Chapter One

I was born on 1 April 1952

Funnily enough, it took me a long time before I found out that I was born on that date. celebrating birthdays wasn't part of our culture and religion, it was more a Western tradition. Of course, some people adopted it - the aristocratic ones. They would always hold a party. In my family, however, only my aunt did it for her children. Every year we would go to these parties to eat and drink but we never asked ourselves why she was doing it. It sounds incredible but, all through my childhood, I never knew what my age was.

Everyone else knew. For example, when all the women got together, they used to talk about when their children were born. They knew every date and they joked about it. They were always trying to make out that they were younger than everyone else. Anyway, when I first came to England in 1976, I was asked when I was born. I didn't know. I had to make something up, so I said '22 February 1945.' Now all the records in England give that as my date of birth. But it isn't. For my own peace of mind, I had to send a message back to the Lebanon to one of my sisters to ask what my bloody date of birth was. The answer came back and when I heard it, I said, 'Oh my God.'

I was born on April Fool's Day.

My father came from a village in the north of Syria. His family were old traditional people of custom and culture and respect, as it would be in any small village, but there the whole village had respect for my father's family. They were a very powerful family in the country. They had their horses, sheep, cows, lambs, and plenty of land. Twice or three times a week, the whole town met at night for coffee and talk. The speaker was my grandfather. They used to sit, talk, joke, deal with problems and get the best for themselves. It was a very civilised community.

My mother's family emigrated from Southern Lebanon to Beirut. In those days, if you came from the mountains, everyone thought you were bloody mountain people. They thought you ought to go straight back where you came from, especially if you were poor and uneducated. But the family had to make a living. So they came to the middle of Beirut. Things were very hard ... there were seven boys and three girls. My mum, her two sisters, and seven brothers. The oldest uncle, Jamil, and the next oldest, Hassan, they became the biggest, most powerful gangsters in Beirut.
My mother's name was Zeinab. She was blonde, blue-eyed ... the bloody English and Scandinavians think they're they only ones with these things, but maybe my grandmother slept with an English or Scandinavian man ... I don't know how my mother and father met. We never had the time to sit down and talk about it. He was in the service with the French ... I don't know exactly what as. I do know that my father was smart, very good looking and well-dressed. Maybe one day he was just crossing the road, he saw my mother and she saw him. Then they started talking, had a coffee ... but I don't know for certain. All I do know is that they got married.

In the Middle East, when people got married and they were waiting for their first born ... normally everyone wanted some children ... they always wanted a son, to carry the family name. Everyone knew that the daughter would only keep the name until she became married, when her name would change, as it does in England. So my parents must have been very pleased when I arrived. I had so many uncles and aunts and family relations. Everyone wanted to play with me, everyone wanted to pat and kiss me, play with me and carry know ... and it was too much. Cousins, nephews, aunts, etc. God knows... All I knew was that it was alot of people.

It was nice from time to time to go between the two ... to go to my Dad's village to cut the cotton ... where I was treated like God ... and then the same going back to my Mum's .... which is all a child wants, to be wanted and loved ... and this is what it was like in those days ... But the difference between my mother and my father's side was always very clear to me. In my father's village, there were donkeys, water melons, figs from the trees, so many fresh things ... you could take what you wanted ... and it was from one of your family ... it was beautiful.

But going back to Beirut ... there were guns, not Kalashnikovs ... so I was very good to cope with those two worlds .... but some of my father's side found Beirut too much even though they were there to work ... but they were related to the Yatims ... So many times when I was in Beirut ... it was very hard for my grandmother or my aunt to know everyone who came from my father's side. There would be a knock on the door, we'd open it and we would be embarrassed. However, these visitors would always come with yoghurt, a few chickens, eggs, figs just off the tree ... what else could they bring from the village? But it was very nice because even though we lived in the capital city, we didn't have those beautiful things...

Those people always used to come with respect. At the same time, they had at the back of their minds, the thought that if anything happened, they could get the Al Yatims to sort things out. You know what I mean? ... and it used to happen from time to time, like the police stopping them and asking for their identity. They would say they were a relative of Hassan Al Yatim and it would be OK.

I didn't know much about the history of Lebanon, but you only see it as you grow into it. But I'm wondering if I had grown up into the Sunni, Maronite or Druze, perhaps I wouldn't have what I have today. I'm bloody damn sure about it. It was magic that brought my mother, a Shi'ite, and my father, a Sunnite, together. It is exactly like a Protestant and a Catholic .... But then again, my latest wife is Protestant. Her mum was married to a Catholic ... We never talked about religion. I used to go to church. Always I was smart. In those days of summer, we used to go to a small town in Syrian. I used to go to the church every week. I didn't care what religion I was. It was very tolerant.

Not knowing anything outside Beirut, I used to feel very safe as a child because of the power which surrounded me and my family. Weapons, cars ... In America, you might talk about Al Capone. To me, it was the name of Al Yatim, my grandparents' family in those days. Many times, I went to my father's village in summer. Then I wanted to go back to my mother, where people would give me guns and say 'press, press'. I used to do this with my kids ... Even when I was a child I understood the difference between my father's and mother's sides of the family, the difference between weakness and power... and I don't think anyone wants to be weak.

Two ways of life, two ways of education, two ways of thinking, two ways of everything ... it was for me to know which way I was gonna go, and those beautiful days of childhood ... and the more you grow up, things go ... as we say in Arabic. It runs to the way you don't wish to be run for ... even the boat in the sea, they face difficulties as to which direction they want to go, it's not dependent on them, it's down to the wind ... you know what I mean? Those early days and those pictures of my mother and father, religious freedom ... and they pray ... I can see it sometimes in a movie. Funnily enough, I remember my Dad sitting down to eat, 'name it before you eat', and we used to say 'in the name of God''s fucking beautiful ... We forget all this fucking shit, but some people keep it ... You cross to the left or right, I just say 'Thank you God, thank you God...

I do love him all the time and God bless him ... Sometimes, I think I have his mentality, but I think I'm tougher than he was. He was like a very soft cat ... sometimes cats are dangerous because they can scratch. He could do that but he didn't have nails. So most of his problems came from his softness. Everyone said he was too soft, but I give him credit. I pray for him and say 'God bless him' - because of what he did as a father.

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