30 May AND THE SHIP SAILS ON
WORDS: NIKOLA POPOVIĆ
PHOTO: NENAD TOMOVIĆ
Translated from the Serbian original “Priče iz Kapetanove kabine” (book “Stories from Lebanon”, in Serbian as: Priče iz Libana) by the author.
Beirut faces the sea. Roads of faith and silk would bring travelers, adventurers, and writers attracted to this port. Some would stay here a short while but would soon return. They would adopt Beirut manners, inserting their lives in among the missionaries and merchants. The environment was an exotic mixture of Arabic and European cultures, and they made the Middle East their new homeland. Some other foreigners, however, always remained transplants, like trees transferred to a new soil.
But their roots would grow here unconsciously, while they developed a mixed feeling of love and revulsion towards the city. Their reasons for coming to Beirut differed, some related to work and others to emotions. In this city that has gone through both good times and bad, everyone has gone through a metamorphosis. Like the maqams on the Arabic lute, the changes flowed gently, one after another.
Events and even time itself have their rhythms in Beirut. Here, temporary solutions endure. The Arabic word bukra, when pronounced by the Lebanese, is as wide as the waste of the open sea and yet convincing, calm and noble. This is why the new arrivals interpret it literally, waiting in vain for the arrival of a repairman or a neighbour who said in passing that he would come over tomorrow.
Bukra, inshallah, see you tomorrow, God willing. Many foreigners are bothered by this reference to time, pronounced in the easygoing Oriental manner, yet with conviction, because it halts their plans and days. It is in this inter-space, between today and what will be tomorrow, as when a caravan stops along on its journey, that stories are born in The Captain’s Cabin, the pub at the crossroads of Sadat and Adonis streets.
The winding Adonis street, after the Hellenic god of all vegetation on the Earth, leads towards the sea. Only in rare places can one find the old macadam, or a garden with golden ivy. One enters the pub – an oasis of good music – country, jazz, blues, compilations recorded many times – through a wooden door, under an inscription that announces it is a restaurant, although food was only served early on.
While ordering their drinks, regular guests say hello and exchange news with the bartender André. He is a real barman, ready to serve and listen to a sober, tipsy or drunken guest. During the Lebanese civil war, the bar was a kind of a confessional: What is said in the Cabin, remains in the Cabin: details of love affairs, stories about business success or failure, that must be told to someone.
Perhaps each of these stories has been repeated hundreds of times in another bar, in a city that is not Beirut? Events and the frame of the story, but still each one unique, focused on a detail from a small life in a vast world. Each contains memories of the country that foreigners bring to Lebanon. Memories that become more intense in Beirut. And all the foreigners desire an ear to hear their tales, even if they are told in random encounters on the globe.
In Beirut, all the world is a province and a province as varied and full of colors as the world itself. And in the Cabin, all its varied images are shown as on a photographic negative. Varied are the profiles of the Cabin’s regular guests: professors of the two equidistant local American universities, journalists and reporters based in Lebanon following the events of Syria and Iraq, students, and artists of various kinds.
Some of the guests of the Cabin elegantly avoid any conversation about the details of their work. Others talk only about their work. After the first glass, they already reveal many details to someone they have just met, listing big names from the Beiruti underworld or official government.
Some are bluffing, some are not.
An American named Michael started his studies in Lebanon fifteen years ago. After that, he prolongued his stay, so that his departure from Beirut has been in progress more than a decade. In the Cabin he always talks about his wastas, his connections. He says that all around the globe he has friends. Diplomats, men of pen and culture, but also those from the other side of the law.
He has helped them and they have helped him, too. Once, Lebanese police detained him when they found him smoking hashish and his papers had expired, but he was soon released. All that was required was a brief phone call for the help of his well-placed friends.
He is pale and blond, his face is covered with freckles, his beard is soft like the beard of a boy, but nevertheless he would like to look like Corto Maltese. He has bought a navy blue redengotte, a riding coat, with upturned collar, and even grew sideburns like the character from the comic. Yes, the barber Philippe, from Bliss Street, across the American University building, shaves him every second day, convincing him that the sideburns give him a more masculine look and perfectly fit the shape of his face.
He puffs the smoke from his cigarette as slowly and elegantly as James Bond, he tells stories about women, all of them fatal seductresses, and shows images on his mobile phone. He connects the adventurous poetics of the sea from Pratt’s comics with images of James Bond, all deadly beautiful women and fast car rides. The truth is barely visible in his story, but its nuances still sound charming. And the story goes on, and everybody at the bar listens.
Careful listeners understand that there is a repetition, that the same dialogue is being retold for the second time with subtle changes. But before they manage to tell it to Michael, who has long remained frozen somewhere between youth and maturity, André is serving another round of doo-doo shots, a cocktail invented somewhere in Beirut during the Lebanese Civil War. Lemon juice, a dose of vodka, a drop of tabasco, and, like in the martini drunk by the English detective-gentleman, an olive.
With the first autumn days, the rains start in Beirut. Around midnight, the sky flashed with lightening, and the thunder lasts until the first morning hours. But in the early morning the sky clears up and the Mediterranean summer comes back to the city. There is thunders tonight, too. Through the hits of Bob Marley, punctuated by the crack of pool balls.
Robert, a friend from South Africa, and I are playing against two journalists from Beirut who seem to get better with each drink. As Robert is the master of the pool table, however, all bets are on us and the victory is ours.
This Friday, the Captain’s Cabin trembles with thunder and suddenly the power cuts out. Those gathered around the bar — a girl with curly hair, of Danish mother and Lebanese father, who many in Beirut have wooed to no avail, and her friends — continue the refrain of Three Little Birds.
When the generator kicks in, the choir falls back into step. The Cabin sways to the Jamaican rhythm.
Putting away his pool cue, while André lowers the volume of the music, Robert begins the story of his journey from South Africa to Afghanistan. There he met his wife, who is from England. Tonight he tells us about his cat, George, rescued from the street by a missionary in Sierra Leone. The tomcat followed Robert from country to country, changing addresses and documents, still remaining a citizen of Sierra Leone.
Robert continues his soliloquy. After the story of George he tells of his adventures in the Afghan mountains, where he and a friend drove a jeep that ran out of gasoline. At minus fifteen degrees they drank a bottle of vodka from the nineteen-eighties and continued their trek towards a mountain house where they found refuge from the blizzard, avoiding the Taliban guards.
Afghanistan, Pakistan, shish-kebabs grilled on a dry wood fire. Swordfish and harpoons, the sounds of the tam-tam and voodoo in Haiti. Terrorists, dancers from the Dominican Republic, gunshots and crazy Caribbean nights wander through his story like the Cyclops and the Sirens, while he passes by like a pilot charting his course among the icebergs.
In the Cabin, I remember a novel written by the Italian writer Ettore Masina, a story about a journey that determined a whole life, a love story in the time of plague in Venice. “I discovered that I am affected by plague, in Venice. I did not cry or despair, I was dying anyhow, from love.”
Masina wrote about passing snowy mountain peaks, onyrics of Venice, gondolas and mysterious birds, damned Venetian lazareths, floating somewhere between dream and reality. I remember our first encounter on the train from Venice, that happened by chance and is one of those encounters that remains forever in memory as the start of a long-lasting frendship.
In his Roman home, Masina drank red wine from northern Italy, from his valley of Valcamonica, recounting stories of his interviews with Mandela, Arafat, and his travels to the Holy Land. There were also his family’s travels to various Italian cities in the course of his father’s military career. And his father’s dreams of moving to Abyssinia, the Italian colony that collapsed in the wake of the Second World War.
He told me how he used his family’s stories in his stories and novels, and that he wrote some of them while sitting in a bar listening to the conversation of his fellow patrons that surrounded him like a mantel. Sometimes he would insert a sentence that he had just heard into his text.
I tell André, who has just turned fifty, of these evenings. He listens, letting the story unfold. Like an experienced musician who knows how to break between songs and continue in the same rhythm, he continues on with his own story about Beirut, about when his family opened the bar in 1964. Since that time, nothing has changed in the pub.
He shows me souvenirs from different countries: banknotes, license plates, military caps. He tells me anecdotes from the civil war, such as police raids like the one in Casablanca when the music suddenly stops in the bar. Always the perfectly sober captain of this bar-ship, he knows how to talk about big events, periods of war and peace, and the events in the Cabin: the names that people scratched with a key in the bar, and a chair that a jealous wife once threw at her husband she found in the bar, playing a game of bridge with his friends.
André still remembers details of that game where the husband stood to lose big, but after his wife’s assault the cards were hopelessly scattered and it was impossible to continue. He tells me about swimming on Beirut’s beaches, there where there have been for a long time restaurants, tennis courts, and swimming pools. Stories about jumping from the Pigeon Rocks, where all those who come to Beirut have their picture taken. These rocks are slowly being eaten away by the sea foam, just as the stories from the Cabin will dissipate with time.
Down, through Adonis Street, there is the hotel “Versailles”, the Chatila Mosque, and the Church of Saint Rita, protectoress of all those who travel. There is also the carpenter shop of the old Lopez, who came to Lebanon many years ago, leaving his home in Cape Verde only several years after its independence from Portugal.
The Geppetto of Beirut has his stories, too. About the years of Salazar’s autocratic rule, his cruel secret police and how people whispered even among family, and the departure of the Portuguese. And finally, more recently when life became a bit easier and more tourists came to see the archipelago and hear the morna, a fusion of fado with the local rhythms.
In his atelier, we listen to Cesaria Evora’s story The Sea is the Home of Sorrow. Lopez met Evore in Sao Vicente, where he travelled as a young man, as well as in Evora’s hometown of Mindelo, a port from where Portuguese ships would sail to India and Brazil, returning with spices, coffee, and tobacco.
If the story stops, he takes his chisel and makes a cut on the piece of wood in the clamp, blowing away the dust that disappears like stardust, leaving a dry smell. It has been a long time since he last visited his hometown of Praia. It is a long and expensive journey. The Portuguese word saudade and the Lebanese bukra – the first meaning nostalgia for something distant, the second the uncertainty of tomorrow – have become one, here, at the crossroad of the two streets, the first one named for the Egyptian president and the second one for the antic god. Here in the dawn the voice of the muezzin calls for the salat al-subh, and on Sunday, a church bell rings for mass.
I stopped looking for discrepancies in the stories of those who I meet in Beirut a long time ago, nor do I try to find mistakes in the stories of those who are imperfect narrators. I listen to their stories as images, episodes from the life of the city, its citizens, and all those who came to live here. Stories about longing, journeys, hopes for the future.
Beirut exists between the mountains and the sea. In the old neighbourhoods in Naples from the Spanish period they say that they are in the cozy, warm stomach of a cow. The Captain’s Cabin in the old Beirut is the inside of a ship, floating on its own waves, while the stories acquire the aura of friendship and lose their foreign accents.
A bit of forgetfulness of real life and the ship floats on, and soon, everything is covered in memory.