Author Mishka Mojabber Mourani wrote down her thoughts about a recent poetry and prose reading organized by Sukoon editor Rewa Zeinati in Beirut:
By Mishka Mojabber Mourani
“We sat in the garden, an anomaly in this city of unruly concrete invaded by trash. Gemmayzeh, just beyond the Beirut city center, had been too close to the demarcation line during the war. As a result, the area had been left pretty much to its own devices during the fifteen years of conflict. While the war raged, the hundred-year-old alleys and traditional Lebanese houses were abandoned, or occupied by cowering people, who had nowhere else to go. .. We were invited to the home of some friends who lived in that area overlooking Gemmayzeh. We found them sitting in the garden with some guests. It was a lovely October evening. The jasmine was still in bloom, and the air was heavy with the scent.
As was often the case when Beirutis got together, the conversation somehow managed to turn to the war years, even though the war had ended some 25 years before.”
So began the reading of my short story The Fragrant Garden as part of a literary event organized by Rewa Zeinati, the editor of Sukoon magazine, who describes the publication as “an independent, online literary journal. It is Arab-themed and in English.” I chose to read this story because of the setting we were in.
The reading took place in the garden of Dar Bistro & Books, a quaint old house surrounded by a little garden, dwarfed by high rise buildings and nestled behind a petrol station in the bowels of Ras Beirut. It was the first day of autumn, so Rewa named the event Hello Khareef The evening featured 8 writers who shared poetry and short stories. Seven of the writers read in English and one in Arabic: Mishka Mourani, Jehan Bseiso, Reem Rashash Shaaban, Marina Chamma, Kathy Shalhoub, Doyle Avant, Mohamad Shami, and Rewa Zeinati.
The readers had not met to discuss their choice of texts, and yet there was a harmony to the evening. For the most part they had complied with the 8-minute limit that Rewa had proposed, and the packed venue remained attentive and appreciative. As different as the stories and poems were, most touched on the subject memory, of younger selves probed for truths that became apparent much later. They spoke of conflict and of loss, and they spanned different cultures and their idiosyncracies. A sampler:
Rewa Zeinati spoke of exile and displacement, of war and its impact on every day life, and of the dysfunctions it continued to produce many years later.
Do you know how many ways there are to die in this place?
When I was a child/ I learned how to play cards/ in the shelter of our building/
while the bombs exploded/ like fireworks in the tight chest of the night sky./ Isn’t that
the most tired/ image you’ve ever heard? In that same shelter/ I also learned how
to share/ a small bag of pumpkin seeds/ to pass the time./ How to make the same
sandwich for everyone/ Canned corn beef/ a squeeze of lemon/ a thin slice of tomato/
and sometimes there were pickles/ all crammed into a single spread of pita bread/ In
Lebanon, a sandwich is called 3aroos/ which/ in Arabic/ means bride. Which/ in
Lebanon/ is also/ another way to die.
Reem Rashash Shaaban’s The Falling Leaf of Heaven captures a moment of unutterable loss as a child learns the meaning of mortality from a falling leaf:
“I wonder whose leaf will fall this year,” said my mother pulling back the curtains and looking out into the garden whose trees were almost naked in the cold winter air. She pointed at a lone leaf falling to the ground. I shivered inside as I watched the brown leaf settle on the untrodden snow.
It is said that in the middle of the second holiest Muslim month, Shaaban, the leaves of the tree of heaven start falling. As I imagine them, these leaves flutter down slowly, floating in the breeze to land on the soft bed of grass or cloud below. (I like to think that Heaven lies on a bed of clouds). These leaves are not just any leaves. They are special, for each leaf contains the name of a person that will die within the coming year.”
In his narrative poem “Right….now” Doyle Avant chooses an autumnal setting to reflect on an encounter decades earlier with a woman from a very different culture and their respective relationships with their fathers:
“It’s a cool and crystal clear September night – 33 falls ago –
and I’m standing in the kitchen of this very film noirish
apartment in Providence – drinking white wine
and trying not to look like a complete idiot.
The party’s hosts are this trio of Persian women
who I barely know.
A few years before – in the chaotic early days of the revolution, they’d all managed to get out of Tehran
just before it became almost impossible to get out.
They’re a bit older than I am.
But hey, at this point in my life – almost everyone is.
Their conversation drifts effortlessly between French and Farsi
(a language I just found out about tonight)
and German, and Italian and Spanish….
and then they top it all off by speaking English
a lot better than I do.
They sip their wine without paying it the slightest attention
and smoke filterless cigarettes with an absentminded languor
that takes centuries to acquire.
They’re probably all of 21 or 22 – but even now,
as I think about them –
they are so much older than I will ever be. …”
Finally, Marina Chamma’s short story Nothing But Alexandria (which appears pages 18-24 Sukoon Vol 4.1 ) explores the power of memory in anchoring identity. It concludes that as long as you are remembered, you exist, and that justice can be had in part by acknowledging that injustice has taken place.
Mishka Mojabber Mourani’s short story, ‘The Fragrant Garden’ appeared in two anthologies: Lebanon Through Writers’ Eyes and Hikayat: Short Stories by Lebanese Women. She published Balconies: A Mediterranean Memoir and co-authored Alone, Together with Aida Y. Haddad, who translated Mourani’s poetry from English to Arabic, and vice versa. Her ‘Once upon A War Night’ was published in the Exquisite Corpse anthology by Medusa’s Laugh Press. Her work has appeared in several print and on-line literary journals, including The Studio Voice, Mused Literary Review, Your Middle East, Arabic Literature in English, Sukoon Magazine, Cedar World Magazine, Rowayat, and GFT Presents: One in Four. Mourani’s writing deals with memory, identity, war, exile and gender issues.