Written by: Nikola Popović
Translated by: Jelena Ćuslović
Lots of people in Beirut know the story of poet Mahmoud and ballerina Tatiana. It’s been circulating around the city for quite a while now, hanging in the air above the pavements of Hamra and returning to where it started – the same, but always different, with some new details, the unexpected twists and turns of the plot. The stories in Beirut are never fully told; they have neither a clear beginning nor ending, but come to listeners in waves like ripples expanding across the water when a stone is dropped into it. The story of the poet and ballerina can be heard at a barber shop, taxi, at the entrance of a cathedral or mosque, or at the bar in The Captain’s Cabin. It has already become a myth in this city where storytelling is a part of everyday life even though it refers to the events of the very recent past.
In this story, the past and present merged into one can never fade away, because the protagonists are about to live long, especially she – Tatiana, who still dances at the Caracalla Dance Theatre. She’s playing a Queen’s chaperon in the latest Egyptian show Antony and Cleopatra this evening. The Daily Star, a newspaper of Lebanon, has published an article about the show with a section about Tatiana’s solo performance and the picture of her wearing amber makeup and a dark mascara line under her eyes. And Mahmoud’s gone for more than a year. Now everyone’s saying that they were very close to him, he read his poems and diary entries to them, travelled to Damascus and Aleppo together, and drank arak up to the early morning hours in some smoky inns there.
Travels and drunken nights? Neither did he travel – he hardly ever left Beirut, nor did he drink. And more than anything else, he detested sweet Orient pictures – sofas with big cushions, canopies, belly dancers, caravans and oases. Only those who knew him well like Farouk – a barber, or André – the owner of The Captain’s Cabin, know the exact sequence of events and could add the pieces missing from the mosaics of this Beirut romance. But both of them, two masters of their crafts and spoken words, know only too well that these details are exactly what could disturb the fragile magic of the story that was created somewhere between reality and fantasy, the place all Beirut stories belong to.
Farouk told me only one episode over the sound of his scissors.
Mahmoud came into his barber shop one day, just before the première. There was this show commissioned by the House of Saud, about the history of their dynasty, glorious battles and how they drew borderlines in desert sand. The barber was dozing in his styling chair and only a buzzing sound of the insect he couldn’t get rid of for days was heard in his empty salon that afternoon. The big street in the district of Koraytem was nearly deserted; only a few cars drove by.
It happened during Ramadan when warm days last long and customers appear at the salon not until the evening.
Mahmoud came in all trembling with excitement and immediately complained about the silence. He asked Farouk to turn on some rhythmic music even before he started shaving him. He patted the barber on the back as if he tried to wake him up from a dream and even though Farouk claimed that one should abstain from eating, drinking and sinful thoughts during the entire month of Ramadan, Mahmoud kept on reciting poetry by Omar Khayyam as though he was deliberately choosing the verses that combined all three: Dreaming when Dawn’s Left Hand was in the Sky / I heard a voice within the Tavern cry, / Awake, my Little ones, and fill the Cup / Before Life’s Liquor in its Cup be dry. Mahmoud said to the barber who had taken care of his hairstyle since he was a little boy that he should give up fasting and stick to women and drinking wine instead, because life was slipping away and time was passing by so quickly. Unborn Tomorrow, and dead Yesterday, / Why fret about them if To-day be sweet! Mahmoud was in a hurry as well. He wanted to get ready for the theatre.
In a men’s magazine, he found a picture of “Van Dyck” beard that was named after a Flemish painter. In the same way, he insisted that Farouk trim and style his beard he’d been growing while waiting for that day and didn’t even listen to the barber who recommended another style that would better suit his round face and sparse beard. The very same morning, Mahmoud bought a silver pocket watch in the Armenian quarter Bourj Hammoud and had a grey double-breasted suit made at Khassan’s, without listening to him either when he said the suit was too much for summer in Beirut. He also brought a bottle of an expensive extract he had ordered from Istanbul and requested that the barber should dissolve it in hot water, allow a towel to soak and then put it on his face.
– It’s a mixture of musk (it gives a man his strength), Moroccan saffron (revives skin glow) and Sudanese rose or hibiscus (you’ve drunk that red tea, right?) – Mahmoud was explaining it while slowly opening the bottle and reading the instructions in Arabic. He was dividing words into syllables and raising his finger in the air with each ingredient mentioned. Farouk’s salon, the place where a fresh scent of mint, eucalyptus, and lemon would always interweave, had a strong smell now that was strange to the barber.
Mahmoud’s face, where his skin was expected to become smooth and tight, only changed its colour and got all red as if he had been in a sauna and wearing a jacket he unbuttoned and buttoned in turn, the poet was getting overheated even more. Farouk turned on a big electric fan and kept on flapping a towel in front of Mahmoud’s face, but he couldn’t either remove or at least reduce a powerful effect of the Istanbul product. Finally, the barber comforted Mahmoud by saying not to worry; with his new beard Mahmoud looked younger and was likely to feel more vivacious – the ballerina was sure to notice both.
Now, a year after the story gradually started to take form, I guess I could say that those few months just before his death he had foreseen, Mahmoud considered me a friend. He wanted to hear an opinion of a stranger who was fascinated by the city the same way he was: Manara district named after a black and white lighthouse, Basta where artefacts and antiques are sold, Achrafieh hill with houses made of white stone, monasteries, and skyscrapers. He used to say that a foreigner who lived in Beirut should accept the customs, learn all common expressions and grow together with the city just as much as it was needed; if it was more, it wouldn’t be good:
– People in Beirut know foreign languages. You could easily live here without knowing Arabic. Actually, your life could be even easier if you don’t – there’s no need for you to know everything about Beirut. In this way, everyone will get used to you like gravitation, and your language and customs will protect you from Beirut tittle-tattle like an invisible armour.
He loved dated words such as tittle-tattle, used them and added pauses before and after each one, enjoying every syllable as if he was sipping his wine.
Mahmoud was unpredictable like Beirut weather, someone who always went to extremes in everything. He would unexpectedly pay us a visit, having walked along Hamra Street in scorching summer heat or pushed his way through the pouring rain (sometimes in the early hours, Beirut is showered with stormy rain that brings yellow Arabian sand). He would bring freshly picked za’atar, wild thyme, and sesame seeds to me and my wife, explaining how to prepare tea with fresh leaves, how to dry, cut, and finally put them into olive oil.
He used to say that Bedouins in the Jordan desert ate nothing but a spoonful of za’atar in the morning and then rode the whole day, so he was doing the same – this bitter taste was the only thing that helped him write firm and meaningful stanzas. And when the storm was over, he would say that our balcony from where the sea and the Corniche promenade could be looked at, was the place where he felt as if he was in harmony with the whole world and the city itself.
His words about Beirut ranged from his impressions while being enchanted by the city and romantically fascinated by the past to deliberately refusing to accept everyday life:
– It’s a magical place! This big city is the start to everything that exists in the world. It wasn’t a coincidence that the Phoenicians gave it a name which means – a spring, well. Even the streets seem dreamlike. On my way here, coming to your home, I saw a villa with the marble staircase and lanterns similar to those in Venice. The villa is said to have been built on the model of villas in Florence by a friar belonging to the Franciscan order and not having an heir apparent, he bequeathed it to the city. It seems to me that nobody lives there now. Agaves are in bloom, but there’s no one to take care of them. Withered medlars are scattered all over the stairs and tussocks of grass peep shyly around the doorpost. However, I’m sure I saw – and it wasn’t just a shadow, the chandelier light was on – there was a nymph or a Charis, a silhouette of a woman, slender and slim; it was obviously visible even through the Venetian blinds. I think I heard, actually I’m sure I clearly heard the sound of the piano – a sonata or prelude, clinking glasses and a mixture of Arabic and French words.
Only after a few moments, Mahmoud would say:
– A magical place? Paris in the Levant? Lamartine could possibly say something like that but I don’t know when, although I doubt it. It might have been a long time ago. Today’s Beirut is more like a province, a rural backwater. Just listen to the people from Beirut speaking nowadays. They use English words where numerous synonyms could be found in Arabic and each word in this noble language of poetry and faith often has an additional meaning like an Arabesque ornament. Sailors? They used to set sail from Lebanese shores, but nowadays they definitely don’t. Neither do they eat fish, nor know how to swim! And their yachts anchored in the marina are only for showing off or throwing parties and if they do know how to set sail without – what’s the word? – a skipper, my name isn’t Mahmoud! There’s no music any longer except for the sort with unbearable rhythm that is made by a machine and beat forcefully like a racing heart! What happened to Arabic scales and maqams played on the lute or kanun? Where are the ballads of Abdel Wahab? There used to be stars in the sky above Beirut, but now we don’t even have fireflies any more.
But before long, Mahmoud would see Beirut through his previous lenses again:
– It is a magical city, I’ve already told you so. In some cafés and tea-houses, however rare it may be, one can hear songs performed by Fairuz and a powerful voice of a young Egyptian girl
– Umm Kulthum. There are still some places in Beirut, few ones indeed, where you can find a real Mediterranean garden with calming music that is played in the background while people are talking. I was just in one yesterday! It is in Adonis Street. First you should pass Shatilla Mosque and go along the street all the way to St. Rita Church (you can say a prayer there since she’s the patroness of travellers). Then you should go towards the old lighthouse and continue down Ardati Street until the sea visible through the palm trees come into your sight. You should walk down the colourful stairs there, next to the graffiti wall, and all the way to the harbour.
Like a painter who conveys a panorama of the city on a canvas the way he’s seen it in his dream, Mahmoud would arrange the street in Beirut as he was looking at them from a bird’s eye view. Khalil, a taxi driver, told me once that Mahmoud used to take driving lessons and was able to learn how to steer a vehicle and obey traffic signs, but in his consciousness he would move the landmarks – pull them closer or push them further away of his own free will: If there’s any poetry in traffic, then it must be Mahmoud’s driving.
– Right there, next to that new German bank (I’ve forgotten the name, it’s with a double letter), there’s a garden overgrown with ivy. The oleander in this garden smells like fresh fruit cut in half. I listened to some songs and did some writing there yesterday. I was finishing some quatrains I had started a long time ago, when an oleander leaf fell off a branch right into my tea. Of course, I immediately stopped drinking it. There, you’re laughing like all the others who say that Mahmoud is scared of getting sick! But nobody knows that Napoleon’s soldiers were poisoned by the roast meat prepared on oleander charcoal.
Mahmoud was a hypochondriac. The barman Andre told me all about it. Before he drank a cup of tea (I guess he was the only one who drank tea at the Cabin), he would ask for a cloth to wipe the bar and clean the rim of the cup with a tissue. Ever since he had found a Chinese chemist’s shop in Sidani Street, he always had some algae drops with him which he put in his tea explaining how heart-healthy they were.
He would show his ultrasound results at the Cabin, spreading the paper across the bar, and then hold it up to the light interpreting the uneven line the same way a gnawed animal shoulder joint is read at Faraya Mountain to say what to expect in the year ahead. He didn’t believe his Dr Yasser Hut, a Canadian student, who prescribed him a drug and told him to let the people in medicine read an echocardiogram. Instead of believing shamans and buying all kinds of herbs and extracts from them, he’d better start running down the beach.
Dr Hut, a lovely and charismatic man, was always a gourmand and mostly enjoyed exactly what he didn’t recommend his patients eat: deep-fried food. He used to say that falafel, a deep-fried ball made from ground chickpeas, had only one road to follow – from a deep fryer to the palate. Since his second child was born last year, he has gained a few more pounds and each new diet has made the situation with his weight even worse. He ran down the beach in scorching heat in a special tracksuit he had bought in Canada, drank a sports drink that stimulated sweating, managed to stick to a healthy eating regime for not more than a few days and then returned to his regular eating habits and enjoyed food, as usual.
In the warm inside of the tavern at the corner of Sadat Street, Mahmoud liked talking a lot especially among a few well-chosen artists who appreciated his poetry, but he also knew when to keep silent. However, his silence wouldn’t last long and he would go on to recite his poems indefinitely, speak about the ballerina’s dancing, perform pirouettes and spin around like a dervish.
She should be mentioned here as well, since this story is of the poet and ballerina – it involves both of them.
Russian on her father’s side and Lebanese on her mother’s, Tatiana was born in Saint Petersburg, it was then named Leningrad. She finished the ballet school there, the Vaganova Academy of Russian Ballet, and was one of their most promising students. She was said to play in the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow one day. Her father was an Aeroflot captain. After the show the other day, she gave an interview for L’Orient-Le Jour – the Beirut newspaper in French. Nazih, a young reporter and a French student, had a great sense of proportion and was very polite.
Steering clear of the story of the poet and all Beirut rumours going round about it, he asked Tatiana the questions she answered in more details than he had expected. So, the interview done in the Phoenicia Hotel turned out to be much better since it was missing all the abrupt questions Tatiana Mansur (her Maronite surname that became inseparable from her Russian name after having been repeated numerous times) had decided to stop answering a long time before.
She said she remembered her father coming back to Leningrad after his late flights in the middle of the night. He would take off his peaked cap, like the one officer used to wear, and before entering the flat, he would shake the snow off his uniform with yellow service ribbons and golden epaulettes. Their flat was small with thin walls and was located in a housing estate like the ones built in the 60s. She also said she remembered the polar nights and how her breath would freeze in the mornings after she drank her cup of tea and went out climbing down the narrow staircase. And in the evening, ice floes floating down the Neva appeared bluish because of the reflection of the bright light from the sky. Moveable bridges were lifted to allow boats to pass.
They learnt the names of the Former Soviet Union capitals at school. Tatiana still remembered Russian trains and school trips to Moldova and Crimea with the warm winds coming from the Mediterranean. They learnt off by heart the names of the capital cities in the world and the poems by Pushkin, Blok and Anna Akhmatova. Why learning by heart? – asked the reporter. Tatiana said what she had heard from her Russian teacher – because the poetry learnt in such a manner could never be taken away from you.
Her mother read her Khalil Gibran poems about Lebanese mountains in the north, paths leading up to the caves carved into rock faces, known to be the dwelling places of hermits and, in a way that was very interesting and attractive, she spoke about the cities and towns in Lebanon: Byblos – one of the oldest cities in the world, Bsharri – Gibran’s birthplace, Tyre – a port city with colourful houses and a Phoenician wracked ship like a big fish skeleton at the pier. She used to work in a Lebanon restaurant in St. Petersburg frequented mostly by the Lebanese who usually studied medicine or technical sciences in Moscow.
One day, her father started coming back home later in the evening and less often than usual and when the mighty Soviet Union collapsed, so did her parents’ marriage. Tatiana then moved to Beirut with her mother who started working in a new French restaurant in Gemmayzeh Street. Tatiana’s performance at the Caracalla Theatre audition went very well. She joined the theatre troupe famous for combining the elements of a Broadway musical and oriental dance.
Nowadays, a lot of people speak about her and Mahmoud alike as if they met her daily and knew her well. As if every taxi driver in Beirut had an opportunity to give her a lift and every barman in the Phoenicia Hotel served her with ice cream or vodka with blackcurrant juice. The taxi driver Khalil admitted that he had never given her a lift – in the big city of Beirut, he rarely had driving routes in the district where the theatre was. But he said he had seen her once in Hamra Street, just before the storm:
– Suddenly, the sky turned black and a strong wind started to blow. I was driving down Hamra Street watching the cars that seemed as if they would fly over one another and, as a matter of fact, I can’t really say why I chose to go that way since I knew that it would be most crowded, not only in Beirut, but in the whole Lebanon too. The pavements were packed with people rushing home and nobody was standing except for one woman, on the corner of Hamra and Roman Street. She upturned the collar of her coat and had a hat on. However, I recognized her face even though I’d seen her only once in a newspaper. Her facial features are Russian, but her complexion is similar to ours – darker and more Lebanese-like (it helps her feel both at home and a foreigner at the same time). So there she was, on the corner of Roman Street and a big black car was waiting for her. The driver didn’t leave the vehicle to open the door for her. And she is well worthy of getting out of the car, even in stormy weather.
Khalil knew the streets in Beirut, every house and house number. The geography of the city that rapidly changed its face going through different stages of war – a lull or peace, left distinguishing marks in his life. And his Toyota was like Andre’s bar – a lot of different stories could have been heard there too. The bar floated silently like a subterranean river, under the surface of the city, and the vehicle, no matter how noisy and dusty the surface might have been, cruised the town and along the very surface day and night. In his district Cola, where the old railway and the stadium were, Khalil learnt the art of storytelling. And now he would like to create a story about Tatiana, even though he didn’t have any elements to put them together except for one lonely image of her waiting at the Beirut street, dark and gloomy – the image that Khalil thought he could use to start building his path up to the stars.
Tatiana dance shows were inspired by The Arabian Nights and accompanied by the music that combined the elements of the music of Western culture and the Orient. Mahmoud often strongly disapproved of it:
– Bolero by Ravel performed on the zurna, Arabian lute and tarabuka – well, has anyone seen it before?!
And when he was in a good mood, he would express his approval of such a combination:
– What music! What musicians! I have to congratulate the arranger Hamid after the next show! I know him, he’s from Al Zarif just like me.
Mahmoud loved building relationships between people. He used to say that two men pull down each other’s boundaries. At least, he did his best to do it. He read about the Italian poets who started the sweet new style, the most important literary movement of the 13th century in Florence. He often mentioned the poem in which poets and their ladies sat in a small boat and talked about poetry and love. He was fascinated by the idea of such brotherhood and argued in favour of the fellowship of the poets in Beirut who are, regarding their art, closely connected to words. And words are elusive and immaterial, like the spirit itself.
Guided by his genuine intentions to make artists join together, Mahmoud did things nobody asked him to, making his friends feel uncomfortable, and occasionally achieving desired results. He sent the poems by Ibn Rushdie, a professor of Arabic literature, without his knowledge, to the editorial board of a magazine and the video of Hamid’s orchestra live performance to the jury of the Avignon Theatre Festival. He also wrote to Matthias Wagner, who still makes musical instruments and organizes the Oriental Music Summer Academy in Salzburg every year. The Austrian, who makes lutes of top-quality wood, replied to him immediately in an earnest and clear manner. He told him he liked the idea and asked for, in Mahmoud’s words – suggestions for further cooperation (Mahmoud kept on repeating this business expression as seriously as if he was telling an all-important secret). After a few exchanged emails, Hamid went to Salzburg where he held a masterclass about arranging as regards contemporary Arabic music and, with Wagner’s help, he applied and was awarded the prize as a world music composer. That was the reason why he always had a weakness for Mahmoud – he never underestimated his managerial skills and couldn’t say no to him.
Mahmoud persuaded Hamid to go into a studio and make recordings of a few songs based on his poems. Mahmoud was the one who sang – he recited more than he sang in tune, but he couldn’t care less.
– Bob Dylan sings, Lou Reed and Leonard Cohen sing, why can’t Mahmoud sing too?
His poems in Arabic were all about Beirut, mostly about Hamra, the street he loved so dearly. Some of them were written in English. He wrote, as he used to say, a seafaring poem, inspired by a character in a comic book created by Hugo Pratt – Corto Maltese, a sea captain and adventure seeker.
In the chorus, Mahmoud sang a Latin phrase: To sail is necessary, to live is not necessary
– the one he engraved on his desk when he was still a boy. He asked Hamid to include the sound of clinking glasses because he wanted to conjure up the noise of a harbour pub where sailors would have a drink or two before they set sail. He wanted to make a video of himself and an orchestra of majorettes walking down Hamra Street. The lines of the poem say that in the heart of the city where everything is teeming with life, there must be life, tenderness and warmth for him as well. He imaged a scene like the one with Pompey who stepped first onto the quarterdeck while the storm was raging and said they must continue sailing. So, in this scene he imagined himself wearing a captain coat, stepping first onto a ship rocking in a heavy storm and signalling to his poet friends that the sail would go on despite the storm.
Mahmoud’s view on the theatre shows and the repertoire that was changed almost daily was much the same as his opinion about Beirut – it would always swing between praise and condemnation and vary with his mood. Nevertheless, he went to the theatre only because of ballerina Tatiana.
Everything started when he saw the show Once upon a time (the critics said it was a nostalgic story about Arab old times seen through the prism of the current situation in Lebanon). After the show, he walked down Hamra Street as if he was intoxicated, stopped the passers-by and told them about the show (now I think that his desire to speak even to a stranger was just a reflection of his profound human qualities). It finally brought him to The Captain’s Cabin where Andre poured him only a half glass of wine and said it was enough. But Mahmoud didn’t need wine whatsoever. He was already talking about how he knew he had found his muse as soon as she showed up on stage. Before long, he started writing a book – some kind of lyrical diary.
Ibn Rushdie told him with no hesitation that writing a love diary reminded him of Petrarch’s poetry, but even more so of The New Life by Dante. He believed Mahmoud’s experience was the same – he started a new life after he had seen the ballerina for the first time even though he knew nothing about her. She might have been promised to someone, married, or an easy woman. Eventually, Ibn Rushdie said there was no doubt that the diary came into existence after Mahmoud had read a lot of books of the same kind and: “Mahmoud’s expression should be considered in the context of its genre.” Whenever Ibn Rushdie wanted to say something similar, he would touch his glasses, readjust them and straighten up his back a bit, before he even started talking. Mahmoud replied in a manner that made everyone around laugh, saying that Ibn Rushdie would always strike a pose in order to sound more intelligent adding that his inspiration was unique as Beirut was – the stories and romances went on repeating like everything else in nature: wind, seas and lunar phases.
Ibn Rushdie couldn’t keep silent and said that Mahmoud’s lyrical diary was just a figment of his imagination and fantasies about women Mahmoud knew little about. In an introductory chapter of his book, Mahmoud wrote down that he could hear the sound of flapping wings each time Tatiana showed up on stage. And how the phone would ring at his home late in the evening, and the silence on the other end of the line was only to be heard. However, he knew it was Tatiana calling. Everything would stay within the scope of his lyrical writing if Mahmoud wasn’t obsessed with the thought of meeting her so as to give her the introductory chapter at the very least. He tried to start a conversation with her a few times at the theatre, but had no success. After every show, she would hang out with other performers from her dance troupe for a long while at the theatre bar where only the actors and musicians from the orchestra were allowed to enter.
Mahmoud started taking Russian lessons. He wanted to read original versions of Gogol – about the tramping of cavalry horses and wide steppes. Moreover, he wanted to read Chekhov stories. He was particularly fond of one with the title ‘A Joke’ in which the narrator and Nadya rode down a snow hill on a sled for two. He whispered “I love you” in her ear and his words disappeared in Russian winter. Mahmoud said: – Beirut has a mild climate, while Russia has a very harsh one as if the whole nature was against human beings and their love.
Mahmoud’s story about the ballerina that was funny and amusing at first – not only to his poet friends, but also to Tatiana’s theatre circle, went far beyond the joke. And the image of him as a poet from Al Zarif differed considerably from the real one. The words describing him as crazy and deranged were heard more and more often – how this so-called poet was obsessed with the ballerina, how he waited for her in front of the theatre and might even have been prone to violence. During last summer in Beirut, there were multiple bomb blasts (Farouk said that something must happen in Beirut every summer). And as it was usually the case in Beirut, one side attacked the other and in the meantime – while everyone was waiting for the response – the people in Beirut talked mostly about the things the life in the city didn’t depend on, that is, the stories of other people avoiding to say either their names or events.
But the rumours weren’t favourable for Mahmoud since his behaviour only made matters worse. Tatiana started to feel scared of the man with dirty glasses who came to see every show and wore a suit even in summer. Ibn Rushdie knew Tatiana because she performed at the Caracalla Theatre in a musical based on his text. Honest and occasionally gullible Ibn Rushdie felt that it would be complete nonsense to help Mahmoud because in that way he would become a part of it as well. Nevertheless, he offered to give her Mahmoud’s letter and a CD with his songs hoping that things would be, as he said, rationalised (Ibn Rushdie writes moderate poetry and clear sentences; Mahmoud sometimes had only words of praise for his poems and on some occasions he would say that Ibn should give up writing poetry and become a critic).
Ibn Rushdie managed to persuade Mahmoud to write her in English. If he had written in Arabic, his writing style would have been immaculate and at the same time incomprehensible to her. He couldn’t make anyone change their mind and convince them that Mahmoud was harmless and some kind of Don Quixote from Beirut who read a lot and lived mainly in the books he was reading and there was definitely no room for any violence in his friend’s moral code. Mahmoud kept on sending her letters.
The first one was taken to the theatre by Farouk, ‘‘the barber who looks like Omar Sharif’’. The second one was taken by Andre, the barman who attentively listened to sober, tipsy, or drunk guests. I took the CD with music and left it to a security guy who, even though I put on my best suit at Mahmoud’s insistence, didn’t want to let me go any further when I mentioned my friend’s name.
At the travel agency in Bliss Street, Mahmoud made inquiries about travelling on the Trans-Siberian Railway, got all the brochures and had his passport photo taken. He also bought the Russian edition of National Geographic. Ibn Rushdie laughed when he saw a well-known yellow line and big Cyrillic letters.
On the cover of the magazine, there was a picture of the African crowned crane, an exotic bird with a long bill – the photo taken by a Finnish photographer who had won at the competition on the topic of extinct bird species. The plumage at the top of its head was read and in the lower part that was connected to a long and thin neck, it was in sea foam colour. In the middle of the head, there was an eye in the colour of lava with a black pupil. Mahmoud claimed it was a female.
The concierge in our block of flats Abou Ali who knew a lot about birds (he interpreted time, events and people by simply watching them) said Mahmoud was right. Andre thought it would be better to ask ornithologist Heinrich, a German professor who had been living in Beirut for a long time and often came to the Cabin. Andre also wanted to be funny and said that a bird could either be a female or a male – there was no third option. Farouk, the oldest Mahmoud’s friend, believed that the bird was of no importance whatsoever, and apart from poetry, life in Beirut is made up of money that was very hard to earn there, a job and family that everyone should start. Mahmoud was all wrapped up with his fantasies about the ballerina and a million miles away from reality, disregarding the fact that life in Beirut is also made up of little things such as shaving. Farouk went on in a low voice:
– He’s been talking only about the ballerina for quite a while now. If it wasn’t for his mother in the house in Al Zarif, who knows what he would live by! I saw him yesterday. He was walking down Hamra Street as if he was from another planet! His face was covered with a few days’ stubble. If that’s what he looked like when he went to the theatre, well…
Ibn Rushdie called me one morning to say that Mahmoud had died of a heart attack while sleeping. His mother invited us to come to their old house in Al Zarif. Dr Hut came too. Apart from his mother, the doctor was the only one who knew about Mahmoud’s congenital heart defects, treated him as best he could and realised that if he had told him all about the problem, Mahmoud would have felt even worse.
We spent the afternoon in Al Zarif drinking arak and trying to sort out his texts – his archives that followed the same pattern of Mahmoud’s scattered thoughts. Hamid had kept all the recordings neat and tidy in his studio, but Mahmoud’s texts and his book collection – books lying all over the room, on shelves and beds, even in the kitchen – were more difficult to put in order.
Ibn Rushdie recalled Mahmoud’s words:
– I burnt down a couple of sonnets this morning even though there were some good lines. There was too much repetition.
And shortly after, Mahmoud would always add, as if he replied to himself, that he was going to outshine all other poets with his Beirut poetry – even Khayyam himself who combined images in poems like maqams on the lute.
Dr Hut said he’d watched once a TV show about a monastic library somewhere in Italy, in Tuscany, where the books were organized by size – from bigger to smaller ones, and not by subject or alphabetically by author’s name. So, we did the same with Mahmoud’s books – Boccaccio’s Decameron in Arabic (a really big book, hardback edition, printed in Cairo), Kassir’s books about Beirut (a small format but thick books), and then pocket edition of Russian classics: Tolstoy, Turgenev, Gogol…
‘‘Broadway waiting for a Beirut star’’ – The Daily Star published an article about Tatiana moving to the theatre in New York where they had been preparing the premiere of Aladdin. Bed canopies, rugs, magic lamps – Disney’s portrayal of the Arab world.
The ballerina, who followed her path leading from Leningrad to Lebanon, was to leave Beirut. The rumours about Mahmoud and his fantasies including the ballerina who performed at the Caracalla Theatre were frequently heard in the city for a little while, and then it started happening less often. In the end, the poet was mentioned only by his friends (your life isn’t over as long as you are remembered by your friends) and a few literature lovers. The reason may be that Mahmoud’s poems and lyrical writings were all that was left of Khayyam’s fascination with life in modern Beirut poetry.
Ibn Rushdie got a few chapters from Mahmoud’s lyrical diary published in some literary magazines and, as best he could, wrote a rather long accompanying essay including the information about similar books in European and world literature. He put Mahmoud, as he said it, among a good group of people, in an elegant manner and with no pretensions whatsoever. He claimed that it hadn’t been possible to collect his writings in a book that had both a common introduction and ending. Thus, his literary fragments would remain scattered resembling the way he used to live and write.
In the same way our memories get dispersed and the elements of this story about Mahmoud as well.
However, I think Mahmoud finished his lyrical diary after all.
Mahmoud’s life has finished while we still have ours to live and the sailing goes on. Ibn Rushdie said that the ending of a story must be happy and as clear as the sky over the sea, because no one, not even a writer, had rights to anchor the destinies of living people. As for writing itself, a different kind of ending would stop people who got used to adjusting the speed and path of any sudden occurrences, making up the stories about the events in this ever-changing city.
Ibn Rushdie was about to leave Beirut too. The same way Mahmoud had started a new life, he said he was leaving for the New World. He would teach at the university located in Ithaca – the city that was named after Odysseus’s island. Ibn Rushdie was hoping to find his peace there as the Greek king did. He had heard that roe deer could be seen from the college library (He said: ‘‘But that’s another story.’’) And there he would finish his long-prepared anthology of modern Lebanese poetry where he included everyone that had warmed up under the Gibran’s cloak first, and then discovered their own poetic expressions.
Everyone who has temporarily settled down in Beirut – the city where the essence of a foreigner goes through the storm and undergoes a total transformation – would sooner or later leave the city too.
Barber Farouk stayed here even though he’d harboured hopes for travelling in the direction the Syrian never-ending civil war got into his way and so he couldn’t for quite a while. In his garage, Farouk still had a red Ford car built in the 1970s with the headlights that looked like small and round glasses. He had bought it before the civil war started and travelled from Aleppo, through Istanbul and Sofia, all the way to Paris where he got himself a watch from the collection Omar Sharif. He brought a heavy and tough Russian Zenith camera from former Yugoslavia and found an iron ventilator in olive green that was still working (but that could be another Farouk’s story too).
Other people that were meant to cross Mahmoud’s path also stayed in Beirut. Andre, Khalil, Yasser Hut – the doctor who loved people and food, and Abou Ali – the concierge who whispered to birds. They were all able to listen to stories, pass them on and wrap them in a veil of friendship. Mahmoud could create alluring illusions and a poetic image of the Mediterranean even if he only had a view of the sea or a picture on a chocolate box. And his ballerina story – like the works of Cervantes, Dante, and Petrarch, was a very personal narrative that became an essential part of lyric poetry of this region.
The early morning sun was beaming down on Hamra, the street named after red colour. Some Bangladesh street sweepers were washing the pavements while the dogs were dozing in front of the jewellery and souvenir shops. A green lorry was moving down the street, gliding gently like a vessel through the water. Abou Waseem had already opened the door of his falafel shop in front of which there was a cauldron with chickpeas simmering and waiting to be ground in a few hours. Pink and green façades were slowly getting dreamlike shades and while our vehicle was heading towards the airport, I was watching the city waking up and felt like I could hear the gentle sounds of a lute accompanied by the music of the oboe – the instrument most similar to the human voice. We were so close to the tunnel that was leading to the motorway, bright and full of light. We left Hamra behind, clean and shiny.
Nikola Popović (Sarajevo, Bosnia, and Herzegovina, 1979) is a researcher and lecturer in the Music Department of the Faculty of Philology and Arts (University of Kragujevac, Serbia). He has published Serbian translations of Ettore Masina, Simona Vinci, Valeria Parrella, and other authors, as well as numerous essays on the aesthetics of contemporary Italian prose in Serbian and Italian. His publications also include reviews of books, films, and plays. He has published the book Priče iz Libana (Stories from Lebanon), as well as fictional stories inspired by his trips to Lebanon, Ghana, Congo, and other countries.
Translator, Jelena Ćuslović (b. 1978) is an English teacher, translator, and writer. She has published two books so far: Snovi za budne (Dreams for the Awake, 2017), a collection of short stories, and Oči (The Eyes, 2018), a novel, and is currently working on a picture book, Najda, vila izgubljenih želja (Najda, the Fairy of Lost Wishes). She is a writer who translates and a translator who writes and is in love with both art forms that require creative commitment to the same extent.