An Old Box of Antiques
Mishka Mojabber Mourani
The phone started ringing just as Randa was walking out the door. She was running late. She hesitated whether to answer or not, then quickly picked up the receiver. She heard an unfamiliar voice speaking in Arabic, with a heavy Beiruti accent, "´Allo. Can I speak with Randa Shammas?"
Randa was taken aback. No one called her by her maiden name anymore. She took her husband’s name when she got married twenty years before, "Speaking… who is this?"
"You don’t know me, but my father knew your mother. We were your neighbors thirty years ago in Sanayeh. My name is Mustapha Itani. I have something that belonged to your mother…"
"Who’s your father? And what is this thing of my mother’s that you have? I don’t understand…"
"My father was Abu Mustapha*. He was the custodian of the building where your mother had her antique gallery. My father passed away, God rest his soul, last month. Before he died he told me to make sure to find your mother and give her the box. The contents belonged to her. It’s been sitting in our attic since you left the neighborhood during the war thirty years ago."
Randa’s mind flashed back to those years of war that she had worked so hard to forget. She was overwhelmed for a moment with the vividness of the memory of bursts of automatic fire, of the thuds of shells falling, and the sharp zips of sniper bullets. She couldn’t help reliving the fear of spontaneous road blocks, and of the local thugs that imposed the law in the absence of legitimate authority. In that single moment she recalled her mother’s face, distraught at the danger to her precious collection of antiques, culled from her many travels. Each piece had a story. “These Limoges plates are pretty but they have nowhere near the value of this antique Sevres porcelain.” Randa shook her head at the memory of those days of fear and uncertainty and loss.
“This box was left in trust with me. I have to give it back to your mother in person," urged the man.
Randa was flustered, but was determined to be courteous, “God rest your father’s soul. Well, Mustapha, my mother died in France five years ago…”
“God have mercy on her soul.”
“Well, can you come and take the box then?”
Randa hesitated, but couldn’t find a way around it. “Yes, sure. Where do you live?”
“Just around the corner from where the antique gallery used to be. A new building has replaced the gallery.”
Randa balked at the thought of going back to the old neighborhood. “I’m curious, Mustapha, how did you find me?”
“I looked you up in the directory,” he responded.
Randa smiled at the simplicity of his answer. Of course, she was still listed under her maiden name. Formalities take years to complete sometimes. Some things never change in Lebanon.
“I can come over this afternoon. Is six o’clock OK?”
“Ahlan wa sahlan, welcome. My phone number is 01-365781. Call when you reach the gallery- well, what used to be the gallery. There is a new building there now.”
It was already dark when Randa reached the old neighborhood. She had not been back since her mother had had to abandon everything and flee to France. She had been threatened by some local thugs, and the gallery had been broken into and several items stolen. Thirty or so years later, the neighborhood had changed significantly. Lofty high rises had replaced many of the traditional old houses for which the Sanayeh neighborhood had been known.
The antique gallery had occupied an art deco villa with striking wrought iron French windows and balconies, surrounded by a garden. The garden had been planted with fragrant jasmine bushes and purple bougainvillea. There was a loquat tree that Randa had loved in that garden. It bore plump orange fruit that were the sweetest she had ever tasted. Randa parked near the bright white concrete behemoth that had replaced the old gallery. Right next to it was an old, ungainly apartment building in the nondescript style of the mid-twentieth century. It looked like it had not had a coat of paint since. Patterns of bullet holes could be seen on the peeling façade, left over from the Lebanese war years. The first floor balcony had received a direct hit and half of it was gone, giving the building a grinning, slightly demented look. She pulled out her phone and called Mustapha.
“We are in the building with the missing balcony, just above the tire shop. On the fourth floor.”
Randa walked through the grimy entrance and noted that there was no elevator. The stairwell was dark. The power was off. She started climbing slowly, wary of the cracks in the stairs. There were two apartments on each floor, each with a metal door. Tenants during the war had taken the precaution of installing massive iron doors, or doorframes with heavy metal bars, for protection against the armed militias that ran rife, many given to looting or occupying empty apartments under the pretense of protecting them.
Randa was seized with a momentary panic. What was she doing here? Who were those people? She hadn’t even told her husband she was coming. How did she know that it was safe to be here? She reached the fourth floor, slightly out of breath and full of misgivings.
The front door was open and she was met by an elderly woman, dressed in a black kaftan, her head covered with a white scarf. She wore grey slippers. Hiding behind her was a little girl, about four years old. The old woman smiled and greeted her with the traditional words of welcome.
“Ahlan, ahlan! Please come in. I am Umm Mustapha*.”
Randa walked straight into the living room of a small, spotlessly clean apartment. It was sparsely furnished and dimly lit. The arms and headrests of the shabby brown couch and two armchairs were covered with handmade antimacassars. The seating arrangement formed a half circle around a coffee table covered with a doily. A small round dining room table sporting another handmade doily and a colored glass tray was set in a corner of the room. It was surrounded by four chairs. Against the wall was a two-tiered bookshelf. It featured a number of hard cover books and a Koran. Above it was the framed black and white picture of a man, dressed in an old-fashioned suit and wide tie, who looked vaguely familiar. A young woman dressed in black pointed to it and said, “Hello, I am Fatmeh. That was my late father. The picture was taken when we were little.”
A man in his thirties appeared, carrying a bulky carton box. He set it on the coffee table. “Ahlan wa sahlan. I am Mustapha. I see you’ve met my mother and my sister Fatmeh. And this here is my niece, Ruba.”
Randa shook hands awkwardly with the adults. She reached over to ruffle Ruba’s curly black hair.
Fatmeh headed toward the kitchen.“Do you take your coffee with sugar?“
“Yes, please. Just a little bit of sugar.”
Mustapha beckoned to Randa to come closer as he opened the flaps of the carton box. A musty smell arose from the box. It was packed to the brim with items of various sizes wrapped in old newspapers. The newsprint was yellow and dusty to the touch. She reached in for a small package and unwrapped it. It was a solid silver picture frame decorated with bows and flowers. Another package contained an exquisite Sevres plate. Randa knew it well. She remembered her mother telling her she had refused to sell it to a “nouveau riche” client who had mistaken it for an ordinary Limoges. The carton box yielded African ebony masks, delicately carved Chinese elephant tusks, silver ashtrays, and porcelain figurines in various sizes. Randa remembered several of the items. Little Ruba’s face lit up when she saw the African masks. Randa remembered her mother’s story about how she had found those masks in Ghana, and how she had bemoaned their loss when she was in France.
“Mustapha, how did your father come by these things?”
“He told me that he heard some noise in the gallery one night after your mother had left. He went to check it out and found some fellows from the militia breaking in. He tried to stop them, but they wouldn’t listen to him. They said they had some families that were coming into empty apartments and needed furniture. So he negotiated with them: he told them they could take what they wanted, the Persian rugs, the tables and chairs, anything, but he wanted to collect some personal items that belonged to your mother. They agreed, and my father put what he could in the box and brought it home.”
Umm Mustapha interrupted her son, “I helped Abu Mustapha wrap the things he brought. Some items were broken, of course, and we threw those away. Abu Mustapha put the box in the attic for safety. We forgot all about it. When he got sick, he set about settling things and he remembered the box. He made Mustapha promise to find your mother and give her back her property.”
Randa was quiet for a long time as she handled the various objects. “I am so sorry my mother never knew about this. We did come and check the gallery when the war was over, but we found it empty, except for some broken furniture. My mother was devastated. I wish she could have known.”
Randa started re-wrapping the objects, setting some aside. She also selected an ivory bookstand with an intricate hand-carved design. When she finished, she asked Umm Mustapha if she would allow her to give her a souvenir, “I know my mother would want me to thank you this way.“
Randa handed the elderly woman the ivory bookstand and pointed to the Koran on the bookshelf. The old lady flushed with pleasure. “Thank you, my dear. Thank you.”
She gave Fatmeh and Ruba the African masks and two silver picture frames. They were clearly delighted with their gifts as well. Randa sat and chatted with the family, sipping her coffee. The lights suddenly came on in the apartment. The city power had just returned. She glanced at her watch saying, “I have to get going. Thank you so much for what you did.“
Randa made her way back down the now brightly-lit stairs. Mustapha followed with the box. The menacing old building seemed so benign. Why had she been so mistrustful, felt such fear, twenty years after the war had ended? She made her way to her car, and remembered her childhood in this old neighborhood. She glanced around her and was surprised to catch a glimpse of the old loquat tree. It had miraculously survived. It grew in a planter at the entrance of the new building. Randa was suddenly very grateful to this family. They had saved much more than an old box of antiques.
* Abu Mustapha, Umm Mustapha = Mustapha’s father, Mustapha’s mother. It is common in parts of the Arab world to call a man and woman by the name of their firstborn. It is a way of honoring the parents.