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Sami Basbous: Heal the Boy

Sami Basbous is a Canadian Lebanese published author and multidisciplinary artist. His memoir, Heal the Boy, is an emotional quest from a child who loved his mother and believed in...

Sami Basbous is a Canadian Lebanese published author and multidisciplinary artist. His memoir, Heal the Boy, is an emotional quest from a child who loved his mother and believed in everything - magic, animals, music, love - to a rootless gay man with a yearning to leave.

In twenty-one chapters, Basbous paints with a lifetime of memories, taking the reader from an early childhood in 1960s Beirut to disco era Paris, New Wave London, occult Los Angeles, funky Lagos, AIDS-crisis-era New York… A prodigal son(g) leads to a shrine looking for a miracle, at the nadir of illness, in the shadow of a collapsed Roman aqueduct.

Several lovers, brothers, mothers, countries, and songs later, Heal the Boy shows the healing that has, must, and will emerge from the wounds, from the story, from the world. Heal the Boy radiates the authenticity of a cinematic memoir. Conjuring a global Jean Genet, a British Rabih Alameddine, a French-educated Augusten Burroughs, or a Lebanese Edmund White, the book delivers a suite of stories written to self-heal and thereby invoke healing for the reader.

It’s a 360-degree map of a life with no shortage of war, displacement, sex, laughter, music, and poetry. Spanning 50 years, this autobiographical wunderkammer is a transfixing life story that travels the world with a child’s eyes, a man’s mind, a wanderer’s heart, and a perpetually juvenile body. Bodies and music, illness, and love, Heal the Boy is a profane comedy that sparkles and salvages a lifetime of withstanding and understanding.

Heal the Boy’s second edition will be published in 2024. Stay tuned for additional details on Sami's collaboration with Habibi Please.

For more updates, follow Sami on Instagram: @sami_basbous_8 


Explore a brief excerpt from Chapter One of "Heal the Boy" below:

Heal the Boy
By Sami Basbous
Chapter 1

How to Ruin a Perfectly Bad Christmas.

The year is 1996. I'm thirty-three and bedridden in Hôtel Dieu de France, a Beirut hospital. My doctor, Professor Nasnas, Einstein's Lebanese alter-ego, has given up on me. Frankly, there was no hope to begin with. I am dying. I cling to a framed, hanging image of an Italian-looking Jesus. He looks insusceptible to the dogmas attached to his name. He is holding a lamb, the heart of my questionable faith. Funny, grave, and troubling memories lull and fuel the pain with every breath intake. It’s all I have. I should have penned a life worth telling. Mother Angele is ever-present...

Mother read a letter and said, “Papa’s coming back!” My brother Fadi and I were ecstatic. When was the last time we saw him? 1966, the previous year. I was four and my brother six. I retain two memories of that year, my earliest. Fadi had pushed me violently down granite stairs. His unwarranted act was never explained. It stunned the children who had witnessed it. I was haunted by a CinemaScope memory of a stranger in a white uniform needle-stitching a left eye that peered through a bloodied lens at Father hushing my cries and Mother holding my hand.

This innocent child with a perpetual curious gaze in his large almond-brown eyes was left with a deep and permanent scar. It is the shape and size of the sharpened tip of a pencil on the corner of my left eye. 1966 was also the year we had a minor car accident; a rare occasion when the entire family ran smack into a collective experience. Following the collision, my father calmly stepped out of the car and spoke to the other driver. Mother remained inside and soft-pedaled our shock.

The front of the blue Electra Buick was damaged, just enough to lose its former glory. Did we have money? Or, further in debt, did we buy the steel mastodon to show off? Not Mother’s style, but Father's, beyond question. I remember asking Mom sobbing, “Are we going to be on TV?” She smiled and assured me of the contrary—the disappointment.

This time around, was it good enough to make the news? “Handsome Father Surprises Kids by Coming Home to Beirut for Christmas Following a Year in Rhodesia!” We met him at the door. He walked in, tall, tanned, young and handsome. The 37-year-old Texan-looking man from small-town Lebanon still knocked them dead with his Kennedy air and a million-dollar smile. We hugged warmly. Then, my parents went inside the master bedroom, shut the door behind them, and fought, like always. Following a long silence, a merry couple reemerged.

The next couple of days, we did the rounds, visiting and receiving family members, friends, and according to my brain, foreign dignitaries. How else could I describe this sudden avalanche of tactful strangers with artful tongues? My father must be an important man I thought, a spy maybe, and if so, the world’s greatest. I took notes as we punched the clock. It was laborious. Greet, wait to be told where to sit, sit, smile, speak only when spoken to, keep it innocuous and to a minimum, decline the candy you were offered at first, then kindly oblige, look out for any caution sign by peers, adjust leg-crossing, shaking and slouching. If only the borderline fascist Lebanese etiquettes of good manners applied across sectarian lines, the country would never have gone through war. The hypocrisy.

“Honestly, Dad, I’m doing well in school,” I answered under cross-examination.

Mother nodded. No further questioning. Agent Papa was satisfied. I can’t recall him ever helping me with homework or inquiring about what I thought of school, who I befriended, and why. He shunned triviality, detested acting, and went straight to the point of his selfish interest. A lousy spy, an honest pretender, the man I called Dad. “Come on, let’s go.” He was summoning me, and me alone. We drove the Ford Anglia he now boasted; a far cry from the glamorous Buick and headed North of the city. By the look and sound of it, the car was made by poor grannies for others of their kind. We parked the oddity, entered an upscale residential building, and walked the stairs to the second floor. Father rang the bell. He gazed at me seconds before a stylish man opened the door, and said matter-of-factly, “There’s no Santa Claus. You should know this. You’re five, a child no more.” We entered a cold apartment. I felt numb, and dumbfounded, heard grungy and discordant jingle bells. I greeted, waited, sat where I was told to sit, sucked on a piece of candy, and blanked out. Did Father really say that bit about Santa? He did. Was he joking? He was spy-serious, like that 007 Englishman with a license to kill in a movie Mother took us to watch. What was to become of my life if it were true that Santa was a lie? If so, will I have to carry the secret to my grave? Me, the most miserable of spies? Did my 7-year-old brother know? Mom? Were they lying to me, or were we the Three Stooges, the laughingstock of the whole wide world, and beyond, including the sky, God’s, Jesus, and Mary’s home? Or wait, wasn’t God supposed to be Jesus and his dad, soon reborn? If Jesus’s best friend, Santa, was a fake, wouldn’t Jesus be? Everything became confusion wrapped in doubt. Faith left the building sucking on a candy.

A day before Christmas Eve, my rebirth, a distraught 5-year-old cynic disturbing the
holiday spirit; little St. Thomas holding his father Judas’ hand. Not a word was spoken on the way home. Mother felt my distress. She took me aside and questioned. I spilled the candy. She stood up vexed and stated, “That’s a lie. Santa will visit tomorrow night. Camille? I need a word with you.” Father followed her into the master bedroom. They fought. Silence followed. Half an hour later, they came out happily reconciled. Things were starting to make sense. Maybe Santa Claus was a no-show in Rhodesia. Lebanon had snow. Rhodesia had none. No snow, no Santa Claus. For all I knew, Santa avoided Africa altogether. What I understood of the continent, I learned on television. Skeleton-famished children begging for food. My heart went out to them, and I never failed to mention them in my prayers. But the truth was in the Christmas pudding. It now occurred to me that Africans could only hope for a bag of rice as a Christmas present; not the stuff Santa delivers. Africans may not even believe in God. If you don’t believe in God; you get no Santa. That’s it! And you get to rot in hell and starve to death in Africa. Solved! But the Almighty was all-forgiving, or so I was taught in biblical studies. I was terribly confused but was given a choice. I did not believe Mother. No Santa. I slept a little.

That night, a funny thing happened on my way to the bathroom. A translucent form, the size of a child, lit up the living room. I immediately recognized it, fell to my knees, and prayed. To what did I owe the honor of being visited by a bright green, static Virgin Mary? Aha! She came to reassure me that Father Christmas was real and to strengthen my faith a day before birthing Jesus. I silently recited Hail Mary while looking down mercifully in the hope she would deem me worthy of her adoration and leave content. I thought it was better to abstain from thinking since she guesses everything. I considered abstaining from breathing, too, for The Holy Virgin looked kindlier upon you and provided all necessary celestial air for the rest of your painless, and obstacle-free long and happy life. You’d walk the earth, face sedate, hands folded, body poised, with a halo over your head, signaling to all that you were a chosen saint since a member of God’s immediate family visited you.

I furtively glanced at my parents’ bedroom, hoping The Immaculate Conception wouldn’t notice. The door was ajar. They were absent. My prayers then turned into pleas for her to let me pee, as I silently wet my pajamas, and uttered Fadi’s name after each Hail Mary in hopes my brother would wake up and deliver me from the saintly one who was outstaying her welcome.

Prickly Fadi awoke and walked toward me. The Virgin had such a grip that I couldn’t
warn him of the urine-flooded floor. He too saw the apparition, immediately knelt, and prayed in a puddle of pee. So, I wasn’t special after all. For this, I thanked the Mother of God, because I needed help in dealing with her. So stubborn was she that an hour later we slowly crawled on our knees back to bed, praising her name and begging her to leave. It was queer for the smartest, and holiest of women not to understand that children of five and six needed a good ten-hour sleep at night. But hey, she certainly knew what she was doing. By she, I meant the translucent green tablecloth that hung Virgin Mary-style in the morning on the living room table. One my parents bought, having decided to invite friends for card games the night before, then leaving the house, and abandoning us with a fake Mary on top of a fictional Santa. Last time I checked, Fadi remembered the incident but still believed it was the mother of Christ.

The next morning, my brother and I were dropped off at our paternal grandparents in the Beirut Christian working-class neighborhood of Mar Mikhail. They rented a two-bedroom apartment on the fourth, and last floor of a 19th-century Venetian-style building that barely stood without crutches. The only showpiece was the large balcony that gave to the main street. It was almost the size of the house itself. Grandma Eugenie was laconic and wise. Grandpa George was greedy and spiteful. A classically matched odd couple. With her turned-up nose and hair red as fire, she was easily mistaken for an Irish beauty. He was tall, with brooding eyes, and a fabulous mane. She succumbed to a harrowing rare form of skin cancer in the late 1970s. He sported the lavish hair and the Hitler mustache till the day he died, an angry old man, a decade after her. When he raised his voice, it wasn’t just directed at Eugenie, but the entire neighborhood. Some said it was the feisty Basbous spirit. It seemed that Father and three of his five siblings felt a duty to share the family’s joy and rage with the rest of the world. The least they could offer to their fans, and they had many. Dad certainly inherited his father’s pomposity. George and Eugenie raised five children, him with his voice, she with her heart. Camille, Robert, Yvette, Odette, and Evelyne, in this order. All French names since George was a die-hard Petainist and Francophile who spoke no French. They grew up with distinct voices and hearts. Still, some tipped more toward Eugenie, and one toward George.

Team Eugenie:
Robert and Evelyn.
Kind, generous, cheerful, and patient; they couldn’t bother with pretense, and made up in humor
what they lacked in ambition.
Team George:

Imperious, stubborn, greedy and cynical. As soft as scorpions, as held by money as nuns felt held by the hand of Christ. She was frightfully honest, but with a glass of wine in one hand and a cigarette in the other, she would eventfully laugh and chill. If only she allowed herself more alcohol and tobacco to save her from severeness. Odette was a tenacious queen bee with style, I suppose, which counted for something.

Camille and Yvette were in a category by themselves, able to switch teams at will. They were the golden brother and sister couple, at turns popular and hipster—the ones in every school and neighborhood who were taller, fitter, and better looking than you. So bright, you’d think the sun took a pied-à-terre in their heads and stuck a molecular cloud in yours. Athletes, dancers, models, and their generation’s gurus, Dad and his sister gave the impression of eating glamour and drinking wit-juice for breakfast and excelling at everything while giving back magic to their generation by simply existing. Camille the basketball maverick, and Yvette la Coquette, won every sports event and beauty pageant within a 20-mile radius from their living room, as well as every Cha-cha-cha, Rumba, Twist, and Boogie-Woogie dance competition in Lebanon. They made Mar Mikhail proud. Sure, they could turn dictatorial, but it was their God-given right. They were also generous, and aware that all eyes were glued on them.

As was commonly the case when we visited, Grandma Eugenie offered Fadi and me her specialty; a glass of rose syrup with an ice cube, and gave each one Lebanese pound, whispering, “Don’t tell your grandpa.” Hitler was in a perpetual state of a brood. He might have enjoyed your company. You never knew. So, you played it safe and kept your distance. The radio was his best friend, notably when it spewed bad news. Eugenie enjoyed your bunch. She sat on her armchair, smirked, and smoked her shisha. The one you expertly prepared and lit for her. The moist tobacco was the finest from Aleppo. It sweet-coated your nostrils and stripped you of your little hang-ups. She’d occasionally allow you a drag, adding, “Don’t get hooked.” You connected with her and recounted childish stories that suddenly felt mature. She’d talk back in proverbs. You understood little but felt wiser since she voiced the words, and you were high. If she were in the mood for cigarettes, only the cheapest Turkish crap would do; Bafra or Tatley. She’d ask for your little fingers to light the cigarette, and hand it to her as you choked. She’d warn you, “You shouldn’t smoke.” Grandpa George was craftier with his tobacco. He’d take a good five minutes selecting the right amount of it from a pouch, lazily roll it, slowly stick out his large tongue, leisurely lick the paper, and assemble the mighty fag. It was instructive and scary at the same time.

My grandparents’ salon felt like an opium den that day. Dad lit up a cigar, and Mom, a non-smoker, decided to vaporize the air with a lady-thin cigarette from a pack amongst a dozen in a tray designed for guests. Uncle Robert walked in with his wife Hayat, and their daughters Jocelyn and Patty, ages five and three respectively. Hayat was holding George, their newborn. In no time, the room turned into a monstrous cloud. The second a cigarette was dumped in butt-land another went up to their lips. All of George and Eugenie’s children smoked. Champion amongst them was Dad. He cruised by Kent and Marlboro country, proceeded to Pall Mall in the 1960s, and, in the 1970s, progressed to Dunhill’s London, Paris, New York tag bullshit. The Dung-hill, like all other brands, should have read Cell, Mutation, and Carcinoma, since striking a casual friendship with any greatly hastened cancer. In old age, Dad finally rested in Rothman hell with three packs a day. Who could blame him or his siblings when the smell of tobacco was idiosyncratic to the family house? Hayat crushed her cigarette, and before leaving with Uncle Robert and my parents for a stroll, planted a big wet kiss on my cheek, stating, “There, I’m smudging you again with my lipstick.” Was her performance a joke or innate bad taste? Both. The woman was accused of being tasteless in a slapstick vulgar way. She had no education to speak of and was as folklore as a Bethlehem donkey. But even though she liked me, in essence, Hayat meant the words as a pun. Mother and I knew it. A week or so earlier, I was resting in bed with a small fever. Mom said that she needed to leave the house and run errands for an hour. She came back 30 minutes later accompanied by Hayat. As soon as I heard the door open, I rushed inside the bathroom wearing Mom’s gorgeous taffeta ball gown. My debutante look was complete with jewelry, matching stilettos, and a handbag. From princess, I quickly reverted to little boy. I covered myself with her peignoir. The makeup was tough to go. I kept rubbing my eyes, cheeks, and lips with soapy water, swallowing a good load. Meanwhile, they kept calling my name. I finally came out after triple-checking my face for any cosmetic residue. None.

“Jesus, Angele! Sami has lipstick on his mouth,” Hayat screamed.
I froze. Mother examined my face.

“Yes, darling. This morning I applied lipstick on his lips. You should have seen how dry they were,” Mother replied, smiling at me as if recognizing something that eluded her before but finally made sense.

“Sorry, poor baby!” Hayat apologized, “Here, let me smudge your beautiful cheeks with my lipstick.”

Hayat did, with violet, her signature soft-core garden variety color. When her sister-in-law left, Mother knelt to my level and said, “Sami, you may wear my clothes and makeup only when I’m here, and there’s just the two of us, and only after asking for my permission.” My mother was my hero, no need to further elaborate.

My parents returned to pick up my brother and me from my grandparents’ house. Christmas Eve and the thought of no Santa came back to haunt me. That night we attended mass and sang He is Born, the Divine Child. The voices resonated deeply in the grand cathedral, advancing God’s theory on Earth, his son reborn on this very day, like me, metaphorically, and Dad, Santa’s killer and a future traitor hiding among the worshipers, not unlike the people of Jerusalem who later two-timed Jesus and chose to crucify him. The Lord shined upon my brother, a blond angel, literally. And exhibit A, the statue right there, Mary as my mother Angele, angelically attending to the wounds of her dying son. Where was Joseph? No painting or statue depicted him. In Rhodesia? I looked at Dad and pondered. Indeed, we had a lot in common with this Jewish family, as the priest claimed.

Back home, I meditated on why, like Jesus, we weren’t Jewish, when he walked in. Whitebeard over brown mustache, skinny, with a nasal voice, he was dressed in a red and white felt costume and hat. The fake! Here was the stylish stranger my father drove us to meet in his Anglia, seconds after killing Saint Nick. The man was shaming his fashionable self as a grotesque Santa. The prank was phenomenal. He handed my brother and me a gift each, and off he Ho-Ho-Hoed.

“See? Didn’t I tell you? Father Christmas!” Mom proclaimed.

It felt like Easter. Father, forgive them for they know not what they say. An inner voice shot back, Father, forgive me for I have sinned. Indeed, thanks to Catholicism, I always thought I did. My brother unwrapped an electric train complete with tracks, a station, a bridge, and a tunnel. His prayers were answered. My gift was larger and perfectly round, not heavy though, not the gramophone I specifically begged for. I’ll open it and see. I could forgive and offer an olive branch. A bow, suction-cup plastic spears, and a target board. Surely this gift must be a joke. There must be a mistake. I’m a pacifist. I pee in bed, play with dolls, dress up, bake Nammoura, and sing along to Fairouz, an Arab princess, practically. Though someone’s idea of
masculinity was right on target. I wanted to aim that plastic bow and shoot that spear right into my father’s heart, sucking the rubber organ out of him. I kissed and thanked him. Maybe Dad’s abrogation of Santa was meant to make a man out of me, at age five. Man up! A toxic phrase he would frequently use on me later in life. Embracing Mom, she whispered in my ear, “I’ll buy you a gramophone.” Why didn’t you stop the monster while he bought this horror? I felt like asking. The truth was, as good a spy as I imagined him to be, Dad was a struggling businessman who failed to prize or understand me. I was as puzzling to him as Rhodesia was to me. He was smiling now, holding me. I hugged him wholeheartedly. My brother played with both toys. Fadi’s joy was contagious. I appealed to the little man in me and joined him. We had fun. My brother made me forget. He still believed in Father Christmas.


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