I’ve been baking bread lately and thought you would enjoy some photos of my fragrant golden loaves. A poem about bread was needed to accompany them. It turns out the bread poem I liked best is about Beirut, Lebanon by Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish. Which led to me being sidetracked in this no-travel year, going back to a post I wrote some years ago about visiting Beirut.
This post then is part new poem and part the re-telling of a travel story with my new bread pictures thrown in for good measure.
Bread by Mahmoud Darwish
From early dusk the day was inscrutable
The sun shows up, lazy as usual
A mineral ash, eastward, blocks the horizon. . .
In the veins of clouds
In household pipes
The water was hard. . .
A desperate autumn in the life of Beirut
Death spread from the palace
to the radio to the salesman of sex
To the vegetable market
What is it wakes you now?
Exactly five o’clock
And thirty people killed
Go back to sleep
It is a time of death and a time of fire
Ibrahim was a painter
He painted water
He was a deck for lilies to grow on
And terrible if woken up at dawn
But his children were spun of lilac and sunlight
They wanted milk and a loaf of bread
Inscrutable day. My face
A telegram made of wheat in a field of bullets
What is it wakes you now
Exactly five o’clock
And thirty people killed
Bread never had this taste before
This blood this whispering texture this grand apprehension complete essence this voice this time this colour this art this human energy this secret this magic this unique movement from the cavern of origin to
the gang war to the tragedy of Beirut
At exactly five o’clock
Who was dying?
Into his hands Ibrahim took the last color
Color of the secrets in the elements
A painter and a rebel he painted
A land teeming with people, oak trees, and war
Ocean waves, working people, street vendors, countryside
And he paints
In the miracle of bread
My Story. Beirut 2009
I am sitting on a curb in Beirut in the working class neighborhood at the very start of the Green Line, that famous division the Christians and Muslims of this city used for so many years as their bloody ‘line in the sand.’ I am a wanna be history nerd and curious traveler, spending my last day in this city exploring. Walking through the maze of streets, semi-lost for the last couple of hours, I finally ask someone with a bit of English for directions, he says “Yes, yes…Green Line,” nodding vigorously and pointing. But first a falafel shop entices me to pause in front of a window display of those wonderful crusty brown balls of chickpea delight and the men assembling the falafel sandwiches beckon me inside. I’m too hungry to resist and with sandwich in hand I move across the street for curbside dining just in front of a typical Beirut building—shot up and abandoned!
There are only men out and about here. This is usual, even in relatively liberal Beirut, once you get away from the city center and into a Muslim sector. It feels lopsided. The men treat me with great respect and share pleasantries because I’m too old to threaten their standards of womanly propriety, but still I feel denigrated on behalf of my hidden sisters.
It is hot, but bearably so, nice here on the curb in this quiet street, with tahini running through my fingers, feeling grungier with each messy bite. But a falafel sandwich tastes very fine after an entire day walking the streets of this strangely pleasant, accommodating, bullet-riddled city. I’m tired and hungry and very happy exactly where I am at the moment.
I’ve always been fascinated by Beirut and its civil war. I guess it’s the surreal quality of a bunch of Christian and Muslim militias, resembling LA street gangs more than anything else, destroying “the Paris of the East” for the hell of it. Seeing with your own eyes something you’ve read about but couldn’t quite fathom, feeling righteously tired from serious street tramping and assuaging your hunger with the middle eastern version of a good burger—it is a perfect travel moment.
The guys going in and out of the falafel shop stare at me briefly before deciding I’m a harmless eccentric and moving on. Otherwise it is so peaceful here. I try to picture what it must have been like back then. I’ve seen hundreds of thousands of bullet holes today, most notably at the multi-story shell left after the 1976 “battle of the Holiday Inn” and at the Place des Martyrs where the bronze statue of the martyrs could better be described as the bronze lacework of the gunmen. I sit here thinking of what I’ve seen today. All those bullet holes from all those men shooting, shooting, shooting in the names of God and Allah, but really for power and money, or because they are too damn dumb or terrified to stay out of the game.
On a street not far from here, men and bulldozers are busy rebuilding a section that resembles Rodeo Drive in LA in terms of exclusivity; obviously expectations of peace and prosperity are high. I think about the toys of our little boys; in the sand boxes of the world they tear down and build up and crash and dig. I know I am stereotyping and I know I am not saying anything new, but there does seem to be something true about boys not really growing up—but rather trading up—for more dangerous toys and powerful playthings as they age. Beirut is a world-class example of what happens then. Sorry. I’m mad. You can’t NOT be mad at men in Beirut.
Silly me. Philosophizing on the curb when I still have to walk the Green Line before catching a plane to the normalcy of Uganda!