Tyre sea by night

The sea of Sur by night. Tyre, Lebanon. June 18, 2021. (Marwan Tahtah/The Public Source)

Surrounding Sur: Liberation Day Poetics

At the start of the Lebanese Civil War, Beirut became the quintessential trope of the ruined nation, as poets from around the Arab world gathered to eulogize the Lebanese capital, while the South, as battlefront, was relegated to dark shadows of literary neglect. The first (1978) and second (1982) Israeli invasions brought the plight of the South to print. Voices long eclipsed by the intense focus on the capital city started to hesitantly grace the pages of periodicals, newspapers, and poetry concerned with new “acts of literature”1 from hitherto unknown interlocutors.

The corpus of South Lebanese poets known as Shuara’ al-Janub, The Poets of the South, is a case in point: Although they had been publishing books since the early 1970s, it was only in the aftermath of the Israeli invasion that their poetry started to gain traction. 1979 was a gateway year for publicizing the southern poets, some of whom featured in a special issue of the Lebanese literary-cultural journal Mawaqif (Positions).

Although they had been publishing since the early 1970s, it was only in the aftermath of the Israeli invasion that the corpus of South Lebanese poets known as The Poets of the South started to gain traction.

Published in Beirut in fits and starts between 1968 and 1994 by Syrian poet, essayist, and translator Adunis, Mawaqif was burnished in the flames of 1967 and became known for its open support of the Palestinian resistance and New Arab Left.2 In the foreword to the journal’s pilot issue, Adunis minced no words about his journal’s raison d’être: “Mawaqif … is an act of permanent confrontation. It overcomes all oppression and authority with a view to scrutinizing Arab history and culture and fundamentally reinvigorating Arab thinking … Mawaqif is culture – revolution.”3 Although Mawaqif  briefly ceased publication with the onset of civil war, it resumed in 1978 with even more purposeful drive to capture the trials and tribulations of the writer-intellectual confronting violent warfare. As war returned to the South, attention began to pivot towards its literary representatives.

In its 1979 relaunch issue, Mawaqif attempted to carve out a place for young and largely unknown poets. The introductory article, by a young Abbas Baydun, “Al-hadatha al-an: Bahth fi harakat al-shu‘ara’ al-shubban al-lubnaniyyin” (Research on the Movement of Young Lebanese Poets) examines the poetics of a contemporary generation of young Shi‘i male poets from South Lebanon, among whom are Hasan Abdallah, Muḥammad Ali Shams al-Din, and Shawqi Biziʿ.4 In Baydun’s words, his study attempts to “trace the common thread that organizes them [the young southern poets] into a comprehensive phenomenon.” The article parses the poetic trends of the “movement of young poets” from southern Lebanon who are agitating for public visibility and a critical reckoning with the very term “Southern poetry.” Baydun attempts to de-essentialize the term “Southern poetry,” as not a return to a “southern agricultural idyll or originary peasant language, but rather as that which is based on its very ruination and complete oblivion.”

In the above quotation, Baydun alludes to the January 1973 tobacco workers’ strike in which thousands of tobacco planters from the South occupied the offices of the Régie in Nabatiyeh, a private franchise-holding company since 1935, “which held the exclusive right to export Lebanese-produced tobacco, import cigarettes and produce local cigarettes.”5 The workers’ basic demands for a hike in the purchase price of their products was met with intense army fire, which killed two of the workers. Angrily, Baydun quips “the state is a claim to unify society, or an illusion of unification, but it is based on playing on the lines of separation and their intersection.”

As Baydun’s article in Mawaqif testifies, part of the larger project of this movement of poetry was an attempt to carve out a space of belonging with the South inhabiting a central instead of liminal position within the nation’s cultural memory. In pursuit of a language of memory distinct from Beiruti-centric war narratives, this poetic space attends to “structures of feeling”6 at the margins of the state. It opens up a counterpublic space of memory, challenging public norms of belonging, by bringing into focus important issues such as occupation, state neglect, and literary inattention. The poetry stemming from (and about) the Southern borderland finds itself positively charged with the role and function of collective, even revolutionary, enunciation.

The poetry stemming from (and about) the Southern borderland finds itself positively charged with the role and function of collective, even revolutionary, enunciation.

Shuʿara’ al-Janub critique forced migration due to Israeli occu­pation and, crucially, state neglect, through the act of contemplating the ruined Southern landscape. A common theme underpinning this poetry is its configuration of the ruined Southern landscape as both a reconstruction of a personal sense of belonging and a poetics of the communal that is topographically and politi­cally Janubi (Southern). The once verdant geography of the Southern landscape, tropes of the rolling land, lush tobacco fields, and vegetation, figure into the poetry of Abbas Baydun, Jawdat Fakhr al-Din, Shawqi Biziʿ, Muhammad Ali Shams al-Din, and Hasan Abdallah, before occupation perforates this bucolic imagery.

Abbas Baydun’s poetry bespeaks a commitment to politics reflected in his involvement in the Lebanese Communist Movement that landed him twice in prison: first in 1968 for agitating against the Lebanese army on the heels of its inaction following Israel’s commando operation in Beirut Airport that resulted in the burning of an entire civilian airliner fleet, and second in 1982 when he was detained in an Israeli prison, during which time he composed his meditations on the Civil War titled “al-waqt bi-jur‘atin kabira” (time in big mouthfuls).

Shortly after his release from prison, he completed his epic poem “Sur,” which marked a new phase in his poetic develop­ment: an experimentation with the Arabic prose poem. In “Sur,” Baydun eulogizes the Southern port city of Tyre into a com­memorative ruinscape that interrogates issues pertaining to the memory of the South as it was simultaneously eclipsed by not only occu­pation, but also, state neglect.

In “Sur,” Baydun eulogizes the Southern port city of Tyre into a com­memorative ruinscape that interrogates issues pertaining to the memory of the South as it was simultaneously eclipsed by not only occu­pation, but also, state neglect.

What initially began as a rhapsody about the sea when he started writing it in 1974, Baydun’s tripartite poem “Sur” eventually took on the colors of the political climate in which it was finally published. The 1982 Israeli invasion and occupation of the poet’s hometown transformed the tone, tempo, and language of the poem to reflect Baydun’s stripping down of language. The occupation of Tyre adds a belated tumultuousness to the epic poem, which begins serenely with a bountiful description of the port city of the poet’s childhood, entitled “The Sea,” followed by a much-transformed occupied city in the second movement titled “Sur” and its final release in “Exodus,” the third movement of the tripartite poem.

“Sur” bears witness to a new form of poetics in its incorporation of traditional Arabic frames of contemplating ruins within a modernist idiom crafted out of a lexicon of war.
 

“Sur” by Abbas Baydun, translated excerpts

Who am I, to guide you, to show you the stones upon which we were born reptiles, at the moment when the city raised its head from the sea? She fed us with sun and salt, and in the palm of our hands we ate live fish. The waters lifted us above the stone, while we learned new words and thoughts every day. We were covered with sand when we took refuge on the shores. We abandoned ourselves to sand-washing, which surrounded us with foam, matured by the nocturnal breeze; And under a wave we came out of our shells.

We spent one night, immersed in a stream of sea perfumes, and another night near cypresses and pines, under the foliage of the saffron trees, where the prairies of the sea stretch. Then we drank from the blood of the liver of dawn and the heart of the night, our eyes were foggy, while we were under the green waters. We came out, sparkling, from the sea and the silver fish. The sand gleamed on us; our skin glistened like golden leaves.

We stretched ourselves on stones as long as the wood, wrapped in sails. Among the welcoming stones, we embraced and learned love; On a plateau of clay, luck came to us and we ate its humble fruits.

The waters of the sea are tormented in the night, and the wood is torn, the sea slips, and a serpent under the hearths and the stone. The sea rises around our houses and streams our clothes; It remains, after it has plunged into its abyss, only a creaking sea, filling the horizon. Our beds and our souls then dry up like the shores. And the city remains deprived of its lap; Its dusty bones curl up while the frames of the houses stagger like molehills and the air emerges from the rooms.

Between rocks and water, we flow like molten iron…
And we always saw our dreams, which we cannot disregard, assassinated

And we weep on the shores with the heart of true stone.
Soldiers fleeing your windows pass you by,
Firing on people in the markets
Thusly from your learned, your judges, and your leaders
Under arms
While your poor dig the dead fish
In search of table salt

You are Tyre that fell
From the pocket of history
how do you remain on the sand?
like a lost box
who will push you back to the sea?
who carries a tree to your roofed streets?

You are Tyre that fell
From the pocket of history
how do you remain on the sand?
like a lost box
who will push you back to the sea?
who carries a tree to your roofed streets?

We scurried in your markets amidst a sea of crazed bullets,
Walked with eyes transfixed to the ground
As if searching for a lost button and a needle head
And so it went—
We ended up with eunuchs’ hearts
Faces numb as the soles of shoes
Fear of heading where the night’s rats go
We denied the sound of your thunder and rain
And were doomed to learn each day
The language of the crabs
that fester in the sea.

Pots remain on the shelves, large clocks hang on the walls, stews on the fire.
Your head is between the palms of your hands and your shoulders are hunched
Neither will the women waiting beneath the staircase
And in the upper rooms enable
The return of their sons and their spouses lingering in the taverns
Nor the hungry dogs
Nor your land overrun with rats
Can prevent your paths from getting bogged down in pits and puddles
Or getting lost in the undergrowth

No one will address you because who can guess that you speak
In the middle of your hesitant breeze
In the middle of the lighthouses of cars imposing on your borders
Who can guess that a letter, as miniscule as a fly wing
Goes down with the bullet powder
Which rains upon your gates?
Who can guess that your mouth, buried in your heart
Like a ring in a well
Speaks through a storm of thunder
and a wave that raises the shore?
No one will talk to you
Your waters will no longer change
You will be at the edge of the world
And all will return before you
Gardens, companions of the sea
Will not dare penetrate your black stones
Migratory birds fear the prison of your billowing clouds
The cloud of orange blossoms that accompanies travelers
Will collapse on your nearby border
And the voyagers will not arrive
And your sky will not change

Tyre, when we came to you, you pulled the peasant fiber out of our larynx, and now with the words we learned from you, we cannot describe you.

We cannot describe you, for you are still looking in your skin for your sealed mouth
And because you exhale a warm breath
On the face of your few interlocutors
Because you are mute, you scratch your hard earth and your sand and your hand falls, without greeting, on the north of the sea.
Behold, your body is fading and there is no torch on your skin that would illuminate your fugitive paths
You will be eroded, and your stones will accumulate over the years, as your pillars collapse, each year there will be a corpse of stone for you
You will sink into the sea
While your ovens will shine in the distance
But the windows which open in the middle of your ruins invite neither the stroller nor the
schoolboy.

  • 1Jacques Derrida, Acts of Literature (New York: Routledge, 1992).
  • 2See Fadi A. Bardawil, Revolution and Disenchantment (Duke University Press).
  • 3 Yvonne Albers "Turning The Page: Reading 1979 In And Through The Cultural Journal Mawaqif", Blog, TRAFO – Blog For Transregional Research, 2018, https://trafo.hypotheses.org/9858.
  • 4Abbas Baydun, “Al-hadatha al-an: bahth fi harakat al- shuʿaraʾ al-shubban al-lubnaniyyin,” Mawaqif 34 (1979): 3-30.
  • 5Fawaz Traboulsi, A History of Modern Lebanon, 165. Quoted in Fadi A. Bardawil, Revolution and Disenchantment.
  • 6Raymond Williams, Marxism and Literature (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1977), 132–34.
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