Amid an endless war, a writer returns to the Middle East to find that his Syrian friend has escaped the bombs only to be trapped on the front line between fact and fantasy.
“This is an interview with the future gangster of one of the bloodiest gangs in Beirut,” says Habib, and laughs when I place the recorder in front of him. His phone rings. “Allo, eh? Kifak?” and I sit back in my chair.
It is the end of May 2014, and we are outside the Tomate Cerise café, shaded by a ficus tree from the late-morning sun. I can hardly recognize the man across the table as the friend I have known for two years, as if, while I was away from Lebanon, a vortex opened within him and he has been sucked into it.
Habib’s slender, twenty-seven-year-old frame has shrunk, skeletal beneath his T-shirt. His skin is bone pale, his cheeks sharp, and where once his jawline was clean, a thick black beard has sprouted. His short-cropped hair is longer and slicked back. A mutual friend says Habib has taken on the peculiar style of a Free Syrian Army (FSA) fighter from the Damascus countryside.
Habib was arrested along Beirut’s Mar Mikhael bar strip in April and spent a month locked up on drug charges. He was released after his father arrived from Syria and paid roughly $10,000 in bribes, nearly bankrupting the family.
All this would have left anyone in a bad spot, but Habib’s troubles had started well before his arrest.
* * *
“Habib,” which means “lover” in Arabic, is not his real name, but I use it here to protect his family, who would risk arrest, or worse, at regime checkpoints in Damascus if his real name was printed.
He and I met in August 2012 at an electronic music festival in a wooded valley in Lebanon’s Chouf Mountains. We happened to pitch tents in neighboring plots; he and his friends had come across the Syrian border for a break from the revolution and I’d taken an extended weekend off from the business magazine in Beirut where I was then editor. As psychedelic trance music thundered from the main stage downriver, I broke half a pill of MDMA into his palm. It sucks being dry at a festival, and this being his first, it was only proper to sort him out.
Habib would later say that the way we met didn’t just “break the ice” — it was as if there was no ice left at all. Even after the drugs and the festival, we could see something of ourselves in the other, like shared DNA. We had similar sensitivities to life: We felt things in the same way, we were just born on different sides of the world. His degree in English literature also let us communicate in the same language.
Habib and his friends told me how they had joined the protests against their government that began in the spring of 2011. Listening to their experiences from the uprising, I began to fathom how shallow my understanding of it was, and how much I had conceived of Syrians as two-dimensional caricatures.
Frankly, as a white Canadian it had been easier for me that way. When the conflict was good versus evil – those aspiring for freedom against a tyrannical regime – I could understand it; when I could place Syrians into clear-cut and well-known archetypes – a refugee, a fighter, an activist, a regime thug or a religious fanatic – I could understand them too.
Nuance, I realized, is the sinew that connects representations to reality, and in meeting Habib and his friends I began to see my own “understanding” as detached. I had been in Lebanon almost seven years by then and yet these were my first Syrian friends, and talking with them was like taking my own “red pill”; it located me within a new reality, one that I was going to have to figure out all over again.
Their stories opened my mind to the dark humor and incongruities of their country’s armed conflict – like the story they told me of a taxi driver in Damascus who sped away from a firefight only to jam on the breaks just in time for the speed camera. Then there was the one about the regime soldier in the eastern city of Deir ez-Zor who would walk through rebel-held areas every day on his way to the hill, where he would fire artillery back onto the town, only to be greeted and welcomed back through those areas he’d shelled on his way home from work at night. The catch was that in four months he’d only killed six people; he’d been firing shells into parks and abandoned lots. If he refused to shoot at all, residents knew he might be replaced with someone more malicious, and so they let him know every day that they appreciated his efforts.
On and on their stories came. This felt like a book. Soon after we met I suggested that I record our conversations. Habib agreed. What neither of us could have anticipated then, however, was how the writing of this story itself would later begin to weigh on its outcome.
* * *
In the months following the festival a series of car bombs, unclaimed by any particular group, began to rock Habib’s neighborhood of Jaramana, a regime stronghold in eastern Damascus. He himself nearly died in a double car bombing in late November 2012 that killed more than a hundred others.
Between December 2012 and March 2013, Habib saw one friend arrested by Air Force Intelligence and another kidnapped by an FSA brigade; broke his heart over one girl and fell in love with another; was unable to find steady work and had to say goodbye to his best friend in the world, who moved with his pregnant wife, an American, to New York.
“The fucking FSA is killing us,” Habib wrote me in March 2013, furious after a mortar landed by his girlfriend’s house. She was laughing when she told him. I said that it sounded as if they were all going insane.
“We are, indeed,” he replied.
Weeks later, I drove my motorcycle over the mountains from Beirut, across the Bekaa Valley to a quiet Lebanese village near the Syrian border where Habib and his family had sought solace at the house of an uncle. There he told me he thought the armed opposition is just as wicked as the regime, only weaker, and that in the balance of evils it would be better if the regime stayed.
In the summer of 2013, complications with my Lebanese visa forced me to leave the country. I worried for Habib. He could not afford Beirut and was wasting away in that Lebanese village, and when the days full of nothing became too much to bear, he eventually returned to Damascus.
“Life is kind of empty for me,” he wrote me that fall, but at least he was home, even if in war.
His limited choices made it hard for me not to feel undeserving of my own passport, which opens the world of possibilities to me. I wrote to him about my travels though, of how I went to find lost love in Vancouver – I thought I could offer him a window into another life, an escape for his mind from time to time. He was never begrudging, just said he was lucky to have a brother like me.
Communication was tough, and Habib and I lost track of each other often. The civil war was weakening the regime’s ability to supply power to the capital and Damascus was having electricity blackouts daily. Internet access was likewise intermittent.
I don’t know what happened to him before he left Syria again in February 2014, but in his wake the stories rolled out of Beirut. One mutual friend told me it was as if Habib would reach out for a favor with one hand and then slap you with the other. He hustled everyone we knew for money while constantly talking about the schemes that would imminently make him rich. He drank and he raged. He smoked hash like a lit fuse. Many of his friends from Damascus had preceded his move to Beirut – few had spent as much time in their city at war – but Habib burned through so many of his friendships that he began sleeping odd nights on the streets.
When word spread that he had been arrested this April, some of us hoped that a little time behind bars might do Habib some good, force him to slow down, cool off, get his wits back about him, until a friend pointed out that this is not jail in Finland – Lebanese incarceration is not about rehabilitation.
I arrive back in Lebanon nine days after he is released and meet him at the Tomate Cerise café the next morning.
* * *
Habib has sent his single espresso back for a triple, which sits steaming beside his vodka-and-apple-juice that drips cold condensation on the table. He tells me he hasn’t slept in three days.
I ask who it was on the phone.
Abbas. Our go-to hash dealer. The two of them arranged to meet.
“I covered his ass,” says Habib. “I didn’t call his name in the fucking interrogation. They told me one thing: ‘Either you sleep for five years, or you get the source to sleep five years.’ I told them ‘I’ll sleep instead of him.”
Abbas has already served six years in Roumieh prison, and Habib says that if Abbas is busted again he will go down for another five or have to pay $100,000.
“All his family would be fucked, he would be drained out of money — khalas [it’s over]. He would become the same as a cockroach again.” For taking the fall, Abbas owes him, has a duty to cover at least some of the money Habib’s father paid to have him released; Abbas, evidently, disagrees.
“In a nice way, I threatened him,” says Habib, recounting the last time he and Abbas met. “I told him, ‘Next time I’m stopped, I’ll call your name because you didn’t appreciate my favor, dude. I’m fucked-up, I’m drowning in debt from saving your ass and as a friend I’m calling you to help me now.’”
Abbas had replied in kind, saying that his tribe from the Bekaa Valley are not simple hash farmers and dealers but fighters and among the Lebanese who are crossing into Syria to fight with the regime against the revolution.
“You are a very small fish for me,” Abbas told Habib.
“I might look like a small fish, but I’m a whale, believe me,” Habib replied.
“He started laughing,” says Habib, “and I laughed too – you know, it’s a joke; but it’s real. If he tries to fuck around with me, I’m going to fuck his god.”
Eventually, I pay our bill inside and we walk. He asks for the money I can spare and I give him the lone bill in my wallet, 50,000 Lebanese Lira ($33). Before we part ways, he says he’ll have the money back to me tonight after he sees Abbas. Walking away, it is the first of several times over the next two months when I wonder if I’ll see him alive again.
* * *
The United Nations has declared Syria the biggest humanitarian emergency of our era. A country of roughly twenty-three million people before the uprising, “almost half of all Syrians have now been forced to abandon their homes and flee for their lives,” the UN reported this summer. Three million of those displaced fled to neighboring countries, with Lebanon taking in more than one million people.
By May 31, the war’s death toll had passed 160,000 and bombings and battles continued to rage in locations across the country. Amongst the litany of horrific videos to emerge online that day was one purportedly showing ISIS militants executing captured FSA soldiers north of Homs, a city in western Syria, and dumping their bodies in a well. Another showed a massive explosion near a market in the Old City of Aleppo that left dozens dead – another Islamist group claimed to have dug under a base housing pro-regime fighters and planted the bomb.
This same night in the Beirut neighborhood of Gemmayzeha, a two-and-a-half-hour drive northwest from Damascus, the war could almost be forgotten. Almost.
Inside Yukunkun, DJ Format is headlining the Beirut Groove Collective party. Habib and I are out on the stairs leading down to the bar and dance floor, having a smoke and chatting as people around us do the same.
He made $2,000 in commissions today, he says, by finding an investor for a local stock brokerage. This is his route to fortune within six months, he says. With that fortune he is going to start his gang, and with this gang he is going to go to war with Lebanese Intelligence, who he blames for his time in jail and his debt. He is going to kill the people “who fucked me.”
This is not the conversation people around us are having.
“Give me six months dude, and you’ll see,” says Habib. “In six months I will be drinking blood. Walla [by God], just wait. I will give you some good stories to write about.”
I tell him I’m on another life-tip these days, that I am more the striving-for-peace-love-and-harmony kind of guy.
“I know,” he acknowledges, and that seems to reach him, catch him for a moment. “I am furious,” he finally says.
He then asks to borrow $200 and I tell him, “I don’t have any money, dude.” He says he is spending 80,000LL ($50) per day on coffee and has stopped sleeping. He asks me if I want any drugs, saying that he has cocaine, meth and morphine, and that this comes from a friend who shoots up some liquefied cocaine blend at night while Habib snorts.
I drank too much last night, I say; hard drugs now would put me in a bad place tomorrow.
* * *
When Habib was still festering in jail this spring, one of the inmates with whom he says he made friends was a man who used to kill people in Damascus for a monthly fee of 18,000 Syrian pounds – roughly $400 before the uprising, now less. Since his own release, Habib says he has been working with his lawyer to get the killer released as well. This is supposed to happen in a fortnight. As repayment, the killer told Habib, “The first three people you want dead, I’ll do for free. After that, you’ll have to pay me $100 each.”
And so one evening over another triple espresso by Sassine Square in Beirut, with headlights and horns streaming past us on the patio, Habib tells me he is going to have Abbas killed. Habib will give the killer Abbas’s number, then fly to Istanbul to have an alibi. The killer will arrange a deal with Abbas and go to his house to buy the hash. Once they have done the exchange the killer will pull out a gun, say “this is for Habib” and put seven pieces of lead in Abbas’s head. I will know that Abbas is dead, know that Habib is not bullshitting, when the killer calls me on Abbas’s phone.
“Do not give my number to anyone,” I say, “I want no part of any of this.”
But the gravity of Habib’s intentions smash my certainty that he is making this up. In his mix of lucid rationality and wild hyperbole I am losing track of where reality ends and fiction begins; everything he says seems to have blurred into distant plausibility. Habib has become the gangster of this indefinite space where it is unclear to me whether even he believes his own words.
It is getting harder for me to remember his humanity. The prospect that Habib has the intention and capacity to send someone to kill Abbas is terrifying. And then there is the most likely scenario, that Habib is sewing a personal mythology from the threads of trauma and imagination. I can not know for certain. People who kill people are still people. You may not believe what they say because it is so unbelievable, but that does not mean they are not going to do it. When Habib tells me he is going to have Abbas killed, he is calm, his pupils are black marbles and his irises cloudy. When he describes how Abbas will die, I can see Abbas dying.
In a different country, perhaps I could take Habib to a mental health facility, or call the police, but these are social controls for elsewhere. In Lebanon, institutions like these often magnify problems more than resolve them.
Later that week I take Habib for lunch. We eat lamb shawarmas and I give him a sheet of paper listing seventeen symptoms of mania – euphoria, grandiose thinking, aggressive and risky behavior, racing thoughts, careless use of drugs and alcohol, decreased need for sleep, etc. – and he hands it back the next week with check marks beside every one. I may have mania, he says, but that is what I need now to survive.
He tells me that he burned his emotions. One night after half a liter of vodka, he lay on a concrete plinth that became a pyre and, in his mind, placed his family and all his friends – “including you,” he says pointedly – into a pile and poured gasoline on us and cried as he watched us burn. He fell asleep and awoke in the morning feeling nothing.
“I can’t have emotions and survive on the street,” says Habib. “I’d be crying for my mother.”
Days later a street fight leaves him with a limp. Another day his body just seems to shut down and I find him passed out in a hospital bed. Nothing phases him. I feel my own mind slipping over a ledge. I ask him why he is doing this to himself; why he is making the people who love him suffer with worry. He replies that he knows what he’s doing and that if I knew him I wouldn’t worry.
“Journalistic standards” dictate that writers should normally never show their subjects the story before it is published, but at this point I don’t care; letting him read what I am proposing to write seems like the only option left to hold up a mirror for him, show him what he is doing to himself. Yes, I am actively trying to change the story I am writing, hoping that it can have a happy ending.
He agrees with my structure but says we need to work on many of the specifics with which he disagrees, and then I worry that writing about his life is only making it worse as he seeks to make manifest the stories by which he wants me to immortalize him.
“How can I trust anything you say?” I ask him.
“It might all be bullshit, everything,” he replies. “You can think whatever you want, but inside myself I know what is true and that is all that matters.”
What is alarming, however, is that hints of the reality he conceived seem to be pushing up through the water, on the cusp of breaking the surface.
* * *
“Where are you?”
It’s mid-June and I’m at a friend’s on the east side of Beirut. The way Habib is speaking on the phone is like there is some pressing reason we need to meet. My gut reflex is to wish to be as far away as possible.
An empty echo behind his voice makes me think he is in a cell. He tells me he has a suite by the beach and a car, to pack what I need to write and he will come by in an hour to get me. Just me and him, working on the book. If what he says is actually true, it might be nice, but I cannot bring myself to believe it is. And do I really want to be in car with Habib? No. I do not want to be his passenger. Maybe I can take my motorcycle and meet him there.
My paranoia sparks. Is this a setup? Has he gotten himself in trouble again? Is he with the police now, calling me, having told them I am some prize they would want that he can get for them? That is a terrible thought, one I have no right to. Habib would not betray me. But having witnessed his dive into criminality and how he has turned on others for perceived slights, my paranoia ignites.
Why am I seeing him at all? I don’t know anymore. Am I doing this for the friendship we once had? Still have? Am I seeking to bear witness to a tragedy just to write about it? I have no answers.
No beach. I’ll meet him, but I don’t recognize the name of the place he is at. His usual spot is Coffee Bean on Hamra Street on Beirut’s west side, and so I assume (correctly) that he got in a fight and was kicked out. We’ll meet at the beginning of Hamra and go from there.
Forty-five minutes later outside the café, Habib says to me: “You know the mafia gang I was talking about? I started it two days ago. I have a bodyguard now. He’s inside.”
Friends from prison have connected Habib with their friend on the outside, who also doubles as a driver, and for his protection and chauffeur services Habib is paying $100 per day.
This is the kind of statement I cannot believe, and so I don’t. Inside, the café seems empty save for a lone coffee drinker typing on his laptop by the window. All clear. And then we walk towards the back. Around a corner to the left by the bar Habib introduces me to a man sitting at a table – Abu Ali.
At first, I think him slim for a bodyguard until I notice his arms and shoulders cut with tight muscle, like someone in the special forces or a martial artist. Tattoos on both upper arms peek out from under the sleeves of his T-shirt, and around his neck on a thin gold chain hangs a dime-sized gold pendant of an open Koran. His beard is trimmed to afternoon shadow, short black hair sprinkled salt and pepper, slightly slicked back. I think he takes a photo of me with his smart phone as soon as I sit down, in the guise of typing a message.
They speak, or rather, Habib makes wide gestures with his arms and sounds verbose while Abu Ali, expressionless, nods occasionally and says nothing. I am thankful my Arabic is too poor to follow. I may think Habib spins fantasies, but this thug is real. I don’t know who he is. I don’t want to know who he is. More than that I don’t want him to know who I am.
Don’t run. Act normal. Order tea.
Habib asks if I want to work on the book.
“It doesn’t seem like the place,” I say, but in mentioning it in front of Abu Ali I am hit with a thought: I am not the only one crafting a story here. Just as I am using the people Habib tells me about to characterize him by association for you, the reader of this story, Habib is using me to characterize himself in the stories he is telling these people. I’m the writer documenting his deeds for a book. ‘Yeah right,’ they might balk – they must, as I do, doubt the veracity of many of his claims – except I’ve just shown up in real life.
In Abu Ali and I seeing that the other person actually exists, we have become enablers for everything else Habib weaves into the narrative he tells each of us. Me meeting Abu Ali is like a sliver of truth that shines in the haze and makes me question my conviction that the other things Habib says are untrue. I must be doing the same for Abu Ali.
I stand, a full cup of tea steaming in front of me.
“I got to go.”
“Where are you going?” asks Habib.
“I just have to go.”
Habib says he is going to see his family in the village but will call me in two hours, come by and take me to the suite on the beach. Tonight we will get fucked on coke but tomorrow morning we will work on the book. Sure, maybe, just give me a call. We slap hands and pound fists and I leave, saying nothing to Abu Ali.
I walk outside, mount my motorcycle, zip up my black riding jacket, slip my helmet on and draw down the sun visor. I speed away, not knowing where I am headed, just knowing I need to get away, knowing that he will not call me in two hours.
* * *
“This is my friend from Homs.”
Habib is introducing me to Tarik, who has stepped up to our table on the café terrace. Tarik is slim beneath his worn T-shirt, a child’s smile on his clean-shaven face with an absence in his eyes. They stand together and small-talk in Arabic about work, a mutual acquaintance and the asylum file Tarik has just submitted to the United Nations. Habib then clasps Tarik’s shoulder and excuses us, saying we’ll be another half hour.
“He’s been in jails, like me,” says Habib, as Tarik weaves his way back through the din of conversation hanging over the crowded tables, “but not as much as me.”
Tarik had been an activist in Homs, says Habib, video-documenting the peaceful months of the uprising. When peers began to die he got scared, quit, broke his SIM card and unplugged from the Internet. He could not turn the tide of events and so the horrors he saw stole his agency. Powerless and afraid, he isolated himself from reality.
“Like blinding yourself to the truth that you know in your heart,” says Habib, “but you can’t do anything to change it, so you make yourself blind.”
Last year Tarik lost his mind and recently has been talking about suicide. He’s surrendered this life. Game over.
“I’m trying to help him,” says Habib, trying to ignite a rage in Tarik to continue to fight, regardless. “I’m not telling him ‘this is your path,’ or ‘this is not.’ I’m trying to give him some advice to help him find his way out of his maze.”
The irony strikes me. “See, I’m trying to do that with you.”
“Yeah maybe, but somebody does good to you, you need to pass it over to someone else,” says Habib. “He’s in a maze, it’s too big for him to find his way out. I can see it from above. You’re seeing my maze from above too. It’s a chain.”
He speaks of the interconnection between all human beings. Directly or indirectly, the consequences of one person’s choices and what happens in their lives spreads through this web to people they will never meet. In the relationship between any two of these people there are two currents, with the contours of their exchange defined by the individuals.
“Between you and I,” says Habib, “I don’t know who is influencing the other more, but for sure we are influencing each other so much. What do you believe?”
* * *
Habib sends me a text message in mid-July saying that he is at the police station in Hamra. I later find out he failed a drug test, which had been ordered as a condition of his previous release, and will spend another month in jail as a result. I leave Beirut before Habib is released again in August.
There are obvious ethical considerations to take into account when writing about someone who is in a possible state of mania. By September, Habib – by both his account and the accounts of mutual friends – is much more calm and working at getting his life back on track. I send him this story to read and discuss before it is published. There are several things with which he takes exception and so I offer him space in this story to express what those things are, and he says, “I think you have a problem with understanding me.”
Habib accuses me of being unfair to him, of having taken things he said just after he was released from prison, when he was still “raging with anger,” as reflecting his true intentions. By doing so I have set up the dichotomy for you, the reader, in which you will wonder whether Habib followed through with the things he said he’d do – such as having Abbas killed – or he didn’t; in the first case, well, there are the obvious “problems,” as Habib put it, and in the latter case you would be forced to conclude that Habib is either “a liar, a dodger or I was having mental problems.”
The truth, he says, is beyond the structure I have imposed on this story: “When I get furious I say things that I don’t necessarily do in the future. What I threaten is something I surely can do, but I do not in the end because I know it is bad.”
Part of my confusion, he says, comes from my poor Arabic.
“Let’s take the scene where you met Abu Ali; him and I were talking and you were imagining stuff. This would not happen if you spoke Arabic.”
“But you should know that I’m not making up stories or lying to you,” he says. “The people I talk about are real, even if you did not meet them. I’m friends with a large number of gangsters here in Beirut and when I intend to do something bad I can – but I do not want to in the first place, because it is not me.”
* * *
Spencer Osberg is a freelance journalist and editor who has been based in Beirut since 2005. He is currently writing a book about friends from Damascus and their paths through the Syrian uprising.
Sage Barlow is a freelance illustrator living in San Francisco. Check out more of her illustrations and paintings at www.sagebarlow.com.