Syrians on the top floor
Hazera Forth is a 29-year-old British Bengali residing in Bedford, England
and generally writes contemporary science fiction with a philosophical theme. She had performed
eclectic, family oriented poems at poetry slams between 1993 and 1996. Currently, Hazera is
working as an Information Manager in the National Health Service. She is also a member of Boot
Camp Keegan, an online writing group.
Bertrand comforts his Pentax inside his jacket, waiting for
the next round of bullets. The building he hides in has no glass left in the windows of the
ground floor. He hears shouts in the street outside. He cocks his head over the sill of the
nearest window. There are soldiers. And boys. All ages. Throwing things. Falling. Collapsing
from shots to their backs.
He starts to click. Bertrand cannot see. The lens is
covered in his sweat and the dust from the brittle concrete. He wipes it, blows softly. A man
is aiming a gun at a target in the distance. He fires. Bertrand clicks. Too far to the left.
The subject is too far to the left. He wants a better shot. He leans over.
A hand grenade arcs in through one of the near windows.
Bertrand is still clicking.
Someone is lifting him. He is being carried. Bertrand
cannot see. There is bitterness in his sides. It feels like bitterness. He lifts a hand.
"Na, na, na." It is a man's voice. A sharp voice.
Bertrand puts his hand down and asks for water in French.
He is on a hard surface. There are four men carrying him. They are climbing stairs.
"Hôpital?" He asks.
There is no one in the room. Bertrand cannot turn his head.
He cannot lift his left arm. With his right, he searches for his camera. The strap is gone from
"CAMERA? CAMERA?" No-one answers.
He waits. The walls darken and he sleeps.
When he wakes, men are eating. One man comes over to him.
Props him up and shoves a glass to his face. He nods at Bertrand to drink. He drinks. His neck
is less painful.
The man who gave him water brings over a plate. It looks
like fried dough. The man holds it out for Bertrand who opens his mouth and takes several
It is good. Warm. Some spice. He is offered another
gulp of water.
They look at him. They ask what is freelance? He says he works for anyone. Any paper. Whoever
bids highest for his pictures."
"Arabic? Français?" Bertrand asks.
"Syria. Arrabbick." The food man says.
Bertrand thinks for a second. I must not be French.
Bertrand must not be French. I must not speak French.
"English?" Bertrand asks.
The man puts his forefinger and thumb together and squints.
"Bertrand. Your friends?"
"I am Nasser." He points to the eldest of the three other
men. "This, my uncle, Samir. Thiss are my brothers--Hafez, Assad. You okay Batternd?"
Bertrand nods. "Where is this place?"
Nasser points to the ceiling. "Ground floor. Iss kaput. We
bring you up." He laughs and nods. He smiles, showing sparkling teeth.
"My camera? You find my camera?" Bertrand clicks thin air.
The others pay attention. Nasser is nodding still. He is
saying yes, yes. Camera. But the camera does not appear.
"You are, BBC? Amerikkan? Washington Post?"
They look at him. They ask what is freelance? He says he
works for anyone. Any paper. Whoever bids highest for his pictures.
On a mattress lies Assad. He is counting marbles. He rolls
them in his fingers and then places them on his stomach. Some roll to the ground and he chases
after them. The other men laugh at him and he grins the same wide grin as Nasser. The same
white teeth. Bertrand mentally measures ages. Assad has knotted hairs forming on his chin,
small oases of manhood emerging in a desert of boyish skin. The others have fuller beards
and Bertrand notices that the boy does not join in with their prayers.
The boy does not watch him as much as the others. He looks
out of the windows. He seems to be looking very far down. Bertrand wonders how high up in the
building they are.
"You American?" Assad asks.
"Belgique." His "g" so slightly soft. Sensual, like a
The boy shakes his head and goes back to one of his windows.
"What is your age? You are, fifteen?"
He says seventeen as he shakes some marbles in his hand.
On the third day with them, Bertrand is able to sit up
properly and move both his hands. His legs are a mess. They are brown, rusting. Flies want
them. Bertrand cries.
Hafez, probably older than Assad, walks over with a cloth.
He does not smile. He speaks less than the others. He wears a gun on his belt. He goes into
another room for a short time and returns with a bowl. He washes the legs through Bertrand's
wincing and crying. Then, he hands him a mug, its enamel pocked with blue where it has worn
away. Bertrand sips the warm water. He curses the pain of his legs. He curses in French.
Hafez comes in close to Bertrand. "My uncle wants to kill
the French. Don't speak French."
"You speak better English." Bertrand's sweat is mingling
with his tears. He tries to smile. "Where, is my camera? If you get me out of Beirut, you
can sell it. And the pictures. They are worth more. If you take them to papers… you can
"Tell me, what pictures?"
"Of the fighting."
The Syrian laughs. He rubs Bertrand's shoulder, as a
comrade would. "I like French. My uncle is too old to kill you."
"I do not find this funny, Monsieur."
His eyes shift and he sees a bottle filled with yellow
fluid. He knows this is his bottle, for his use alone. Usually, the old man helps him by
setting the bottle in the right position and Bertrand screams the piss out. Bertrand has not
passed any solids for four days.
When they are clean, he sees that his legs are not so bad.
The skin on the right seems to fuse with his beige trousers. He can feel his legs. They are
swollen, and the stinging is enough to keep him crying for a couple of hours. Samir covers the
wounds with the peel he has taken off some drying oranges.
He strokes his beard when he prays and when he laughs at
Nasser who plays out slapstick routines of fighting in the streets.
Samir is smaller than his nephews. He offers Bertrand some
boiled sweets with the name of a hotel on the wrapper.
to the sound of explosions. It is the fifth day. He looks around him; the Syrians are gone.
Where are they gone? He thinks the bombing might hit this block."
One evening when they have all eaten, Samir crouches down
next to Bertrand. He points to Bertrand's legs.
Bertand nods. "You are how long in Beirut? How much time?"
Samir looks over at Hafez and asks for the question again.
"Is maybe two years. Before this, we are in Sabra. Then is
bombing this." Hafez does actions and sound effects. "My uncle, he bring us. He is bring us
The uncle rubs his eyes. "Shazi," he says. He lies down and
covers his face with his hands.
Bertrand looks to Hafez for translation.
"Your mother, your father?"
"Issraili bombing this. Sabra. We have sister and two
brothers also died."
As the men sleep, Bertrand remembers pictures of the
refugee camps being bombed. Even in recent days, he hears the stories of more massacres at
Sabra and Shatila. He wishes he could be there with his camera. He wants to see the world
through his lens. He wants his name on the Pulitzer. He wishes he had taken the picture of
Kim Phuc in Vietnam as she came screaming out of a napalm fog. He wants to take a picture
that remembers the moment of pain, anger, terror, breathlessness of humanity. He wants to
Bertrand wakes to the sound of explosions. It is the fifth
day. He looks around him; the Syrians are gone. Where are they gone? He thinks the bombing
might hit this block. He wants to get off his mattress.
"NASSER! NASSER!" Bertrand calls out.
The windows shatter. Glass implodes into the room. He
turns towards the wall, shielding his head. More explosions. Rapid fire of guns. He hears
echoes of screaming voices. He wants to look out of the windows.
He leans onto his elbow and with his free hand shuffles
his legs onto the floor. There is glass everywhere, shards break his skin. "Aaah eeesh."
There are no shoes on his feet.
His arm is bleeding. Sharpness rains down from his hair.
I must leave. I must leave. Using a blanket from his mattress, he brushes away the glass on
the floor. The dust greets him and he tries not to breathe.
Assad is at the door. He has Bertrand's camera.
"Please, you will help me?" Bertrands asks. "Where
are the others?"
The boy clicks.
"What are you doing? This is not a toy."
Bertrand raises his hand but Assad is leaning against
"What is the matter with you? We should get out of here.
"Camera, my camera."
"No. We have to get out. Where are they?"
"Camera. In camera." Assad taps on the Pentax."Camera. In
camera." Assad taps on the Pentax.
On his back, Assad carries Bertrand down eight flights of
stairs. He is wailing that it is his camera. "You can have it. I just want the film. You know
Assad says Hafez knows.
"Where is he?"
On the ground floor, Assad sets Bertrand down. Bertrand
reaches for the camera strap around Assad's neck and pulls hard. The boy grips it.
Bertrand stops pulling. "Okay. I take the film, yes? You hold. Like this. I rewind."
He puts the film in his shirt pocket. Assad takes the
camera and points it at the sky. He looks back at Bertrand, clutching the Pentax to his heart
and then he runs off into the streets.
Bertrand limps to his hotel room. His sub-editor, trails
behind him in the narrow corridor and is talking about pictures from Baghdad. How they contrast
with the headlines in Arabic newspapers. He asks Bertrand if the woman sitting next to her
dead husband will make a good front page. Jean-Luc hands him the pictures but they are
In his room, he pours himself a glass of water. He goes to
his suitcase. There is a box containing prints from assignments in the Middle East. One
unopened envelope is marked "Beirut 1982, Batch 7/9".
There are twenty-five prints. The first one is of Bertrand
in his mid-twenties. Enveloped by sunlit dust. He sees for the first time how light he looked.
He sees how his right leg was a living carcass. On that mattress on the top floor.
The second picture is of Nasser. His head is leaning
against a wall. The shot is out of focus but there is a clear brown circle at his temple.
The third picture is of two men lying with their faces to
the ground. There are stains like red flowers growing on their pale shirts. Bertrand
recognises the gun on the belt. Next to the other man, there is a packet of biscuits and a
Then there are five pictures of the sky.
Bertrand does not remember taking these. Bertrand does
not remember taking these.
"Assad." Now he remembers.
He stops looking at the pictures and puts them back in their
envelope. These are not for the front page, Bertrand thinks aloud.