By Andree Chedid. London: Serpent's Tail, 1989. pages 115-118.

Selected by Bob Corbett
March 2000

In a recent student post from he suggested that a lot of the change toward childhood came from the nature of life in our advanced culture and that perhaps young people in the past were simply more mature. I'm not too sure about the more mature. However, MUCH more experienced seems certainly the case. I just happen to be reading a power novel: THE RETURN TO BEIRUT by Lebanese novelist Andree Chedid. In it a young American girl is visiting Beirut with her grandmother. She has never been in Beirut, having lived all of her life in an upper class area of New York. She falls in love with a quaint little shop in the square near where her greatgrand mother lives, and the experience below tells a lot about the being of childhood.

The little girl's name is Sybil.


In Odette's district, the bazaar with the scarlet shop front was the first to be blown to pieces. The store was to the left of the square. Sybil often went there. From when she was small, she had been used to doing the shopping, and Odette and Kalya had just given her permission to run a few errands instead of Slimane.

The shopkeeper, Aziz, was a man loved by all, with his chubby face and round eyes. Several times a day, he would stop what he was doing as soon as he heard the muezzin's call, and pray. He wore a brown skullcap on his bald head and took great care of the thick moustache that drooped on either side of his mouth.

Aziz took pride in proving to his new - the old customers ones were already convinced - that you could find anything and everything in his booth! The little girl had great fun asking him for some unusual item, just to see if he had it: a yo-yo, a scoobeedoo, a Beatles record or a carnival mask. in less than a minute, he would pull the object out from an indescribable jumble of things and hold it up triumphantly.

'Stamps, newspapers, magazines - in three languages - tooth- paste, chewing-gum, polishes, beer, paper handkerchiefs, cigarettes, beauty creams, whisky and tambourines, needles, balls of wool, toys, balloons, aspirin... You can ask for anything you want, since I've got it all!'

This list filled him with joy, and he could have gone on for hours, punctuating it with the word 'since'. 'Since' constantly recurred in his speech, as if a relation between cause and effect gave his existence coherence and linked together the numerous and assorted objects that filled his tiny shop.

The shopkeeper pulled at the huge drawer of a dilapidated chest but it was jammed. His arms taut, he pulled again. There were beads of sweat on his brow and on the fuzzy black hair that his unbuttoned, brightly coloured shirt revealed.

'Drawer of the devil, open, since I command you to do so!'

It gave way so suddenly that he fell over backwards, waving his arms and legs in the air. Sybil could barely suppress her laughter.

'Laugh! Don't be ashamed to laugh since it's funny and since I haven't broken any bones!'

He laughed at it too. She helped him up. He finally took a little inlaid box out of the drawer, which was crammed full of cheap knickknacks. He lifted the lid and it played a shrill tune to which Aziz hummed dreamily.

'It's a song from Paris.'

'Have you been to Paris?'

'One day, I'll travel too! On the day Paris was liberated, the crowd sang and clapped. Here in this square. You weren't born then. Do me a favour, take this box, it's for you. For your grand- mother, take this bunch of grapes. She'll remember their unique taste! She'll let you taste them. is your grandmother from here?'

'Not exactly. Her grandparents went to Egypt, more than a hundred years ago. She lives in Europe.'

'What about you? You've got a different accent.'

'I'm from America.'

'USA, OK, Pepsi-Coca-Cola! I know! But you still have traces of your origins in your blood, even though you don't know it.'

'Do you think so? Ah! I'd like that!'

She clapped her hands.

'I am happy, happy!'

'You like here?'

'I love it..'

This place was a real treasure trove and Aziz was a magician, so different from the hurried shopkeepers back at home. Despite the comings and goings of his customers, he always had time for Sybil, helping her to fill her bag and asking after Odette and Kalya.

The little girl often chose siesta time to go to the deserted shop. She would come across the shopkeeper snoozing on the counter or on the floor, leaning up against a sack of flour or rice. She would sit down beside him. They would jabber on for an hour and more, skipping from one language to another, waving their hands about and laughing.

It was a few days later, during the siesta, that the explosion occurred.

Before Odette or Kalya could stop her, the little girl tore down-stairs and rushed towards the shop, Smoke billowed out.

Her hands pressed against what remained of the window, squashing her face up against the dusty glass, she had trouble making out, and then recognizing Aziz's body, A soft, bloody, inert mass, slumped over the counter.

She went in, with searing heart.

The shelves, heavily laden, had collapsed onto a heap of rubble, Bits of wooden beams and old iron were mixed in with the debris.

Sybil approached the body. It was a nightmare, a horror film.

A crowd of local people had gathered in the square. Some, followed by Aziz's screaming parents, entered the shop through the gaping openings.

The little girl refused to believe what she saw. She wanted to touch her friend, wake him up. it was like one of those serials where the body, which is never completely dead, comes to life again the next day for the start of a new episode. She was convinced that Aziz would get up and once again take his place in his rebuilt shop. She could hear him already.

'It was a joke! Since I frightened you, you're entitled to a free Coca-Cola and some Suchard chocolate.'

Sybil had never encountered death, real death. in her country, death took place elsewhere; well out of sight, in hospital beds, in plane or car crashes. Bodies returned to air, or discreetly disappeared into varnished wooden coffins.

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Bob Corbett