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What you’re about to read: This is a work of historical fiction—recent history—inspired by actual accounts, so it’s rather realistic though definitely fictional. The novel is built around themes I find erotic: captivity, sexual tension, male intimacy. However (disclaimer and spoiler), you won’t find any full-blown sex here. This is the story of a queerly romantic, lopsidedly erotic, but unconsummated relationship between a gay man and a straight man held together as hostages.
Chapter 8 — We take a trip
In early February, the Beirut airport falls silent. We no longer hear planes taking off outside the apartment. Although the closing of the airport would suggest that the civil war has intensified, we don’t hear sounds of new fighting. We keep hearing the intermittent explosions that Allan attributes to the siege of a Palestinian refugee camp, but they don’t occur with any more frequency than before.
I wait for the war to audibly escalate in some way. More explosions, gun battles, sirens, tanks grinding through the streets—something. Days pass. Still nothing happens, nothing we’re in a position to detect, anyway. The guards don’t seem anxious.
As we enter the last week or so of February, we sense finally that something is happening. The phone in the front of the apartment rings more often. The guards spend more time listening to the news on the radio—in Arabic, which doesn’t help Allan and me figure out what’s going on. Although I can’t point to any concrete change in the guards’ interactions with us, I feel a tense “vibe” coming from them. Allan says he feels it, too.
One day there are non-stop explosions, at the refugee camp apparently, lasting something like fifteen minutes. The noise is very loud, and I am very frightened. Allan assures me that the shelling isn’t as close as it sounds, they’re not shelling our neighborhood, we’re safe.
The tumult stops, silence settles. We never hear explosions again. Is the camp siege over? Who won?
Allan has tried explaining the Lebanese civil war to me. It’s dizzying: there are so many different militias, espousing different ideologies or representing different ethnic or religious groups, and their alliances aren’t stable. Exactly who is fighting who may well be different now from what it was last April, when Allan was taken hostage. The basic, persistent conflict is between Lebanon’s politically dominant Christian minority and the country’s Muslim majority. But there are different factions on both those sides; and then there are the Druze, who Allan understands to be “kind of Muslim” but who aren’t accepted as such by either Sunnis or Shiites; plus there are socialist or Communist militias; and on top of all that, there are the Palestinian refugees, most of whom are Muslim—but Lebanese Muslims don’t necessarily support the Palestinians because they resent Palestinian militants for provoking Israel’s invasion of Lebanon. Israel’s intervention has complicated the conflict, as have interventions by Syria, Iran, and the United States.
Where do Allan and I fit into this mess? We don’t, really. Whatever demands our captors are making for our release probably relate not to the civil war but to additional agendas of theirs. The release of Shiite prisoners in Kuwait; the release of Palestinian prisoners in Britain; concessions by Britain to Iran—these reflect farther-reaching aims of Lebanon’s Shiite radicals, who want to promote Islamic revolution not only in their own country but elsewhere in the Middle East too.
Unless things have changed in a major way since Allan’s kidnapping, the group who’s been laying siege to the Palestinian refugee camp is a Shiite militia called the Lebanese Resistance Battalions, who want to drive the PLO out of Lebanon. The LRB are moderate by Shiite standards: they want constructive relations with the West and therefore oppose the taking of Western hostages. They’re the militia who Allan told me rescued a pair of hostages from an apartment a couple of years ago. They also orchestrated the release of the passengers of the hijacked airplane that was forced to land in Beirut in the summer of 1985. The LRB are at odds with the Partisans of God, the radical Shiite militia to which our captors are likely connected. Those two militias are competing for the loyalty of Lebanon’s Shiite population.
So… if the end of the camp siege means that the LRB have finally routed the Palestinians—which is one way to interpret what we’ve been hearing—would that turn of events be good for Allan and me? Allan ad libs a rambling analysis, the upshot of which is this: If the end of the camp siege means that the LRB and their current allies have achieved a stronger position, and if that stronger position also allows them to back the Partisans of God into a corner, then Allan could envision the Partisans of God releasing the Western hostages as part of a negotiated surrender.
This scenario captivates and excites Allan. I’m conflicted. Üçyol travesti I want to hope, of course; I want to believe that what’s unfolding around us is the beginning of the end of our captivity. There is a superstitious part of me that is especially tempted to believe because we are approaching the one-year anniversary of my kidnapping, March 11. Could this shift in the progress of the war be God’s way of arranging to get me home before I hit the one-year mark, or at least not long afterward? Yes, I remember—I cultivated a similar superstition about my six-month anniversary. But this time, I have better reasons to hope it might be true…
The more rational part of me knows better than to let myself race down that road. This part of me is suspicious of Allan’s excitement. Allan is an optimist by nature, which is good in that it keeps him buoyed up; but it has also led him in the past to become enthusiastic about prospects that we later had to recognize were Strange Ideas. So I make the effort to hold myself aloof from his excitement now. I’m wary of the ifs in his scenario, I don’t grant their plausibility as readily as he does.
Fishing for confirmation of his theorizing, Allan asks Waleed straight out what’s happening. He dangles specific possibilities in front of Waleed, the names of enemy parties, in hope of triggering a political rant that will give the truth away. Have the LRB destroyed the refugee camps? Did the Syrians help them? Are Christian forces moving into west Beirut? Is Israel advancing again?
Waleed doesn’t take the bait. He orders Allan not to ask questions. “It is not good for you to know things,” he snarls ominously.
Waleed’s dark mood persuades Allan that our captors are under pressure, which he takes as reason for us to hope. I, on the other hand, am frightened. If our captors get backed into a corner, might they kill us? Allan bats that fear aside: If our captors are in trouble, they need us all the more as bargaining chips. And they need to haul ass to close some kind of deal for us while they still can.
I pray for Allan’s optimistic analysis to be true, but I pray with greater fervor for our safety and for the strength to go on if Allan is wrong. I pray that things aren’t actually about to become worse for us for reasons that he isn’t foreseeing.
* * *
We wake on the first day of March to find that the French have disappeared. Their absence becomes apparent when the guards come to administer our toilet runs. They take Allan and me first, not the French. I feel a vindictive thrill: Finally, the French have to wait for a change! But the guards don’t take the French for their toilet runs after us. They don’t take the French to the bathroom all day. When the evening feeding comes, Allan and I hold perfectly still, listening. The guards don’t open the French hostages’ door. The next morning’s feedings and toilet runs confirm the new pattern. Allan and I are the only hostages in the apartment.
Allan doesn’t understand how the French could have been removed without either one of us hearing anything, especially given how restlessly I sleep. The night chill wakes me up, my need to pee wakes me up, the morning call to prayer wakes us both up briefly. Allan keeps hounding me. You’re sure you didn’t hear anything? Maybe you heard something and thought it was a dream. His obsession grates on my nerves, already frazzled from the tension of the past several days, plus now this latest destabilizing change. No, for the umpteenth time, I didn’t hear anything; forgive me for managing to sleep as soundly as you for once. Why does Allan need to figure out exactly what time the French left? The point is, they’re gone.
Allan wants, of course, to interpret the French hostages’ disappearance as a release. This is it: fire sale. Our captors are clearing out the inventory, cutting deals to get all the hostages off their hands. As supporting evidence for this interpretation, he cites the fact that the French were “snuck away.” As we learned from Paul and Donald, and as we saw ourselves when Robert was taken away, our captors don’t want other hostages to know when someone is going home.
Part of me wants to agree, the same part of me that’s superstitiously counting down the days to March 11. Another part of me feels obliged to point out to Allan that the French could just as plausibly have been transferred. If the war’s tide has turned against our captors, couldn’t that prompt them to move the hostages to more secure hiding places, like the Shouf prison?
Allan launches into a fastidious argument—fastidious because he’s attacking my hypothetical example, not my main point—about why it wouldn’t make any sense for our captors to transfer us back to the Shouf if they’re losing the war. The Shouf is Druze territory, and if there’s an alliance that’s been able to tighten the noose around the Partisans of God, the Druze have to be part of it…
I interrupt. I don’t want to fight with Alanya Travesti you about this, I tell him. I’m not trying to make you lose hope, but we’re not supposed to lose ourselves in hope, either. The only way I can do both those things is to keep both possibilities in mind at the same time. Maybe the French were released, maybe they were transferred. Maybe we’re about to be released, maybe we’re not. We have to recognize both as possibilities, so let’s not argue over which is right.
Allan is chastened. “You’re right. I’m sorry.”
A few days pass without any sign that the guards are getting ready to remove us from the apartment. The suspense is unbearable. Allan again tries posing direct questions to Waleed. What happened to the French hostages who used to be in the other room? Have they gone home? We’ve never before alluded to the other hostages in conversation with a guard, much less acknowledged that we know they’re French. Waleed angrily repeats his earlier warning against asking questions. Undeterred, Allan asks if we are going home. For the first time ever, Waleed hits Allan. He repeats: Don’t ask questions.
I take the risk of explaining to Waleed that if they’re planning to move us somewhere else, Allan and I don’t want to be separated. Please let us stay together.
Waleed doesn’t hit me, but he punishes our badgering him in a different way. From now on, he announces, we are not to speak at all without permission—not to each other, not to the guards. He enforces that rule for the rest of his two-day shift. Fortunately, Sayeed’s shift doesn’t enforce Waleed’s ultimatum, if they know about it in the first place.
Shower day comes. We’re made to bathe as hastily as usual, despite there being only two hostages showering now, not five. But at last something different happens. The guards don’t give us a new change of clothes; we have to keep wearing last week’s. I agree with Allan right away that this has to mean that a move of some kind is imminent, be it transfer or release. The hostages’ laundry service has been discontinued. This holding place is being shut down.
On March 6, after the evening feeding, all three guards come into our room. My heart leaps. Here we go… I’m told to stand. Across the room, I hear Allan being unchained; no one’s unchaining me, though. Now I’m terrified of a separation. Using the English he’s retained from his lessons with me, Hikmet informs Allan that he’s being taken to the toilet. I hear Allan pick up his pee bottle to carry with him, but Sayeed tells him no, so Allan puts it back on the floor. While one guard escorts Allan to the bathroom, the other two guards remove all his things from the room: bedding, tub, bottles. Then they remove my things. That relieves me—it’s a sign that both of us are going together after all. However, the fact that our things are going with us suggests that our destination is a new holding place, not home.
To my surprise, Allan is returned to the bedroom after his toilet run. Why is his mattress gone? he asks as the guards rechain him. No answer. After being taken to the bathroom, I too am rechained. The guards leave us locked in the bedroom, sitting on the bare floor. Some kind of activity goes on in the front of the apartment; I’m convinced the guards are packing up the things they removed from our room. We assume they’ll return for us shortly, after they’ve finalized their preparations for the move.
We wait. Nothing more happens. After a while, the guards go to bed. Evidently they expect Allan and me to sleep on the chilled floor, without blankets. In early March, the nights are still wintry cold. I curl up into as tight a ball as I can, with each of my hands tucked up the opposite sleeve of my sweater. At least I have flannel pajama bottoms; poor Allan is stuck with a pair of those flimsy silky bottoms.
Now I’m having doubts. Are we being punished? For asking questions? Allan doesn’t think so, he’s confident the move will happen sometime in the middle of the night or early morning. I wonder: Did the French spend their last night in this apartment shivering on the floor? For once, I feel sorry for them.
I pass a wretched night, unable to do more than skim the surface of sleep. Belatedly, I come to appreciate my mattress, which, when I had it, I always found too thin to be comfortable. I use the book I’ve been reading, the only thing they didn’t take from me, as a pillow. Outside, I hear a heavy rain falling. It falls all night. I don’t know if the temperature would actually be less cold if it weren’t raining, but I imagine I would feel less cold if I weren’t hearing the rain fall. I can’t believe I ever complained about having “only” one or two blankets.
Sometime in what I guess—hope—is the early morning hours, the phone rings. Finally, I think, we’re going. Because the guards left me without a bottle, I badly need to pee. I wait for our door to open. I keep waiting. After a time, I hear the call to prayer being broadcast Konyaaltı travesti outside. The guards pray, then return to bed. I doze fitfully.
Outside our sealed windows, the world begins its day, but the guards are in no hurry to start theirs. I’m so desperate to void my bladder that I risk angering them by knocking on the wall. Eventually Mohammed enters, surly, to take me to the bathroom.
When the guards bring us breakfast, Allan demands to know if we’re leaving the apartment today. He poses the question in French, since with the French hostages gone, there’s no longer any point in concealing that he knows their language. After a startled beat, Sayeed growls, “Ne me parle pas, fils de pute.” Allan persists: If we aren’t leaving, we need our things back.
No such luck. We spend the next three days on the bare floor, with no possessions. Since we no longer have pee bottles, the guards consent to take us to the bathroom during the day if we knock on the wall, but they warn me not to wake them up during the night. We have to ask the guards to bring us glasses of water when they feed us. They seem to think that the tea they serve should be enough to quench our thirst—or maybe they would prefer that our bladders remain empty for their own convenience. I can tell the guards are annoyed by my need to pee frequently in small quantities. I can’t help it, assholes. If you don’t like it, give me my bottle back.
Without our tubs, we no longer have candles, which I could have used as a last-ditch heat source. When the power’s out, we lie in a pitch-black room. We don’t have toothbrushes or tissues. Allan has to cadge individual cigarettes from the guards throughout the day.
Our most urgent need is to get our blankets back, but the only concession we receive on that count is that Hikmet brings us the two bathroom towels designated for hostages, plus an extra towel for me since I’m not lying next to the radiator. I suspect the extra towel is his own. I use one towel as a blanket and the other as a mat. While I’ll gladly accept any additional layer against the cold, the towels make a negligible difference. Allan lobbies for the guards to chain me to the radiator, but to no avail. Because the drop in temperature prevents us from sleeping at night, we get most of our rest during the day.
The guards are as paranoid as ever about not letting our chains rattle on the floor—a big problem, now that we no longer have mattresses. As a result, Allan and I are required to be even more sparing than usual in our movements. Fortunately, the guards ease back this restriction once they’ve had the idea of wrapping our chains in tape, so they’ll make a less metallic sound when dragged across the floor.
I retain my conviction that we’re being transferred somewhere; there’s just been some last-minute delay. The reason the guards won’t return our possessions, I’ve decided, is that the setback could be resolved at any moment, so the guards wouldn’t have time to repack. That’s my optimistic reading of our deprivation. A more pessimistic read is that Sayeed is retaliating for our having concealed that we both know some French.
Allan spins his own interpretation, one that allows him to keep hoping we’re being released. Because we’re going home, the guards have closed up shop. They’ve either thrown our things away or carted reusable items, like blankets and mattresses, off to their own homes. In my frozen, sleep-deprived misery, I carp at Allan’s theory despite my earlier insistence that I didn’t want to fight over such things. Why wouldn’t the guards wait until we’re actually gone to discard or requisition our possessions? Allan digs back: Why am I concluding so decisively, from the taking away of our possessions, that we’re being transferred? Our possessions have never accompanied us on a transfer before.
On March 8, the last day of the weekend shift, Hikmet brings us a late-night glass of tea. It’s an act of mercy, a small measure to fortify us against the cold. He lingers after serving us so he can take our empty glasses back with him. The door is ajar; off in the front of the apartment, the television blares. That noise provides cover for what I do next.
“Hikmet,” I plead quietly, “when do we go? Boukrah?”
He hesitates quite a while before answering. Then he crouches next to me so that he can whisper. “How d’you say: tss, tss, tss, tss, tss?” I have no idea what he’s trying to communicate. He tries again. “Listen,” he tells me. The radiator’s too feeble to hiss, so all I hear is the dreary, frigid sound of the rain falling outside. That sound has been oppressing us for the past two days. Hikmet taps on the wall with all his fingers, a dancing patter. He repeats: “Tss, tss, tss, tss, tss, tss, tss.”
“Rain,” I tell him.
He echoes the word, patches it into a makeshift sentence. “Is not rain—you go.”
While finishing my tea, I debate whether to try to find out where we’re going. I don’t know if I should reward Hikmet’s kindness by pressuring him for still more information he surely is not supposed to give. My nerve fails, I don’t ask before he collects our glasses and leaves. Allan doesn’t fish, either. “Thank you, Hikmet,” I say, but he doesn’t reply, just closes the door.
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