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The City and the Writer: In Beirut with Hala Alyan

By Nathalie Handal

Image: Hala Alyan. Photographed by Luc Kordas.

If each city is like a game of chess, the day when I have learned the rules, I shall finally possess my empire, even if I shall never succeed in knowing all the cities it contains.
Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities

Can you describe the mood of Beirut as you feel/see it?

Beirut is a place trying to escape its past. A decade and a half of civil war (and years of sectarian conflict since) has left the city scarred—from the bullet-riddled buildings to the presence of soldiers nonchalantly smoking in front of army tanks. But there is also an atmosphere of festivity, an unflappability that I haven’t come across anywhere else. The bars are never empty. Young couples kiss in front of churches; men argue over politics in cafés. Beirut is both wounded and savagely alive, infectious with its joy and noise. Even at its most tense, the city is announcing its heartbeat in music, traffic, shouting voices.

What is your most heartbreaking memory in this city?

My university years overlapped with many devastating moments for the city: Hariri’s assassination; the war in the summer of 2006; too many protests and car bombs to count. But the moment that is most haunting for me took place during the war: it was mid-July and I had gone to my apartment in Hamra—the neighborhood near the American University of Beirut—to pick up some belongings. I still remember standing, frozen, in my bedroom, my mind blanking: should I take the clock? My photographs? The novel I’d just borrowed from a friend? I didn’t know if I’d be returning to Beirut. As I left the apartment building, the city felt completely still, the streets empty. It was like an eerie dream. When my family evacuated a couple of weeks later, I wept as the ship pulled away from the dock.

What is the most extraordinary detail, one that goes unnoticed by most, of the city?

The balconies. I love the balconies in Beirut. They are beautiful and I never feel as free as when I’m standing on a balcony in that city, mid-summer, the wind rushing from the sea.

What writer(s) from here should we read?

There are the obvious ones: Khalil Gibran, Hoda Barakat, and Elias Khoury. But I also want everyone I meet to read Etel Adnan. She is brilliant. I also love Vénus Khoury-Ghata.

Is there a place here you return to often?

There is a bench on the AUB campus that overlooks trees and the sea. I have so many bittersweet memories there: exchanging sorrows with friends; arguing with an ex-boyfriend; writing poetry; sitting there and promising myself I’d have a different life.

I also like to return to the old places I lived. I have a little pilgrimage I do when I visit, standing in front of the buildings I’ve inhabited, silently waving at my former selves.

Is there an iconic literary place we should know?

I don’t know if this qualifies as iconic, but some of the best conversations I’ve ever had about writing and literature took place in Hamra bars.

Are there hidden cities within this city that have intrigued or seduced you?

The night feels like its own city in Beirut. The pubs, the nightclubs, the balconies and gardens: once the sun sets, everyone gathers into their own little sub-city, all of Beirut coming to life in a startling way.

Where does passion live here?

Definitely in the people: the politicians and activists and labor workers and artists. In the tatty neighborhoods and the beaches and the fancy rooftop bars. Most of all, in the young people who protest and fight for a different life.

What is the title of one of your works about Beirut and what inspired it exactly?

Many of my poems in Four Cities were inspired by Beirut, including “Meimei,” “From my Grandmother’s Balcony, Beyada,” “Forgive Your Gods,” and “Not Snow, Not Sun.” These poems were inspired by small moments in Beirut: listening to my grandmother speak; a conversation with my aunt; my friend making me jewelry out a bullet.

Inspired by Levi, “Outside Beirut does an outside exist?”

Not when you’re in it. Beirut is a fierce, insistent, jealous creature: it demands all of your attention. You can forget there’s a world outside of it. It’s so seductive you somehow overlook the endless traffic, the electricity cuts, the politics. Even when you leave, the city lingers. I’ve been in Manhattan for eight years now and I still dream of Beirut every week.

Hala Alyan is a Palestinian American poet and clinical psychologist whose work has appeared in numerous journals, including The Missouri Review, Prairie Schooner, and Columbia Poetry Review. Her poetry collection Atrium (Three Rooms Press) was awarded the 2013 Arab American Book Award in Poetry. Four Cities, her second collection, was recently released by Black Lawrence Press. She is a Lannan Foundation Residency Fellow and her latest collection, Hijra, was selected as a winner of the 2015 Crab Orchard Series in Poetry and will be published by Southern Illinois University Press.

Published Sep 5, 2016   Copyright 2016 Nathalie Handal

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