I squirmed in my seat, an American in the Middle East, needing very badly to pee. I was already shaking from cold, and—reaching for my gloves—I realized how badly I’d prepared. Can you get hurt trying to sled without gloves?
My daughter, Loretta, sat happily in her car seat, munching a fig. I was a dad in Beirut, drinking wine and watching my kid and doing my best when my wife traveled, solo-parenting in a city where one might stockpile diapers against the day shock troops mounted another neighborhood siege. I hadn’t gotten around to stockpiling yet, but you could ski here as easily as buy a Kalashnikov, so here I was, shivering as my daughter wore three sweaters, tights, and corduroy pants held up by a piece of twine. I’d never been sledding, and in general I had no idea what I was doing.
There was an open spot in the packed lot, but a security guard, who carried a pistol, gestured roughly to move along, that this was not for us. You could huff and puff, but we were Westerners, and whether it was a parking spot or something bigger, we were outsiders, standing astride the normal rules.
We drove further up the mountain, following a rough road through walls of frozen ice. It had been a long winter, with snow piled 10 feet deep. For as far as you could see, the world was blanketed in a white hush.
Then, at last, there was an open spot and a perfect hill. Why not start the day with a snowman? But the stuff was frozen, impossible to dig with our hands. The kid shivered and stared, and I set to kicking up a pile of hard fluff. As I shaped snow, Loretta watched thoughtfully, and I was pleased to see her frown with such deep concentration. Then her face lit up.
“Eyes!” Loretta yelped, pointing, emphatic. “He can’t see!”
I couldn’t remember if she’d ever seen snow before; born in Saudi Arabia, she turned one in Turkey, and now we lived beside that mess in Syria. Maybe we’d live in Iran next? She’d have stories to tell.
“He needs eyes, daddy. Eyes!”
I scavenged for bottle caps and a pair of black plastic zip ties. Fully assembled, the snowman began to look like a monster. Down the hill, Arabs lined up to ski.
With an overwhelming urge to flee, I stood by the toboggan we’d rented. Digging my heels into the snow, readying to launch, I detected a silly hope I would not die. Feeling the whole contraption ready to go, I grabbed for my kid, who squealed, working her tiny muscles against mine. It’s OK, I whispered hopefully. Have faith and everything will be all right.
Plastic rocketed over snow, and we were hurtling fast, scarves flying, wind whipping through our hair, sun-blind and shivering. Then I remembered the brakes; we could stop if we wanted! Loretta screamed with joy, and I discerned for a moment the difference between excitement and fear, between guilt and action—this, at last, was action. We slammed down a fearsome hill, no turning around, cold and crazed but doing our best, really, given the circumstances, and then all of a sudden we were fishtailing, nearly flipping, and sweet Jesus, for once, I got it right, I took control, we were safe, and we glided to a stop.
“Again, daddy?” a tiny voice said. “Can we do it again?” I didn’t have the heart to tell her we’d probably never stop. It’s the American way.
We drove down the hill to Beirut—our restless city on the edge, an old town where spring rain fell on ruins. No matter where you were from, it was probably going to be a long summer.