A few months ago, someone introduced me to Mahmoud Darwish's works. Some Googling later, I started on Memory for Forgetfulness, August, Beirut 1982, some of the most powerful prose I have ever read. It was disturbing and thought-provoking, the use of language utterly gorgeous. What emerged was this piece I wrote for The Forager's inaugural issue. I edit the magazine with some friends.
The art work for this work is by Sujith S N, an artist living and working in Mumbai.
The art work for this work is by Sujith S N, an artist living and working in Mumbai.
Sujith S N, Stains of Stimuli, watercolour on paper, 44 x 58 inches, 2014
BOILING COFFEE, BURNING BEIRUT
A war. The war. A war never ends you know. Even when it does, it remains. On bodies. In hearts. In past economies and future histories. War. Mine. Yours. Theirs. Yet, all of ours, this war.
From a to be or not to be to this or that to choices and clichéd existentialism this conflict within and without is a wake-up call. It rings at 6 every morning, precise, on the dot, like the cheap plastic clock beside your bed – a discard from an old love affair. I – the ‘I’ being you, being all of others – wake up to a bugle that announces the day’s war. Toast vs cereal. Idli vs Uppittu. Red vs blue. Lover vs spouse. Living vs existing. Mundane vs mundane.
I don an armor, a different one every day, to suit what battle has been called for that day. You have to prioritize you know. A city can be unforgiving at times like this. The metal in these buildings, the skies, in these roars is what kills you on the frontline. Even when it keeps you alive, it takes you away. The metal, garnished with your dreams and individual minds, preparing a feast for metal the master. But before I am battle ready – they don’t leave me a choice – let me have five minutes please. That is all Mahmoud Darwish asks for. That is all I need too, just five minutes, to do that one thing that matters. After that, I don’t care – they don’t leave me a choice – I will battle the day, the world, you.
I need five minutes to place this dawn, or my share of it, on its feet and prepare to launch into this day born of howling. I was born in a coffee estate. I grew up on the way it smelled. And right now I want the aroma of coffee. For it is only the aroma of coffee that I have between this morning and the chaos that will soon take over on the streets and in the nerves of my mind. The aroma of coffee so I can hold myself together, stand on my feet, and be transformed from something that crawls, into a human being. After that coffee, we can go, the day and I, looking down the streets for another place, a safe place. A safe place where someone else will fight my biggest wars for me, wear my armor and keep me safe.
For this, I need five minutes. I have no personal wish other than to make a cup of coffee. I know coffee well, just in the way I know instant coffee is not coffee, it is just branded, stamped and sold as coffee. When you know coffee, you also know that you have to make it with your own hands. It is solitary, silent. The day’s first coffee, the virgin of the silent morning will absorb any words a bearer of your cup on a tray will utter. It could be a simple greeting, yet, words burn the coffee. When you know your coffee, you know you don’t want it to burn.
Coffee is the morning silence, early and unhurried. When a war is waging outside your window, waiting for the five minutes to be up, waiting for you to pick up your gun, your mind and open the front door and let it in, the silence is all you have. Don’t be greedy now. Five minutes is more than what most people can ever fantasize about. These five minutes devoid of the shelling, the screams, the roughing up of your naked body comes with a privilege that you have acquired. Let’s not examine by what means you came upon this luxury.
In the only silence in which you can be creative, be yourself, in these five minutes, you get to pour some water into a small copper pot with a mysterious shine – yellow turning brown – and you place that over a fire. It is not a wood fire. Even with your privileges you are not allowed that. Not here, not in the midst of your wars.
The street is outside. Some wars have begun long before you were up. Peep down and you see them. Fruits and vegetables are being sold from carts by vendors; they lavish praise on the pathetic wares they peddle, hoping you, or someone like you, will pay a few coins extra. The reality of the street can wait. By now, two elements, fire coloured green and blue and water roiling and breathing out tiny white granules that turn into a fine film and grow, have made contact. I do not take my coffee with sugar, but for the man still lying across my bed by the window, fast asleep and snoring, I would add two spoons of coarse sugar. The bubbles in the pan settle down when the granules fall through, but spring up again. Only one substance will settle them now, coffee – a flashy rooster of aroma and Eastern masculinity.
Remove the pot away. The way you orchestrate the dialogue between hand and liquid will tell you the flavor of the day. Maybe you will get to stay in and escape it all, maybe you’ll have to walk into the streets, ready for life, prepared for death. They say that the hand that makes the coffee reveals the person that stirs it. Therefore, coffee is the public reading of the open book of the soul.
Is history not bribable? Asks Darwish. The history we know is full of bigger wars, of big kings and big armies and bombs that efficiently obliterate my personal history, your personal history. Who documents our wars? No one wants to forget. More accurately, no one wants to be forgotten. Some build forts to last longer than the name that will be forgotten. Some give birth, burdening children with the task of carrying a name forward. But what if one wants to forget? Forget an old identity, an old name, an old mistake?
Is there enough forgetfulness for them to forget?
But enough of this talk of the coffee shops of Beirut where identities are measured with pieces of paper. I will make my coffee now. Conquerors of my soul and my body cannot deny me the aroma of coffee, at least not the memory of it.
Take a spoon of ground coffee from the blue jar you bought, on a whim – it cost you a day’s wage – and let it fall on the spluttering surface of the boiling water. Stir, clockwise, up, down. Add another spoonful. Stir, up, down, counterclockwise. Add another spoonful. Remove the pot from the low fire between these spoonfuls, bring it back. Dip the spoon, lift up the dissolving powder, let it fall back. Smoothly.
If only wars could be melted away in a spoon of hot water.
Repeat the above. Water will begin to boil again, your blond coffee buoys on the surface, threatening to sink. Turn off the heat, let the metal scream and be crushed outside, the vegetable vendors can wait too. Pour the coffee into a little white cup: dark-coloured cups spoil the freedom of the coffee.
Then a first cigarette, flavoured with existence itself, with this first coffee.
No coffee is like another, and my defense of coffee is a plea for difference itself. There is no flavor called coffee, just like textbooks in school describe how water has no taste. Coffee is not a concept. Every house has its coffee, and every hand too, because no soul is like another. Like water it meanders and bends and sighs and runs over many surfaces. It wraps itself around me and melts with longing to go up the mountain, the way I long for you. It does go up the mountain as it disperses in the gossamer of a shepherd’s pipe taking it back to its first home.
Like the sound of drums that a dying fire carries into the faraway hills, the aroma of coffee is the offspring of the primordial. Its journey began thousands of years ago, like yours and mine.
Coffee is a place. Coffee is a breast that nourishes men deeply. A morning born of a bitter taste. The milk of manhood. Coffee is geography.
I have made my coffee. I have no other excuse now.
The war slipped through the creak in the window panel and has come into my bedroom now.
In these times of war, in Syria, Iraq, Palestine and elsewhere within each of us, this piece pins down to the making of coffee that small sense of normalcy we all seek to move on from one day to the next. The writing emerged from a reading of Mahmoud Darwish’s Memory for Forgetfulness: August, Beirut, 1982. The sentences in italics are direct quotes from the book.