Getting up on the first morning after we started shelter-in-place here in New York, I went as always straight to the kitchen to start the ritual of making coffee — & immediately thought that the book I wanted/needed to reread at that/this moment was Mahmood Darwish’s Memory of Forgetfulness, which I have done on other occasions over the years since it was published by the University of California Press in Ibrahim Muhawi’s excellent translation (a newer pb edition has an intro by Sinan Antoon, which I haven’t read). The book, set in August 1982 Beirut — more closely even: on Hiroshima Day —, is a series of prose texts dealing with life under siege during the Israeli invasion of Lebanon & its incessant bombing of Beirut. Another kind of shelter-in-place, with death raining out of the sky. Here, the opening pages:
Memory of Forgetfulness
August, Beirut, 1982
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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!
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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. Why did I choose to live here? What a stupid question! I’ve lived here for the past ten years without complaining about the scandal of glass.
But how to reach the kitchen?
I want the aroma of coffee. I want nothing more than the aroma of coffee. And I want nothing more from the passing days than the aroma of coffee. The aroma of coffee so I can hold myself together, stand on my feet, and be transformed from something that crawls, into a human being. The aroma of coffee so I can stand my share of this dawn up on its feet. So that we can go together, this day and I, down into the street in search of another place.
How can I diffuse the aroma of coffee into my cells, while shells from the sea rain down on the sea-facing kitchen, spreading the stink of gunpowder and the taste of nothingness? I measure the period between two shells. One second. One second: shorter than the time between breathing in and breathing out, between two heartbeats. One second is not long enough for me to stand before the stove by the glass facade that overlooks the sea. One second is not long enough to open the water bottle or pour the water into the coffee pot. One second is not long enough to light a match. But one second is long enough for me to burn.
I switch off the radio, no longer wondering if the wall of this narrow hallway will actually protect me from the rain of rockets. What matters is that a wall be there to veil air fusing into metal, seeking human flesh, making a direct hit, choking it, or scattering shrapnel. In such cases a mere dark curtain is enough to provide an imaginary shield of safety. For death is to see death.
I want the aroma of coffee. I need five minutes. I want a five-minute truce for the sake of coffee. I have no personal wish other than to make a cup of coffee. With this madness I define my task and my aim. All my senses are on their mark, ready at the call to propel my thirst in the direction of the one and only goal: coffee.
Coffee, for an addict like me, is the key to the day.
And coffee, for one who knows it as I do, means making it with your own hands and not having it come to you on a tray, because the bringer of the tray is also the bearer of talk, and the first coffee, the virgin of the silent morning, is spoiled by the first words. Dawn, my dawn, is antithetical to chatter. The aroma of coffee can absorb sounds and will go rancid, even if these sounds are nothing more than a gentle “Good morning!”
Coffee is the morning silence, .early and unhurried, the only
silence in which you can be at peace with self and things, creative, standing alone with some water that you reach for in lazy solitude and pour into a small copper pot with a mysterious shine-yellow turning to brown-that you place over a low fire. Oh, that it were a wood fire!
Stand back from the fire a little and observe a street that has been rising to search for its bread ever since the ape disentangled himself from the trees and walked on two feet. A street borne along on carts loaded with fruits and vegetables, and vendors’ cries notable for faint praise that turns produce into a mere attribute of price. Stand back a little and breathe air sent by the cool night. Then return to your low fire-If only it were a wood fire!-and watch with love and patience the contact between the two elements, fire colored green and blue and water roiling and breathing out tiny white granules that turn into a fine film and grow. Slowly they expand, then quickly swell into bubbles that grow bigger and bigger, and break. Swelling and breaking, they’re thirsty and ready to swallow two spoonfuls of coarse sugar, which no sooner penetrates than the bubbles calm down to a quiet hiss, only to sizzle again in a cry for a substance that is none other than the coffee itself-a flashy rooster of aroma and Eastern masculinity.
Remove the pot from the low fire to carry on the dialogue of a hand, free of the smell of tobacco and ink, with its first creation, which as of this moment will determine the flavor of your day and the arc of your fortune: whether you’re to work or avoid contact with anyone for the day. What emerges from this first motion and its rhythm, from what shakes it out of a world of sleep rising from the previous day, and from whatever mystery it will uncover in you, will form the identity of your new day.
Because coffee, the first cup of coffee, is the mirror of the hand. And the hand that makes the coffee reveals the person that stirs it. Therefore, coffee is the public reading of the open book of the soul. And it is the enchantress that reveals whatever secrets the day will bring.
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The dawn made of lead is still advancing from the direction of the sea, riding on sounds I haven’t heard before. The sea has been entirely packed into stray shells. It is changing its marine nature and turning into metal. Does death have all these names? We said we’d leave. Why then does this red-black-gray rain keep pouring over those leaving or staying, be they people, trees, or stones? We said we’d leave. “By sea?” they asked. “By sea,” we answered. Why then are they arming the foam and waves with this heavy artillery? Is it to hasten our steps to the sea? But first they must break the siege of the sea. They must clear the last path for the last thread of our blood. But that they won’t do, so we won’t be leaving. I’ll go ahead then and make the coffee. […]