I knew from the start that “Terrorist Mythologies” needed to be a personal essay weaving together various narratives in what I think of as a braided structure. I’m haunted by the Sabra and Shatila Massacre and have written about it from many different angles. This time, I wanted to juxtapose my own experience as a twelve-year-old Canadian girl in Beirut in the winter of 1983, a few months after the massacre, with the kidnapping and torture of Terry Waite, in a Shia stronghold in southern Beirut. Between these two accounts, I wanted to interweave the harrowing story of Sami, the Palestinian baby adopted by another U.N. family in Beirut and brought to Canada where he grew up for eighteen years until the day after 9/11, when he was brutally mugged at the Richmond Hill gas station where he worked. As his attackers kicked his broken body, they accused Sami of being responsible for the terrorist acts on New York’s twin towers. They told him to go back where he came from.
A braided essay form allowed me to provide the background information and cover the span of time necessary to tell each of these stories. The first part begins in 1982, in Israel, with the plan to adopt Sami from the camps. It then moves to Beirut on April 18, 1983, a day when two pivotal events happened at almost the same time, near one o’clock in the afternoon: the American Embassy was bombed, representing the biggest attack on American diplomacy since WWII, and Sami was born.
The essay traces my family’s history with Sami and his parents, once we return to Canada and attempt to rebuild our lives after spending seven months in a theatre of war. Interwoven with our story is the remarkable testimony of Terry Waite, who was imprisoned in Beirut for almost five years, in complete darkness in solitary confinement, chained to a radiator. After surviving this harrowing experience, Waite found the courage to return to Beirut twenty-five years later, to forgive those who had kidnapped and tortured him.
The essay is ultimately about returning to Beirut: to make peace with memory, to determine never to forget. It spans almost forty years—from the time I was twelve until now. I think of it as a literature of witness, commemorating the more than three thousand men, women and children who were brutally murdered in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps. I titled it “Terrorist Mythologies” to highlight the myths we invent to justify acts of terrorism and hatred. Mostly, I wrote it in an attempt to help myself understand what really happened. It is both exorcism and catharsis.
Tanya Bellehumeur-Allatt has been published in Best Canadian Essays 2019 and 2015, Grain, EVENT, Prairie Fire, Malahat Review, Antigonish Review, and Room. She holds an MA from McGill and an MFA in Creative Writing from UBC.