The Irresistible Pull of an Unhealthy Life
"Is This How You Eat a Watermelon?" by Zein El-Amine, recommended by Meher Manda
Introduction by Meher Manda
The short story, as read and experienced in popular realist fiction, often concerns itself with individual, character-driven truth. But outside these standards—honed, crafted and popularized by some of our greatest prose writers—mythos and parables exist, which attempt to be the whole truth, as understood and crystallized through collective reckoning. These are stories passed down from mother to child, from seer to eager apprentice, from the wise to the curious. In such folktales, characters are at once finite and also limitless, embodying everyone and indeed, everything, in a time both malleable and infinitesimal. As Arundhati Roy said, it might be the only way to tell a fractured story.
Zein El-Amine’s debut collection Is This How You Eat a Watermelon? attempts to pierce the traditional short story with the endurance of a parable. In these stories, time covers the characters like a dome, playing witness to their follies and secrets. They are people whose lives have come asunder by war, violence, and migration, but they are also birds and trees and cities and countries—everything that breathes stakes a claim at survival. This is a work that refuses to let the allegory sleep, and in turn proposes that we read with all of our senses alert and open.
In this work, the title story of the book, Ghassan is a Beiruti man beset by hedonism. His hunger is a deep well that refuses to be filled, no matter the girth of his life. As the story declares early on: “Ghassan loves his food, his drink, and his family, or shall we say, families.” In a cherished memory, Ghassan teaches his youngest daughter, Huda, how to eat a watermelon—he doesn’t care for mock sobriety, but bids her to munch on a piece of the fruit with her entire being, seeds flying this way and that. That this lesson leaves the young girl with a seed lodged in her nostril does not cause Ghassan to pause and reflect; he continues to plow through life with ravenous desire, even as his beloved city of Beirut is desecrated by war in the background.
To whom does this story point? The maddening face of want clarifies itself; the story explores the shameless instinct to consume and understands how hunger is sometimes the only affirmation of life in a place deadened and vulnerable from incursion. In reading this story, Ghassan ceases to be simply a man of desires, but becomes a stand-in for a city tormented with consumption.
Is This How You Eat a Watermelon? was the winning manuscript of the 2021 Megaphone Prize—an annual contest we at Radix Media started not just to recognize and champion emerging writers of color, but also to highlight work existing outside the folds of mainstream publishing. Work that is political and transgressive, and leans into the narrative possibilities in literary cultures outside of American literature. It is an honor to bring El-Amine’s work into a world that needs its truth and rebellion.
– Meher Manda
Editor of Is This How You Eat a Watermelon?
The Irresistible Pull of an Unhealthy Life
Is This How You Eat a Watermelon? by Zein El-Amine
The kidney was secured and the doctors were ready to operate on Ghassan the following morning. But right now not one, not two, but three doctors stand at the foot of his bed. Ghassan is tired and nauseous but the sight of them amuses him. When they begin to talk, he narrows his eyes and melds the triplets into one body. The fact that their speech was rehearsed and sequenced for maximum effect, as if coordinated by one body and communicated by three heads, helps enhance the illusion. The doctors are channeling his older brother Kamal, the Minister of Labor. He can see Kamal sitting in their office, knee over knee, his bodyguard stoic beside him, giving the three-headed hydra stern instructions on how to approach Ghassan. “You have to handle him like an adolescent, he is in his forties but he is a child,” he might have said. Each doctor has dealt with Ghassan at one point or another in the past few years because of his various health crises: kidney failure, liver problems, diabetes, and high blood pressure. So they knew how to deal with him, but they would have been obliged to sit and listen and pretend to take notes out of fear of the minister.
Ghassan loves his food, his drink, and his family, or shall we say, families. His first wife was a Lebanese woman, Souad, a childhood friend who was always amused by Ghassan’s carpe diem attitude that infuriated his family. She saw this as innocence, not immaturity, nor recklessness, and adored him for it. She gave him three kids, two boys, and a girl. Ghassan was in his element when he was with his children. It allowed him to roll on the carpet, play in the mud, be a ravenous eater, and liberate his inner Tasmanian devil. This caused problems sometimes, especially during weekends spent in the south, in their home village of Assawane. Having the wilderness nearby, with its climbable fig-trees, abandoned forts, hidden wells, renegade beehives, scorpions, and snakes, raised the risk of Ghassan’s antics. However, he did not need to leave the house and put himself at risk, he can do wild all by himself.
Take for example the watermelon incident. One day Ghassan was sitting playing checkers with his youngest daughter Huda, who was seven at the time. They were in the courtyard of Ghassan’s ancestral village home and were using the backside of the backgammon box to play. Souad brought out a tray of watermelon slices. It was a June afternoon of bearable dry heat, so they sat in the cool shade of an old lemon tree that arced over them, laden with lemons. Ghassan looked up and saw Huda nibbling along the top of this red semi-circle of a slice that dwarfed her face.
“Is this how you eat watermelon?” he asked. She looked at him puzzled and waited for clarification.
“Is this how you eat watermelon?” he repeated. She started to worry, as he was not using his usual terms of endearment.
Then he added, “Do you eat it like this?” and imitated her nibbling. Huda looked back at her mother for help and caught her stifling a laugh.
“Do you eat a big slice of watermelon like a bird, like this, nm nm nm?” he pecked at his slice with his nose, pinkies raised.
Huda broke out in a smile that prompted Ghassan to explain. “You eat it like this, like a goat,” and Ghassan went into typewriter mode, chomping wildly at the slice from one end to another, watermelon seeds flying left and right. So daddy’s girl took the tip and ran with it, imitating him, putting her whole face into her slice of watermelon, filling her mouth and nostrils with it, digging in deeper until the rind curved up around her face. She looked up at her father with a long red smile that extended up to her ears, watermelon seeds entangled in her curls. He rewarded her with a pat on the back and kiss on the top of her head.
Two days later the family was back in Beirut. They arrived late at night and Souad put the kids to bed. She returned to check in on them and noticed that Huda was snoring. She joked about it with Ghassan, “She is even taking on your snore, God help us.” A week later Huda was feverish and was having difficulties breathing at night. They called the family doctor and he diagnosed her with asthma and prescribed some holistic treatments including weekends in the mountains.
But two weeks later Huda was still laboring with her breath, day and night, so they took her back to the doctor. This time, the doctor located the problem with a cursory examination.
“There is a seed lodged up her left nostril,” he told Ghassan with a smile and a shake of his head, “The damn thing is sprouting!” The doctor anticipated Ghassan’s accustomed hearty laugh, but Ghassan just stood there with a look of terror on his face. “I can take it out right now without putting her under,” the doctor added.
Ghassan crouched in front of Huda, pinched her cheek, and said, “It won’t hurt habibti.” The procedure took less than half an hour. The doctor put the extracted seed in a jar and told Ghassan that he should keep it to preserve this memory for her. Years later, when Huda will leave home to attend Lebanese American University, she will take the jar with her.
One night, as Ghassan was plowing his way through a mezze table at the Barometre, the owner introduced a Palestinian debke troupe and announced that they will be a regular Friday gig. One of the dancers caught his eye—a woman dressed in a traditional black dress with red and green tatreez embroidery. He noticed how serious and focused she was as she waited to get in the circle and how she came alive as soon as she entered the fray and led the troupe. Ghassan’s cousin Ali noticed his attentiveness and introduced them after the performance. The woman, Rana, did not take to him right away, mainly because Ghassan was uncharacteristically uptight in her presence, and partially because Rana was not putting up with any posturing from strangers that night. Nevertheless, Ghassan was smitten and he woke up thinking about her the next morning. He started to keep track of her through Ali, turning every topic of conversation between them into an inquiry about her. Beirut being Beirut allowed him to have many “chance encounters” with Rana: at movie festivals (although Ghassan did not have the patience to sit through foreign films), book fairs (although Ghassan was not a reader), and benefits for the refugee camps. Eventually, after several of these “accidental” encounters, she started to notice him and warm up to him. His humor began to flow easily and she responded with her mode of flirtation—merciless sarcasm that whittled away at his charm.
Several months later, after one of her performances, Rana sidled up to Ghassan at the bar after changing.
“What can I get you?” he asked.
“Tonight is not an Almaza beer night nor is it a Johnny Walker night, tonight is an Arak kind of night.”
“Oh really?” Ghassan replied.
“Yes, definitely an Arak kind of night,” Rana asserted, slapping the bar with every word for emphasis.
“And why is that?”
“I don’t know, maybe because the world doesn’t matter to me tonight.”
They drank Arak and snacked on mixed nuts. He kept his ego in check, she tempered her acidic critiques, and they were connecting for the first time. At a pause in the conversation, she looked up at him in silence, closed her eyes for a second and looked down at her drink, and up at him again. She asked him for a cigarette. They stepped out in the courtyard, which was under renovation at the time, and into the blaring horns of Beirut. She went through the cigarette so fast that Ghassan had a hard time keeping up with her. She dropped the butt to the ground and stepped on it with the force of a dabke stomp. He followed suit, assuming she wanted to go back inside, but when he looked up from putting out his cigarette her face was inches away from his. She cradled his head with both hands and kissed him. What stayed with him from that night is not so much the kiss itself but the way she held his head. She stepped away as violently as she had surged at him, a strand of sweat-swept hair across her brow, her V-neck linen shirt askew, olive skin twinkling in the streetlights. She told him that she was in the mood for “the village,” for the rural South. It was past midnight on a weeknight so he assumed that she was hinting at a weekend trip and offered to take her on one during the coming weekend. She fixed him with a serious look and said, “No, I mean now, I am in the mood for the village now.” It took him a minute to understand what she was proposing but when he did he put down his drink, took away hers, and headed for the door. She was behind him, pretending that she was not following, stepping on people’s feet while apologizing left and right.
They drove on the coastal road with the Mediterranean to their right, the flash of the moon panning the ocean, riveted by their reverie. They went through Sidon then skirted Tyre in a record hour and headed southeast from there. The car hugged the hills, the valley close enough to make one dizzy, no guardrails, no markers, and no lights. The sea breeze—cooled by the limestone cradles in the foothills—moved through the car. They drove through the villages of Jouaiya and Deir Kifa until there was nothing but the narrow ribbon of road laid across rolling hills. As they rounded an arid stone-pocked hill, a moonlit cornfield opened up in yellow glory. Even before the car came to a full stop, Rana bolted out and ran into the field. Ghassan ran after her. She kept disappearing and reappearing in his path, black hair moving among the blonde silk-tufted cobs. Then the clothes started coming off. Ghassan lost sight of her but followed a trail of garments: a tossed white linen shirt rendered fluorescent in the moonlight, a bra snagged on a stalk. A shed shoe almost nailed him in the head, and a pair of deflated jeans served as the last marker on her trail. Ghassan started stripping too, tripping over himself with every item, shedding clothes that he had bought that same week: pointed-toe cowboy boots from Red Shoe, a Pierre Cardin linen shirt, and charcoal Guess jeans from the GS store. He found himself naked and disoriented for a moment, the stealth rustle of her flight gone. Then he heard her singing a lullaby: “Tick tick tick, yam Slaiman . . . tick tick tick zawjik wane can?”
He moved towards the source of the song and then stopped as the singing stopped, then it started again: “tick tick tick can bilHa’li‘am yuqtuf jawz wrimaan . . .”
He almost tripped over her laying in the fold of the field, parted corn stalks like an open book on both sides of her. Her skin shimmered with sweat, hips wider than he imagined, breasts gently jiggling as she labored with her breath through laughter. They were voracious in their lovemaking and they were at home with it, nothing orderly about it, nothing graceful, comfortable in its clumsiness, but well punctuated with the synchronicity of its completion. He laughed as she wailed a combination of nonsensical curses that involved God, the Prophet, and Ghassan’s mother; no one left untainted, desecration all around. They lay, in their fuck-flattened clearing and looked up at the sky in silence. Ghassan crawled on all fours looking for his pants, disappeared into the thicket, located the cigarettes, crawled back into the clearing, and jutted his head between her bent knees, two lit cigarettes in his mouth. She laughed and he sat cross-legged like a pudgy little Buddha, the cigarettes sticking out at angles from his puffing lips, waiting for her to stop so he could give her one.
Within months of that encounter in the fields Ghassan left his wife. Although he could afford an apartment in a prime neighborhood anywhere in Beirut, Rana refused to leave the camp where she lived most of her life. Much to everyone’s shock Ghassan moved in with her. So instead of living on the very cosmopolitan Al Hamra street, within reach of his favorite cafe du jour (t-marbouta), his favorite beach club (The Officer’s Swim Club), and the restaurants he loves, he made a home of a second-floor built-up apartment. The place was of questionable structural integrity, precariously balanced atop a general store, entangled on all sides with a spaghetti mesh of illegally installed electric and cable TV wires, a back porch with a view of an open sewer. A small place but a sunny one lit up with Moroccan pastels that Rana had painted with the help of a friend.
Many people thought that this move would force a change in Ghassan’s lifestyle, that Rana would be the one that would tame him and get him to settle. But it took less than a year for him to get back to his old habits. He went back to his daily dips in the pubs and bars, and a diet that consisted of charbroiled meats, raw kibbeh, and dairy-heavy sweets soaked in rose water syrups. He was soon diagnosed with diabetes and started having fainting spells that landed him in the hospital. In the year that followed his diagnosis, Ghassan was rushed to the hospital three different times for various reasons: asthma issues tied to his smoking, liver problems tied to his drinking, and dizziness brought on by exasperated diabetes. Repent, repent, the doctors begged and he just smiled and nodded in his hospital bed. Days after his release he went back to his habits. Relatives would spot him on the streets at night, shake their heads, and mutter to each other, “God help his family.”
Now he sits here facing the multi-headed medics. One doctor—a tanned man, full head of gray, the type that spends his afternoons at The St. George’s Hotel pool-side, playing backgammon—conjures up a look of concern and demands, “We need to know that you are on board.” In return, Ghassan gives a sorrowful nod, pretending to play along.
“Very well, here is what is going to happen after tomorrow’s operation—for at least the next six months you have to refrain from alcohol and smoking. You will be placed on a strict diet for the next year. The list of prohibited foods and suggested meals is here, and I will give it to your family. Lastly, and this is the most challenging bit, you will have to wear a mask over your mouth and nose for the next three months.”
All three doctors wait for a reaction, but Ghassan does not flinch; his pleasant demeanor does not turn murky as expected.
“Are you still with us?” the doctor asks.
“We have to do what we have to do, God help us,” Ghassan answers with a shrug. The doctors leave and, on cue, Kamal calls to say how happy he is that Ghassan has been so cooperative, but turns stern at the end of the conversation with a warning. “The time for playing is over, Habibi. This is serious. Think about Ziad, think about Abdullah, think about Huda, and you will get through it.”
The call from his brother came at six in the evening. At midnight Ghassan goes to the bathroom, gets dressed, walks down the hallway without looking around. By now he is familiar with all the off-the-beaten-path corridors, stairwells, and exits. Additionally, as a resident smoker, he knows that there is a back exit to the hospital that would put him out on the side of the Corniche and that there is a guard there that he must get past. He knows the guard by name, so he salutes him and asks him for a cigarette. They smoke and chat for a bit and then Ghassan hands the guard a roll of twenties in dollars because he knows that he has been paid extra to watch him and call if he were to leave the hospital.
“What is this for?” the guard asks.
Ghassan winces as he sucks down his cigarette and answers, “For your memory loss,” in an exhale of smoke that wafts over the guard’s face. The guard hesitates, but Ghassan signals at the rolls of dollars to help him decide. The guard nods at Ghassan and opens the back gate.
Apparently fear of the minister trumped the sum of the bribe because the guard ends up calling Kamal anyway. The minister’s personal bodyguard, Mimo, is dispatched to locate Ghassan and get him back to the hospital. Mimo was a childhood friend of Ghassan who had actually given the bodyguard that nickname when they were teenagers. Mimo’s real name is Muhammad, a man with such a massive body that he carries his own climate. He has the brawn of a bouncer and the brains of a sleuth. It takes him three days to locate Ghassan. A tip from a bartender at the B-018 bar comes at five in the morning and Mimo puts in a call to Kamal and then to Rana. It is Rana who gets to the location first but cannot figure out where the bar is. She scans the buildings for signs of commercial stores but they are all residential. As she crosses a clearing between the buildings, she spots Ghassan emerging from the B-018. When one says, “emerging from the B-018” it literally means rising out of it, as the hip bar is a converted underground bomb shelter with a concrete roof that is flush with the ground. Its roof is equipped with hydraulic pistons that tilt up the massive slab to allow for a view of the sky and the stars. It was not unusual to see people staggering out of the B-018 in the early hours of the morning but this was way past closing time. Ghassan walks in her direction but does not recognize her until he is a few feet from her. There is no exchange of words, just a look of exasperation branded on her face. He puts his arm around her for support. They walk towards the car quietly, she holds him around the waist and he leans heavily on her. She opens the door for him but he stands there looking at her. For a moment, he is focused, and asks, “Where are we going?”
“Home,” she says.
“Home, home?” he asks.
“Yes, home home,” she answers.
“Not home hospital?” he asks.
“No, home home,” she repeats in resignation.
Rana starts up the car and Ghassan slumps against the passenger door. “I am in the mood for the village,” he mumbles.
“Really,” Rana answers, stopping the car.
“Yes really, let’s go now. I don’t want to go into the city.”
Rana turns around and heads to the coastal highway. Ghassan rolls down the window and manages to heave himself high enough to prop his chin on the door and let the wind run through his curly hair. Just past the airport, south of the city, they pass a mountainous pile of concrete rubble. “What is that?” Ghassan asks, nodding towards the pile that blocks his view of the sea.
“You don’t know?” asks Rana.
Ghassan narrows his eyes as if trying to recall something.
“How many times have you passed this in the last five years?” Rana asks.
Ghassan doesn’t answer and tracks the dumpsite as they clear it.
“It’s the rubble from the 2006 war. They hauled it out here when they were rebuilding and haven’t done anything with it yet,” explains Rana, ”you’ve passed it every weekend since then and you never noticed it?”
“Pull over,” Ghassan says, yanking on the door handle.
“What is it?” Rana asks.
“Pull over, I am not feeling well,” Ghassan yells as he opens the door and waits for the car to stop.
He runs down to the sandy beach and stoops over, hands propped on knees. Rana looks at him through the open door then turns her sight to the Mediterranean as he starts to retch.