ISSUE #1 THE IMAGINED, AUTUMN 2012
FLANEUR
The Wizard of Caracas

Phantasmic lovers stroll on the pages of the Mediterranean Sea, tree fairies bewitch, and ghosts, perched on their tombstones, gaze up at the stars – taxi driver Farouk Itani renders the city a collage of waking dreams.

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Farouk Itani dodges his way around Beirut’s main avenues, preferring alleys, even those riddled with potholes. Video of taxi ride with Itani by Bachar Khattar.

Farouk Itani stops his cab and points to where the fairy lives. His massive body leans over the passenger seat as he sticks his finger through the half-open window, gesturing toward the pine tree, or snoobar in Arabic, the namesake of this Beirut neighborhood. In the early mornings, the fairy used to let down her black hair over the denuded pine tree branches. She would flash her thighs from beneath her ethereal white robes and bear some cleav-age tucked behind cones as worshippers flocked to the nearby mosque, aiming to distract them from their prayers. She would beckon them to sin before dawn, her emerald eyes luring them to pleasures surpassing both slumber and piety.

One such mischievous vixen once transfixed Farouk’s brother, Rafik. As dawn was breaking, the imam of the mosque caught site of Rafik copulating with the pine tree with all his might. When their father got wind of it, he grabbed a bamboo rod and chased Rafik through the streets. In 1955, it was com-mon knowledge that unions between man and jinn led to the birth of mutants, and the father feared that he would find him-self with a mutant grandchild. But the pinecones spawned no mutant fruit. The tree shriveled and withered thanks to the neglect of the municipality.

To this day, Farouk secretly greets the sprite every evening. Whenever he drives by, he laughs silently at the image of his brother going at it with the pine tree.

The trees of Beirut are wicked, and they have never been kind. There used to be plenty of trees in the city, but they are few in number today. As the trees have dwindled, they have grown more bewitching, their spells more enchanting. They no longer sway in the summer breeze; instead, they collect dust and draw the frail ghosts of birds that sing only when God wills. Like those birds, Farouk Itani was once young and fit, with pearly whites and a carefully combed head of hair. A 1971 graduate of the Beirut Arab University Arabic Literature Department, Farouk always kept his nails trimmed and lived life to the fullest until he ended up in the driver’s seat of a taxi cab, ever enlightened. Day after day, he parks his car in the Caracas neighborhood. Day after day, he stashes the bundle of stub-born wires, like a metallic octopus, in the gap where the car radio used to be.

He points his finger out of the window again and pulls on the parking brake, nearly melted by cigarette ash embers. But the car slowly glides along the asphalt slope, as though it’s gearing up for a round of skiing, the brake pads clearly worn down by years of bearing the weight of Farouk and his passengers.

We’re in the Al Thalatha Qamhat (Three Wheat Stalks) neighborhood, and he points to the Umm Qassis tree, one of three in the area. In the olden days, they used to boil the grape-like berries of this tree into a sticky paste, which was slath-ered on branches for bird hunting, a favor-ite pastime and hobby – like fishing and ceramics – for the people of Beirut. The Umm Qassis, like the pine tree, is still alive, and Farouk points to it as he drives by every day. His left arm, tanned by the sun, reaches out the window, gesturing to the cab driver behind him to slow down – he’s about to pick up a passenger.

Beirut’s trees are dark, especially in Farouk’s Caracas. At sunset near the coast of the purple sea, their shadows stretch long, like a widow’s veil caught unawares by the Mediterranean breeze, reaching the pavement on the other side, where Farouk’s uncle had his car parked the day he was killed. The uncle was shot to death, and with his head covered by a dark sack, Farouk’s father was executed after being convicted of murder. With its birds, sun, and dead uncle, this is a street of execution stories for Farouk.

Farouk has been working on a novel that, at the time of writing, was incom-plete. Europe was built on novels, he says. If only the Arabs would leave poetry behind! Let’s take the Eiffel Tower, with its pillars of metal installed in a thick book, a tome heavy enough to hold a door open. A tower like this would rise if prose prevailed instead of empty pages with drops of ink, which assembled to-gether become a diwan, a collection of Arabic poetry.

To the left stands the Yacoubian Building, to which Omar Medawar, a character in Farouk’s novel, a man with roots in Andalusia, moved with his Jewish wife Eugene from their home on Hamra Street. Farouk published a newspaper article about their story, which he claims is true, but he won’t claim that he has almost finished his novel. A renowned Lebanese writer once told him that all he needed was a light oiling of the gears to enter the world of letters. This was encouraging, and he started blogging, attracting six thousand visitors in the first two months.

Farouk tells the story of how Omar and Eugene met in Haifa. So engrossed by the tale of the two lovers in Jaffa, Farouk nearly smells the Jaffa oranges falling from the balcony of the couple’s flat as he narrates. Omar entered into a relationship with Eugene and then mar-ried her without forcing her to convert to Islam. In Farouk’s manuscript-in-progress, the couple is killed in the St. Georges Hotel explosion that targeted Rafik Hariri, and as he drives by that site on the Beirut coast, Farouk sees them walking on the pages of the sea.

Farouk – formerly a Nasserist and member of the National Movement, and then later a member of the Independent Nasserist political party Al Murabitun (Sentinels) – speaks of the Venus night-club, located in the basement of the Yacoubian Building. Even though it’s still too early for the laughter of late-night ghosts, the narrator hears them when he passes nearby, everyday, as if fulfilling a vow he made to the characters for the rest of his life. He can envisage the clientele: men with wide-legged trousers and wom-en with flashy short dresses and big hair.

The Yacoubian Building also housed many Palestinian leaders and is still the headquarters of the Palestinian news agency. Now in tatters, it is a Palestinian memento in a Beirut that does not forget.

Farouk, for those who do not know, is a proto-millionaire … who has gone bankrupt. Abu Khalil Street, on the banks that overlook Pigeon Rocks, attests to this. A plot of land that has recently spawned a monstrous luxury building was once the property of our hero, the driver, in the form of green documents stamped by Bank of America – that is, before the party was crashed. Farouk’s relative, Mohammed Itani, had sold the land in 1923 to a professor at the American University of Beirut who returned to the United States two years later, never to be heard from again. People from the Al Fakhouri family then asked to live on the land. The family built a small, one-bedroom house and cultivated the land around it. Before the family emmigrated to Libya in 1975, the house was given to Rafik Itani, the fairy’s lover and Farouk’s half-brother. Afterwards, a prominent Lebanese figure wanted to buy the land, and it was revealed that the land “had no owner.” An Armenian Member of Parliament told the infatuated buyer: I will get you what you want. After much ado, he managed to secure a document from the heirs of the university professor, endorsing the land to the two partners: the MP and his superior in the political party. But when the hooligans of the civil war caught wind of this, they set up a used-car dealership on the lot. This was before the sought-after treasure went to the sister of a politician, a man who since the war remains as elegant as he is lethal. Soon after, a luxury building arose, where the price of one apartment is in the millions.

Farouk still wears the boots of the civil war. When he thinks about the Abu Khalil Street plot, he says that he could have gotten the deed for the land, even forged one if necessary. “I’m not a saint,” he says. “I too had contacts, and chaos reigned supreme back then. But I neglect-ed to follow up on it and did not listen to my brother.” Damn luck. Damn the apathy of youth. Farouk hits the steering wheel with his head and says, “I would have been rich … I would have been rich!” Banknotes swirl around the lost building like a bottled-up hurricane in the cab driver’s breath. It could have been the earthquake that he longed for, it could have struck his life and turned it upside down. But the soil that grows gold swallowed the quake.

Beirut needs a gigantic saw to cut it loose from the Lebanese Republic that has never come to terms with its capital. This is how the diligent flaneur pictures it in his dilapidated car. If we had a real state and this state wanted Beirut, it would have unified the capital’s municipalities. From his words, the city emerges as an image formed by a teen-ager assembling magazine cutouts, a collage to stick on the door of his closet, a beautiful woman that he rescues from paper-eating bugs and swoops into his waking dreams.

Farouk makes Beirut cutouts every day. He dodges his way around its main avenues, preferring alleys, even those riddled with potholes. He cannot belong to it except by circumventing its official layout. He knows Beirut like the back of his hand, before broad streets were cut and paved.

Farouk lived on Tareeq Al Jadeedeh (New Street) from 1957 until 1973. “Tareeq Al Jadeedeh: it starts with an or-phanage and ends with a nursing home,” he says. Between them, coexistence above ground is on the wane, but it continues unabated underground. In the middle of the street, signboards, cars, and shops selling sweets and fattening-to-death sandwiches litter the place. Tareeq Al Jadeedeh, in Farouk’s bald head, is one big mixed cemetery, for it contains graves of both Sunni and Shiite Lebanese and also Palestinians. Behind Farouk’s eyes, the graves have tin roofs because the living have always believed that they should protect the dead against heat and rain. The dead, it seems, leave their graves at night, sit by the marble tomb-stones, and weep over the imprints of their bodies.

Every evening, Farouk’s father is spat out from the earth from Horsh Beirut cemetery and sits by his tombstone. But he probably does not weep – it is difficult to picture him weeping. More likely, he contemplates the black sky from a hole in the tin roof, listening to the only star he can see. He reaches out to catch rain-drops in the winter, but the raindrops pass through his hands, continuing on their way to irrigate the vacuous grave. His son wants to be buried with him. He cannot picture himself a miserable corpse anywhere else. In another hole, he may become carrion! As for his children, the grandchildren of Farouk’s father, let them each be buried where they live now. It is they who have left him and traveled to the four corners of the planet, forsaking him. Farouk says, “I don’t want anyone to visit my grave.” He will be content with the weeds during the day and the old man and his hands, the rain falling through, at night. He threatens his child-ren that his soul might haunt them if they don’t fulfill his will.

“Walls Against War.” The cab driver says this in English. The city must accept his advice and commands. A person cannot know from whence he shall be struck a blow, so every citizen must build a wall around his home against war. This is his logic. Yes, like the Berlin Wall. Beirut is made up of many Berlins. If you choose to buy or build a home in the Ras Al Nabaa area, for example, you must factor in the battles and protect yourself. Today, it might be Ras Al Nabaa, but tomorrow, it could be Karakol Al Druze, Al Hadath, or even Hamra Street. Homes must be fortified cages with many walls. Or maybe it would be better still to let everyone live in armored cars. This way, they could take their homes with them if they have to leave.

Farouk drives his cab to its abode, in a parking lot on the edge of Hamra. I get out of the car and thank him; there is no need to take me home. But how will you go home, Farouk, if you’re going to leave the car here? He won’t. He will sit with the parking guard in his shed. That’s where he left his laptop computer. He will smoke shisha with him and will post on his Facebook page, or perhaps his blog, the subtitle of which reads, “Lebanon is a final homeland for its citizens, not a bridge or a message … My blog is my mirror, my concern, my dream, that man inside of me.”

 

Based on a translation by Sabine Taoukjian

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ABOUT AUTHOR
Rasha Atrash is a Lebanese journalist, writer, and the author of Saboun (Soap).
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