Skip to main content
14 min read

Fragments of a Grieving Memory

Following the catastrophic explosion in the port of Beirut on August 4 last year, writing became impossible for the Lebanese writer Najwa Barakat. Now that she is attempting to get back to her writing, she needs to rely on her memory. She turns key events in Lebanon’s modern history into starting points: the civil war, the October Revolution in 2019, and the Beirut harbour explosion of 2020. It is completely understandable that it is difficult for a Lebanese writer to write about the latest disaster without linking it to the collective trauma caused by the prolonged civil war. Barakat writes: "our days and years will not stop running".

The last passage in the text testifies to the author’s resignation and lack of hope for the future. There is no salvation in sight for an autumnal Lebanon. Barakat bids farewell to a beloved country that is now lost in the hands of corrupt and irresponsible politicians.

Najwa Barakat, born in 1960 in Beirut, is one of the leading writers of Lebanese and Arabic literature. Barakat is also a journalist and translator. In 1985, at the age of 19, she emigrated to Paris due to the outbreak of the civil war in Lebanon. After obtaining a doctorate in theatre and film studies from the Sorbonne University in Paris, she worked as a freelance journalist for several Arabic newspapers and magazines. She has also produced and been the presenter of cultural programmes for, for example, Radio France International and the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC). Najwa Barakat has published six novels (five in Arabic and one in French).

Credits Text: Najwa Barakat Translation: Wael Sawah Translation of the introduction: Christina Cullhed August 13 2021

April 13, 1975 (beginning of the Civil War).

Every year on the anniversary of April 13, I wish to ask every Lebanese where they were on April 13, 1975, and what their life was like hours before the outbreak of the war, which the Lebanese unanimously understand that it never ended. They realize that the same warlords were forced to stop the fight by regional and international demand. They issued a general amnesty for the right themselves and sat in government without showing any act of remorse.

April 13, 1975, was a Sunday. I was at the wedding of one of my cousins in a church that would become a borderline dividing what would be known as West and East Beirut. The Bus Massacre took place in not a faraway place. I imagine the thread of blood that began and continued to bleed for a long time from there, running in a thin line from the incident place towards the altar where the bride stood, staining her wedding dress tail. For me, her wedding was the last one that took place before darkness dominated the entire country in what would like a very long night. The war, which I lived two-thirds of it and missed the last third, poisoned my memory. Its events mix and slip, split and fly away, like mercury or air. There is no consistency in its events and no logic – sporadic, conflicting, and dissonant. I need to take them out of my memory so that I can rearrange them. Resorting to references from outside these memories makes them seem as if they happened outside me, just like all the other wars that history books taught us. I remember clearly that fear that was moving in my stomach and pulling me to go back every time I went out to live what looked like life. I also remember suffocation, the feeling of captivity, the taste of loss under the tongue, and the many times I was nearly killed at a checkpoint, by a sniper's bullet, or by an explosion that missed me by a few meters. Yes, I want to remember those wasted ten years that I am still looking for today and do not know where to find them or how to fill the void or the considerable gap left in my life. But I also want to remember the harsh years of exile and the accusation of being Lebanese whenever you wish to renew your residency papers. And panic. Panic every time you hear about an explosion, when your soul clings to the phone, waiting for them to answer you from the other end, saying that all is good and none of them was hurt. As for the rest, to hell; to hell the whole world, to hell this life.

Here I am today, watching everything in the world around me. I am not sure if I have left that tragic scene or am still in it. Something keeps me very close to what happened forty-one years ago! Forty-one? I can hardly believe that all that time has elapsed, yet I am still that close to the events that bind me to that war. That is my cross of which I cannot part as long as I breathe.

On the eve of October 17, 2019 (the beginning of the Lebanese uprising)
As that yellow leaf falls on your head, you remember that there are still trees in Beirut. They managed to escape those fierce summer fires that ravaged entire regions. Their tilted trunks carry traces of their heavily wounded memory while they climb up, high, high, to where they forget their lower halves, gratified with what seeps from the law of gravity, which upholds some of their green nature.

In the autumn, the temperature begins to decline gradually. It scratches us for a few days, because of its lousy mood or out of love for strife. Then suddenly, a coolness that you have long waited for makes you realize that the mighty city has entered autumn. Although it had often broken its promises in the past, it has kept its pledge this year by giving you its four seasons, entirely and perfectly. Yes, here it: is the autumn of Beirut, a season for packing up – the heavily inhabited places are emptied slowly, the beaches are getting more and more vacant, and the sea return to its blue gloom.

As the first rain showers wash your soul out of the dimness of vision, wiping the glass of the spectacles of your bleakness, suffocating with the scent of soil that has received the whispers of the water, you bid farewell to summer insolence. You spread your arms to an undulating, waving sky, covered in white, as white pigeons are looping in circles over and over, in an everlasting return to themselves. Thus, for days, until the sky begins to fall leisurely, and you extend your arms to it, yearning for the moment you both become one when it comes down to you; you almost stretch on it as a cushion, while you are lost in your defeats facing an outshined window.

As the autumn reaches Lebanon's mountains and heights, it bursts out like a volcano, throwing its earthy, orange, and yellow colors randomly over the vista. And then, let the weak and tender hearts resist; let the abandoned lover fall, and the dampness of the earth bear all that temptation, all that promiscuity. Ripened by the summer sun, the light becomes peaceful, sugary, and the mist descends, shining, longing, embracing, and kissing the asphalt of the roads. The chimneys cough out scattered smoke, the red bricks chill, and violet bewilderment dominates the horizon and the mountainsides. Pink first, then purple, and later navy blue, until the dome of the sky appears like a natural dome studded with diamonds.

Contrary to our mountains, the autumn sneaks into our cities with ease and shyness, hesitant, captivated, and unable to speak. Stone is abundant, asphalt is plentiful, people are in a hurry, and the air is choked with soot from cars. The city, divided against itself, deafens ears with mourning, complaints, resentment, quarrels, hypocrisy, claims, and high prices. The autumn here is the season of poverty, of the punctured pocket, and of shortages in budgets that occur over and over; the high premiums; the unemployment that has reached an alarming rate; the dreams of emigration; the emigration of dreams; the stinky minds and sinful hands.

Our autumn does not realize the depth of our belonging to it. We are dissolved in our autumn, which shapes our actual moods and becomes our source power when others leave us; our mirror when we stand before our consumed meals, our empty cups, and our days and years that will not stop running.

August 4, 2020
After the explosion of the heart of Beirut, how can I enter into writing? Where do I enter the lost meaning in the burnt words?

After August 4
When you are drowning in a couch of emptiness, your hand will not obey you, neither will your thoughts yield to you. When nothing can make you feel anything; when you are at degree zero of life, and the damned phrases escape you like a fish; when you become dumb deaf, and life deserts you, haughtily, arrogantly, before slamming the door behind it; when you come out of the pores of your body and slip away like a criminal who will never return in his footsteps, all you can hope for is that you are spent just as time is, and disappear like a soap bubble.

Is it true that there is no consolation? How, then, can we be comforted for all this loss? How do we console ourselves when we have spent our days in wars, exile, fear, and bitterness? Age has begun to close its doors one by one, pushing us to the last exit. We prepare to leave, realizing that our pouch is empty and we have nothing joyful to carry with us. We have only bitten off childhoods, flawed souls, and dried-up lives that are wasted in vain as their dust scatters in the air.

Brothers and sisters, we loved a country that did not love us back; we held it dearly, and it did nothing but repel us and keep us naked outside of it. We rushed to her arms, but she would not wash us, nor would she feed us, nor would she give us a tree or a sea. Oh brothers and sisters, accept the fact that is no consolation, for deceit has become our boudoir, and bitterness is the quilt. Do not look at the sky of this country, for there is no hope in it, and do not address its land, for it is an abyss and a trap. The bodies of her dead cover the low plains, the metal shines in the sun, and the blood is abundant.

My grandfather left my father a legacy of tales and commandments on people and the love of the country. My father left me his father's legacy and a rosary made of onyx, a frame of cedarwood, and a tomb in a beautiful land planted with trees and grass. But what shall we leave to our children whom, as soon as we give birth to them, teach them the rules of survival and the laws of escaping to the far? Are we not the children of those good parents, so why do we give birth to youngsters of paper and cloth who fly wherever the wind takes them, and when we exit their nightmares, they run away from us, as if we had not given birth to them in homes, where the storm took away the ceilings and walls.

My father comes to me in a dream, frowning behind his tan that resembles sunset copper. He asks me what I have done to myself, why spiders' threads are capturing me, and how I left them wrapping around me to the point of suffocation. My tears are running; I wish he would stretch his hand to grab me and sat me on his lap, letting me play with his large mole in the left corner of his mouth. But my father is dead, and I am aware that he is speaking to me from far away. I did not neglect your heritage, father, I tell him, they are the ones who surmounted me and robbed me of my pride and strength, lamenting as if they were innocent of the crime, "The country is dying. The country is collapsing. The country is disappearing..."

A farewell to the country, once again
I don't want to understand what's going on, or maybe I do; and because of that, I want to bury my head in some corner to dump out my tears. Do not try to persuade me, for I am aware that it is over after we reached this state of affairs. Yes, we failed, and things are falling apart. Yes, we are finished, there is no solution soon in sight, and no one to have pity on us or slow our rapid descent to the bottom.

I had fled Lebanon during the civil war after experiencing the worst of it in ten years. Battered adolescence, an amputated age, fear, despair, siege, swimming against the tide, and a profound desire to explode and recede that would come to me over and over. Then I ran away from Paris, in which I had accumulated, in a quarter of a century, alienation, the fatigue of striving for livelihood and education, embracing a worn-out life, loneliness, and perpetual misunderstanding.

And here I am now. I don't know where to go again; my age no longer allows me to make new beginnings or generate hope from the old experiences. Still, there is my daughter, ten years old! There is the barren land, the scarce water, and the old friends who have left or those buried alive in the shifting sand and could not have a way out. This is not a figure of speech. These are not metaphors or fiction. These are tangible facts: look for these people, and you will find them with mouths full of dirt, drowning in the swamps of their sacrificial hopes. This is a cursed country, bequeathing its curses from one generation to another, but I do not want to pass it on to my daughter. I want to escape with her to the farthest corners where she learns another language and creates another connection to a new homeland so that she does not belong to particular land, nor does she grow roots. I want her to remains floating and revolving like a speck of dust. In the first place, our country has perished, with no promise of resurrection or hope of revival. Bad people rallied against it until they strangled it, and many they are. They are its youngsters, brothers, and neighbors. They killed it, and here they are now tearing its clothes, dividing its body, and uproot its organs.

A shortage of dollars, a collapse, a siege, a brutal statelet that controls the state, a weapon placed on the neck, wars in the neighborhood, poverty, economic destruction, penal law, near-famine, Coronavirus, and ... No, do not explain any of this to me. Shut up and let me mourn the country of my father, his father, and his grandfather, the country which, despite everything, has never seemed to be a sham. Despite the torment and humiliation it inflicted on me, I still loved it and belonged to it and dreamed of it, and I care for it as much as I fear it, and wish to believe it, support it, and stay with it. On October 17, I thought, we thought, that after long despair, we have a say, that hope is possible, and so is revolution and change. Then here comes this damned pandemic on a silver plate to enable the oppressors to hold our necks again and tighten the noose. Thieves and criminals, this is who they are. They are not politicians and have no project, no language, no horizon. Mercenaries, bullies, and callous. All of them: no one is left out. Beirut is the Pompeii of the 21st century – a city buried under lava. We will remain a forgotten place; if we were at all mentioned, it would be only to be a lesson so that people would learn from our charred, hardened bodies of despair, starvation, and humiliation.

I do not want to think. I want to stick my head in a stone and cry. There is no time left, the fireball is approaching, and the rest of us will not be able to escape no matter what they do.

My heart is heavy, and the night is long.


Like what you read?

Take action for freedom of expression and donate to PEN/Opp. Our work depends upon funding and donors. Every contribution, big or small, is valuable for us.

Donate on Patreon
More ways to get involved