By Mohanad Hage Ali
Across long, empty hallways where walls turned grey after failed attempts to paint them white, echoes of Soviet nurses’ footsteps intensify as they approach the sleeping hall of Michel Abou Rjeili and several other “patients”. The footsteps were an early warning sign for the anticipated injection, “enough to sedate an elephant”, Abou Rjeili recalls his vivid memory of this 1983 Ukranian psychiatric ward, where the word “patient” was often synonymous to “political dissident”.
Michel, then a student at Kiev’s State Theatre Institute, suffered a nervous breakdown after learning that both his parents, Fouad and Zmorroud Abou Rjeili, were among hundreds of civilians killed in a massacre in their hometown Bhamdoun at the peak of Lebanon’s Civil War. When admitted, a psychiatrist interrogated him “KGB style”, asking “no questions on the reasons behind the nervous breakdown”. After three months of injections, Abou Rjeily’s condition grabbed the attention of a visiting Lebanese Communist Party “comrade”. Checked out, he escaped Ukraine and the Soviet Union “for good”.
“My Little Bhamdoun”
Michel Abou Rjeili, now 56, lives in Gällivare, an Arctic town 1,300 KM North of Stockholm. In spite of his insistence on highlighting the distance between the Arctic Circle and Lebanon, Michel, now a teacher of Drama and pantomimic acting at the town’s Cultural school, is closer to his Bhamdoun than he admits. Wearing the traditional countryside cap, with a light greyish beard, he vividly recalls every event’s details in the town leading to the 1980s massacre, accentuating every statement with hand gestures, nods, shrugs and facial expressions. Behind him, strong sunrays sparkle through the window on a slew of indoor green plants and roses pots. The world outside is all white, Abo Rjeily says pointing at the window, “inside is my little Bhamdoun”.
Behind him on the wall a framed painting of windy storm bending the landscape. Does it encapsulate your life? Michel denies it, nodding backwards. “I am transforming my pains into positive energy”, he says, unconvincingly. After questioning his statement, he says little to counter it. For many years now, his condition, known as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), causes confusion between the past and present. “When I lay my head down on my pillow”, the home town Bhamdoun massacre resurrects. The pre-1983 events are ever present, vividly so, along with their emotional upheavals.
“Boulmiche” – as he is known in Bhamdoun– was a Communist since childhood, “by instinct like my father”, Fouad, also known as “Abou William” (Arabic for the father of William, the eldest son). Michel remembers Fouad, a tailor by profession, through his sense of humor and sometimes outright frankness, “just like the French director Jacques Tati”. This forthrightness “almost killed my father when the Syrian Forces entered Bhamdoun in 1976. Notables and businessmen gathered to host multiple dinners in honor of Syrian officers. My father, who was known for his frank jokes, was invited to one of these dinners. While drinking, the officers’ shoulder boards came to his attention. Unlike the stars system in Lebanon, the Syrian officers had eagles on their shoulders. Staring at one officer, Fouad spontaneously cracked the following joke: ‘how many hens do you have?’ The officer happened to have a sense of humor as well, which saved Fouad”.
A Promising Career in Theatre
Michel’s Communist affiliation put him in touch with a cultural world larger than his hometown and “even Lebanon”. Among his friends and comrades, was Hassan Hamdan, the leading Lebanese Marxist known as Mahdi Amel, “the man with the shining face” as he recalled him. Most importantly, Michel met Faeq Homaissi, a Professor of theatre at the Lebanese University.
Faeq Homaissi taught Michel “to love theatre”, Abo Rjeily recalls. They met in the early 1980s during an artistic evening organized by the Democratic Youth Union, the Lebanese Communist Party’s Student body. Homeisi recalls that meeting well. “I realized then that I was before a unique acting and performing talent who was skilled in establishing an interactive relation with the public”, Homaissii says. This friendship developed as Michel joined the faculty. “When he enrolled in the Acting Department at the Lebanese University’s Institute of Fine Arts, we developed a teacher-student relation, which evolved into a close friendship, as I saw in him a promising talent, particularly since he was interested in pantomime”. Michel participated in several plays, such as Gebran wal Qa’ida, a known play by late director Yaacoub al-Shedrawi.
When in Beirut, Michel stayed at his professor’s house, since his working class family couldn’t afford rent in Beirut and the raging conflict meant transportation was fraught with danger. According to Faeq, “Michel’s talent allowed him to quickly grasp pantomimic performance techniques. Our friendship brought him into my house where we spent a lot of time discussing art and the need for it in society. The war prevented him sometimes from traveling between Beirut and the Mountain (Bhamdoun), so Michel would stay over”. Out of passion for theatre, Faeq recalls, Michel “used to take advantage of these forced stays to develop his capacities and I used to benefit from them as well to develop some ideas pertaining to pantomimic theatre plays by means of discussions and experiments. These artistic evenings, along with many other experiments and debates with students, influenced the pantomimic plays I wrote in the 1980s, particularly the introduction of hand gestures in performances. I derived this idea from the gestures Michel used to make by candlelight, drawing shadows and shapes on the wall and adding sounds to them to create acting scenes and situations. I was more impressed with Michel’s smooth movements than with the shadow shapes, so I started an experiment, using only hand gestures to perform acting situations and cases.”
Michel found himself in theatre, he says with his eyes shut. When on stage, “I forget the world”. This career hike in his early twenties was drawing to a close. The peak was his performance on a famous TV show on TL, the state-owned national station. After the program, Michel learned of ongoing battles in the Bhamdoun region; this was later referred to as the “Mountain invasion”. Michel got a ride with a TV staff member to his village, and Homaissi went home, carrying his student’s clothes bag. Abou Rjeily was in a hurry to be with his parents. On the following day, Michel did not attend his university classes. Homaissi never saw him again. Had he been destined to stay in Lebanon and pursue his theatre career, Homaissi laments, “Michel would have become one of the most important figures in this field due to his talent, his culture, his sensitiveness and his artistic audacity”.
In Bhamdoun, Michel’s mother sensed the growing danger on her son’s life, as the Lebanese Forces right wing militia harassed the town’s communists. The militia encircled Michel’s building, and an acquaintance, the son of the Bhamdoun school guard, knocked on their apartment. Zomorroud opened the door, shivering with fear as their communist relatives either fled or disappeared. “I told her not to be afraid,” Michel says, “and I went to talk to the visitor: ‘How are you? Long time no see’. He replied in a harsh military tone that surprised me; he demanded that I surrender my weapons. I told him, ‘you know me too well, I am not the kind to carry weapons and if you want, you can come in and see for yourself’. He turned around and left”.
The following days were characterized by extreme anxiety. Michel’s father, Fouad, would not go to sleep till Michel did. “My mother had this theory, whereby I would not sleep before eating something she had cooked”. The parents could not handle the pressure any longer and they asked their four sons to leaver to Beirut. “My mother Zomorroud wanted to leave as well, but my father insisted on staying in Bhamdoun. He used to say, ‘I was born here and I shall die here’, and wondered to whom we were to leave our house”. But what house? This House was a rented apartment”. Michel left Bhamdoun to Damascus and went to Moscow, then Ukraine to study theatre in Kiev. “I left on the day preceding Bashir Gemayel’s election as president”. He later heard that the Lebanese Forces retreated without telling any of their supporters, and especially not the families of Communists. Progressive Socialist Party (PSP) forces then invaded and committed the massacre. “I was told that my mother and my father were chopped with an axe”.
Do you blame yourself? Michel, sobbing with his eyes shut, laments: “I wish I had stayed in a shit hole and did not leave”. What do you want now? “I want recognition of the massacre, 256 people were killed. I want my dignity. I want a grave on which I can put a rose.” But how can you remain a Communist following the horrors you saw in the Soviet Union? “That was not communism”. What IS communism then? Is it not the dictatorship of the proletariat? “The Manifesto is no Bible. Communism, for me, is to be a human being who believes in social justice and equality. Communism is when my father used to stitch poor people’s clothes for free and when my mother opened our door for the neighbors to come in and eat with us”. Did you participate in the war as a Communist? “I did not take part in the war. The party sent me twice to Beirut to guard positions. I spent the time joking, so they pulled me out and never asked me to guard again”.
A painful visit
Two years following the massacre and the psychiatric hospital internment, Abou Rjeily called Faeq Homaissi for the first time; he notified him of his intention to migrate with his wife to Arctic North Sweden for good. However, “Michel did not express his inner feelings about the massacre; only recently, he wrote about his parents’ death”, says Homaissi. In 2005, Michel visited Bhamdoun for the first time in more than two decades. He saw a 4×4 car with PSP and Lebanese Forces banners flying to the tune of Western songs. “I spent two weeks there and I was sick for two years afterwards”, He vowed never to return again.
Growing produce in the Freezing Cold
After years in the Arctic Circle, Michel revived his longstanding passion for theatre; however, Bhamdoun was ever present. On stage, “when I close my eyes, my father appears”. Michel, now also known as “Abou William” like his father, has another son named Elie Marcel (Elie after his Bhamdoun neighbor and Marcel after his friend Marcel Khalife, a Lebanese Marxist singer). He cooks food just like his late mother, Zomorroud, using vegetables he grows indoors. Just like Fouad and Faeq, Michel invites friends and students over to his house. Every day, Michel wakes up at 5 a.m. and stays motionless in bed for hours until noon. After wearing several layers of clothes and a puffy coat that hides his slender body, he walks out in the freezing cold where temperatures can drop as low as –40 degrees centigrade in wintertime. Sometimes, he goes to a pub near his home to watch football games and follow news of his idol, Bosnian-born Swedish football player Zlatan Ibrahimović. For years now, Michel had had another hobby: composing poetry in colloquial and classical Arabic on Facebook under the penname “Abou al-Mich from the North Pole”. In one poem, he writes: “I am with you and I shall stay with you, for you are my life. I play back memories, with or without you, mercilessly. And on the following day, I stand naked before the mirror of life and I am ashamed of you”.
Years ago, while watching the news, Michel Abou Rjeili saw a story on using advanced technology to discover mass graves in Bosnia. He quickly remembered Bhamdoun. “I closed my eyes and I dreamt of leading a commando operation in Bhamdoun during which I was dropped down to complete the mission”. What is the mission?
“A grave for my father and a grave for my mother.”
PS. The article is a translation of the original Arabic, published in Annahar newspaper.