Our conversation slowed to a stop with the traffic ahead of us. I could see a distant trail of smoke on the opposite shoulder of the highway. As we approached, the cab of a semi-truck came into view. Flames were towering above the engine, turning in on the thick black smoke of burning oil and rubber. There were no sirens or responders—just myself, my grandfather, and six lanes of commuters, all struck by the scene. I looked into the truck, but before I could find the driver my eyes returned to the road. The cars in front of me were moving on and the accident soon disappeared from my rear-view mirror.
We were on our way to meet my grandfather’s friend Moses, from ‘back home’. He owned a dental lab in North York, specializing in molding and fitting dentures. My grandfather had his last three teeth pulled a couple of weeks ago and his new toothless lisp still caught me by surprise. I couldn’t help but hold back a smile when he broke the silence, picking up where he’d left off. “Your grandmother came to live with me there, in Haret Hreik, when we married in 1966,” he said, “those were the best years of my life; Beirut was golden. Until the war started”
On a spring morning in 1975, my grandfather woke to a strange smell and a pale orange sky that blanketed the neighbourhood. He knew immediately what had happened: a bomb had been placed in his storefront overnight, he recognized the sulfuric taste of burning battery acid. Ironically enough, it was only last year that his shoe store was converted to sell car batteries and other electronic automotive parts. He didn’t think much of it at the time, but the day before a Palestinian friend and frequent customer told him that he should leave immediately and not come back, saying Christians in the neighbourhood—and by association Armenians—were in danger.
The explosions destroyed the entire block of shops, including his brother’s pharmacy, a bookstore, a bakery, and a gas station. The bombing was claimed by the Palestinian Liberation Organization who based one of their operations out of a refugee encampment only a five-minute walk from his store. The group was targeting Christian-owned businesses in response to the Maronite Phalanges’ opening fire on a bus of PLO militants and Lebanese sympathizers, including women and children, returning from a political rally; the Beirut bus massacre, or ‘Black Sunday’, has since been accepted as the official start of the 15-year long civil war.
In the lull that followed the initial conflicts, my grandfather rebuilt his shop, unaware that war had only just begun. Before moving back in, though, he was convinced to give the space to his brother’s pharmacy instead, while the old pharmacy was under construction. He and his family—which now included four sons and a fifth on the way—relocated to a predominantly Armenian neighbourhood in East Beirut.
The city’s golden years had ended. A conflict that began as secular political issues soon became war between a complex web of militant gangs that relied on religious affiliations to motivate a supportive base. These factions had individual ideologies and loose connections with one another but were principally divided between the Muslim West and the Christian East. The country’s capital was transformed into a sectarian battlefield: hotels became sniper towers, car parks became bunkers, and sidewalks were laced with barbed wire and sandbags. And yet, despite the sporadic, violent clashes in Beirut, daily life carried on.
When the school year ended, my grandfather and his growing family returned to their home village in Kessab, Syria—as they had done every summer. He was in search of new income and soon discovered he had something few others in the village had: a car. He started driving people, in his two-door ‘58 Volkswagen Beetle, between Kessab and the nearby city of Latakia. The trips got longer and by the end of summer, with a reprise of relative peace in Lebanon, many families in Kessab were migrating back to Beirut for work and school. After about a year of more frequent trips between Syria and Lebanon, he purchased an official taxi license from the Lebanese government and a white ‘65 Mercedes 190C. He would continue to drive the coastal, transnational route for the next 13 years.
We said goodbye and I thanked Moses for the coffee. We would need to come back in a week or so to pick up the dentures and have them properly fitted. My grandfather took out his wallet but Moses pushed back immediately, saying he would not accept the money. Voices rose as neither would back down. Eventually, though, my grandfather gave in (after Moses physically forced the wad of bills back into his pocket). The dentures were to be exchanged without payment—a favour for the years my grandfather drove Moses’ family between Kessab and Beirut and the many stories they shared with one another in that time.
The first thing I inherited from my grandfather was his name. It follows a tradition of naming a family’s first born son after his paternal grandfather. Whether or not our shared name is the reason, I have always felt a certain closeness to him. Despite the language barrier, I was always fond of his stories of Beirut and of Kessab, the most memorable ones passed down over long drives together in his beige ‘07 Toyota Camry. After all, that’s what a diaspora is best at: passing down the things that matter; rebuilding what was lost in the collective imaginaries of a younger generation; reliving the stories of golden years while in transit—driving between catastrophe and new life.
“In my village, everyone had a second name,” my grandfather said—we were almost home now. “My best friend was Maybouhz, which means ‘mayor’;” an epithet given to him after a failed attempt at running for office. “And there were our neighbours: Stalin and Gandhi,” he added. (I’ve seen pictures and their likenesses are truly unsettling.) I asked him if he had a nickname as well. “I was the only taxi driver in Kessab,” he said, “so sometimes they would call me ‘Chauffeur Zaven’.” I told him that I was the chauffeur now and he laughed.