There is an ocean in my heart. It beats with a sense of urgency. Its water runs deep. It murmurs and shatters on the shore of old longing before it gets swallowed in moving sands. If you observe it carefully, you can catch the trails of Eurydice and Orpheus in a haunting pattern. They are both swaying between the earth and warfare’s dust. They are both trying not to look back, while the looked at stares back at them. Struggling with the mechanism of absence and presence, they are sculpting a narrative of loss. Both the seer and the seen are dallying in my heart, wanting to go in, to be in, but the in is still taken hostage by a sense of fog. My heart knows that by looking back I can alter the results of an experience. So when I look back at my origins, at my scattered roots and how they resemble so much the roots of Beirut, the Beirut that I love like one can love a deep old bleeding wound, I ask myself, am I making Beirut disappear into the seen or into the real, am I making myself disappear into the seen or into the real of Beirut?
A man is running in a grey street, foggy with warfare dust, holding in each hand a grocery bag, a surviving-war type of grocery. Batteries, aspirin, matches, cigarettes, candles, dry beans, lentils, rice or pasta, most probably rice, oil, bread if he got lucky in the queue, anything edible in a can, powder milk, soap, disinfectant, thick scotch tape to hold together broken windows, and a message in sugar for a child to say I’m sorry for losing my temper this morning, I hope I’ll make it alive and give it to you. A man is running in a grey street foggy with warfare dust, I notice his tense shoulders, the devastation and the smell of death around him. The landscape is familiar, like a snapshot from Beirut throughout the 80s till mid 90s. But this is not Beirut, this is Aleppo, and the man is running as I’m writing.
October will be leaving 2012 tomorrow, yet the sun is still fiery red with dispatches of thunders. My mind keeps hurrying, slaloming between invisible checkpoints, towards Syria, sometimes to Aleppo, sometimes to Damascus. Last time I was there was in Spring 2003. I spoke about it once while tearing up after reading Syrians writing their longing for their beloved homeland and their yearning for a sense of normalcy. They now relate to Fayrouz and Ziad Rahbani songs in the same way us Lebanese related to these songs during the long winters of war. I know what it feels like to tie a hope for a sense of a place in a mandeel (handkerchief) holding on to Fayrouz, Ziad Rahbani and Marcel Khalife singing Mahmoud Darwish’s poetry. I know how it feels to be forgotten by the entire world and finding comfort in some tarab while you’re sitting under the flying bombs. I know how it feels to use the last battery to play songs rather than save it for the next newsflash because you can’t take it anymore, because it’s either the voices in these songs or the harrowing echo of people crying out to God, vacillating between cursing and pleading.
I reminisced how we used to drive from Beirut to Blad Al Sham, Syria, to follow some theater courses, to attend local and international seminars, and to buy essences of jasmine and gardenia from Souq Al-Hamidiyah, near the Umayyad mosque in Damascus. And books. We used to drive to Damascus to buy books. Syrian authors and dramaturgists, Mohammad Al Maghout, Sadallah Wannouss and Nizar Qabbani, Arabic poetry from many different countries, and European theater plays, Durrenmatt, Brecht, Strindberg and Beckett translated to Arabic. We’d return from Syria with so many gems. Astérix and Obélix translated to Arabic, food, soaps, spices, dark chocolate covered orange peels, new friends and stories. We share, us Lebanese and Syrians, a cultural and historical memory, the good and the bad mosaics, because we have a collective memory. They know what we’ve been through and what we’re currently going through and we know what they’ve been through and what they’re currently going through. And to witness the Syrians endure the same patterns of war, from the harrowing tragedies to the very details in songs, the little details of war, breaks my heart.I was told in private I wish more people understood what you meant by collective memory. So I started writing, bifurcated and opened some old boxes. It is hard, almost impossible, to write about a collective memory in this particular tense present. It is hard to write about a place I’ve been trying not to look back at, all the while looking back at, in private notebooks, for years. But I will try. I will try to write about Ariadne’s thread, which one must hold onto when submerged by currents of war.
We are in a state of war. It is an organized assault on the spiritual, physical, mental, rational and emotional level of the human being. The assault has hijacked the inward and the outward cognition resulting in a massive loss of perspective. We are exiled from our original capacity of being and from our willingness to act within our multiple humane possibilities. The heart and the conscience, when not completely forgotten, are reduced to soporific enactments to fit one-dimensional images. Values are adorned like brands simply to fit in. Tragedies are exploited for narcissistic ambitions and recycled as sensational entertainment. Everything is flattened to a tabloid dimension. The assault is so ubiquitous and perverse that it has radically affected nature itself. Unmanned drones are replacing kingdoms of bees. People are keen on exhibiting their humanitarian aura when a Circus Maximus is willing to fund the glossy opportunity for them. Where are they when invisible heroes get assassinated in broad daylight by the very Circus Maximus? They continue their grotesque mise en scène with a scripted reaction to fit in, opting for the easiest way out, oblivious how their passive cowardliness, from the lowest echelon to the highest one, indulge a fascistic assault on humanity itself.
If I have to describe war to someone who has watched it only on a screen, I’d begin by describing its texture. War has a specific texture that permeates to the bones. It is synthetic. War is synthetic and you, a civilian, become hostage of its synthetic reality. You vacillate between a sense of indeterminacy and a state of fog, by being occasionally remembered for some political agendas yet forgotten repeatedly on a daily basis. War disrupts our nature of being, forcing an internal and external displacement. You become exiled from your native space and from your native memory. You are forced to live within the perverse tension between existence and death concentrated in a tight parenthesis. This acute tension, which people might experience in some rare moments through their lifetime, becomes your daily reality. Your normal state is of acute stress. Bliss is met with heightened anxiety; because you’re inspecting the shadows looming behind and oh yes here they are looming indeed. You know too much to lull your brain on new age embroidery. You become an expert in noticing fraud, lies, uncanny patterns, hidden cues, and disparate yet connectable dots. You discipline yourself to dissimulate your inner startle to ineffable triggers. You don’t want to interrupt self-complacent monologues oblivious to what you’ve been through. It will change nothing to the running order. The petty sorrows and sanctimonious gigs will still be measured on par with what you’ve been through, and you know better not to disrupt the status quo. Anyone who could have helped you has already helped you. In war, you witness monsters committing the unimaginable and people risking their life to save another fellow’s children. You adjust your expectations accordingly, because the scale of what matters and who matters changes drastically. War exposes the countless lies and truth within the intimate interactions of our inner and outer lives. It exhibits the strata of darkness and light between human beings. You become a mystic even at your worst hedonistic stage because you’ve been through hell already. You’ve watched your house along with other houses crumble down, yet you were still considered lucky because you didn’t disappear underneath the dust. You know each day is your last day. Your generosity is vast like the sea. War survivors don’t form clubs to meet each other on Sunday, but they do recognize each other like a ghost would recognize another ghost.
War goes beyond the destruction of a land and the annihilation of a people. War sets its own force of gravity. Its mechanisms are embedded in an everlasting spiral. War manipulates the causes and effect of history, taking victims out of the narrative so a whole other story can be told in literature, in school textbooks, in academia and in the manipulated synthetic memory. War is perverse, it promises you to ceasefire yet it spirals overtly and covertly. In fact it starts for real when you think it has ended. Soon you discover the truth, that the pre-announced end was just a brief interlude. You learn that you’ve been lied to. You learn that war never ends, because war never ends. That war you are hearing about in the local or international news report? That war is in fact the first war humans have started. It’s the same one. It never ended.
War never ended, war never ends. War rolls in especially when the lucky ones are comfortably seated in their peaceful armchairs enjoying peaceful rhetoric on human rights and democracy drafting an ominous treaty while simultaneously blackmailing other lucky groups into selling and buying shells and drones to counter what they created in the first place. War never ends. It feeds from the silent wicked atmosphere running for decades under the patronage of a foreign-implemented dictatorship fond of horrific secret labyrinths. War never ends. It sneaks in among medallions, tributes and selective pathos. It lingers behind statues to remind you of the myriad of subterfuges and how missed or well-hidden details can kill as much as bullets, white phosphorus and unmanned drones. War never ends. It exaggerates some numbers while reducing other tragedies to mere silhouettes on a tabloid cover. It snickers at you right in your face while they are honoring false heroes, hijacking sacred verses, and printing monsters with a fabricated aura on posters. War never ends. It sells hope in treacherous ramifications deluding youth and their hungry urge to be underneath the spotlight. War never ends. It casts its shadow behind protests, manifestations and sit-ins. It kidnaps silent heroes and tortures them in invisible dungeons. It lurks behind the shoulders of activists rushing to center stage to rage at the bourgeoisie before doing their homework. It nests in anarchists pockets who didn’t bother to study about hedge funds, naked credit default swaps and derivatives speculation by commercial banks, for the trap to break some commercial glass was gratifying enough. It sabotages worthy causes because the people who meant well never studied the monster. War never ends. You know you’re imposed a lie and you swallow it. You’re in a minority within a minority. You build intimate patterns to shield yourself and preserve your sanity. And what emerges from these patterns is a constant – whether conscious or unconscious it doesn’t matter – exploration of the dualities and polarities of life. You constantly struggle with the creative and destructive tensions between evil and good.
Those who remained awake by not compromising their humanity during the loudest part of war know the truth. Most of them are silent. They are silent behind their elegant wit, their sardonic shield and their generosity. They nod and distance themselves rather than tolerate the intolerable. They exchange brief snippets of what they know is the truth. They smile at foreign activists who often feel the need to give them a lesson. Apparently their faces don’t reveal what they’ve been through, because they didn’t sell their survivor status to Circus Maximus. They drown their pain at the bottom of a swimming pool. And they keep on picking the bullet riddled sequencing of their memory on different planes. Because once you’ve decided to survive, you ought to properly survive. You ought to nurture a connection in a geography of disconnections.
Once you’re expelled, once you’ve managed to escape, or once you no longer recognize your place of origin, the habitat of your roots, there is this notion, slowly reigning in, that you don’t figure and you won’t figure unless you fight war’s own force of gravity. You are born with a natural right to a place and when that place disappears you still have to hold on to your right for a sense of belonging. Even if it becomes –for it definitely will- a love and hate relationship, you still must hold onto that. This is what ties your personal, intimate and subjective memory to the collective one. Places after warfare destruction often look like ghosts. There is material evidence of life but with an absence of life itself. Soon the imported material with the slow metamorphosis of its people renders it unrecognizable. The archives of the present disappear. Your body having no access to that place, by not being allowed or able to physically return, or by being physically present but you no longer recognize it, you must ritualize even more the act of remembering the land and the language, in order to remain connected to the collective. Because once you start losing your relationship with the land, slowly you dissolve the relationship with its language. Once you start losing your language you slowly disengage from the land. Language enables you to position yourself and resettle your experience appropriately in the present of your landscape, so you wouldn’t be paraphrased in an exploitive parameter, or written out of the real story.
I was born to parents from different nationalities. Lebanon was already in a state of covert war. A couple of years later, the overt Israeli invasion and multiple civil wars erupted in my landscape. I was raised into many languages and cultures, in a city that was and still is in transit. I experienced twice the loss of a house from war during childhood so the sense of belonging never crystallized in me. Wherever I am, whichever country or city, I’m always in the longing for elsewhere rather than in the belonging. I am always dallying, longing, dallying, longing, wanting to go in, wanting to be in, but once in, I want out. I can feel home with a soulmate, when I’m swimming laps for hours and when I was living in Italy (but that’s another story). These are the spaces in which I have felt something that could resemble a sense of belonging. But if there is one thing that has been constant in my life, although manifested in different languages depending on the period, it is my writing and my tall pile of private notebooks. I have been writing since my early childhood. My mother taught me to read when I was three years old and since then I had always pencils in my pockets. Whenever we had to run for an improvised shelter I would insist to carry my journals with me. I was frenetically checking on the state of my heart, the acuity of my perception and the intensity of my imagination. Looking back now I realize that my writing was a political act in se since I was a child. I was engaging in the act of recording, remembering. I was revealing my potential that was constantly threatened and sometimes getting denied by the circumstances in my landscape. I was resisting war’s gravity.
A man is running in a grey street, foggy with warfare dust, holding in each hand a grocery bag, a surviving-war type of grocery. And my heart sinks because it is an open street with no walls to shield him from bullets. He is running, risking his life, to feed his family. I don’t know his name. I’ve never met him. But I know the type of cold sweat you go through when running in an open street foggy with warfare dust. I know him. I know his voice, the cough nested in his chest, his accent and the dark horses visiting his present nightmares. I know his current and past order of priorities. I know the type of olives, bread, yoghurt, tobacco, scents, rose ice cream, sesame sweets, Damascene white sheets, and other vital commodities necessary for that sense of normalcy he longs for. I know the kind of early dawn he yearns for, an early dawn promising marjoram, thyme, sage, mint, saffron, cinnamon and cumin for the day. I know his questions, and like him, I don’t have many answers. I know, because he is Syrian, because I am Lebanese, because I am who I am, because he is who he is. Because he will express grief, anger, love and awe by remembering Allah. Whether he is Muslim, Christian, Alawi, Druze, Ismaili, Jewish, or agnostic communist atheist Marxist, they will all say smallah smallah when appreciating beauty, hamdillah for gratitude, Allah yekhalleek for please, wallah for really or honestly (works same for an ironic oh really), Allah yehmeek for stay safe, Allah lay semhak for damn you, Allah yekhdak for to hell with you, and hamdillah ala salama for welcome back. Because Allah is in our native language, our daily language, from the day we were born, whether we are conscious of this baraka or not. Because he is Syrian, because I am Lebanese. Because the same person who whispered to me about the collective memory was praying for the historical Umayyad mosque in Aleppo to be spared, only a few days before it was damaged. I never met the man but I know him, because that man is connected to my collective memory. Because there is so much of Syria in Lebanon and there is so much of Lebanon in Syria, collective strata of light and darkness, darkness and light, that are present in my personal memory.
The ocean in my heart is still beating in a flux of urgency, with its water running deep, murmuring then shattering on the shores of Beirut before getting swallowed in its hijacked present. Eurydice and Orpheus are still swaying in a haunting pattern, between what could have been and what it has become. They are both trying not to look back, while Beirut looks back at them, all three sculpting a narrative of loss. All three of them are dallying in my heart, wanting to go in, to be in, but the in is still taken hostage by a state of fog. My collective memory is a deep well of tangled languages; maps and roots, echoing the dark drop plummeting down at the end of a rope and the piece of Italian sky reflected in the water. If you reach out for the bucket you can smell waterweed, sand, sea salt, pomegranates, cold sweat from running through fog, powder smoke, sea algae, figs and olives, dank Slavic moss, Arabic adrenaline, sulfur dioxide, warfare dust, burned wood blood and books, Lebanese jasmine and gardenia, Sicilian basil and orange blossoms, Roman caprifoglio, hot sweat, tears, chlorine and Parisian vetiver.
My way of being keeps on divorcing myself from the synthetic definitions that cannot touch my inner map. My identity is like the window glass of a car in winter. My writing is that genuine attempt of drawing maps on that pan window with the tip of my fingers. Sometimes I succeed in connecting longitudes with latitudes and sometimes I am only mapping a state of fog. This is where I start driving that car and leave, promising myself this time it’s forever, yet I keep looking back.Those who have gone through long journeys of war and wandering, write as they walk. Our writing often echoes that place where a collective memory, a personal memory, and dispatches of grief and love gather around a state of fog. The weight of our collective memory is supported by our innate sense to hope. And even in the absence of possibilities during this very tense present, I still write pursuing an effort for a collective love.