September 2009: The Rafic Hariri airport lies only a short distance from the heart of Beirut. This is an excellent thing when you have already traveled twenty hours to get there, spent an additional hour obtaining an entry visa at immigration, and meanwhile run all out of juice boxes for your frazzled children. Right away your taxi is weaving through wild traffic, ramshackle tower blocks whizzing by. You will glimpse balconies where lone figures lean over broken contours of stucco, and by the electric lights filtering through smoggy, sultry air, may intuit the color scheme of dirty yellows and tropical greens, palm trees bushed out among the densely stacked buildings.
Chamber of blossom, not a petal spilled,
Yesterday’s Japanese cherry
—You and I charmed inside the glow—
By evening had borne fruit:
A whole day in Beirut
—According to the radio,
The first since January—
With no one killed.
“Little Fallacy” opens James Merrill’s 1988 volume The Inner Room. I am hard-pressed to think of other American poets who wrote occasional poems registering the long civil war (c. 1975–1990), which was a staple of foreign coverage at the time the twenty-four-hour news cycle was emerging on cable tv. At my goodbye party back home, a friend had pressed into my hand a first edition of John Ash’s The Branching Stairs (1984), which also contained numerous references to Lebanon, among other Mediterranean vistas. In any case, these were two poets who had settled for meaningful periods of time in the region—Merrill in Greece and Ash in Cyprus and Turkey—so the war felt near to them. They felt near to me as I joined the ranks of English-speaking poets who had gravitated to the Mediterranean.
Except that I hadn’t really gravitated here. I had had little choice but to join my husband when he got a job offer to teach at the American University, and he had had little choice either. We were, more or less, global economic migrants; and I was to meet other faculty who had to pick up and move across the world—to a place that made family members blanch. With no official government (the prime minister-elect could not get agreement from all parties on his cabinet members) and tensions high, uniformed guards wielded machine guns on every block of Hamra, our West Beirut district.
Storefronts advertising money transfers—remittances to the Phillippines for only $8!—reminded me that our situation paled in comparison to the millions of economic migrants separated from families: housemaids and nannies and cab drivers and restaurant cooks. But I felt I had something in common with them that I didn’t have with the expat poets of yesteryear living on Fulbrights or trust funds, soaking up foreign adventures to color their next book. Had I had my druthers, I would have stayed put. And yet from the outside I looked to be in the enviable position, for a writer, of fulfilling my job description—which is more often than not finding opportunity in calamity.
I was trying out the idea that here I would not be a travel poet, but I might be a global poet whose autonomy was undermined by larger forces. Through the open window of the taxi, the greasy, sultry night air whipped at my weary head. I closed my eyes (nobody drives within the designated lanes). I opened them. We passed a gray-haired man on a scooter, motoring at a leisurely pace down the middle of the highway in his shirtsleeves, wearing a surgical mask.
On the palm-lined Corniche on a weekend evening, cruising cars will suddenly erupt in a chorus of beeps. It’s a mimetic surge, prompted by girls standing on the seats leaning out of windows, their hair flying.
On the promenade, a hubbub. Teenage boys breakdance; children bicycle; scooters and motorcycles make sudden detours out of the traffic jams and through the pedestrian throng. Fishermen lean their poles against the railing. Women in hijab sit with their men on deck chairs smoking narghiles, watching the snorkelers in the surf. Families shoot bottle rockets into the sea.
At a housewarming party in Ain Mreisseh—a neighborhood of tatty buildings that lies between the campus and downtown, where many expats live—I talk to another new faculty member whose disillusionment with Beirut is immediate. “It’s ugly,” he is saying. “It has no vibe.”
“Well,” I say cautiously, “it’s certainly not picturesque. But it’s got a vibe.”
“Really?” he says. “What is it? Describe this vibe.”
The vibe is “young.” The vibe is “groups of young people roaming Hamra Street and the Corniche and leaning out of car windows, shouting to one another.” The vibe is “everyone is related by only one or two degrees of separation . . .
“But you know,” I said, “I lived in Morocco for a year—”
“Oh, that must have been beautiful,” he said.
It was. The ironwork, the faience, the fountains and gardens. You looked up, and the ceilings were filigreed. You looked down, and the pavement was inlaid with geometric designs. “But the society was more insular, women weren’t as carefree. The cafes were packed with betrayed, unemployed twenty-something men. There was no joie de vivre.”
It seems unfair to blame Beirut for being ugly; it hasn’t fully recovered from the civil war. Every day I can see from my window the grayed-out, sooty hulk of the Holiday Inn, a former sniper’s nest that nobody has had the will to demolish. The East-West Beirut dividing line is rife with bullet-scarred buildings. I’ll take joie de vivre, in any case.
The next weekend we hire a taxi to take us to Byblos, farther up the Levantine coast. Here at last is the picturesque: a seaside fishing village with a quiet but pretty souk and laid-back cafes. The sun is roasting as we march through the ancient ruins sprawling around an omphalos: the oldest known temple to Astarte. What remains is a deep pit with a well at the bottom: the “king’s well,” which is said to have filled with the tears of Isis at the death of Osiris. We barely take any of it in: drained by the heat, we also have to be attentive to our young boys, lest a slip or lunge result in an inadvertent sacrifice to dormant gods.
The tears of Isis at the death of Osiris. The fragments of his body that she gathered became known as the alphabet.
No. But Byblos is the place where the first linear alphabet, prototype of our alphabet, developed; or where we have our oldest record of it. It is also one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities on earth. The stones have been repurposed for thousands of years. Layer after layer of civilization abides here where the shops sell fossils of fish found high in the mountains—evidence of forms of life older still.
I study the Phoenician alphabet. a evolved from an oxhead; d from a door; m from a water wave, o from an eye. b evolved from a house, and its letter name, beit, is still Arabic for house. r evolved from a head, and its letter name, res, is still the word for head. In fact, Hamra is located in “Ras Beirut”—the head of Beirut. Each letter of the alphabet has a secret life that comes to transparency. Mom—an eye rising between two waves. Dad—an ox’s head peering out between two doors.
For a while, the total strangeness of Beirut prods odd, fragmented memories to the forefront, unbidden flashbacks from all stages of my life. I am suddenly a character in an airport thriller, psyche at the breaking point from one too many reincarnations. There are signs that Beirut has a mystical quality that shakes things loose: my son’s teeth for instance. He’d been waiting for two years to lose his baby teeth and finally the four front teeth, almost at once, began to creak and wiggle. Well, it’s earthquake territory after all. And if I dream about teeth, they are loose letters, and if I dream about letters, they are set in lapidary lines in a jaw.
THE SHEEP'S EYE
November: We’re in the Qadisha Valley. The attenuated twilight befits this land of monasteries hewn out of rock, pocked with grottoes where men have holed up to fast and pray, or to escape persecution, or both. The hermitages of beloved saints remain intact, their miracles inscribed on placards. We have settled at a table in an outdoor cafe, my family and our acquaintance Miriam, a Maronite attorney. The cafe is set at the brink of a fast-flowing whitewater creek, so we shout over the roar as we attack our mezze. Puddles condense everywhere, in the depressions of the chairs and concrete floor. A general dampness prevails. The wild glade is green and silver and somewhat gold, too, with the autumn-touched grasses and poplars. A thick old root stock emerges from a break in the concrete and rises twenty feet to burst into grapes over an arbor on a second story. The cool air descends. Miriam bundles up; I take it as refreshment. Beirut has been suffocatingly hot through October.
It’s dispiriting, I wrote in my journal, to have everything reduce to sectarianism—even the colloquial Arabic of my language class is tainted, I learn. Ah, he must be Muslim, said Miriam’s mother as she listened to me recite the phrases he had taught us for greetings and farewells. “Some of that is more literary Arabic.” “We say mneha, not aal, for ‘I’m fine,’ and we don’t say bihatrak, we say au revoir.” Then Miriam characterized the concern with the purity of Arabic as “fanatic”: at bottom it is about the sanctity of the language the Koran is written in. Fanatic too, she thought, was the insistence of her English professor last year that she write e-mail in formal language, not texting abbreviations. Language is for communication, she insisted, so what’s the harm if “you are” turns into “u r”?
It’s wearying for me to stay interested in a tour of churches, and on top of that, to listen from the backseat as she gives us long disquisitions on politics. She points out the photos of her leaders—images of politicians are plastered across the landscape—and tells us who she hates. Bcharre is very beautiful, as is Ehden; the beauty though is just backdrop to her. She notices my interest in the autumn crocuses growing among the rocks and clay of a Maronite memorial park, but she says, “I am ignorant of nature,” pointing out instead the engravings of different patriarchs, toward whom I am completely indifferent.
My language teacher does not, in fact, give much away. Not at first. He is a dapper man in the old style: suits, ties, suspenders; spectacles on long gold chains. He had taught Lebanese Arabic to French diplomats for decades. A little aloof, a little grumpy, he snaps at me in the second meeting: “Miss Ange, do you know the difference between a noun and an adjective?”
“I want to make Arabists of all of you,” he declares. Yet a suspicion dawns on us students—half a dozen of us, none under thirty—that he is teaching us a rather antiquated dialect. At our insistence he accepts the more up-to-date Kifak? (“How’s it going?”) during our in-class dialogues. But other “common phrases” don’t check out. The copyright on our xeroxed primers is 1974. Are there no contemporary primers in Lebanese Arabic? Apparently, none as good. This one was developed at the Middle East Centre for Arab Studies in Shemlan, where, our teacher proudly informs us, he taught fifty years ago. It is a shock to realize he is in his seventies. Then he can’t help himself—we are packing up our things, class is over—and he mutters something about it being the famous “Spy School.” There is a twinkle in his eye, and when one of us snaps our fingers and asks if he taught Kim Philby, he gruffly sends on us on our way.
The weekend in the Qadisha Valley is full of intense visual beauty and intenser talk. This becomes a pattern: personal interactions quickly, casually, violently opening out into a maelstrom of politics and religion and history—recent, bloody history. In the preface of our language primers are a series of six “warnings.” The last one, attributed to a British ex-diplomat, goes: “There is not a sheep’s eye in the whole performance.” I ponder it like a koan.
“I went to a great jazz club,” my husband began, recounting his night on the town, “but there were three people in the audience.” A well-known musician, driven from New York because of the expense, now lived in Thessaloniki, and the owner of this new Beirut jazz club brought him over for a three-week gig. But it was Ramadan, and business was almost nonexistent. “Then the power cut out at midnight and the only instruments that could still play were the sax, the piano, and the drums. So they just went on playing in the dark. It was amazing.”
Living on campus, we’re mostly sheltered from the brownouts. My friends in Ain Mreisseh spend three hours per evening in candlelight, and they tell me that’s nothing—in some towns, the power goes out for six, twelve hours a day. Sometimes our generators don’t kick in right away and we sit in the dark for a few minutes—usually while I’m putting the last touches on dinner at 6:00 pm. The lights go out and the view out the window comes into sharp focus: the curve of the coastline rising up into mountains set with blazing diamantine lights, the whole of Beirut stretching to the east and north. At such times it feels like a gift in the midst of the pre-dinner hubbub, this minute or two at standstill.
The tangle of power lines that crisscross the streets (and that occasionally fall, hanging in midair to invite some small child’s hand) come from the private generators Beirutis must fall back on to keep their businesses going. I wake up in the small hours clutching at air, shunning immediately the tatters of a desperate dream. Between the roar of the sea outside my window, the crumbling balconies, the wild traffic, and these wires, I am constantly swallowing my fear. The machine guns, the uniforms, strange explosions in the night—people assure us these are just the fireworks on the Corniche—are background to the constant rumor-mongering among the Lebanese that another conflict is “due.” One night I am awakened by an indescribable noise, not an explosion but an ear-aching infra-bass sound, like a dense metal wire reverberating in my skull. It might have been a fleet of helicopters flying low, or some convoy of recherche military vehicles outside our building.
Sounds can trick—or trip—you. To an adult Western ear, some Arabic phonemes don’t even reach the threshold of perception. In class, I repeatedly mispronounce a word and my teacher warns me that I’ve just called him a midget. But I can barely hear the difference in H-sounds that he can. One friend of mine stopped calling her colleague by name after being told that her American accent rendered it something close to the word for shit.
Even Westerners who know Arabic come up against a wall of English. Ask for something in Arabic, you will get a reply in English. Continue the conversation in Arabic, and be answered again in English. Listen to the heavily-accented comedy of linguistic chiasmus: it starts to seem freighted with intention. The curtain of Arabic does not want to be sheer.
Poetry is treasured here. The Arabic version of American Idol is a televised poetry slam, Million’s Poet, watched around the world. I meet a woman at a party who tells me that when she picked up an elderly hitchhiker in the mountains the other week, he offered to repay her kindness with a poem, improvised on the spot. When I first arrive at the American University, I have high hopes of sitting in on a class about the poets of the Jahiliyya—the pre-Islamic classical poetry. But of course, it is in Arabic, so my plan is dashed. A poetry reading of Lebanese poets on campus is in—duh—Arabic. My little colloquial Arabic class can’t catch me up fast enough. The ubiquity of English has somehow blinded me to the fact that the one facet of the culture with which I could passionately engage—the only raison d’etre for my living in Beirut at all—eludes me entirely. Of course it must be this way. Poetry is the last, drawn-out secret of a place. Its splendor might blaze like the sun in Arabic, but I’m here rummaging for a candle in a brownout.
February. It is the strangest thing: I’m walking on campus, past the orange trees that I had first mistaken for lime trees when I arrived in September, and I smell something indescribably sweet and otherworldly. Little white blossoms have emerged on branches that—was it four weeks ago, or six?—had recently borne clutches of mildewing fruit. The next week, in downtown Beirut I see a cherry tree in bloom. Along a dirt path on a bit of terraced hillside, I find nasturtium and Queen Anne’s lace. It’s been an unusually warm winter by all accounts: now I am sitting behind the chemistry building, on an old red-painted wood chipper, among a grove of cypresses, gazing at a shady slope covered with cyclamen flowers.
My eyes are wandering. I have in hand an essay by the Croatian writer Dubravka Ugresic, “What Is European About European Literature?” She writes:
What are the Dutch to do, indeed, with Moses Isegawa, an African writer who lives in Holland and writes in English? What are they to do with me? I live in Amsterdam, yet I do not write in Dutch. What are the Croats to do with me? I write in Croatian, but . . . I come home only for the Christmas holidays. . . . What are the French to do with an Arab writer who has undertaken a new version of In Search of Lost Time, or the Germans with a Turkish writer who is writing a new The Sorrows of Young Werther?
I am supposed to be thinking about this essay, in which I am introduced to the concept of “transnational literature,” “paranational communities,” and “deterritorialized literature.” But I am drawn back to looking, and thinking about the new life springing underfoot—the objective truth of the cyclamen, whose beak-like flowers are white flushed with a color that recalls the murex purple of the famous Phoenician dye—displayed, in the museums here, on faded-looking scarves in glass cases.
It’s because I miss my garden back home that I’m distracted, sorrowful. The scholar Robert Pogue Harrison makes the point that Odysseus cannot be happy on Nausicaa’s paradisical isle because we are literally made to care and cultivate; we cannot stand idleness or merely given beauty for very long. There is no reason for me to be sad, sitting on this wood shredder, among the cypresses, in full view of the peacock-blue Mediterranean. No reason to be sad except that all this borrowed beauty and security mean I never get to dirty my hands. And the novelists, who step over the breach of national identity with the stride of the giant Orion, cannot help me. Until such time as poetry can be hydroponically grown, it will require roots in territorialized soil, that is, language. (Clear as mud!) Maybe “global poet” is always and everywhere an oxymoron.
That night, in the middle of class one evening, my mind makes an unbidden leap. My teacher has just told us that the word for university, like the word for mosque, comes from the root for “gathering.” My cochlear memory is stirred—I hear in “university,” jaami9a, the djemaa of the Djemaa el Fna, the square in Marrakesh whose name means gathering or assembly of the dead. It was infernally hot there in July 1999; the glow of peach- and rose-colored walls seemed a gauge of the sun’s intensity. It all comes back to me in one great shake: the juice vendors with their pyramids of fruit; the cobras; the macaques; the merchants presiding over bizarreries: coffee cans full of tarantulas, gazelle skulls, ostrich eggs. When the sun set, clouds of smoke began rising from the grills—chickens, sheeps’ brains—along with steam from soup cauldrons. Storytellers collected audiences around them; circles of musicians, dancers, magicians formed and dissolved and reformed. It was really like that. And now I think it is the same word as for “university,” and conversely, I think of this university as populous with storytellers and magicians and merchants of old bones, masquerading as proper professors. It’s a quintessentially lyrical interchange at the gong of a word, a word that means gathering, as poems are gatherings.
But when I ask my teacher if the words are the same—the Moghrebi djemaa, the classical jaami9a, he looks puzzled. He has never heard of the Djemaa el Fna. Perhaps I am pronouncing it wrong? Awkwardly, I rummage around for a different pronunciation, but it still doesn’t register.
Also that night we finally, perhaps impertinently, come out and ask our teacher if he is Muslim. We tell him what several of us have been told—that being such a stickler for Arabic must mean he is of the Mohammedan persuasion. He confesses that he is Maronite Catholic, actually, and, seeming neither amused nor unamused, remarks only, “It’s a good idea, in this country, to keep people guessing.”