I finally gave in to my mother and agreed to step out of the house and pick up dinner for the family. I was hesitant as my frail immune system would cordially invite the virus, but I found my hungry brood of five deadlier than any microscopic adder. My father informed the restaurant that his stubborn, mask-donning daughter would make an appearance within the next 20 minutes to pick up the parcel (our building prohibited delivery men from entering at the time this was written).
My feelings of vexation evaporated once I discovered what was for dinner: Two large portions of sheesh tawook along with a medium serving of tabouleh and kibbeh served by our favourite Lebanese restaurant.
Our neighbourhood is blessed with an array of multinational restaurants that aggrandise the expat experience in the UAE. But one establishment that caught our father’s eye when we moved in seven years ago was an obscure Lebanese eatery that boasts of scrumptious delicacies of the popular cuisine. The place comes with friendly staff that accentuate its ambience.
A personal favourite of mine from this lot would be the burly, octogenarian manager H, who sits at the counter and greets all customers with the traditional ‘Assalamu alaikum’, followed by a gentle smile. Children would be infatuated by his avuncular personality in an instant and parents crowned him as the perfect diversion while they peacefully placed their orders.
But as I made my way through the entrance that day, I was greeted by a bleak and quiet atmosphere. Sure, there were customers gobbling kebabs adorning teal masks under their chins, but something was off about the workforce who were all otherwise rather vibrant.
In a change of events, I found H not seated at his leather throne behind the counter but exchanging agonising looks with his co-workers in a corner. I tried to decipher their conversation with my mediocre understanding of Arabic, but had no luck.
While we were all concealed behind our masks, I could sense a tinge of melancholy in H’s eyes. He took notice of my presence, returned to the counter and handed me the parcel. Presenting him the crumbled notes from my pocket, I was greeted once more by his smile, which that somehow made its presence felt from underneath his mask. H then returned to his serious conversation with his co-workers, one of whom looked like he was on the verge of bursting into tears.
The anomalous behaviour of the staff took me by surprise. But I let it go – I now looked forward to enjoying a sumptuous meal with my family.
But instead of sitting at the dining table and moaning upon my late arrival, I found them huddled up in front of our television.
That’s when I saw it.
My eyes locked on the screen which was displaying a burgundy mushroom over the city of Beirut. The next images were something out of a war movie, bloodied corpses, debris galore, emergency vehicles thronging the streets and wails of the bereaved. While I was processing what I had just witnessed, the incoming figures were difficult to digest, a death toll surpassing a hundred, thousands injured and a skyrocketing number of missing people.
I stood there recalling H’s sombre state now realising the ache in his heart and of his colleagues who, like all of us, were coming to terms of this unfortunate incident in a nation that had been grappling with an unprecedented economic crisis which was only escalated by the pandemic. The resilience of Lebanon in such dark times deserves to be lauded.
As we laid the plates, my heart pounded for Lebanon, whose citizens deserve better instead of being imprisoned by hate, corruption and deceit.
Dinner never tasted this bittersweet.
Teresa Kuruvila is a budding writer and proud feminist. Her interests include literature, history, social issues and their intersections. Follow her on Instagram @notthisteresa.
Featured image: Reuters/Mohamed Azakir