BEIRUT: “Memories/age faster than us,/die sooner,/ disappear silently like hair,/ without a passing date, a suicide note, a last vowel,” writes 33-year-old Zeina Hashem Beck in “A Few Love Lines to Beirut.”
The image of memories drifting away unremarked on the breeze is a fitting opening to a book built on recollection. Beck’s debut poetry collection, entitled “To Live in Autumn,” is centered on Beirut, a city she left in 2006 but which continues to occupy her thoughts.
“To Live in Autumn” won the 2013 Backwaters Prize, an annual award open to poets writing in English, and was published this year by Backwaters Press. A series of 45 vignettes exploring life in Lebanon’s capital, it succeeds in evoking the city more powerfully than many full-length novels.
Beck was born in Tripoli, where she lived until the age of 18. Having attended a French school, she decided to study English literature at the American University of Beirut. Already well-versed in French and Arabic literature, she was curious to explore uncharted territory, she explains. Having written poetry ever since she was a child, she found herself falling in love with the English language.
The book is not about Beirut. It’s my interpretation, my version of it
When she left Lebanon in 2006, moving with her husband first to Saudi Arabia, then Bahrain and finally to Dubai, where she has lived for four years, Beck began to write poems as elegies to the city in which she spent her student years.
“Why Beirut?” she asks. “It’s a city that personally fascinates me. I always say that the book is not about Beirut. It’s my interpretation, my version of it, because it’s very personal, the way we react to places and the way we experience them. Beirut fascinates me, inspires me, scares me – all of that at the same time.”
There is an element of nostalgia to Beck’s work and her fondness for the city shines through powerfully in poems such as “In Beirut,” in which she recalls the tangle of streets, the haphazard rooftops and the drenching winter rains. Yet “To Live in Autumn” doesn’t idealize Lebanon.
Many of Beck’s verses make reference to legacies of the Civil War, to ongoing violence, instability, sporadic electricity and inequality, seamlessly blending the sublime and the sorrowful in a way that will strike a chord to those familiar with life in Beirut.
“I was writing from outside Lebanon, so the poems that came at the beginning were pretty nostalgic,” she says, “but you can’t hold on to that for too long. And I didn’t exactly abandon Lebanon. I keep going back in the summer ... so you don’t really lose the connection. So there is this nostalgic element but I made sure that I don’t do that thing where you go, ‘Ah, it’s the best country in the world.’ No, it’s not. Sometimes it’s very sh---y.
“There is this tension. I think lots of people who live in Lebanon feel that love-hate relationship with the country and I wanted that to come across. That’s what autumn means, in the title. ... Autumn is a limbo space between summer, which is flowery and light, and winter, which is cold and cruel, and it doesn’t know what the hell it is.”
Some of Beck’s poems are based around everyday memories. In “Fresco,” she builds a series of verses around the sounds of the street outside her house on a humid summer afternoon. The clink of coffee cups, a mother shouting at her children, a man selling potatoes who calls out to advertise his wares – these sounds underpin the rhythm of her words. Elsewhere, she personifies a flight of stairs as “an old woman not afraid.”
Other poems use a series of short vignettes to build a narrative that reverberates in the reader’s mind, becoming far bigger than the sum of its parts.
In “The Old Building,” Beck describes life in an apartment block through the stories of its residents. Yasseen lives on the fourth floor and is sometimes found unconscious on the stairs in the morning. Raymond lives with his mother on the seventh floor and sings songs about war in the shower: “Hiroshima, Hiroshima,/ boom boom boom.”
In “Until Dawn,” the poet and her friends drink and dance in a series of bars, while outside on the pavements a 5-year-old boy stops trying to sell gum, wipes the tears from his cheeks and throws his money into the street.
Those who are familiar with Beirut will recognize places and people. Beck writes about Modca, a popular café on Hamra Street now transformed into a Vero Moda and about a homeless man named Ali, a familiar figure on Hamra’s Bliss Street, who died of exposure one cold winter night.
Beck says that her work is not aimed specifically at a Lebanese audience, however.
“I think it doesn’t have the same resonance [for unfamiliar readers], as in the people who have lived in Beirut and Lebanon go, ‘Ah yes, wow! I know this person!’” she says. “But you also have [people at readings] who come up to me and say, ‘We want to visit this city now. It’s fascinating. We’ve never been but we somehow identify.’
“That’s what poetry should do. You read a good poem and it doesn’t matter if you know the place or the person that it’s referring to – maybe it helps, but it doesn’t matter at the end of the day. If it’s a good poem what it makes you feel is you immediately connect to it. Lots of people who have never been to Lebanon have said to me that they were touched.”
Zeina Hachem Beck will be reading from “To Live in Autumn” at the American University of Beirut on Nov. 20 at 4:30 p.m. in West Hall, Auditorium A. Copies of the book will be available for purchase at the reading or in local branches of Virgin Megastore as of the same date.