from West Branch 104 Print Issue
My sister is a serial dater. This year alone, a dozen lovers nested around her apartment like cheap furniture, taking up space and accumulating dust.
There was Ali the organic farmer and yoga instructor who only wore fleece jackets and boots from the Sunday flea market. Bahjat the economics professor at the Lebanese University, Salim the personal trainer with a mullet. Ahmad was between Beirut and Jeddah, a former philosophy student and a current management consultant at one of the Big Four. Ahmad particularly suffered after my sister ended things with him, he had a personality disorder and she triggered his sense of alienation, à la Lacan. My sister said that proves he never understood Lacan but I don’t think anyone really does. Lukas, the Norwegian journalist (spy) was so tall, it was uncomfortable to look at him. Once Lukas had a bad stomach-ache and my sister was nowhere to be found so I boiled him cinnamon with zaatar and told him that might help. Lukas drank the tea, locked himself in the bathroom for an hour, then left without saying goodbye. The next day my sister said it was supposed to be cumin, not cinnamon.
Sami was different though. He was sturdy and sound, and I preferred him over the others.
You might be wondering what my sister’s secret is. I’m her brother so perhaps not the best judge but she really isn’t very good looking. She has elf-like ears, eyebrows thick as forests. She’s so thin you can sometimes see her bones when she yawns. Back in Fnaidik, everyone always had something to say about her weight. When my sisters were thirteen, our aunt knocked on the door of our house with a bottle of samneh, said they needed a spoonful of ghee every morning otherwise no one would marry them.
It was out of the question that anyone would marry my sister’s twin, but that was still when we played pretend.
Maybe the secret is in my sister’s eyes. I once overheard Ali whisper that he was under their curse, that my sister was a witch. But you’ll forgive me for not finding her eyes special. I have the same ones and so does our other sister. The three of us got the strange gold specks from our grandfather.
When my sister and I are alone, she winks at me, says these men are part of a larger anthropological study she’s conducting. Then we laugh and order shawarma sandwiches as though nothing will ever get between us.
My sister said Sami is unremarkable, which is why things had ended between them. But I like Sami for that reason. He isn’t pretentious or intellectual, doesn’t quote Hegel or hold community breathing sessions on our rooftop. He would come over with a pack of beer after work—he’s a software developer—and when my sister disappeared somewhere he was happy to sit by me on the red couch and watch television.
If Sami and I spoke it was often about politics and sports, two topics my sister avoids like potholes. “They come from the same place,’ she once said. “Men obsessed with circling around one another.”
Since it’s my sister’s apartment and I live in it for free I often try, very hard, to respect her. But Sami and I somehow fell into a routine watching the FIBA Asia cup. We’d drink beer and order food, stream the games, cheer every time Lebanon scored.
We watched Lebanon beat the Philippines and New Zealand. We watched Lebanon beat China and qualify for the semis. We watched Lebanon beat Jordan and qualify for the finals.
I never played basketball, neither did he. We’re both quite short even for Lebanese men but there was this expansion we felt from watching the games as though somehow, in this small living room in my sister’s apartment on Gemmayze’s stairs, we morphed into giants.
My sister ended things with Sami the day after the semis so he couldn’t come over for the finals.
I watch Lebanon lose to Australia alone on the red couch.
The days pass, impossibly hot. My summer classes had ended, and I did not want to return to Fnaidik. The last time I spoke to my mother she said Fnaidik had been without electricity for weeks, that everyone in the village has taken to dragging their chairs out on the streets to fan each other with old school books. There is a miserable idleness to life in Fnaidik, I didn’t want to get sucked into it, not even for a month. But I needed a proper excuse to stay in Beirut so I got a job as a barista in Mar Mikhael. Of course the manager of the coffee shop was my sister’s old lover Chafic and I wasn’t interviewed before the starting date, which was a relief because I knew nothing about coffee and had to spend several nights watching YouTube demos.
I started the last week of July. The coffee shop was tucked into a small corner on Armenia Street. Chafic described it as low-key and local though I found it fancy. The ceiling was high, the walls were soft shades of green and pink, the marble tables stood next to massive plants. If the chairs could walk, they would strut their elegant copper legs. But I often felt strange there, like I would be told off for having a large nose or smelling bad. Somehow no one complained. Chafic even told my sister I was disciplined, that I came in earlier than anyone. The pay was low but I made good tips. Everyone who entered the coffee shop was either a foreigner or an NGO worker, some of the tips even in dollars.
Weeks later I bought two tickets to the Lebanon-Philippines basketball game: World Cup qualifiers, and in Lebanon’s home stadium too. Tickets weren’t cheap but I finally had money that wasn’t my sister’s so why not, I thought.
One evening after my shift at the coffee shop I message Sami without thinking. I write that we should watch the game together if we want Lebanon to win because that one time we didn’t, Lebanon lost to Australia. Time crawls afterwards and I lay in bed, listening to music. Sami responds several hours later with an entire line of laughing emojis, teases me about my village boy superstition. He says he’s definitely in.
I smile after reading the message, even punch the air pathetically. Truth is I haven’t been able to make a lot of friends in college—I don’t have my sister’s charm nor her ability to leave the past behind.
There’s a lot of traffic outside the stadium so we loop until a spot clears. After we park, I find myself walking fast as if the stadium might leave us behind.
“We’re going to win tonight,” I look back to say. It is strange, when we know things we don’t really know, as though another body dreamt them on our behalf. Sami laughs, then quickens his pace to meet me. His teeth glow like lamplights in the dark.
He gets the beers while I look for our seats. In the distance I spot Lukas the Giant Spy with a group of other very tall, very blonde humans. Several rows to my right there’s Amjad, another of my sister’s former lovers, a paranoid Facebook employee who breathed down our necks until we covered our webcams and pretended to get VPNs. I wave at Amjad, and he gives me two thumbs up from a distance. The game begins, and my eyes glue to the blur of the orange ball, the white and blue jerseys, the bouncing feet. It is more tense than we’d anticipated.
“The Philippines is a strong team,” I mention to Sami, and he nods, points out Jordan Clarkson to me, says he plays in the NBA.
By the second quarter, we loosen up and it doesn’t feel terrible to turn toward the rows behind and agree with something being said about Wael Arakji, or to build on the collective boos against the Philippines. I tell Sami this is the first basketball game I’ve seen in person. He pauses then says, “It might be mine too.” I take another sip of my cold beer and think of how simple and obvious this wonderful fact is.
During the third quarter, Sami is shaking a tambourine and I have a Lebanese flag draped on my back, both items donated from our new friends three rows below. And it’s wonderful, it really is, to trail the steps and sounds that make a game. The squeak of shoes on the hardwood, the megaphones, the rebounds and steals and fouls, the unifying cry of the crowd.
Lebanon wins and we walk back to our cars, the air contagious with something everyone’s embarrassed to admit—hope. It is nice to believe good stuff can maybe happen in this country.
We stop for burgers on the way home and I realise as Sami parallel parks that he’s such a smooth driver. There are never any sudden jerks in his driving, he doesn’t beep. It is as though his moves are calculated but without thought. He has the same effortlessness when he opens a beer bottle or rolls a cigarette or nods.
After we reach Gouraud Street, Sami sort of pats my shoulder and says, “Thanks for the night.”
“Yeah, no worries.”
He pauses briefly. Then he says, “Hey—will you say hi to your sister?”
I nod while getting out of the car. I practically run up the stairs, my body demands it. It seems the lights are off in the apartment so I climb the last flight of stairs with relief, breathing heavy. But when I open the door my sister is cross legged in the living room, tealight candles surrounding her. She chants so softly I can hardly make out the words.
“Hello,” I announce. She holds her hand up to indicate she’s busy unlocking a chakra or something. I go straight to my bedroom. I throw my shirt on the floor and turn on the fan, place my head in front of its spinning wings. I crave another beer and wonder if one could perhaps become addicted—I want to message that to Sami as a joke since he seems to like beers just as much.
“Hi,” my sister interrupts. My sister thrives on mystery, believes it to be potent for human continuity, then walks into my room without knocking. “How are you?”
When I don’t respond she tells me how good she feels, that it is so grounding to coordinate movement with breath, and would I be interested in trying out a kundalini class with her?
Last spring Ali held a meditative session for us on the rooftop of my sister’s apartment. He told my sister that I should join because I apparently exhibit signs of serious anxiety. He was simply trying to impress her, I think, and she said it would’ve been very rude not to come so I climbed up eight floors and met Ali and my sister on the floor in what was apparently the child pose. I found it impossible to clear my mind, the entire thing seemed ridiculous. Afterwards Ali pressed his closed palms to his chin and said he was grateful for us, that he’d felt strong healing energy in the air. That made me wonder whether my sister had told Ali about everything back home, because what else did he think we needed to heal from?
After Ali left, I asked if she’d actually felt anything. She told me to stop being so cynical, to learn to be open, but I could tell from her eyes that she’d felt the same.
Here she is now, months later, flopped on the floor in the August heat, imitating Ali, chanting like he taught us to. Maybe my sister dates all these men because she wants to steal parts of them until she can reassemble herself into a new whole.
She narrows her eyes from the doorway.
“What?” I say.
“You have that face on.”
“The one where you’re hiding something.”
My throat itches but I feel territorial about my evening with Sami. “You know what I kept imagining that time we did the breathing session with your friend on the roof?”
“Mama and baba watching us meditate.”
She shakes her head and I sense her caution ease. She pulls a pillow from the corner of my bed then lays beside me. A decade ago, when she left the house in Fnaidik, I spent the week sniffling. I don’t know if I remember the actual events, but my parents told the story so many times, maybe to guilt trip my sister, that I’d somehow reconstructed it into a tangible moment. I must’ve been so terrified of being left alone with my other sister. When I got older, I became angrier. How dare she inhabit Beirut so easily—so willingly—while we were stuck like tiles back in Fnaidik? She knew, and still kept sending the books and the shiny shoes, desperately wanting to mother me from a distance, groom me into a specimen she could later adopt.
“No, but seriously,” I continue. “Can you imagine what they’d think if they saw the two of us obeying the instructions of this random man with dreadlocks telling us to get into dog position, or cow position?”
“Dolphin—to regulate digestion,” she chuckles. We go on, impersonating Ali’s strange Bekaai accent, the way he weaves astrology into conversations, and my sister laughs louder, hands placed on her little chest. It is nice to come from the same people, the same place, to be able to remember the same things. Like my father’s little hunch, the string of prayer beads he carries in his hand all day. My mother’s shrill voice, the smell of her makdous in the morning, how simple she thinks the world is.
“I feel horrible,” my sister says. I predicted this, felt it in the tremble of our laughter. I turn away from her and look back up at the ceiling. The fan suddenly sounds intrusive and I crave a beer again. Only two years ago, before moving to Beirut, I never thought I’d drink alcohol—no one in Fnaidik ever seemed to, so why would I? The thing is, our parents would never be able to imagine our life because they do not know it exists. But our sister would never be able to imagine our life because she cannot live it.
“Do you think of her a lot?” she asks so quietly I wonder if I imagined it.
“Sometimes, yes,” I respond. I try my best not to, it wouldn’t make her any better, would it.
“I think of her all the time,” my sister says, turning away. “All the time.”
Sami walks inside the coffee shop a couple days after the game. He was in the neighbourhood and thought he’d pass by before his meeting to see if my barista skills were any good. He sits on the bar stool in front of me. His hair is still wet after a shower, I smell menthol in the air.
I was beginning to enjoy my time at the coffee shop. I like the shadow dance from the crawling plants in the afternoon, how my knees ache at the end of shifts. Every morning I open the jars with Ethiopian and Yemeni blends and inhale them, feel my head fill up with something that reminds me of earth. It is nice being away from my sister and her apartment, having a place that’s for me alone.
“Is that your playlist?” Sami asks. Chafic preferred we play jazz but when he isn’t around I listen to rap, Darwish and Mehrak and Synaptik.
Sami takes a sip of coffee then balances it with a bite of croissant. There are no crumbs on the sides of his mouth and his grey shirt is perfectly ironed. I have to prepare a cappuccino for a customer but from the corner of my eyes I notice Sami moving his head to my playlist. It makes me happy and my face turns red. I take my time to return to the bar.
“Lebanon and India are playing tomorrow by the way,” Sami says. “Want to watch it?”
“Of course.” I wipe my fingers on my apron. “Otherwise Lebanon will lose.”
He smiles then squints at me. “Hey, do you think your sister might want to join or something?”
I shake my head after pretending to think about it. “She really hates sports—you know.”
“True,” he nods.
Chafic wasn’t too pleased when I asked to take Monday evening off for Lebanon’s game. Like my sister, he doesn’t understand the sudden nationwide fascination with basketball. But what I don’t get is how detached Chafic and my sister are, the way they live as though no one exists outside their little worlds.
I say this to Sami soon after we sit down in a cafe in Hamra, where he’d reserved a table for us to watch the game. He shrugs and says, “People are different, no?”
The cafe doesn’t serve alcohol so we order our burgers with coke. Lebanon is getting killed on defence but Sami and I are distracted this time. He tells me more about the sort of work he does, then shows me a video of his niece doing a triple cartwheel. We argue about federalism in Lebanon and he asks if I like studying statistics at university. I tell him how, in a different world, I would’ve loved to study music.
“Like, to play an instrument?” His eyes flit between the screen and me.
“Not necessarily, no,” I say. I tap my fingers on the table to try and stay focused. “More like to study the history of music, connect it to structural geopolitical changes, stuff like that.”
During half time, he asks for an example. I have my final bite of the burger, clear my mouth then say, “You know the song “Mawtini?”
“The dramatic nationalist one?”
I tell him a bit about its history, how it was written in the 1920s by a Palestinian poet, Ibrahim Touqan, and composed by the Lebanese Flayfel brothers. Both the poet and composers lived in Beirut, I say, and the 20s were a different time for the region, if only because Arabs were geographically more intimate. The song became Iraq’s national anthem in 2004 to replace the previous one associated with Saddam Hussein, and it was also Palestine’s informal anthem until the 90s. Then I sense myself stammering about the Arab Spring protests, how a century later these cities chanted the song as if it was theirs too.
“And now Elissa sings the song,” Sami laughs. We look back up—the cafe is whistling, Lebanon has scored. I hate it, how thoughts always make sense in my head, feel synthesised and expansive, but the moment I verbalise them, they turn blank. When my sister speaks, everyone leans in to listen, even Sami. Her voice is low, as though always whispering, but she is so expressive and authoritative even on issues she knows nothing about.
Lebanon won on Indian soil, 95-63, and officially qualified for the World Cup. We pay for our food then walk to a small shop to get a pack of beers. Hamra is dark, glazed in humidity. There are cats everywhere. They sleep on the sidewalks, trail behind us like shadows. Sami presses the ridge of one bottle cap against another, then hands me another successfully opened beer.
A strange tension prickles between us. We walk in squares, through Makdisi and Sidani and Sadat, then down toward Bliss Street. I’ve had four bottles at this point, and it is hard to track the argument we keep returning to.
“Fine, it’s a tiny country, but you don’t know Akkar,” I try. In Akkar, brothers kill their sisters in the name of family honour. “If you lived there you’d understand why federalism isn’t that absurd. It’s a different continent—”
“Come on,” he says, and stops to look at me. I smell his hair again, the waxy peppermint, and notice the sameness of our height. I have a feeling he’s about to tell me to stop being ashamed of where I come from. “Don’t give me the narrow Maronite argument,” he says instead, a self-hating Maronite himself. I am drunk and not too attached to my argument, and anyway I will not be able to articulate it, so I ask what he would’ve done if he weren’t a software developer.
“Smooth transition,” he laughs. Again, the white teeth glowing in the dark. He thinks for a bit and says, almost as if embarrassed, “You know, I don’t think I’ve mentioned this before—but I like illustrations.”
“I actually once designed a tattoo for your sister,” he swallows. “I never managed to show it to her.” He throws a bottle into an overflowing trash cart then pulls his phone out to show me the design. A fig tree—of course. My sister is obsessed with them. I often hear her tell this story to her men, that during the first year of college she’d read a book by Sylvia Plath and was struck by this paragraph on figs or whatever. But I think the real reason is because our other sister loves figs. There’s a sprawling one outside Aunt Soulafa’s house and every August around this time of the year, we’d pick out fat purple figs so we could watch her squeal in delight.
“That’s a nice illustration,” I say without really looking at his phone.
Bliss Street isn’t as crowded as usual, but there are few people slurping ice cream, delivery men leaning on motorcycles, Syrian children begging passersby. I wonder what people make of Sami and me, if it is obvious he’s ten years older, that we are friends simply because he used to sleep with my sister.
“Is she seeing anyone?” he asks. My body winces as it often does when I am reminded of all I’ve been forced to accept because I am my sisters’ brother.
I tell Sami I don’t know, which is a lie. Chafic was over last week, demonstrating his extensive knowledge on Mediterranean cheeses. My sister’s also dating someone new called Philemon, a comic artist from Baabda with a lisp. We laughed a lot, my sister and I, when she told me his name, apparently based on a Lebanese composer from the previous century.
“She suddenly cut me out of her life,” Sami says. We take a left back up toward Jeanne D’arc and not one shop is open. The darkness feels pleasant and wide. “Why—why do you think?” he fumbles.
I point out two cats mating underneath a concrete bench and he nods without turning. He asks me, again, when we get to the main street. We’d been walking close before, our feet in sync, but now there’s an invisible object between us. He lags behind and when I start to speak it feels like the words are being drawn out on their own, as though I am watching myself speak in figures.
“What?” Sami repeats after I tell him my sister has a twin in Fnaidik with serious mental and physical disabilities.
“She was born sick but it got worse over the years, our mother can’t leave her anymore—not even for an hour.”
He looks at me, his eyes wide.
I go on, tell him our sister wears diapers, has to be spoon-fed most of her meals.
“Are they—do they look identical?”
I chuckle at the question, a twisted sense of disgust and vindication shoots through me. My steps become visibly faster than his, nothing is smooth or unfazed about Sami now.
There is a photograph of my sisters when they were six, taken a couple of years before I was born. The photograph often moves from the kitchen counter to the living room, depending on where my mother spends her day. In that photograph, my sisters are seated on the cement doorstep of our house, both in pigtails and striped shirts. That is the only proof of their twinhood, of a time when they could look the same.
“I always wondered why your sister seemed so …” Sami stops, as if hoping the right word will arrive. “Complicated?”
I nod to confirm what he is saying although I am not sure “complicated” is the right word to describe her. Our father has a small shop that sells gum and soap, our mother is a retired public school teacher who does nothing but cook and watch Turkish dramas. They are good, kind people, but their daughter’s disability has crushed them, almost made it impossible for them to exist. Then there’s the isolated village we grew up in, its needy streets and chipping walls. Even for Akkar, Fnaidik is very conservative. Women leave the village if their husband, usually a soldier, has to move. Or if their husbands have figured out an escape route to Australia or the Gulf. So how did my sister manage a full scholarship, at seventeen, to study sociology in Beirut’s best university? I’m suddenly concerned Sami thinks my sister is selfish. “You know,” I say, “my sister pays for her school tuition and hospital bills for most of our cousins.”
“That’s insane,” Sami responds without picking up on my defensiveness. “To think she never once mentioned any of this.”
I shrug and then point to his phone, as though his illustration of the fig tree explains some of the strangeness. A cat continues to wail in the distance.
The Ammoua Forest is not too far from our house in Fnaidik. I don’t think a lot of people in Lebanon know this forest although it is massive and has rare species of plants, trees, insects. Before my grandfather died, he used to take me and my sisters there every Sunday. He’d hold my hand because I was the youngest, and we’d walk through the junipers and iron oaks, the cypresses and the cedars. My grandfather had such an appreciation for beauty, always told us to keep our eyes open to the flowers and snow and layers of mountains. They all have lessons for you, he’d say and I’d point things out to him, like a purple orchid or a juniper tree merging into a fir.
One Sunday at home, our other sister had hit my mother. My mother had scratches underneath her eye and a bruise on her waist. All morning my sister, the healthy one, and I cried in the kitchen. We were powerless, but we had school the next day and needed to study even though it felt like the world was ending, or at the very least should end. My grandfather knocked on the kitchen table, told us to leave our books and come with him. We didn’t want to but he gave us a stern look so we followed him into his car, the Benz he drove all his life.
We walked and walked in the forest, my grandfather towering above us in the middle. It was late November and the forest looked like it was on fire, the red and orange oak leaves, always the last to fall, crunching under our feet. Thick streams of light pierced through the trees. Everything was massive, much larger than us—the rocks and the trees and the air. I knew, even then, that I was too young to feel this, this overwhelming sense of existing against all odds.
Afterwards we stopped at a small waterfall to drink from the cold water and I realised my sister was still hiccoughing from tears. When she saw me looking at her, she wiped her nose and made a silly face so I would stop being sad. My grandfather saw this happen and didn’t say anything. I remember wanting him to tell us that life was unfair, yes, but that was alright, it wasn’t our fault, we’d be fine, that the forest and its waters would remain, alive and ordered and wild, for the rest of time.
Sami’s apartment is in Badaro. His street, unlike most in Beirut, has a sensibility to it—there are trees and wide sidewalks, residential buildings as well as commercial ones. A few weeks after the game, I walk into a supermarket at the corner of Sami’s apartment and pick up chewing gum. I can feel myself linger in the shop but the woman on the counter gives me a kind smile. She talks about the weather, how hot it is, and I nod in agreement.
My heart pounds when I ring on the interphone. I look around to see if there are any surveillance cameras, if Sami will know it is me. The gum sticks to the top of my mouth uncomfortably and I spit it out, then immediately feel bad—someone else will have to deal with it.
Minutes pass and I ring again, still no answer. Sami and I haven’t spoken since Lebanon’s game with India. Now I take a step back and look at his apartment but I can’t tell if any of the lights are on. I wonder whether my sister ever spent time in Sami’s apartment. She always preferred that men come to hers, apparently it was safer and less invasive, but I do wish that were not the case.
I don’t ring again, although I really want to—I worry about coming off as rude. The gum on the floor stares at me so I pick it up before I leave then slip it into my pockets, knowing I will have a hard time scrubbing it off. The kind woman from the shop is still seated behind the counter, counting money in her hands. I want to ask her why she thinks we do stupid things. I wave at her and she turns to me, her face a question mark, as though she’s already forgotten what we shared.
Before I turn right, I look back at Sami’s apartment and I can swear he’s on his balcony, glancing down at the street, hurrying back inside like he doesn’t want to be seen.
After the last customers leave, I wipe the tables, the bar, the kitchen counter. It is my last shift at the coffee shop, my classes start tomorrow. I stare blankly at a couple of ants crawling by the sink then spray them with the aerosol. I turn off the lights and drop my keys in one of the plant pots where Chafic asked me to leave them.
The walk from Mar Mikhael to Gemmayze is less than twenty minutes, enough time to listen to a couple of songs. I put my earphones on and start at the beginning of Synaptik’s Om el Mawjat, then I move through the parked cars, up and down the sidewalks and cramped streets.
Two nights ago Sami sent a voice note—he said he’d been busy, he hoped I was good, and then hinted he didn’t want to see me again. I listened to it once, deleted it immediately, then spent hours agonising over my decision. I can’t remember the insinuations in his voice anymore. Were they direct, or indirect, had I imagined the voice note, how real was it?
I want to shrug my head off and just walk, but I can’t, the more steps I take the heavier my body becomes. I think of Ahmad who cried outside my sister’s doorstep after she left him. The last time I asked, my sister said he was exploring psychedelics and learning how to surf in Sri Lanka, so I shouldn’t worry too much. But it isn’t nice, it really isn’t, when friends give you their time only to snatch it back. Nearing Gouraud Street, I think of what my life will look like come November, when Lebanon’s basketball team will have to play against New Zealand and India again.
The sky is crisscrossed with wires, the darkness made soft with the yellow lights of the bars. I take the earphones off and stuff them into the pocket of my jeans, still sticky from the gum residue. I decide I will transfer from statistics to history or politics, maybe do some real research on music, how it travels in the region.
Then I message my sister and ask if she wants to have dinner together. She replies that she is starving, and yes, of course, she’ll make an order—pizza, or Francisco sandwiches?
I climb the stairs slowly, one foot after the other. I wipe sweat off my forehead and play out a scene in my head—my sisters and I stretched on the floor of the living room like children, complaining about how much food we’ve just eaten, how terrible the weather is. In the scene I construct, I ask them if they have any idea why Sami disappeared. They laugh and laugh and laugh, and soon I’m laughing too.
Nur Turkmani lives in Beirut and researches social movements, gender, and agriculture in Lebanon. She studied creative writing at Oxford University and her work has been published in The Adroit Journal, Poetry London, Muzzle Magazine, and others.