn’t tolerate them, I should leave her alone. “Besides,” she said, “just because you’ve shown me and my friends all your scientific data doesn’t mean that you are right about your own predictions and ideas about nature.”
Six months later, just as I was about to leave for Beirut, Marie and I spontaneously and, I should add, mysteriously got married. We’d had a few drinks and then gotten high, and there was a great, unexplainable intimacy between us that night. I proposed out of the blue, and Marie laughed and said, “Only if we go to Beirut for a honeymoon.”
“It is dangerous there,” I said.
“And what’s an adventure without the possibility of danger?”
I agreed. I promised that we would go. And Marie smiled. And so, in the year 2015, I was subjected to an excruciating marriage ceremony. The wedding itself seemed like an exotic ritual that made me want to laugh. We were married in Marie’s sister’s garden, in a small village in northern Quebec. The Chilean couple jointly performed the ceremony in Spanish.
I didn’t understand a word but simply accepted Spanish as the new universal language. Rodrigues and Helena wore loose cotton clothing in bright colours and many ornaments in their hair and ears and around their necks. In my suit, I looked like a CEO at a hippie gathering. Marie’s friends had decorated the garden and lit incense through the house and on the back porch, where the ceremony took place. The food was vegetarian. I paid for everything, including the airfare for the honeymoon and a fee for the rental of the sister’s backyard. But, as strange as all this was to me, I was happy. For once, I was carefree and not thinking about the future. And the prospect of going back to Beirut with a Western wife was amusing. I had resigned from my job at the city a few days earlier, and I felt a buoyant lightness.
After the reception, we drove to a nearby lake, where Marie and her friends lit a large bonfire. We held hands and recited an incantation, celebrating life and death. Then everyone else stripped nude and jumped in the water, and I stood at the shore in my suit, but without shoes, the hemline of my pants soaked in the last reach of the waves.
The purpose of the visit to Lebanon was for me to conduct further research on mountain thrust faults, plate tectonics, and tsunami formation and for Marie to experience the East for the first time. Sometimes now I wonder if that was the only reason she had accepted my marriage proposal.
After we arrived in Lebanon, we stayed in the capital for a few weeks and then headed up to the mountainous regions. We rented a house in a little village called Aytabeit. The name must have originated in the Syriac language; the word, in that dead language, meant a village and a house, I explained to Marie. “But history doesn’t mean anything to me,” she replied. “My interest is in the people of the village.” In her colourful cotton robes and sandals, she would stroll through the village, greeting everyone. And the villagers would ask her all kinds of questions and offer her fruit, drinks, and hospitality. I tried to warn her about revealing things to the villagers, tried to tell her they were nothing but gossip receptacles. But she insisted on absorbing the culture. She accused me of always being suspicious and said that I had no trust in people’s goodness. She much preferred the authentic villagers to pretentious city people. When she had met members of my family in Beirut, she’d thought they were too Western, too cosmopolitan, too bourgeois—and the more they tried to impress her with drinks, food, and the famously decadent Beirut scene, the more she resented my family and eventually me. In the village, she was invited for coffee and sweets, and that pleased her tremendously.
But, one day, the grocer refused to call me Professor because, he said, I had been kicked out of the university. I knew then that the villagers had pulled everything about me from my naive wife. I was furious. How dare these vicious peasants intrude into my life? When Marie came home, I told her how furious I was.
That night, in our little house in the village, my wife called me a bourgeois; she accused me of being a third world elite—a Frenchman! She told me she was upset with me because I treated the poor villagers with arrogance.
I called her naive. I told her that, during the civil war, these villagers had committed massacres. There was nothing innocent about them. I considered telling her about my childhood. Instead, I said that all these farmers and villagers are cunning. They are skilled at extracting information from others and never revealing any of their own, and they menace one another with their customs, politeness, and archaic norms. There is nothing but treachery in them, I said. She had been duped by her need to exoticize these people. There was nothing noble about any of them. They had pulled guns on one another and slaughtered their neighbours. Everyone is capable of harm, I shouted. I called her out on her silly spirituality and her flaky New Age so-called family. This is real life here, I declared. The war in Syria is only a few villages away. The fundamentalists might approach sooner than we think, and any of us could be slaughtered.
Marie called me a monster, a reactionary who blames the oppressed. And then she, like the rest of the world, mocked me and my prophecies of the coming wave. “And if your disaster predictions are not fundamentalist, what is?” she screamed at me. “I, unlike you, embrace death and the inevitable necessity of change. I see it and I walk toward it. But you are a coward, living out a fantasy of saving the world. So let the warriors and the waves come. What are you afraid of?”
That’s when she opened the door and left. I thought she would go for a short walk and come back, as she always did when we fought. I didn’t wait for her return but fell fast asleep on the couch.
In the morning, I heard bells and then the screams of women. I saw the men take their guns and cars and speed down the narrow roads, merging with more guns and cars in the centre of the village until it was impossible to move. “They are coming!” someone shouted. “The Islamists are on their way. They have already crossed the border.”
“Leave everything and run,” a soldier yelled into a loudspeaker. “Do not pack—do not look back.” Another soldier, unarmed, stood on top of a Jeep and declared, “Those men who are willing to stay behind and carry arms should come with me. Those who remain behind are staying to fight. They are giving their family and kids the chance to escape, but they will not escape themselves.” As he said these words, women held on to their husbands, fathers, and sons and begged them to leave the village. But many men would not, and some pushed away their wives and daughters, forcing them alone into cars or the backs of other villagers’ trucks.
I looked for Marie, but she was nowhere to be seen.
I walked through the village, shouting Marie’s name. An old woman my wife had visited came toward me. She had seen Marie going up the hill. “I warned her not to go that way,” the old woman said, “but she didn’t listen, and she kept on walking toward the invaders.”
Behind me, the villagers were now heading toward the valley and even farther down the mountain to the shore. Later, I was told that a priest who stayed behind saw Marie and ran after her. He spoke to her in French and told her to go back to her husband and leave the village. Marie ignored him and took the opposite road.
I lost her. I simply lost her. I stayed behind for as long as I could, looking for her, hoping she would turn back and I would find her, but eventually, late that afternoon, the fighters came to me and said, “Professor, either you carry a gun or you must leave. By now, your wife is either captured or dead.”
Another fighter added, “If she is lucky, they will spare her and name her Meriam.” And he and his friends chuckled.
Ihave already determined exactly where the wave will hit and at what time. It will hit Beirut tomorrow afternoon, July 9, at 3:45 p.m., and as I have already mentioned to you, I am very happy about the prospect of seeing the city I once considered my own destroyed by wave after wave from the belly of the Mediterranean Sea—or what the Romans called Mare Nostrum—with its discharge of salt water and debris. This city is nothing now but a hub for a deranged sect of fundamentalists who, twelve years ago, managed to sweep through the mountains and down the coast, repeating the inevitable: the sacking of Rome by Germanic tribes, the destruction of Baghdad by the Mongols, the defeat of the Americans in Vietnam by the communists of the north.
I have witnessed it all. I witnessed the city’s fall and the exodus of every religious minority. I watched boats and planes rushing out of the country for months on end until the loss was complete. And those who didn’t make it—well, their fate was sealed.
I managed to leave, but tomorrow I will return, flying over this city as I once imagined flying over the globe my father gave me. Most of the earth is covered by oceans, by the sea, he would tell me, and as a child, I would worry that the rest of the orb would soon be covered by blue too.
Tomorrow, as the first wave approaches the shore, I will be above Beirut, seeing it for the last time, recording the approach of the water to the exact millisecond. The first wave will devastate the shore; the second will obliterate the city. I have asked the pilot to time it so that we will be right above the water, with a bird’s-eye view. The wave will hit the shore in the afternoon, just as bearded warriors and their wives stroll along the boardwalk we used to call the Corniche. I will watch the inhabitants of my ancient city gasp for air from under the weight of liquid and prayers. And, yes, Marie might be there, holding a child in one arm and guiding another with her hand. And, yes, inevitably, when the wave comes, she will be walking toward it.
Excerpted from Stray Dogs by Rawi Hage. Copyright © 2022 Rawi Hage. Published by Alfred A. Knopf Canada, a division of Penguin Random House Canada Limited. Reproduced by arrangement with the publisher. All rights reserved.