Algor mortis. It’s the second stage of death, marked by the change in body temperature post-mortem until the ambient temperature is matched. I know the term because it was the experience I remember as being the most bizarre when my father passed away. At that time, and after his body was washed in preparation for his burial, I was allowed to see him for one final time. I looked at him then wrapped in his “kafan” — Arabic for the burial garment in which a corpse is wrapped — and I was surprised that to me he merely looked asleep. I approached his body to plant one last kiss on his forehead and was taken aback by how cold his forehead was.
It has been impossible since I lost my father to not think back to that moment upon hearing news related to any human death. It’s a disorienting feeling given that we are so closely rooted in our physical experience as humans. The Beirut explosions last week brought back a flood of memories to algor mortis and beyond. But the loss of human life in such magnitude is not a rare occurrence in the Middle East. Far from it, it’s tragically deeply woven into our contemporary times.
But the losses in Beirut hit me especially hard. I spent most of my summers as a child in Beirut. My mother was born and raised in Lebanon. Almost all of my relatives live there. All my grandparents are buried there. I whispered to its sea one too many secrets. I had my first crush on an American boy on Beirut’s AUB beach. As a young woman I strolled Beirut’s streets dressed in my denim mini skirt alongside my veiled mother, a luxury unafforded in other Arab countries at the time. Beirut gave me “banned” books in politics and literature which I consumed sitting in my uncle’s antique furniture shop off Al Hamra. Beirut taught me how to cuss using combinations of swear words I’ve never heard before, including the heftily prized freedom of cussing politicians and political parties aloud. Beirut would break me during the day as I traced back the history of some of its bullet-scarred buildings and would put me back together at night as a small homegrown rock band played in one of its pubs in Gemmayzeh. Beirut to me is Eric Clapton’s Pattie Boyd. The muse that inspires you and breaks you.
Beirut broke me last week. The 171, and counting, algor mortis broke me. The thousands injured and the hundreds of thousands rendered homeless broke me. Beirut widened the wound of a broken region. What is so fundamentally wrong with us for this to keep happening, I wondered?
I despaired at finding an answer to that last question for there are endless accounts analyzing the systemic issues pervading this tragic state. None of them offer a solution to put an end to the avoidable loss of life. I found no answers. But I found Nimrod. And upon reading through his story, I gathered that we perhaps might never be able to re-build and resurrect until we regain our ability to speak the same “language”. I quote Nimrod’s story below. A side note before you read Nimrod’s story: depending on your inclination, you can replace “God” with virtues of oneness that truly unite us as humans. You can also drop gender-based references to men only and a male God. And as for the reference to “language”, I’ll leave you to take that on metaphorically, a symbol of our insanely divisive labels that we keep amassing in our desolate repository.
“Now it was Nimrod who excited them to such an affront and contempt of God. He was the grandson of Ham, the son of Noah, a bold man, and of great strength of hand. He persuaded them not to ascribe it to God as if it were through his means they were happy, but to believe that it was their own courage which procured that happiness. He also gradually changed the government into tyranny, seeing no other way of turning men from God, but to bring them into a constant dependence on his power… Now the multitude were very ready to follow the determination of Nimrod and to esteem it a piece of cowardice to submit to God; and they built a tower, neither sparing any pains, nor being in any degree negligent about the work: and, by reason of the multitude of hands employed in it, it grew very high, sooner than any one could expect; but the thickness of it was so great, and it was so strongly built, that thereby its great height seemed, upon the view, to be less than it really was. It was built of burnt brick, cemented together with mortar, made of bitumen, that it might not be liable to admit water. When God saw that they acted so madly he caused a tumult among them, by producing in them diverse languages, and causing that, through the multitude of those languages, they should not be able to understand one another. The place wherein they built the tower is now called Babylon, because of the confusion of that language which they readily understood before; for the Hebrews mean by the word Babel, confusion. The Sibyl also makes mention of this tower, and of the confusion of the language, when she says thus: — “When all men were of one language, some of them built a high tower, as if they would thereby ascend up to heaven; but the gods sent storms of wind and overthrew the tower, and gave everyone a peculiar language; and for this reason it was that the city was called Babylon.”
Beirut, I’m waiting for you to put me back together again.