At the Square I

The Arts Religion


For A. Fakhreddine...


"Promises are the uniquely human way of ordering the future, making it predictable and reliable to the extent that this is humanly possible" -Hannah Arendt


The war had ended but it was still summer. It was such a different morning, prosperous, defiant, even opulent with happiness. The fifty something kilometers along Damascus Road were very tense, fraught with disbelief. There was still a stench of burnt asphalt and tar, almost invisible after Bhamdoun, when you passed the ruins of the abandoned synagogue; it was like a signpost from elsewhere. 


The arrival into the womb of the valley was painless, but somehow suffocating. I stood by myself in front of the statue, to let all the difficult air sink in, and then like a miracle, the noise and the moisture stopped. You could hear the waters at the Berdawni breathe in slow agitation and Pierroti's "Our Lady" staring from high above, into the naked river.


"Vin et la Poésie" was the name of Attar Samih's statue to Bacchus, mysteriously placed at the entrance of the city whose name is derived from the word "displace", in the language of the country. And that is exactly what I thought: How displaced are Bacchus' figurines, all alone and drunk in this valley.


I tried to imagine the tunes that the Greek lyre, standing half idle by the side, had played in other ages of the world, in other years, less prosperous. The air thickened itself out and resembled the water of the fountain, "There's so much life here", I thought. How much I wanted to take over the square, to dance there under moonlight, to surround the entire uneven slope of the hill and flush the air with paint.


But I guess no one had ever conquered Zahle, not even Attar Samih, and not even the Syrians. In 1981, the Syrians tried to take over the city and besieged it for over a hundred days, and set up roadblocks around the entire valley, to block the access to and from the entire city, that after all, connected the distant planets of Beirut and Damascus.


After trying to control the Hill of Jeha, in the valley surrounding it, and failing at it at the hand of the poorly armed Lebanese forces, the Syrians shelled the population of Zahle for sixteen days and sixteen nights. 


Bachir Gemayel, wrote to the besieged and tired fighters stationed in Zahle:


"Because the road is still open for a few hours only... if you leave, you will save your lives and the fall of the city will be certain and this will be the end of our resistance... if you stay, you will find yourselves without ammunition, without medicine, without bread and maybe without water; your task will be to coordinate the internal resistance and defend the identity of the Lebanese Bekaa and the identity of Lebanon, and by that you will give a meaning to our six year war".


And then some more. Besieged, the city was never defeated, neither was Samih's "Vin et la Poésie", standing there, almost naked, and holding modern history in contempt, with a certain naive glee of arrogance. But I didn't want to defeat it, to ransack it, like others had done. I wanted to know each and every corner of the valley, every flower, every brick, and every shade of light and darkness. How I had loved you then! As if you were a child, or a beautiful woman, or the son of a God.


It just occurred to me that this couldn't be the task of one man alone. Saint Augustine writes: "For we call 'world' not only this fabric which God made, heaven and earth, but the inhabitants of the world are also called 'the world'... Especially all lovers of the world are called the world."


It seemed to me as if the entire planet, and the whole collection of miracles to be found in the valley, aren't sufficiently enough to have a world. Worlds appear only in between men. And I felt a little sad, standing there, by myself, sharing in all the miracles, and without a world, a world to realize them, to transform them.


So fragile everything seemed then,  like a desert, so improbable, and the waters so loud, wanting to embrace the ocean, so far away from here, crossing the burnt roads and the bombed out buildings, from underneath, running away, from the streams and rivulets that stood up to the tanks, wanting also to forget. I guess I heard the river travelling in the direction opposite mine, and I still stood by the statue, unmovable, and so ready to travel.


To be continued...



Follow Arie on Twitter @Dilmunite



Lebanon, Syria