Saturday, 29 August 2020


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     

                                                                in haste,

                    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

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