[This article was first published in An-Nahar in December 2018]
So the other day I died, which got me into a bit of a pickle, as I found myself standing in line at the Gates of Heaven.
I never thought much about the afterlife, but, surprisingly, my image had turned out quite accurate. There was a long line, with blond, burly guys at the gate, muscles protruding from perfectly-tailored Italian suits. Saint Peter was nowhere to be seen, but there was an important smaller guy, Monsieur Jacques, carrying an iPad. A thick chain, wrapped with purple velvet, separated everyone from these bouncer-types. Whenever someone’s name matched an entry on the iPad, Jacques would swipe right, and they would undo the chain and let him through. You then heard the muffled sound of the exhilarating music inside, some sort of combo of rap and gospel music. Jacques had a French accent and would say something like:
“Oui Monsieur. Ghite zees way. Yogh taybell is gheady.”
“Non, Monsieur Gates, your name is not on here.”
“But do you know who I am?! I was the CEO of a Fortune 500 company! I’m a billionaire!”
“Sorry, sir. Your money is worthless up here.”
The billionaire would start yelling, and instead of security subduing him, Jacques would gracefully swipe left and a trap door in the cloud underneath would open and he’d tumble down screaming.
And that’s how it went until my turn. Frankly, I wasn’t surprised my name wasn’t there — let’s just say, I may have sinned once or twice in my life. I mentally reviewed the names of my most pious friends. Samir! Of course! He went up to Saint Charbel’s shrine every weekend, while I was partying.
“Hey, I should let you know I’m a friend of Samir.”
“Sorry, sir. He’s not on here.”
I wonder what he did.
Zeina, who had a picture of the actor Robert Powell with long hair, the ubiquitous blue-eyed Jesus from that 1977 British movie, had to be in there.
“How about Zeina? I’m a close friend of hers!”
“Sorry, sir. She’s downstairs.”
Now that I think about it, she was a lawyer — that’s probably worse than being a banker.
People behind me were getting impatient, then the unthinkable hit me! What if my religion of birth wasn’t really The One Truth and someone else’s was?
“Hey, I’m a friend of Hassoun. He prayed five times a day, never drank alcohol, and his favorite color was yellow.
“Sorry, sir. He’s not here.”
And then I remembered Moshe, my classmate from business school in New York.
“Hey, Moshe’s a friend of mine.”
“Sorry, sir, he wasn’t one of the chosen people.”
At this point, I ran out of ideas and was resigned to my fate. I shuffled away slowly on Purgatory Avenue to the Escalator of Hell. I sat, clasping my chin with both hands, sadly admiring a blessing of purple unicorns in the distance. I reviewed my life, particularly the forks in the road, where I’d taken a wrong turn. As I was engrossed in contrition, a familiar voice interrupted me.
“Dan! Is that you, Boss?!”
It was the attendant at my old gas station! He was even wearing his oil-stained overalls, with a raggedy Mobile Oil name tag etched on it.
“Rajiv! When did you die?!”
“I died when this idiot was smoking a cigarette while filling his car, even though the no-smoking sign was clearly visible! How can I help?”
“Oh, the bouncers won’t let me in and I’m about to go downstairs.”
“Don’t worry, boss, I’ll do the needful.”
Rajiv grabs me and we walk back holding hands. He approaches the bouncers in the VIP fast-track, and authoritatively yells:
“In the name of Lord Hanuman, open!”
They immediately lift the chain.
“Right this way, Mr. Ramachundran.”
Ramachundran. Who would have thought?
Everyone seemed to treat him with unbelievable deference.
I followed him inside, relieved, although I was starting to sense a pattern. There were no Europeans, Americans, Middle Easterners, East Asians, Latinos, Africans, and, especially, no Lebanese, even though we were in every corner of earth. In fact, there were no Indian-Americans or British-Indians — somehow, those who never got themselves another passport made it in. Although I’d known Rajiv for many years, and felt like close friends, through our weekly gas-filling ritual, I was still too embarrassed to ask the main thing on my mind. How did they get it so right and everyone else so wrong?
At first, I felt proud to have made it into Heaven, apparently the first Lebanese ever, albeit with a Wasta. I love Indian food, so quite enjoyed the Chicken Korma and Lamb Vindaloo meals. However, as a guy from a competitive culture, there was nobody from my neighborhood to brag to about making it into this exclusive club, like I do with my ATCL membership on earth. Heck, I still didn’t know what gets you in there legitimately. There was nobody from investment banking or hedge funds. Clearly, being Indian improved your stats, but being a banker reduced them, but that’s all I was certain of.
As an exotic guy in a homogenous society, I was quite the hit. Not to be immodest, but, after dating the same type, the girls up here were bi-world-curious and took a liking to me. Let’s just say it wasn’t hard for me to get a date and, for a while, I was quite happy with the whole arrangement.
After eating nothing but spicy food daily, I started to miss Hummos, Labneh, and Manoucheh. I was also getting a little bored, because everyone was speaking Hindi, Gujarati, and other dialects, which I didn’t understand. Bollywood movies with no subtitles played — they weren’t being impolite, just unused to a Lebanese crashing their party. A while ago, there was one who started some sort of Ponzi scheme and got ejected, but they wouldn’t talk about it.
Every building looked like the Taj Mahal and statues of Hindu gods were everywhere. Some walked around in person and once I even shook Lord Durga’s four right hands.
Eventually, I wondered what it was like in the unmentionable place. One day I was hanging out with Rajiv and Harinder, and my hot new girlfriend Raatri. They were sitting on a cloud in the Padmasana pose, that I still couldn’t get right, so I crossed my legs the regular way, making them laugh, but empathetically, so I wouldn’t feel bad. I shared my predicament of missing people from my own culture and wondered if I could go down for a quick visit. After their shock subsided, Rajiv broke the stunned silence, “OK, I’ll let you in on the secret but you must promise not to tell anyone. You have to go to the Garden and there’s this apple tree …”
“You gotta be kidding me. All I do is eat an apple, like in the Bible?”
“Yes, but you must also compose a poem. I have to warn you, though; once you’re downstairs, there’s no coming back.”
I weighed the pros and cons, and the prospect of spending eternity up here was just not that appealing. I told them my mind was made up. Raatri started to sob wildly and everyone instantaneously switched into elaborate costumes, and sang and danced, to express their anguish. We said our goodbyes and celebrated our friendship drinking Lassi. My night with Raatri turned into three nights, a Kama Sutra thing, if you know what I mean.
I then ate the Apple. I had never written a poem before, but got suddenly inspired by Raatri and recited:
It’s 4am, as I lie here awake.
My eyes are wide open,
Because I’m on duty.
I’m guarding the night,
From the intrusion of the day.
My eyes are wide open,
Because I want to face my executioner head on,
Like a man,
For when daybreak comes,
He will steal you away from me.
Shall I make love to you one more time?
Will that change fate?
Will that extend the lifeline of our beautiful fantasy?
Will it stop the cruelty of reality,
From seeping in and waking us up?
But I’m already awake.
I will meet fate head on.
Even though I’ll never be ready.
I instantaneously found myself in a chaotic airport-like border crossing, where people were pushing and jumping the line. I didn’t understand why these people where fighting to get through or why there was such a tight border control to get into Hell. I finally got to the satanic immigration officer, who said:
“I see here on my screen that you were living in Heaven and chose to come down, you f***ing idiot.”
It seems we could now go back to using profanity, which was miraculously forgotten upstairs.
“Yea, I miss my friends, and speaking Arabic, with people like you.”
“Oh, if you like Arabic, you’ll love this place. Welcome to Hell, motherf***er!”
I walked out and cars were honking loudly, people shoving or blocking your way, soliciting bribes in return for minor conveniences, charging exorbitant fees for stupid sh*t. There were traffic jams everywhere, aggressive people yelling and cursing, as we slowly made our way. The signs everywhere were in Arabic. Dilapidated buildings with bullet holes. Pictures on walls of vaguely familiar, stupid-looking people, depicted as leaders. Money was back in use and everything was so damn expensive.
And then it dawned on me. I was back in #Lebanon and I smiled.
This is a work of fiction. Any similarities between actual characters or events is purely coincidental. I live in an opinionated, dogmatic neighborhood. In the Middle East, most people feel very strongly about their religion and that theirs is The One Truth. It’s also a hierarchical, even racist society, some might argue. All else being equal, you will usually get paid more based on your nationality. US citizens (“real” ones, not naturalized) get paid the highest, then Brits, then other Europeans. Basically, the darker or more southern (or eastern) you are, the less you get paid. Statues of Hindu or Buddhist gods are banned from being imported into several countries. In your visa application, you will be asked your religion, or other stuff, that may seem weird or even illegal in other places. On resumes here, people state their age, marital status, number of children, and other personal information that may seem strange in the US. So I imagined a world in which these assumptions are turned upside down.
When I first arrived in California, in 1975, I thought that I had died and went to heaven. Everything was clean, orderly, organized, people were polite, sincere, caring, generous. You have depicted it quite well, and very agreeable to read. I enjoy following your posts on Linkedin. Thank you