Part II published on THE MANTLE
For A.F. & E.M.
"Death = being completely inside one's head. Life = the world." -Susan Sontag, Journals 1964-1980
"Are you hungry?" She asked me when we returned from the valley, and we sat at Le Cigale, on the street named after Charles Malik, whom I so fervently admired once, wrongly so. I stared into the transparent shelves, loaded with heavy trays of what seemed all postcards from another time - croissants, eclairs, beignets, mille-feuilles, tartes, brioches, madeleines, palmiers, and exuberant chocolate cakes. My eyes had fallen in love, and I inspected each and every detail inside the little paper holders; my disgust however was ineluctible, and the porous flavor of sweet seemed absurdly unnatural and just too comforting. I didn't want any of that. But I watched her, and I think she wasn't so interested in eating the cake, as much as in drawing the inner wombs and layers with that carbon pen. I still remember her like that: The day when she arrived from Egypt, with this very large suitcase, I was surprised to find out she had brought nothing in it but that carbon pen. Not even a sketchbook, because she used to tear off large cuts from her skin and draw upon them.
"This is Lebanon", I told her that day, and pointed to a garbage bin that had a semi-naked woman on it, her body half littered or half plastered with yellow stickers imported from the Kingdom of God, and crossed with printed riffles. So different it was then in Achrafieh, after the particularly long journey, and I was so starved, so consumed by daytime insomnia - the only cure to daydreaming; I spent the whole time tilting my head back, trying to catch another glimpse of the lavender field, and I somehow entertained the idea that it was the last time I was to see him, and the entire Bekaa. There was a foreboding chaos in my mind, and it didn't have to do with having lost the friend found out of the scandalous force of other centuries but rather with reckless impatience, with not tolerating one single moment of silence. St. Augustine came to mind again: "None will doubt that the only causes of fear are either loss of what we love and have gained, or failure to gain what we love and have hoped for."
The German professor explained it to me once: "The trouble with human happiness is that it is constantly beset by fear. It is not the lack of possessing but the safety of possession that is at stake". And that is why St. Augustine loathed both the lovers of man and the lovers of the world, those living out of craving rather than grace. But isn't the love of God just as intimately unhappy? I wondered. It was like that little drawing of Mouna Bassili Sehnaoui that I had seen once at her studio: The party at the skirts of Beirut with the two women sipping champagne and the gunman hiding in the bushes, finished five years before the war. Somebody told me once a story that Mouna drew it after a conversation with a foreign diplomat, who couldn't quite believe that the Lebanese were going on about their parties and soirees while the ticking bomb of the war was already in full motion. That is how I felt about the journey from the square, as if I were not to see it again, as if it had been the last dance before I were forgotten. Engraved in my own book.
Why did I feel always this enormous anxiety? Why did I always fear that I was going to lose their presence if their epiphany didn't materialize at my compass? Perhaps the present had something to do with it. Whoever was born during the war knew full well that we had lost the right to both the past and the future, and that our temporary truce could end any day now. We could be alive only for the day, only for the hour, everything is to be had, to be consumed, to be exhausted, here and now. There's no time for promises. There's no time for faith. There's no time for time. Eman always knew this, and though she never asked, I knew that she could see what I was looking for every time I tilted my head backwards, and suddenly her carbon pen bled purple blotches, as a reminder of what at the square had been a promise, from which I had excluded myself in the tireless anxiety of fear of loss. There we were, in the middle of Achrafieh, trying to find my way back from the valley. So squalid it all seemed, without the statue, without the promise: It was now Sassine Square.
How easily recognizable had been the tall and slender American woman, with that long mane of dark hair and a shock of white at the temple. "But I couldn’t again be just a witness: that is, meet and visit, tremble with fear, feel brave, feel depressed, have heartbreaking conversations, grow ever more indignant, lose weight. If I went back, it would be to pitch in and do something", she said at first. Eman and I wondered then what we had lost in this city; was this pornography of war or something like that? Why return here? I told Susan about my friend from other times, from other centuries, back at the square, his silence... She stood impassive and defiant, as if with certain cruelty, and didn't utter a word. Nothing that could comfort or relieve. Simply staring. She quickly changed the topic and continued speaking: “People ask me if Sarajevo ever seemed to me unreal while I was there. The truth is, since I’ve started going to Sarajevo – this winter I plan to return to direct the Cherry Orchard with Nada as Madame Ranevsky and Velibor as Lopakhin – it seems the most real place in the world.”
Eman’s curiosity about Sarajevo tempted her into an obvious question, “Weren’t you afraid to go?” and with serenity she answered: “Anyone who isn’t afraid is crazy”. And we were afraid too. We thought about Mohammed, that Syrian man about whom we had heard, who had been an English literature student in Iblid, whose apartment and entire collection of books had been set on fire, by the same army that planted landmines all over the Bekaa and that probably would keep the lavender fields for me as a fragment of a futile and yet vivid imagination, even if my friend were to return after all. And inside the besieged city, he’s offering Syrians a glimmer of hope, directing Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot” like Susan had done back in 1993, during the Siege of Sarajevo. She told us: “Culture, serious culture from anywhere, is an expression of human dignity – which is what people in Sarajevo feel they have lost, even when they know themselves to be brave, or stoical or angry. For they also know themselves to be terminally weak: waiting, hoping, not wanting to hope, knowing that they aren’t going to be saved.”
“You know, we’re waiting for Godot”, said the Syrian to a journalist amidst laughter, when asked about his play. And how can Godot be about hope, Eman and I thought. How can waiting be about hope? And after all, I was myself waiting, and she was waiting with me, armed with nothing but a carbon pen. And Susan told us about the Godot that the Syrians were waiting: “Until the Bosnian genocide, one might have thought – this was indeed the conviction of many of the best reporters there, like Roy Guttmann of Newsday and John Burns of the New York Times – that if the story could be gotten out, the world would do something. The coverage of the genocide in Bosnia ended that illusion.” Then it was night, and I thought about a sad Joyce in Trieste, close to Verona and to Rome, where Ingeborg Bachmann had ended her life when she fell asleep in the middle of smoking a cigarette and set her apartment on fire, disproving Mary McCarthy’s thesis from her first novel, that no one would commit suicide in the middle of smoking a cigarette.
Eman read that night to me from a book of philosophy that had not been burnt yet: “We are mortals, you and I. There is only my dying and your dying and nothing beyond. You will die and there is nothing beyond. I shall slowly disappear until my heart stops its soft padding against the lining of my chest. Until then, the drive to speak continues, incessantly. Until then, we carry on. After that there is nothing.” Susan listened carefully, and imagined Mohammed, the Syrian, fantasized with his opening night of “Waiting for God” and was reminded of her own: “And I think it was the end of that performance – on Wednesday, August 18th at 2:00 PM – during the long tragic silence of the Vladimirs and Estragons which follows the messenger’s announcement that Mr. Godot isn’t coming today, but will surely come tomorrow, that my eyes began to sting with tears. Velibor was crying too. No one in the audience made a sound. The only sounds were those coming from outside the theater: a UN APC thundering down the street and the crack of sniper fire.”
After Susan left, to take a plane to another country after seeing Beirut with us only for a few hours, we took to Damascus Road, to wait for Adam, maybe he isn’t coming today, but maybe he’s coming tomorrow, like Godot. I told Eman, “It seems to me as if all wars everywhere look the same”. She kept silent, we kept watch over the wait, and across us the silence and a poster that read: “See you in Beirut, whatever happens.”