The Old Building by Lebanese poet Zeina Hashem Beck

Art by Yazan Halwani.
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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

Floor I

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.

Floor IV

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.

Floor V

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.

Floor VII

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

“Hiroshima, Hiroshima,

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.”

Floor IX

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

and dreamt

of the ’60s, of fields of wild thyme

and a cold light breeze.

Floor VI

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

Always, Always,

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)