At the Square III

Religion

[read part two here]

For A. Fakhreddine & E. Magdi

 

"Death = being completely inside one's head. Life = the world."- Susan Sontag

 

"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.

 

To be continued...

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Lebanon, Travel, Beirut