At the Square V

War and Peace

[read part four here]

 

For G. Maalouf

 

"But why do we loiter? The journey should be pursued. Now let us see whether we are in a sound condition, for that is the first step." -St. Augustine, "Soliloquies"

 

He drove down from Al Mina, and we could have spent the whole night going in circles around Al Maarad; I loved the modern buildings, so unblemished, and admired the vulgar geometric shapes, with splattered colors from the lights, in sharp contrast from the rest of the city, bathed in a shabby ochre that resembles a glowing gold sprayed with grey, with the colors and gestures of a dying oak. The radio blasted away with that song from the basement; I saw it announced once in a half-torn poster in Beirut, as I was heading with Eman toward Damascus Road. I daydreamed - even though it was night - that he would about-turn in Al Mina again and from there head down to Riad El Solh, to the very end, so that I could see the statue of Abdul Hamid Karami. I had seen it once in a postcard that a distant relative had sent in 1969. I also knew that the statue had been bombed with dynamite in 1976 but that still didn't quench my curiosity. The statue stood impassive at the center of a square of the same name, and the cars, like ballet figurines, tiptoed around it.

 

I had spent years leafing through the books at the library, trying to trace down the name of the artist, but to no avail. The novel of Bergsson, forgotten on page 115, under a stairway, came to me: "How could he have loved the woman if, in his mind, she is only a photograph? How can a picture be more real to the memory than the actual, living person?" I also knew that the name of the square had been changed, by the Tawhid, and that there was now a sculpture of the word "Allah". Perhaps Ismail had been right, it was God who had blown the statue at the square and replaced it with a sign. As I had all these thoughts in my mind, the old Peugeot drove into Bassel El Asad and Tripoli was being left behind. There had been no conversations since we left and the music kept blasting away; we spoke only with a timid smile that began in the corner of the mouth and rose through the pupils with a thick halo reflected at the height of the eye lids. It filled the entire space and as I gasped for air, the coastal highway opened its arms to us.

 

Al Qalamoun, it was, the old mosque. I preferred the churches, St. George, St. Catherine and the Monastery of St. John; at that point Tripoli was nowhere to be seen, and you could no longer hear its sounds, nor the riffle neither the fear. I was reminded then of St. Jerome's commentary on the Testament of John: "The blessed John the Evangelist, who remained in Ephesus to an advanced age and could scarcely be carried to church with the help of his disciples, could no longer put many coherent words together. At each assembly, he used to say no more than this: 'Little children, love one another!' Eventually, the disciples and brethren who were present grew tired of always hearing the same thing, and said: 'Master, why do you keep on saying this?' He replied with a sentiment worthy of John: 'Because it is a precept of the Lord, and it is sufficient if this alone is done." There was not a soul in the sight, until the prophet Isaiah spoke: "Against all the cedars of Lebanon, lofty and lifted up; and against all the oaks of Bashan."

 

Back at the theater in Tripoli, it was the year 1885, the first theater in the Middle East. The vendor woman, an old Alawite, told us that once they had rolled the red carpet all the way from the harbor to the theater for Oum Kalthoum to perform at the glorious Ottoman building. There was nothing but rubble to be seen now, and the sound of diggers and hammers. The Ingea Theater was no more. Now I recalled, it was Rabih Mroué who had asked Catherine Deneuve in that film, "You wanted to see, I also want to see but I can't seem to. Do you see that?" And the truth is that neither of us would see anything, but diggers, hammers and rubble. It wasn't only the theater, but the city and the whole country, there was nothing to see but rubble. At some point I wanted to ask him if maybe the whole world was made of rubble now. As we drove away, he told me: "You know, we, the Lebanese and the Jews, we are perhaps the first peoples to have advanced from the idea of nationalism." I nodded and woke up from the still quiet of the highway and heard at last the delicate voice. "Do you see that?" He asked me. "The constellations on the sky stood steeply on their heads, all the stars had made an about-turn, but the moon, buried under the featherbed of clouds which were lit by its unseen presence, seemed still to have before her an endless journey and, absorbed in her complicated heavenly procedures, did not think of dawn." Does the sky look the same everywhere? I didn't ask that question, if only because my vague knowledge of science provided the answer. "Do you remember when I first saw you?" I asked him. And he was thinking the same thing I was thinking. "I shall never forget that luminous journey on that brightest of winter nights. The colored map of the heavens expanded into an immense dome, on which there loomed fantastic lands, oceans and seas, marked with the lines of stellar currents and eddies, with the brilliant steaks of heavenly geography." He didn't answer my question and insisted on driving into the village that suddenly carved itself out before the entrance of Batroun. We couldn't get lost because in order to get lost, you have to know where you're getting lost from. At the entrance, we had to leave the car and our countenances too, in order to be transformed into aimless legs. We were not sad to let go of our possessions, for St. Augustine had taught: "Two things here on earth are essential: health and a friend. They are the two things most to be prayed for. Woe to the person who despises them. Health and friendship are natural gifts. God has made human beings for living -hence health, and for not living alone -hence the search for friendship." We took one of those cabbies that looked like tricycles in the miniature city and tried to make up our minds. "But who would entrust oneself on such a night to the whims of an unpredictable cabby? Amid the click of the axles, amid the thud of the box and the roof, I could not agree with him on my destination. He nodded indulgently at everything I said and sang to himself. We drove in a circle around the city."

 

"Is this you, George?" I exclaimed, and for the first time I recognized my friend.

 

[Passages taken from Bruno Schulz, "Cinnamon Shops", in "The Street of Crocodiles and Other Stories", Penguin, 2008]

 

After Two Months, installation, Mouna Bassili Sehnaoui, 2008  

 

To be continued...

 

 

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Lebanon, Travel