Friday, September 23, 2016

This is Jalala by Nadia Elkadri

Photo: Associated Press
Any horror is better than your own.

It was our third scary movie in a row, and at this rate I knew I wouldn’t get any sleep that night. Seeing as sleep was a commodity in the region, I requested that my Movie Night friends could perhaps try watching something a tad lighter. I will never forget the looks they gave me. Horror movies were their standard fare, and it’s a sentiment shared by the the majority of the population. A great psychologist (whom I see every day in the mirror) once said, “People hide behind the things they are hiding from.” If my friends, my distant relatives, and all of those people I see queuing up for The Conjuring: Part 2 are all hiding behind horror movies, then the thing they are hiding from must be, theoretically, equally or exceedingly terrifying. What, I ask, can it possibly be?

Jalala is a small town in a small region in a small country that goes by the name of Lebanon. It’s smack-dab in the middle of Israel and Syria, who are embroiled in a centuries-old conflict that just happened to escalate. Bombings are the norm, and prepubescent soldiers roam the streets, their guns hardly drawing a glance. Travel advisories from all of the major countries hem and haw, but they all basically tell you the same thing: don’t touch the place with a ten-foot pole.

So here I am in Jalala, sitting on the porch that hasn’t changed in a decade. A plastic bag floats across the sky and my cousin, Rana, points it out, wryly asking me “See how beautiful Lebanon is?” The bag’s flight path is interrupted by a billboard advertising the army, which is fairly unnecessary considering the fact that the army’s presence can be felt around every corner. A four-wheeler blazes past, reluctantly carrying four fully grown adults. It is then and there that I learn the general rule of thumb regarding vehicles here: “fit as many people as there are wheels.” I am grateful to Rana for letting go of the awkward silence that threatened to overwhelm us ever since the morning when I compared bees stinging people to suicide bombers. The way she froze, you can tell I cracked their well-crafted façade of progress.

Lebanon is beautiful in its backwards simplicity.

Its beauty can only be seen in the light--not the oppressive sun or the stars and moon hidden by layers of pollution, but human-made light. Every technological advancement is embraced, albeit slightly unusually. Phones are used as flashlights to illuminate games of Basra, an Arab card game of skill and luck, during one of the myriad power outages. Video game consoles are used as mirrors to check on headdresses. Therefore, every night is set on fire in celebration of this light.

Fireworks take the place of stars in the night sky, and the day sky if the kids get too impatient to wait. They’re sold by convenience store owners that invariably have some sort of link to your family. They cause an insane amount of noise pollution, but in the town that boasts twenty-plus barking dogs at night, no one seems to care. In fact, the fireworks resemble explosions, and it’s common for visitors such as myself to duck and hide behind their grandmother’s berry tree (or so I was informed by my relatives between fits of laughter). Meanwhile, the locals don’t flinch. I wonder if this is because they are used to fireworks . . . or explosions.

The war lingers like an unwanted stray that you refuse to name in hopes that it’ll go away. Throughout my stay, I search for good things that came from everything that occurred. I land at a conclusion when I see the mobs of kids running amok in the streets, tolerated because the adults know they are reminders of an era in which you could give birth to nine kids, brimming with potential, and be left with one (or less) in a few years. Parents rejoice to have the resources to keep a kid alive. No one thinks of the baby boom that will affect their futures. Everyone lives in the present.

I am 15 years old. I’m at that age where everyone wants to know my plans for the future. I braced myself for the questions I was almost certain to receive in a room full of adults, prepared my answers to the word. To my surprise, they appeared unconcerned. It got to the point where I was “subtly” nudging the conversation towards college matters. When I saw their politely interested faces, I finally gave in. This is Jalala. They are determined to live each day individually, because that’s all they can do while keeping a brave face and their sanity.

Forget travel advisories; Jalala taught me the real advice. When I leave Lebanon, it will be like waking up from a nightmare that I’ll look back fondly upon. And then I shall smile and move on with my life.


Nadia Elkadri is a 15-year-old aspiring lawyer and journalist who is still, unfortunately, in high school. However, she is making the best of that and her Canadian-Lebanese roots by making sure to explore both worlds. She loves to travel but planes scare her, so she has a bit of a dilemma. 

Judge's Comment: Jalala, Lebanon. Twenty-two miles east of Beirut. Hardly top of many people's bucket lists. Even our writer admits travel advisories say 'Don't touch the place with a ten-foot pole'. But people, people like you and me, live in Jalala. Fireworks light up the sky. Adults play cards. Teenagers watch horror movies to mask the horror they are living. Kids play in the streets. And 'The war lingers on like an unwanted stray that you refuse to name in the hope that it'll go away.'