What's New
Niko longlisted for the 2013 International IMPAC Dublin Award
I'm thrilled to report that Niko has made the 2013 IMPAC Dublin Award longlist, alongside 153 other international novels!  You can view the entire longlist here.

Niko to be published in Turkey
Turkish-language rights for Dimitri Nasrallah’s second novel, Niko, have sold to Everest, the Turkish publisher of Rawi Hage, Zadie Smith, and Penelope Lively, among many other renowned English-language authors. Publication of the Turkish edition of Niko is scheduled for Spring of 2014.
Nasrallah on France's Tonino Benacquista in the Toronto Star
In the Toronto Star's books section, I review The Thursday Night Men, the latest novel by French author Tonino Benacquista.



Excerpt


Something Is

The drive from our apartment on the Messogion, in the heart of Athens, to Glifada took no longer than three-quarters of an hour on a Saturday.  I often asked my dad, "Hey, how come we don’t live in Glifada if we go there so much?” to which he would reply, "We don’t need everyone knowing we’re Lebanese.”  
    Every Saturday, sometimes Sunday, I sat in the backseat of that black Mercedes, wriggling around to keep my thighs from sticking to the leather upholstery.  I remember that, at five, my preoccupations had little to do with civil war, nothing with religion, not with my passport, only with a distinctly awkward sense of personal grooming.  My shorts had to be just as their name: very short.  And I always insisted on tucking in my shirts as far into my shorts as they could go.  What I asked for in a good sock was, to my mind, very reasonable.  A sock had to be long, it needed stripes.  A sock needed good elasticity as it would have to hold the sock at the knee throughout the day.  If I could get the sock over the knee, well, then I was unspeakably happy.  
    If I wasn’t pushing in my shirt I was pulling up my socks.  Whenever my dad saw me doing this he would say, "You’re worse than a cat,” to which I would respond with a cackle of laughter as I licked down the hairs on my arm.
    We had two reasons for driving to Glifada, the beaches or my parents’ friends, also Lebanese. Most of their friends they knew from their jobs.  My dad’s office consisted of three small rooms with ceiling fans and balconies.  He had never explained to me what he did exactly, but I’d gone to work with him once or twice and this was what I saw: five grown men using very expensive markers to draw very simple drawings.
My dad drew like I did, with his tongue nestled firmly between his teeth.  The better the drawing, the tighter his teeth held his tongue, and in this way throngs of pain offset his greatest achievements.  Mssr. Alfo was the oldest of the five draftsmen and, from what I could see, had the job of smoking all day, getting in and out of small talk with the other four, and occasionally giving in to fits of complaining, for which he was duly ignored.  
    Mssr. Alfo was by no means Mssr. Alfo’s real name.  I called him Alfo because he made me nervous, and when I got nervous I developed a bad lisp.  His ears could not bear listening to Alfonsh Alfonsh all the time.  And I called him Mssr. because he was an old man with pungent old-man breath.  He was older than my dad was but that didn’t stop them from working together; I thought he was as old as my grandfathers were if I could imagine how old that was.  I tried but they were dead, dead and buried somewhere in Beirut, one of pneumonia and another before my time.  
    I asked my dad, as he drove, "If both your dad and mom’s dad died, then do I still have granddads?”
    "Of course, why wouldn’t you?”
    "Because they died.”
    "Dead people are still people.”
    I asked my mom the same question; all she allowed was "Both your grandfathers loved you equally.”  
    "But how?  We’ve never met.”
    "One loved the fact that you were alive, the other loved that you would be one day.”  
    When I first met Mssr. Alfo, he introduced himself by saying, "I don’t like children.”
      My mom’s work was altogether different.  She taught Arabic to students at Green Hill, an Arabic school in Kifisia, where all the European and American companies housed their employees, in a building which had once been a sister school to the American private school I attended in Halandri.  When a very rich Lebanese businessman bought that old building, all the American students were moved to my school.  From what I’d gathered, the man who bought the building had always wanted to be a principal at a school for Arab children.  He walked the halls every morning as students ran in and out of classrooms, and he admired the posters in Arabic on the walls. And when he looked into classrooms, Arabic adorned the chalkboards.  All around it seemed he had drafted a small piece of his Lebanese childhood onto a land that would consider him a foreigner as long as he stayed.  For this reason, I assumed, behind his serious demeanor he must have been the giddiest man around, as every day for him was a re-enactment of his aspirations.  
    On the days I accompanied my mom to Green Hill, the principal would greet us at the gates, as he did everyone, and ask, "And why, why does this little one not come to school here?  Our children are our seeds, we need to nurture them with care.  They need to know their history, their heritage, their roots.  He’s not American yet he knows more about the U.S. than he does about his home.  We need to care for our own.  What will he know when the war is over and he moves back?”  
    My mom would smile as he said this, sometimes nod, but in the end she would always answer, "I don’t think we plan to return.”

That Saturday in the car we drove to Glifada not for teachers but drawers.  And not any drawer but Mssr. Alfo the drawer who never drew.  The drawer who never drew who openly disliked children no less.  This had me worried for the duration of the drive. Mssr. Alfo was inexplicably unmoved by everything I did.  No matter how long I followed him around the office, no matter how many times I asked him to tie my shoelaces, he did what was necessary to keep away from me.  That someone did not like me was incomprehensible.  
    "Baba baba, why is Mssr. Alfoo such a big poo?” I asked, leaning into the space between the front seats.
    "A big poo? No, no.  Mssr. Alfo is a very talented man.  You should see his drawings, then you’d think twice before being disrespectful.”
    "But why is drawing such a big deal anyway?”
    "Why is drawing such a big deal he says -- look around,” he laughed.  "Who do you think put all those trees on the side of the road, who put the sea by the land, who put you with us?”
    "Who,” I asked excitedly. "Who?”
    "God did, who else?  Where have you been?  Why do we send you to Sunday school?”
    "God is a drawer like you?”
    "Of course.  He draws all day.  With the best markers anyone has ever seen.  I’ll let you know a little secret, but you can’t tell anyone.  Me and Mssr. Alfo and Pierre and Yousef and Wahid, we all work for God.  Why do you think they give me so much trouble at the airport with my Lebanese passport?  They can sense we’re special people.  God, he takes care of the big pictures and every so often He calls us on the phone to give us our next project.”
    "Is that why Mssr. Alfo smokes all the time?”
    "Exactly, he gets nervous waiting for the phone to ring.  And he’s afraid that if he starts playing with you that he’ll like it so much that when the phone rings he’ll be having so much fun he wouldn’t hear it.  And who wants to miss a message from God?”
    "I wouldn’t.”
    "Neither would I.”
    "Can I answer the phone at your work next time?”
    "Oh no, you’re too young.”
    That Mssr. Alfo received special messages from God had me puzzled; still I would have much rather gone to the beach than his apartment.  I recall I’d secretly worn a bathing suit under my shorts.  Just thinking of the beach on such a nice day and not being able to go to the beach and having to sit with old people all day had me irritable.  Suddenly, no matter how hard I tried no shirt could be tucked in far enough, no sock could be pulled up high enough.  How I wished my dad would stop his catcalling and, instead, announce that we were going to the beach.  
    The drive took not three-quarters of an hour but an hour and three-quarters.   We passed two small accidents and one big one, and along the way we saw many drivers yelling at each other from their windows.  
    "The Greeks are very primal drivers,” my dad explained, "They drive like mad, like no one else is on the road. But when they get into accidents they have no regrets.”
    We stopped only once on our way to Glifada, at a truck selling watermelons for thirty drachmas a kilo.  My dad found this price so irresistible he almost caused an accident of his own by slamming on the breaks and swerving onto the gravel.  Before  my mom had a chance to catch her breath and give him an earful, he rushed out to the truck.  My dad hoisted himself onto the bed, searching for the perfect watermelon.  When he found one, he cradled it with such affection we thought he had a baby in his arms.  After haggling with the seller over the weight and threatening to go to another vendor, he paid and returned with his prize.
    "Ninety-five drachmas,” he announced proudly, as he held it out for us to see.  "Should I go buy another one for us?”
    "Get in the car please.”
    As a rule my dad refused to keep watermelons in the trunk.  My mom had the job of cradling it in her lap as he drove.  We didn’t arrive at Mssr. Alfo’s apartment building until one o’clock.  I began complaining as soon as I stepped out of the car.  The air was very dry -- we hadn’t seen rain in weeks, and the news had talked of another heat wave on the way.  The sky during a heat wave looked worn; the blue faded as though it had been washed many times.  Passing clouds looked not white but translucent, like oil stains.  
It did not help my temper that, at this time of summer, the heat forced itself under the skin.  The sea wasn’t even a kilometer away.  I could smell the salt in the air. I closed my eyes and imagined my parents, as they were when they went to the beach.  
    "Enough!” my mom snapped, but I wasn’t listening.  I stamped my feet, began to cry, and how at that moment all I wanted was to jump into the waves crashing along the shore.  My mom grabbed my wrist, tried to pull me forward. I resisted.
    "No, I won’t go! I wanna go to the beach.  I wanna go right now.”  And my words melted into a long wail of disapproval.
    My dad, fed up with my antics, set the watermelon down on the sidewalk and marched back to where I stood to make sure I had a real reason to cry.  The backside of his hand flew back into the air, down came his hand, and spank!  He threatened me with the bagmen if I didn’t quiet down; the whimpering settled to a sniffle, I tucked in my shirt and pulled up my socks.  Soon we turned into the gate of Mssr. Alfo’s apartment building.
    I was threatened with the bagmen almost every time I got to his nerves.  The bagmen were, as I understood it, a police for children.  They drove around the city streets, two or three to a car, in search of bad children, and when they found them, the men would force them into a large bag, tie it up, and toss them into the trunk of the car.  Then they took the child to an orphanage and that was how children became orphans.  For a long time I only half-believed in the bagmen. Then one day at the market with my parents, as I was chewing a piece of dried apricot, I saw three men forcing a screaming boy into the back of a car, and I could’ve sworn one of them was carrying a bag.

Mssr. Alfo accepted the watermelon graciously.  He handed it to his wife, Mme Muna, who promptly disappeared down a corridor as he led us into the living room.  An old man was already seated on the sofa.  The man stood, and shook hands with my parents as Mssr. Alfo introduced everyone.  His name was Mssr. Sameer Gerdak.  Despite the temperature, he wore a red sweater.  He was no more than five feet tall, still his stockiness lent him stature.  Mssr. Sameer was Mssr. Alfo’s brother-in-law.  He was from West Beirut and was vacationing for two weeks.
    "I hope the ferry wasn’t too bad,” my mom said.
    "It was as I had expected: over-crowded, yet expensive.  We spent one night at sea and they gave us deck chairs to sleep outside.  Luckily the weather cooperated.  We docked in Cyprus the next morning, where I spent the day walking around Nicosia.  The next day I took another ferry and here I am.”
    "And how long have you been here now?”
    "Long enough to have settled in.”
    My mom and Mssr. Sameer continued their talk.  As I listened in I found out that he no longer had a job because the architectural firm he worked at had gone bankrupt.  Inevitably their conversation turned to bombs, as this was a topic which my mom had a strange fascination with, and Mssr. Sameer began to run down a list of buildings that had been shelled, and my mom erased them from the map of Beirut she still had in her head.  She asked about the university. Mssr. Sameer said it was still unscathed.  They spoke in low voices, reliving a kind of tension they had cultivated while listening for explosions at night in the cellars of buildings.  But it seemed that the only bombs going off now were those blowing away the doors of the past. Doors, which, in my home, had always been kept under lock and key.
    "And what will you have to drink?” Mssr. Alfo asked my dad.
    "I don’t understand how my drinks would change just because we’re not at the office.”
    "Alright then.  That’s settled.  And you, Madame?”
    "I think I’d like to find out what he’s been drinking at the office.”
    "And this one,” he gestured toward me.
    "He’ll have juice,” my mom answered.
    "Tang?”
    "That will do. Thank you.”
    Mssr. Alfo wandered down the corridor, passing his wife, who was returning with a large plate of watermelon wedges.
    "A wonderful idea.  You can never have too many liquids in this heat.  Now can I interest anyone in something to eat? Maybe terropitas?  And before you say no, I should warn you that I’ve spent the better part of the morning in the kitchen so you’d better eat.”
    "Alright then, we’re famished!” my dad replied, laughing as he threw back his arms in defeat.
    She needn’t have threatened us so playfully.  When Mssr. Alfo returned, his tray carried not only a bottle of Ouzo and a glass of orange Tang, but also a plate of terropitas alongside.  My mom scolded me for having my shoes on the couch; Mme Muna calmly assured her that it was nothing to worry about.  Mme. Muna asked my mom about the school, remarking how large the Lebanese émigré population was getting.  Mssr. Alfo remarked that the Greeks must love the idea of an Arabic school in Kifisia.  
    "At least they’ll have us quietly,” my dad said.
    "Yes, much quieter than the French,” Mme. Muna agreed.
    Drinks were poured.  Mssr. Alfo proposed a toast to peace.  All toasted, even though everyone knew that peace was not in the foreseeable future.  I remember my dad made mention of the recent involvement of the American troops, which led to a discussion with Mssr. Sameer over the ineffectiveness their participation would have on the course of the war.  All agreed the Americans’ inability to comprehend the delicacy and history of the situation would only lead to failure.  
    "It’s not like they’ll get very far.  They’re still based at the airport and how many did they lose in that bombing?”
"Too many to stay.  They don’t understand that our problems are bigger than their remedies.”
    I decided that the watermelon wedges tasted better than the terropitas.  I nibbled hungrily at the wedge as juice dripped down my chin and onto my shirt.  Mssr. Alfo began going on about the uselessness of a Lebanese government that had no power and that, to add, was rife with corruption.  More drinks were poured, and my dad proposed another toast.  This one to the recently assassinated president Basheer Jemayil.
    "It was his father’s doing.  Who puts their own son in such a position at such a time?”
    Mssr. Sameer began talking about the present state of life in Beirut.  My mom asked whether or not they had electricity; the electricity was sporadic at best, as were the telephone lines.  On a positive note, he added with a wry smile, there was less of a demand for electricity and telephones without the buildings. Communication within the country was troublesome; from the outside it was not an option.   My mom could attest to that, since she had been trying to contact her brother, a professor of mathematics at the American University of Beirut, for the last seven months.  She asked Mssr. Sameer if he knew anyone from that house.   Mssr. Sameer replied that he had a cousin who knew my uncle’s family, and said that they were doing well, but that they were still mourning, as he expected she also was, the death of their sister’s eldest son.  
    "Oh, I - I hadn’t heard.  How did it happen?”    
    "I’m so very sorry.  I thought for sure you would’ve known,” he said.  He breathed a deep breath, then sighed, seeming uncomfortable for being the bearer of such news.  He looked to my mom imploringly, but she in return awaited his response.   
"Now you must forgive my memory but I’m not too clear on what exactly took place.  Let me see.  It all happened not too long ago, two weeks, ten days maybe.  From what I recall, I think the boy had been riding his bicycle home one day when a car bomb exploded.  Poor thing, not too far from his doorstep.  I’m sorry I don’t know more about it.  There was an article in the paper.  My cousin mentioned it only in passing.  What is your sister’s name?”  
    My mom sat back for a moment, then crossed her legs.  The room fell into a sort of reflective quietude.  More than once my dad looked as if he were about to say something and then thought again.  When my mom finally answered the question put forth, she spoke very slowly.
    "Her name is Souad. I don’t know her son, Eid.  Please forgive me.  This is all so sudden.  I think you’ve caught me off guard.  You see, my sister and I had a falling out, oh, what is it now, over thirteen years ago.  I was very young, still in my teens, and Souad was a good eleven years older.  My God, I can’t even remember what it was all about it was so long ago.  So much was going on at the time.  So much is still going on.  I remember it was right after the death of my mother, and that had something to do with it.”
    "I’m sorry, Madame,” Mssr. Sameer repeated, "I didn’t mean to upset you.  I was not aware that you hadn’t heard.”
    "Please don’t be.  I’m quite alright.  Just a bit of a shock, that’s all.  As I said, I haven’t talked to my sister in years.  I don’t even know her boy.”   
    Another round of drinks was poured.  My dad complimented Mme. Muna on her terropitas.  She commented on how the alcohol affected her all the more in this heat before turning to me, caught quite unaware with a mouthful of watermelon, and confessed how adorable I looked and how fortunate my parents were to have such an adorable boy.  She ran her fingers through my hair and began telling me how she was too old to have another child now, but if she did she would want a little boy just like me.
    "Please Muna, you’re embarrassing the child,” Mssr. Alfo quickly interrupted.  He changed the topic, asking my dad about a small item at work that did not appear to concern anyone else.  His talk seemed laborious, as though his mind was elsewhere, and before my dad could answer the question, Mssr. Alfo began going on about his disgust with the warlords on either side of the war, and how they were cowards to recruit young boys to fight their battles.  His talk accelerated as he ranted against these, as he put it, mongers who armed young boys with guns, machine guns larger than themselves even, and sent them into the streets to kill each other. He then picked up my glass of Tang, mumbling something about the drink feeling warm, and stalked down the corridor.
    I remember that everyone sat quietly, and I began to think this visit was becoming very wasteful, since no one was talking.  My mom was staring out the window.  My dad was stirring his drink with the tip of his finger.  Mme. Muna, seeing that we needed more watermelon,  set off to the kitchen with the empty plate.  We sat in silence for a good few minutes, and it was Mssr. Sameer who broke the silence in the end.
    "I have a riddle, maybe you’ll know the answer,” he said, and almost immediately I perked up, ready to win this small contest of wits.  He leaned back in his chair, as if resigned not to tell his riddle after all, and then he began again.
    "Something is as nothing was, but that something is not nothing at all.”
    I thought about this for a while but came up empty-handed.  My mom and dad both looked stumped, and by the time I turned back to Mssr. Sameer, I couldn’t help but shout out loud, "Give us a clue, another clue!”
    "Alright.  Another clue it is,” he said.  "You return to it without turning, and you collect it only for recollecting it.”
    I still had no idea.  My only certainty was that it was not an animal of some sort, unless it was a combination of animals.  Then I could not be faulted for not knowing the answer because combinations were seemingly infinite.  I thought long and hard. I even felt compelled to tuck in my shirt my thoughts felt so active, but my mom was the one who answered first.
    "The memory?” she asked.
    "Yes, the memory,” he repeated.

The afternoon waned and we had lunch. I began to suspect there was little hope of getting to the beach at all.   The conversation was boring me half to sleep. In the end I asked if I could see their balcony.  My mom thought it too hot outside, still I begged and pleaded until my dad could not see the harm in it, and off I went with the two largest watermelon wedges in my hands.
    Mssr. Alfo’s apartment had a very long balcony, a good third of which was immersed in shade.  I quickly discovered that I could see the coast from up there, so my first fifteen minutes on the balcony were spent with my face bent into the wrought-iron bars that formed my cage, with my hands taking turns pressing watermelon into my mouth.  The sun burned against my face.  
I made a game of spitting seeds as far out as I could.  One reached the sidewalk, and the rest got lost in the trees.  I began to think that a seed on its own didn’t have enough weight to make it across the street, which was my desired target, and that a whole watermelon might do the trick instead.  Watermelons were still too heavy for my to carry, let alone throw.  My dad never let me carry the watermelons.  Once after I had pleaded with him for a whole car ride (for we used to sometimes drive out of town, the two of us alone, in search of watermelon trucks) he allowed me to carry one from the car to our front door.  But it was lot heavier than I expected, and even though he offered to help me with it, I had refused.  It fell splat out of my hands onto the concrete and broke in two.  After that, he’d lost faith in me and my watermelon-carrying privileges had been suspended indefinitely.  But to throw a watermelon off a balcony and watch it explode on the street, with a big bang, and have the seeds splatter out in all directions, that would be a sight.  When I was older, I decided, I would do that.
    When my face had been creased sufficiently by the bars, I took to inventing games for one.  On the wall beside the sliding doors Mssr. Alfo had a potted plant, and I tried to reach it by jumping. The pot was too high, and when I took a running start my knees kept scraping against the wall.  I tucked in my shirt, then retucked it when I thought it would hold better if tucked not only into my shorts, but my bathing suit as well.  When I sat on the ground to pull up my socks properly, that was when the idea came to me for the perfect game.  The idea popped into my head as the sun shifted, causing a lighted strip to appear down the length of the balcony.  I would race from one end to the next, my only competitor the shadow that lapped alongside me.  And so I began running, running fiercely with the sole intention of outdoing my shadow.  That first course, with the sun burning into my chest, I managed to touch the bars first.  I took a deep breath, relieved to have shown up my shadow on the first try in my own game.  The second course in the opposite direction was not so fruitful.  My shadow stretched ahead from the very beginning and maintained his lead, reaching the bars a good meter ahead of me.  We ran back and forth, back and forth like that for a good half hour, each time exchanging our wins for losses regardless the pace, and I began to think that I was not only trapped on this balcony but also in an irresolvable duel with my shadow. His strategy was beyond me.  He managed to replicate my every move as if he’d had access to the very thoughts that composed them.
    It was not until I stopped running that I realized the full scope of the heat permeating my lungs, and found it difficult to catch my breath.  I limped over to the shaded part of the balcony, my hands balancing against the wall and, instead of sitting in one of the two foldout chairs, I lay down on the marble.  I heard the phone ring inside the apartment.  I wondered if it was perhaps God calling with an assignment.  Maybe He had Mssr. Alfo’s home number too.  Or maybe it was for my dad.  Or maybe it was for Mme. Muna or my mom or Mssr. Sameer or even for me.  After all, my dad said we were all special, so it would only follow that God would call all of us sooner or later.  And I began to wonder how long it would be before I received my call with my assignment.  Granted I couldn’t draw very well, but I could do other things.  I was learning to swim without the floaties; maybe God was waiting for me to swim on my own.  But what could He have been waiting for with that boy Mssr. Sameer mentioned, the one riding his bicycle?  I wondered if maybe the bagmen had gotten to him.  Hopefully God had put him in his bag when he was collecting people that day and taken him up to heaven.  As I stared at the sky I imagined how He would plant that boy’s cracked seed in the clouds, and from it would grow vines that would trail all the way back to earth.  And he would return as a big, ripe juicy watermelon of a boy, with a hearty thick skin and sweet juice coursing through his veins.  
I hadn’t even known my mom had a sister.  Of course I’d talked to my uncle Murad on the telephone and my parents had pictures of him holding me as a baby in the photo album, but an aunt – who knew?  I guessed at what she looked like, what color her hair was, and whether she liked to take naps in the afternoon.  But what shade were her eyes and what day of the week had she been born on?  And her son -- that made him my cousin.  I hadn’t thought of it that way before.  Did he know how to swim, did they even have beaches in Lebanon or did he have to learn in a swimming pool?  When was his birthday?  Where was his school?  How old was he when he had learned to ride a bike, and how long had it taken him?  How tall was he?  I closed my eyes and tried hard to imagine but all I came up with was an outline of a boy I couldn’t fill, like those coloring sheets they gave me at school where I had to color between the lines.  I had all the crayons I just didn’t know what went where and, in the end, my cousin too remained a dark shadow.  Still, we were attached and I felt all of a sudden that I was attached to much more than I actually knew.
    I lay on the marble until I felt a sharp burning in my groin, and suddenly I felt an irrepressible urge to pee.  I ran into the apartment.  My dad noticed the frantic expression on my face and pointed me hurriedly down the corridor to the bathroom.  I ran to the door and turned the handle but the handle wouldn’t turn.  I tried again, hoping for a miraculous change, without luck.  My knees locked together and I squeezed just like my dad had told me to do when I had to wait.  I bent forward out of sheer pressure, pressed my ear to the door to hear if anyone was inside.  I couldn’t hear any voice, no water from the tap, no toilet flushing.  Only a soft whimpering, as if someone were crying.  I could practically hear urine rumbling in my insides. I can only attest to trying, trying to hold it back but it was too strong.  Through the satisfying but altogether humiliating release, a stream flowed down my legs.  Soon a puddle formed around my feet.  And I wailed at the top of my lungs, and the wailing only got louder as everyone from the living room ran to see what had happened.  I’d never been so embarrassed.  All of them hovered over me, Mme Muna asking if I was all right and Mssr. Sameer with that expression on his face, as if this was all very cute.
    But then the bathroom door flew open and my mom came out, took me in her arms.  She swung me up in the air and I felt like I was flying away from the aftermath of a violence in my shorts, away from all the spectators who had gathered only to look.  I wrapped my legs around her waist and she held me very close, her head digging into my neck, and she kept repeating how much she loved me and how everything would be alright as long as we gave it time, that time was a very difficult thing to sit through when you wanted it to run its course, and I think that was the best part about that day.