Bones Square
A bulldozer in a town centre yields an unexpected harvest from the past.
Since I first laid eyes on it in the mid nineties, the old Helou family house has been abandoned. Perched precariously on the eastern hill overlooking the town square, the house consisted of three rooms arranged in a rectangle. Its rough stone face was not smooth and polished to perfection; shadows played across its craggy surface. The roof was made of wooden beams, tree trunks, and sunbaked clay – parts of it had collapsed years ago. No one from the family came to clear the rubble that lay scattered throughout the rooms. We kept watch from afar, occasionally organizing incursions to the shady walnut tree, which loomed nearby, when bunches of nuts ripened in its high branches.

A sense of silence and solitude filled the terraced plots and the space around the house, besieging it from all sides. Our relationship with that house, with its walls beneath the shade of the walnut tree, remained haunted and strained. Even during our raids on the tree, we never crossed the shadows it cast on the ground. Nor did we approach the house’s wooden doors or its dark windows – made darker still by the accumulated dust from the rubble of the collapsed roof – that locked nothingness inside.


Between the Helou house and ours lay the town square. A slope sown with seasonal fruits and vegetables extended from its eastern side. A man lived nearby with his family; he took care of the irrigation and kept the land under constant surveillance – our otherwise unfettered exploration of the terraced plots was hindered by his watch. The square, a place for monitoring the goings-on of the different neighborhoods, was devoid of any traces of life on that moonlit night in November 1995, reminding us of the neighborhood of the empty, abandoned Helou house.

The day had been dry and dusty from first light till darkness fell. For some time, SUVs had been making increasingly frequent visits to the old neighborhood, taking the road leading there from the eastern side of the square and raising thick blinders of dust and dirt as if on a battlefield. This time, they came early, before the sun had reached its full strength, and let out a roar that shook the walls of my grandfather’s house to its foundations.

The sound grew louder than anything we had ever heard before, and we rushed toward the landing in front of the butcher’s shop. The tires of the bulldozer parked in the middle of the square were even higher than the landing, the tread clotted with gravelly soil and small stones. The bulldozer, sitting between two other cars, remained in the center of the town square for a while, completely blocking it. Shaking with the roar of the engine, the exhaust pipe seemed even taller than the roof of the butcher shop.

When it finally turned its attention toward the east and set out on the dirt road leading from the square to the abandoned neighborhood, the bulldozer let out another loud roar, accompanied by a dense black cloud that erupted from the top of the exhaust pipe. As the bulldozer followed the two cars down the dirt road, the cloud became mixed with the roar, dust, and soil. By the time the exhaust had cleared, leaving only traces of dried mud from the machine’s huge tires on the asphalt of the square, it had reached the eastern edge of the neighborhood, and its arm and teeth began working on the ruins of the place.


The presence of the bulldozer was not – based on what we saw in the beginning – a common affair that would end with its withdrawal from the square, which had never seen more than the sleepy stirrings around the landing of the butcher’s shop. There, meat hung, and a few of the town elders and some young people who lived close to the square would gather in the evenings. These gatherings at 9:30 p.m. ended with the closing of the mute’s shop, at the beginning of the little street leading from the square to the large open courtyard of Sheikh Mahmoud’s house, which resembled a Serail, leaving the front of the shop littered with pumpkin seed husks and the air still, save for the kamikaze night raids of insects crashing against the streetlamp. The bulldozer had shaken the square to its deep roots as nothing had done before. The presence of that huge machine and its roar stirred something buried in the depths of the square and did it grave injury. Something deep at the bottom, something like viscera, had with that roar and that quaking been unable to remain dead and buried underneath the square. The years had left a dry scab waiting for someone to pick it with their fingernail.


The night which followed that long, dusty, sunny November day affirmed the turmoil of the unseen world underneath the roots of the square. The night began with the small flashes of lanterns near the Helou house, which appeared to us as a black mass by the light of the moon. My cousin, his friend, and I climbed down from the upper balcony of my grandfather’s house onto the roof of the shop below. The shop had originally been a ground-level room of the house itself and opened directly onto the square. The butcher rented it from my grandfather.

At first, we thought the flashes from the lanterns were lightning bugs, sparks from the glow of the full moon, or dust of a star that had fallen to earth within the village boundaries. The dull bulb hanging from the streetlamp at the eastern edge of the square attracted swarms of flying insects. Their susurrations, their aerial maneuvers, the sound of their bodies hitting the rusty metal shade around the neck of the bulb transfixed our gaze upon that spot, which seemed to us the homeland and habitat of the insects of the night.

In the dark, the voices coming from the direction of the lights foretold something else. As usual, at this time of night, the square below us was completely empty, illuminated by a single bleary streetlight surrounded by nocturnal insects. The butcher’s shop was closed, as was the mute’s store. The last people gathered on the stone landing in front of the mute’s shop had left two hours ago, leaving behind a white layer of scattered seed shells on the asphalt below.

We were still on the roof of the shop when the voices began to get closer, slowly, until they blended with the rustling of the insects’ wings. My grandfather was not at home at the time; he was on one of his mysterious trips that would take him away from his children and grandchildren for days at a time. Usually when this happened, we would sneak up to his attic, marveling at the sudden vigor that had come upon our grandfather in his final days to take him on many such trips and disappearances.

From the corner of the courtyard, we climbed the high, narrow stairs and opened the door to the attic, which he had fortified and decorated with the head of a hoopoe nailed to the old wood. There, in the dark, among a few tidily packed belongings, we felt our way over to the balcony overlooking the square. From the northern side of the balcony, we climbed over the wrought-iron railing to the open roof of the shop, our favorite place since we first began exploring my grandfather’s house. That roof overlooking the square made us feel like we were flying, soaring through the starry sky, seeing the world below in a new way, not as it appeared normally from the ground, from windows and fenced balconies.

When the men passed before us on the slope east of the square carrying their lanterns, they appeared from afar like shiny insects entering a dark land and disappearing as if swallowed by the blackness. We found their movements strange and did not understand them, so we began pondering the mystery of those flashes that disappeared into the dark earth. But the lantern-holders did not stay long in the dark. They began to reemerge, one after the other.

“They were in the cemetery!” my cousin’s friend blurted in a whisper.

The intruders poured into the fields, shouting and making a much greater racket than when they came. Their howling cleaved the moonlit night as they drew closer. We inched nearer to the edge of the roof carefully to avoid being seen by anyone who might be passing through the square at that moment. The eyes of my cousin and his friend became wide and shiny like the eyes of an owl, as we watched what was happening on the planted slope between the square and the Helou house, its surroundings cloaked in darkness. Soon, they were directly below us in front of the shop, and we were able to see them relatively clearly.

Bones. What we thought had been short white sticks in their hands were bones. One of them had stuck a skull onto the end of a long stick like an Assyrian soldier’s pike. He leapt onto the stone landing of the butcher’s shop in the heart of the square, lording over his companions. Sprawled there on the roof above the shop, we were separated from the skull by no more than a few feet. Silent and distraught, our breath came quickly and caught in our throats. I saw a crack on top of the skull and fixed my gaze upon it as the howls beneath us rose, splitting the moonlit sky, lingering like the screams of hyenas.

I do not know how I was suddenly dropped at that moment onto the middle of the slope under the walnut tree near the Helou house. In another time, I could see the square in front of me from the other side, but I do not remember how I travelled from that place and that night to find myself basking in a warm morning. The sun was shining on a body sprawled on the landing in front of the door of the Helou house, blood seeping from his ears. I could not cross the shadow of the walnut tree to approach him. I was trapped in the shadow of the tree, unable to move, watching what was happening in front of me but unable to do anything. The strength of the sun made the blood more vivid. The body was lying there, eyes wide open and staring into space. He seemed to see me and looked into my eyes coldly, imploringly. He was calm, his face tinged with paradox, a strange mix of happiness and sadness all at once.

I looked over to the other side of the square, toward my grandfather’s house, his balcony jutting into the air, the butcher’s shop and its roof – our favorite place throughout the years, and the small vegetable market held every Thursday morning. From the people gathered there, I realized it was Thursday. The butcher had hung a slab of meat on a hook on display in front of the shop. Again, the brightness of the sun seemed to intensify the blood pooling under the carcass, which appeared to glow red, reflecting onto part of the wall of my grandfather’s house overlooking the square. I caught a glimpse of my grandfather on the balcony, but he looked different. His hair was black, his mustache twisted at its ends, and he was leaning on the metal railing. I nodded to him, but he did not see me. I tried to speak, but the words were paralyzed inside me. I was unable to utter a sound or cry out. From there under the walnut tree, trapped in its shadow, the world around me seemed removed, estranged, despite being visibly close.

My gaze moved away from the Helou house and toward the south of the town square, where I saw a narrow, winding road punctuated by a steep hill leading from the main square to two smaller squares, an upper and a lower one, the latter meeting the main road at the town entrance. I saw a crowd of people moving in what appeared to be a celebratory procession, carrying banners and flags. The people in the procession were moving as if in an old movie, their features and the colors in their banners and clothes obscured by a transparent grey blurriness. I was sure I was fully awake, but time and the scene before me began to move and shift before my eyes, as in a dream or reverie.


 The procession appeared to be heading toward the square and gathering there. The whole town seemed drawn to that small square by invisible threads. The details of the procession coming from the entrance of the town by the main road leading to the square came into focus as it drew closer. A crowd, banners and flags raised, was walking behind a drummer and flute player and welcoming a very young boy. The boy was wearing a white collarless shirt with long sleeves loose at the elbows and short, black, baggy shirwal (loose pants) that tapered just below the knees, with gray socks visible underneath and black pointed shoes without laces. The boy appeared in close-up, as if my eyes were binoculars or camera lenses. A victorious merriment appeared to break out among his welcoming party.

Stuck there, I saw all of this from the shade of the walnut tree, unable to utter a sound or pass beyond the tree’s shadow. The town square before me was bustling with the Thursday market. Anyone who was not in the market was advancing toward the square in the welcome procession for the boy, who looked as if he had just arrived after a long journey or been freed from prison. The town appeared devoid of the buildings that blocked the view from my grandfather’s balcony and the roof of the shop. The town was like an artichoke heart stripped of its dense, serrated leaves, a circular disk at its center and the subsidiary spaces of the smaller squares, above and below the main square, the remains of large leaves clinging to the heart, leaving deep gouges where they would not be torn away.


The eastern quarter, where a cluster of densely packed houses separated the square from the cemetery on the far edge of town and hid it from view, was not there. Instead, when I looked from my grandfather’s balcony to the small valley where I knew the eastern quarter to be, all I saw were terraced plots separated by low stone walls and cacti, and I could observe the cemetery for the first time from this spot. Between these plots and the cemetery lay no more than three low, stone houses shadowed by grapevines, berry bushes, and pomegranate, walnut, and chinaberry trees.

When I looked to the western quarter above the square, I could see the small town mosque near Sheikh Abdullah’s house, which presided over the town like the Grand Serail. But the mosque had no minaret; it was as if I had gone back in time and seen things as they had been when they first came into existence. At that point, the mosque was just an ordinary house that its owner had opened for worship after building another home next door for himself and his family. He was inspired to turn his home into a mosque by the presence of the shrine of the wali (Muslim saint) in his small green dome nearby. The wali appeared to the man in a dream and told him to “build a mosque in the town because it has none” – just as I learned in a vision that the skull from the cemetery belonged to the man with the pierced head whom I saw in front of the Helou house.


The square was filled with shoppers: women, children, vendors, and men. In the middle of the street leading to the southeast, Abu Ali Abdullah’s car was parked in front of his home. Abu Ali had turned one of the rooms into a call center with a public phone and raised a painted metal sign out front that said “phone booth.” His was among the first cars in town, a Mercedes 190 the color of whole wheat. He used it as a taxi between Beirut and the south, leaving from the town square in the morning and returning early evening.

In the small garden of the house at the southern tip of the square, white smoke rose from an oven chimney. The home’s owner had built the oven in the garden using clay and an iron semicircular plate that was originally from a half-barrel of fuel. As my eyes followed the trail of smoke as it rose upward and was driven west by the wind, I started hearing what sounded like voices whining from the window of one of the small houses near the Helou house. I had never seen the little house before, but now there was a group of people, men and women, spilling out the low door and walking down a narrow dirt road that ended in a dark opening leading underground. And that was the first time I heard the name Youssef Helou repeated on the lips of those men and women and in the background of their weary voices.


Those voices brought me back to the roof of the shop on the moonlit night and to my friends from whom I’d been separated. I was like someone who had returned from a long journey, even though I had not, in my imagination, gone beyond the far slope only a few dozen meters away from the scene unfolding before us.

“Yoouuuuuusseeeeef Helooouuuu! Yoouuuuuusseeeeef Helooouuuu!” the boys howled, their cries piercing the breast of the darkness. I did not ask, at that moment, about the man whose name was being called in this way nor the reason for the screaming and the bright, dancing lanterns. I took the scene in all at once, quiet and lying stretched out on the edge of the roof so I could listen and watch.

The name Youssef Helou was not unknown to me, and I later learned from my cousin’s friend and other people in the village that Youssef was the last of the Helou family to die in the village and the last one to be buried in the neighborhood cemetery before the family relocated to one of the coastal towns near Beirut. I also learned that the Helous were the last of many families who used to live in the area and had left for good.


The eastern side of the square was connected to the planted slope on the outskirts of the abandoned neighborhood. From the other side, the square ended in a cluster of tightly packed, austere houses, the first being my grandfather’s house with its terrace – a jumble of stone and clay over the earth: stone, clay, and bowels of homes with animal feed scattered around the foundations. With time, this mixture condenses and hardens, like cement, spreading quickly from the western hill above the square to the main road south of the village, connecting its eastern and western sides.

From the eastern balcony of my grandfather’s house, my only view of the square was from above, allowing me to monitor all its dimensions. From this perspective, the side of the square was open and distant, fantasies flying through its sloped space all the way up to the ruined quarter. The abandonment that had settled over the area widened it and filled it with dreams. The bones and remains of those buried there, mixed with the stones of the old houses with their clay and decaying wooden beams, with the herbs and crops– it was all part of those dreams, which were the other, secret side of the presence of the ruins and the bones buried in the layers of the earth.

Bones are the buried letters of names remembered that crawl and move and plow the soil between the square and the far side of the eastern slope crested with mounds of earth, internal beats and breaks of pulses of people whose shadows once moved across the open space of the square and the adjacent slope. What remains lies quietly under an area lightened of its burdens. Whispers, once uttered, rise and land safely in a box of memories shrouded in darkness, and when the skulls look out from their netherworld with empty eyes, they see the square, the stage on which their former bodies trod, looking just as it did, and they are comforted. The dense block of houses to the west was obscured by the mass exodus from the square toward the main road. The newly built “village road,” which linked all the other villages from the beginning of the main road on the coastal plain to the provincial capital, was blocked – the bones could not see it. It was like a break with time, a mirage in a lost era, and the bones remained lying there, dormant, at the eastern edge of the square until the arrival of the bulldozer that sunny November day in 1995.


Youssef Helou’s body was closest to the surface and to the entrance of what became a hole in the earth of the cemetery, where wild grasses and thorns grew. His remains were also nearest to the square, which had become a dry scab waiting to be picked. The other dead, his family and others, were buried deeper and were therefore more difficult to reach. Getting to Youssef had been easy; his skeletal remains had not disintegrated or been destroyed. They were still lying in his wooden coffin with his name and dates of birth and death engraved on the lid – “Youssef Helou, 1895–1975” – surrounded by the rustling of insects, deafening in the dark. When the young men entered the graveyard, they found his coffin above all the others and quickly pried open the lid and divided up the bones whose slumber they had disturbed. They could no longer lie peacefully in the trembling depths, and this square, where the bones were brandished on a moonlit night, became nothing more than a parking lot for machines.

Translated by Meris Lutz

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 Fadi Tofeili, is a Lebanese writer, poet, and translator. He is the editor-in-chief of Portal 9.

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