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Memory for Forgetfulness

August, Beirut, 1982

Coffee should not be drunk in a hurry. It is the sister of time, and should be sipped slowly, slowly. Coffee is the sound of taste, a sound for the aroma. It is a meditation and a plunge into memories and the soul. And coffee is a habit which, along with the cigarette, must be joined with another habit—the newspaper.

Where is the newspaper? It’s six o’clock in the morning, and I’m in hell itself. But the news is that which is read, not heard. And before it is recorded, the event is not exactly an event. I know a researcher in Israeli affairs who kept denying the “rumor” that Beirut was under siege simply because what he read was not the truth unless it was written in Hebrew. And since Israeli newspapers had not yet reached him, he wouldn’t acknowledge that Beirut was under siege. But this is not a madness I suffer from. For me, the morning paper is an addiction. Where is the newspaper?

I want a well-organized funeral, in which they’ll put my body whole, not mangled, in a wooden coffin wrapped in a flag with the four colors clearly visible.

The hysteria of the jets is rising. The sky has gone crazy. Utterly wild. This dawn is a warning that today will be the last day of creation. Where are they going to strike next? Where are they not going to strike? Is the area around the airport big enough to absorb all these shells, capable of murdering the sea itself? I turn on the radio and am forced to listen to happy commercials: “Merit cigarettes—more aroma, less nicotine!” “Citizen watches—for the correct time!” “Come to Marlboro, come to where the pleasure is!” “Health mineral water—health from a high mountain!” But where is the water? Increasing coyness from the women announcers on Radio Monte Carlo, who sound as if they’ve just emerged from taking a bath or from an exciting bedroom: “Intensive bombardment of Beirut.” Intensive bombardment of Beirut! Is this aired as an ordinary news item about an ordinary day in an ordinary war in an ordinary newscast? I move the dial to the BBC. Deadly lukewarm voices of announcers smoking pipes within hearing of the listeners. Voices broadcast over shortwave and magnified to a medium wave that transforms them into repulsive vocal caricatures: “Our correspondent says it would appear to cautious observers that what appears of what is gradually becoming clearer when the spokesman is enabled except for the difficulty in getting in touch with the events, which would perhaps indicate that both warring parties are no doubt trying especially not to mention a certain ambiguity which may reveal fighter planes with unknown pilots circling over if we want to be accurate for it might confirm that some people are now appearing in beautiful clothes.” A formal Arabic with correct information, ending with a song by Muhammad Abd al-Wahhab in colloquial Arabic with the correct emotion: “Either come see me, or tell me where to meet you / Or else tell me where to go, to leave you alone.”

Identically monotonous voices. Sand describing sea. Eloquent voices beyond reproach, describing death as they would the weather, and not as they would a horse or motorcycle race. What am I searching for? I open the door several times, but find no newspaper. Why am I looking for the paper when buildings are falling in all directions? Is that not writing enough?

That’s not quite right. The one looking for a paper in the midst of this hell is running from a solitary to a collective death. He’s looking for a pair of human eyes, for a shared silence or reciprocal talk. He’s looking for some kind of participation in this death, for a witness who can give evidence, for a gravestone over a corpse, for the bearer of news about the fall of a horse, for a language of speech and silence, and for a less boring wait for certain death. For what this steel and these iron beasts are screaming is that no one will be left in peace, and no one will count our dead.

Perhaps it won’t be a rocket that’ll kill me in a flash, without my being aware.

I’m lying to myself: I have no need to search for a description of my surroundings or my leaky interiors. The truth of the matter is that I am terrified of falling among the ruins, prey to a moaning no one can hear. And that is painful. Painful to the extent of my feeling the pain as if the event had actually happened. I’m now there, in the rubble. I feel the pain of the animal crushed inside me. I cry out in pain but no one hears me. This is a phantom pain, coming from an opposite direction—out of what might happen. Some of those hit in the leg continue to feel pain there for several years after amputation. They reach out to feel the pain in a place where there is no longer a limb. This phantom, imaginary pain may pursue them to the end of their days. As for me, I feel the pain of an injury that hasn’t happened. My legs have been crushed under the rubble.

These are my forebodings. Perhaps it won’t be a rocket that’ll kill me in a flash, without my being aware. Perhaps a wall will slowly, slowly fall on me, and my suffering will be endless, with no one to hear my cries for help. It may crush my leg, my arm, or my skull. Or it may sit over my chest, and I’ll stay alive for several days in which no one will have the time to search for the remains of another being. Perhaps splinters from my glasses will lodge in my eyes and blind me. My side may be pierced by a metal rod, or I may be forgotten in the crush of mangled flesh left behind in the rubble.

But why am I so concerned with what will happen to my corpse and where it will end up? I don’t know. I want a well-organized funeral, in which they’ll put my body whole, not mangled, in a wooden coffin wrapped in a flag with the four colors clearly visible (even if their names come from a line of poetry whose sounds don’t signify their meanings), carried on the shoulders of my friends and those of my friends who are my enemies.

He who lives, lives by chance, because not one span of earth has been spared the rockets and not one spot where you can take a step has been saved from an explosion.

And I want wreaths of red and yellow roses. I don’t want the cheap pink color, and I don’t want violets, because they spread the smell of death. And I want a radio announcer who’s not a chatterer, whose voice is not too throaty, and who can put on a convincing show of sadness. Between tapes carrying my words, I want him to make little speeches. I want a calm, orderly funeral; and I want it big, that leave-taking, unlike meeting, may be beautiful. How good is the fortune of the recently dead on the first day of mourning, when the mourners compete in praise of them! They’re knights for a day, loved for a day, and innocent for that day. No slander, no curses, and no envy. It’ll be even better for me, because I’ve no wife or children. That’ll save friends the effort of having to put on the long, sad act that doesn’t end until the widow feels compassion for the mourner. It’ll also save the children the indignity of having to stand at the doors of institutions run by tribal bureaucracies. It’s good that I’m alone, alone, alone. For that reason my funeral will be free of charge, no one having to keep an account of reciprocal courtesy, so that after the funeral those who walked in the procession can go back to their daily affairs. I want a funeral with an elegant coffin, from which I can peep out over the mourners, just as the playwright Tawfiq al-Hakim wanted to do. I want to sneak a look at how they stand, walk, and sigh and how they convert their spittle into tears. I also want to eavesdrop on their mocking comments: “He was a womanizer.” “He was a dandy in his choice of clothes.” “The rugs in his house are so plush you sink into them up to your knees.” “He had a palace on the French Riviera, a villa in Spain, and a secret bank account in Zurich. And he kept a private plane, secretly, and five luxury cars in a garage in Beirut.” “We don’t know if he had a yacht in Greece, but he had enough sea shells in his house to build a whole refugee camp.” “He used to lie to women.” “The poet is dead, and his poetry with him. What’s left of him? His role is finished, and we’re done with his legend. He took his poetry with him and disappeared. Anyway, his nose was long, and his tongue.” I’ll hear even harsher stuff than this, once the imagination has been let loose. I’ll smile in my coffin and try to say, “Enough!” I’ll try to come back to life, but I won’t be able.

But to die here—no! I don’t want to die under the rubble. I’ll pretend I’m going down to the street to look for a newspaper. Fear is shameful in the midst of this fever of heroism erupting from the people—from those on the front line whose names we don’t know, as well as the simple souls who have chosen to stay in Beirut, to devote their days to the search for enough water to fill a twenty-liter can in this downpour of bombs, to extend the moment of resistance and steadfastness into history, and to pay the price with their flesh in the battle against exploding metal. Heroism is here in this very part of divided Beirut in this burning summer. It is West Beirut. He who dies here does not die by chance. Rather he who lives, lives by chance, because not one span of earth has been spared the rockets and not one spot where you can take a step has been saved from an explosion. But I don’t want to die under the rubble. I want to die in the open street.

Suddenly, worms, made famous in a certain novel, spread before me. Worms arranging themselves in rigid order into rows according to color and type to consume a corpse, stripping flesh off bone in a few minutes. Just one raid. Two raids, and nothing’s left except the skeleton. Worms that come from nowhere, from the earth, from the corpse itself. The corpse consumes itself by means of a well-organized army rising from within it in a few moments. Surely, it’s a picture that empties a man of heroism and flesh, thrusting him into the nakedness of absurd destiny, into absolute absurdity, into total nothingness; a picture that peels the song from the praise of death and from the escape into flight. Was it to overcome the ugliness of this fact that the human imagination—the inhabitant of the corpse—opened a space to save the spirit from this nothingness? Is this the solution proposed by religion and poetry? Perhaps. Perhaps.