Sudipto Das

GOOD EVENING, BEIRUT: A story from a tragic incident


Sheila Merabi,33, was hunched over her laptop, lips pursed in grim determination to complete the legal documents of her client, to be able to leave office early and head home for her daughter’s eighth birthday. Her husband Rafeeq, a civil engineer employed with Beirut Port Authority had assured her in the morning that he will be home early, unlike other days when he normally returned from work late night. Little Diana, whom they had named after the late Princess, was an ebullient and very intelligent child and her teachers were very optimistic about the child turning into a music prodigy given her talent at playing the violin. Diana had featured in many talent shows for young kids in Beirut and every time came home with the winner’s trophy. This particular evening, Sheila and Rafeeq had invited over a few close family friends and Diana’s music instructor, Victoria Marquez for celebrating Diana’s birthday at the high end French Restaurant, CENTRALE at Saifi in Beirut District. Sheila was an attorney and had started independent practice just a couple of years back after working with the Law Firm Suleiman, Gemal and Hariri after completing her law studies from Beirut University. Already she was making a name for herself in Corporate Law and had a small list comprising of very reputed companies in Labanon as her clients. Sheila’s eyes were screwed in concentration, behind thick glasses. She was confident of finishing her work before the clock struck six and close her office, to be with little Diana, their Princess.


 His angry words seemed stuck in the smoke coils exhaled from the cigarette he was smoking. Hussein Moqdad, Rafeeq’s boss roared expletives against the Port Administrators after his report was turned down for the third time to remove the stockpile of Ammonium Nitrate stocked in the Port’s warehouses. Moqdad was a veteran Army Man, who had fought valiantly against the sectarian violence, that wracked Beirut during the Civil war in the eighties.. An honest man to the core, Moqdad loved the city of Beirut as one would love his own home. Moqdad had revealed his apprehensions to his colleagues and superiors about the stockpile and wanted it assigned in small lots to various warehouses scattered around Beirut but his pleas had fallen on deaf ears. He was mocked as an alarmist and was even admonished for scare mongering by his superiors. Disgusted, Moqdad went into a sulk but his own feeling of foreboding about an impending doom would never go away, over the deadly cargo which was sitting smugly in the warehouses. Rafeeq somewhat shared his boss’s apprehensions and had mentioned about it to Sheila several times in the past. He was sitting in Moqdad’s office to finalize the blueprint of another wing in the Port. He glanced at his watch to check the time. If he were able to leave in another hour, he would be able to beat the choking Beirut traffic and reach home in the suburbs to be with his wife and daughter in time for celebrating the birthday.

1700 Hrs., Central Beirut.

Victoria Marquez, 24, was lying on the couch of her living room. With eyes half closed, she was lost in the strains of Chopin, coming out from expensive music system. She shared her apartment with Stepan Issac, a musician and the lead drum player of a local band which was rapidly gaining prominence among the music aficionados in the city, for composing and playing music which was a unique fusion of Arabic and Western influences. Peppy and international, some of their numbers were hitting the top of the music charts in Beirut. The band, Angry Herons, were planning their first trip to Paris next year, for a concert. Victoria and Stepan were in a relationship and were planning to tie the knot after the Paris concert. Victoria was also proud about the awesome talent that her protégé, Diana displayed and wanted Diana to go with her to Paris so that she could try to get a scholarship for the child to attend some very reputed music school in Europe. Victoria was looking forward to the evening to celebrate Diana’s birthday.

1730 Hrs. Port Area, Beirut

Jaafar Sayid was one unhappy Taxi driver this evening. His passenger seemed drunk and incoherent and had taken his taxi to a couple of wrong addresses before reading out an address in a thickly accented English from a piece of paper which he had forgotten in his trouser pocket. By the looks of him he could be from any part of the Middle East but a few words from him convinced Jaafar that most probably his fare belonged to Egypt. Finally the address turned out to be that of a shipping company near the Port. The passenger got down from the cab unsteadily, reeking of cheap wine which he must have imbibed during Lunch on his company’s expense account, Jaafar concluded. He had made it clear that fare to this part of the city will be more than downtown addresses as there were almost no passengers on return trip to the city. The passenger had grudgingly accepted at the time of hailing his cab. Now he was counting bills and seemed to finding it difficult to reach the correct amount. Jaafar was impatiently looking at the moron and was muttering under his breath. Finally, on his third attempt, the passenger could arrive at the right fare and handed it to Jaafar. Then he slowly walked to the almost deserted area outside the Docks. Jaafar angrily pressed on the accelerator after reversing his cab and started looking for a shanty where he could have a cup of coffee. He became lucky as just 400 metres away from the place where he had dropped his passenger was a small shack where a wizened old woman was selling coffee and some simple snacks. Jaafar ordered a cup of coffee and a muffin, and turned his attention towards the road to see if he could find some passenger looking for a cab downtown. Suddenly the sky became dark and a ball of fire erupted from towards the port. A thunderclap sounded very near to Jaafar and his eyes were blinded for some time with the brilliance of the fireball. Then he could find the heat around him suddenly unbearable and through the slits of his eyes found the dismembered burnt hand of the old woman still holding the remains of the plastic cup with spilled coffee. The shack had turned into cinders, there was nothing left. To his horror, Jaafar found himself thrown on the ground, his skin hanging from his limbs like strips of onion skin. His clothes had burnt and but fortunately did not cling to his body. The Cab, his only source of income to feed his family of five was blown to spread over a large area. The old woman’s head was separated from her body and was looking towards the sky billowing with mushroom clouds, at a grotesque angle.

Moqdad’s office looked like a massive bomb had just hit it. The furniture had all burned down into ashes. Moqdad’s body parts were flung all over the office, some parts of the body flesh had hit the only remaining wall of the office and clung there like clay. Rafeeq’s body was thrown with the impact of the blast outside the thick glass plated window breaking the window glass into a thousand pieces. Rafeeq’s head was hanging by a piece of muscle as if by a thread from his body, his teeth bared in his last moments of agony, but now looking like a macabre grin on the dead man’s face. Outside the office, for almost half a mile all around, only death and destruction was visible.

Victoria’s living room was dark from the soot and fire caused by the fire from the explosion. Her eyes were open but her face was drained of any color and was rapidly turning into the pale of the dead. Victoria lay lifeless, asphyxiated in her living room couch.

Sheila stood outside her office, her face a criss cross of bruises and scars, caused due to a shower of broken glass and debris coming down from the building where her office was, just a few moments ago. Tears streaming down her face, Sheila knelt down on the kerb of the footpath, an animal like groan coming out from her throat. She was just thinking about her little princess waiting at home, to celebrate her birthday.

Little Diana was playing the violin in her living room, oblivious to all the chaos outside. Besides her, the Persian cat Farooq, was looking at her with his liquid eyes and striking its brush like tail on the carpet. The clock chimed 6.30 in the evening, Beirut time.

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