After many peregrinations, multiple sunsets and endless sunrises, I ended up in B…, a harbor with no moorings, just a bay in the southern Mediterranean; in fact, we crash-landed, some passengers and myself, with no casualties. We spent the night in a WW II Army outpost, surrounded on all but one side by the desert, the other by the sea, another wilderness. The wilderness -- and the wildness -- were in my soul. It felt good to be for a whole night between a rejected past and a lack of purpose for the future, where a swift and decisive battle had taken place: history has its skies and lightnings; it can strike and leave no trace.
From Benghazi to Beirut, away from my home in California, away from Mount Shasta, cold weather becomes pure memory. In Nature’s calendar, flowers dig under a crusty sand for drops of water. I would like to ask them if they know what goes on in their realm. But of course they know. There’s an adequateness here between blood and air, skin and shadow, passion between life and planet Earth.
Open doors, open seas, once in a while an open heart: dwellings. Do I sleep in a cube of white flames or between walls of running water?
One’s unavoidable house is the body. Sometimes, this primeval house is some other person’s body, loved, or despised.
We’re never left alone because of the way memory functions. The will calls memories into focus, but they acquire independence, moving forward or backward, they consume us, they hide or refuse to serve our frustrated minds. When they turn into witches, they eat directly into the brain, leave us breathless, then bloodless, on the floor. What’s left of the person is carried -- often accompanied by long processions of people -- to a couple of square meters, where it will soon start to feed the clay of the soil with its non-usable organs.
To be honest, I must say that it was awful to watch a friend of mine in whose head they had plugged wires. By the time they convinced me that the electricity was well connected, that the whole beneficial system was working well, I had begun to faint. When I woke up, I felt a violent headache, and I screamed.
When I see a church on every street I wonder how it will be possible to think freely here. But alas, in this little hill town, we do think. (With dismal results.)
“Let’s take the car,” I said, that fateful day, and in spite of the warning emitted by the radio, “let’s go to our mountain house!” Simone said yes. We left Beirut and drove along the coastline. I noticed the waves and the wind. Then it started to rain. The car was turning into a bathtub. (I’m exaggerating, I know, but it was full of steam, making it hard to drive.) With her sleeve my friend kept wiping the front window. I was doing the same with the one on my left. The wipers, outside, were as frantic as we were. We were moving in a world overtaken by water. The wind blew ferociously from the West. The car swayed. At a familiar landmark we turned right, finding ourselves driving East. That road is sinuous. We went on for a good hour. Through the snowy rain, the wetness, I was trying to get a view of the mountain range, against which stood the village that was our destination. But the Barouk refused to be seen. Following the custom of those women who still veil themselves, it kept its face invisible. Invisible also like some Imams of the Islamic world, or, even, like the Platonic Ideas which float around waiting to be unveiled.
The car entered the cedar forest. The trees looked forced to stay where they were, agitating their arms. As they were making thick shadows, we put on the front lights and the road caught fire under the wheels. The night was material. We were moving in it like in black foam.
We came out of the forest’s heart and the trees were sparse and the road had to go down before climbing again. It was a steep section of a narrow strip and we suddenly saw a Jeep ahead of us. The rain was pouring hard, mixed with snow and wind. It was mesmerizing to see the heavy vehicle slide toward its right and I knew that it was going over the edge and deep into the valley, and I was hypnotized into following it, and in a quick moment, anticipating its fall with a clear mind and no emotion, telling myself that they were all going to die and that probably I would lose control of my own car as well-- By some improbable luck, the Jeep stopped on three wheels and we slammed into it and I hurt my knee and my wrist. But I kept going, and for the rest of the drive I felt embarrassed at not having felt any worry, any sorrow, about what looked then like the certain fall of the vehicle ahead and the certain death of its occupants. I was quietly waiting for the catastrophe to happen, oblivious of the fact that fascination was making me follow them to the end. “Where are we?” Simone asked, waking me from these thoughts. I looked ahead and saw, through the rain and snow, that we had just reached the hotel that is a few hundred yards away from my mountain house.
My terrace is lined with Italian clay pots which contain different species of plants. A rose bush is growing beautifully in the largest one, capturing the morning rays of light. The roses affect my heart’s beats with their fragrance.
My neighbor, though, installed on his own terrace huge barrels planted with shrubs of fir. In a few years, a small forest was blocking my view!
I’m sad, I’m desperate: a place which was splendid, and envied by all, turned into a prison, or, at least, into seclusion. This is what people do to each other.
We are in the month of Ramadan, a month for fasting and prayers. From my high-perched apartment’s terrace I used to see in a panoramic sweep the summits of the Barouk, Sannine and Djebel Knisseh. On a clear day, of course. My neighbor has denied me this pleasure. If it weren’t for the fear of imprisonment, I would have killed him. Yes, life’s sanctity stops at the threshold of whims and interests. I can send somebody to blow him up with his car, while he drives to work, but this kill-by-hire business has a way of backfiring.
The price of coffee went up. Anne-Sophie Mütter is playing Vivaldi’s Four Seasons in this large apartment. I don’t dream of California anymore in green but in yellow. The Mojave Desert is getting ready to receive nuclear waste in great amounts within a month. In Paris, the restaurant on Rue de Vaugirard by Rue Madame has closed. Whatever is closed is not open: radical closure. The earth is round and doesn’t intend to become a square. When I was up there, with Neil Armstrong, the moon looked flat, but the earth was jumping and tumbling over the horizon.
The charges on my apartment are being inflated. Too much money for too much fuel for too many guards. I can’t move out: they hemmed me in. But I’m left with iridescent roses and I’m going to buy a watering can and water them, day after day, come rain or sunshine.
I understand how the muezzin’s last call to prayer spreads within the sky and sinks in the direction of a mounting obscurity. I’m losing my hold on the sliding day, and sitting on a chair seemingly firm, I feel that I am engulfed by an invisible wave which is carrying me into this geometry we call “the world,” and also into something else for which we do not have a name.
That little cove has a little boat. I used to go swimming there when I was six or seven. Back then it felt protected (nobody cared by whom or from what). Innocent years of our lives! In the late seventies that corner of town exploded when the nearby American Embassy went up in flames. The cove shook, its wooden (and rotten) structures floated on the sea. The devastation is still visible. The ground of the Embassy is now a (thriving) parking lot. The little café and the cabins nearby, where we used to undress quickly, are now covered by a permanent pile of garbage.
MY HOUSE, THIS PLACE AND BODY
Living in different houses doesn’t mean living in one for each season. And does home still mean bed, kitchen and mailbox?
This room in which I process my thoughts along the turbulences of my soul, has a wall-to-wall window which lets in the sea and the sky at their darkening hours. I hear the evening call to prayer that covers centuries. This near lamentation turns language into a desert chant. The sun has gone under. The desert is at my mental door because Beirut is a special kind of a wasteland. It defies our means, belittles our intelligence, defeats the will…. Once this is said, its mystery unfolds, its beauty too.
THE SAME PERSON
Jamal Naufal was flying to Ryad when a fierce sandstorm forced the plane to land in Djeddah. It was at dusk. Some passengers had relatives in the city, others looked for hotels. Jamal Naufal was telling me that he had decided to hire a taxi all the way to Ryad. A young man, about his age, was standing by, looking perplexed. They looked at each other, liked what they each saw: a decent traveler stranded at an airport by the Red Sea.
They talked and agreed to share their ride and cut expenses. They immediately guessed, by their similar accents, that they were both Lebanese, so they relaxed comfortably in the back seat. Exchanging a few words, they soon discovered that they both worked for the same company in the heart of Arabia.
As they knew that they wouldn’t arrive, at best, before the early hours of the morning, they each tried to sleep. (Jamal Naufal didn’t remember much of how time went by on that trip. His story was being told during dinner and over many drinks, in summer, in his village in Lebanon’s mountains. The air smelled of pine.)
They slept neither for long nor well. They started a new conversation. Jamal Naufal asked his companion what his name was and the guy said: “Jamal Naufal. And you?”
Jamal Naufal was startled. It was still dark and the car was racing on the beams of its own lights. The road looked smooth and eerie. They could have been still on the airplane.
He gave his name. The other Jamal Naufal was startled too. They scared each other. They knew it wasn’t a lie. They exchanged the dates of their birth. They were born the same year and same day. Now they avoided looking at each other, each fearing to turn into some sort of a mirror facing a mirror.
When at last they arrived in Ryad they discovered, by giving instructions to their driver, that they had booked themselves in the same hotel.
The clerk at the Ryad Intercontinental was confused. He did have a reservation for a Jamal Naufal, but it was for one person, one room, and one key. He said: “Yes sir,” looking once at the one, once at the other, “how come you’re two people?”, and probably because he had been raised in India, he added: “Sir, did you by any chance bring with you your Double?” For a split second Jamal Naufal wondered if the clerk wasn’t right. Jamal wondered too. He was dead tired.
We drove to Sidon by the sea, the only way to get there. It was warm in the car, the heater producing a mini-climate for two. At some point I pushed a button and pulled down a window. Cold air rushed in. What pleasure can such air bring to an overheated face! I hesitated for a moment, fearing I might catch the flu if the window stayed open for too long. The sound of the sea followed the wind’s. It wasn’t too strong a wind but I didn’t want to take any risk. I pulled up the car’s window the same way I have closed out, so many times, so many things from my life.
We looked -- Youssef and I -- for a soap factory which is being restored, and that search made me realize that I didn’t know much about this little city and that I could easily lose my way through its complex network of narrow alleys. Sidon has about nine miles of souks, medieval roads lined with shops, narrow even for a bicycle. The merchandise spills over and, between the plastic wares and the people, one can hardly move. We are far from the covered markets of Aleppo or Istambul. Sidon’s alleys are narrower than anywhere in the world, and forgotten. This city, though mentioned some seventeen times in the Odyssey, is of no interest to anyone but to itself, and that makes it a wonderful object for discovery. What could be more interesting than to discover -- uncover -- like an archeologist who’s also a futurist, a place only twenty miles away from the one in which you were born?!
They were strolling through the recent ruins of Beirut; she was speaking of the Swedes as if they had invented the cinema, recalling Persona and Wild Strawberries, insisting on the fact that she had watched them when she was a student in the sixties, in Berkeley, in a garage turned movie-house by a woman named Pauline Kael whom she never forgot. She was of course much older now, but she had fallen in love with the guy with whom she was walking. He told her that he never went west of New York… It occurred to her (was it because of the summer heat?) that he was going to die, one day, and that it could happen soon… “When I die,” he asked, “please be quick. Moslems don’t keep a corpse for long.” “I will not let them take you,” she replied quietly, “I will keep you to myself as long as I can. Don’t leave me!”
Her panic started to invade his spirit, too. Thoughts were running behind his words like reels of film: once dead, he wouldn’t be able to come back and help her in her grief. He was stuck: he had to go on living.
They reached a nice hotel downtown which has at its thirteenth floor a bar with a view and, all night, they drank beer after beer.
MY HOUSE MY CAT MY COMPANY
How to separate the self from the non-self? This question may never find an answer, but it can assume different forms. Was I already a cat when I identified the first cat I encountered? Only the same knows the same, I've always thought.
Whatever keeps us company is an intrinsic part of the awareness of the self, and isn’t the self the awareness of itself?
It seems that there are exchanges of personalities, in the depths of the self, between humans, animals and objects. Beware: don’t touch that glass of water in front of you. You can, when drinking it, become water and spill on the floor and mess the rug … and have to apologize to your host.
When gods thought of themselves as being humans too, the latter fancied that they had become gods. Ever since, there has not been peace either in heaven or on earth.
MORE VITAL DATA
Description of the harbor. Of the site, the mountains, the hills. Description of the bluish snow, the rarefied air. Of horizontal clouds. Of the sky’s brilliance, the sunset’s reflection on the mountain’s panoramic side. Of the names: Sannine, Djabel Knisseh, Dhour… Description of slow summers, of the overwhelming of one’s soul by splendor. Description of springs surviving among rocks, of waterfalls benevolent toward goats, of lightning striking trees. Of petrified beauty and stranded travelers. Description of a shepherd’s eye at a girl’s blushing, of fog, of moonrising over divinities. Description of clear air and muddy thoughts, of the waiting, the wake, the want. Description of that which never starts and of that which never ends.
It’s always a matter of repetition and castration, obedience and rejection, learning and forgetting, of approximations and codified laws, of salvation at the price of destruction.
Of windows on a lone tree, dreams of future kisses, a matter of posters with pierced stars, hunger for more chocolate and less bread, of forays into another child’s pocket, of long hours under violent rains, sloshing shoes and galoshes, clouds moving across blackboards, of the single bed in the coldest corner of a room.
THAT SAME PERSON
And now, listen: We stopped at some intersection in a frightful traffic jam. The vehicles are drab, dusty, cranky, running chaotically in all directions. As visibility was nil, the roads full of crevasses, I worried. A river of people was filling the streets thickly and moving steadily. Where is the factory?
We take a wrong turn and move at a snail’s pace in an alley obviously unfit for cars. The shops overflow with goods, dresses, shoes, and … sweets! The Orient’s ingenuity in making pastries is here at its height.
I left the car, even though it blocked the passage, my frustration becoming unmanageable.
I know that I am pursuing a no-exit situation. There are dimmed lights ahead, thinner crowds, a growing silence. I keep walking. My friend Youssef is following.
Now, I am alone and the alleys turn into a labyrinth. It’s getting really dark in here. The pavement, made of smooth stone, feels like soap. I can still see the walls, which are touching my shoulders. I’m nearing panic but holding, holding my breath, and my fear. The only escape left is my imagination, and it is catching fire.
I continue on my odyssey. I am probably below ground level, and searching… I am Orpheus.
I hear music. Why does Orpheus need music? Does music enlarge the imagination’s limits? Does it dilate our senses, transforming the smallest space into an ocean? Orpheus plays music and sings: In his case, ordinary language becomes lead.
He’s vocalizing ancient Greek folk-tunes. He’s crying. The labyrinth is hearing not a song but a lamentation. Orpheus realizes that he has entered a forbidden city, and that Eurydice resides further below, in the abyss, in the unknown.
His search continues: he’s of divine essence, but to no avail. He advances with arms stretched, groping for a ghost who’s preceding him in a realm not yet in his grasp.
Why is Orpheus persisting in his doomed endeavor if not because he knows that it is too late? The labyrinth he entered is a one-way run. It collapses behind anyone who dares to walk its tunnels.
He can only keep going, calling Eurydice. His reason is faltering. All that’s left to him is his imagination’s shadow that leads him into more darkness, more despair.
Now the labyrinth has entirely collapsed. There’s no trace of it. The light that I see above its former location is deadlier than the void.
A witch tells sinister stories to children such as the one about a person who was outgrowing his shoes while counting numbers, or about another who was dislocating mountains by the sheer fact of looking at them. All the parents living in the neighborhood got together and resolved to shut her in her house. They sealed her front door with little metal threads.
With old age comes winter.
The little courtyard is terraced in Roman fashion. It is surrounded by fig trees. There are also, a bit further, crawling vines. The floor is paved with flat stones that are streaked with pink hues, as if much wine had been poured into their grain.
This young man is new to you. Your senses are refreshed by his presence. You want to take in, like a thief, like a whale, like a lover, everything that he’s giving you.
HOUSE, MY BREATH AND WINDOW
The conversation with the people from the past who just exited has exhausted me. I wish they would never return. But then, will I be condemned to spend the rest of my life looking at the world through my window? Right now, all I see are patches of sunlight.
His image mixed with the colored clouds of the evening, a man is lying against the trunk of a magnolia tree. His woman comes with a bowl of rice. He’s sure she loves him, and smiles, but all she wants is to mate and kill.
FINAL VITAL DATA
Confusion spreads easily over continents, and questions of identity dissolve in the tubes where our will is put to test. Heat waves rise and destroy our ability to use our limbs without suffering. We cling to the memory of lightness. We yearn for lemon and kumquat trees.
Do not believe, we are told, the habitual tales of jealousy. The engines have been shut. The quietness doesn’t promise the coming of an exuberant crowd. All around, decay is visible. Visible, also, triumph.
They wrenched the still-beating heart out of its cage. We wished time to be accelerated, we got thrown away against a tree.
If I needed the perfect proof that one’s house is one’s prison I would take Malaparte’s house in the Bay of Naples. We know that it was designed by the writer according to the plan of a Sicilian church and built on the island of Lipari, where he had been imprisoned for five years on Mussolini’s orders. It is itself an island on an island. On an impregnable hill-rock Malaparte secured his windows with iron bars.
Standing there one learns with unbearable clarity that the most open sea-landscape fast becomes the most oppressive element of isolation that one can experience.
Orpheus was running a music store, selling videos to adolescents and sometimes projecting, in a back room, pornographic movies for adult maniacs.
One afternoon, a young girl entered the store and asked for Glück’s “Orpheus and Eurydice”: he found the CD and showed it to her. His hand touched hers and they both blushed. They looked at each other intensely. They felt petrified. They were shaking with emotion. At last, she broke out of the spell. Taking out from her purse some money, she paid and left.
He looked and looked into the space she had just occupied and became struck with terror.
A strange warmth overtook his body. He had to get out. He threw himself into the street, having locked his shop.
He walked aimlessly for quite a while. He then visited a few music stores, went to the seafront, recognized a few fishermen. His vision started to tire. People, cars, buildings, all superfluous, he thought.
He entered the old quarter of Sidon, its miles of alleys. Walls were turned into waves because his imagination was on fire. Waves were turning into flames. He found his pace in this alternation. He picked up the nay that he had taken with him when he started his journey. He started to blow gently into his instrument.
The alleys by their endlessness affected his sense of orientation. The labyrinth was sucking him in. He went on making music. The music was wailing. He was begging God to help him.
He heard no answer, he gave up praying. He felt utter loneliness.
He played a tune from Glück’s “Orpheus…” and called “Eurydice! Eurydice!” The walls trembled and the sound’s echo was drowning his mind. He entered a realm of no-return, a passage of nowhere… His very search, he told himself, was creating the impossibility of ever encountering her again. In his last act of remembrance he remembered that every loss is a descent into hell.
THE FIRST PERSON
In the meantime, she had gone home and deposited the CD in a drawer; she had turned the key.
She drove to the edge of the forest along a long road which took her to the mountain. It was a clear September day when she entered it.
She welcomed the trees and their freshness. They were cedars. She entered the forest with the certitude that nobody would follow her there. She found a trail but gave it up for uncharted spaces. As she continued to walk, the forest was getting thicker. She heard sounds, but they couldn’t be music…
She desired to keep the image of the young man of the music store alive, vivid… She heard Glück’s music in her head and thought that an opera is a forest, each tree having at its tip a voice, a word, a sound.
She fell asleep. The idea that she would eventually die, of thirst and hunger, didn’t bother her. The forest was probably the promised paradise, she thought.
After a few weeks -- or so it seemed -- she felt weak. Some water and a few berries hidden under the cedars were barely sustenance. She admitted that it was most likely that she would never hear the music she had bought.
The young man was accompanying her through her imagination. They did live together in the forest, in the strange way of his absence. The word love frightened her. It was too ominous.
It was too late. If he found her now, it would be a dying woman he would find. If he brought her back to life, it would be to live next to one who knew death … and death forever would be between them, like a plague that would contaminate both. This young woman that she is would be branded with the sign of doom.
Her attention was then awakened by some noise, some smoke, the stirring of pine needles; a dark cloud flew at ground level, and she realized that there was a fire, that the forest was burning, and that she soon was going to burn and be reduced to ashes and disappear, leaving no trace.
Dionysus squeezed apple seeds into lethal wine. He drank the funereal potion and before dying he had a vision of young women tasting, and shining, like the poison-carrying fruit that we casually eat.
The dramatic and rather hopeless search for the past haunts our nights and obscures the present. But I crossed oceans just to catch the remembrance of a certain Easter day of my childhood. I walked the street leading to the school around the corner from my house, sat in a café with my head bent on my hands, looked endlessly at the sea, let my body sink in fatigue and pain…
Suddenly, one day, the breeze flew horizontally, touched my ear, surrounded me; I shivered, my heart quivered, made itself forgotten, then I felt soft and bodiless, weightless, lost sense of self and non-self. I became pure living substance, indefinable existence, and the breeze changed direction, blew softly to the opposite side, and it brought Resurrection, brought that particular Feast intact in its setting and weather, in the present of my soul. I experienced a simultaneity of past and present, I lived the miracle of being a child and an adult, innocent and yet hyperconscious, I was in April and in December, in some absolute reality which was no abstraction. The weather itself appeared to be like the Spirit in Greek theology. I was breathing in air as a child and as an adult, in a climate redoubled into spring and winter, like me, all of this already gone by the time it was noticed.
On this Ramadan’s last day it’s business as usual. But the fast has drained bodies and souls. The merchants are happy to close shop, go home, and feel saintly.
©1997-2004 Blithe House Quarterly : all rights reserved