By Mahmoud Darwish
"August, Beirut, 1982
Out of one dream, another dream is born:
-Are you well? I mean, are you alive?
-How did you know I was just this moment laying my head on your knee to sleep?
-Because you woke me up when you stirred in my belly. I knew then I was your coffin. Are you alive? Can you hear me?
-Does it happen much, that you are awakened from one dream by another, itself the interpretation of the dream?
-Here it is, happening to you and to me. Are you alive?
-And have the devils cast their spell on you?
-I don't know, but in time there's room for death.
-Don't die completely.
-I'll try not to.
-Don't die at all.
-I'll try not to.
-Tell me, when did it happen? I mean, when did we meet? When did we part?
-Thirteen years ago.
-Did we meet often?
-Twice: once in the rain, and again in the rain. The third time, we didn't meet at all. I went away and forgot you. A while ago I remembered. I remembered I'd forgotten you. I was dreaming.
That also happens to me. I too was dreaming. I had your phone number from a Swedish friend who'd met you in Beirut. I wish you good night! Don't forget not to die. I still want you. And when you come back to life, I want you to call me. How the time flies ! Thirteen years! No. It all happened last night. Good night!
Three o'clock. Daybreak riding on fire. A nightmare coming from the sea. Roosters made of metal. Smoke. Metal preparing a feast for metal the master, and a dawn that flares up in all the senses before it breaks. A roaring that chases me out of bed and throws me into this narrow hallway. I want nothing, and I hope for nothing. I can't direct my limbs in this pandemonium. No time for caution, and no time for time. If I only knew--if I knew how to organize the crush of this death that keeps pouring forth. If only I knew how to liberate the screams held back in a body that no longer feels like mine from the sheer effort spent to save itself in this uninterrupted chaos of shells. 'Enough!' 'Enough!' I whisper, to find out if I can still do anything that will guide me to myself and point to the abyss opening in six directions. I can't surrender to this fate, and I can't resist it. Steel that howls, only to have other steel bark back. The fever of metal is the song of this dawn.
What if this inferno were to take a five-minute break, and then come what may? Just five minutes! I almost say, 'Five minutes only, during which I could make my one and only preparation and then ready myself for life or death.' Will five minutes be enough? Yes. Enough for me to sneak out of this narrow hallway, open to bedroom, study, and bathroom with no water, open to the kitchen, into which for the last hour I've been ready to spring but unable to move. I'm not able to move at all.
Two hours ago I went to sleep. I plugged my ears with cotton and went to sleep after hearing the last newscast. It didn't report I was dead. That means I'm still alive. I examine the parts of my body and find them all there. Two eyes, two ears, a long nose, ten toes below, ten fingers above, a finger in the middle. As for the heart, it can't be seen, and I find nothing that points to it except my extraordinary ability to count my limbs and take note of a pistol lying on a bookshelf in the study. An elegant handgun--clean, sparkling, small, and empty. Along with it they also presented me with a box of bullets, which I hid I don't know where two years ago, fearing folly, fearing a stray outburst of anger, fearing a stray bullet. The conclusion is, I'm alive; or, more accurately, I exist.
No one pays heed to the wish I send up with the rising smoke: I need five minutes to place this dawn, or my share of it, on its feet and prepare to launch into this day born of howling. Are we in August ? Yes. We are in August. The war has turned into a siege. I search for news of the hour on the radio, now become a third hand, but find nobody there and no news. The radio, it seems, is asleep.
I no longer wonder when the steely howling of the sea will stop. I live on the eighth floor of a building that might tempt any sniper, to say nothing of a fleet now transforming the sea into one of the fountainheads of hell. The north face of the building, made of glass, used to give tenants a pleasing view over the wrinkled roof of the sea. But now it offers no shield against stark slaughter....
'Our Lady of Lebanon, protect him for all Lebanon!' The barely audible prayer spreads like a prophet's tent, like the raised turrets of Israeli tanks. The Israeli secret habit has now become an open marriage. Israeli soldiers stretch out on the shores of Junieh. And Begin on his birthday eats a whole tank made of halva and calls for signing a peace treaty, or for renewing the old one between Israel and Lebanon. And he chides America: 'We've made you a present of Lebanon.'
What is this old treaty, now up for renewal?
It is a fact that Begin doesn't live in this age or speak a modern language. He's a ghost, come back from the time of King Solomon, who represents the golden age of Jewish history that passed through the land of Palestine. In Jerusalem,
he made coins as common as stones. He built the luxurious temple on a hill and decorated it with cedar and sandalwood, and with silver, gold, and dressed stone; and he made the royal throne of gilded ivory. He struck a treaty with Hiram, king of Tyre, who offered metals and master craftsmen, and fished with him in the Mediterranean. Solomon built the boats, and Hiram gave him the seamen; he built the temple and ruled when he became king. His people learned metalworking and the making of weapons from the Philistines, navigation from the Phoenicians, and agriculture, house building, reading, and writing from the Canaanites.
Begin has assumed the persona of Solomon, pushing aside Solomon's wisdom, his songs, and his cultural resources. He's taken only the golden age, hoisted on combat tanks. He hasn't learned the lesson about the fall of the kingdom, when the poor became poorer and the rich, richer. His only concern with Solomon is to seek out the king of Tyre to sign a peace treaty. Where is the king of Tyre? Where's the king of Ashrafiya? Begin freezes history as of this moment, not seeing the end of the temple, of which nothing remains except a wall for crying--a wall that archaeology hasn't been able to prove Solomon built. But what have we to do with the history of what came out of history? For in the mind of the king of the legend everything has been frozen as it had been, and since that time history has done nothing in Palestine and on the eastern shores of the Mediterranean except wait for the new king of the legend....
Let Beirut be what it wants to be:
This, our blood raised high for her,
Is an unbending tree. I now wish,
I wish I knew where the heart will fly,
That I may release for her the bird of my heart
And from my body let him set me free.
I am not yet dead and know not if I'll grow
One day older, to see what can't be seen
Of my cities. Let Beirut be what it wants to be:
This, our blood raised high for her,
Is a wall holding at bay my sorrow.
Should she want it, let the sea be ours,
Or let there be no sea in the sea,
If that's what she wants.
Here, within her, I live,
A banner from my own shroud.
Here, I leave behind what's not mine.
And here, I dive into my own soul,
That my time may start with me.
Let Beirut be what it wants to be.
She will forget me,
That I may forget her.
Will I forget? Oh, would, oh, would I could
This moment bring back my homeland
Out of myself! I wish I knew what I desire
I wish I knew!
I wish I knew!"
From Mahmoud Darwish, Memory for Forgetfulness: August, Beirut, 1982, translated by Ibrahim Muhawi ( Berkeley, California: University of California Press, 1995 ).