What do you associate with the word Beirut?
The mega-explosion that happened on Tuesday 4 August was probably the biggest non-nuclear explosion ever. It now comes top of a list that could include the current economic and political crises, the influx of refugees from Syria, a protracted civil war or, if you go back far enough in the last century, a glamorous city that was called the Paris of the Middle East. This terrible disaster was totally avoidable, as were the deaths and injuries of many innocent people and the destruction of Lebanon's main port and so many buildings.
I asked that opening question in my blog post of 30 March 2018 ('Lebanon, Country of Contrasts'), after my visit to see family (who, fortunately, left the country last year). One of the places I visited was the beautiful Sursock museum, now a precarious shell looking like something from the blitz. I went to an excellent exhibition there of a mixed media work by Abed al Kadiri, 'The story of the Rubber Tree'. The work seemed to sum up Beirut's intimate connection with its old buildings and trees and the shadows of the past.
I tried to convey this in a poem I wrote later - 'Where there is no one, there is a tree'. I used images from the exhibition and experiences from my own visit to Lebanon. The lines are inter-twined to show the connection between the derelict house and the rubber tree. I offer it now as a response to what has happened. Tonight I looked at the Sursock Museum's website and read 'Temporarily closed following 4 August blast'. Temporarily - what a courageous adjective to use.
Where there is no one, there is a tree
Where there is no one there is a tree
guarding a padlocked door. Tendrils trellis
the house, camouflage walls. Roots
mine the foundations. A branch, like a cat,
climbs in through a bro- ken shutter. The tree renders
traffic fumes, filters car horns, drills,
a dog barking, a wheelchair-bound beggar
shouting for alms.
The drift underfoot
of burnished leaves stiff as discarded soles,
plaster, dust, mould’s old spores.
abandoned lamp, chairs, table, a chaste
mirror things that would not fit in a car
(or were not worth the taking) flit-day
heat, a sweater forgotten
reduced to moth-eaten lace. The house
creaking and cracking the snap of bones.
* * *
Set the table foursquare clang the metal chairs
around it fold back time’s pleats
to when the house was young and the door
smiled at the street.
In the garden a man dug
the soft soil. There was a gate to the sea
and the waves soothed his sadness,
the warm earth crumbled in his hands
as he planted the tree.
The tree watched the man
stretching his limbs to the sun. The man
tended the tree, tenderly. He was mother
and father to the tree, his child. The tree
loved the man and grew strong. It shaded
the balcony from summer heat,
sheltered the rooms at midday.
It remembers this
in the rings of its body.
There is a tree where there is no one.
After Abed Al Kadiri ‘The Story of the Rubber Tree’, Sursock Museum, Beirut 2018
© Mary Robinson 2020