Saturday, June 30, 2012

At the Square (draft)

For G.M.

"We are so far into the field that the darkness has closed behind us, blotting out the road and the house. All we can see is alfalfa. Crickets make their racket and mosquitoes swarm around our heads, unable to believe their luck. We stand there in a starry, buzzing darkness complete as the end of the world." -Michael Cunningham, "A Home at the End of the World"

"I was so afraid to leave". It was like a nightmare, a nightmare in the middle of daydreaming. How far was it from Avenue de Paris to Waygand? I couldn't remember exactly, but it might have seemed as if it took hours from Corniche to the square. I might have come out of the sea and for the first time into Manara, clad in nothing but noise, but air. I wasn't walking, because I still heard the sirens, and smelled the glass entering my mouth; it wasn't a wound, but more like a safety belt, preventing me from screaming, preventing me from becoming; hence I crawled. The asphalt under my arms was made of silk, and though it seemed to me I had never seen the city, I knew exactly what I was going. Joyce writes in the Ulysses: "—Hello, Bloom. Where are you off to? —Hello, M’Coy. Nowhere in particular." How many times had I been here? I asked myself. The longer I had lived in the city, the less I could remember... It was all done on purpose. I didn't want to remember anything. Everyday I woke up to the same excitement, the same sense of possibility.

I dragged myself through the same streets, re-enacting the same day again. I made pictures of the same places, sat at the same place, jotted down notes, and greetings from far away on the back of postcards that I would later send to the same address where I had been living, on a steep hill near the ocean. I wrote down the names of the streets on a napkin and compared with a map already worn out after so many days of travelling. And I was travelling, I said, that is why I could not send my address to friends in other countries. I travelled back and forth through the same five avenues in Beirut, from Ras Beirut to Saray, everyday, since the early morning. Why did I never unpack my suitcase, or buy a flower pot? I kept asking. I only came to visit the city for a day, I said to myself day after day, for two years. I didn't know exactly which city it was, so I kept asking people the names of the streets, in case I would get lost one day. I wanted to get lost, but eventually gave up on the possibility; in order to get lost you have to know where you're getting lost from.

"Mafi 7ada 2a7la menak, mafi 7ada 2a7la menak..." I exclaimed when I crawled all the way, on the last day of my journey, to Mazzacurati's statue, riddled with bullet holes. The sky was orange and the streets were empty, adorned only with the noise. Suddenly I was dancing instead of crawling or moving, it was the 21st of February, 2005, it was like an ocean, splintering into streets and taking on the form of a man - the heartbeats, the limbs, the eyes... It was a fleeting moment, something I had rememebered, the day Samir Kassir died. But it was not 2005, it was not now. I still read his book, every morning, before going on my morning journey through the same streets, until the letters on the page were so worn out that they disappeared one day, and I was no longer able to read. Once, when I was in the grammar school I had learnt that Schliemann, the German archaeologist, had found the ruins of Troy in 1870, using Homer's Illiad as his travelbook. So I had felt about Samir, until he died, and the book refused to speak to me anymore.

"The world is a book, and those who do not travel read only a page" was the commentary of Saint Augustine, even though he didn't love the world but God. Why would he want to travel in this book? Why would he love God instead of the world? I assume that the disappointment with the world always comes from a place of fear, and not from a place of love if we go by the quintessentially Christian assumption that the world will not last, that it's not durable and that is ought to pass, unlike the love of God, eternal. The rejection of the world contains in itself the promise that love can transcend the world, and that as long as the fear of loss remains, this love will be constantly unhappy: "Love itself is our death to the world, and our life with God. For if it is death when the soul leaves the body, how is it not death when our love goes forth from the world? Therefore, love is as strong as death." I was so afraid that I would never see the square again... Though so little remains of this heartland, only a music store and a wounded statue. 

"We are displaced people after all..." is what he said, when I told him that perhaps there was no home to be had if it had been lost once. I guess that being at home, in the world, implies that we have constituted it as such, and that we're readily aware that it will not last, other than as the promise of the selfsame constitution. If we're unable to keep our promises or receive them from others, then the world has vanished, there is just every you, every me, scattered limbs, tilting heads, up in the air. And why are these promises usually tied to places, since by logical necessity it is obvious that the earth will last and that we will not? February 21st, 2005, said a young woman: "La révolution a été prise en otage. Ils ont même pas eu de respect pour nos martyrs Samir Kassir, Gibran Tueni et d'autres resterons à jamais dans nos mémoires. Idem pour‪ Nassib Lahoud‬, mais pas les autres. Moi je les ai déjà oublié. La Révolution du Cèdre a été l'œuvre de vrais héros, mais l'œuvre a, hélas été récupérée par des zéros!" It seems as if promises and remembering and home are part of the same process. 

How tirelessly I had searched for Beirut,  under the illusion that such place actually existed, and how many years I had spent looking for it. And even though I had never found it, I was haunted by the fear - and here fear means nothing but the fear of loss of love - that should I leave, I were never to see it again. Once I read a Hebrew poem of Yehuda Amichai, "Suicide Attempts of Jerusalem":

"Tears, here, don't soften
The eyes. They only polish
The hardness of faces, like rock.

Suicide attempts of Jerusalem:
She tried again on the ninth of Av.
She tried in red and in fire
By wind and white dust.

She'll never succeed
But she'll try again and again."

When will Beirut try next time? That was the question on the basis of which I could never unpack my suitcase. And so vehemently I had wanted to go home, without God, I didn't want a part in the kingdom, or a slice of eternity or identity. Why should I have such loyalties and accept such dictates? And so tired I was, from reading only page from the same book, having lost directions, so haunted by the fear of loss. How could I dread losing a place I never had? How could even places be had? It seems to me as if time is a much stronger index of human life than space, since human bonds happen in time, and restricted by time, under the assumption that life isn't a durable good and that the end of lifetime is the end of life in general. 

Perhaps every time I reacted the same: Accentuating the fear of loss as a constant drive by means of pushing people away from me at the slightest breach of language, at the slightest silence, at the most insignificant pitiful nod. I didn't want to find just a city, I wanted the whole world and more. But there was another map of the city, one I had never seen. When I remember he had told me about his nightmare, and I occasionally learnt to forget how many times I had felt the same, how often I felt they would leave... This ambiguity about oneself, of trying to find a language with somebody, a very private language, more difficult than the entire world. Without the need for consolation, without the need for comfort, without the punitive function of palliative care. His nightmare was the map, and though horrible, it was my entire daydreaming. Then finally I awoke, he was there, and the discovery was magical:

Beirut was everywhere. Every place where promises could be kept. Mafi 7ada 2a7la menak...
This is the world.
The whole world.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Beirut’s Phoenician port bulldozed

First published on BIKYAMASR

Cultural destruction and Lebanon have become synonymous. Since the end of the Civil War, in spite of the constant calls for reconciliation and the projects of reconstruction – albeit limited mostly to one district in Beirut – the destruction of the Lebanese heritage has continued unmolested and in fact, clearing out the area of Beirut’s central district in the course of the so-called “Beirut reborn” reconstruction plan, razed more buildings than had been destroyed in the entire civil war, after expropriating the residents with minimal compensation.
The constant of destruction has shifted not in terms of its magnitude but only of its actors: The militias, armed groups and air attacks by Israel, have now been replaced by developers and politicians that carry the exact same task with the cooperation of an incompetent state whose priorities are usually centered around bringing tourism, paradoxically, to a country without the basic standards of infrastructure, security and heritage conservation; none of which receive attention in the endless political diatribes taking place daily.
UNESCO world heritage sites list includes only five sites – Anjar, Baalbek, Byblos, Tyre and the Qadisha Valley – none of which are considered endangered, even though for a country with a history dating back 7000 years, the selection seems at best precarious. In 1996, nine other sites were submitted to UNESCO’s tentative list, including the historical centers of Sidon, Tripoli and Batroun, some of which by now are already faced with destruction and nowhere does Beirut – a city with a history of 5000 years – appear in the list.
Reconstruction and destruction in Beirut are part of one and the same process that has been at work not only since the end of the civil war but rather has been on-going since the end of the 19th century during both war and peace times. The remaking of Beirut’s “Centre Ville” and its transformation into an exclusive compound for the wealthy in a remarkable and ironic display of false hope for the rebuilding of a largely impoverished country, constantly beset by turmoil, has not stopped at simply razing buildings that survived the war.
The integration of large sections of the central district into development projects fueled by greed and a policy of generalized amnesia solely intended to distract the Lebanese from the pursuance of shared memory and reconciliation, has also taken on the form of wiping out the building blocks of Beirut’s history and transform them into amusement parks, to which the average Lebanese have no access, keeping the conflicts alive and trapped inside the invisible ghettoes of the city and making sure that no space is left for negotiation and culture.
The Association for the Protection of the Lebanese Heritage has been at the forefront of a civic battle to halt the impeding destruction of so many Lebanese sites targeted: The traditional houses of Beirut in streets like Furn El Hayeck, where a historical building was demolished in May; the old city of Tripoli with its remarkable French and Ottoman architecture dating back to the 18th century, the Ingea theater and a large number of traditional houses, all of which have been already destroyed or are scheduled to.
Two very important historical sites were discovered in Beirut in modern times: the Roman Hippodrome and the Phoenician port in Minet El Hosn, both of which date back thousands of years – and not just centuries as in the case of the traditional houses – and that since their discovery, instead of being protected, studied and integrated into the city as a testimony to Lebanon’s status as the home for 2500 years of the Phoenician civilization, are simply being shortlisted for how quickly they can be destroyed by developers.
The hippodrome is considered one of the best kept in the world and scholars have pointed out to the number of times it appears mentioned in ancient books and even though it had been protected by previous administrations, current minister of culture Gabriel Layoun, has bypassed the previous decrees and authorized construction on the site to begin.
In theory, the planning approach to Beirut requires the integration of historical sites into modern landscaping without causing any change or damage to the structures in question unless the circumstances are exceptional, but as it happens to be the case in Lebanon, business interests and political means are identical with each other and the circumstances are, alas, always exceptional: Private companies forbid authorities to carry inspections of sites that should be under the supervision of the state and that belong to the Lebanese people.
While the hippodrome has not been destroyed and the Council of the State suspended the decision of minister Layoun to begin construction, following an appeal by the APLH, and the future of the ancient site remains uncertain, what is certain is that the Phoenician port has been effectively destroyed and bulldozed inch by inch this week in spite of protests and appeals on the part of APLH, and while it was well known for months that the site was targeted for destruction, the minister and competent authorities remained silent.
The developers of the Venus Towers project – another luxury compound to rise in downtown Beirut – destroyed the site in front of the concerned citizens without any permits, licenses or authorizations and counting only on the benefit of political maneuvering that has been a trademark of the Layoun administration. The opinion of the minister – overriding all previous decrees – is that the site itself was of no actual historical value, although we were dealing here with a unique Phoenician landmark without parallels anywhere else in the world.
APLH has vowed not to keep quiet under such circumstances in which cynicism and greed meet deliberate ineptitude. People are expected to mobilize tomorrow Thursday against minister Layoun and a judge in Beirut has ordered to stop all the works in the site and a fine of 100 million Lebanese pounds on the developers. The fact remains that regardless of the actions taken against the constructors and the minister, the Phoenician port has been already destroyed and no fine or legal action will restore a history going back millennia.
Apparently it was a team of archaeologists on the payroll of the ministry who inspected the site and considered it of no value, even though the assessments of experts and archaeologists elsewhere differed significantly from such unlearned and obviously politically compromised opinions, for which no one bears the slightest degree of professional accountability. The same archaeologists have refused to shortlist a large number of other sites to UNESCO world heritage list, and constantly bend to the interests of development partners.
It is very likely that unless the citizenry of Lebanon will demand from the government to take absolute control over the jurisdiction of every historical and archaeological landmark in the country, developers will stop at nothing and will be happy to turn the entire heritage of the country into a parking lot for the wealthy resident of luxury towers, in a country without a common history, without a public space to share, without a shared memory and more than anything without legitimate and autonomous governing bodies.
When the reconstruction of Beirut began and a master plan was laid out, the idea of Beirut as an “ancient city of the future” was introduced and even though this vision came under fire because its weak grasp of the somber present, being entirely focused on the past and the future, some also recognized the immense value inherent in rescuing the ancient heritage of the city and making it part of its landscape, heritage which had been effectively disregarded since the beginning of the war.
This of course has been proven time and again to be nothing more than another political fallacy. In his book “Urbicide: The Politics of Urban Destruction”, Martin Coward writes: “Projects do not seek to reconstitute fundamentally shared/public locales, but merely to provide the equipment which the separate ethnic nationalist enclaves can continue to live as they are. “ His words albeit not specifically meant for Beirut, express the degree to which the reconstruction projects in Beirut are aimed at everything but reconstruction of society.
When the chips are down, the Lebanese will not be able to blame Israel or America or Iran or the powers that be for the obliteration of their past and with it, of the possibility of finding a common ground that is not confessional, sectarian and violent. While the Lebanese are so fond of bragging about their culture, clearly there’s everything but culture in such unprecedented act of destruction in which the administration is an accomplice. This Beirut is clearly not re-born, only re-torn.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Beirut's Elyssar Project: Spatiality and Hegemony

Architecture is at the center of politics. We can see the truth of this statement amdist the controversy about post-war reconstruction of Beirut and the establishment of Solidere—the company created to redevelop the city. Reconstruction in Beirut does not mean simply the physical re-making and structuring of certain “sites of memory” scattered throughout the city. Rather, reconstruction is a political process parallel to the constant making and re-making of internal contestations of power and identity inside Lebanon since at least 1860.
The most important and widely studied case of reconstruction in Beirut is the famous Centre Ville or Beirut Central District undertaken by Solidere (discussed at length in “Beirut: Reinventing or Destroying the Public Space?”. Höckel points as well to the case of the southern suburbs and the Elyssar project and the role played by Hezbollah in different states of reconstruction, namely, 1983, 1996 and 2006. In this post, I look at the Elyssar project to develop Beirut's eastern coast and southern suburbs. The project has been mired in delays for decades and exemplifies the blurry line between political projects, architecture, and private interests in postwar Lebanon.
The designation “southern suburb” has a negative connotation in Beirut, and is often used interchangeably with Shi’a Muslims, anarchy, squatters, illegality and poverty.  The “suburbs”—formed by a permanent flow of rural migrants and later by both urban and rural refugees from the war—are homogenous and impoverished quarters of Beirut, consisting mostly of members of the Shi’a community and comprises one third of the population of the greater Beirut area. At first the project was to be undertaken by Solidere but after political contestation on the part of the residents and the Amal/Hezbollah party, it was implemented by a public agency created after much negotiation as per Decree No 9043 of August 1996.
The project was criticized on the basis of being based solely on economic considerations and too ambitious (the area is five times bigger than the central district) even though similar plans had already been tested and failed in the Arab world.  Yet, it remained largely unmodified. Other issues arose, such as difficulties in land expropriation due to the illegality of building and dwelling in the area, and speculation over land value, in which all parties – Solidere, the Prime Minister’s Office and the local Amal/Hezbollah – withheld and manipulated information, which led to a political stalemate that permanently halted the project.
The project area extends over 586 hectares from the Summerland Resort and Sports City to the boundary of Beirut International Airport in the South. From East to West it extends from the Airport road to the Mediterranean Sea and includes a large portion of coastline – another contentious point for development and speculation.
Elyssar’s plan included the execution of all primary and secondary roads, necessary infrastructure and public services; the construction of over 10,000 units of affordable housing over a 14-year period, manufacturing parks, warehouses and workshop centers. At the heart of plan was also the same scenario of urban violence and displacement in which residents from illegal settlements were to be transferred elsewhere.
The question of illegality and ownership in the area (and everywhere else in Lebanon to a certain degree) is complex and nowhere near resolution. In a 2007 case study by Nadine Khayat, she writes:
The Lebanese state has mostly continued to adopt a non-interventionist strategy toward these areas in Beirut; in fact, many describe the southern suburbs of Beirut as a state within the state, having its own conservative jurisdictions that may arguably be excluding factions and other communal groups present in Lebanon.
The state faced the question of illegal settlements in an area almost entirely controlled politically by Amal/Hezbollah, with the exception of a Maronite minority at the fringes.  The hostilities between the state and the militias go back to tensions between 1983 and 1984, when President Gemayel ordered the demolition of illegal neighborhoods in the suburb.
Facing resistance from the residents, with the support of Amal, and what is considered a reminder of the state’s bad will toward the area, it turn led to yet another extension of the war.
The suburbs fall under the definition of ‘slums’ and ‘illegal settlements’.  They have been a recurrent nightmare in Beirut’s reconstruction plans because of the absence of planning bodies, uncontrolled migration and growth, and lastly, the lack of appropriate mapping of the slums in purview of the political control of para-state bodies in the area.
Mona Fawaz and Isabelle Peillen’s 2003, “The Case of Beirut, Lebanon”, part of “Understanding Slums: Case Studies for the Global Report on Human Settlements”, lays out the problem: “Given its complex history, the limited legalities in property rights, and the widespread violation in building and construction codes, it is difficult to adopt legality as a criterion for slum identification in Beirut.”
They further add: “To date, Lebanese public policies have never concretely addressed slums and their dwellers, despite a reasonable number of studies dedicated to the issue. Laissez-faire has been the rule, although punctuated by violent incidents of eviction.” The sole exception to this had been, of course, the Elyssar project (Public Agency for the Planning and Development of the South Western suburbs of Beirut). However,  that failed time and again not only because of inappropriate funding but also because of the status quo of postwar reconstruction in which confessional fractions battle each other for power.
All the information relevant to the negotiations and contestations in the early phase of the Elyssar project are found in detail in Mona Harb’s “Urban Governance in Post-War Beirut: Resources, Negotiations and Contestations in the Elyssar Project.”
Here it is important to highlight the role that Hezbollah/Amal have played in the contestations and negotiations between the Lebanese state and the suburbs.  While they have significantly added to the political stalemate of the project, they have transformed the public space of the suburbs through an intricate network of surveillance, social services, political participation and cultural activities in a way that the Lebanese state has been incapable of offering, particularly in this disadvantaged area.
The characterization of Hezbollah in the Lebanese context is very difficult and while it is not the topic of this essay, the work of Mona Harb and Reinoud Leenders, (Know thy enemy: Hezbollah, terrorism and the politics of perception) provides a framework to understand the role of the group inside the urban configuration of the suburbs as a distinct territory of identity. It is important to note that understanding the group  as merely a terrorist group or as a part of the Lebanese institutions are both flawed perspectives, which blur the heterogeneous nature of para-state actors in Lebanon.
The animosity between investors and government institutions on the one hand, and Hezbollah on the other hand, confirms Harb’s observation:
While urban politics present themselves as a means for development they are actually strategies for territorial domination” (see Harb’s “La Dahiye de Beyrouth: Parcours d’une stigmatisation urbaine, consolidation d’un territoire politique”.)
The conquest of the public space and eventual colonization and closure of its history, and of what it is supposed to be found and remembered in it, is in Lebanon, the equivalent of political hegemony.

"Dystopia" by Eman Magdi
Architectural interventions and urban planning play a pivotal role in the configuration of the public space as the stage where politics appears, and here comes to mind Daniel Libeskin’s observation that “the public and political realm… is synonymous with architecture.”
The general lines for a discussion of the role of politics in architecture and architecture in politics have not been drawn with the exception of economic considerations and the problem of technology – as a counterpart of history – in weakening effective participation in democracy through excessive technification and functionalism of labor. Nevertheless, the necessity for an architectural configuration of the public space in which the world emerges between people, calls for a review of what Hannah Arendt conceived as the “space of appearances”, in terms radically architectural. 
The fundamental categories of Arendt’s political philosophy, such as worldliness and public space or “space of appearances”, are architectural ones (one can see this in how certain architectural theorists and even practitioners respond to her work). Hence, precisely where one encounters limits in trying to apply her political philosophy to politics, one can perhaps redeem her political philosophy by applying it to architecture.
For Hannah Arendt, the world – the space of politics – is the only place where we can appear to others in order to act, and it is this action that constitutes the basic units of power – which is always political – and that redeems the world from both the biological – and mortal – cycle of life.
Beiner makes an interesting argument in this regard: the now popular notion of public reason from Rawls and Habermas operates on considerations of constitutional structure and political order which are relevant only to political elites. Whereas, public space is relevant to all citizens; accordingly, public reason is less important than public space.
Arendt was increasingly concerned with the durability of the world as a stable artifice, where human action gains some sort of immortality.  As Beiner noted, “That this sort of immortalizing function is implicit in architecture as the creation of a lasting habitat and a more durable context for human activities is not a surprise.”
World-oriented experiences were at the core of Arendt’s thinking about the nature and possibilities of the political. Here we encounter an obvious tension between hegemony and worldliness, in that spatiality or space is not the determining factor in the existence of a public world, but the guarantee that it can appear. Beiner shifts the emphasis from the public space as a setting for episodic freedom, to a public good,  in which civic experience can take place. This, based upon one notion of citizenship being that "public things matter."
The notion of cynicism that is so widely discussed in politics can also be found in architecture. Beirut is a first-hand example of what Andrew Benjamin calls, “architecture as annihilation” in the context of museumfication rather than reconstruction for the sake of reconciliation.

Photo by Jorge Silva for REUTERS
For as long as the public space in Lebanon will continue being the battleground of hegemony in jeopardy of power, urban architecture and planning will reflect that.  Beiner explains, “If the effect of an ensemble of architectural creation is not the constitution of some kind of polis, at least ideally, then the idea of architecture as a source of citizenship is a hollow one.”
Cynicism is here embodied in the notion that in reconstruction it is only economic growth and prosperity what will bring peace to a country devastated by war.  However, Hannah Arendt warns, “Economic growth may one day turn out to be a curse rather than a good, and under no conditions it can either lead into freedom or constitute a proof of its existence.”

Friday, June 15, 2012

Susan in Beirut - At the Square III & IV

Part I published on THE MANTLE 
Part II published on THE MANTLE

For A.F. & E.M.

"Death = being completely inside one's head. Life = the world." -Susan Sontag, Journals 1964-1980

 "Are you hungry?" She asked me when we returned from the valley, and we sat at Le Cigale, on the street named after Charles Malik, whom I so fervently admired once, wrongly so. I stared into the transparent shelves, loaded with heavy trays of what seemed all postcards from another time - croissants, eclairs, beignets, mille-feuilles, tartes, brioches, madeleines, palmiers, and exuberant chocolate cakes. My eyes had fallen in love, and I inspected each and every detail inside the little paper holders; my disgust however was ineluctible, and the porous flavor of sweet seemed absurdly unnatural and just too comforting. I didn't want any of that. But I watched her, and I think she wasn't so interested in eating the cake, as much as in drawing the inner wombs and layers with that carbon pen. I still remember her like that: The day when she arrived from Egypt, with this very large suitcase, I was surprised to find out she had brought nothing in it but that carbon pen. Not even a sketchbook, because she used to tear off large cuts from her skin and draw upon them.

"This is Lebanon", I told her that day, and pointed to a garbage bin that had a semi-naked woman on it, her body half littered or half plastered with yellow stickers imported from the Kingdom of God, and crossed with printed riffles. So different it was then in Achrafieh, after the particularly long journey, and I was so starved, so consumed by daytime insomnia - the only cure to daydreaming; I spent the whole time tilting my head back, trying to catch another glimpse of the lavender field, and I somehow entertained the idea that it was the last time I was to see him, and the entire Bekaa. There was a foreboding chaos in my mind, and it didn't have to do with having lost the friend found out of the scandalous force of other centuries but rather with reckless impatience, with not tolerating one single moment of silence. St. Augustine came to mind again: "None will doubt that the only causes of fear are either loss of what we love and have gained, or failure to gain what we love and have hoped for."

The German professor explained it to me once: "The trouble with human happiness is that it is constantly beset by fear. It is not the lack of possessing but the safety of possession that is at stake". And that is why St. Augustine loathed both the lovers of man and the lovers of the world, those living out of craving rather than grace. But isn't the love of God just as intimately unhappy? I wondered. It was like that little drawing of Mouna Bassili Sehnaoui that I had seen once at her studio: The party at the skirts of Beirut with the two women sipping champagne and the gunman hiding in the bushes, finished five years before the war. Somebody told me once a story that Mouna drew it after a conversation with a foreign diplomat, who couldn't quite believe that the Lebanese were going on about their parties and soirees while the ticking bomb of the war was already in full motion. That is how I felt about the journey from the square, as if I were not to see it again, as if it had been the last dance before I were forgotten. Engraved in my own book.

Why did I feel always this enormous anxiety? Why did I always fear that I was going to lose their presence if their epiphany didn't materialize at my compass? Perhaps the present had something to do with it. Whoever was born during the war knew full well that we had lost the right to both the past and the future, and that our temporary truce could end any day now. We could be alive only for the day, only for the hour, everything is to be had, to be consumed, to be exhausted, here and now. There's no time for promises. There's no time for faith. There's no time for time. Eman always knew this, and though she never asked, I knew that she could see what I was looking for every time I tilted my head backwards, and suddenly her carbon pen bled purple blotches, as a reminder of what at the square had been a promise, from which I had excluded myself in the tireless anxiety of fear of loss. There we were, in the middle of Achrafieh, trying to find my way back from the valley. So squalid it all seemed, without the statue, without the promise: It was now Sassine Square. 

How easily recognizable had been the tall and slender American woman, with that long mane of dark hair and a shock of white at the temple. "But I couldn’t again be just a witness: that is, meet and visit, tremble with fear, feel brave, feel depressed, have heartbreaking conversations, grow ever more indignant, lose weight. If I went back, it would be to pitch in and do something", she said at first. Eman and I wondered then what we had lost in this city; was this pornography of war or something like that? Why return here? I told Susan about my friend from other times, from other centuries, back at the square, his silence... She stood impassive and defiant, as if with certain cruelty, and didn't utter a word. Nothing that could comfort or relieve. Simply staring. She quickly changed the topic and continued speaking: “People ask me if Sarajevo ever seemed to me unreal while I was there. The truth is, since I’ve started going to Sarajevo – this winter I plan to return to direct the Cherry Orchard with Nada as Madame Ranevsky and Velibor as Lopakhin – it seems the most real place in the world.”

Eman’s curiosity about Sarajevo tempted her into an obvious question, “Weren’t you afraid to go?” and with serenity she answered: “Anyone who isn’t afraid is crazy”. And we were afraid too. We thought about Mohammed, that Syrian man about whom we had heard, who had been an English literature student in Iblid, whose apartment and entire collection of books had been set on fire, by the same army that planted landmines all over the Bekaa and that probably would keep the lavender fields for me as a fragment of a futile and yet vivid imagination, even if my friend were to return after all. And inside the besieged city, he’s offering Syrians a glimmer of hope, directing Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot” like Susan had done back in 1993, during the Siege of Sarajevo. She told us: “Culture, serious culture from anywhere, is an expression of human dignity – which is what people in Sarajevo feel they have lost, even when they know themselves to be brave, or stoical or angry. For they also know themselves to be terminally weak: waiting, hoping, not wanting to hope, knowing that they aren’t going to be saved.”

“You know, we’re waiting for Godot”, said the Syrian to a journalist amidst laughter, when asked about his play. And how can Godot be about hope, Eman and I thought. How can waiting be about hope? And after all, I was myself waiting, and she was waiting with me, armed with nothing but a carbon pen. And Susan told us about the Godot that the Syrians were waiting: “Until the Bosnian genocide, one might have thought – this was indeed the conviction of many of the best reporters there, like Roy Guttmann of Newsday and John Burns of the New York Times – that if the story could be gotten out, the world would do something. The coverage of the genocide in Bosnia ended that illusion.” Then it was night, and I thought about a sad Joyce in Trieste, close to Verona and to Rome, where Ingeborg Bachmann had ended her life when she fell asleep in the middle of smoking a cigarette and set her apartment on fire, disproving Mary McCarthy’s thesis from her first novel, that no one would commit suicide in the middle of smoking a cigarette.

Eman read that night to me from a book of philosophy that had not been burnt yet: “We are mortals, you and I. There is only my dying and your dying and nothing beyond. You will die and there is nothing beyond. I shall slowly disappear until my heart stops its soft padding against the lining of my chest. Until then, the drive to speak continues, incessantly. Until then, we carry on. After that there is nothing.” Susan listened carefully, and imagined Mohammed, the Syrian, fantasized with his opening night of “Waiting for God” and was reminded of her own: “And I think it was the end of that performance – on Wednesday, August 18th at 2:00 PM – during the long tragic silence of the Vladimirs and Estragons which follows the messenger’s announcement that Mr. Godot isn’t coming today, but will surely come tomorrow, that my eyes began to sting with tears. Velibor was crying too. No one in the audience made a sound. The only sounds were those coming from outside the theater: a UN APC thundering down the street and the crack of sniper fire.”

After Susan left, to take a plane to another country after seeing Beirut with us only for a few hours, we took to Damascus Road, to wait for Adam, maybe he isn’t coming today, but maybe he’s coming tomorrow, like Godot. I told Eman, “It seems to me as if all wars everywhere look the same”. She kept silent, we kept watch over the wait, and across us the silence and a poster that read: “See you in Beirut, whatever happens.”

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Out Loud

First published on BIKYAMASR

“A city and a nation of conservatism and intolerance”: Those are the words used by Samer Daboul to describe Lebanon and the city of Zahlé, in the Bekaa Valley, against the background of which his 2011 full length motion picture is set.
One of the first things we see in his film, “Out Loud”, is the famous statue by Attar Samih, “Vin et la Poésie” placed strategically at the entrance of the city, and that if seen on a postcard and severed from the noise of Lebanon’s violent history, would reveal something else completely:
The libertine Bacchus welcomes visitors to the capital of the valley with a naked female torso, voluptuous breasts, a hanging grapevine and the quiet Greek lyre standing obliquely to the side, almost inebriated.
It would be worthwhile mentioning here that Samih’s works, to be found all over Lebanon, from Beirut to Jounieh to Hadath, deal mostly with themes from national history and are not precisely known for their pagan and erotic appeal.
The one exception besides “Vin et la Poésie” would be the tiny figurine “Fille de la Marine” found in Sidon. But when you situate yourself back at the site where the statue belongs in Zahlé, the noise takes over.
That is where and how “Out Loud” starts and the way the director has put it, all the noise we hear at the beginning and that engulfs the square and the statue, isn’t necessarily that of war alone. It’s the noise of conflicting views, of personal tensions, of an un-mastered something.
The unusual film – though it might seem something of a commonplace to Westerners, not sufficiently acquainted with the regional industry – is a graceful tale of love and friendship set against this selfsame noise; fraught with hate, with love, with violence, with kindness.
Unlike the conventional plot of Lebanese cinema, dealing mostly with the decades-long civil war and occasionally with the role played by Israel in it – a film for example, about the Syrian occupation of Lebanon is still missing; “Out Loud” belongs to a different genre.
Films that tell stories and that deviate from the format of the documentary – are rare in Lebanon and have emerged only in the course of the last decade with films such as Nadine Labaki’s “Caramel” and Marc Abi Rached’s banned-shortly-before-release film “Help”.
The commercial alter ego of the documentary, namely, the action historical film dealing with war, became the benchmark of the scarcely produced Lebanese cinema and the equivalent of tradition film in the Arabian Gulf.
Against the background of classical Egyptian and Lebanese cinema, the Lebanese couldn’t exactly succeed in grounding an emerging – particularly postwar – cinema culture around the topic of the conflicts of modern life with tradition; what doesn’t mean this wasn’t attempted.
After a number of truly successful films – among which “West Beirut” might be yet the best ranked – the genre of civil war films may well be considered to have timed itself out, and while titles still appear, they are no longer suitable items for the history of film.
The documentary (particularly of war) on the other hand, has been questioned and challenged over and over since the decline of social realism as an established aesthetic category in film, and nowadays many fiction and non-fiction films are concerned with representing conditions over actions.
Filmmaker and theoretician Maya Deren writes:
“If particularly in film, the flowering of the documentary has almost obscured all else save the “entertainment” film, it is because the events and accidents of reality are, today, more monstrous, more shocking, than the human imagination is capable of inventing.”
She continues:
“The war gives rise to incidents which are not only beyond the inventive powers of the human imagination, but also beyond its capacity almost to believe. In this period, we are concerned with the unbelieveableness of incidents, we require a reportage and a proof of their reality. But the great art expressions will come later, as they always have; and they will be dedicated, again, to the agony and experience rather than the incident.”
This is exactly what begins to take place in Lebanon after Labaki’s “Caramel”, which focused on women issues such as love, traditions and sexuality – but without costumbrismo – and dealt with universal issues rather than showcasing again a war-torn country.
“Out Loud” comes into this scene with far bolder proposal in terms of action, condition and aesthetic representation. The story revolving around eastern Lebanon deals with three thorny topics in Lebanese society: human rights, gay rights and freedom of expression.
Five friends – each of whom bears upon himself one some difficult baggage, often related to alas, the Lebanese wars, social struggles and political cul-de-sacs – chance upon a young girl, with whom they begin a life-changing journey, with an unexpected result.
Rami and Ziad are a gay couple who has been “found out” by their families and have to run for their lives, escaping from the infamous honor killing and find temporary shelter at Jason’s home, from where they flee once again to Nathalie’s chalet in Zahlé.
The portrayal of homosexuality and the homosexual couple in the film is nothing short of graceful and dignified, unlike the commonplace portrayal in Arab cinema – particularly Egyptian – of homosexuals as deviants, prostitutes, androgynies and emasculated.
In “Out Loud”, the entire group of friends participate in a condition – life, that is, in which there’s joy, there’s violence, there’s redemption, there’s defeat; all of it very human, and in it, everyone participates, without exclusion of religion, gender or sexuality.
The defiance of certain taboos – not only of sexuality but also the role of women, the institution of marriage and facing up to violence, are framed by quintessential human responses that define the possibility to evolve as a culture.
It is the human miracle at stake always in new beginnings, in leaving the past behind and beginning something completely new: Be it an institution, a movement, or simply a destination in life. To choose your fate as your destiny and transform it into your destination.
As the central difficulties at the heart of the plot evolve, it becomes clear that only a promise – and every decision to act together as people is in itself a promise – might interrupt the flow of events and cause the unexpected to succeed not in resisting reality, but in transforming it.
Hannah Arendt writes: “Promises are the uniquely human way of ordering the future, making it predictable and reliable to the extent that this is humanly possible”. The group of friends makes then a promise to stay together and thus, circumvent averting danger.
Sometimes, however, promises are not enough and life will still play its tricks on you, but the durability of promises – and it is this on which the human artifice is sustained – is the only insurance to the continuity of the human community as such.
“Out Loud” is a surprising film aesthetically, if only because the storyline of the film is by no means analogous with what is done in prose novels and short stories, and more than anything it resembles poetry, without descending to the category of abstract film.
The imagery remains horizontal throughout and the different parts of the film are connected in a linear sequence that however, does not stay at the level of simply telling a story but constitutes itself into an experience constitutive of reality, critically so.
Deren writes:
“It is therefore relevant to underline, here, the fact that the appreciation of work based on experiential, on inner, realities consists not in a laborious analysis based on the logic of a reality which a prepared spectator brings to the work. It consists rather, in an abandonment of all previously conceived realities. It depends upon an attitude of innocent receptivity which permits the perception and experience of the new reality.”
This is true for “Out Loud” both at the visual and conceptual levels that ultimately blend into each other. The film captures with uncanny precision the miraculous nature of human speech, promises and the unpredictability of the world: It is a celebration of life.
Spectacular dinners like those prepared by families – with a singular twist here, childish play with paint and colors, dancing at the square surrounding Attar Samih’s “Vin et la Poésie” physically and musically. Men dance with women, men dance with men, men dance alone. Then a wedding, with spectacular colors and sounds, like never seen before in Arab cinema.
The scene across the “Vin et la Poésie” in Zahlé – and probably the very first of its kind, in which a gay couple dances under moonlight – is very telling about the purpose of the film and the status of human rights and freedom of expression in Lebanon.
In a documentary film made about the difficult realization of this film, “Out Loud – The Documentary”, Samer Daboul and his crew of actors and production tell us about the ordeal they had to go through in order to shoot this scene.
Insults, angry mobs, threats, disruption and more disruptions. Anyone who has seen the beautiful statue – and is surprised it was never demolished – can only wonder if the dancing into freedom in the film wasn’t actually a very subtle way to reclaim the statue to what perhaps Attar Samir had in mind when he created it: Freedom, beauty, peace.
Maya Deren insists: “When we agree that a work of art is, first of all, creative, we actually mean that it creates a reality and itself constitutes an experience”, and Susan Sontag completes the thought by writing decades later: “Cinephilia implies that films are unique, unrepeatable, magic experiences”.
“Out Loud” is something of this kind. It opens a magic door to view a very controversial tale about the limits of freedom and the limitations of human rights in the Middle East, in a way that is entirely whimsical. It breathes so much hope, while pinning itself in the history of regional film as an entirely innovative product, and therefore, as a role model.
The resolution of the film brings a melancholy note between sacrifice and heroism. Sometimes human promises involve sacrifices and sometimes those sacrifices invoke the end of life. And while this is one reason more to contemplate and participate in the beauty of this film, the writing on the wall for Lebanon remains as it was then, when Bertolt Brecht wrote in his play “Life of Galileo”: “Unhappy is the land that needs a hero”.

Tripoli: Between Power and Violence

First published on HANNAH ARENDT CENTER
“Power is indeed the essence of all government, but violence is not. Violence is by nature instrumental; like all means, it always stands in need of guidance and justification through the ends it pursues. And what needs justification by something else cannot be the essence of anything.” – Hannah Arendt, “On Violence”
The last few weeks have witnessed the return of scenarios of violence to North Lebanon around the city of Tripoli where clashes have disrupted the fragile and tense balance of peace. Since the beginning of the Syrian uprising last March, fears mounted that the violence would spread quickly to Lebanon, whose very fragile balance of power is deeply intertwined with the fates of Syria and a complex network of sectarian alliances that spread into Iran, Israel, Saudi Arabia and the West.
It would require an entire encyclopedia of Lebanese politics and history – which by the way, has never been written – to define all the terms necessary to adequately discuss the complex scenarios of postwar Lebanon and the players involved, but suffice it for now to say that the current political system was not only born out of the unresolved sectarian struggle of the civil war but hearkens back to the French edict of 1936 that made it obligatory to declare belonging in one of the religious communities to be eligible for citizenship.
Often it is assumed that conflict in Lebanon is limited to the tripartite division between Sunni Muslims, Shiite Muslims and Christians but the “communities” established by the French aren’t exactly equivalent to the broader sect and the Lebanese constitution (promulgated in 1926) acknowledges 18 different religious communities – though the presence of Jews is almost none – and still, the National Pact (1943) that truly laid the foundations of the Lebanese state was indeed negotiated between Sunnis, Shiites and Maronites.
These three sects – with their respective alliances at home and elsewhere – dominate the political landscape in an overtly complex system of offices, distribution that fails to account for the diversity of the political spectrum within them (at least in the case of Sunnis and Christians) and that was once conceived as an interim measure that remains in place to this very day. Tensions between the different communities and sects can be traced back to the 1860’s when Lebanon was an Ottoman province and remain still unresolved.
Tripoli is an exceptional example of the role that sectarianism plays in Lebanese life: one of the most impoverished and neglected areas with a diverse population of Sunnis, Maronite Christians, Orthodox Christians, Armenians and Alawites. The city has a Sunni majority and sectarian distribution is also geographical; the dividing line between the northeastern neighborhoods of Bab al-Tabbaneh (Sunni) and Jabal Mohsen (Alawite) along the Syria Street has been the epicenter of gun fighting.
Already in November 2011 Lebanon’s Alawite minority – mostly based around Tripoli – expressed concern over the situation across the Syria-Lebanon border long before the Syrian crisis reached the tipping point in Homs. Syria’s besieged ruler Bashar Al-Assad, belongs also to the Alewite sect, and the long-time Syrian occupation of Lebanon that ended only in 2005 with the Cedar Revolution included Sunnis being massacred by the Syrian army in Bab al-Tabbaneh (1986-1987).  The course of the Syrian uprising has paved the way for a renewal of old tensions going back to 1970’s.
In June 2011, seven people were killed and over fifty wounded in clashes between the rival neighborhoods following a rally in support of Syrian protesters in Bab al-Tabbaneh, and then in February 2012, clashes erupted again that required the intervention of the often powerless Lebanese army. The situation worsened by May when a Sunni Islamist was arrested, and clashes erupted again between both neighborhoods. The fighting continued on a low scale throughout several days and over a dozen casualties were reported.
In the first days of June clashes erupted once again and with non-existing media coverage (different, for example, from the clashes spread from Tripoli to Beirut around Tareeq Jdeideh, another dividing line between Sunni and Shiite rivalries, even though this time clashes were between two rival Sunni factions, one of them being the Arab Democratic Party, with close ties to Hezbollah and to which many Alawites in Jabal Mohsen belong) citizens from Tripoli reported the clashes as the worst gun fighting since the end of the civil war.
The clashes resulted in at least 14 casualties and extensive material damage, in which civilian life was not only disrupted but there were also reports of non-combatants wounded, and as it was reported by pro-independence site NOW Lebanon, it is unlikely that Tripoli battles will end with the last shot fired. Following from the clashes, Alewite businesses were reportedly torched in the more affluent area of Azmi, closer to downtown, and the calm returned after the army intervened – with a spectacular delay – to impose a fragile and tense ceasefire.
The particulars of the unrest in Lebanon are too intricate to discuss here, but Emile Hokayem has provided all the historical background in his Foreign Policy piece “Lebanon’s Little Syria” , and Lebanese blogger Mustapha M. Hamoui has written an extensive analysis on what the arrest in May of a Sunni Islamist tells us about Tripoli, the state of affairs in Lebanese politics, and wider effect of the Arab Spring in Lebanon in his “A Phone Call That Shook a Nation”. Now, with all this in mind, we should turn our attention to some ideas on power and violence and the specific case of Lebanon.
In "On Violence", Hannah Arendt established a crucial distinction between power and violence, and though her definition of violence itself comes only via negativa – by what it is not, she articulates a very clear notion of power as distinguished from force and strength. Whatever it is that we understand nowadays as power is the rough equivalent of force, that is, the uncontrollable forces of nature, and has little to do with power as a function of human relations: power as the ability to act in concert with others.
The meaningful distinctions between power, strength, force, violence, and authority have somehow evaporated in the course of the 19th and 20th centuries and have been made roughly identical with each other.  The emphasis of the shift from power to force implies the operation of natural forces that render human capacity for decision irrelevant ,and the shift from force to strength confuses the irreparability of the natural cycle with a trait of character or personal quality. Conversely, authority is not power or strength or force, but specific sources of power.
Violence, on the other hand, bears an extremely complex relationship to action rather than to above described elements of government – as distinguished from politics and as such, from human plurality – and here action is roughly identified with the human capacity to begin something anew, as if miraculously. According to Arendt: “Neither violence nor power is a natural phenomenon, that is, a manifestation of the life process; they belong to the political realm of human affairs whose essentially human quality is guaranteed by man’s faculty of action, the ability to begin something new”.
It should be said however, that violence cannot be disqualified as a form of action – and in this regard, the Arendtian canon and legacy is very ambiguous – and there is such a thing as violent action, but it is a tautology to speak of non-violent power: “Power and violence are opposites; where the one rules absolutely, the other is absent. Violence appears where power is in jeopardy, but left to its own course it ends in power’s disappearance.”
“Non-Violence,” a sculpture by Karl Fredrik Reutersward
Lebanon’s relationship to both power and violence – which is nowhere better exemplified than in Tripoli’s violent history – emerged as it is, in jeopardy of power and excess of violence: born out of confessionalism and as a buffer zone of regional conflict in which every confessional faction sought to enter deals with players abroad to protect sectarian interests, the idea of power has been infinitely weakened as a birth defect. These particular aspects of Lebanese modern history have been discussed by former minister Charbel Nahas in his lecture “Liban: L’état tampon entre confessionnalisme, disorientation et dissension sociale” held on May 25thin Paris.
The criteria of religious affiliation have impaired participative democracy through a system in which the absence of violence is understood as an achievement in unity, but the immediate absence of violence – as exemplified by the National Pact in 1943 and the Taif Agreements in 1989 – does not immediately translate into consent to act (power) but simply into non-aggression.
The raison d’être of politics – and this is in a nutshell,  all of Hannah Arendt – is freedom and not sovereignty, that I understand - particularly in the political philosophy of Fichte -as bearing a relationship to freedom based on  free will and not on action. Accordingly, for as long as the terms of the debate are framed exclusively by territoriality – the sectarian geography of Lebanon comes to mind again – and the acceptable tension between national sovereignties (which in Lebanon means sect sovereignties and is far from any concept of federalism), the vacuum of power will remain. Consequently, every time that the terms for negotiation need to be laid, violence will be the only way to settle them.
In the absence of power, the government is permanently impaired to make political decisions – regardless of the coalition, whether March 8 or March 14 – and the powers of the state will continue to be handed to regional warlords, without whose consent, the army will remain forever incapable of restoring security,  and the idea of national unity will be always preceded by a confessional affiliation within an abstract figure of power whose pillars are everywhere but in Lebanon.
Power is a terrible and incalculable force, whereas violence is predictable and calculable, and that is why power grows in between men, while violence is possessed by one man alone – even if the many act upon it, it is still possessed individually – and cannot be the foundation of politics because it is a means to something else that ultimately becomes identical with the means it utilizes.
Violence cannot be overcome through force or violence, because both are incapable of spontaneity – the hallmark of human action and plurality – and for as long as power will remain absent from the political, weapons will always set the terms of negotiations for Tripoli. It cannot be denied that violence is a form of action and a very human one at that, but the writing on the wall is crystal clear in Hannah Arendt’s writings: “The practice of violence, like all action, changes the world, but the most probable change is to a more violent world.”