Sheryn Kay
Sheryn Kay
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Sheryn Kay

First flutterings

As far back as I can remember, I never had a doll or ‘blankie’ as a kid ... I blame this on the fact that not only did the war break out in Lebanon on Sunday, April 13, 1975, when I was on the verge of celebrating my 8th birthday, bringing with it the bane of various shortages, including toys, but it was also down to the fact that I was the youngest of the family, largely unnoticed among my four elder brothers.

I had, therefore, no blanket or doll with which to share my first tentative exploration of the pleasure my body could yield. But I will always remember this episode of my youth that marked me and that I basically refer to as "my very first emotions". The story I am laying down here, line by line, took place in my family home in Beirut, as the war raged around us…The war isn’t the topic I want to explore so I shan’t dwell on it, but I do feel it would be useful to give a brief outline, it being, after all, what I grew up alongside for fifteen years, from child to teenager. From the onset, the conflict was violent, constant and lengthy. The initial couple of years were the most intense: fighting, gunfire, shelling, in Beirut of course, but also across the country.  It was also these first two years that claimed the most human casualties and material damage. The combatants targeted strategic, vital areas like infrastructures; the hospitals regularly came under fire and it became impossible to treat patients in suitable conditions. Beirut center was a favorite, the hub of trade in the city and as such, where the country’s wealth accumulated. It was burned to the ground in chaos, completely destroyed. The militia would shoot at anything that moved and they plundered whatever they could lay their hands on. At the time, the combatants were mainly Palestinian alongside a handful of Lebanese groups supporting the Palestinian cause, against Christian fighters. I sometimes heard my parents' friends say it was a war between two faiths, "Christian-Muslim". The conflict subsequently took a different turn as the Syrians, Israelis, etc. made an entrance.

I was a just little girl and did not understand much of what was going on. My brothers and I even got used to the war and learned to live with it, as did most kids our age. When the fighting was particularly fierce people simply stopped going to work and children stayed off school, moving around the city proving as difficult as it was dangerous. Food was in short supply, as was medication, electricity ... There wasn’t enough of anything ... But the war was set to last and everyone was eventually forced to deal with that fact and try to resume as normal a life as possible. No one could say when it would come to an end. We couldn’t stay holed up in shelters forever. My parents needed to work, to find food, to find a way for us to survive. We had to adapt, one way or the other. As a result, lawyers, doctors and engineers who could no longer earn the living they had studied for, turned their hand to trade. My father was one of them. It may have been wartime but business deals were still going on. My father traveled to Italy and Brazil to source precious wood he would sell back home. After a while, and because the war was not constant, only flaring up intermittently, everything started up again, almost as before in spite of the ruins.

My family and I lived in the Christian suburbs of Beit Mery, a town about 700 meters above sea level, overlooking Beirut, just sixteen kilometers away. Beit Mery has been a summer seaside resort since Roman times and is also home to a Lebanese Red Cross First Aid Center – crucial during wartime. The village is also known for its ancient Roman and Byzantine ruins as well as the historic Maronite Monastery of Saint John the Baptist, which was built in 1750. At the time the Roman governors of the Levant spent the summer in Beit Mery, its location being so strategic and its weather pleasant in summer.

A few kilometers from our neighborhood as the crow flies, was a line of demarcation (we could see it clearly at night because it looked like a long, black stripe) separating Christians and Muslims. This was the most dangerous zone to have to get across, with its legion of trigger-happy snipers. In the 60s, my father had a two-storey family home built for us. It reminded me of a Swiss chalet. It had wooden-framed windows, blinds and suspended ceilings, balconies and those famous red tiles imported from France. My father was passionate about architecture and so selected only the most noble of building materials: cedar wood and golden dressed stone, so typical to Lebanon. A large garden encircled this beautiful house and many years later, my brothers and I had a third storey added, like so many of Beirut’s houses.

When war broke out in the spring of 1975, my parents kitted out a section of the house, the location of said section having been chosen to provide it with protection from shelling and which enabled us to live (almost) safely. I remember how he put sandbags in front of all the windows and doors to act as shock absorbers when the shelling began…

As days turned into weeks, my brothers and I started back at school. We’d get up in the morning, dress, make the sign of the cross and leave the house. And when we got to school in one piece, we would say “so far, so good!” If we also had a safe journey back home, we were over the moon.

Of course, we were scared of shells falling on residential areas, but what we feared the most in the Christian neighborhoods where we would go fetch supplies, were the many car bombs there were in those days, and the snipers that would shoot at anything that moved. And these didn’t just scare us children; the terror the car bombs and snipers inflicted on us also made the adults sick to the stomach, and it was a fear that never went away. If I’m entirely honest, the danger we were living with at the time only really hit me later in life. As a child, I was, of course, frightened, but it was more a latent fear. I remember we were absolutely petrified the first days. In the following weeks, we downgraded to simply being terrified. Months later we had got used to living with it, praying and laughing in equal amounts. I’m hardly exaggerating when I tell you that on the way to school one day a bomb landed behind me, hardly a hundred meters away, and that my reflex was to burst out laughing, saying, pragmatic as ever, “Yay, missed me!”

Our big house often lent some safety to friends of my parents, and friends of friends, who lived in the center of Beirut where the shelling never stopped. In a bid to get out of the prisons their shelters had become, when the bombing let up slightly they would travel up into the mountains to stay with relatives or friends, for a few days or weeks, to a place where they could live slightly more “normally”.