Joseph Hebu

Joseph Hebu

Interviewed March, 1995



I can remember when I was in the war. I was ten and stuck in a war in Beirut. Saw some people die. Saw all kinds of action. Got shot at, bombs blowing up all over the place. My whole family got affected. Everybody had nightmares forever. I don’t anymore, I used to walk in my sleep and scream and yell. I don’t remember them at all.


It was me, my mother, my father and two brothers. We were nine, ten, and eleven years‑old. My older brother was the one who got the worst of it. I mean, I saw some things, but he saw a guy get fried. He can’t watch scary movies. A bomb blew up, we all heard it. He ran around the corner to see what it was. He went inside the house. The guy was sitting in the chair

sizzling. He never forgot it. After that, when we went to the movies he couldn’t see any violence.


I guess we all handled it differently, I tend to laugh at everything. It’s wierd that I used to get the nightmares, it doesn’t really affect me as far as I can tell. It was weird because we were kids playing games. We were restricted, we couldn’t go out, and whenever we did we would play war games because there was a war going on. We would go batty sitting in this house, bombs going off, people getting shot, you could bear the yelling. Every now and then you would hear someone get shot and you would hear them all night. You could see them through the window, no one would help them. They would whine and then die the next day. One day I was watching one guy, the tank drove up to get him to save him, and this guy ran out to the street and laid down, he had a bazooka. The tank turned right around and took off because he could have blown it to bits. He left the guy there, you could hear him all night. The next morning you couldn’t hear anything, so you knew he was dead. They wouldn’t even shoot him, just let him whine all night. I remember that.


I remember while this was going on I stopped breathing one day. I just could not breath. I don’t know what it was, I just started choking. My mother gave me some medication but then I needed to get some oxygen, so they took me to the hospital. But an the way to the hospital, we were getting bombed. My father‑ was driving like a maniac through barricades, and we were

actually getting bombed. We got to the hospital and there was no oxygen. I’m choking throughout this whole thing, and when we get there, the medication she gave me kicks in. It relaxed my throat and I was fine. I remember that vividly for some reason. There’s other things.


The way the story happened was we were in Beirut and we heard on the radio there was going to be some problems, so we went to the mountains. While we were in the mountains we heard there was going to be a cease fire. So we moved back to Beirut. We got there and it was really deserted. Some people came back but not everybody came back. When we were living at the house, I remember there was a bunch of soldiers using our house for something and I was serving them coffee. ne and my brother were sitting outside and we heard this rocket coming, we heard whistles. The Mercedes was parked in front of us and the rocket hit on the other side of it, like ten feet. It shattered the car, we were on the other side so we were protected. It blew out all the windows and all the tires. I guess we were frozen because the soldiers came and yanked us inside.


We’re sitting around and the maid was cooking dinner and I was playing chess with my dad and my mother said come and eat. Our house was on the corner of two streets, one dead end street and another street. There was a wall all the way around the house, like a cement wall. My mother came over to fix the curtains, you could barely see above the wall. She looks across the street, there were five armed men with machine guns going into the house next door. So we dropped everything, got up and left and went out. While we were going out the front door, they came in the back door. They were just breaking into houses and shooting people and taking stuff. That’s how we left. If you just walked out of here with what you have, my mother didn’t grab anything, except for maybe her purse.


Actually, the maid went back to get her Tubuli, because it takes a long time to make Tubuli. She grabbed it and ran out, and at the end of the dead end street there was a convent. That’s where we went. I remember yelling to her to hurry up, she was running down the street. Those armed men came out behind her, she just got in and we shut the door, and we heard the bullets hit the door. She just got in. They wouldn’t go after us because they thought the convent was fortified or something.


We ended up staying there for two or three months, maybe six. I can’t really remember the time frame. We were stuck in a room with everyone else from the neighborhood who had made it. One big room, mattresses on the floor. We just listened to the war. We would hear the bombs all night, some times they would hit our building. It’s like lightning, you hear the noise, then it blows up, then there’s light.


From this convent we went to another part of town. To get out of the convent they set up a barricade. I don’t know who rescued us but they would shoot and we would run across the street. We all had to individually wait until they would shoot and we would run.


At the second convent they moved us to, they came for my dad the night we left, to kill him. They were searching the place. We left the maid behind, we couldn’t take her with us. We didn’t have a visa for her. It’s bad enough we got one for my dad. We couldn’t get one for her. I finally went back to see her, it was great.


Eventually, my mother went to the American Embassy, because she’s American. She had to bribe somebody to get my father a pass. My father is Lebanese. They said she could take the kids but he has to stay, so she paid the guy. Then we came to New York.


I remember landing in New York, we just had short sleeves, and it was February. It was freezing, and we had nothing. We just came right from Beirut. Actually, we were the last plane to leave. The airport was really crowded, everyone was trying to get on the plane. We got on the plane and as soon as we were airborne, they attacked the airport. The airport was shut down after that.


We landed in New York. It was so cold. I had never experienced cold like that before. We were in a daze anyway. We had been running away and stuff. My aunt had a friend in New York, somehow we got a hold of her and then she gave us her apartment. Then my grandfather from Lewiston came and picked us up. We ended up living with him for a while, and then we moved to Winslow to live in a convent with the nuns. The reason we moved was because my dad got a job there. He came here, didn’t know any English, and worked for Scott Paper as a janitor. He had been a distiller, he made his own wine. Over here, there’s nothing in Maine. He was going to start a wine business, but there’s so many laws. The government’s got their hands right in there. It’s ridiculous.



My grandfather was living with his sister, and they were both in their nineties. It was a small house, and there was three boys running around. I think what she did was try to find a place to give them some rest because we were probably driving them nuts. That was interesting, three little boys running around in a convent. We terrorized the place. My mother used to be a nun, she was a missionary, she went over to Egypt and then she was in the hospital in Beirut and she left the nunnery.


We have a lot of land there still, like a couple million dollars worth. Some guy came over and said he sold one piece of land, and he gave us sixty grand. That’s how we bought a house.

My father kept working, and a few years later he got hit with a fork lift at work. It cut his pancreas in half. I came home to a note, I go to the hospital and he’s sitting there, he’s purple. My mother’s an amazing woman, she started yelling. He was dying. He had gotten hit with a fork lift. (The guy picked him up and dropped him, didn’t even see him. Broke his pancreas in half, he’s had problems ever since then, he can’t digest. He has been through so much. They operated on him, and he hasn’t worked since. He’s been out on workman’s compensation. He couldn’t even get social security because he worked nine and three quarters years, and you need to work ten years. He only had a few months to go.


Anyway, he has had a rough life. I know what it was like to have everything, maid, chauffeur, being pampered all the time and then you lose everything. It’s not bad when you’re a kid because you don’t know any better. But I think of my dad sometimes and the shit he’s gone through, it’s amazing. I don’t know which is better, to have everything and lose it, or, just to never have anything.


I went to school in Paris, it was amazing. My parents are very religious, I grew up very strict. In my first two years of college I never drank. I was a minister up at Orono. Then I went to Paris and threw everything I had learned away.


My father went back last year. He hadn’t been back in twenty years. He hadn’t seen his brothers for that long. They don’t come to see him or anything. When I went for my brother’s wedding I saw our maid, that was great. We keep in contact with her, my father sends her money. She is working for another wealthy family, she’s well taken care of. She’s the one who told us that someone came for my father the night we left. There were seven hundred people at the wedding. The Muslim women were covered from head to toe, and the Christian women barely had anything on.


Being back was kind of sad when I actually drove from Syria to Beirut. I hated Syria. The minute we crossed the border it was this big relief all of a sudden. I don’t know how to explain it. It was like “I know this place.” When we got closer and closer it was like “Wow,” it was weird. It was really sad, all the buildings, everything, was blown to bits. All the buildings. There were people living in the shattered houses, I mean they’re gutted and there’s people living there. You could see the laundry. They’re sitting there, hanging their feet off the eighth story, just watching life go by. They live there. They are refugees. When I got there, the next day I went for a walk. I walked all day. I went to see my old house that I ran away from. It was blown in half, and there’s people living there. You almost couldn’t recognize it. Everyone was wicked suspicious. I was standing there taking pictures. The people were wondering “who the hell’s this guy.”


They drew a line in downtown Beirut and they bulldozed the whole downtown. They are going to rebuild it. It’s going to be nice again someday. I went to the American University there,

it’s gorgeous. It’s right on the ocean. It got hit some place but it’s pretty intact because it’s all inside a wall. It’s a great place to go to school.



Seeing my uncles and all that was kind of bizarre. I don’t really know them, and they’re all so wierd anyway. They’ve stayed throughout the whole war. They just moved around when it got bad. The thing about the community, everybody is so close, the extended family, with grandparents, and the whole thing. (You are so integrated in your family, everyone knew everybody, and you knew what was going on. Like here, there isn’t any family, it’s all crap. It’s nothing like that, it’s totally broken down. Over there, it’s so different from here in the sense that here you can live on your own, when you’re 18 you can move out of the house, you can’t do that there. You always respect your elders and you take care of your elders, here you stick them in a

nursing home. There’s no such thing there, they stay home and they die home. I think that is one of the major differences from here. The food is awesome too. I love it. I miss it. I cook sometimes. They used to sit around and sing. The songs I remember are from my Dad. Hy dad sings in eight different languages. He’s always singing. We used to go an car trips and the whole way he would sing. He has an ear for languages. I have no value for material things. I could give away my car today and it would not bother me. I think it has to do with losing everything. We had everything, I come from a very wealthy family over there, but we lost everything.


The strangest thing is to grow up in a culture, to leave, and to come back and look at it. You see things so differently. It’s like stepping out of yourself and watching yourself. It’s like looking in the mirror, you don’t really know what you’re looking at. I grew up there but I was so young. Now I have completely different values. I’m not into the shit they are into. Everything is image. I’m not into this big image thing. Everyone is a liar there. It’s middle East, it’s bribery, stuff like that. It’s amazing to me. It’s so different. When you were in it you were doing it because it’s the way you are. Then you step back and look at it. My values are very different. I don’t value material things, they mean nothing to me. I don’t take things too seriously, I laugh it all off.