Soon after the Permanent Bureau of the Afro-Asian Writers Association in Cairo folded, a poet from Pakistan by the name of Faiz Ahmed Faiz arrived in Beirut to take over the chief editorship of Lotus. Both the man and the magazine had relocated from different places to be granted home and hospitality by the Union of Palestinian Writers, many of whose members were probably there as exiles themselves. Mahmoud Darwish was responsible for the Arabic edition, and Yasser Arafat grew involved in some occasional advisory capacity as well. Curious then is this: Why were the PLO so invested in Lotus, extending in-house resources to revive it? And what made Faiz leave Lahore — at the age of 67 no less — to set up base in the midst of it? Though the worst may not have happened yet, the Lebanese Civil War was well underway by then. The year was 1978.
When Mike had mentioned his fascination with the assassination of Youssef El Sebai, I had had a faint sensation that I knew about this already, like I’d come across it elsewhere. But up until then, as far as my fixation with the magazine went, there was no reason for Lotus to have even been before Beirut. It was the idea of this Urdu poet moving to that city which was soon to be sacked that had been my hook. Clearly I was there more as on a whim, asserting my own angle of incidence onto things, as if it were that of Faiz.
We were the only two customers in the café that morning, and had taken the liberty to request the waiters to turn off the disco-pop — the one thing reminding us of the present. The high ceilings and the hardwood floors, the placemats with images of long ago, had all probably contributed in some subconscious measure to the air of our exchange, and as we whirled our way into Cyprus, time curved around us from another direction and I was left with no indication of when we were anymore.
It was in fact as he cited Cyprus that some sort of undefined awareness had surfaced. “What was this Egyptian editor guy called again?” I imagine myself having asked. And while I can still hear Mike’s voice in my head pronounce “youssefalsebai” just as he always does — like a word that I would never have been able to spell — in that moment the name itself had drawn a blank. In any case, it had felt far too early in the morning to be making notes, so I had carried on listening, and let the whole thing pass.
All of which to say I was sure I had no sense of Sebai, and thus no cause to dwell on my unlikely knowledge of this piece of the puzzle that was his demise. It was only over time and on its own terms, as my research expanded and I started to put more of it together, that I too found myself perplexed by the pivotal role his death had played in a certain unravelling of the not-so Non-Aligned/Pan-Arab nexus — it was after all the event around which so much had turned. But a trace of that vague familiarity lingered… somewhere at the back of things.
Recently, when I walked past the place where Mike and I had first encountered each other’s affinity for Lotus, I found that it was all boarded up. The café had only been open a couple of years and now it was soon to be like it had never occurred.
Lotus Notes is a monthly series for 2014 that is part of a writing project by Nida Ghouse called Inner States, with images by Jenifer Evans.
Lotus Notes will take a break in September and resume in October.