Contributor: Sean Morrissey
We often relive history along two parallel tracks; there is the prevailing narrative told by those in power, and the unfettered honesty of the artist. Occasionally these impressions do intersect and we’re right to consider both sides, as they reveal a complete picture of life in a given time and place.
The shock and scale of the Beirut explosion is difficult to comprehend, now when much of the world is equally gripped by its own surreality. The real-time footage of eviscerated newsrooms and photo shoots brought these scenes into our homes with shocking clarity. In honour and memory of those affected by the August 4th explosion, the words of Lebanese poet Zeina Hashem Beck:
Fi Yom Wi Leila
Spare me this Arab love for dictators tonight.
Come closer, listen—Warda is singing,
Fi Yom Wi Leila. This day, this night, let us.
Push this talk of the land to the side. Spare me
this Arab love for conspiracy tonight. Lower your voice
to the sound of my pupils. Look at me. Let’s music
instead, let’s cigarette, let’s wine and laughter. Let’s call
friends. Remember how our mothers used to serve
cigarette packs on trays to their guests?
Fi Marlboro, fi Viceroy, fi Gitanes, they said.
Every house had them cigarette trays. Some nights, the politics
settled with the ashes, and the jokes came, the clapping,
the Allah Allah rising with the smoke, the dancing. Time tortures
everyone. Let’s heal a little. Ask me if I could ever
love again. Let’s exaggerate. Ask me if there will ever be
arms like mine. Warda is singing she’d been missing you
even before she’d met you. I missed you before I met you too.
And now, habibi, even more, even more.
[Warda refers to Warda Al Jazairia, a famous Algerian singer. Fi Yom Wi Leila is one of her songs, and it translates as “in a day and a night.”’ “Fi Marlboro, fi Viceroy, fi Gitanes” means “there’s Marlboro, there’s Viceroy, there’s Gitanes.”
From the opening lines we might infer that life for the speaker is intrinsically tied to the regions complex history, with references to the “Arab love for dictators” and “talk of the land”. Growing up in the northern city of Tripoli, Hashem Beck has seen her country grow and change so much over the last several decades, and yet many of its most persistent challenges remain.
It is important to note, however, that the speaker’s political misgivings never dominate the space. The poem’s greater half is so taken by these moments of familial love, how “mothers used to serve cigarette packs on trays to their guests” over evenings full of wine and laughter, that we forget the bubbling strife outside the door. There is hurt and pain to be sure, but the speaker is not devoured by circumstances outside her control; rather, she leans into love and the hard-won work of healing those close at hand.