Beirut's De(con)struction

2008 - From my balcony
2010 - From my balcony

The beautifully calligraphed verse of the Quran in the horrendous gold frame has been hanging on that same old nail sine sometime in the late 70’s. It was bought by your aunt after the week you spent in the hospital, to protect the family from the evil eye. It was, with no doubt as she says, the cause of the series of illnesses all of you had suffered, and this particular verse would counter it. Your mother hung it then, on that spare nail, thinking that she will soon find a better location for it. You now have to remove it, after 30 some years, wondering if the family will still be protected.

Houses were just like women you thought, and the house were you were born and grew up has changed and taken shape just like your mother moved through phases of her life. Here was the house she arrived to as a bride in the early sixties. She was pretty then, with soft eyes, a small build and the certainty that life will be kind and generous with her. The cold of the new tiles of that second floor apartment welcomed her chubby feet on that hot summer day when she cleaned them for the first time. This was the same day the big sofa arrived, the fridge, and the stove. The high wooden bed, on which many secrets were shared and a whole family brought into being, came a week later. From then on, both the house and your mother started building up the layers of warmth and memory.

The kitchen has almost reached perfection. There is nothing that has not been exhaustively used, and not an ingredient missing or without the appropriate shelf or jar. The pots and pans seem to have the ability to cook the exact amount that is needed for the family, and when they cooked more, the family had to expand; new children, new friends, nephews, nieces, lovers, wives, husbands, and grandchildren. Your mother measures nothing and follows no recipe. The pans seem to tell her how much of each ingredient to use, and if by any misfortune she had to cook in somebody else’s house her dishes always seem to fail. Some of those plates on the shelves are older than you. They have been downgraded though, from being fancy china only used for guests your mother sought to impress, to a couple stand alone dishes, complete sets of which have been broken over the years. That odd plate that remains is used only by her, for the fruit she has in the early evening on the balcony. Your memory resides in the corners of that kitchen, just like it does in every corner of the house; early morning labneh sandwiches for breakfast before school, the all too many bowls of lentil soup you had every winter, cold yogurt Ayran in hot summer afternoons, your attempts at contributing to the cake your mother was making.. they were all there, with the smells lingering in the pockets of memory you had well preserved.

You almost can’t go further, you think they might as well take it down with all it contains. But they want you to go through this - you need to hand them an empty house. You need to peel of the years these walls have witnessed layer by layer, and give it back to them clean and blank. Even cleaner than when you received it; you now have to empty it even out of hope, of the prospect of a tomorrow. The living room now looks empty without the sofa, which might be the only piece of furniture sturdy enough to survive the move. You are hoping your mother would be just as strong. You almost never imagined it could look that empty. Too small for a family of six, the room seemed to have expanded beyond its walls. The shelves have gone all the way up to the ceiling, heavy with what you and your siblings attempted to, or were forced into, filling your brains with; Marxist ideology books, with the necessary accompanying literature of Gorki and Tolostoy, Saadeh next to Aflaq. Nietzsche, Ghazali and Saadawi. All that you have devoured at one point and despised at another, many hidden behind not so elegant photo frames and vases, sitting on pieces of crochet knit by some grandmother. Munif, Kanafanni, Steinbeck, Orwell, and Marquez. The poetry of Drawish next to Lorca’s, al-Feytouri, Najem and to your dismay, Kabbani. And there were the ones you had forgotten all about, introduction to botany, principles of demography, and notes from the history 101 class. The cards you received for your teenage birthdays next to notes from a meeting of what seems too distant of an activism time. Stacks and stacks of archaeological evidence of how your and your siblings’ handwriting and life aspirations have changed in the past 40 years.

The living room had also claimed the balcony. One old sofa sits on the edge of it, the same one that has witnessed your damned first cigarette. In the other corner is the closet that was your sister’s when she was a baby, and become the space for all the odd things; empty plastic pots of all sizes, old table covers, rusty tools, pieces of cloth, wool, and needles. What a treasure box this was when you were a child! what toys have these shelves created again and again.

It was in the small space between the closet and the balcony edge where you hid as a child. That is where you went for solitude, for silence, for individuality. That is where -right before your mother came with a sandwich and the juicy sweet cucumber you adored- you had cried, convinced that had you died right that moment, nobody will notice. That was where you felt safe, protected by the proximity of the liveliness and noise coming from the living room and liberated by that piece of sky the balcony gave you. The sky had shrunk over the years, as the surrounding buildings were getting taller and taller. It is on that balcony corner that you wish to be today. Only that space would have felt safe now. But you are on some other balcony, watching your childhood house and years of memory, dribbling down like a string of beads that was just ripped apart.

2008 - From my balcony

2010 - From my balcony


This post is one of several published by fellow female bloggers on #PhotosFromMyCity. The idea of a shared monthly theme came up in an event organized by Danish Pen, in Cairo in May 2010. This post is a much delayed one about Beirut, my city in text and photos, check out other post on this theme, between Jeddah and the US, Day in ViennaMourning Cairo, Me in the City - AmmanMapping Copenhagen, and the below participating blogs and websites for other upcoming ones.
هدوء نسبي; ميرون; Manalaa; Noter ; مدونة; Shaden Blog; WHEN IS A CITY; لَسْتُ أدري; Zaghroda , 7iber , Torture in Egypt blog, Arab Digital Expression

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