Some things, through their very existence, denote an absence. Have you ever noticed that the line delineating presence from absence is rather thin? And that there are some things in life that you hold on to just to remind you of a certain loss?
What got me thinking about the "Aschrott Brunen" was a personal experience I had a couple of months ago. The experience involved both a fountain, and an uncomfortable duality of presence vs. absence. The fountain is called the Intabli Fountain…ever heard of it? Didn't think so…
This fountain is small, marbled, and sad. Its water flows humbly, with no competing vitality to mute its echo. It lies in the midst of what is meant to be a reconstruction of the old souks of Beirut, but is instead a hollow replica, just like the Aschrott Brunen.
Two friends and I headed down to Beirut Souks in downtown to grab a coffee and catch up. We chose to sit at Bali Balima, a modern boutique café and restaurant located near the Intabli fountain. Chatting over capuccinos, a comment or two were exchanged about the ambiance of the Souk (as it is still somewhat of a new outing destination for Beirut locals), a compliment here and a criticism there, we paid the (over-priced) bill and headed home. There was no trace of history, and no catalyst for memorialization in that spot we sat in.
The sounds of water pouring into the fountain were hollow, echoing eerily against simple, polished, and modern clean walls. Connecting to this sad excuse of a fountain from all four sides were quasi-empty pathways, aligned with high-end brands and bored saleswoman puffing cigarettes and screening incoming shoppers for ostensible evidence of their social class and purchasing capacity.
Sitting there, I didn't know we were in Ajami Square, and the name 'Souk Ayyas' inscribed on the wall sign meant nothing to me.
I didn't know that the space that surrounded me was one of the first organized souks in Beirut. That empty walk-way behind me was the first street in the Souks to have had a roof built over it, now it is the only one that doesn’t.
In 1877 the Ayyas brothers bought the Souk, renovated it to be one of the most well maintained open markets, attracting clothes and textile sellers and buyers. Thats why it is called Souk Ayyas, in case you were wondering.
The fountain in the middle was apparently bigger and was known by Beirut locals as the spot where the Intabli store sold traditional Lebanese refreshments and desserts.
I can only imagine what was in place of the silence back when Beirut souks were authentic. Rather than the capuccino vapor, scents of shawarma spices emitting from the nearby Ajami restaurant would have travelled my way across the square. Rather than capuccinos, tired shoppers would be sipping on jallab and contemplating the choice of either mhalabiyye or sahlab.
Souk Ayyass 1970 (Old Beirut)
Not that I would have traded my capuccino for a sahlab, but those capuccino sips were certainly not guilt-free. In its very denial of its past, the new and shiny Intabli fountain and surrounding spaces, evoked in my mind an uncomfortable contradiction. In my interaction with that space, my resistance and contestation revived an absent memory, that I knew nothing of.
What I do know is that I would have enjoyed my capuccino much more had I not been so captivated with the need to know where the old Intabli fountain went… So for the sake of future outings to Beirut Souks, the hunt for reclamation of the past continues… I will get back with a Part III as soon as I find out.