Even on the saddest night
in times of servitude
there is always someone who resists
there is always someone who says no
Manuel Alegre, 1965
With every gust of wind blowing from the Atlantic and the Tagus, I could smell grilled Bacalhau1)Portuguese codfish and sardines as I walked around downtown. The city’s hilly, tortuous, and narrow streets put every muscle in my body on trial. I enjoyed this every day for hours, until my feet couldn’t take it anymore. Everywhere, people carefully watched as fish roasted over hot coal on the sidewalks.
There were bakeries around every corner that made the air smell distinctly sweet and buttery. These pastelarias 2)Portuguese for pastry shop opened daily before sunrise, and offered countless choices to satisfy my sweet tooth: pastels3)Tartlet with various fillings, delicious queques,4)Portuguese cupcake spongy bolos de arroz,5)Sweet rice cakes caramelized tigeladas, 6)Azorean custardand the Pao de Deus, literally God’s bread, a brioche covered with sugar and spice.
In their windows, shops displayed beautiful tins of gourmet canned fish. The first time I saw these cans I could not believe they contained sardines. Anywhere else, boxes with red and blue ornaments, sealed with frills of raffia ribbons, and packed in white and green corduroy bags would be for candies. But Lisbon was a colorful city. On most buildings’ facades, bright Azulejos 7)Portuguese painted ceramic tile work reflected the strong midday sun. Sometimes, I spotted a sun-drenched terrace and stopped for a glass of Portuguese wine. I tried them all — from the lively Vinho Verde wines to the more robust reds from the Douro — but still, my palate couldn’t get used to the tangy Porto.
Wine growing has changed tremendously since the early 1980s, when the “World Bank Scheme”8)Known under the acronym PDRITM (Projecto de Desenvolvimento Rural Integrado de Tràs-os-Montes) aimed to reconfigure agriculture in the northern parts of Portugal, considered to be one of Europe's poorest regions. It proposed low interest loans to farmers interested in growing particular varieties of grapes, and encouraged them to plant new, modernized, and mechanized vineyards. The aim of the World Bank in general was also to increase the weight of the service sector in the Portuguese economy, a transformation that was accelerated when the country gained membership to the European Union in 1986. When it came to the wine industry, this lifted trade obstacles and transformed major producers into major shippers. Raw and intermediate materials, necessary to viticulture, stopped being subsidized by the state.9)The distribution of grape spirit for example, a specific type of alcohol distilled from wine, and used to fortify Porto wines, was deregulated.
Lisbon had hundreds of Miradouros, view-points from which I could stare at the city’s im-pressive skyline and try to think of nothing. In a Burel 10)An artisanal type of woven fabric, made entirely of wool shop near the Miradouro de Santa Luzia, Adriana kept me company as I skimmed through the gorgeous scarves on display. I was trying to choose the prettiest, and that was no easy task. The scarves were naturally colored and 100% wool, some even with stripes or polka dots. I was no knitting expert but I could recognize the different patterns: cross, stitch, and thin spine. I pulled a scarf off the shelf, unfolded it, wrapped it around my neck and shoulders, and looked in the mirror. It had shades of rich and deep burgundy, accentuated by a beautiful cross-stitch pattern. The scarf was good for cold weather and large enough to use as a blanket. The color seemed perfect and so too the shape. “My friend will love it. I’ll take this one,” I said. I wanted to buy him something special. He was the reason I was in Lisbon, after all. One lazy Sunday morning when we were both lying in his bed, I had asked him where he thought I should go for my next trip.
Because I wanted to know more about Burel, Adriana and I struck up a conversation. She explained the changes that had occurred in the production of Burel in Portugal. “For years, farmers and shepherds in the country’s mountainous regions produced this woven cloth to protect themselves from the harsh, highland winters. It is now no longer what it used to be. I work in this shop with two other retail employees. I don’t know how the factory is run, our wages are so low, and VAT is now at 23%. I can barely make ends meet.”
The financial crisis had wreaked havoc in many countries of Southern Europe whose economies had been similarly restructured. Portugal was not spared. Unemployment surged, debt soared, and the Troika11)The European Commission, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund rushed to recommend austerity measures to help save the people of Portugal. Since 2008, for Adriana and her friends, many things in Lisbon, but the Pastel de Nata,12)The city’s staple dessert, a sugary puff pastry with egg custard filling tasted bittersweet.
Adriana continued, “There are many things I cannot afford, but I cannot complain. Many of my friends don’t even have jobs.” A graduate in Fine Arts, Adriana was from a small town in the heart of Portugal. When she was still in university, she joined a group that organized cultural expeditions to former Portuguese colonies. This group helped her find a job as an art teacher in Mozambique where she remained for three years and learned the art of Mozambican sculpture. In 2008, she followed the man she loved back home. Together they lived in Porto for a few years. When their relationship ended, Adriana moved to Lisbon because that’s where the jobs were. An artist, she now worked in retail. Like me, she was also in Lisbon because of a man. Somehow.
She carefully packed the scarf I chose and placed it in a brown paper bag alongside the shop’s address card and a boldly designed, yet minimalistic, brochure:
We have revived the production of burel in one of the last standing wool factories of Manteigas, a small town in the heart of the Serra da Estrela mountain ranges, creating products that bring together exciting new concepts and innovative design... We believe in the know-how and wisdom of our villages, in recreating the past and making it present, so that it might be forever now.
The brochure read displacement and complacency. In Lisbon, but also in Beirut where I had lived most of my life, young urban professionals, entrepreneurs, and design savvy investors had done a great deal in misconstruing memory and the past. Social scientists called it gentrification. The creative upper middle classes uprooted working classes from their neighborhoods, and transformed cultural values in a way that conformed to their mores and ideals. Factories became restaurants; garages were turned into contemporary art spaces, and derelict buildings proposed an authentic living experience for the artsy and intellectual youth. I called it the poignant feeling I got when I read that brochure. It felt like little heartbreaks, loss, and the impossibility of accepting the fact that there was nothing I could have done to help stop the irreversible process of transformations. I had become quite accustomed to this feeling and usually carried it with me in Beirut too.
The day I reached São Jorge’s Castle in Graça and meandered along its ramparts, I felt the same. I couldn’t stop thinking about Radwa Ashour’s Granada trilogy that follows the family of Abu Jaafar, the bookbinder, over the course of three generations. Set in the Iberian Peninsula after the fall of the last Islamic cities, Ashour’s masterpiece spoke of a different kind of loss, and the aching of a people forced to abandon their moorings, while the whole world was rapidly changing around them. The new Christian Kingdom imposed increasing economic and cultural restrictions on the Jews and Moors of Southern Spain, and Christopher Columbus had just returned from his journey to parade human captives, exotic plants, and animals he and his crew brought from the New World. A few hundred kilometers away from Granada, and around that same time, Portugal was already turning into the first global Empire in history.
Nestled between two hills as you walk inland from the riverbanks, Graça, Bica, Castelo, and their surroundings in Lisbon, are still home to the descendants of the last Jews and Moors of Islamic Iberia. In recent years, they have been joined by communities of migrants: Indians, Pakistanis, Bangladeshis, Cape Verdeans, Guineans, Senegalese, Mozambicans, Zairians, Chinese, and countless others who have made their way to Europe looking for work or a different life. Nearby, two of Europe’s oldest neighborhoods, Alfama and Mouraria (literally, “where there are Moors”), constitute the birthplace of Fado.
Fado is Portugal’s soulful and heartfelt music, and to many, an utmost expression of saudade, the intense feeling of melancholy, nostalgia, and longing for something or someone that was but never again will be. Lisboans say that saudade is unique to the Portuguese soul, that it brings them happy and sad feelings altogether, and that it cannot be translated or expressed in any another language. Being a port city girl myself, I related. In Beirut, I often had my own saudade of people, places, and times that I knew would never come around again.
A neighborhood of East Beirut that has recently undergone profound structural and demographic changes, Mar Mikhael, gives me saudade. I am not just obsessed with romanticizing the past. Historically, Mar Mikhael was home to a diverse working class that labored in the nearby districts of Quarantina, Bourj Hammoud and the Beirut Port. From the 1940s and 1950s onwards, the petty bourgeoisie also set up shop in the neighborhood itself and opened garages, mechanics workshops, and other small factories. The area was noisy and loud during the day, quaint and calm at night. When my father, whose aunt lived in nearby Medawar, was my age, he would walk on Armenia Street13)Armenia Street is Mar Mikhael’s main street on his way to her house, and smell musty odors emanating from gasoline and motor oil stains on the asphalt.
A few weeks after I came back from Lisbon, my friend, who wore the scarf I bought him, and I were strolling in Mar Mikhael at night. Armenia Street was crowded with party-goers. Large lumps of canine stools stained the sidewalks. The tenants of the heritage buildings in the area were mostly young westerners, college students, NGO workers, and other artists trying to save the world. Their landlords were often Armenian landladies who had survived their husbands, and who were entrusted by their families with the task of running the day-to-day business of the buildings they lived in.
When I told my friend about the brochure at the Burel shop, he said it was very important that we go to the restaurant called Memory Lane. From the outside, Memory Lane looks like it could have been located in any gentrified neighborhood in the world. When we stepped inside, my friend pointed to an old Singer sewing machine that was placed on a table alongside several sewing accessories, a tape measure, a pair of scissors and a handful of large colored buttons. He then handed me the restaurant’s menu. “Read this,” he said, placing his index on a small piece of fabric that resembled blue denim, and that was stitched with a white thread to the upper right corner of the menu.
Here we believe
100% genuine stories
100% loving moments
Here we collect memories not things
Take a minute and enjoy what was
once a sewing factory.
My heart skipped a beat as I read the last sentence. I had no idea people could rejoice over loss. It did not matter at this moment what this loss meant to different people. It was just inconceivable that it could be enjoyed in any way. And yet, the restaurant was full, its open kitchen bustling with waiters carrying around trays filled with food, and its main hall crawling with hungry diners waiting to be served. In the background, I could hear wine glasses tinkling and people laughing. Port cities are overwhelming.
Pois por morrer uma andorinha sem amor Não acaba a primavera diz o povo14)Opening lyrics of a famous song by Carlos do Carmo, one of Lisbon’s finest Fado singers, written by Joaquim Frederico de Brito (1977-1894). De Brito, also known as Britinho, was an outstanding poet and composer who created, and with rare beauty, some of the most artistic Fado compositions. Today, Do Carmo is one of the world’s most established Fadistas.
Just because a swallow dies from a broken heart This doesn’t mean that spring is over
Back in Lisbon, I read these words on the walls of the Fado Museum in Alfama. During the past decade or so, with singers like Mariza, Fado had gained tremendous popularity not only in Portugal, but also around the world. But Fado, a symbol of national pride, was not always well received. When politician and economist António de Oliveira Salazar took over power in 1933, he established the Estado Novo or “New State,ˮ an anti-parliamentarian and authoritarian government that would last until 1974. The corporatist constitution that founded the Estado Novo was approved in a national plebiscite on March 19, 1933. Salazar’s dictatorship violently opposed communism, socialism, anarchism, and anti-colonialism. It was also strictly nationalist and up-held Portugal’s Catholic identity, as a great and civilized nation with extensions in Angola, Mozambique, Goa, and other Portuguese colonies.
On any occasion, Salazar proclaimed the “Great Certainties of the National Revolutions.” Portuguese were told not to discuss the family and its morals, nor the homeland and its history. These “unquestionable truths” formed the political and ideological core sustaining the regime. Salazar had created a vast propaganda machine to teach these values on all levels, and through different social institutions: the family, the school, and the workplace. More importantly, Salazar had seized Portugal’s triple F to the service of his totalitarian delirium. Football, Fado, and Fatima were the cornerstones of the Estado Novo narrative. Fado expressed nationalism and nostalgia, Fatima embodied Catholicism, and Football represented development.
The writings on the walls of the Fado Museum resonated. I found myself repeating those same words to a friend of mine who had moved from Cairo to Beirut. Now that the counterrevolutions, the reactionary forces, and the civil wars had prevailed after 2011, she violently opposed the concept of hope. I insisted: “Just because a swallow dies from a broken heart, this doesn’t mean that spring is over. Salazar took music away from the people of Portugal. Look, it took time and effort but Portuguese can now listen to Fado without remembering the pain they endured during the dictatorship.”
In January 1934, just a few months after the promulgation of the Estado Novo, communists and anarchist groups, as well as leftist trade unions and labor organizations had called for a general strike. For the next forty years, they would face brutal repression, arbitrary arrests, and military imprisonment. They were interrogated, threatened, tortured, and humiliated. They received electric shocks and beatings, and were sleep deprived for nights on end.
In a book published in 2014 entitled Pain with no limits: torture in the prisons of the PIDE,15) The book was published in Portuguese under the title No limite da dor: a tortura nas prisões da PIDE,16) The PIDE or International and State Defense Police (Portuguese: Polícia Internacional e de Defensa do Estado) was a Portuguese state security agency under the Estado Novo Brazilian Journalist Ana Aranha and Portuguese writer Carlos Ademar collected hundreds of testimonies from political prisoners who had suffered under Salazar. Domingos Abrantes and Conceição Matos met while they were both members of the Portuguese Communist Party and militants in the anti-fascist struggles. Using their fake identity cards, they married in 1963. They were always on the run, leading clandestine lives, moving from one address to the other, and anxiously anticipating their next arrest.
Abrantes remembers sessions of torture in the Al Jube Prison in Lisbon when he recalls the prison guard’s words: “Prepare yourself: you’re going to the machine.” He says, “I sat down and they put a helmet on my head and switched some lights on. I felt shocks that were, naturally, electric shocks.”
Matos remembers having almost given up: “There were times when the despair, the pain was so great, the suffering was so harsh, the torture was so hard, that I just wanted them to throw me out of the window…”.
In spite of all the repression, people really did not give up. Nor did they forget. Peasants, workers, students, women, and intellectuals continued to resist the regime’s dictatorship, and to fight capitalist exploitation in Portugal and the colonies. They led strikes, organized trade unions, mobilized associations and movements, and militated for democracy, freedom, bread, peace and the right to self-determination. They stood in solidarity with Palestine, and were inspired when revolutions swept through Europe and the world in 1968. The Carnation Revolution in 1974 would become a culmination of all of their struggles. History repeats itself. Well, kind of, at least. Since 2008, there has been a resurgence of the Left in Portugal. Its demons today are of another kind, and the dictatorship is that of the bankers and the financiers.
When I met Miguel at a beautiful café in the Chiado district, he poked fun at me. He noticed I was trying to read a Portuguese newspaper while I was incapable of articulating my requests to the waiter in any other language but English. I smiled politely.
“I understand a little,” I said. “Here I’ll explain. This is your current prime minister,” I pointed to a photo of António Costa. “He assumed office in November 2015. He used to be the Secretary General of the Socialist Party and the former Mayor of Lisbon and he came to power because of a brilliant tour de force after the general elections.”
Miguel looked at me in disbelief. I explained I had recently developed an interest in the latest social and political changes in countries of Southern Europe.
“Ah yes, we call it the Portuguese Solution,” responded Miguel. “They did not manage to do the same in Spain yet. Over here, it brought hope back to many. You see the situation, austerity, and the financial crisis; everything was so bad that even the Communist Party felt the need to step in and join the game of government and politics. This had never happened before.”
Shortly after the general elections held in October 2015, a coalition of the Left — including the Socialist Party, the Green Party, the radical Left Bloc, and the Communist Party — had formed, overthrowing the right wing majority in Parliament and pressuring the President to appoint Costa as prime minister and to entrust him with forming a government. Portuguese hope this will reverse some of the austerity measures adopted by previous governments.
“What do you do Miguel?” I asked.
“I am a researcher at the Calouste Gulbenkian Institute. Do you know about Gulbenkian?”
“Of course. In my university in Beirut, the infirmary is named after him. Many Armenians fled because of the genocide starting in the 1890s. But how would an Armenian oil magnate end up in Lisbon?”
“We were lucky, I guess. Have you seen the film Casablanca?”
During the Second World War, Salazar’s shrewdness had secured Portugal’s apparent neutrality, promising both the Allies and the Axis forces open trade and access to the country’s mainland and its colonial resources. Lisbon became a stepping-stone for anyone trying to flee to the Americas or simply looking for a safe haven in continental Europe. In the film Casablanca, Humphrey Bogart — as the American expatriate, Rick — makes Ingrid Bergman, his former lover Ilsa, board the plane to Lisbon with her Czech Resistance fighter husband. Though he never made it, German cultural critic and philosopher Walter Benjamin had probably tried to reach Lisbon too. When he was stranded in Portbou in Catalonia, he took his own life. Gulbenkian, a mysterious character and the first businessman to exploit Iraqi oil, had also fled to Lisbon. Hundreds of thousands had come to Lisbon during the Second World War.
These days, Beirut is a stepping-stone for those trying to flee to Europe from Syria. On the boats that capsize in the Mediterranean nearly every day, Mahmoud Darwish, eternal exile, is with them.
the traveler sings to himself:
I return from Syria
but as clouds
that ease the butterfly’s burden
from my fugitive soul17) Mahmoud Darwish. The Damascene Collar of the Dove. From the collection of poems entitled “The Stranger’s Bed”. طوقُ الحمامة الدمشقيّ ، سرير الغريبة. 1999. . Translation featured on: https://edinburgharabicinitiative.wordpress.com/21/11/2014/in-damascus/
Home is a temporary condition. Being uprooted is inevitable, but leaving is no mistake. The voyage is an act of moral, emotional, and physical self-preservation — always at the voyager’s own peril. Port cities like Lisbon or Beirut are overwhelming. They are where we depart, risking our lives and having to choose between drowning at sea or staying behind to burn on the mainland, “caught between two coasts.”18)Egyptian-Lebanese writer and journalist Sahar Mandour Alienation hits hard both ways because even when you stay, everything around you changes.
In one of his last contributions, an autobiographical piece entitled “Six Stages of My Life,” late Syrian intellectual George Tarabishi asserts the magnitude of the tragedy:
The first five stages of my life were departures from which I started writing everything I have ever written (…) but the sixth stage, on the other hand, is the stage of halt, silence and complete paralysis of writing: it is the stage of the Syrian Pain, that has been ongoing for more than four years now, and to which there is no end in sight.
The Al Jube Prison is now the Museum for Resistance and Freedom. It was inaugurated on April 25, 2015, on the eve of the 41st anniversary of the Carnation Revolution. For centuries, this building was a prison. I could not stop crying when I was there because of a mural that had caught my attention. Portraits of militants and political prisoners of the Salazar Regime hung one atop the other, covering an entire wall. Their gaze was piercing. I remembered the controversial 2014 Syrian Detainee Report, a leak of 55,000 photographs of over 11,000 alleged detainees and militants made prisoners by the Syrian Baathist Regime. The photos were grue-some and depicted defaced, dehumanized, and emaciated beings. They showed what torture did to people in ways words could not express. Naked and lifeless bodies piled one atop the other in the courtyards of prisons and military hospitals in Syria. More recently, another report by the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights claimed that 60,000 people had been killed under torture or had died in inhumane conditions in the jails of the Syrian Baathist Regime.
How many museums would we need to hang the photos of all of them? How many walls would we have to build for that? Darwish once pleaded: “Friends, leave one wall for the laundry line.”19)Mahmoud Darwish. When martyrs go to sleep. From the collection of poems entitled “Less Roses”. عندما يذهب الشهداء إلى النوم، أقل ورد1986
Lately, devastating violence has even taken our words away from us. As one Palestinian surgeon put it, “there are broken bodies, but also shattered lives.” We don’t know how to talk about war, prisoners, belligerents, let alone think about hope, or even dare to imagine peace. If hope at the moment is madness, then this is what I choose to be: mad. While it is true that there are some things that can never be recovered, I want to believe that just because a swallow has died from a broken heart, spring is not necessarily over. Not yet.
Footnotes: [ + ]
|2.||↑||Portuguese for pastry shop|
|5.||↑||Sweet rice cakes|
|7.||↑||Portuguese painted ceramic tile work|
|8.||↑||Known under the acronym PDRITM (Projecto de Desenvolvimento Rural Integrado de Tràs-os-Montes|
|9.||↑||The distribution of grape spirit for example, a specific type of alcohol distilled from wine, and used to fortify Porto wines, was deregulated.|
|10.||↑||An artisanal type of woven fabric, made entirely of wool|
|11.||↑||The European Commission, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund|
|12.||↑||The city’s staple dessert, a sugary puff pastry with egg custard filling|
|13.||↑||Armenia Street is Mar Mikhael’s main street|
|14.||↑||Opening lyrics of a famous song by Carlos do Carmo, one of Lisbon’s finest Fado singers, written by Joaquim Frederico de Brito (1977-1894). De Brito, also known as Britinho, was an outstanding poet and composer who created, and with rare beauty, some of the most artistic Fado compositions. Today, Do Carmo is one of the world’s most established Fadistas.|
|15.||↑||The book was published in Portuguese under the title No limite da dor: a tortura nas prisões da PIDE|
|16.||↑||The PIDE or International and State Defense Police (Portuguese: Polícia Internacional e de Defensa do Estado) was a Portuguese state security agency under the Estado Novo|
|17.||↑||Mahmoud Darwish. The Damascene Collar of the Dove. From the collection of poems entitled “The Stranger’s Bed”. طوقُ الحمامة الدمشقيّ ، سرير الغريبة. 1999. . Translation featured on: https://edinburgharabicinitiative.wordpress.com/21/11/2014/in-damascus/|
|18.||↑||Egyptian-Lebanese writer and journalist Sahar Mandour|
|19.||↑||Mahmoud Darwish. When martyrs go to sleep. From the collection of poems entitled “Less Roses”. عندما يذهب الشهداء إلى النوم، أقل ورد1986|