Dubai-based Lebanese poet Zeina Hashem Beck, whose book To Live in Autumn by Backwaters Press will be launched in Dubai today, shares one of her peoms about Beirut from the collection
The Old Building
Water could not reach higher
than the first floor those days,
(that is what I recall)
so we spent our mornings going up
and down, up and down
to the first floor,
with buckets in our hands.
Mama sometimes sang and said
she had a great voice
and could’ve been a star.
I climbed and thought her voice
lifted the heat for a while,
resembled the water in our hands,
reflected the color of her eyes—
blue, inevitable, clear,
as I plunged into it and sang.
The stairs were more crowded
than the streets,
as if life were transferred
to that vertical world with yellow walls,
and permeated the small bullet holes.
I don’t remember anyone’s
name, except for the oldest son Yasseen,
whose madness imposed itself on us,
whom we found from time to time,
unconscious on the night stairs,
like a garbage bag at our feet.
Umm Jamal’s laughter trembled,
settled in the fat around her waist.
As I ate she insisted
that I eat everything with bread,
told me her granddaughter
loved ketchup too.
One day she dusted her photo frames,
arranged them in sunlit angles,
braided her long winter hair in a bun,
pinned it to the back of her head
and stopped aging.
Raymond lived with his mother
who went sideways down the stairs,
click, click, slowly, click,
(they say the war disturbs your walk).
Sometimes he sang in the shower
boom boom boom,
boom boom boom,”
until the ambulance flickered in the dark
like an ominous red star.
One day on the stairs,
time decided to
stop, cut itself in two,
let Raymond descend
from his room on the seventh.
I looked and told myself,
“Do not fear poor Raymond,
poor Raymond, he’s so calm.”
Ammo Jawad couldn’t part
with the city, and its cafés, its streets.
On nights when the heat
grabbed you by the throat,
he slept on the balcony, smoked cigars,
wrote to his family in Dallas,
scribbled Arabic poetry across the sky
of the ’60s, of fields of wild thyme
and a cold light breeze.
The beautiful mother with blue eyes
shouted to the grocery store
from the balcony every other day,
I can still hear her say,
“Tomatoes, rice, tissues, and
the thin ones please.”
The father smoked Gitanes and
politics, wanted to change his car,
wanted to change his life.
He sang me to sleep every night,
planted my name
among olives and jasmine trees.
The little girl with crooked teeth
biked on the balcony with her brother,
remembers nothing of the civil war,
except a man singing to Hiroshima,
buckets filled with water, stairs,
and a little candle in the corridor
lit so she won’t be afraid of the dark.
Published in To Live in Autumn (The Backwaters Press, 2014)