Writing in Crisis: A Conversation Between Beirut and New York

Lina Mounzer and Mirene Arsanios on What It Is to Bear Witness

MIRENE

Good morning Lina,

There’s a seven-hour lag between me in New York and you in Beirut but it feels like we are worlds apart. I wouldn’t know how to describe the distance between us, or if “worlds” accurately conveys the difference in how we might both be feeling. On August 4th, when the explosion happened, I was in Brooklyn, in my ground floor apartment. A few minutes prior to the blast, I had been chatting with my tenant in Beirut about renewing his contract for another five months. My partner, who is very plugged in on social media, asked me if I had heard about the explosion. He showed me the infamous video of the blast, which was already circulating on Twitter. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing so—in true 2020 fashion—I decided not to believe it. I thought it was fake news, simulated footage. I then received a text message from my friend Amal asking whether my loved ones were fine. The few seconds between knowing that something really bad had happened and hearing my brother’s voice were horrendous; I rushed out of the apartment as if to flee from fire, my heart pounding in my throat.

Thankfully my brother (the only close family member I have left) took my call immediately, “I’m fine,” he said, “I’ll call you back.” Since then, I’ve been calling him every day. I want him to know that I’m “there” for him but where exactly am I, and where is he? There’s always been a rift between those living in Beirut and those living abroad. That relationship, like all diasporic ones, is complicated, melancholic, and at times contentious. That rift seems to have widened, as if Beirut was set loose from any form or acceptable reality and was now drifting in some dark ether. Perhaps I should just accept that I’m far away and that I will never be able to understand what it was like to be there. Writing you a letter honors that distance, the epistolary being a genre built around separation. Surrendering to that distance paradoxically draws me closer. I’m glad we’re having this conversation…  How are you? Are you able to sleep?

*

LINA

Dear Mirene,

The first week afterward I couldn’t sleep. Just three, maybe four unrestful hours a night, chaotic with nightmares. Now, I’m up to about seven hours a night, but I can hardly call myself awake when I’m not sleeping. The days just begin and end, moving not forward but up-and-down. Like a boat moored to some crumbling dock, bobbing on the waves but unable to move on from that place of ruin. The other day my friend Maral, in a bid for normalcy, went to get her nails done, and the technician asked her: “How are you after the explosion two days ago?” And Maral said, “It was eight days ago.”

It’s funny you say you feel far away; I feel all my friends, especially my Beirut friends, that is, not just those who are currently in Beirut but those with whom I’ve spent considerable time in Beirut, closer. Both time and distance are affected in moments of disaster: I remember when the 2006 war happened, I was away in London studying for my master’s. The minute the airport was bombed and the siege began, all of London revealed itself as nothing but flimsy scenery superimposed over the reality of Beirut, which became the space within which my actual life was unfolding. I flinched at the sound of every airplane; I trembled when I heard fireworks; I spent all day and all night glued to my laptop, and my voice seemed weak when I tried to talk to my London friends because I felt I was speaking across a great and unbridgeable divide.

Many friends outside of Beirut have described this same feeling to me now: living split between two places. I won’t repeat the cliché, “head in one place body in another,” because that wasn’t the truth for me. For me it felt like the memory of the body is maybe even closer to the surface and more readily awakened than that of the mind.

When “it” first happened (I don’t know how to refer to it. I keep writing bomb and then I remember no, explosion, but somehow that doesn’t capture the fundamental violence of it) I felt in fact somehow close to everybody. I heard from nearly everyone I know; I even got an email from someone I’d only had the briefest and most professional of exchanges with. “Madame,” she wrote, “I don’t know you, but I am thinking of you and your country.” I burst into tears when I read her email and then wrote back to tell her as much.

I felt the concern from everyone all over, and so much of it was being sent here from so many different parts of the globe it seemed to envelop not only me, but the whole city, pulling us to the bosom of the world. In the moment of our disaster we were suddenly central. But now, of course, the world’s attention having mostly drifted off to other things (and usually when I say “world’s” I mean “the US’s”) we are back in the place where our disasters, or rather the sheer accumulation of our disasters, has always situated us vis-à-vis the Western world in whose language I write. Something to gawk at for a while until the spectacle gets to be too much. The same way when, abroad, someone would ask me about my memories of war and I’d go on and then, at some point, their eyes would turn from starry to glazed, and I would realize I’d talked myself out of being an object of fascination, or perhaps so well into it that I couldn’t be a different kind of person anymore.

“I am taking the swirling chaos of feeling in my head and slowly packing it into the solid containers of words.”

All this to say, because I don’t feel any of this with you, it eliminates any sense of physical distance. Even though I know it’s completely different for you, watching from afar. Anyway, I’m so glad to be having this conversation as well, and I’m so glad your brother is alive and unhurt and managing.

*

MIRENE

It’s true, I’ve felt it too, the rush of empathy you’re describing. I must have commented on hundreds of social media posts with rows of broken red hearts. The surge of fundraising campaigns and the incredible mobilization of local and international initiatives helped create a wave of solidarity in which the formation of a collective “we” felt suddenly possible. “We” were united against a common enemy: the rotten, inoperative Lebanese state. Perhaps the distance I was trying to describe has more to do with what you refer to as “it” (neither “bomb” not “explosion”.) Rather than between “here” and “there,” the August 4th blast exposed a disturbing but somehow familiar chasm between language and reality. I want to ask you about writing when language is pushed to an edge. You’ve published incredibly moving opinion pieces in the immediate aftermath of the “explosion.” Did you feel constrained by the imperative of having to respond? In your NY Times piece, you write that “an explosion resonates across time” and that “shock reverberates forward into your life.” It might take decades for people to realize what actually happened on August 4, to take stock of the ways their minds were altered and bodies irrevocably marked. How do you negotiate these two timelines: one dictated by the spectacle-driven, short-lived attention economy of the international media, and the messier, splintered time of somatic reckoning? I’m assailing you with questions so early in the day! Apologies. I hope your seven hours of sleep were somehow restful and free of nightmares.

*

LINA

I think I spoke too soon about sleeping; last night I was back down to four hours.

As for writing right afterward: it was incredibly comforting to be asked to write. It gave me something to do on that horrible second day. And of course there’s the privilege of having such a platform!

What I wrote, about explosions resonating through time, shock reverberating forward into your life, I was able to write that in the immediate aftermath because this is not my first experience of this category of violence. I know, all the Lebanese know, even if we don’t know how, that, as you put it, our minds are now irrevocably altered and our bodies forever marked. But how is of course the thing I will now forever be desperately trying to understand: in my body, in my mind, and on the page. When I wrote those words above, I was only stating what I know to be true about collectively-experienced violence, having not yet processed anything else about this particular instance.

But then, “this particular instance”…. It’s like nothing. I don’t know how. What do you even call it? I keep coming back to this question. The explosion? The blast? The disaster? The massacre, as my husband said the other day? What word conveys not only the horror but the deliberate evil of it? What word might capture the nauseating shock of that world-rending sound? What possible euphemism—because that’s what these words are, what they become: euphemisms—could contain within it the fact of hospital ceilings collapsing on newborns in maternity wards, glass raining down on cancer patients? Of impoverished people seeing their food, their supplies, the only things they own become irretrievable in the dirt? Of families digging frantically through the rubble with their bare hands, guided by the sound of their loved one’s dying moans?

I read the words I wrote, both here and in the column you refer to, and they seem so far from the things they are meant to bring alive. But my whole life, growing up here, knowing all the while I wanted to be a writer, has been a process of reconciling myself to that gap. I know I am not the one who will be filling in these words with the images and feelings they ought to contain, much as I would like to imagine otherwise. I’ve always thought of writing as an act that projects outward and inward at once. It is both selfish and altruistic, regardless of the motive that first inspires it. Anyone who tries to paint it as exclusively one or the other is flat-out wrong.

What I am doing for myself as I write is this: I am taking the swirling chaos of feeling in my head and slowly packing it into the solid containers of words. I am forcing it into a kind of submission, so that I might maybe attain some measure of rest.

What I am doing for other people is hopefully giving them the opportunity to do the same for themselves. Saying, here are these words, I hope they might ease or explain or offer comfort or make you feel more connected and thus less alone. I’m trying to give you a gift that I first gave to myself.

But let’s also be clear: that is all I am doing by writing. I am not handing out supplies of food to people who desperately need it; I am not sweeping glass and debris from the streets; I am not raising money or organizing aid or facing down the security forces’ live ammunition and tear gas as I try to claim a legitimate space for my rage and basic rights.

I feel that writers too often delude themselves about the nobility of their calling. To me, both in situations of crisis and in moments of relative calm, it’s more like an “all hands on deck” type of thing. We are all participants in building this world, for better or for worse. And so you do what you can, as many different things as you can. What your skill and strength and courage allow.

What about you? How are you spending your days? How are you processing this, “it,” both on and off the page?

*

MIRENE

It’s a rainy Sunday in NY and Luka is asleep, which means that my living room is unusually silent and I’m savoring every second of my end-of-day solitude. The short window between my son’s bedtime and mine is the only time I get to spend a few hours alone, with and by myself. One of the things I miss most since being a mother is having free, unstructured time, like pondering what to do on a Friday night, or even better, indulging in the possibility of not doing anything at all. Luka has a strict schedule; no matter what—pandemics, explosions, or meltdowns of various sorts—I try to put him to bed by 7:30 pm. Children need to internalize a sense of safety so that they feel secure enough to face the world once they grow older. Being a parent in these greatly deranged times (to borrow Amitav Ghosh’s words) involves (besides all the political fighting you can do!) sustaining the illusion that the world is a safe space, even if, and especially as it is falling apart. Thinking back to my own childhood, we left Lebanon for Canada when I was two, in the wake of the 1982 Israeli invasion of Beirut. I don’t have any recollections of the civil war, but on August 4th, I imagined being with Luka in Beirut and thought of what parents must have felt, how much strength and determination they needed to muster in order to tell their children that everything was going to be ok while reliving the trauma of the blasts of their own childhoods.

I’ve been re-reading Adrienne Rich lately—a poet very much concerned with the relationship between poetry and politics. In a short essay titled, “What would we create,” she discusses the misleading dichotomy between writing about the world (war, tragedies, disasters) and writing about the self (dreams, fantasies, desire, etc.) She ends the piece with the following words: “It is not a matter of dying as poet into politics, or of having to be reborn as poet ‘on the other side of politics’ (where is that?), but of something else—finding the relationship.” It made me think about the gap you mentioned in your last email, and how writing consists precisely in finding a relationship to that gap, in growing familiar with the depth and darkness of its void.

It’s true that writing isn’t essential to survival if survival means, literally, saving a life, but I’ve been trying to avoid thinking in hierarchies of needs. Immediate needs require immediate action, but your rage is also essential. Working through language in times of crisis is extremely important: we must articulate the grammar of our loss and the syntax of our demands, and I’m not sure that the humanitarian language that typically circulates in the wake of destruction is able to do that.

I asked you about your dog the other day (Salma?) and you jokingly replied that she was “traumatized” since the explosion. A human life will, and should, always take precedence over the life of a dog. I’m not arguing otherwise, but I am questioning the way disaster is represented, how it is exclusively centered around dead bodies and graphic scenes of destruction while sidelining all the other ways in which it impacts animals, plants, water, and entire ecosystems. NGOs offer momentary, palliative relief, but humanitarian work is complicit in the colonial and extractive violence responsible for man-made disasters. It is locked in a morbid, co-dependent relationship with the conditions that produced the blast (one would not exist without the other). It’s not hard to imagine that if we inhabited the planet in more ethical and equitable ways, then the disaster/humanitarian industry would have no reason to exist. I am straying but my point is that language is essential because it embodies ideological failures—fraught, sterile, and sometimes, dangerous narratives. But it also can steer the work of the mind towards imagining other worlds. I’ll stop here and instead of ending with a question, I’ll let you take the conversation in whatever direction you’d like.

*

LINA

There’s so much to think about here Mirene, thank you. And I agree with you on all of it, except that I want to make a few distinctions of perspective.

I’m glad you bring up Adrienne Rich; she’s one of the writers dearest to my secret heart. I agree with her, I’ve always agreed with her, that there is no contradiction between writing about the self and writing about politics, writing about passion for the lover and love for the stranger. I think for those of us who grow up in politically fraught places, and by this I refer equally to people living precarious lives in inner cities as people in war-torn countries, that that “relationship” Rich speaks of doesn’t require the help of a poet or writer to map out over the everyday. It is the everyday. For example, the man tortured in prison whose letter she quotes in Poem IV of Twenty-One Love Poems doesn’t have to be evoked and placed in conjunction with the callous neighbor, the absent lover. He might actually be your neighbor or your lover.

And so, her instruction, in Poem I, that “we need to grasp our lives inseparable” from what she calls the “disgraces” of society, which is one of the central theses and aims of her work, functions differently for those of us living politically fraught lives. In many ways we here must try and separate our lives from the disgraces of society, just to be able to enjoy them, to see their worth.

Therefore, for me, there is always a fundamental difference in perspective when you are writing from within the site of immediate, life-threatening disaster, whether as a direct victim of capitalism or racism or war (how to disentangle all three anyway), and when you are writing from the place of perpetual forgetfulness outside it. And everything I write, here and elsewhere, is always aware of and colored by that perspective. (Especially because, in so many ways, English is the language of forgetfulness for me).

For example, my joke about my dog, Salma, wasn’t about the fact of her being traumatized: she is, and it pains me to see, because I love her fantastically and she depends on me, and I on her in many ways. I think the joke was more along the lines of “Salma is traumatized, but don’t say I told you so because it feels shameful to say under the circumstances.” I remember during the 2006 war—that other great disaster that I keep coming back to—there were several articles written about the trauma and fear being experienced by people’s pets in northern Israel. I found it obscene. Troops were shelling ambulances and UN shelters for the displaced in Lebanon and justifying it as self-defense and here were these articles about frightened dogs and cats? Obscene!

“These words emanate from a body still rattling with fear.”

But yes, you are absolutely right in saying that in times of crisis it is imperative that we find a way to “articulate the grammar of our loss and the syntax of our demands,” and that humanitarian language is, if you will permit me to paraphrase you, garbage. And not just in content, I feel, but in form! Reports of the disaster must always be followed up by reports that justify that funds have been well-spent in the mitigation of disaster. Everything must end on a rising note, emphasizing notions of resilience and redemption. Actual life must be made to bow to what I’ve always thought of as “the tyranny of hope.” And this is because people’s chief concern seems to be to see proof that their currency, whether in the form of money or attention, has been well-spent. I call it a tyranny because this form of insistence on hope seems like a deliberate tactic to obscure the fact that disasters are not isolated incidents, as you also affirm, but sites of eruption within a great system of endless war and economic inequality and colonialism and environmental destruction. They want us to believe that all it takes to tackle disaster is to throw currency at it rather than work hard and together every day to help dismantle what is essentially a massive and terrible system. And so they use language that deludes us into believing that people move on and disasters end, instead of shaping forevermore what is to come.

Of course I believe in language and its importance, even for survival! It’s probably one of the few things I believe in without question or doubt. I come back, again and again, to Mahmoud Darwish’s Memory for Forgetfulness, written about and from within the Israeli invasion and bombardment of Beirut in 1982. I look to it as a handbook on writing about war in many ways. In the book, Darwish expresses repeatedly the desire for “a language that I can lean on and that can lean on me, that asks me to bear witness and that I can ask to bear witness.”

And yet he also acknowledges the absurdity of writing when war brings “human relations, space, time, and the elements back to a state of nature, making us rejoice over water gushing on the road from a broken pipe.”

I am there now, in that “state of nature,” writing from and in the immediate aftermath of disaster. It is important for me to emphasize: these words emanate from a body still rattling with fear. I feel the earth shaking constantly, and when I put my hands on the wall to steady myself, I remember that the walls too can come crumbling down. I am once again afraid of windows. I break down in sobs every day, countless times a day. The people I love all have pale, joyless faces and I can offer them no comfort from the horror and grief that consumes them, nor they me. My city is in shambles; wherever I look in the everyday streets I see loss. People with bandaged heads, cuts on their heads and arms, bruised faces. Cars with cracked windshields; empty window panes; the sinister twinkle of glass in every crevice. I feel helpless; I feel enraged; I feel I want to tear out the necks of those responsible for this with my teeth. Truly with my own teeth feel the flesh rend.

And right now, we have been placed under martial law, so that we must think twice about even naming those necks. More than two weeks have passed since the cataclysm, the massacre, and we still have nothing. No accountability, no answers, no apologies or words of condolence even! In this country we have always been made to live in silence with our killers. In so many countries people are asked to live with their killers. In what language do we demand justice? Words? Deeds? What is justice for such atrocity anyhow? I imagine I want to see their faces grow red then blue then grey as the nooses choke the life out of them, the men that did this to my city and its people. I imagine I want to see their heads roll into a basket, their death masks a look of bulging astonishment: you dare do this to me, the great chieftain, the great warlord and king? But I don’t believe in capital punishment. For a million reasons I don’t believe that death is any form of retribution for lost lives.

The journalist Kareem Shaheen wrote a profoundly moving thread on Twitter the other day, partially reflecting on the disaster in Beirut, and I recommend it be read in its entirety. “What,” he begins by asking, “is the worth of a human life?” He describes all the atrocities he’s witnessed and written about in his years of covering the Middle East: chemical attacks, barrel bombs, destroyed cities, murdered journalists, tortured prisoners. Not in a single instance, he said, were the perpetrators ever “going to face justice and retribution.” And this is what agonizes him most.

“My tolerance for bullshit has sharply decreased. I find it painful to engage anyone who doesn’t seem to grasp the political stakes of the present.”

“[T]here is great evil in this profound absence of justice,” he writes. “The world cannot stand like this. It will collapse in on itself one day because these sins are too grave, and there are too many of them.”

He helped me finally articulate something to myself, something I knew but not yet in the clarity of words. Which is that what I am interested in above all is justice, and that true justice must serve to affirm the worth of a human life. One of the poems in the book Once Upon a Time in Aleppo, by the Syrian poet Fouad Fouad, in its entirety reads:

“History will find neither time nor pages enough to recount the names of the half-million dead – but it will doubtless remember the name of the killer.// Even in death, history delivers no justice.”

I want writing to be a history that delivers justice. Not as vengeance but as dignity.

*

MIRENE

Dear Lina, I read your last email aloud to myself, many times, over and over, then louder, so that all the units of my apartment building could hear it loud and clear. I was also made aware of the emotional cost of your words, of the precarious, almost agonizing state of the body writing them—how the power of words comes at a cruelly high cost.

I don’t think there is much left to say, but I’ll venture in a few concluding thoughts. The distinction of perspectives you mention with regards to Adrienne Rich is absolutely accurate. Where are you writing from, what are the social and political parameters informing the expression of your “I”? Rich was very aware of “the politics of location,” of where she was speaking from as an American, Jewish, and lesbian writer. The reason I like her so much is that she did the work that every Anglo woman and man living on the stolen land of this American Empire should be doing, and most often aren’t.

As we enter one of the darkest ages of human history (some will say that there is no exceptionalism to our current predicament, but the convergence of racial capitalism, the politics of empire, and centuries of colonialism and ruthless environmental extraction make, in my opinion, a particularly violent concoction) my tolerance for bullshit has sharply decreased. I find it painful to engage anyone who doesn’t seem to grasp the political stakes of the present, or who relates to the news as some distant white noise (a very common disease in the USA).

Reading your last email also allowed me to shed light on some of the confused feelings around exile and diaspora in my first letter. It dawned on me that being in exile is to be from a politically fraught place among a sea of people living in total and overt forgetfulness, as you say. The uncanny co-existence of radically different perceptions of reality still confuses me; how those who are rich enough (both in the US and in Lebanon) keep fueling without any qualms the brutal system (capitalism) that enables them to “be fine” while other people live under constant existential threat.

“No justice, no peace,” people chanted in the streets of NY following the recent murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, two among the many African-Americans brutally killed this summer at the hands of the police. I don’t know what fair retribution would look like under a system that is so fundamentally rotten, but there is something exhilarating about the word “justice.” It breaks open the narrow walls of the present with a burning, immanent demand because it knows that there is nothing worth hoping for in the future otherwise.

Lina Mounzer and Mirene Arsanios
Lina Mounzer and Mirene Arsanios
Lina Mounzer is a writer and translator living in Beirut. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Paris Review, 1843, Literary Hub, and Bidoun, as well as in the anthologies Hikayat: An Anthology of Lebanese Women’s Writing (Telegram Books: 2007) and Tales of Two Planets (Penguin Books: 2020) an anthology of writing on climate change and inequality. Mirene Arsanios is the author of the short story collection, The City Outside the Sentence (Ashkal Alwan, 2015). She has contributed essays and short stories to e-flux journal, Vida, The Brooklyn Rail, The Rumpus, and Guernica, among others. Arsanios co-founded the collective 98weeks Research Project in Beirut and is the founding editor of Makhzin, a bilingual English/Arabic magazine for innovative writing. Her next book, The Autobiography of a Language, is forthcoming with Futurepoem (2021).





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