Beirut Mapped: My mother’s balcony

August 4, 2021

The text below reflects the role of creative writing and poetry in Hussein Nassereddine’s practice. Hussein’s starting point was the balcony of his mother’s house in Beirut, where he grew up. The balcony, which has not changed in decades, embodies for Hussein the ambivalence with which the past is understood and remembered by many in Lebanon. Intimate descriptions of home unfold alongside the story of Umayyad ruler Abd al-Rahman I, who longed for the palm trees of Damascus while in exile. Originally written in Arabic, the text has been translated to English by Sam Wilder.

Abd al-Rahman I (731–788), was the founder of the Arab dynasty that ruled Iberia for nearly three centuries. A member of the Umayyad dynasty in Damascus, Abd al-Rahman crossed the Euphrates fleeing the Abbasids, who overthrew the Umayyads in 750. Years after establishing his rule in Iberia, he saw a single palm tree in Cordoba, and wrote a poem describing his longing for his hometown. Until that day, Abd al-Rahman had not seen a palm tree since he left Damascus, almost 30 years earlier. Historical sources note that he died a few days after seeing his palm tree.

My mother’s house is located in the southern suburb of Beirut, where we have lived for 30 years. The house has a balcony overlooking the street, facing the balconies of other buildings, where people have been sitting in the dusk for thirty years. All that is there are my mom’s small things and plants. When I visit I see her moving them from their places, exchanging them between areas of the house and the balcony. In 30 years, I have never seen a palm tree in our house, or the neighbourhood.

Looking through a dining room to a balcony
Sursock House, taken by an unidentified photographer, 1930 – 40, Beirut, Lebanon, 0198su00067 – Yvonne Sursock Collection, courtesy of the Arab Image Foundation, Beirut

Abd al-Rahman stopped when he felt the water on his hands, while crossing the Euphrates. He stopped like two who are parting ways, as if those chasing him could not reach him in the dark of the night, as if the light wind that brushed his beautiful face carried an age that would not fade.

Nothing changes, Abd al-Rahman, but the air of night moving the leaves. The river stands on your hands like a song passing into the night.

Abd al-Rahman had not noticed the time. Time and the river are conjoined, in you, they are unmoving. Like an apple blooms in the clarity of night, the river flowers in your exhausted hands, unwithering.

For 30 years (though he was not counting), he longed for the smiling eyes of siblings, the house, and its palms rising up at the last shining of dusk. He had not noticed the time. At dusk that day, when he saw his tree.

A river lined by trees, viewed from a boat
Photograph taken by Latif el Ani, gelatin silver negative on cellulose acetate film, 0190an – Latif al Ani Collection, courtesy of the Arab Image Foundation, Beirut

You thought that the age was as distant as the time that the palm had not grown – as if you two were still children. This age passes far from your eyelids, the palm of sadness grows into bloom. Time flows through your hands, it betrayed you Abd al-Rahman – once he glances at what will kill him, he realises he has become old. 

As blood leaks from Abd al-Rahman’s palm tree 

he stares in the water 

you are so very old  

you will drown in death, 

your royal corpse will bob on the river. 

Sadness comes 

with the wind 

and spouting water 

and the tumult of the roads. 

Every time the door of our house opens, I see – with the stealth of one not wishing to disturb the calm of those sitting – my mother on the balcony, while the last flashes of dusk glimmer through the house. Her little things: plants and objects that she is too afraid or too tired to throw away. Little arrangements that she changes periodically, hiding her small plants from the rain, or adding shelves for the porcelains that remain from a time long gone. It is beautiful, no? she asks, and I say indeed, trying to hide the sadness that overwhelms me every time I look at our balcony, and at her things suspended in time. We speak, and forget that this scene is being repeated for the last time – the age, the neighbourhood, the building, the balcony.  

Collage showing 6 people, including 3 children
Portrait of victims of the Qana massacre, taken by an unidentified photographer in 1996 in Qana, Lebanon, gelatin silver developing-out paper print, 0113sh00004. Doha Shams Collection, courtesy of the Arab Image Foundation, Beirut

The air of the age that does not pass, sets in motion her things filling the balcony and house. You ask her, how can the air move houses and trees? You gulp the sadness and gulp the things passing away in their places. 

How could all of this change without the air moving it? She laughs at you and says: peace to what the age cries out, all that happens is that those seated – there on their balconies – fall into the shadows. Then they die?, you ask, and you say that the age is long, as it blooms like apples on balconies, and withers when your face turns away. 

She sketches on her hands, first the house, then a palm tree, then the sadness. Nothing changes – look in her smiling eyes, 30 years, they remain like the orchard, as the knives slice the fruits without touching them, the last lights of dusk dissipate within the house.  

There are no palm trees on the neighborhood’s roads, your mother does not know stories of palm trees, and she does not see, in the house that betrayed you, what is changing. 

Then what is your palm tree? It is as if you two never parted, and how then, will you split from time, as it leaks out of Abd al-Rahman’s tree? 

songs of night unfold, 

the balcony departs the dusk, 

we wait 

till the palm tree comes 

sadness comes 

with the wind 

and spouting water 

You are so very old, 

and so is your mother, 

the neighbourhood,  

and the light of balconies. 

A balcony viewed from inside a room, lit by sunlight
My mother’s balcony, courtesy of Hussein Nassereddine

Related objects from V&A and Arab Image Foundation collections 

White table decoration in the shape of a palm tree
Johann Carl Schonheit, Palm Tree porcelain table decoration from Meissen, Germany, 18th century. Museum no. 246:4/1-1870 © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Surreal landscape with two floating heads in profile
One of four costume cards and seven mica overlays, about 1830, watercolour painting on card. Museum no. IS.32:4-1961 © Victoria and Albert Museum, London
Black and white photograph of a family seated outside
Aida Krikorian Kawar (extreme right) and members of her family, taken by an unidentified photographer in 1948, Cyprus, gelatin silver developing-out paper print, 0025ka00026. Aida Krikorian Collection, courtesy of the Arab Image Foundation, Beirut
Streetscene showing a shop, pavement and parked cars
0069fa05522 – FAI Collection, courtesy of the Arab Image Foundation, Beirut

About the author

August 4, 2021

I live and work in Beirut. My work in installation, writing, video and performance originates from a practice around language that builds fragile monuments – some verbal, some sonic, some...

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