Beirut’s Just a Place: Robin Moger Translates “Beirut Shi Mahal” (An Extract)

“A sea breeze bearing the sound of a car as it passes down the Corniche: enough to make you feel you knew these roads once, before the wars, before the city changed and became what it came to be.”

Rabie Jaber

 

The plane still pitching forward like a bullet as my head rattles and jars to words I once composed on another journey: “Let the days go by, just set your heart on the nearest table and wait.” It’s not the landing that scares me so much as this wild careen across the tarmac, as though the danger’s only real to me when it submits to gravity.

Years since I’ve returned to Cairo this way.

“Not a drop of rain fell tonight. To go away with no goodbyes: I’ve no regrets.”

In the passport queue I remember when these lines had come to me: in transit between Egypt and England, a university student, miserable most of the time, my life like a dream, transient and insubstantial against the solid reality of airports. Not poems I had expended any great time on, and maybe I’d never have thought of them again had they not rattled back into my head on the runway. Mind you, though: when they were published, several people had told me they were the strongest thing I’d written. It was only by (almost) pure chance that they had been published at all, and in Beirut, from where I’m returning.

No response to my greeting from the customs officer at his window and I’m hunched over the conveyor belt, waiting in agony for my bags. An agonising need to piss. This was one of the most exhausting trips I’ve ever taken, but it had certainly had its uses.

Has mother sent a man to wait for me among the drivers with their signs?


 

“And I relish the fear which seeps through my body when I miss my way.”

Not this time. This time, I know my way. This trip is a response to a specific invitation: it answers a suggestion by S that I need to see the cities of the Mashriq. And to take a break from the newspaper. Then there’s the (unconfessed) desire to test out the possibility of a new life. Is it possible? I already know (something of) the language and have decided to go against my nature and listen quietly and patiently to the inevitably detailed accounts of Civil War history and Subsequent Developments. Nor is it really the case that I “relish fear”; maybe I don’t feel fear at all. But it is true that the space occupied by my body is surrounded by something like loss, like being lost. I haven’t crossed an Egyptian border for years. Haven’t had to present a passport or remember to carry my papers on my person or stand in a line to a window behind which sits an officer, waiting.

I had made it through security and surrendered my luggage, and almost everyone I’d encountered had referred to me respectfully as basha (all thanks to the occupation listed in my passport: Journalist, Al Ahram), but even so: soon as I reached departures there was a sudden stab of terror. No way out now. I was going to take off in a Lebanese plane and land in a city I’d never visited before. What if S wasn’t there? What would I do?

The airport looked recently redone. I recall a frantic hunt for a free seat, turning my ire on the architects responsible for the refit: another private contractor on the make… There was nowhere to sit and no one to talk to. And though I heard the glances of strangers as whispers in my head—“Haven’t we…? Don’t I know you?”—at the last moment an instinctive dread would close us off from one another.

Sometimes that’s for the best. In airports we peer about like lovers, terrified of rejection, or like former accomplices in crime, thrown awkwardly together again years after the deed’s been done. Careful not to meet anyone’s gaze, I call a colleague, an eighteen year-old divorcee in Medinat Nasr. Then I call my lover, a Beiruti in New York.

I call my mother.

I call my friend, the Islamist film director.

I call S.

I call Rashed, in France: “Just listen, okay? I’m flying to Beirut.”

It’s morning, April 13th, 2005.

The smoking area is like a prison cell, almost completely bare. The same face replicated around the room. We are nearly all Egyptian males, our disgust at the new smoking restrictions worn as scowls. There’s an unnerving absence of the usual chaos, a sinister minimalism. A bald man in a fuchsia shirt is hunched over in one corner of the room. His voice is thick, rough. A golds chain dangles from his neck. He squats down. He tells us that he’ll get the air purifier working again. I flee the room and make for the vast plate windows where a 3D neon advert slowly spins and my only companion is a slick businessman making interminable calls on his mobile phone. I can’t phone and smoke at the same time, the same way I can’t drink tea and smoke or piss and smoke. I check the signal’s strong enough and I dial every number I have saved. I feel desperate. Their voices soothe me; I’m too weak to speak.

I retrace my steps to the smoking room. There’s a sense of belonging that unites us in here, all members of the same dwindling tribe. We come and we go and we stay the same. A foolish sentimentality pushes us through that prick of social dread into nods and smiles. Part of me takes comfort in their company.


This whole Lebanon thing has me hooked. Everyone agrees: it’s complicated. I’ve read Beirut, Beirut by Sonallah Ibrahim; I didn’t understand a thing. It made no difference that I wanted to understand. Things only changed when I made friends out there, and they sent me books and documentaries. My colleagues at Al Ahram Weekly massage the news till it fits their mould. The unspoken consensus is that Israel and America are evil (as are all those who sympathise with them), whereas the Arabs…? Decent! But deceived

The last event I made a point of following in detail was Hizbollah’s liberation of southern Lebanon. In truth, it didn’t feel that Israel’s retreat was much more than a manoeuvre within its low-level conflict with Syria. That’s what the Lebanese told me. The Southern Front: the Resistance only engaged with three settlements, and it was a light touch even then. And just as Hizbollah’s liberation of the Shabaa Farms is designed to give them an excuse to hold on to the arms that other factions are letting go, so the patriotism of their recent conflict in the south is entirely confected.

Some Lebanese say Nasrallah is just a Syrian pawn—“You could say he’s an agent, sure…”—and though none of these thoughts occurred to me at the time, still: the so-called “victory” didn’t make political Islam feel any less repellent.

But then I’d turned to news from Palestine and Iraq and stopped paying attention.

So. A few weeks ago, Rafic Hariri was assassinated. All I know about him is that he is—he was—a wealthy businessman who’d been prime minister more than once, but it’s made S deeply anxious; the series of bombings in the city’s Christian neighbourhoods only more so. People are talking about war breaking out again.

The day I arrive the city is in celebration. It’s April 13th, the thirtieth anniversary of the first outbreak of hostilities.

Shouldn’t they be in mourning?

And why are the Lebanese so insistent—counter to the prevailing wisdom of my colleagues back at the office—that the Syrian government’s behind it? Now I am aware that the Syrian army’s been involved in running the country since 1976, a source of distress to citizens across the sectarian spectrum, but aren’t there good security-based arguments for their presence here? At least since 1989, say? And is rejecting Syria-in-Lebanon somehow inconsistent with principled opposition to Bush’s anti-Syrian campaign following his occupation of Iraq? And, and… I mean, it’s a lot. Wouldn’t it be better not to know?

But then, just like that, this whole Lebanon thing has me hooked. I’m so glad I’ll be there for the April 13th anniversary, so pleased I answered S’s call, so happy that at last I’m going to find out what Beirut means. The face of the poet-journalist I’ve never met but whom I call a friend. Ziad Rahbani’s tunes. The Mediterranean’s far shore. Manqousha with zaatar for breakfast.


Of course, none of this is on my mind as I get ready to board: gates and doors. A few weeks ago in Cairo a Lebanese filmmaker had told me I had “the Ain Helwa look”. Not so much Palestinian refugee chic, I was to learn, as poverty and crime. Was he wrong?

And once over the fear and trembling that afflicts me in airports there’s the opportunity to inspect another alternative Arabness for me to inhabit. The inner me, this one, I feel. Yes, this one has potential. The officer’s uniform is a welcome distraction from the overly-familiar humidity and the taxis in their ranks. All Mercedes, no exceptions. Nothing out of the ordinary, in fact, except the cypress trees and a population-wide ability to speak in phrases I’d only ever read before:

Ba’d for “yet” then iyah for “with” then darak for “national guard”. Car is sayyara here (as on the page) and where Egypt has its catch-all aywa, its “yeah”, here they answer with formal precision: na’m or bala—“indeed” or “indeed not”. With time, I’d come to read the cultural differences embodied in these usages. You don’t “go out” at night, you “show”. Procuring is “securing”. To die is (always) to be martyred; if you oblige me you honour my eye; “experiment” means no more than “try”. A butcher is a fleshman, a slaughterhouse is a skinnery, and zift, freed of its dark gravities, does not mean “bad” but “tarmac”. Traffic is flow. The crowd is a crush.

To spread your legs is innocent: to stride.

“Because the words I let fall are the t at the end of Beirut…”

Rayes Bek

My whole first day here feeling parts of me unfurling. The women showing something of their bodies in the street, someone sampling coffee beans in a cafe before placing their order, the taxi driver waiting to hear where you’re going before driving off, and (though this is subjective; just an impression) newspapers actually offering news. Employees are… employed to work! You can leave the house to have fun… and have fun! Like I’ve stepped out of a movie I was living into reality, only to find that reality is in still in Arabic. (In Cairo, Nabil Tag used to say, things look the way they’re meant to be. It strikes me that here, no matter how inconsequential they seem—trivial even—things are what they are.) You can say mara for “woman” without sounding crass or gross. You can curse your friend’s deity without being accused of blasphemy. You can work as a waiter or a chauffeur without expecting to be clouted across your nape. Should you find yourself part of a large gathering, somewhere in some public space, you won’t find yourself surrounded by an even larger contingent of Central Security troops.


 

Her stories started at the airport carpark, and now we’re here. From the terrace of the ninth-floor apartment, the Corniche is deeper and broader than the sea itself. I look out over the rooftops, mountain to the right. Sweet sunshine and sea salt in the breeze. The heat I can take, then the tiredness comes down and overwhelms me. And it feels unimprovable, sitting up here, washed with tiredness, over our Cafe Younes coffee, but S has no sooner finished telling me about the bus crash in Ain Rumana than it’s “time for us go”.

It will me ten days to work out why this happens here, this abrupt “time to go”. Like most of the population around me, I feel, S is simply made this way: it would never occur to her that if she forgot “time to go”, this time would never come. I traipse after her, wings clipped. Or rather, not so much clipped as curtailed: only able to spread and beat in her airspace.

But it feels good anyway, her airspace or not, to flutter down on this shoreline like a dusty crow from Ain Helwa, a virtual Palestinian whose behaviour, according to those around me, is “Shi’a wild”. Black as night, they call me. I’m akhwat: out of my mind. I’m sharshouh: vulgar. Anything, in fact, but the fact of me: an unremarkable and parochial Egyptian with no good reason to venture out of Doqqi. And though my Egyptianness will hurt me here—will do so repeatedly—I also know that I am about to meet myself, to get to know me.

Ras Beirut is built like layers of Meccano. The road we’re on rises and falls, loops round, is blocked. After we’ve walked for a while, leaving the Corniche behind us, the feeling grows that things are hiding here, one inside another, as though a dozen cities have been raised and levelled inside a month and their remains are invisible but only just invisible: an eyelid’s flicker behind the present capital’s facades.

There’s no wast al balad here, no Arabic city centre. We head instead for an English “Downtown”, and as as we walk along, old men on their doorsteps point our way like kids in Cairo’s poor quarters. On the main road we run straight into some sort of fair, an alfresco exhibition hall of improvised stalls selling slogans: patriotism in the form of imported goods that commodify Lebanese pride. Pens and coffee cups, little plastic cedars, cheap print-out posters, postcards, flags all shapes and sizes. “Fuck this.” Bodies are displayed with an intentionality that transcends mere taboo-breaking. There’s an awareness of the body here that’s a world away from Europe, though everything else is doing its utmost to convince you that Europe’s where you are.

Approaching the pedestrianised zone created by Hariri.

Walking here will make me feel like I’m on set, shooting an advertisement. Ducking round the back of Sahat Al Burj on a solo jaunt through the Roman ruins, I will try to remember the name of the contractor which carried out the work (that’s it: Solidere) and will discover for myself what Egyptian friends have told me before—something in Beirut makes you feel inferior. (A Nubian friend says that the culture shock he expected to encounter in Spain and England, and which never materialised, was a vast and impassable obstacle in his efforts to connect with Beirut. For the first time, he said, he felt “like a black”). Like you’re constantly wrestling with forces greater than your own. Everyone watching everyone else over Lebanese flag tablecloths. Restaurants are offering April 13th discounts. Even the billboards pushing cosmetics have copy about the “homeland”. Everyone promoting their goods with a crudity concealed beneath a bourgeois priggishness I’ve spent a lifetime on the run from without realising it’s everywhere. Ahead of me.

It never occurred to me that you could knife-and-fork a sandwich.

I will feel like one more clothes dummy among millions, and nowhere more so in Sahat Al Nejma where the clock tower stands.

A forest of signs, banners and music everywhere, the blare of horns. The national anthem remixed a hundred different ways: rock, techno, hip-hop. A marathon has just set off from a red tent over there, and they’re handing out plastic cups of neon-blue sports drink. S is trying to grin, is grimacing, is fretting at the way I drift through the traffic. The flag. Hariri’s face. “The truth: For Lebanon’s sake!”

Saying it as I see it (out loud) alarms her.

And with time I will come to feel that I really am an unremarkable and parochial Egyptian. Like, I’ve never watched the films of Elia Suleiman; the name Frangieh means nothing to me. Where in the name of Omar Ibn Al Khattab has my Arabness been hiding? And for so long, too. Kiss ikhteha, as the Lebanese say, which is to say, “Its sister’s cunt”, which is to say: Fuck it. There’s this assumption that it matters that you care about these sister countries. That you have to. Either you do or you are “hollow bourgeoisie”. As though the whole of Beirut isn’t just a silver bangle on the ankle of the region’s bourgeoisie.

I look about me, an idiot agape. Bare flesh and dissolution. A young woman approaches me smiling, decolletage a white glow. Minutes ago I’d been staring at her from behind. Her jeans, then the sweetest arse in the Middle East. My gaze slides up from her face to a Lebanese flag overhead, to an aircraft passing worryingly low overhead, to another flag, to flags strung on a string. A silvery cloud the shape of a cedar. I sense the girl’s hand held out towards my waist, and I steel myself—Allahu Akbar—and look down. She’s pulled a lollipop from her bag and is holding it out to me, the same smile on her face. She tells me something—today, the concert band of the Butchers’ Union has raised more than one thousand dollars—and then she’s moved on. All of sudden it feels like I’m in America, like I’m watching the NBA.

Let me count the ways this love of country speaks itself. It’s stunning. The whole length of the road, little gatherings clot and scatter. It’s stunning and it’s disgusting. It’s easy to feel strung out: everything should have meaning in the press of these crowds, and nothing has meaning.

We cross the old Green Line as the day sips on a final cigarette. The clouds are bodies and ships. In the distance, the national guard and the army. A great joy jolts through me.


 

“Okay,” I tell S, “So, earlier I thought I knew where I was…”—the sun is dying behind the Martyrs’ Monument— “…but I don’t understand anything.” She grabs my arm and pull me with her, speeding up. “Eh?”  The national anthem’s so loud she hasn’t heard me. “Nothing,”  I tell her, saying it the Lebanese way for the first time: wala shi. Trying it out.

Far away the mountain shimmers.

“Come on,” she says, and then we’re among them, inside a fenced rectangle around the monument where the young protestors have pitched their tents. They’ve been here since the assassination, representatives of a range of sects and parties, partisan creeds and incompatibilities cheek-to-cheek. They don’t seem to care much about “understanding the other”. S is jumpy. Lebanon for all? About all they have in common is the demand that Syria withdraw and elections be held, without this implying the existence of any one party capable of winning said elections and actually governing the country. Several times I am going to have people explain the political system here to me in these terms. Sectarian loyalties, political ideologies and a democracy in pieces, stirred together and shaped by regional powers. Overnight, they would disappear, the Syrian soldiers and unlicensed labourers from the streets, the indigent from their squats in shells of buildings—some bombed, some unfinished. Under cover of darkness, the portraits of Bashar and statues of Basil (still on horseback, Syrian style) would vanish from the Palestinian camps. But no one seemed to give any thought to creating a plan that might prevent conflict. Just this patriotic bazaar, these demands for “the truth”, this affection for a Saudi billionaire who wasn’t even in charge when he was murdered. “Comrade!”  The sheer pressure of this desire for “independence” effaces all thought of conflict-resolution.

S is jumpy, then, her hand in mine as we push on. There are other rectangular encampments, around the tomb and in the small square to the east. Graffiti on the walls. They’re selling art. There’s a farmers’ market. T-shirts. And I still don’t understand just what (with the possible exception of Emile Lahoud) they are against. As night comes down we buy postcards that are headshots of the missing. The cold enters my bones. Off to one side stand the relatives of the abducted and disappeared. We buy a T-shirt that reads Remember lest you forget in Lebanese dialect; even as I pull it on I’m working out how to parse the sentence.

The rough ground lit by low sun, people assembling. The square is taking on an epic quality. The statue gazes up at a half-moon. “Like this or like this?” Sky an impossible blue. Where does it come from, this sudden longing to weep? On the way to Sahat Al Nejma we are temporarily separated. Gravel gleams in the orange light. The flag fluttering overhead here is different, but the dabka draws me in. (Something in the faces here remind me of that photograph of the Phalangist serenade: the girl playing a guitar, the corpses underfoot, the fighters laughing). I melt into the scene; the violence latent in the movement cannot check my tears, the melody is the missing part of my Arabness returning, and until S returns to my side and tells me, it doesn’t occur to me that the cedar in its circle on a white background beneath it the words “The Lebanese Forces” might signify anything in particular. The flag at my face, the corner flicking my eyebrow. S points out a group of women in hijab, watching us with them.

Blue turns to black; with the night comes upheaval: the missing part of my Arabness turns out to be a traitor who helped the Israelis spill Arab blood. Lebanese but not Arab. And it loathes the likes of me: there’s no place for my legs in this dabka; the colour of my skin is enough to keep me outside the circle. “What do think would happen if I set fire to their flag?” The lighter in my hand. I rummage in my pocket for the cigarettes. “You’d be killed…”—her voice rising—“…where you stand.”

One of them’s got another of them on his shoulders, carrying him around like a cavalry commander. Instinctively, I back off towards the women in hijab.


 

First night in Beirut. Will this desire to weep ever leave me? With time it will blend into a kind of curiosity, and will stay like that, unrealised. Tears as stubborn as the fighters in the camps, refusing to break and flee though the shelling doesn’t let off for an instant: not in the company of the old women from Iran, on pilgrimage to Syria, weeping at a shrine to Imam Hussein (we’d crossed the border right after the withdrawal, slipping into Syria like war criminals), not at the tomb of Sheikh Mohieddin (not even when I recited the lines that I knew off by heart, “All that you own is from Him, and by it you have veiled Him from your gaze; look then to Him and not to the veil”—not a tear), and not in the Petit Paris of Achrafieh (where posters paste St. Bashir over the walls)—not even with my arms held cruciform inside the Greek orthodox cathedral by the Lebanese parliament buildings (just to feel normal again after exiting the Virgin Megastore, peak Solidere strangeness: but why do I prefer its Byzantine architecture over that of the Al Omari Mosque?). None of it made me cry. I wonder what it is about these tears, what holds them in. Maybe having S as my model of how this city works, perpetually lost in a blizzard of gifts and dinner dates. Perhaps it’s being so far—so unexpectedly—from everything I know and own. Or: all these emotions pressed into the service of some new and elusive project. I need to hold something in my hand. Some piece of proof. Anything at all. At night, I sprawl in my room in the Mayflower Hotel between Hamra and Bliss Street. Who the fuck thinks to call a street bliss? I writhe around the bed, waiting for the tears to come. I drift off to the bathroom and drift back. Nothing. Open my notebook and give the pen a wink. The page blank, and the sounds of the street confused and far off. Loneliness as waves. Where is S?  Since when? Why? Everything matters so much, and time matters most of all.

Between sleeping visions and bleak insomnia the picture gradually clears: for all its urbanity (compared with Egypt, at least) this city shouldn’t be possible. No city should be, with this hysterical density of communities, this forest of networks, this weight of informational exchange. Sex takes on mythic dimensions, the same with the rituals of eating and clothes. Everything is ruled by the logic of being on show, from sharing your feelings to crisis management. All that’s left of tenderness is the phrase toqburni, “bury me”. I love you so much I don’t want to outlive you. Delight finds itself thinned down to “cute!” and “come now” is as strong as most objections get. More important to seem polite than feel affection. And what kind of city is this small? You hardly need a car to cross the whole metropolis, to get from Sahat Al Burj to the furthest point in Achrafieh and back again. You can bid a face farewell in Al Rawda Cafe and head over to Lina’s only to find the same face looking up as you walk in. What kind of population is so unfamiliar with any kind of unity that they’ve become convinced that nothing matters, not time, not other people’s feeling, not…

I fall asleep.

In the morning I walk back to the American University. Again not crying. Full of enthusiasm for people and places, under the spell of an Arabness which has held me since I walked out through the airport entrance, and all the while curiosity beating my body like a rug, beating it clean.

 

 

(From Beirut Shi Mahal by Youssef Rakha)