Between Enchantment and Delirium

Enchanted by her eloquence and fluency in French, the neighbors consider Maryam anything but a homeless beggar, for the woman who lives on the streets around the American University of Beirut is an urban legend, the strangest of strangers.

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Artist Roy Samaha follows the peregrinations, imaginary and otherwise, between Beirut and New York of Maryam.
It was pouring rain, and gusts of wind swept wet droplets against people taking shelter under their umbrellas and waiting under balconies for the downpour to pass. Maryam – or Mary, as everyone who worked on Beirut’s Bliss Street called her – sat that evening in front of MiLord, the clothing shop’s name spelled out in English as in “God,” or “Sir.” It was where she slept when night fell. The shop was next to Universal Snack, at the end of the road down from the old Strand Cinema near the American University of Beirut. Her legs were wet from the rain, and she gazed out as if confiding in it. She covered herself with a grey scarf, and it fell over her long, disheveled hair, which, though it had yielded to an incursion of grey, had not yet been crowned in white. On the other side of the street in front of Le Sam restaurant – which had finally opened, taking the place of Uncle Sam’s restaurant – was Ali the Wanderer, standing right where he had stood on Bliss Street for many long years, the lines of panic drawn on his face. The Syrians who worked in the neighborhood and students from the Gulf enrolled at the American University drew a parallel between Ali and Maryam whenever asked about them; they figured his homelessness was no different from hers. But the Lebanese tended not to see the similarities between them. They felt a flutter of fascination whenever they spoke of her, as if she were veiled in mystery. The mayor’s assistant, for instance, didn’t know whom the phrase “the woman living on Bliss Street” referred to. She had asked “You mean Georgette, the one who sells chewing-gum?” before thinking about it for a moment and realizing: “Oh yes, Maryam – the woman who speaks French.” I walked up to her and said, “Hello, how are you?” She wasn’t sure how to answer and looked at me as if asking, “Who are you?” I told her my name and that we had exchanged words a couple days ago. She smiled, and her small blue eyes shimmered with a vigilant spark. “Join us at Universal Snack?” I asked her. She said, “I don’t like milieux clos [enclosed spaces]. I don’t have a phobia; I’m just afraid of contamination, from contact with pollues [contaminated people]. They could give me AIDS.” She asked me if I had any frata (change) I didn’t need and thanked me for the few coins in French. I caught up with my friends at the Snack, and the phrase she had used to ask for money made them laugh. They thought it seemed fitting. A couple of days earlier, when I had invited her to eat with me at Universal, Maryam had told me, “I don’t consume normal food. The Marines provide me with uncontaminated bottles of water and food without nuclear radiation. The Marines’ food looks like any other food, but it’s different.” Maryam lived on the sidewalks and in an imagined reality. It was “herselfness” that preoccupied her, and she invented a new autobiography daily. People in the neighborhood saw her every day, living in front of the restaurants they worked in. They would weave through the streets after her, plucking snippets from the tales she spun as she ambled along, and swapping details among themselves. The pieces of her stories varied, but each revolved around a central crisis that united them all: “fluency in a foreign language … writing in a notebook … the woman with the blue eyes.” (The woman working at McDonald’s claimed Maryam was blonde, but in truth her dark chestnut hair was overrun with grey and her skin a radiant brown.) The walls between Maryam’s biographies were crumbling, and details seeped from one into another like legends passed down from one generation to the next, which “would travel to other places and rejuvenate one another,” as Lévi-Strauss said in The Raw and the Cooked. Neighborhood lunatics had long wandered the streets of Lebanon’s cities and villages, their families caring for them from afar and appearing at the end of the day to accompany them home. The event that had swept the lunatic’s mind away was no secret to the neighbors or to anyone else. Crazy Bashir, for example, could often be seen in my neighborhoods of Al Mulla and Al Zarif. People said he was injured in the war, pronounced dead by the medics and put in the cold chamber at the morgue, where he woke up and lost his mind. Hamasho was touched by insanity while digging graves during the war. It was a “happy coincidence,” as they said, when he happened to wander through a neighborhood near Al Mulla or Al Zarif. But no one saw anything “crazy” in Maryam, neither in her senseless jabber nor in how she wandered up and down Bliss Street and through its side streets. Instead, they seemed to be quite enthralled with her words and what they assumed they knew about her. “Maybe she’s someone important, someone famous in the world of classical music,” the assistant to Ras Beirut’s mayor said when she came across Maryam sitting in front of Hardee’s, writing French words in her notebook in a neat and elegant hand. “I just don’t recognize her.” She asked if Maryam needed help, but she waved the offer aside. Maryam started speaking about Bach and Beethoven, then asked “Don’t you know who I am?” without waiting for an answer. The crêpe-seller said Maryam is a schoolteacher, without using the past tense. The man selling cellphones was convinced she’s “from AUB” – the American University of Beirut – as if she had descended from the American ivory tower itself and not the people of her own country. Maryam’s ramblings seem to support the phone-seller’s version of her ancestry. “I never miss my family,” she said. “They imposed restrictions on my personal freedom and barred me from interpreting dreams. I was stuck with them – family like that embraces you.” Maryam gestured broadly, and it was clear that for her, to embrace someone meant to seize hold of them. Meanwhile the mayor’s neighbor, who lived about 200 meters from where Maryam “lived,” thought she was someone – someone “important.” He often saw her immersed in a book, with a stack of equally “important” books beside her. He respected her personal space, he said – if she were sitting on the sidewalk and blocking pedestrians, he would never ask her to move aside and make a bit of room. He simply stepped off the sidewalk and kept walking. Maryam ferociously protested being forced to leave her spot or being asked to change the way she was sitting, he told me. But he understood this ferocity of hers and attributed it to something that had befallen her in the street. As if he were in a psychiatric clinic or a family counseling session, he began to speak about something that had happened to him in the same neighborhood in the early seventies when he was seventeen: “I used to see this pretty young girl, about twenty-six years old, strolling through Hamra wearing a short dress; and as she walked, her purse swung to and fro. She was a péripatéticienne – a street girl. I noticed that every Sunday she would clean herself up, put on something more conservative, and take a taxi. One day, I borrowed my neighbor’s car and followed her to the bus station in the Bourj (Martyrs’ Square) and from there to the village of Mtayleb, just before Bikfaya. I saw her enter the convent school run by the nuns. I figured she visited her son every Sunday. A couple of days later, I ran into her in the street and said hello. She asked me how old I was, figuring I was a potential customer. ‘Eighteen years and two months,’ I told her. She laughed and said, ‘Sure then.’ But I told her ‘Before I go with you, I have a question. Who do you visit at the convent school every Sunday?’ She slapped me and left. I never saw her again. Since then, I don’t try to find out people’s secrets.” The two women had merged into one for this man, and any woman who wandered the streets was a “street girl.” But Maryam was a street girl of a different kind, in a city that wasn’t accustomed to women living off its streets and supporting themselves on them. A friend of the mayor gave the impression that it was her “ferocity” that kept the propositions and harassment at bay. As for Maryam, she dismissed the dangers of living out in the open with the idea that she was protected by the Marines. “I’m in the street 24/24, and I’m not afraid of anyone. The Marines have my back, and I can face anything.” She pointed to the two giant bags that had imprinted their weight on the ground. “The Marines are ready to intervene at any minute, and they’re ready to blow it all up.” Georgette, the street vendor who sold chewing gum, who came from the eastern outskirts of Beirut each day, carrying the chair she sat upon across from Universal Snack (Maryam’s nightly headquarters), had other facts about the woman who shared the street with her. “She sleeps in a boat, or so she says, working at sea with the Norwegian forces. She wasn’t like this two years ago. She used to dress up all fancy, but you wouldn’t know it from how tattered her clothes are now. She’d head straight to McDonald’s, sit there, sip her Nescafé, and buy candy and cigarettes. Now she’s started carrying those big bags. I suggested she leave them in one of the shops for safekeeping, but she said she didn’t want to. She said she needs them for her work. She’s a writer; she speaks other languages.” The owner of the phone shop, who had traced Maryam back to the American University, hadn’t spoken with her before. It seemed he had not fallen under her spell, and he spoke of her with an air of objectivity. “She showed up around here about three years ago, but she wasn’t sleeping in the street back then. I think she owned a house she’d go back to at night. She lost her house about a year ago, I think, and her family doesn’t help her out. They’re not really the giving type. But the medicine she needs can’t be hard to find – whatever she’s got isn’t complicated. She’s peaceable.” Maryam had chosen to inhabit a place “outside the family” and to invent herself a new identity, one cut off from her kin, in which she became the daughter of hurricanes and nuclear contamination and other features of our era. After all, she slept just a couple steps from Universal Snack – with all of its international worldliness – just a few meters from the American University, a symbol, among others, of Beirut’s cosmopolitanism, and in front of Le Sam restaurant, an allusion to “Uncle Sam” in French. In her words, the snack shop’s international branding was central to her mission universelle, and she claimed she came from Uncle Sam’s country. “I was born in Washington D.C.,” she said, “and I lived between New York, Sao Paolo, and Washington. I used to fly Boeing jets to get around, and in the sixties I was the director of City Hospital in New York, removing nuclear radiation from the bodies of Marines. But the hospital burned down in 1957.” The most remarkable part about Maryam’s claims was that real facts formed the fabric of her various identities, which she wove into an uninherited I – one cut off from her forefathers’ world, their religion and their country. “She’s Christian; her father’s Muslim; and her mother’s Jewish,” said Georgette, the chewing-gum seller. The baker thought she came from Haifa, the city that was Palestinian yesterday and is Israeli today, located within the borders of an enemy nation that maintained no relations with Lebanon and that, furthermore, forbade its citizens from crossing over into Lebanon. The New York City Hospital had not sprung from her imagination, though. According to Wikipedia, the hospital that would one day bear the name “City” had been remodeled after it burned down in 1858. This hospital, originally an extension of the prison, had closed its doors for good in 1957 and in 1972 was added to the National Register of Historic Places. Had Maryam visited this building once, when a docent had opened its doors to a flock of visitors? Or had she read about it in a book or a newspaper? When people said to her, “You look good for your age, despite having worked in the hospital in the sixties … you’ve really had quite a long career,” she would claim to have been an astronomer and an astronaut – to have flown planes and traveled into space. “I don’t look my age, even though I’m sixty-two,” she would say. “Because I’m shielded by a protective mask I made myself. It protects me from radiation, and protects my white nails and teeth. I monitor the levels of oxygen and nitrates in the air. People who’ve been contaminated with these substances emit volcanic particles made of arsenic – à base d’arsenic.” Kamal Jurji Rubayz’s book Rizkallah Aala Ayamak, Ya Ras Beirut (God Bless You, Oh Ras Beirut) and Farouk Itani’s Al Beiruti Al Taeh (Beirut Drifter) both tell of how fearful people were of entering the grounds the American University was built on in 1886. The land was uninhabited, and people figured it was haunted by a djinn. These are places where no one lives and no one lingers – places like amusement parks and cafés, public utility plants in modern cities, urban neighborhoods. These places bring people together from all over; they spark the imagination; they cast a shadow of mystery and magic. Even a century later, a certain kind of enchantment has wrapped its way around them, among their inhabitants and those who wandered their sidewalks. After I asked the crêpe-seller about the woman who had chosen to make Bliss Street and its neighborhood her own and her home, a young Syrian delivery boy with a Lebanese accent told me, “I saw her sitting on the edge of the sidewalk, writing and solving equations.” “You mean math problems?” I said. “No – poetry problems. But is she anything like the other homeless man? Because he’s good at languages too. Her accent’s britaneyya – British – and he speaks with the djinns. I’ve heard him talking to things you can’t see, saying ‘Come on, appear! You’ve gotta go home.’” The people who worked on Bliss Street and Sidani Street, the things they knew about Maryam were like legend. She came from somewhere far away, from a land like Waqwaq, the magical isle in A Thousand and One Nights. Or perhaps she was more like an urban legend, whose story changed with every new person who told the tale. Her words replaced rumors in listeners’ ears. They believed what she said, never wondering how true it was, as though it matched what they imagined a stranger might be, someone whose identity and ancestry were unknown. She didn’t come from somewhere else, the way the students of the American University did, from Lebanon or from abroad. She wasn’t a beggar; she didn’t work in a shop; she wasn’t a native of Ras Beirut. She was a stranger who lived there – just without a fixed address, and she wouldn’t stop to set up camp. As if she were eternally departing, or always “a potential traveler,” as Georg Simmel described a stranger in the city. People would be sure they had just seen her near one store or another, but when one of them walked over to look, they wouldn’t find a trace of her. The shop owners and their employees said they hadn’t seen her in front of their stores but on the next street over. As he was wrapping up a mannousheh and handing it to a customer, the man working at National Bakeries, which stayed open all through the night, said “Mary speaks other languages. She says she’s close to Rafik Hariri and that his son Fahd has taken a liking to her and that her aunt met the French Foreign Minister. I don’t know who she told, but I got wind of it. They say she was seen walking behind Lady Diana.” When you asked where she was with Lady Diana, he would retort defensively, as if fending off an accusation: “It wasn’t me who saw her.” A Maryamesque Afterword When I bumped into her a couple days after Hurricane Sandy hit America, she told me, “I’m developing giant machines that I’ll scatter in the oceans to reduce the power of l’ouragan – hurricanes stronger than storms that uproot houses and trees and everything. I’m a Marine Corps leader and a trainee in the Corps, too.” Two days later, I came across Maryam standing in front of a shop selling mobile phones. She was leaning against the short columns next to the sidewalk that kept cars from parking there, smoking a cigarette. “I’m the director of an international humanitarian mission, monitoring nuclear emissions in people’s bodies. I’m reducing the amount of radiation and removing it,” she said. “I’m among the three percent of human beings immune to nuclear radiation, you know. The level of radiation in the bodies of people on Hamra Street is high, unbearably high. They’re extremely contaminated. I can’t stand them anymore; it’s high time for them to be exterminated. The Marines will exterminate them. They were contaminated after having ‘unnatural relations’ with exotic animals – the animals infected them, and they transmitted it to other humans, through these kinds of relations. I’m fluent in all languages because I’m an envoy on an international mission – une mission universelle.” “Before you came up to me, I felt the radiation of someone who’s been poisoned, and I looked at the person standing next to me and said, ‘He’s definitely poisoned.’ But there are high levels of radiation emitted in the air, and it got stronger when you came close to me. I knew the moment you started talking to me that you were poisoned with chemical agents. But I’ve taken it out of your body, so that’s why your cramps have disappeared and you feel better.”
Translated by Elisabeth Jaquette coupon read coupons cialis

Manal Nahhas is a journalist, translator, and PhD candidate in Sociology.

Roy Samaha, is an artist from Beirut, working and exhibiting his video and photography widely since 2002.

Transit Beirut
Kaveh Golestan 1950-2003: Recording the Truth in Iran
Critical Writing

All Stories
All Critical Writing
The Square
Fiction: Contemporary Arabic and Russian Pursuits
The Imagined
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