Memoir Contest Winner: Make Love Not War by Sarah White

by Matilda Butler on July 4, 2011

catnav-scrapmoir-active-3Post #106 – Women’s Memoir Writing, ScrapMoir – Matilda Butler and Kendra Bonnett

Women’s Memoirs is pleased to present the second of four award-winning stories today. Sarah White is the second of two tied First Place winners in this month’s memoir contest — FOURTH OF JULY category. Earlier today we published the other tied First Place winner in this category — Heather A. A. Menzies. Later today we will publish another pair of first place winners in our INDEPENDENCE category — Donna Lancaster and Rebekah Varin. Be sure to read their stories as well.


by Sarah White

It’s July 4, 1978. I’m sitting in a dorm room in Dijon, France, with the girls of “Group Indiana” who are throwing an Independence Day party. A classmate has brought a new friend from his dorm, a Lebanese boy named Halim.

The Hoosiers are homesick for their hometown festivities. “Just two years ago we were celebrating the Bicentennial–two hundred years since the American Revolution.”

Halim interjects softly, “Two years ago, I was fighting in a revolution, myself.” That trumps nostalgia and we all turn to listen. “I’ve come to Dijon to make up some classes I need, because the civil war in Lebanon interrupted my studies. I joined the Palestinian guerilla forces. I am a Communist.”


Sometimes a moment changes everything. Sometimes the trigger is a phone call, or as the French say, un coup de telephone — a blow, punch, shock. My coup came when my father called to say, “How would you like to go to France?” All I had ever wanted was to get away from Indiana. How unlikely that my parents could be the instrument of my escape! And now a few weeks later here I am, listening to this exotic boy speak in his halting English.

“I lived with my parents in Beirut. When the fighting commenced, I joined the Palestinians. I believed they offered the quicker path to a Communist future,” he explains. He admires Russia and resents the U.S.A.

We press him for more details of his revolution. Halim describes fighting in the streets, but I can’t form a mental image I can understand. I press for more literal description.

“But barricades? Barricades of what?”

“Broken pavement. The bombs had torn up the pavement, and we tipped up slabs.” He struggles to find the phrases he needs in English.

I asked, “Where were you?”

“In front of the Holy Den. Then inside it.”

My mind summons a picture of a Holy Den, something religious surely, maybe a cave in a desert scene out of Lawrence of Arabia. “Halim, describe a Holy Den.”

“It’s a big building in downtown Beirut. It was a hotel before the war.”

“Stone? Like a mosque?” I am still stuck in my desert scene.

“No, you know, with the green and orange sign. They are everywhere.”

It bursts like a bomb in my head—the Holiday Inn. War not in a frontier or jungle, but in a place of clean sheets and room service. And here sits the exhausted warrior, taut and dark, strong and strange. He’s focusing intently on me, ME, out of a whole room full of girls.

A few nights later I see Halim at a folk dance, and the next night we run into each other after supper at the school cafeteria. We walk the campus and talk. He tells me about how he lived with other students in communal squats, taking part in street actions, hunting for food and water, making revolution with their Soviet guns and home-made bombs.

We go to his room and talk more. He describes how his dreams morphed into nightmares, then visions telling him to find a way to help people that doesn’t kill them. “I decided to leave Lebanon, to become a doctor.” In France he has friends, can finish the courses he needs to enter medical school, study how to live in peace again.

Young lovers, Sarah and Halim

Young lovers, Sarah and Halim

I wonder if he will try to seduce me, or if I will need to make the first pass. But it comes surprisingly fast—he gets up, locks the door, and simply approaches my body. His hands comb through my long red hair, tilting me back for a kiss. “You are my ideal woman,” he whispers. Back in Indiana my plump form is far from the boyish ideal. In Halim’s world my fair skin and full rump are a man’s dream.

And Halim is a man with dreams. He has applied to medical schools in the United States and the Soviet Union. He will attend whichever approves first. He is as serious about his studies as I am frivolous.

With Joni Mitchell’s “Free Man in Paris” playing in my head I pursue various missions, like trying to score some pot or rent a moped. When on Bastille Day I jaunt off with a boy from the Indiana group to ride motor scooters down the Rue des Grand Cru, I leave Halim almost in tears. But there is not a single vacant hotel room in Burgundy on their Independence Day weekend–by early evening we rumble back into Dijon. I find Halim and we join the crowds pressed together in the sports stadium for a fireworks display. More private fireworks follow, war memories soothed by the only thing more universal than war.

I defend my independence with weekend adventures but give over the rest of my hours to Halim. The end of each day finds me searching him out to walk the campus or sit in a café, our conversation careening between my bad French and his bad English. I am happiest when he tells stories of his terrorist tribe. When he speaks I feel my heart expanding. Each evening ends in advancing frontiers back in his narrow bed, where he reveals I am his first lover. I am surprised to hear that girl terrorists, for all their bravery, won’t go all the way.

Two weeks, three weeks, wheel by. Halim starts to talk of me staying on with him after summer school ends. The idea is intoxicating. I’m a banquet to this starving man, and he is an exotic drug to me. Why not surrender?

But a moment can change everything. Halim receives his coup de telephone: A university in Moscow has accepted his application. The catch: he has to appear in 48 hours to accept his scholarship.

In a few jumbled hours we get him packed and down to the little train station. In a golden movie sunset the train carries him away, still whistling the “Internationale.” My perfect moment of romantic indecision departs with that train.

In the next days I roll the flavor of missing my lover around on my palate like an unfamiliar taste. The summer school program stutters on for three more weeks and I continue my little excursions with the Hoosiers. But nothing amuses; the excitement is over.


When I got home from France I found a letter from Halim describing his arrival in Moscow. More letters followed. He was as fascinating on paper as he had been in person—romantic, philosophical, full of detail of his studies and thoughts.

In late 1982 he wrote that he was going back to Beirut for the Christmas holidays. That was the last letter I received. There was fighting again that Christmas, and I worried he was dead. After a time I gave up writing, but not waiting for one more coup de telephone. Just in case, I’ve kept a telephone listed in my name ever since—even after I married. If Halim should need me, I want to be able to take the coup.



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