At the Square IV

War and Peace

[read part three here]

For A. Fakhreddine & E. Magdi


"How can one be glad about the world except if one takes one's refuge in it?" -Kafka


How easily recognizable had been the tall and slender American woman, with that long mane of dark hair and a shock of white at the temple. "But I couldn’t again be just a witness: that is, meet and visit, tremble with fear, feel brave, feel depressed, have heartbreaking conversations, grow ever more indignant, lose weight. If I went back, it would be to pitch in and do something," she said at first. Eman and I wondered then what we had lost in this city; was this pornography of war or something like that? Why return here? I told Susan about my friend from other times, from other centuries, back at the square, his silence... She stood impassive and defiant, as if with certain cruelty, and didn't utter a word. Nothing that could comfort or relieve. Simply staring. She quickly changed the topic and continued speaking: “People ask me if Sarajevo ever seemed to me unreal while I was there. The truth is, since I’ve started going to Sarajevo – this winter I plan to return to direct the Cherry Orchard with Nada as Madame Ranevsky and Velibor as Lopakhin – it seems the most real place in the world.”


Eman’s curiosity about Sarajevo tempted her into an obvious question, “Weren’t you afraid to go?” and with serenity she answered: “Anyone who isn’t afraid is crazy”. And we were afraid too. We thought about Mohammed, that Syrian man about whom we had heard, who had been an English literature student in Idlib, whose apartment and entire collection of books had been set on fire, by the same army that planted landmines all over the Bekaa and that probably would keep the lavender fields for me as a fragment of a futile and yet vivid imagination, even if my friend were to return after all. And inside the besieged city, he’s offering Syrians a glimmer of hope, directing Beckett’s Waiting for Godot like Susan had done back in 1993, during the Siege of Sarajevo. She told us: “Culture, serious culture from anywhere, is an expression of human dignity – which is what people in Sarajevo feel they have lost, even when they know themselves to be brave, or stoical or angry. For they also know themselves to be terminally weak: waiting, hoping, not wanting to hope, knowing that they aren’t going to be saved.”


“You know, we’re waiting for Godot”, said the Syrian to a journalist amidst laughter, when asked about his play. And how can Godot be about hope, Eman and I thought. How can waiting be about hope? And after all, I was myself waiting, and she was waiting with me, armed with nothing but a carbon pen. And Susan told us about the Godot that the Syrians were waiting for: “Until the Bosnian genocide, one might have thought – this was indeed the conviction of many of the best reporters there, like Roy Guttmann of Newsday and John Burns of the New York Times – that if the story could be gotten out, the world would do something. The coverage of the genocide in Bosnia ended that illusion.” Then it was night, and I thought about a sad Joyce in Trieste, close to Verona and to Rome, where Ingeborg Bachmann had ended her life when she fell asleep in the middle of smoking a cigarette and set her apartment on fire, disproving Mary McCarthy’s thesis from her first novel, that no one would commit suicide in the middle of smoking a cigarette.


Eman read that night to me from a book of philosophy that had not been burnt yet: “We are mortals, you and I. There is only my dying and your dying and nothing beyond. You will die and there is nothing beyond. I shall slowly disappear until my heart stops its soft padding against the lining of my chest. Until then, the drive to speak continues, incessantly. Until then, we carry on. After that there is nothing.” Susan listened carefully, and imagined Mohammed, the Syrian, fantasized with his opening night of “Waiting for God” and was reminded of her own: “And I think it was the end of that performance – on Wednesday, August 18th at 2:00 PM – during the long tragic silence of the Vladimirs and Estragons which follows the messenger’s announcement that Mr. Godot isn’t coming today, but will surely come tomorrow, that my eyes began to sting with tears. Velibor was crying too. No one in the audience made a sound. The only sounds were those coming from outside the theater: a UN APC thundering down the street and the crack of sniper fire.”


After Susan left, to take a plane to another country after seeing Beirut with us only for a few hours, we took to Damascus Road, to wait for Adam, maybe he isn’t coming today, but maybe he’s coming tomorrow, like Godot. I told Eman, “It seems to me as if all wars everywhere look the same”. She kept silent, we kept watch over the wait, and across us the silence and a poster that read: See you in Beirut, whatever happens.


[Passages from Susan Sontag, taken from "Waiting for Godot in Sarajevo", in "Where the Stress Falls", Picador, 2001. Passage from Simon Critchley, taken from "Very Little... Almost Nothing: Death, Philosophy and Literature", Routledge, 2004.]


To be continued...


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Lebanon, Travel, Beirut, Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Susan Sontag, Simon Critchley