The Girl in the Red Beret

I still remember the first time I saw her. I was on my way to school in Ammo Mohammad’s carpool. It was a sudden jolt, so fast it took me a few hours to piece together the reason for my shock. I’d seen the posters every morning on the same drive, and the faces changed often; there was always a new one papering over the old. Then suddenly I realized what was so strange about this new face: the smooth skin, the thick profusion of hair pouring out from under her red beret, stood out amid the multitudes of beards and moustaches. She was the lone woman in a sea of men.

After that I looked for her every morning, praying for traffic to slow us down so I could memorize all the details of her face. It must have been after a few days of this routine that Ammo Mohammad took notice. He turned to me. “You know who that is? That’s Sanaa, my niece.”

That was the year the boys at school started calling girls “germs.” If you were a boy and a “germ” touched you, on purpose or by accident, you had to wipe the offended body part against a wall three times—preferably with a look of deep disgust on your face—while exclaiming how horrified you were that you’d been contaminated.

My two best friends were twin boys in my class, but although we played together almost every day after school, I didn’t approach them or have any contact with them at school. It was a bizarre, disjointed existence: enemies before 3pm and best friends after. Still, I never questioned the order of things. I was a “germ” after all, and I understood that it wouldn’t do for them to be seen talking to me. I spent recesses mostly alone. None of the girls in my class wanted to be friends with a girl who was friends with boys.

On the morning of April 9, 1985, Sanaa Mehaidley got into a white Peugeot 504 laden with more than 200kg of TNT and drove south from Beirut. She stopped at the Jezzine checkpoint, one of the few places to cross into Israeli-occupied South Lebanon. When soldiers approached to inspect the car and its occupant, it exploded, killing two men and injuring two others. Sanaa’s remains were gathered and taken into custody by the Israeli military.

We were asked to prepare a project in class about great minds, and I wanted to do mine about a writer. I decided to write about Beverly Cleary, whose fictional Klickitat Street—with its wide suburban lawns and quiet parks—I practically lived on that year. My father found me sitting at the dining table, painstakingly etching my title onto the poster in tall, slanting letters: BEVERLY CLEARY: MY FAVORITE WRITER. My father laughed, and said something about age being the greatest teacher. I asked him what he meant. “Well, this woman writes children’s books. I’m sure they’re good, but when you’re a little older, you’ll get to read books by the real greats, books that will open your mind about the world, show you what it’s all about.”

“Like who?” I asked.

“Like Shakespeare and Milton, Voltaire, Proust, Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, Al-Mutanabbi, and Mahmoud Darwish. Those are real writers, writing about real things.”

Suddenly Beverly Cleary sounded terribly silly, a middle-aged housewife going on about dishwashing and child-rearing in the company of intelligent men, who indulged her with a smile and rolled their eyes when she finally bustled out of the room.

The poster I presented finally ended up being about Shakespeare, with an expertly shaded sketch of the Bard drawn by my father. “Shakespeare:” it said at the top, “The Greatest Writer Known to Man.”

A young woman from Ankoun, near Saida, gave up her life in the full flower of youth in resistance to the ongoing occupation of Southern Lebanon. The Bride of the South, Sanaa Mehaidley, was no stranger to tragedy: born on August 14, 1968, she lost her mother when she was only three years old. At the age of ten, she watched Israeli tanks roll in and cut her off from her beloved South. Inspired by fellow martyr and Syrian Social Nationalist Party member Wajdi Al Sayegh, Sanaa joined ranks with the SSNP in early 1985 and gave her life for the cause on April 9 of the same year. She drove a car full of TNT into an Israeli convoy at the Jezzine checkpoint, killing two soldiers and wounding two. She is survived by her father, stepmother, and four half-brothers.

“You know her?” I asked. Suddenly Ammo Mohammad took on another aura. I’d always thought of him in his car, confined to that space while we were free to leave it, but now I could see something else about him, something noble. It was Sanaa, her essence, her quiet, knowing look. Suddenly she was no longer just a face on a poster; she was real. Here was living proof that Sanaa had deliberately moved through this world and just as deliberately chosen to leave it.

“Yes,” he said, “of course. I told you, she’s my niece.” I stared at her face again, smiling from the red posters wallpapering the fences behind what was then Beirut University College. She had brown hair and eyes like mine, and she was beautiful. It wasn’t so much her features as it was just something about her, her easy comfort in her fatigues, the confident angle of that red beret. I’d never seen a girl who seemed so much like a boy.

“She was a sweet little girl, just like you, but she could never stand injustice. She’s a martyr now, she died saving our country from the enemy.”

“I’m sorry,” I stammered, unsure how to convey the sincerity of my condolences.

“No!” he roared, “Don’t be sorry! Sanaa didn’t want anybody to be sorry. We should remember her and laugh. Remember her bravery, her sacrifice! Sanaa was willing to give her life for the country she loved and believed in. How many people are willing to do that? The politicians talk and talk about their beloved Lebanon, but are any of them willing to give up their lives for it? Sanaa was. She killed fifty enemy soldiers in one blow! A few more and we could have ended the war. Sanaa is a hero, we are not sorry for her. We don’t cry for heroes.”

It was that year that I discovered the school library, an open, airy space with green carpet and blond wooden shelves crammed with books. There was one corner where I especially loved to sit, which had a window overlooking a riot of hibiscus, oleander, and bougainvillea, the red fields filled with Syrian army tanks and soldiers (who were at this time usually running in place), and beyond them, a little sliver of sea. I read everything I could get my hands on, mostly Beverly Cleary, Nancy Drew, and a series named after its protagonist, Trixie Belden, who lived on a crab apple farm in upstate New York and solved mysteries with her best friends on the weekends. Every afternoon I climbed the four flights of stairs to the library, leaving the school and its clamor below, and dove nose-first into other worlds. I lived vicariously through the characters, just as fascinated by the mundane details of their everyday lives as I was by their adventures. When Nancy used a toaster, or Ramona picked up the phone and called her friend on the first try, or when Trixie turned on the lights and they obediently flooded the room, I felt a thrill that left me weak with both desire and resentment. No laboring at their homework under the squeal of battery-powered neon for these girls! No worried parents discussing politics late into the night, no impossible phone lines or taking freezing showers in a bucket or being yelled at for playing on the balcony if there was shooting. They made brownies on Sunday afternoons and had perfect white teeth and shiny hair, their names were easy to pronounce and the food they ate was neat and clean and…normal. I came home one afternoon and announced my intentions to my mother: as soon as I turned sixteen, I was going to dye my brown hair blond, buy blue contact lenses, and change my name to Jessica. When she laughed at me, I cried. She didn’t understand the rules of that other, better world.

At sixteen, while most girls are getting their driver’s licenses, going on their first dates, and daydreaming about being prom queen, a young woman in the Middle East was planning a deadly terror attack. While others her age attended dance parties, Sanaa Mehaidley signed up to join the ranks of the Syrian Social Nationalist Party, known to be a notorious breeding ground for terrorism in the region. Reportedly “inspired” by Wajdi Al Sayegh, a militant who carried out a suicide attack in 1984, Sanaa, with the help of higher-ranking party members, recorded a sinister video bidding her parents goodbye and announcing her intention to kill herself and “kill as many enemy soldiers as possible.” On the morning of April 9, 1985, she drove a TNT-loaded car into an Israeli convoy, killing two soldiers and wounding two others, and leaving all the mothers on either side asking one question: Why?

Every night at seven o’clock, between the six o’clock and the eight o’clock news, my brother and I could be found in a rapt trance in front of the television set, watching Grendizer. My father would turn on our little generator at five minutes to seven, while we sat in our places, waiting for the blank screen to hum to life and the theme song to blare, so we could sing along in our crappy phonetic Japanese. There were many Japanese cartoons dubbed into Arabic, and we watched most of them, but Grendizer was superior to them all. We grit our teeth and punched the air with excitement as Daisuke powered up his giant robot, Grendizer, to fight the evil Lord Vega, and sighed with relief as Grendizer overcame evil forces and managed to keep the earth safe for one more day.

Afterwards, while my parents watched the news, we would go into the hallway and play Grendizer. To the background drone of death counts and politicians’ speeches, we fought over who would play whom. We both wanted to be the hero. We both wanted to save the day.

We are proud to report that at 11am on April 9, the martyr Sanaa Mehaidley carried out her heroic operation, exploding a car filled with more than 200kg of TNT, successfully killing seventy-five of the enemy’s soldiers and grievously wounding another hundred. In her farewell video, the brave Comrade Sanaa implores us not to mourn, but to celebrate, for her blood is now watering the fertile earth of her beloved south. She will from now on be known as the Bride of the South, and will be remembered as the first woman brave enough to give her life for the sake of her country and its freedom. We hope the success of her mission will inspire others, men and women, to sacrifice for their country, and for the causes of freedom, socialism, and justice for all.

At night I put myself to sleep imagining how I would load a car up with TNT and drive down to the border where the enemy stood leering, waiting for women and children they could disembowel and torture. I would wait for them to stand all in one place, and then I would press down on the gas pedal, hard, and plow right into them. The car would explode and I would die, but I would kill enough of them with me that the war would end.

I lay in bed and cried, imagining my parents and brother crying, missing me, but then I imagined them walking in a parade with the rest of the country. Everyone would be there: my aunts, uncles, cousins, and neighbors, my classmates and teachers. And they would all walk hand in hand down to the south, and they would tear out the roadblocks and checkpoints and barbed wire with their bare hands. They would cry with joy, and dance, and feast until the stars wheeled to the other side of the night sky. The long war would be over. And I would watch them from posters, my eyes remote and full of grace, focused on a future I would never know, a future made possible through my sacrifice. In thick calligraphy, it would say my name, and above it, my title: The Hero of Lebanon, the Girl Who Ended the War.

“Sanaa had a very keen sense of justice. Ever since she was a child, she always knew when someone was victimizing someone else, and she couldn’t stand it.”

Sanaa Mehaidley’s mother is a simple and modest woman, still wearing black in mourning for her daughter, who blew herself up on April 9 next to an Israeli checkpoint at the entrance to Israeli-occupied South Lebanon, killing two soldiers and injuring two others.

“I know she said we shouldn’t mourn,” says Mrs. Mehaidley, wiping at her eyes, “but a mother can’t help but miss her child.” She pauses. “Even if I’m very proud of her. Very proud. At least she left me with that. Tell me, if I don’t have my pride in her, what else do I have?”

My parents never told me about the civil war. What they did speak to me about was the Israeli occupation of the South of our country. It started the same year I was born, 1978. And I remembered the siege of West Beirut in 1982, and I knew about a terrible massacre whose name my mother couldn’t pronounce without crying.

My mother also told me about Palestine, about another occupation that started the year she was born, in 1948. About Auntie Samia’s parents being homeless, and how the key that hung on the wall above their couch was the key to their home, the home they could never go back to and in which another family now lived.

“How can this just happen?” I would rail at her. “Why doesn’t someone do something, say something?” And she would only look at me sadly and smile.

Tuesday, April 9, 1985. The skies are mostly clear, but the sea is gunmetal gray as she drives down the coastal road, heading south. Her hands on the wheel are small and thin, the nails bitten down to the quick. There is a picture of Wajdi Al Sayegh taped to the rearview; her eyes linger over it every time she looks into the mirror. She steers the white Peugeot smoothly, guiding it through the midmorning traffic. Just past her hometown of Ankoun, she signals to turn and climbs onto the winding mountain roads towards the Jezzine crossing into the occupied south. As she approaches the checkpoint, the car slows down, then comes to a complete stop. A moment of silence as a soldier approaches.

Then the car explodes.

I sat down to write my final note—my last words to the world, to the people I loved. I decided to turn mine into a letter to my mother. I asked her not to cry, not to mourn, but to celebrate my bravery. I told her to tell my brother and father that I loved them very much, that my brother could have my toys, and that he could now consider himself Daisuke/Grendizer for the rest of his days. I told her that while I knew there was no God, because she had told us so, I refused to believe that there was no heaven. And so I would be watching them all from that place, watching them the way one watches a television set, excited and cheering for the success of the people inside the box, but separate from them, alone.

When I gave the letter to my mother, she was quiet for a long time, and then she called me to sit by her.

“Did you write this all by yourself?” she asked. I nodded.

“Where did you learn this word from?” She pointed to the word “testament.”

“From Nancy Drew,” I said.

“You have a good memory and a very vivid imagination,” she said. “Maybe you want to think about being a writer when you grow up.”

“I want to be a hero,” I said. “I want to save the world.”

“There are many different ways of saving the world,” said my mother. The next day she gave me a diary. The first entry reads:

August 5, 1985
Yesterday I decided I want to be a writer when I grow up because Mama said I have a very vivid imagination.

I wake up and can’t tell if I’ve actually slept. I feel wound up with energy, my heart pounding from every pore of my body. I let its rhythm guide me. It’s brought me this far, it can take me all the way to the end.

I’m trying not to think about what will happen afterwards; I’m more afraid of the pain than the aftermath, anyway. I wonder if that makes me a coward. There is no turning back.

I put on my shoes, lacing them up tightly, all the while thinking how little it matters. It only matters if my lace should somehow get in the way at the final moment, and stop me from doing what I need to do. When my duty is over, so will my life be. And when my life is over, so will my duty be. There is something so neat and beautiful about that, and I know that I don’t need to believe in God to perceive a perfect order in the world.

The car feels strange. It’s so heavy, I’m afraid it won’t make it up the mountain. I have to be extra careful; a traffic accident now would be a terrible disaster indeed. The giggle escapes me before I can stop it, and then I am laughing in the car all by myself, and the sound fills my ears, it fills the entire space surrounding me, so that it feels like another presence in the car. It strikes me suddenly that I have never been this alone, never shared such a moment with myself like this. I look at myself in the rearview mirror, and the girl in the mirror smiles back, her face right next to Wajdi’s. Wajdi, the hero, the man who, in another life, a life without this occupation, I would have followed over the threshold of our home instead of into death. Everything is so funny, so perfectly self-contained in this car, so quiet, so complete. The sea is a churning blue-green. This is the last time I will see the sea. I wish it were a perfect blue, burnished by the sun. That’s how I always loved it most.

As I drive higher into the mountains, my heart is now pounding so hard, I feel my skeleton rattling. It is a war drum. It knows the end is coming. The bile rises in my throat, and I fight the urge to throw up. I just need to hold it in for a few more minutes. And then. And then it won’t matter anymore. The sky is clearer here—I can see the last of the winter snow on the peaks in the distance. The checkpoint is up ahead. I slow down, like I was told to do. Two soldiers approach, one of them hanging back and the other leaning into the car. I look into his eyes. I think we are the same age. Wajdi, I think. There is no turning back.