The Orphanage

By Daniel Drennan

In Beirut, in the area of Achrafiyeh, in the neighborhood of Sioufi stands the orphanage, the Crèche, known as Azariyeh for the woods that are no longer there, and for the children who are no longer there; these no-longer woods of Azariyeh harbor fairy tale-era connotations of dis­honor, and sin, and illegitimacy; ’uwlaad bi-Azariyeh, les enfants d’Azariyeh; the bastard children of Azariyeh. And if you visit the Crèche you will find rooms unchanged since forever, empty now, quiet now, still now; you will ring, and you will enter, and there is the staircase up, and there is the hallway, and there are votives and statues and icons. And there as you pause is the room full of blue cribs, and white cribs, cribs made of wood, unchanged, practically unmoved for decades, here, a crib I lay in long ago, lonely toys and stuffed animals now filling the space formerly occupied by me, by other children, hundreds of children, hundreds and hundreds of us; there is another room just the same. There is a room with white metal cribs, slightly bigger, lined up back and forth; there is another room with toilets that line three of its walls, toilets so small as to verge on absurdity; there is another room just the same. There is a room with desks and chairs and a bigger desk for a teacher; there is another room just the same. There is a room for play, for running, for games; and another room, just the same. And there is a room with a small table and a small desk and on this desk sits a set of steel drawers that contain the blank paper forms on which were written the names, on which were noted the information, on which were spelled out in details belying their fabrication out of gossamer nothingness whole lives, spun stories of lives’ beginnings, opening narratives stillborn in their creation, for all of the children who once filled the cribs, the beds, the rooms in this place, this orphanage, now barren, now deserted: papers marked with fictitious names, papers that pretend to show disparate events of varied locations yet all in the same handwriting—the dead giveaway, the false start. And here is the Italian version, and here is the English version, and here is the French; and here are the birth certificates, and here are the baptismal decrees, and here are the ecclesiasti­cal edicts, and here are the approved name-bestowing documents, and here are the testimonies of foundling status, and here are the official adoption papers, one, two, three, four, five, six pieces of paper come from drawers arranged one over the other in efficient precision: and thus an adoption. On the other side of the same room stands a row of file cabinets, and within are arranged the procedured by-products, the dossiers of children now departed, their folders crammed with letters in airmail envelopes and pediatrician’s notes and vaccination dates and wishes and blessings; files stuffed with missives and thank-you offerings and pictures showing countenances rid of smiles, posed out of context among estranging groups and beaming faces; these Children of Lebanon now far flung and distant, these pictures sent by proud parents and fabricated families full of hope and promise and new beginnings filling up steel file cabinets arranging the myriad lives of those given Egress, a Conveyance, an Exodus. And these gray metal cabinets elsewhere hold other stories, other dossiers, children who came back, sent back, perhaps too sick, or perhaps not wanted after all, returned, and here written in red, “deceased soon thereafter”, and here, “child succumbed to illness”—an insufferable double rejection, an abjectly suicided reaction. And here, more yet still—the children refused treatment at nearby hospitals during the war, doctors seeing “no point”. And there is yet another room, and in its corner stands an inconspicuous steel desk with four small drawers half-full of worn index cards of faded pink and blue and green, and in ink the cards are noted with the names of children given over to the Crèche during a few scant years a few scarce decades ago, and here is the information about the original parents, and here are their names, and phone numbers, and addresses, and there, at the bottom of each card, is a blank area to note the reasons, stated plain, for the child’s arrival. And if you are not careful you will start reading them, these cards, one by one, mesmerized; at first shying away, yet coming back and forcing yourself to look, to read, in the same way you forced yourself to walk down New York avenues to look at poster faces and read about the lives lost in those Towers now long gone; and you will look and you will read, and like those smiling faces that plastered the walls of Lexington Avenue you will again find a unifying element that brings an otherwise disconnected, disparate group of people together—a devastating event, a tragic happen­stance, an infinitely sad vagary of destiny, a culmination of willed derivations pinpointed in one monstrous manifestation referred to as “adoption”—and you will look, and you will read, and you will hold your breath as you read: Child abandoned by parents, child has spina bifida. Child abandoned by the mother at the hospital in Zahorta. Child orphaned on the father’s side, the mother has already placed the eldest in the orphanage’s care. Child abandoned by the mother at the Orthodox Hospital which contacted us. Illegitimate child raised by a woman who has departed for America, and who has left said child, now 11 years old, with her godmother, who hereby abandons her. Child abandoned at the hospital Nôtre Dame du Liban in Jounieh. Child found in Furn Esh-Shebbak in front of the door of Mrs. X. Child orphaned on the mother’s side, the father has four other children; cannot care for the fifth. Child orphaned on the father’s side. Child born two months after marriage of parents who hereby abandon him. Mongoloid child abandoned due to his infirmity….Child abandoned, child abandoned, child abandoned, child abandoned. And you will stop, and you will feel a certain unease as you barely dare read more, you will sense a creeping disquiet as you deny each card its due, as you feel each card’s presence in space marking just another of five hundred odd and sundry ways of abandoning a child. And for some useless reason you will try to maintain the order of these filings, for some strange reason you will try to keep a sense of reverence holding these cards, these lives, in your hands; and for some reason you will carefully replace them, and you will quietly close the drawers, hands shaking. And for some reason you will stand there utterly dumbstruck, your voicelessness loudly proclaiming how these nonchalant cardboards are, in their weight, crushing; in their banal bureaucracy, eviscerating; how in their fragile and forgot­ten state, these lives, annotated on silent pieces of discolored paper, approach something border­ing brain-numbing apoplexy. And there is but this vast emptiness. And no ghosts dare haunt these halls.

Ali

By Zeina Hashem Beck

He wasn’t a beggar,
just someone who asked
for a smoke and talked to himself.
His right hand traced sentences
into broken circles
near his tilted head,
his eyes had seen
beyond language, couldn’t find
their way back. His cigarette,

 

always hanging at a certain
angle between his lips,
almost parallel to his nose,
was his only anchor to the real world.

 

The people at West House
would sometimes give him a free haircut.
No one knew where he slept.
I think we believed he didn’t,
that he just ceased to exist
beyond the corner.

 

We never saw him seated,
just a familiar pedestrian
who roamed the same
side of the street every day,
as if the distance
between Abu Naji and Universal were
the whole Mediterranean sea.
He walked and walked yet stayed
in place. Or maybe he didn’t.

 

One day he pointed to a car,
said it was a Russian tank, named
the year it was manufactured.
Sometimes he gave random lectures
about communism.
We said hello or we didn’t,
he replied or he didn’t.

 

There were rumors
he was a professor gone mad,
that his whole family was killed
before him during the war,
but no one really knew anything
for sure about him, except that he was
as much a part of Bliss Street
as the students, the sidewalk, the fast food,
that he was one of the possible
definitions of the city.

 

Interview with Zeina Hashem Beck

Lost to the News
Lost to the News By Nouf Semari, acrylic on canvas, 100 x 100 cm

By Rewa Zeinati

Cities of longing, memory, love and war

RZ: Your first poetry collection, To Live in Autumn, won the 2013 Backwaters Prize and will be published in August 2014 by the Backwaters Press, in Omaha, Nebraska. It was selected as a winning manuscript by notable poet Lola Haskins. You’ve been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and your individual poems have been published widely and frequently in many distinguished journals across the US. You are on the editorial board of All Roads Will Lead You Home, a new online literary journal by VAC poetry. A mother of two, founder of PUNCH, a monthly open-mic poetry evening, and runner of poetry workshops for adults and children (in Dubai, UAE.) What drives you on?

ZHB: With both poetry and motherhood, one doesn’t know what the driving force is exactly. You just go with it, almost instinctively. The love, the passion, the intuition, and the obsession are there. But one doesn’t know why/how they are there to start with.

This isn’t to say, of course, that all is intuitive (and immediate) in poetry and motherhood. You also learn these things, because they are things you do, not just feel. So, you get up every day, you feed, bathe, and dress your children, and you talk to them, and you play with them, and you love them and hug them, and they drive you crazy, and you are exhausted, and you need a break, and you hope you don’t lose it by the end of the day. In poetry too, it’s about the day-to-day work on something you love: I try to read every day, and think about writing every day, and I revise, and sometimes I obsess, and the poems can drive me crazy as well.

I have to point out though, since I’ve started this simile, that motherhood and poetry aren’t similar in all aspects, and that they don’t always co-exist. Motherhood is something you do with your kids, whereas poetry is something you do alone. Sometimes I abandon my kids for my poems, and sometimes I abandon my poems for my kids. But now I’m digressing. Have I somehow answered the question? I guess I love them (my kids and poetry), and try to be there for them every day.

RZ: Your book To Live in Autumn is set in, and is about, Beirut. You being a Tripoli-native and childhood resident of Tripoli (Lebanon), why Beirut?

ZHB: When I left Beirut in 2006 after having lived there for six years, the poems just kept coming, out of nostalgia, I think. It was like I was summoning the city back to me in writing. After some time, I realized Beirut was a recurrent theme in my poetry, and I took the decision to write the book with the working title Re-membering Beirut. The process took years, during which I also wrote about other things/places (Tripoli among them), but those poems didn’t go into the book. I want to note that some poems in To Live in Autumn are a mixture of Beirut and Tripoli. “Nocturne,” for example, is one of them. “The Old Building” is heavily based on the building I lived in as a child in Tripoli, and the last poem of the book, “Spring,” brings Tripoli into the picture as well.

But why did Beirut keep coming to me in the first place? Probably because I spent my university years there, and those were formative and exciting years for me. Beirut is an inspiring city, and it was new and unfamiliar to me, the eighteen-year-old from Tripoli. It gave me poetry readings, theater, literature (that’s what I was studying), dance, streets, new friends, chaos, and of course, political unrest. So naturally, when I left the city that I had grown to love so much, I felt that longing for it, which I think triggered the writing. The poems in the book eventually moved beyond mere longing and nostalgia of course.

RZ: What do you think makes a good poem?

ZHB: I don’t think there’s an objective list of criteria for a good poem. I’ll tell you what would make me love a poem though: its ability to make the familiar unfamiliar (and vice-versa), its ability to move me (immediately!), and this urge I get of wanting to read it over and over again.

RZ: Do you think poetry and fiction are at all related?

ZHB: Aren’t all art forms somehow related? Good fiction and good poetry should both have the ability to amaze the reader. I don’t read much fiction, but when I do, I’ve noticed that the books I like are the ones with good details, surprising images, and condensed language, all of which are also necessary in poetry. On the other hand, poetry too, is fictional, in its reinvention of the world around us.

RZ: Can good writing be taught?

ZHB: I think you are either born a writer (among other things), or you aren’t. If you do have that innate ability (and better yet, an irresistible urge) to write, then you can definitely learn to write better. The best way to do that is by reading, reading, and reading good writing. And if you’re lucky enough to get feedback from fellow writers you trust, then that helps as well.
6- You’ve recently begun exploring writing in your native tongue, Arabic. How is that different from writing in English, apart from the obvious, of course.

I’ve only just started to flirt with Arabic. I haven’t been writing in Arabic long enough for me to be able to formulate similarities and differences. For now, the creative process feels the same to me in both languages.

RZ: What is your writing process? Are you a morning writer? An after-midnight poet?

ZHB: When I became a mother, I also became a write-whenever-you-can poet. So, when my kids are at school, I do most of my reading and writing in the morning. When they’re on vacation, I do that when they’re not killing each other. But nothing is that systematic of course, and a lot of poems come at unexpected times, as long as I’ve warmed up for them. The writing process you mention is, for me, about this warming up. It involves reading, getting some quiet time, and observing. If I do this every day, the poems will eventually come.

RZ: What are you working on right now?

ZHB: Toward my second collection, I hope.

RZ: The concept of literary journals for Arab writers writing in English is a foreign one. How did you first learn about it, considering that you have resided in the Arab region all your life.

ZHB: When I was a graduate assistant at AUB, a professor of mine gave me the CLMP directory to help him look for potential journals for his poetry. He showed me what to look for in a journal, and explained things like what simultaneous submissions and SASE mean. I ended up ordering my own copy of the directory, going online, and checking out the journals in there that appealed to me, the kind of poetry they publish, and their guidelines. Back then, many didn’t have online submission managers yet (I’m happy that one can now submit to almost any journal online). That same professor also directed me to pw.org, which was also a helpful resource.

RZ: How important are literary journals, if at all?

ZHB: Literary journals are vital. They give contemporary writers the chance to showcase their work, and they are where all the good new writing is! I learn a lot about fellow poets from literary magazines, and when I like a poet’s work, I usually end up ordering his/her book.

RZ: What advice would you give promising writers?

ZHB: Read Bukowski’s poem, “so you wanna be a writer,” which starts this way:

“if it doesn’t come bursting out of you
in spite of everything,
don’t do it.”

Read that poem, then: read (read, read), write, revise, submit, learn to accept rejection, and repeat all previous steps, as long as it’s “bursting out of you.”