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I never thought a rubbish dump would ever talk to me, but one day a dump in Ain Al Mresseih, Beirut did just that. But then I have never named a trash heap before. It happened a few days after garbage stopped being collected and began piling up on the streets.
It was a hot humid day, when it talked to me. I was on my way back from Hamra, and had walked down past a number of dumps. A little down from Bar Bar, the smell of the heap was mixed with that of grilling meat; a smoky, oily affair, topped with something fishy. I held my breath and rushed passed it, looking for a safe quick heap-free route home.
The dump I had named was overflowing with black bin liners, cans, plastic coffee cups and empty French wine bottles. As I was walking past it, the heap moved. A few black bags rolled off the top. One went over the back of a small wall and fell into some bushes. Another one appeared to be breathing. Something popped. I expected a cat to jump out of it, but it didn't. The air quickly filled with the stench of decaying meat. The bag that had moved was joined together with another one. Perhaps there is a body in there, I thought. I was about to leave when something groaned inside the heap.
'How dare you?' A man's voice said in a heavy French English accent.
I looked around, feeling a bit nauseous from the rotten corpse like smell. An image of myself inside a police station flashed through my mind. My last days, languishing in Lebanon’s legal landmines.
'Over here, not over there,' the voice said, chasing away the image of my impending doom.
If it’s a corpse, I thought, it's pretty a talkative, cheeky French one.
'How dare you name me, Pierre?' the voice asked.
I should have run away in terror, waving my hands in air, but didn't. After all where could one get a chance to talk to a rubbish heap?
'Why did you have to call me, Pierre. You were clearly trying to make some, deeper, dirtier dig. I know your types. You blame the French for everything that is wrong with this place.’
‘Stop this claptrap,’ I ordered, raising my hand towards Pierre. ‘I don’t want to discuss history or politics with a load of bunkum.’
‘OK.OK.OK,’ Pierre replied, ‘Why couldn't you have called me Patricia, it would have been more appropriate…’
‘Because there’s no ‘P’ in Arabic, Pierre,’ I laughed.
‘Why not Peter, then?’
'You don't look like any Peter I have ever known.' I replied. 'All the Peter's I've known have been beer guzzling men with big bulging bellies.'
Pierre went quiet as a car pulled up close to me. A thin old man with freshly dyed jet black hair and a heavily made up old woman sat next to each other in the rear of the car. A small dark woman sat next to the bored driver in the front. The old woman curled her nose, looked Pierre up and down, threw me a suspicious glance, and tapped the dark woman on the shoulder. The driver leaned down into the car, and the boot lid clicked opened. As the dark woman got out of the car, the older one raised her chin and inspected her face in the mirror. A few moments later the dark woman started throwing black bags full of rubbish at Pierre.
'Why did you go quiet when they pulled up?' I asked as the car left.
'Can you imagine, what people would think of me if they thought I was talking to you?' Pierre replied. 'Besides, do you know what they just added to me?'
'You might think I've got a chip on my shoulder?' Pierre said. 'Promise you won't think low of me.'
'Stop wasting time.' I asked. ‘What sort of a chip?’
'You know, I'm already upset with my name, and you might think I am a bit stuck up French garbage.'
'Just spit it out.'
'Apart from a bag of the old man’s stuff, there were two half eaten chickens, a pile of rice, four packets of bread, two kilos of tomatoes, a crushed new TV box, six bottles of beer; four broken glasses, sixteen empty tins.' Pierre lowered his voice and added, 'And the old lady had six used durex inside one of the bags.'
'You're pulling my leg,' I said.
'I never touched your leg,' Pierre replied.
'Not that kind old lady, surely,' I whispered.
'And what do you know about kind old ladies like her?’ Pierre replied, ‘And the old man, he had the servant throw a bag of his own, it had dirty pencils in it.’
‘You mean broken ones?’
Pierre let out a rumbling guttural laugh that seemed to move up and down the heap and then said, ‘No, I mean dirty pencils.’ He laughed and added, ‘That’s what the old man uses, to hold it…’
'Please spare me your kinky shite. Just finish what you were saying.'
Pierre’s voice became all serious again, 'And there were three unopened bags of French fries...'
'French fries!' I interrupted.
Pierre interjected. 'Don't get upset...'
'You mean unopened bags of chips!'
'No, no, no,' Pierre said, 'French Fries! At least give me some sense of dignity, you give me a name like Pierre, and now want me to call French Fries, chips. How uncouth? How English? One must have principles.'
'Listen you pile of crap. You are a thing. Not an intellectual being. The issue is about it being food, not what it is called. What do you know about principles? You don’t care what is dumped on you or where you are dumped.’
‘Listen Mister, only yesterday, some young people came here and tried to take me away, they wanted to take me away and dump me inside parliament and because I and trash like me have principles, I refused.’
‘What principles?’ I laughed.
‘I had three problems with them. Firstly they just want me to move from here to there, and are full of starry-eyed ideas; good ideas mind you. They know rubbish like me is not really a thing, like you called me, but alive. And I want to live and give life.’
‘Please spare me a lecture,' I protested. ‘What’s your point?’
‘You must understand that all shite here is sectarian and until...’
‘So you want me to believe that all is the result of sectarianism,’ I interrupted.
‘Why did you call me Pierre, then?’
I didn’t answer and Pierre mocked, ‘So there. The second reason I did not want to be taken to parliament was that I was part of a committee to form our own government. We are tired of lining the pockets of people in power. Look at me, Lebanese garbage. I should be crowned King of Crap. I am just looked after these emaciated Indians, and the fat cats are sunning it abroad. I am more expensive to move from one place to another, than my colleagues in France or in America.’
I was finding it hard to believe that I had befriended such a knowledgeable rubbish heap, and didn’t know what to say.
‘Well?’ Pierre asked. ‘Don’t you think I have rights?’
‘I don’t know about rights,’ I replied, ‘but I think you might be onto something.’
‘Just like you humans, I want proper disposal, so I can give life, 80% of me is life – if you truly understand this you would never pull your nose at me, as I would be where I belong. That is why we were going to form our own government.’
‘Come on, this is ridiculous!’
‘We had had enough of the uncertainty of what was going to happen to us. People were setting fire to us here and there, we heard we might be dumped where we used to be, or may near the airport or somewhere else. So we decided to form our own government.’
‘You’re kidding me?’ I said.
‘No, no, no. I am not a kid,’ Pierre replied.
‘It’s just a figure of speech,’ I said.
He let out a deep pungent sigh and said, ‘What do I care about figures? As I was saying, we failed to form a government.’
‘Don’t tell me, you fell out with Muslim garbage, and Muslim trash fell out between Shias and Sunni dumps and the Christians dumps were fighting over whose bunkum was presidential material…’
Pierre said, ‘Nothing like that. We’d agreed that this sectarian governmental system was a load of bull and had to be thrown into the dustbin of history. We fell apart when it came to who got which ministry. No one wanted to take the Ministry of Finance, for example.’
‘Why not?’ I asked.
‘There was no money left in it. And no one wanted the Ministry of Defence as we don’t defend ourselves from anyone and…’
‘What was the third reason you didn’t want to let the youth take you and dump you in front of Parliament?’ I interrupted.
‘Because it is too dirty.’ Pierre spat.
23 August 2015
Tariq Mehmood is a novelist and documentary film-maker, who lives and works between Manchester and Beirut. An award-winning writer, he immigrated as a child from Pakistan to England. His first novel, Hand On the Sun, was published in 1983 by Penguin (London). His latest, You're Not Proper, a story of two girls struggling in a town seething with Islamophobia, was published in March 2015 by Hope Road (London). He is the co-director of the multiple award-winning documentary Injustice, a story about people who have died in British police custody. He teaches at the American University of Beirut (AUB), Lebanon.
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