The Boy From Beirut

There had been no time to change into uniform after the day’s walk. And now as I walked back after a late dinner with some friends to the flat I shared with a friend, I was mildly hoping I would not meet the Provost Marshal, when I observed a civilian leaning over the side of the little bridge which spans the Barrada. I noticed him because for a moment I thought he was going to throw himself into the water, and it occurred to me that since the Barrada is only a few geet deep at that point he could be extricated easily. However, as I walked closer to the bridge I saw that he was looking not at the water but towards the gharry horses on the other side where drivers waited for stray fares. As I crossed the bridge he greeted me in Arabic.

“Good evening.”
“Good evening to you.”
“You speak Arabic?”
“No. Only a little.” I began to move away.
“Are you an officer?” From his black suit and tie I guessed he was an Arab waiter from the hotel.
“Do you speak French?”
“Why did you stop when you saw me standing on the bridge?” He spoke French with only a slight accent.
“How did you know I stopped?”
“I was listening to your footsteps.”
“I just thought of something, that’s all,” I said evasively. He turned round and stared at my face.
“You’re sure there was no other reason?”

It was my turn to stare at him.

“What’s it to do with you if there was.”

He smiled nervously. I noticed as he smiled that he was quite young – only about twenty-three or so. I had thought, perhaps from his neat dark clothes or perhaps from the little sags of flesh under his eyes, that he was older.

“Excuse me, please, if my question was indiscreet.”
“Indiscreet?” I felt I was getting out of my depth.
“Yes. There obviously was a reason.” For a moment I could think of nothing to say.
“Please tell me what it was,” he said. I checked a stupid impulse to run away and forget I had ever seen him.
“Oh well, if you insist. I thought you were going to jump in.”
“To kill myself?”

He laughed, rather pleasantly. He sounded relieved of some worry.

“You have never seen me before?”
“Never in my life.”
“And I have never seen you before in my life,” he said, smiling up at me. He was small and delicately made, more like a bedu than a Syrian, with wide eyes and a firm mouth. But his hands twisted nervously together as he stood looking at me.

“You wonder now what my question was about,” he said in such a friendly way that I did not like to rebuff him. Besides, I was rather intrigued.

“What was it about?”

The haunted look had vanished, and he was now almost cheerful.

“I had never seen you before, but I wanted to know if you had seen me before,” he said. “But how could you have seen me if I did not see you?” he asked smiling.
“In lots of ways. You might haye been looking the other way, for instance.”
“In lots of ways. That’s it. In lots of ways. I might have been asleep.” He seemed to relish his mystery.
“Will you have a drink?” he asked suddenly.
“I think every place is shut.”

He fished in his coat pocket and produced a half bottle of brandy.

“There’s a coffee place still open where the drivers go. We can drink this there if you like.”

I hesitated. I was not dressed as an officer.

“All right.”

The dingy cafe was not far from the bridge. I ordered two Turkish coffees and two glasses.

“At least the coffee is on me,” I said as he poured out the brandy. “That’s enough. Really.”

“I’ll show you how to drink this stuff.” he said, and poured himself out a full tumbler.
“A la vôtre.” He drank deeply.
“What’s your name?”
“How old are you?”
“Twenty-one,” he said. “How old are you?”
“Twenty-six. Do you work in Damascus?”
“I used to. But now I work in Beirut. I have only come here to see my mother. Tomorrow I shall return to Beirut.” He swallowed another gulp of brandy. His face was flushed and his fingers writhed nervously.

“Are you a Christian?”

He saw what I meant and smiled. “Yes. But nowadays many Moslems drink.”

“I know. What is your job?”
“I work in a shop.”
“What kind of shop?”
“I work in Beirut.”
“But what kind of shop?”

He did not seem to hear my question. Suddenly I saw that his hands were trembling. I looked up at his face. He was staring at a gharry driver sitting at the next table, I glanced at the driver. He was a stout, red-faced man in a tattered black coat. There was nothing frightening about him. I turned to Faris. Then I noticed he was not staring at the driver but at the whip which was leaning against the wall by the man’s table.

“Faris. Faris.”
“Yes?” He turned away with an effort. “What kind of shop do you work in?”
“Do you see that whip?” he said. He was breathing heavily.
“Oh, it is cruel, cruel. Look out of the window. By the lamp-post, do you see that horse? Look at the way the haunch bones jerk out of its flesh. Look at the skeleton of its ribs. And if a fare comes the driver will lash it into a trot with that whip. He will lash it until blood comes.”

He paused for a moment, staring wildly.

“You want to know about me, don’t you? Well, I’ll tell you. I was born on a farm. I grew up with animals. I was the only child and I had no friends to play with. But the animals were my friends, and my parents who were good Christians taught me to be kind to them. When my father died the farm was sold and my mother brought me to Damascus. I was about twelve years old and I remember quite well I was standing one wet day on that bridge where we met, when a horse pulling a gharry slipped and fell. The driver leapt down with his whip and began slashing it. The frightened horse stumbled again and sprawled on the ground. The driver got furious and struck it horribly with his whip. I was frightened. But I could bear it no longer. I rushed to the driver and begged him to stop. I tried to snatch the whip away from him. Then he raised his whip and slashed me across the face. And while I stood dazed he slashed at my chest. I ran away crying to my mother, who told me that men were cruel to animals because no-one had taught them that animals are our friends. I promised that evening I would dedicate my life to stopping cruelty to animals.”

He drank deeply and coughed. His eyes were glittering.

“As the years went by I discovered and tried to stop all kinds of cruelty to animals. In the east we treat our animals far worse, I am told, than you do. I fought against this cruelty. You have no idea how many devices men have for being cruel to beasts. There are the long raking whips of the gharry-drivers, the spiked goad for the poor little donkey, the sharp thong for the mule, the bar of nails attached to the camel’s cheek so that it must follow the caravan or the nails stick into it, and the long spurs of the riders. All these I tried to stop. I tried to prevent animals being beaten beneath their load day after day until they dropped dead. And when I got tired or despondent I would think of that horse on the Barrada bridge. I would think of the blows raining down on its heaving flanks, and I would go on working. I met others who felt as I did in a society for preventing this cruelty, and gradually we began to make progress by teaching drivers that animals were their friends and by stopping, partially at least, the manufacture of some of the more cruel devices.”

He lowered his voice so that it came out with a curious hissing sound. His fingers never stopped writhing together as he spoke.

“A year ago my friends made me join a political youth club. Previously I hadn’t been much interested in politics, but at this club I saw for the first time the importance of laws and freedom. It was as if I had lived all my life without being able to see the stars and the moon but now could observe them for the first time. I now had a second cause, the cause of my country’s liberty. I volunteered to take a part in the demonstration which was being planned. Well, I dare say you heard about it. The crowd got out of control. There were accidents and property was damaged. That night three members of our committee were arrested by the French police. I was one of them. They wanted the names of the rest.”

All his limbs were trembling now, and his eyes were staring horribly into the comer.

“I was put into a cell by myself. The door was slammed, and I was left alone until noon the next day, when a soldier came in and fastened a bandage tight around my eyes.

“‘What’s that for?’ I asked. He said I would see in time. He told me to strip. Then I understood. I was going to be beaten. The bandage was so that I could not see who was beating me. The soldier tore the last clothes from my body when he heard footsteps approaching the door. Then I heard a click as the door opened. I heard the stamp of his feet as he sprang to attention. I heard two people, two people, walk into my cell.”

His voice had sunk into a hoarse whisper, and his hands were clenched together.

“Then I heard one of them say, “’Quel joli buste a fouetter!’”

I started. The whole timbre of his voice had changed. The accent was so perfect and vivid that for a moment I thought I recognised the voice.

“What a nice body to beat!” he repeated.

“Then I heard the whistle of the whip as it screamed down on my naked body, and my flesh was seared with pain. I tried not to cry out, but the anguish was terrible as he lashed into me. Then suddenly as the fresh bars of pain pierced me and I felt the blood trickling down my sides, I thought, ‘This is how the poor horse feels when his flanks are slashed by the driver. My body is quivering like his. Blood is oozing from me as I have seen it from him.’ Then I must have lost consciousness, for when I woke up sticky with blood I was alone.

“I could recognise the voice of the man who beat me. The other man never spoke. The soldier told me it was an English officer, but I think he said that because he knew I liked the English. But I’m never sure. I’m never sure.”

He gulped down his brandy. “If you’ll excuse me. I feel rather ill. I think I should go home,” he said thickly.

We got up. He stood trembling by the table.

“After a bit they got tired of beating me about, and I was released. I returned to Damascus.” He was still still staring at the whip.

“The next day I was walking along the street when I saw a driver slashing at his horse. As I ran forward to plead with him, and if that failed, to wrest the whip from him by force, suddenly I thought, ‘That horse might be me and it isn’t’. And I …”

His voice came in hoarse gasps.

“I was glad. I was glad. Suddenly I wanted to say to the driver, ‘Go on. Lam into him. Slash him hard.’”

He swayed a little and buried his face in his hands. Then he looked up with bloodshot eyes.

“Perhaps I’ll get decent again. Perhaps one day I’ll look at those starved horses on the bridge and feel as I did as a boy. It was all right then. I hated it then. I swear I did. I’ve come out the wrong side now, that’s all. I’m just vicious. And I work in the right place.”

He began to retch, and stumbled to the door. I tried to help him.

“Leave me alone, I beseech you. Good night.” he said quickly, and rushed away.

The squalid proprietor came in to be paid for the coffee. He spoke in French so I asked him if he knew where Faris worked. He gave me a wink.

“I don’t know if you’d call it work. He’s the boy in a brothel in Beirut.”

Robin Maugham

The Boy From Beirut is taken from The Black Tent and Other Stories by Robin-Maugham. Edited and Introduced by Peter Burton, to be published by W. H. Allen in the Autumn, 1973.