by Hamza Bilbeisi
This work appears in Khabar Keslan Issue 2. PASSAGE
The constraints of masculinity will continue to limit our authenticity
Saturdays are not usually for mourning. It was around ten in the morning, and Nasser still had sleep in his eyes. Mama edged into the kitchen looking uneasy. Ibrahim is dead. The room became deathly silent. He snuck out with his cousin last night and took the family car. His mom just called me. They were both drinking. She shuffled her feet and the washing machine hummed in the background. Nasser blankly scooped up the last bite of breakfast. Labneh and za’atar.
He locked the door to his bedroom and lay on the floor. He reached for the box under his bed and grabbed the Marlboro Reds. He blew thick smoke out the window while the fan whirred behind him. Who was he kidding? Mama probably knew. Everyday he came home from school smelling like an old ashtray. He’d say the bus driver liked to smoke while driving; that’s why acid couldn’t even wash the smell out of his uniform. Still, Mama wasn’t about to barge in and bust him right there.
The phone rang four times before he picked it up. You heard? Firas was his loose friend through Ibrahim – and he almost never called. The three of them always sat together in History class and made fun of the teacher. Mr. Suleiman had moved from Turkey and only learned Arabic a year before. He rolled his L’s funny. We should get ready for the ’aaza tonight. I’ll come pick you up with my cousin.
He checked his cupboard for a clean suit. Wearing jeans to the funeral would be eib. His only white shirt was wrinkled and smelled like cigarette ash and fries. He decided not to shave the few hairs on his chin and cheek. Mama hugged him close before he left the apartment. He kept his arms to himself.
Firas was leaning against the car. He looked ghastly. His cousin hung his head low in the driver’s seat and didn’t make eye contact. Nasser hugged Firas tight. Only for a few seconds, until they pushed one another away. Firas had sprayed knockoff Calvin Klein cologne under his chin. They weren’t going to a wedding, for God’s sake.
Firas dropped his eyes to the street. He sat up front and ushered his cousin forward. His cousin offered his condolences and kept driving. The next ten minutes were unbearable. Ibrahim’s death was wedged between the three of them. His death filled the car. Nasser was paralyzed. Firas locked and unlocked his phone over and over.
They stopped by Abu-Saleh to pick up bitter coffee in paper cups. Firas’ cousin noisily sipped his and drove with one hand. They stopped at an open plot of land and sat on the hood. The muted-beige brick buildings snaked around the hills down there. Firas sparked his cigarette and coughed a ball of phlegm on the soil. It was that time of the day. The Adaan went off in the distance, then each mosque chimed in, one by one. Just like dominos. Nasser’s eyes welled up. He cocked his head and held his breath. He was a man. He rarely prayed but he found himself reciting the Fatiha. If God was really up there, he wanted him to take care of Ibrahim.
You need a cigarette. Nasser reached for the cigarette in Firas’ palm. He cupped his hand over the cigarette in his mouth to keep the wind from stealing his light. The flame kept his hand warm.
At school, smoking was a rite. Nasser took his first puff two years prior when Firas told him it was time. Firas had always been a little larger than Nasser, and a rough outline of his beard had surfaced before either of the boys’. He never backed away from fights after school. His older cousins always showed up to fight too. He would pick up the phone and they would all show up in minutes. Who has that kind of time? They were a pack of wolves. Firas had picked up his first shisha that year too. It was no wonder he coughed like an old engine. The ritual happened behind the school, by the recycling bins. How ceremonial. Firas smiled when he handed Nasser his first cigarette. Saying no would be suicide.
Firas was huge. He looked like he could be nineteen. Sometimes Nasser wondered if he ever felt anything. He sat on the car not saying much at all. It didn’t seem like he was thinking. Or mourning. Firas was really good at seeming confident and relaxed no matter the situation. He sipped his coffee. Then he sucked on his cigarette.
His cousin was content sitting in the car. He dangled a smoky cigarette out the window and endlessly scrolled his phone. Until everyone got their licenses, they relied on beat-up yellow taxis and older cousins. Did he want another cigarette? He’s fine. It was also convenient to have washed-up older cousins around. They were bigger and burlier. Even bigger than Firas. Nobody could fuck with you if you were with an older cousin. Older cousins were also trouble though. Maybe they let a bunch of kids drink coffee and smoke cigarettes. Maybe they helped steal a household car late at night and got kids killed. But nobody could avoid it. Nasser knew it was either ride with them or stay at home. He was a man. He always told Mama he was taking a taxi when he left the house. Sometimes he did take a taxi. Except, if they were going somewhere as a group, and an older cousin came, he wasn’t going to be that whiny asshole. Mama would have him skinned if she found out. Ibrahim just got killed with his older cousin behind the wheel, and there he was doing the exact same thing.
You want another cigarette? Nasser had barely finished his first one. He didn’t even like smoking. Firas passed him the lighter. He was still closed up, holding his shoulders near his ears. Like a man. He avoided eye contact at all costs. His eyes were fixed on the mosque down the hill. The building’s blue dome broke the beige arrangement. Maybe he felt like he was being watched by his cousin. But he never felt anything. His cousin’s eyes were still fixed on his screen, his cigarette still smoking.
The smoke was suddenly suffocating. The Adaan was ringing in his ears. Ibrahim was dead. His best friend, gone forever. What the fuck. The last time he was forced to mourn someone was four years prior. Diabetes took Teta away. At the time it was ok to cry. He was with family, and family didn’t tell you to man up when family died. His dad never cried, even at his own mother’s deathbed. He probably cried later though, when people weren’t looking. Nasser knew he would eventually be expected to do the same. His cue came when Firas handed him his first ever cigarette.
Nasser flicked his cigarette butt.
“Firas, are you ok man?”
“I’m fine, dude.”
“It’s ok man, you can say it.”
“Dude, I told you. I’m fine.”
Firas was usually cool-headed. If he ever got mad it was because some kid cursed at him and said some shit about his mom. Or his sister. He didn’t even have a sister. He would promise to knock their teeth out after school. He made sure everyone at school knew how he was going to fuck this poor kid up at three, sharp. This Firas was hotheaded. This Firas was always on the brink of ‘fucking someone’s mom’. The Firas that Nasser and Ibrahim chilled with was different. He wasn’t softer, just different. The Firas at the shisha cafe, or the bar, or at home playing FIFA, or in the street sipping shitty coffee, was a mystery. He laughed like any teenager would — in explosive bursts that turned adults’ heads. He made jokes like any other horny piece of shit kid. Still, he never really talked to anyone. He spoke a lot but he didn’t say anything.
Nasser knew nothing about Firas’ parents, except Firas was a spitting image of his dad. His mom was sweet and offered Nasser tea every time he went over. His dad gave firm handshakes and never smiled. He walked with his shoulders pinned to his ears. Just like a man. At school, Firas never had a bad day or a good day. They all drifted through their friendship without really knowing him. He was just a big ball of energy they associated with in class and on weekends because he ran shit. Nasser opened up to Ibrahim sometimes. Ibrahim did too. Ibrahim didn’t run shit though, and nobody opened up to Firas, ever.
Ibrahim was Firas’ best friend before Nasser ever joined them at school. Their moms were best friends growing up, and they were raised together. They had inside jokes that Nasser could never get in on. But Ibrahim was dead, and all Firas could talk about was smoking.
“Firas, seriously, we don’t have to talk in front of your cousin, but tell me what’s up, dude.”
“Nasser, it sucks, ok? Is that better?”
His cousin watched them go at each other, eyeing Firas. They shuffled back into the car, and Firas cocked his head forward to usher his cousin to move. Nasser tore his phone out of his pocket. The backs of his eyes were on fire. He slouched deep in his seat until they reached the ’aaza.
Nasser couldn’t help but think about fifth grade. Nobody had facial hair then. He had just moved schools, and while everyone was playing football during break, he ate his lunch alone. Ibrahim was the first to break the silence. He seemed confident, like he was sure they would be best friends. Their parents would drop them off at each other’s houses on Fridays after praying salaat al-dhuhr, and they would play video games and mess around outside. Firas would come over too. They would play hide-and-seek, or they would sneak into neighbors’ gardens and pretend to be undercover spies. They would have sleepovers and sometimes watch movies. If they weren’t watching movies they would just talk. It was ok to talk then. They would walk to the neighborhood dukaan and buy too much chocolate. Firas wasn’t always the way he was. He used to make fart jokes and throw a fit if his parents picked him up too early. Nasser had seen him cry a few times too. Like the time he fell off his bike.
Eventually, there were fewer sleepovers. In seventh grade, Firas began to hang out with his cousins and some older kids from school. Ibrahim tried to please everybody. He spent Fridays with Nasser, but on Thursdays he left with Firas after school. The two of them would sit on a street corner and eat bizr. They would whistle at girls in the street that would hurry by in discomfort. The girls were definitely too old for them, but nobody could stop them when they were in a pack with older kids. Ibrahim would invite Nasser out of guilt sometimes. Those days were uncomfortable. He laughed at their jokes and whistled with them. He would have rather been at Ibrahim’s house, like it used to be.
Firas rolled down the window and hacked up more phlegm into the street.
“Firas, sorry I kept pushing you to talk.”
“Whatever, man. Don’t make a big deal out of it. Take a cigarette.”
Nasser’s lungs were going to deflate at his pace. Firas pressed his chest out and cleared his throat.
“Unbelievable that he died, right?”
“Yeah, it’s crazy.”
“Man, I was his best friend ever. I can’t believe he didn’t tell me he was sneaking out.”
“What — were you going to stop him from sneaking out?”
“No, but at least if I went with them I could have stopped them from crashing.”
Ibrahim had just died, and Firas seemed like he was bragging more than grieving. All Nasser could do was nod. Firas looked lonely for the first time that day. Nasser wanted to tell him it was ok to cry. He wanted to as well. But Ibrahim was only dead for a moment, then he would disappear and life would start over again. They needed to be ready to greet all the men in Ibrahim’s family with stiff handshakes at the ’aaza.
They got out of the car and fidgeted with their belts. Firas’ cousin poked his head out the window. Yeslam rasak, habibi. Salaam, Nasser. Then he dumped his cigarette butt on the floor and veered off. The ’aaza happened so fast. They shook hands with every man in Ibrahim’s family. They started with his father, brothers, and uncles at the door, and then they went around to the older men sitting in chairs. They sat down together in the back. Firas took two dates and a small coffee in the fancy cup when they were offered. Nasser’s water was just fine. Some men fiddled with glimmering prayer beads. Nobody cried. It was quiet except for the "yeslam rasak" every few seconds at the front of the room. A sheikh stopped by and called out a few prayers, then left.
Hamza Bilbeisi is a short story writer from Amman, Jordan. He was born and raised in the capital, and a large chunk of his upbringing was also spent in Aqaba, where his mother’s family is from. He is focused on exploring themes of masculinity, mental health, childhood, westernization, and political occupation. He is looking to carve ways for regional creatives to produce art without succumbing to a ‘Western’ lens. He primarily distributes his work through Instagram (@ketabhamza) and hopes he can help form a community for young creatives from the MENA region to also put forward their creative outlets. Hamza is constantly looking for more themes to explore and finds comfort in the small, overlooked details of his surroundings and interpersonal relationships. He also writes poetry, sometimes.