Could Home Be A Prison?- by Ghenwa Elkhory

It was hard to focus during a game of checkers with my dad in the safety of our home, our home a long way from home. It was more than hard, it was impossible. I looked up at his salt-and-pepper hair and wondered if I could ever survive what he’s been through, but he breaks my thoughts and answers my question. “The war started in 75, but it took 14 years to reach us in Hboub. I was twenty-three when they arrived, and I remember that we thought we were safe until we simply weren’t”. He looked toward the T.V, but I could tell he wasn’t looking at the T.V. itself. I told him that we don’t have to talk about this, but he brought his big chocolate eyes back to me and said “it’s fine. It’s your turn to play”.

As we played checkers that night, my dad told me the story of when the war reached Hboub. It didn’t just reach Hboub meaning that houses were bombed, or children became orphans, it reached Hboub meaning that it tore at the heart of Hboub, it tore our sports club apart.

Hboub is a little village nestled between the mountains and sea at 2,000 feet above sea level and it was a village of no more than 250 people–a family of 250. Hboub Club was founded in 1969 by the hardworking hands of the young men in Hboub. They gathered each other and their love for volleyball and decided to start a club, the club that has been around for more than 50 years, the club that made us after we made it. Hboub Club wasn’t just a place for volleyball, it
was the safe haven that kept the young men busy, healthy, and isolated from the use of drugs, the trade of arms, or the joining of militias.


At the time, militias were multiplying in Lebanon, and any guys that could get their hands on some weapons called themselves a militia and went rogue. City streets swarmed with illegal weapons and narcotics, but all of that was always left out of Hboub, it’s like we lived in a different country, a country far from their politics and wars.


Hboub was different from the village I know today– everyone tells me that. Everyone tells me that before other people came and inhabited our village, it was just us–just the Elkhoury’s–enjoying each other’s company and living the best life that could possibly be lived during the 70’s. And that doesn’t mean a life of wealth moneywise, it means a life of family and peace, a simple life. Even during the first few years of the war, Hboub was completely isolated from the events taking place. “The only real affects happened when we were cut off from major cities” my dad says. The growing militias organized random car searches at the mouth of any city, which turned into bloodbaths if you failed to comply while these young, uneducated, and armed young men searched your cars and held you at weapons end just for leaving your village to get supplies. Goods became scarce, and the militias rationed out what they could acquire, widening their reach and gaining followers, followers to make the war worse, to make it drag on for 15 long years.


Getting an education in other cities became impossible, and the children and teenagers of Hboub dropped out and spent all of their time at the Club, working to improve the volleyball team–and mostly having fun. The bond that the Club formed between the villagers turned into to steel, and the volleyball practices slowly turned into dance lessons, Ping-Pong championships, card and board game nights, and anything else that could keep them busy and together– they were always together. The Club and its colored ground became a home for everyone, a home that lit up into the night and provided safety, far away from the chaos that surrounded them.


For many years the people of Hboub crowded into the village and stayed away from Beirut and other cities, only occasionally taking the bus to get legal papers for the Club, papers that would make the Club able to compete against other clubs in tournaments–the real deal. Surrounding villages became opponents and villagers took long rides on their donkeys (only few had cars) from one village to another just to watch opening ceremonies that Hboub Club held. Nights filled with dancing, homemade food, and friendly faces made our village known, until the day we became too known.


My dad gets up to stretch his legs, and I browse his 6’3 figure, one that has been through decades of violence, millions of hours of volleyball training, and a heart transplant a few months ago, but it’s still the same figure that holds the unshakeable bond with Hboub Club. He continues. “If it wasn’t for that Club, we would have ended up in prison, or dead. The time we spent down there was unimaginable, and even on the rainy days, we would meet at anyone’s house and play cards till sunrise, you don’t see those type of bonds these days.”

I asked him to go into more detail of when the war reached Hboub, but he gave me his friend’s numbers and told me to ask them myself, every single guy has a story of back then to share, “and every story is even better than mine, believe me.” My dad’s team of 85. He is the second from right.


The task of getting to know the history of these men wasn’t a simple one. They had so much to share, stories that’ll both make you laugh and cry and stories that show how much hope these young men had in their Club, even when it was taken away from them.


Wassim Khoury

“That place was home” Wassim Khoury tells me over the phone a few days after the checker game. At only 5’5, Wassim was the 88 team’s only receiver, and he did a hell of a job during games. Not afraid to scrape a knee, Wassim was known for his fast plunge, the kind that
can catch any ball before it touched the ground. The war ended that for him.

Ever since I could remember, Wassim has been walking with a limp that makes him stand out in a crowd. His short but lean athletic figure is the same as it was back in the pictures, but his limp makes him different.

“When the war got closer and the army needed more and more men, I decided to go. I regret the decision today, but back then I thought I was protecting my family” says Wassim in almost a whispered tone. It was over 30 years ago, and he still can’t talk about it with a clear voice. Wassim filled me in on the details of his time in the Lebanese army and how they were constantly in the middle of the action, coming between raging militias of Wassim, the shortest, at the top of the pyramid. 87’ opening ceremony different beliefs and religions. “The worst part about it was that the two main militias were Christian. They were killing their own people, and they made us killers too.”


Wassim had been an athlete all his life, and suddenly he was holding an American-made M16 and barging into homes, sometimes for protection–but sometimes not. The events during that year were hot and fast but all ended up in the same moment for Wassim. He doesn’tmremember much of the accident, and his details were confusing, but he mentioned plunging away from the grenade, just enough to survive but to lose a leg. His right leg, the leg he would rely on most to hold his weight during matches, the leg he bends first while plunging for the ball. I’d heard the story before, but never from him, and I’m not sure if I would rather go back to not knowing the story.


The Visitors

The violence was bearable for the people of Hboub until the militias reached the village and decided to settle there. They had heard stories about this “club”, and they had come to shut it down, it was no time for ceremonies, it was time for wars and victories. The occupation of Hboub was a simple one, they settled in the Club and used the extra space to park their tanks, ruining the fresh asphalt the boys had recently painted in preparation for their summer championship. The tanks left the ground brittle, just as they left the people. The teenagers of Hboub no longer had a safe haven, and danger was an inch away. “I hope you never have to live through a war”, my dad said somewhere mid-game, making me slightly lose focus, “I really can’t find the words to tell you how we got through it”. They say you need a village to plant a heart, I guess you need a village to survive a war too, and that’s exactly what we had.


The occupation meant new rules and no daylight. The long summer days turned into dark while each family gathered underground in their basements, playing cards and telling stories, but mostly praying for safety. The militia that forcefully occupied Hboub circulated their new rules like seeds to be grown, and they made it clear that anyone who fails to comply will be made an example of. They barged into our village made of volleyballs and replaced them with grenades.


Homes became abandoned as underground basements filled with families and any visitors seeking refuge. The underground world lit up and was alive with stories of past wars while similar stories were happening above ground, in a village that had known peace for so long. Lights were dim in the basements because of lack of windows and only one small door for safety against horses, but sunlight shone through the stones during the day and that was just enough for everyone to recharge—just enough to last the night.


In that moment, facing my dad and the board, I’m taken back to 1990 and I feel what life was like in Hboub. I remember childhood stories of the things they did in those basements, hidden like mice, and I remember asking my grandpa why there are holes in his 500-year-old house. The house that has raised generations of children and has stood strong, since way back into the Ottoman Empire. The same stones that are still sanding today, grazed from the aftermath of the bomb that landed a few feet across from it. That exact bomb that caused a wave of debris on July 7th, 1989 and hit my grandmother right in the stomach while she was overground preparing food for the refugees seeking safety in her basement.


The villagers of Hboub were never political. They never took a side or supported corrupt politicians, they kept to themselves and their lands and that was enough. The occupation brought out a new side to them, a side that despised the Lebanese Forces and relied heavily on the army to protect them, even though they couldn’t do much. The war created an ugliness in the people of Lebanon. The kind of ugliness that was the result of occupations and endless murder. Villages took sides and followed those who protected them. Relatives living in different villages became enemies because of who protected them and who bombed them, and those sides taken are still taken today, they didn’t end with the war. Those sides are the hamartia of Lebanese people.


Massoud Khoury

Massoud—The Pirate—Khoury was on the team during the early 80’s. They called him The Pirate for more than one reason. First, he was known for stealing back any match that we were behind in. He was an outsider hitter and had a kangaroo jump that no one could get past. But there was another reason, a reason that he blames the war for. Massoud lost an eye.


It’s not like you’d think, he didn’t lose it in the war, but he lost it because of the war. When Hboub became a target village, Massoud found the chance to flee and traveled to Boston, Massachusetts, where he had a few relatives. The tall, dark, and intimidating pirate set aside his love for volleyball and took on construction.


The Prison

Back in the midst of action, the militia began bringing prisoners to Hboub. Hidden from major cities, Hboub was the perfect place to kidnap military officials and imprison them underground in the Club. The Club that once was a home for children, was converted into a prison. The villagers couldn’t do much, but they snuck the children into the prison with food for the prisoners, they knew what kind of captors held them, and they did the little they could do to help, often endangering their lives.


It was the toughest stage when the prisoners arrived. The militia grew hungrier for power and went door to door, breaking down glass and capturing anyone who had a past of supporting the government, anyone who might have opposed them. Parents hid their teenage boys meticulously; they did not want them to be forcefully recruited into the militias.

October 13, 1990
Just when the militias and villagers were on the brink of battle, a new President was elected. President Elias Hrawi (1926-2006) came to office after 15 years of destruction and brought peace. The president took strong action against the feuding militias with a force that hadn’t been seen before and ended the 15-year civil war that took the lives of over 200,000 people with around 17,000 still reported missing.

Lebanon still suffers because of its leaders and political parties, and another civil warm might be suddenly ignited between the separate religions and sects in any village.

“We celebrated when they left. It was almost winter and we never had a winter ceremony, but we still celebrated; we crept out from our underground prisons and were reunited. We were missing a few, but we were healed” my dad said as he made his final move to complete his strategy and take over the board. “I think it’s time for a break, did Massoud tell you about his eye?”


Massoud The Pirate

A few days prior to his flight back home, Massoud The Pirate had one last construction job to attend to. One last job and he would go home and compete in the summer tournament, after three years of displacement.

“That piece of shit nail gun got me, G” he tells me over the phone. “One minute I was driving nails through the wood, another minute I can’t see or remember anything. I woke up feeling like shit, I knew I couldn’t play anymore. Hell, I could barely see.”

Massoud left for Lebanon and never came back to the States. He never played volleyball again, but he made his son a professional player, and that’s good enough for him.


The Comeback

The militia left Hboub with the appointment of the new President, and everyone got back to work. The country was improving and so was little Hboub. The villagers crept up from their underground sanctuaries and slowly came back to life. “We all got to work, we repainted everything and fixed what they broke.”

They couldn’t fix the broken families and few homes that turned to rubble, but they fixed what was once everyone’s home, they fixed the Club and decided to leave the war behind them. Everyone in Hboub aided in the rebuilding of the Club. They painted the ground a fresh green and orange and placed a new volleyball net right in the middle, white and ready to be seen.

Every year, since the winter of 1990, the people of Hboub honored their village, club, and those they lost by continuing the tradition of the ceremonies to remember them. The President would open the night with a little speech, remembering those gone and thanking those present. The night would turn into a whole week, a week full of festivities and laughs under the Mediterranean summer sky.

During our summer trips to Lebanon, the first week of August was always my favorite. I’d pick my favorite clothes and save them for that week at the Club. Even after all the guests left sometime past midnight, we would stay. We would clean and reorganize the chairs for the next day, and sometimes we would just sit on the green and orange painted asphalt and do nothing, we’d just enjoy each other’s company.

When we step on that same, bright asphalt today, we remember stories of the war. We remember the good and the bad, the home and the prison. How could this place that holds so much joy could have once been filled with tanks? How could the bright, wide volleyball and basketball courts that now hold thousands of people, have been abandoned and dark?

Hboub Club’s volleyball team went from travelling on donkeys to play in a neighboring village to crossing the country to compete in 1st division finals year after year, up until this very year. The team still learns from the players that built the club, the men passed their volleyball skills down the chain and all the way up to 2020, where our team is still made up of the Elkhourys. The men of Hboub are what kept the Club alive, just as the Club kept them.

Hboub is exactly how I remember it from my childhood, and it sounds exactly like the stories I’ve heard. Things obviously change, people do too. But one thing that never changes is the place Hboub holds in the hearts of the villagers. Many have crossed oceans and reached lands that promise bright futures, but no one has forgotten Hboub. It’s always there, right in the back of my mind as I’m sitting in class or celebrating the 4th of July, 5,500 miles away.



With the comeback of Hboub, I’d like to mention the comeback of one last player, my father. Tony was in his high teens when the war was stirring in Beirut but he refused to stop going to school. “It was only a 30-minute bus ride, it wasn’t even dangerous” he says to me, casually sipping an Iced Tea, forgetting that those few miles between Hboub and Beirut were surrounded with death and destruction. “Listen, I don’t regret going to school, I only regret joining the Lebanese Forces.”

Christians were fighting Christians meaning the “Lebanese Forces”, also known as the main militia that sparked the uprising and that would later inhabit Hboub, was against the national army. Tony was never into politics. He was never into volleyball or anything besides his cows even. He grew up in the big fields of Hboub and only left his duties to go to school, hoping to become an electrician one day. As he describes his teenage years going back and forth between Beirut and Hboub, the only boy among the village that stayed in school, I notice the wrinkles underneath his chin for the first time. He’d seen death and I had never noticed; I’d never thought about it until now.

“They were different days, I never planned on joining LF, but everyone in school was doing it and I thought it would be fun, it would make me important”.

He thought it would be fun up until he decided to swallow a whole box of pills, because he couldn’t take anymore of the “fun”. Tony went from an innocent young man herding his cows to help his parents, to a militia man in only a few months, carrying heavy weapons that didn’t feel comfortable, didn’t feel right. By the time he realized he’d made a mistake, he was too deep in to leave. His only way out was an attempt at suicide, and it surprisingly worked, the captain found him just in time and he escaped the hospital after his recovery, heading to Hboub and
never turning back. He doesn’t bring this up much, I had to squeeze it out of him.

That’s when he turned to volleyball. “I was distant when I got back, my friends had all grown closer through the club and I was a militia man to them, a stranger.” But volleyball brought him back. Tony forgot about school and became determined to look after his herd, he swore he would never leave his land again and joined his friends at the Club, where he belonged.

It was a few years before Hboub was under occupation. When they arrived, Tony went underground and didn’t come back up until after they left. He sat quietly even as he heard the blast outside and knew that his mother was upstairs. Because he knew that If they had recognized him, they would have hung him in the fields, right in front of his cows. If they had recognized him, I wouldn’t have been able to tell his story.

Closing night dinner, 2010 I realize now, how bad the situation is. I realize that it never really got better, and that out of roughly 21 million Lebanese people, only 5 million of them actually live in Lebanon, and I understand how the events that took place for 20 years long before I was born led up to everything happening today. But I know that even as corruption continues to swallow my country, the only thing that people–especially the people of Hboub–will never give up on, are their little clubs, the ones that kept them safe.

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