CHANGE OF PLANS
Issue of 2006-07-31
In “The Chronicles of Narnia,” the four Pevensie children are evacuated from London during the Blitz and sent to stay with an elderly professor in a house in the countryside. Last Wednesday evening, in an old Ottoman villa in West Beirut, Skandar Keynes, the fourteen-year-old actor who played Edmund Pevensie in last year’s film of “Narnia,” his mother, Zelfa, and his grandfather, Cecil Hourani, were packing their things and getting ready to evacuate. Two days before the Israeli attacks on Hezbollah began, on July 12th, they had arrived from Britain for their annual summer holiday in Lebanon, and had found themselves stranded there along with thousands of other foreign tourists. They had, in fact, been about to leave Beirut for the Hourani ancestral home in the ancient town of Marjeyoun, near the frontier with Israel. Marjeyoun is very close to the current fighting, and before being taken over by Hezbollah it had been the longtime headquarters of the Christian militia. Except for 2004, when Skandar was filming “Narnia” and the family decamped with him to the set in New Zealand, he has spent every summer of his life there.
Outside the walls of the villa, closely packed modern tower blocks rose all around. It is a noisome neighborhood of narrow streets jammed with people, scooters, and men pushing carts. Quite a few women wear head scarves. On a building in the next block a large banner in support of Sheikh Nasrallah could be seen. A half an hour before they were due to leave Beirut, Zelfa packed the car with their belongings, and Cecil waited by the front door, clearly edgy about the night journey ahead. Skandar chatted in the living room, a place of high timbered ceilings and flaking plaster, adorned with bronze pots and Chinese painted-silk panels of peacocks.
Skandar, a slim, handsome boy with tousled dark hair, was wearing a “Scarface” T-shirt over baggy shorts and blue canvas Vans. He said he had been looking forward to Marjeyoun, where he planned to spend his days swimming and reading. He had brought along his guitar, and hoped to catch up on some movies. “I don’t turn fifteen until September, and back in England I can only go to under-fifteens, which is frustrating,” he said. “Here in Lebanon they don’t care about age limits, and I can see any movies I like.” The day after Beirut’s airport was bombed, he’d gone to the cinema in Beirut where the new “Pirates of the Caribbean” was supposed to première; the theatre owners had turned him away, explaining that they hadn’t been able to fly in the reel. He added that he was a big fan of Johnny Depp. “He’s the man,” he said.
Skandar’s grandfather, Cecil, is a well-known writer on the Middle East; Cecil’s late brother, Albert Hourani, was the noted Oxford scholar and author of “A History of the Arab Peoples.” (Both brothers were born in Britain to émigré parents, but never relinquished their links with their homeland.) Although he was educated in England, Cecil still regards himself as Lebanese: “Being born in England didn’t make you English, at least not in my generation,” he said. With a glance at his grandson, he added, “Perhaps that has changed now, I don’t know.” Zelfa, Cecil’s daughter, is married to the British writer Randal Keynes, a great-great-grandson of Charles Darwin and a great-nephew of John Maynard Keynes. Skandar, who attends the City of London School for Boys, is one of their two children.
“I’m very proud of being Lebanese, and its history and everything,” Skandar said. “And I love coming here every summer.” He doesn’t speak Arabic all that well, he confessed, despite attending weekend Arabic classes for several years.
When Skandar was out of earshot, Zelfa said that she wasn’t particularly frightened, although her face betrayed her nervousness; for several days, the noise from huge blasts had ricocheted through the city, rocking the walls of the villa; their neighborhood had been spared, but much of the city had been shut down. Speaking of Skandar, she said, “He’s just a boy, after all; there’s only so long we can stay here like this, with nothing for him to do.”
Neither Zelfa nor her father was eager to join the mass evacuation of Beirut’s foreigners by ship, which had begun a couple of days earlier. They were also worried about travelling overland, as some people were doing, to Syria and Jordan, because they had heard that the roads were being bombed, and there were said to be long queues at the Syrian border. But on Wednesday some friends had found a driver who could take them out by night. They had been told they could get to Amman in six or seven hours.
Skandar had not thought much about the parallels between the role he played in “Narnia” and his own situation in Beirut. “Maybe it’s because one was acting and this is real,” he said. When the bombing had begun, he had been scared, like everyone, but his grandfather had done a good job of reassuring him. “Now I can say I have been in a real war zone,” he said, and gave a mock swagger.
Skandar’s grandfather came over and said in a low, tight voice that some men, possibly Hezbollah followers, had just come to the door to ask who his visitors were and, incidentally, who he was. Until now, he said, the family had mostly avoided attention in the neighborhood. It was time to go.