I am always thinking about exile. Sometimes I think it’s an obsession: the unfulfilled dream of always being in transit, without ever reaching a final destination. But exile is a trick; it implies that there was a point of origin, and that we have traveled far away from it. Recently, a conversation with the American poet Catherine Theis reminded me that the stories we tell ourselves about our lives—concerning the family, the village, and the home country—help us stay in exile and familiar with ourselves, in order to go off and “be foreign.” We don’t know if these stories are necessarily true, but they build imaginary referents around us that furnish our life with permanence. Yet, these points of origin and departure are also subject to displacement.
What happens, then, when the referents cannot be located? What if the referents are destroyed together with our belongings? Can memories exist without referents? This is what is said about the photography of war: it’s always unclear, blurred, or out of focus. This happens with memories, too. Do we tell stories in order to remember? The Lebanese artist Rabih Mroué tells us in the voice over of his video, Old House:
I am not telling in order to remember; on the contrary, I am doing so to make sure that I have forgotten. Or, at least, to make sure that I have forgotten some things, that they were erased from memory. When I am certain that I have forgotten, I attempt to remember what it is that I have forgotten.
I think about my own memories of war, and how they are intertwined with a home that I would never want to return to. Did this really happen? I ask myself this constantly, and quick shun the question to resume going about my own business. Sometimes I am reminded of what the Lebanese-Polish writer Rima Dadenji calls the ‘textures of war’:
War has a specific texture that permeates to the bones. It is synthetic. War is synthetic and you, a civilian, become hostage of its synthetic reality … War disrupts our nature of being, forcing an internal and external displacement. You become exiled from your native space and from your native memory.
I’ve known these textures well, and it is precisely because of this knowledge that I resist the representation of war that is persistent in contemporary art from the Middle East.
Those who have lived in Lebanon and the Middle East have known that our personal recollections of war have little to do with the sights and sounds of wars televised from afar. The real snapshots are simpler, more confusing, more intoxicating; they depict people carrying on with life, pretending that nothing is happening, that everything will be fine. They find oranges in the market, fall in love, attend weddings, and bathe in the sun. How were we able to do that? That is the real question. As the Lebanese poet Mishka Mojabber-Mourani says in her memoir, Balconies, ‘It is all up in the air. Nothing is sure anymore. Again. Just when things were beginning to feel secure. Just when banality was starting to be taken for granted. The fabric of certainty is torn.’
This passage, written during the Israeli invasion in 2006, overlaps with letters, articles, correspondences with friends, meditations, and poems spanning nearly fifty years. The order is by no means chronological, and the continuity is maintained only by thin and invisible threads of personal opposition to the collapsing order of reality. This unlikely sequence, always fragmentary, attests to the poet’s recognition that our sense of memory is altered by everything, and coincides with Mroué’s proposal of wanting to forget through remembering. ‘Our memories of war have a particular intensity, arising from our desire to forget the horror and try to find meaning, to find ourselves. For war altered not only our memories, but our identities,’ she said in a conversation a few months ago.
In the middle of the Israeli invasion, she sends a letter to the late Mai Ghossoub, a Lebanese writer and publisher whose death is bitterly mourned in the book. ‘Thank you for your SMS message, dearest Mai,’ she writes. ‘I will not respond with banalities, but look forward to a time when banalities can once again become the lubricant of our lives.’ She reflects for a moment: ‘I thought the Lebanese war was the worst experience this country could go through. I see there is something worse: rebuilding the country and having it destroyed once again.’ Her memories and experiences form the body out of which Alone Together, a volume of poetry co-authored with her long-time friend Aida Yacoub Haddad was conceived in 2012. A short poem in the volume sums up the sense of displacement that fuels their writing:
How can there be exile
When there is no homeland?
The book contains poems written during the span of three decades, about the itineraries of emigration and immigration. Mishka, Egyptian-born, half Greek, and for some time, an exile in Australia, wrote in English from Lebanon, while Aida wrote in Arabic from the United States and elsewhere. Each poet translated the words of the other into her preferred language, to form this bilingual anthology. ‘Your voyages have been very different from mine, but both of us have been on long and tortuous journeys,’ writes Mishka to Aida in the introduction. ‘We have navigated the seas of war and loss of many sorts, and our ports of call have lacked permanence. We have assumed identities and abandoned them.’ Another poem expresses their sense of an outbound voyage:
I did not know
The extent of my happiness
Until I realized
That I long for
I miss no place.
I regret no lover.
In Balconies, Mishka reflects poignantly on this longing with a passage, exhilarating in its sobriety:
The point of nostalgia is that you have survived the past: It’s not that you have forgotten what you went through—it’s remembering feeling what you went through and knowing it isn’t there anymore. It is about having overcome the gratuitous past because the future is viable.
‘There’s no return from exile. Home while in exile is fixed memory, while all, in fact, changes’, she tells me in our conversation, speaking about her return to Lebanon. ‘Home is an anchor to the exile, who never thinks that those places left behind, and those who occupy them, are in a state of flux.’ At the same time, there’s a place for love and daily life in their poetry:
I crawl into myself
Looking for me,
But your presence
In your absence
Locks me out.
Beirut occupies a central place in their imagination, not necessarily only as a war-torn city, but as the imagined Beirut, bristling and candid, exhilarating and fearful at the same time. ‘The ordinary here assumes mythical proportions: the blueness of the sky on a January morning, the magnificence of a fall storm, and that sea … that sea!’ she tells me. At the end of Balconies, she writes a letter to her late father, dated 2004. ‘But Beirut survived, a ‘battered, paranoid, schizophrenic city,’ as I wrote in one of my poems,’ she writes. ‘It stood, shell-shocked and dignified in its dementia, tenacious in its refusal to be partitioned.’ The referenced untitled poem is included in Alone Together:
Observe the beauty of this ugly city,
With its brilliant fruit stalls
Against leprous walls,
Which have mocked fireballs,
Shielding tired, crouching people
Who dream of a different history.
Observe the dignity of this demented city,
With its profuse garbage dumps,
And rasping motors, which pump
Noise and fumes into hole ridden streets,
Peopled by lab mice in bread lines,
Observe the strength of this paraplegic city,
With its gas-less stations
And waterless taps
And tenacious women with deserted laps,
Who wait, despairing yet erect,
For the good old days
That may never be.
An earlier passage in the memoir dissects the grammar of Beirut through light, as if it were being seen by the eyes of an Impressionist painter: ‘Beirut knows no twilight, that stretch of time and diffused light after the sun has set,’ Mishka describes. ‘There are no in-between times in this city of contradictions and contrasts. Twilight is a time of nuance, this city has none.’ It could well be that sometimes, we truly haven’t chosen to become writers, and that perhaps we haven’t chosen our homes or our exiles—easily interchangeable terms—but that they have chosen us. For Levantines, always obligated to negotiate with conflict, the words of the French writer Hélène Cixous come to mind: ‘The condition on which beginning to write becomes necessary—(and)—possible: losing everything, having once lost everything.’
And this idea of loss, as a geography for literature, reminds me of an anecdote by the German political theorist and Jewish exile from Nazi Germany in the United States, Hannah Arendt, widely read and translated in Lebanon in the 1980s, during the darkest days of both the Civil War, and the Syrian and Israeli occupations. In the 1960s, after her return to her native Germany, Arendt, in a now-legendary interview with the journalist Günter Gaus, was asked about what remained and was irretrievably lost in Europe.’The Europe of the pre-Hitler period? I do not long for that, I can tell you. What remains? The language remains.’
When somebody becomes an exile, even without leaving the borders of their country, it is a language, even sometimes a foreign one, that becomes home: a safe and intimate space, protected from the mercilessness of violence and oblivion. ‘The memory of poetry does battle with the memory of shells,’ writes Mishka in her memoir. Yet, one finds her at home in Beirut, amidst fragile jasmines—real or imaginary—cherishing memories of laughter, music, and old photographs, all at the risk of uncertainty. This art in which the peoples of the Middle East are so well trained. In her writing, the poet is always weaving utterances that defy the possibilities of the moment, without ever turning a blind eye to them: ‘I wake up very early and turn on the TV. I sip my coffee and start my ritual of checking the local and international channels: Al ajounaa fi bayrout hadi-a hatha-s-sabah ba’d qasfen layli—Beirut is quiet this morning after a night of shelling.’
By Arie Amaya-Akkermans