Flustered from the heat, I walked into Starbucks on a Tuesday afternoon looking for someone fitting the self- proclaimed description of “petite with grey hair.”
I had planned to meet Miss Arminée Choukassizian at 1:30, but entered at precisely 1:12, scanning the room to see whether she too, was early. I was pretty sure I’d find her, judging by how keen to meet she had seemed in our mere two email exchanges.
Before I had even finished surveying the crowded room, she caught my attention, erratically waving her hand up at me from just a few meters away. Assuming she might have guessed I was her interviewer by the way I was scanning the room so intently, I smiled, and walked towards her ready for the typical introduction.
With the “Hi, how are you’s” out of the way, I set my laptop on the tiny table between us and offered to buy her some coffee before we began the little Q&A based on her story “The Windfall” that I had read just last week. Getting something to drink, I figured, would buy me a little more time to remember the story a little better. Something about a typical Lebanese family… struggling to get by in a war-torn country… moving to America… not quite settling in there either… Yes something along the lines of that.
“What are you getting for yourself?” She asked
“An iced latte”
“Oh no no, nothing cold for me. I’ll have an espresso. One of those small cups,” she said, shaping out the size of the cup in midair with her index finger and thumb.
Her wrinkled hands were lightly dappled with freckles and shook a little, and indeed, she had a head full of wispy grey hair tied back in rough bun. Her white blouse was tucked neatly into a navy blue skirt reaching all the way down to brown strappy sandals, and beside her, sat an old looking briefcase with edges of papers jutting out of it. A monocle would have been the perfect cherry on top, I thought… before I noticed she actually had a magnifying glass as well!
The stark contrast between her against the backdrop of a busy afternoon in Starbucks was almost comedic.
Amongst teen girls in tank tops (most likely gossiping about boys over caramel frappe), young men leaning back on the plump sofas with smartphones in hand, focused looking men dressed smartly leaning over laptops or in deep conversation with other such smartly dressed men, and moms annoyed by their children’s indecisiveness on which cake to choose, Arminee looked like a displaced character from a book.
While waiting for the barista to hand me two cups with my name badly misspelled, I thought about what role she’d play if she were indeed a book character. Juliet’s nanny would be a fitting role. Or perhaps the classic “old lady next door” like Mrs. Figg from Harry Potter or Mrs. Alexander from The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime!
After placing our drinks on the table, I rummaged through the files on my laptop to find the questions I had written beforehand, and thus, began our thirty-minute-long interview. We struggled to hear each other over the din of the cafe.
I began with general questions about her and her writing, then eventually asked her about “The Windfall.” The story itself was as straightforward as they get. A one-layered recount of living the civil war experience with the expected family drama – but, still, I was curious to know what it all meant coming from her.
General questions taught me this about her:
She was born and raised in Baghdad – but was here throughout the whole Lebanese civil war, making it the most prominent topic for her to write about.
She studied English (obviously) and worked at Jafet Library where she had to take a number of breaks to England due to the war.
She’s very…VERY keen on publishing her work. Her latest being a collection of 10 short stories similar to “The Windfall,” titled A Surprise for Mona. Mona is her best friend – “A very close friend for sixty years’ to be precise.
She also has a decent amount of poems- 42 in English and 10 in French all under the category of ‘Memories and Cities”, and wrote her MA Thesis on a collection of short stories by Katherine Mansfield- a red hardcover that sat on her lap.
Now, about “The Windfall.” It turns out that there are no hidden layers to her story. It is what it is: the simplest of reads.
What does this story and the war in general mean to you?
Destruction. Just pure destruction. Of the city… of families. Fate follows the person… Even when the Saad’s travelled abroad, the war affected them and tore them apart. Mostly May. Yes. May was very hurt.
Why did May suffer the most?
The female character represents the typical stereotypical Lebanese woman at that time. She sacrifices for family and isn’t educated or strong enough to stand up for herself really.
So which of the characters do you think you resonate with most?
Hmm, I think definitely the mother. May. Because… she sacrifices. She’s heartbroken but Rami doesn’t care. Oh no, he’s the boss. He does whatever he wants.
How do you come up with these stories. Are these things you’ve heard from real people?
Good question. Very good. I observe.
Yes. I look at people and get ideas for characters.
And then you make up their stories?
Some parts yes, but most parts are based on truth. Like the bakery event in the story. And the paint factory. It’s all real.
Regarding the end, does Hani represent the hope that the Lebanese people held at that time?
Oh yes, definitely. I believe in contrast. There should be light at the end of the tunnel. Hani sees the good in people around him. He’s young and innocent. That’s why I added the part about the neighbors bringing them things: to show the good.
What themes does this story tackle?
One should go on. It reflects the working class Lebanese and how people lived hand to mouth. Many of the themes from the story are still alive today.
With the interview coming to a close, I thanked her for her time, finished my iced latte, and got up to leave. She hadn’t touched her espresso yet. Shame, it must have become cold by then.
Glancing back at her through the glass door as I walked out, I saw she had picked up her magnifying glass and began flipping through the collected short stories of Katherine Mansfield- a book I’m sure she has studied often enough.
Arminée H. Choukassizian
During the civil war in Lebanon which dragged on for over fourteen years, some citizens took the decision to flee the country. While the wealthy ended up in Paris and London, members of the lower middle class decided to immigrate to Australia almost overnight. One such family was the Saad’s, who lived just above the poverty line with four children; the three older ne’er-do-wells were in school while Hani, ani,Hthe youngest, was only eight years old.
Rami Saad, the father, had been a second rate clerk in a paint factory, which had been hit by three rockets and consequently closed down. Now Rami eked out a living as a plumber and electrician during the day, and worked at a bakery at night. If ever he got a generous tip, he would treat his family by bringing home a broasted chicken. The apartment he lived in belonged to his unmarried brother who had immigrated to Canada when the civil war started. The Saad’s had no electricity bill to pay since they had just run a wire to the city mains and had ended up having electric power around the clock. Their supply of water too was free, as they had removed the gauge from the main pipe. If there had been any telephone lines in their area, they would also have appropriated those.
is wife May SaaHis wife, May Saad, a second cousin in her late forties or early fifties with a vivacious facial expression, did some clothing alterations to supplement the meager family income. Now she didn’t have much – not to say – any work since it sure wasn’t the time for alterations. Their eldest son, Ziyad, had been hired as an office boy and spent all his salary on himself. He was envied by his younger brother Fadi, who was still at home, so to speak, and depended on Ziyad’s generosity to get any of his cast-offs.
When the shelling was very severe, everyone would cower under staircases or take shelter in basements, hoping for two things to come out in one piece: themselves and their homes. It was during such times of heavy fighting that the decision to flee the country was taken, but not so in the Saads’ case. Slamming the door one early morning upon his return from the bakery, Rami, who looked wan, announced in bitter frustration: “We can’t take this any longer. I can’t see any end to this long drawn-out fighting. We’re not even safe in our own home. You know that the whole city shook several times last night. Do you know what happened at three this morning? Two rockets landed right in front of the bakery! There was a long queue waiting to buy bread. What carnage! The shrieks and screams of agony were horrible! Some tried to run into the bakery for help, but what could we do? We were frightened, so immediately we pulled down the metal shutters to be left alone. This is no life for any of us. I’ve decided. We’re packing up and leaving for Australia. In fact, I’ve been thinking about this move for quite a while, but I didn’t mention it to any of you because it’s no good talking about such things too far in the future. I’ve already bought the tickets and reserved the berths on the ship. Just berths, of course. We’re going to Sidney. We board ship in twelve days at four in the afternoon on Friday.” Rami grinned revealing his two rows of broken teeth. Then he waved six tickets at his wife.
Aghast at this bombshell, May stammered: “But how can we? What will we all do over there?”
She was stunned by her husband’s announcement. In their almost thirty-five years of married life, there had been only two or three violent outbursts of anger from Rami that stood out in May’s mind. The first one was some twelve years back, when in a fit of anger, Rami had overturned the dining-room table, breaking all the china and spilling the contents of the serving dishes as well as the plates of food, causing the sauce to streak down the wall facing the table. What was it all about? She had disagreed with her husband about her eldest son’s future education. The son, of course, got no education.
Rami glanced around the apartment at the shoddy furniture, looked at his wife, and shouted, “To hell with the house and to hell with all that’s in it! Do you know, woman, that some of the neighbors from this same building have already left? The family on the fourth floor is already gone, but you never told me that! You knew it, didn’t you? Of course you did. But you never told me. You didn’t. Did you? Did you?”
“But I still have several items for alterations.”
“So what! To hell with them all! Don’t let me start cursing all the way up to the creator,” Rami hesitated, and then went on, “Who cares? Since their owners have not turned up, you’ll just have to leave the stuff with the neighbors. You can’t call the customers because all the phones in this area and way beyond are cut.”
“But sweetheart, how can we just pack and leave?” May asked, her voice a whisper now.
“Pack and leave? What packing are you talking about? I’m sure you’ve completely lost your mind. You have absolutely no idea about anything. Do you know where I was the day I came home with that giant broasted chicken as a surprise? I was in a large uninhabited apartment on the twentieth floor of a big tower building fixing some pipes that had burst. Whew! Whew! What an apartment! Wow! The gate man opened the door for me and let me in and then went back down to the entrance. A five- hundred-fifty square meter apartment. Just imagine! Two enormous crystal chandeliers in the living room, both broken, pieces of glasses everywhere, beautiful Persian carpets, lace curtains with lots of holes in them and then, also a round bellied piano in the living room, not the upright kind you and I have seen. There were two glass cabinets full of crystal glasses of different shapes and sizes. I took a peek everywhere and saw four beautifully furnished bedrooms, and five bathrooms. But what a pity the apartment had received a direct hit. The owner had fled but he will have to spend quite an amount to have the whole thing in livable condition once again. The gateman told me the name of the owner, but I forget it now. I’m sure it’s some filthy rich businessman. I know I shall never ever be able to offer my kids one-thousandth of the wealth I saw in that apartment. Sorry, but they’ll all have to make it on their own.”
Rami collapsed in the arm chair and then went on, “Look May, don’t you hear what people are saying? Their talk is not encouraging at all. From what I hear at the bakery, things are certainly not going to get any better. They’re only going to get worse! A few from the bakery have already left. Look, we’ll all be able to do better in Australia. At least we’ll feel safe and be taken care of. The kids will be out of this hell. I know some English. The two older boys will go to some technical school, and Hani, who’s only eight and something now, will be going to school there. They’ll all learn to do something or other. Who knows? Eventually we may come back. All you have to do now is close all the wooden shutters and unplug the fridge. There’s one more very important thing I must tell you. Try to pack as little as you can. I was told that we’ve got to travel light, light. I’m sixty-four now and with the pain in my back I can’t carry heavy luggage anymore.”
May was speechless.
“You just suit yourself; stay here if you don’t want to come with me.”
After a pause, Rami flung back at her, “For me there is absolutely no problem there. The tickets I have bought are in real demand, so I can sell your ticket on the black market, and have some extra cash in hand which will come in handy.”
He took a deep breath and continued: “You know, your second son whom you call “Moon” doesn’t please me at all. He’s getting too independent for his own good. He’s becoming more and more involved in the militias’ way of thinking. Why, just the other day I saw from a window how he was listening attentively to a much older boy whom I know is already in one of the militias. But your “Moon” of a son did not see me watching him. Nothing much is going to come out of any of these children. To hell with all of them! But I can’t speak of our youngest son Hani yet. The other three will never get what I hear is called a “higher education,” which means going to university for a few years and then getting a degree. I hope the two older boys will marry some rich blondes. As for Zeina, she’s definitely quite attractive and may soon have four or five boys chasing after her. We’ll marry her off soon, I hope. I’ll give her only to the richest suitor.”
“Fadi’s just getting bored, doing nothing but sitting around the house all day. You know, I really pity this younger generation,” May sighed.
“Have you noticed how our daughter Zeina looks now? She’s much too slim. She’s eating very little and has started to stammer. She seems to be in constant fear. Before she used to spend most of her time in front of the mirror combing her hair, whereas now she stays in her room and watches television. I never see her helping you with the housework. What on earth does she do all day? Watch television, that’s all! Do see to it that she does trim her nails quite a bit. They’re much too long. You’d better make her work more around the house. Let her do the dishes and clean the house.” Rami grinned and revealed his two rows of stained teeth.
May collapsed in a chair and hid her face in her hands.
So the Saad’s wound up in Sidney with even less than what they had in Beirut. With a large number of families waiting to be settled and receive adequate accommodation, the Saad’s ended up in an almost empty apartment.
Rami and the children did not really mind being uprooted (after all, what did the children know but war?). This was a wonderful adventure for them! May, on the other hand, felt very sorry. She faced the conundrum that confronts every immigrant in every land at any time. She was lonely and regretted having come to Australia.
“I should have stayed behind,” she would tell everyone in her broken English. “In fact, I would have stayed behind had it not been for the sake of my youngest. Now I need to pick up some English. Maybe Ziyad will teach me some English, that is if he has, or better, still finds the time . . .” She continued, “It’s so quiet here. Every day is like any other day. It’s boring. There’s no shelling, no sniping. I used to chat with my neighbors over coffee at least twice every day. And furthermore, she would add, “I was also making some money.”
Now in her new home, May found, to her dismay, that with so little furniture in the house there just wasn’t really all that much for her to do during the day. In fact, this became a constant source of irritation about which she frequently complained. That was not her only source of dissatisfaction. “Now we’re spending much more, what with electricity, telephone and water bills. Ziyad leaves early in the morning for the hotel where he’s working and comes home around 10:30 at night. He’s already made some friends and spends all his salary and spare time with them. As for Fadi, with his almond-shaped eyes, he’s a bell boy at a five-star hotel and keeps all the money he makes to himself. Now my daughter is working at a hairdressing salon. My man, who got us all over here, would never have let her get into such a job back in Beirut, and he is working in a clothing factory.”
One young woman with whom May had become friendly and knew how isolated and forsaken May felt, was determined to help her friend feel less desolate. On her own she went and bought furniture and household goods from a bazaar held by a charity organization. She arranged for everything to be delivered to the Saads’ home.
One morning shortly thereafter, May was summoned to the door by a rather insistent bell (something quite unusual at that hour), and discovered to her surprise three young men standing there. They announced that they had some furniture, a few blankets and kitchen utensils for her.
“For me! Can’t be!” May exclaimed. “We’ve not ordered anything of the sort. There must be a mistake.”
Producing the form prominently displaying the Saads’ name and address, one of the young men explained, “I’m sorry madam, but we’ve got to hurry up ‘cuz we’ve some other deliveries to make this morning. If we could just get abou’r business, what we’ve been asked to do ma’am, we’ll all soon be outta yer hair.”
With that, the men began to carry the furniture into May’s apartment. May just could not believe what was happening there and then and little Hani, standing beside his mother, gazed in awe at the wonders that were being brought by these strangers into the small flat. “Maybe,” he thought simply, “My mama is right. Maybe there is a God who looks after us.”
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