On my grandmother’s balcony, in the village.
Mid-afternoon summer. Lebanon. End of the 90’s.
I sit back in my chair.
I watch the leaves shake on the tree.
It’s quiet. The sun is high.
I look at the screen and it’s Unreal showing where I died.
A multiplayer match against bots.
I fell off a bridge, into a valley.
I’d never played a game like this.
I enjoy its fusion of nature and architecture.
I look past the tree. I roll my eyes along the mountains on the horizon.
The abandoned hospital glimmers: Bombed and abandoned.
The afternoon call to prayer begins.
I start another match.
I try to understand the novelty and limits of my trackball.
I look up into the sky. I jump down again.
I shut the computer off. I stand up. I grab my gun.
I cross the road. I walk into the valley.
I sit in the forest.
I watch a cow skull bake in the sun.
I imagine all the dead here.
If you look hard enough through the mud, you can still find bullet casings from the war.
I found a grenade here once.
I get up.
I walk to the graveyard below.
The sky is quiet at last.
Our anxieties cool.
“You want to go for a ride?”
A neighboring village.
We are rivals in every sense.
I look at my cousin:
“Just for a ride or is there something you want to do?”
“I hear they have an internet cafe where you can play games.”
I tell my father I’m leaving for a while.
He doesn’t like the idea.
I get in the car anyway.
My cousin drives.
He lays into the gas. We scream through.
KM is dark. The electricity is out.
The cafe sits at the edge of the village.
They run the generator.
It’s packed and hot.
We walk up to the manager:
“How much for an hour?”
Two US Dollars.
We pay and sit down.
I look around at the other screens.
I check my email. I load up CS.
I don’t play well. I look at my cousin’s screen.
“What are you doing?”
“I’m chatting with this girl…”
“You know her?”
I load up a new round.
The village-wide soccer championship.
They changed the location at the last second.
It moved to a concrete bowl at the top of the village.
I follow all the kids up the hill. I talk with my friends.
We’re excited. This is a big deal.
They have a real trophy this year.
We get to the top. The organizer shouts the rules.
The match starts.
20 minutes in and an IDF warplane comes down low.
A loud explosion.
A Lebanese soldier runs out from a nearby camp.
He waves his arms for us to leave.
The organizer begs us to stay.
I turn to run away.
Crying. Shaking. Confused.
I see my aunt drive up.
I dive into her car.
She takes me back down.
She tries to calm me.
The memory burns in.
Three years later: Summer ’98.
My uncle buys a mid-grade PC in the city.
My cousins are obsessed with World Cup ’98.
They play on mouse and keyboard. The game has good friction.
It feels light. It has joy in it.
I watch an older cousin going through the rosters.
We were alone.
I ask him why he thinks Arab nations never take the World Cup.
“We got close once in 1982…”
“The West got scared.”
I hate this city.
Mid-morning and I’m in Saida.
It smells like traffic, garbage, and sea.
I stare at a green Mickey Mouse painted outside a store.
His head is too thin. His eyes are too wide.
He looks crazed. Hungry.
‘Dismey.’ ‘Abidas.’ ‘Mike.’
Everything is ripped off and shifted here.
Clothing. Films. Cigarettes. Video games.
I walk on.
I walk into a media store.
It’s dark. It’s full of dust.
I look through the electronics. Mostly Chinese garbage.
I flip through the PC games.
All in small plastic bags with printed, confused covers.
I buy a martial arts book by Bruce Lee in Arabic.
I cross the street. I buy some ice cream from a cafe.
I sit down near the shore.
I imagine one day Lebanon being covered in internet cafes.
I wonder how deep the piracy will go.
I wonder if we’ll ever get a shot at legitimacy.
A few years later and there will be a consumer uproar in the village:
We wake up startled.
We ask each other what happened.
My uncle walks in:
“It was just a sonic boom.”
IDF warplanes and intimidation.
We get up.
We throw Need for Speed III: Hot Pursuit into the PC.
I watch my brother and my cousins take turns.
I watch the game.
I only played it on console. I like how it filtered aggression and speed.
We turned down the resolution to make it run smoother.
The PC wasn’t holding up.
No gamepad. Keyboard and mouse again.
I watch them burn out by the ocean.
I watch the cops win.
Years later and M. and I get into his trashed-up blue Honda.
He drives like the last demon on earth.
We barrel through the village and our eyes are on fire.
“Hey, remember when we used to play Need for Speed?”
He nods. He responds:
“Yeah! And remember how we’d evade the cops. . .?”
He jerks the wheel left and right like a deranged rally driver.
My cell phone rings. I ignore it.
We make a turn. We slow down.
We hit an army checkpoint.
My cousin hides his knife in a broken AC vent.
The soldiers stop us. They ask us to get out.
Their commander asks me for my draft papers.
I tell him I don’t have any.
He grabs me and starts shoving me towards the convoy.
My cousin yells:
“Wait! He’s American! He’s American!”
The pushing stops. The soldier looks at me:
“Can you prove it?”
I pull out my wallet. I show him my driver’s license, my school ID.
He accepts it and apologizes. We ask him what this is about.
“A big fight happened and someone got stabbed…”
We get back into the car. We drive off.
My cousin fishes his knife out from the vent.
We laugh like idiots.
Summer. 2006. Downtown Damascus.
The July War still raging.
We tried to stick it out.
We decided to run away when Hezbollah hit an Israeli warship off the coast of Beirut.
Damascus is worse than Saida.
We had to give up our passport information to buy SIM cards.
We’re waiting to find tickets back to the United States.
We’re stuck. We’re empty.
My uncle hires a guide. He takes us around.
He tells us that Damascus is surrounded by graves of Nephilim.
I imagine their enormous corpses rotting.
My mother takes us to the Shrine of Zaynab.
I sit down and relive the entire war. I’m tired.
We go back.
I go up to the hotel roof. I look out over the edge.
There’s an enormous hammer and sickle in front of the building across the street.
I go down. I cross the street. I stand in front of the building.
I walk in.
The walls are covered in red.
Old pictures of Soviet men and women.
Old propaganda art.
A Soviet community center.
I look down to the bottom floor.
I see rows of computers.
I pay the attendant.
I sit down.
I check Facebook.
I look through the games.
I launch Command & Conquer: Red Alert 2.
I play a skirmish game against the AI.
I choose the Soviets.
I build as many Kirov Airships as I can and erase everything.
I end it. I start another. I pick Iraq.
I use all my resources to build Desolators.
I poison entire strips of land.
I exit the game. I get up.
I walk out. The sun is setting.
And I am full of rage.
And I am powerless.
I walk to the large intersection near the hotel.
I look around.
I lock eyes with an enormous picture of Hafez Al-Assad.
I remember the stories of him burying entire villages.
I remember his borderline genocides.
I let my madness go a little bit.
I walk to a cafe. I sit by the window.
I listen to the AC hum. I watch the headlights flash.
I order tea and hookah.
I weep at the table.
I kick the chair in front of me.
People stare. No one says anything.
I feel myself dissolve.
I stare at my reflection in the window.
I don’t know what I am anymore.
I feel myself devolve into a desolate wasteland.
I feel myself rot like raw meat in the belly of some cold-blooded animal.
I realize how deep the fantasies run.
I realize how much power games give us.
And I realize how much of it the world takes away.