In 1962 the Dutch manufacturing company Philips first developed the audio cassette in Belgium. Twenty years before this in neighbouring Germany, the Nazis had secretly developed a portable audio recorder that allowed sound to be recorded and played. They called it the Magnetophon.
From 1975 to 1990 a very uncivil war raged in Lebanon. Groups fought one another, then fought alongside one another, then fought one another again. At times militias conducted joint operations in one town while exchanging fire in another, like the Royal Rumble spectacle of wrestling where multiple opponents fought one another in the ring. Though wrestling had a winner in the end.
In 1987 my heavily pregnant mother was induced in a makeshift hospital in the village of Bar Elias, which neighboured her home village of Saadnayel. My father, a Palestinian doctor with the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO), was sent home after his colleagues had learned his wife was two weeks overdue. I was 40 days old when my parents migrated to Sydney. Mum has always stood by this round number, which gives it a strange degree of authenticity.
In 1968 audio cassette players were first installed in car dashboards. In the 1990s my father would shuffle through the cassettes that littered his Datsun 200B. The main tapes sat in the centre compartment. The less popular tapes sat with the street guide in the glovebox or between our feet. The tapes that played Quranic verses were never on the floor. Patriotic Palestinian songs blared during long trips; Yasser Arafat’s speeches mixed with heartening orchestral music. The car went quiet when the anthems incorporated the recorded last wills of slain men. My dad knew one of the guys from the PLO days. He would point it out every time. He would refer to him as the Shaheed (martyr).
This kind of audio editing was possible because, in 1928, Fritz Pfleumer invented the magnetic tape. It’s a simple design: a thin plastic base material coated in ferric oxide, a magnetic compound of iron and oxygen. This magnetic strip is used in audio cassettes. With a pair of scissors and some glue, different bits of tape can be cut and merged; the same way they would have cut out the Shaheed’s voice and knitted it into a tape of anthems.
Like all good technological discoveries, the magnetic tape was weaponised at its inception. Adolf Hitler ordered German radio stations to broadcast audio recordings of his speeches during the war. The plan was to throw off the Allies by appearing to give a live broadcast in one city while he was in another. The Allies knew the Germans had some form of portable recording technology. After the war, they found a cache of 350 of these tapes and multiple Magnetophon devices. The Americans later developed a commercial model.
In the late 1970s, after hearing of the massacres in refugee camps and villages in Lebanon, my uncle Adnan left his life in Sydney and returned to his home village of Saadnayel. ‘What a beautiful sight!’ my taataa (grandmother) exclaimed one morning as Adnan walked through the door. My mother recalls the moment my taataa’s reverie settled.
‘You are always welcome home, habibi … but there is nothing but war here,’ was the closest my taataa came to saying: you should have never returned. Adnan dropped his backpack off and left with my uncle Mohammed, who was involved in one of the local militias.
The war intensified and the belligerents multiplied. With Beirut to its west and Damascus to its east, Saadnayel was the centre of the battlefield. From the top of minarets, speakers echoed the names of local villagers killed in battle. My taataa listened in dread. Empty coffins were prepared for those who never returned.
One day her fears were realised when my uncle Mohammed disappeared. He was being held at a Syrian prison notorious for its inhumane conditions and creative torture methods. Word reached my taataa and she headed off to Baalbek, 40 kilometres north-east of Saadnayel, where Musa al-Sadr (then head of the Amal Movement, one of the major factions in the civil war) was to deliver a speech.
‘Saluu al Nabi (pray for your prophet)’ men pleaded with her as she stood outside the office of Sheikh Mohammad Yacoub, the deputy of Musa al-Sadr. ‘For the sake of your late husband’s soul,’ one of the guards promised, ‘we will speak to him for you.’ The deputy came outside and assured my taataa he would follow up on it. But perhaps more inconsolable than determined, my taataa swore by Allah that she wasn’t leaving until she got to speak to Musa al-Sadr in the flesh. It was after midnight and she was falling asleep on the floor of the office when the man arrived. When my taataa spotted his distinguished turban floating among his guards as he walked through the door, she sprung from her fragile slumber.
If you ask my mother, she swears hand on heart that my taataa wrapped her fingers around al-Sadr’s beard as she pleaded with him to speak to his Syrian contacts. In my uncle Jameel’s rendition of things, she forcefully tugged at his beard and gave him an ultimatum: find my son now. Taataa told him the name of the prison, and the man raised his index finger to the heavens and swore by Allah that he would personally call his contacts in Damascus. He picked up the phone, and the following day, Uncle Mohammed returned.
Muammar Gaddafi would later invite al-Sadr and Sheikh Yaccoub to Libya for talks. They would vanish under mysterious circumstances during their trip. At about the same time, my uncle Adnan also disappeared. His epilogue isn’t, however, a thriller involving world leaders and militia men. ‘Adnan had long, curly hair,’ Mum says, pointing to me before turning around, shaking her head. She apologises for evoking her son in her brother’s story. She collects herself. ‘The neighbour was pulling him by his hair …’
My taataa would tell me about her dream: ‘The neighbour walked into Adnan’s room where he lay asleep. She pulled him by the hair onto the street where she began beating him senseless.’ She woke up feverish. Adnan is dead, she said to herself. She would reach for her hijab and wipe her eyes. I was 14 when she first told me about him.
‘She was baking bread that day,’ Mum tells me, ‘and between each loaf she would call out for Adnan.’ My taataa warned my uncle Mohammed: ‘I’m not a fool. Do not bring me an empty coffin and tell me it is Adnan.’
The war ended in 1990 and my uncle Adnan never returned. My taataa followed my mother to Sydney and lived with us in a small townhouse in Panania. The bedlam in that place was written with holes in the gyprock walls. I believe my mother’s rendition of that story with the militia man. Over the years I would see my taataa disarm the most vexed of men. Sometimes that meant not going through the dry wall.
My dad would slap some putty on the smaller holes. The house looked like it was being treated for chicken pox. My uncle Ali chuckled as he extended the measuring tape over the gaping hole in the living room. He joked about tracing my outline on the repair piece. He always let me help.
My parents struggled to keep in contact with remaining relatives back home. My father came from a small village in Palestine called Dura (or Adoraim as it is referred to in the Bible). Neither Saadnayel in Lebanon nor Dura in Palestine had a reliable phone network. Overseas calls were expensive in the 1990s and were only made on special occasions. Six dollars a minute it was, Mum reminds me. Many numbers had to be dialled before you needed to yell into the handset.
There was an unspoken pact among the Saadnayel community in Sydney: you always gave notice before visiting the motherland. If you were travelling to Saadnayel, friends and family would visit in the days leading up to your departure, bringing with them packages for loved ones back home. People mainly sent money, medicine and letters. The closer you were to the person leaving, the more right you had to their luggage space. Some people tried their luck with larger items like blankets. People you hadn’t seen in years would suddenly appear with that outward veneer of politeness and an envelope, if it were no trouble of course. I remember being in awe of my mother’s beautiful cursive Arabic that ran along the faint blue lines of the letters she wrote. But what I recall most were the recorded audio tapes.
The audio tape is a simple concept. A magnetic tape, like the one Fritz Pfleumer invented, snakes around two rollers. This tape contacts one or both metal spools. One of the spools clears the tape while the other either records or plays audio sound. When recording, both spools make contact. The first spool clears the tape and the second spool causes a change in the magnetic field that alters the ferric oxide pattern of the tape. This pattern represents a sort of audio fingerprint that produces a unique sound.
Returning relatives and family friends brought tapes back with them. The family gathered in the living room around a clunky audio recorder and player. Voices of aunties I have never met would play out on the speakers. Two of them stayed behind in Saadnayel. I would pick up on a few of the words, such as keefkun and salaam. My taataa would adjust her whistling hearing aid and ask me to replay the tapes for her. Those unique patterns on the tape told us who was getting married, who had eloped and who had passed. The tapes always ended with my aunties debating which button to press.
We visited a family friend in Auburn when I was around ten. He had just come back from Lebanon. He handed my father a new cassette at the door as we were leaving. My father played it in the car on the way home. I recognised the voice. It was one of my aunties. I picked up on the word twafet (death). My mother gave off a muffled cry. One of taataa’s sisters had passed. I had been looking forward to hearing the tape with her, but Mum kept it and I don’t think taataa ever found out.
On rare occasions, my family would send a tape to Saadnayel. We always used the transparent Sony cassettes where you could see the tape in motion. It made it fun. My brother and I would watch from a distance so as not to disrupt the recording process. One day, like a third-pick quarterback thrust into the Superbowl, my dad told me to come and say a few words. At that time my Arabic wasn’t too bad.
My mother spoke a regional Lebanese dialect that sounded more eloquent than my father’s falahi (farmer’s) Palestinian accent. Arabic and scripture teachers cackled at my pronunciations. Eventually I realised both of my versions of Arabic were bastardised so I started using formal Arabic. This threw my taataa off so I eventually embraced my personalised Arabic mash-up.
When my father pressed the play and record button together, my Arabic betrayed me, and I resorted to English with intermissions of Arabic. ‘They’re going to think you’re an ahbal (nincompoop) over there,’ my father said. He never let me do it again.
In 2005 I came home from school and found my taataa sitting in a shaded area of the back yard. She called me Mohammed. It’s okay, I thought. It’s only two letters off; the syllables and the vowels are still there. Her Arabic still sounded beautiful. ‘Wallah, I’m starting to forget things, habibi,’ became the norm after that. The following year she was diagnosed with dementia. At the start it was a comedy; we could make jokes with taataa. But dementia changes genres quickly: it became a psychological thriller, then eventually a horror flick as insidious proteins formed knots in her brain.
I shuffle through a frayed cardboard box with my younger brother. He has organised a skip bin out the front; we’re renovating the family garage into a living area. ‘I haven’t seen one of these in years,’ he pulls at an audio cassette, the tape coiled around pages of old exercise books. He removes a few more books and yanks at the cassette, snapping the tape. He turns it this way and that way. The bowels of the cassette are visible through the transparent plastic casing. He tosses it back into the box and slides the box to the front of the garage. There’s no room for sentimentality in a family of four boys and a father who sacrificed his career for safety. I wait for my brother to leave and I pick up the cassette; the tape hangs from it like the stings on a bluebottle. It is bent and curled and now snapped.
The average audio cassette has about 100 metres of magnetic tape. My taataa, Allah yerhama, passed away on Christmas Eve 2007. The story of that nightmare she had was the only time she mentioned my uncle Adnan. I think of the thousands of metres of tape that were exchanged between Saadnayel and Sydney. The endless unique patterns of magnetic iron. None of it gave my taataa any closure.
I find a pencil and begin winding the tape. It clicks and clacks and eventually jams. It goes back into the box. •
Muhannad Al-wehwah is an amateur writer completing a graduate diploma in creative writing at the UTS. His writing is based mostly around the Muslim migrant experience in Australia. Muhannad has also completed a Bachelor of Science and a post grad in dentistry.