Wednesday, October 31, 2012
Wednesday, October 24, 2012
First published on THE MANTLE
Also available from Beit El Hiwar
Also available from Beit El Hiwar
[Political protests in Beirut, October 2012. Photography: Mohamad Dankar©]
“Go up to Lebanon and cry out, let your voice be heard in Bashan, cry out from Abarim, for all your allies are crushed. Not one is left to help you” –Jeremiah 22:20
“Go up to Lebanon and cry”. The biblical verse from Prophet Jeremiah serves as the title of chapter nine of Fadia Basrawi’s “Brownies and Kalashnikovs”, a memoir published in 2009, recounting the life of a Saudi woman living in Beirut in between the prosperous 1960s and the July War between Hezbollah and Israel, with the long Civil War (1975-1990) right in the middle. Basrawi speaks in this chapter with vividness about how little hint there was at the time of the evil that would soon befall Beirut and remembers with certain fulgurant nostalgia the impressive landscapes of the Druze and Maronite enclaves in North Lebanon, while travelling there for the first time back in the 1970s: “This bucolic co-habitation had another ten years before the picture-perfect homes would become rubble and their young generation lost, many of them killing before they touched puberty.”
Soon Beirut would become a city divided between East and West and a deadly war would engulf the entire country for some fifteen years. On official record, the Lebanese Civil War ended with the Taif Agreement signed almost exactly twenty-three years ago, on October 22, 1989. Political normalcy would return to the Lebanese Republic and the country would accommodate to the new demographic shift, and reassert sovereignty over Southern Lebanon – then occupied by Israel – and Syrian forces that had been called in once to help maintain peace and stability, would withdraw within a short time. A façade of political normalcy indeed returned and the hope of a Beirut reborn embodied in the ambitious reconstruction project led by the man of Beirut, Rafic Hariri, was set in motion. Nevertheless, peace or not, nothing of what had been contemplated in the Taif Agreement, ever materialized.
The memory of the war remained unblemished and as if nothing had happened, in an act that seems today more cynical than it was a declaration of hope, the country moved on. Beirut suddenly returned to the glamorous pages of glossy magazines and the scars of war began to be systematically obliterated from the architecture of the city. But the war kept returning to the streets of Beirut. In 2005 after theassassination of Rafic Hariri, Lebanese took to the streets in non-violent protests in what is to date the largest protests recorded in Lebanese history. The protests caused the withdrawal of Syrian troops after many years of occupation – even though many Lebanese refuse to acknowledge this – but this short-lived victory was marred by a long list of political assassination of anti-Syrian figures.
This was followed by the July War between Israel and Hezbollah in 2006 with over one thousand deaths, the clashes between the Lebanese Army and Palestinian militias in Nahr El Bared with over three deaths, a mini-civil war in 2008 when Hezbollah raided parts of Beirut over a political deadlock and then finally the violence that has engulfed the country with the larger Arab Spring. Clashes in Tripoli between rival Sunni and Alewite factions have been reported since June 2011 and since then the impact of the Syrian crisis is felt in Lebanon with stronger waves each time. It seems that wars never end, certainly Lebanon's has not, and likeSamir Kassir – himself one of the first victims of the political assassinations in 2005 – remarked about the Civil War, “Was the war ever forgotten? It was forgotten every day, without for a moment ever being absent from anyone’s mind.”
But life in Beirut always goes on. Kassir continues, “It is perhaps for this very reason that Beirut was so gruesomely fascinating – because life went on despite the onslaught, and because the city, in its decline and decay, nevertheless remained a city.” No one has been more perplexed than analysts with the current sporadic conflict and every second headline speaks of the return of a Civil War that never actually returns, perhaps because it never left in the first place, at the same time that the Lebanese seem to go about their own business. But in a twist of fate, on the same day that Lebanese government officials threatened to sue American producers of the series “Homeland” for portraying Beirut as a backward city full of terrorists, terrorism returned with flying colors on October 19 when a car bomb disrupted the otherwise calm neighborhood of Achrafieh, leaving three dead and scores of wounded and physical destruction.
[Candle vigil near the car bomb site. Photography: Patrick Baz©]
Images of the Civil War returned quickly and a few days later, between political demonstrations, protests, violent clashes, scenes of destruction and the surrealistic montage of contradictory political statements and public lies, Lebanon licked once again its own wounds. Quickly enough the human drama of the bomb turned into a political festival when one of the casualties turned out to be state security ChiefWissam Al Hassan, a man close to the late Rafic Hariri and one of the few officials in government supportive of the Syrian revolution in a delicate climate dominated by the pro-Assad Hezbollah-backed government. Accusations flew – and are still flying – from one camp to another and as it is usually the case in Lebanon, no one is ultimately responsible.
Hannah Arendt had a precise term for this form of tyrannical government, “The Rule by Nobody”: “Today we ought to add to these terms the latest and perhaps most formidable form of such dominion, bureaucracy or the rule by an intricate system of bureaux in which no men, neither one nor the best, neither the few nor the many can be held responsible and which could be properly called the rule by Nobody.” The public debate quickly shifted towards political accountability and while on the one hand the opposition is calling for the government to resign, without yet having a master plan, the Hezbollah-allied parties insist on the cynical narrative that condemnation of terror and public outcry is tantamount to the acts of terror and murder themselves.
It doesn’t matter right now who is at the helm in the Lebanese republic; the fact remains that the confessional politics that led the different Lebanese factions to rally for support and allies abroad has made Lebanon a state ruled de facto by external powers and circumstances. It is indeed a rule by nobody. At least nobody Lebanese, that is. While the political protests and outcry turned into a spectacle of political opportunism and yet another reason for violence – as if such were hard to find in Lebanon – the gravity of the situation remains more or less unacknowledged and the death of Georgette Sarkissian, a 42-years old mother, at the site of the bomb, did not quite make the headlines. Civil society began organizing – ahead of the government – to provide material, psychological and moral support to the victims. The government in the meantime remains firm in its position: Not governing.
The message sent to the Lebanese public was clear: If the head of state security can be killed, anyone in Lebanon can be killed. Threats were reportedly sent to a number of politicians who oppose the Syrian regime and its backers in Lebanon and a chilling text message was received in the aftermath of the assassination:“Mabrouk, the countdown has started. One of ten.” Protests were called for at the iconic Martyrs’ Square on the weekend but the attendance was not too promising and while trying to emulate the legendary pro-democracy protests in 2005, the Lebanese flags blended in nicely with political party flags, sectarian slogans and followed by nation-wide violence. In nobody’s rule, no one is guilty or responsible but yet everyone remains suspect. An hour in front of any Lebanese channel attests to this faithfully.
In a Paris lecture delivered in May, “Liban: L’état tampon entre confessionnalisme, désorientation et dissension sociale”, former minister Charbel Nahas spoke of how in Lebanon media has little to do with being an instrument of democratization and is rather one another combat weapon waging ideological battles in the name of political parties encouraging disorientation in a country practically bereft of History in capitals, and ripe with many histories with small h, often hostile to one another. Life returns to normalcy once again… The Lebanese want to move on, to go on living, but behind the optimism and the resiliency hides the uncertainty like a gunman in the bushes, the country gets a little bit worse each time, and a resolution seems a little bit further away.
Kassir writes in the end of his book “Beirut” – that turned out to be his own obituary – an exhortation about the city that to this day has been heard by no one, in a country ruled by nobody: “Permit it at last to be, after having so well and truly been.”
[Political protests in Beirut, October 2012. Photography: Mohamad Dankar©]
Monday, October 15, 2012
Thursday, October 11, 2012
First published on THE MANTLE
“The public and political realm… is synonymous with architecture.” –Daniel Libeskind
It would be an understatement already to begin with saying that the notion of public space is contested nowadays. In the narrowest definition the function of public space would be to provide spaces for social interaction.
The notion of space itself is misleading: Public space usually refers to a “place”, staged in the style of the old European spaces where architecture provides a place for “grounded citizenship-civic experience grounded in shared attachment to a built place that provides an enduring home for members of a political community extended over many generations.”
The ambiguity and lack of co-extensiveness between place and space could not be more pronounced. Lebanese artist Khalil Joreige expresses this challenge:“Territory is always defined as a geographic place, but for us it can also be a time in space. The contemporary of someone who is in another country, for example, is a time we are sharing in space rather than place.”
The question of how architecture can produce “public spaces” isn’t simply a problem of modern architecture vis-à-vis neo-liberalism but firstly of the deconstruction of the place and the home and secondly of the forces external to architecture that are interwoven in this process.
The home is no longer simply a place or a dwelling but a story, a narrative, a sense of belonging; it appears as a horizon and search for new destinations rather than a place in the past or sense of origin. On the other hand, space appears not as an object but as a process: Space is the mediator between mental and social activities and is thus conceived as a social product.
In any contemporary discussion about the production of public space, one cannot but notice that in something so abstract as space there is a noise in the background, which configures this space as much as it configured by it: The images through which this space is constructed and of which it is not independent, and the visual memory becomes an open archive of how the collective ideas about a certain place are presented.
These questions are at the heart of “Background”, Bahrain’s National Pavilion at the 13th International Architecture Exhibition – Venice Biennale (2012) to which Bahrain returns after winning a Golden Lion for its first national participation in 2010 but yet hued by the shift of the image of Bahrain from an exotic island in the Arabian Gulf to an scenario of unrest.
The exhibition questions the real against the presented and imagined images of Bahrain since the proliferation of photography and media. The nature of images generated by mass-media in the era of hyper-realities obscure the relation between the images and its referent – the supposed real, creating a reference principle in which images always refer to a real world and real objects in it, but this is hardly the case.
More often than not, images exist on their own and rather than reproducing something logically anterior to themselves, they precede the real and have the capacity to invert the order of reality. Images of reality are not a mirror of reality but rather a mirror already broken and they are not linguistic symbols, they don’t mean to say anything, but rather, stand in reference to themselves alone.
The visual archive of media images about Bahrain that begins in the 1950’s with the first BBC transmissions shows the transformation of the imaginary about the place and the instability of representation:
The exotic images of Bahrain before oil are juxtaposed to the oil infrastructure and modernization, the sectarian unrest in the 1990’s, the arrival of Formula One, the tabloid images of Michael Jackson and finally, the near-apocalyptic footage of large scale demonstrations in 2011, all of which show historical moments and transformations creating an imaginary about Bahrain that hardly coincide with the moving flux of reality: The existence of objects hardly coincides with the structure of reality that is not merely an image but rather a larger superstructure of shared stories, perceptions and reality beliefs.
The exhibition curated by Noura Al-Sayeh and designed by Francesco Librizzi,Matilde Cassani and Stephano Tropea is a room-large installation in which visitors experience the contrast between images of Bahrain that offer windows into images of Bahrain against the five screens which offer real windows into different video feeds of Bahrain in its everyday setting, creating a juxtaposition between the video-art equivalent of still life paintings that yet occasionally move against the endless fabrication and proliferation of images that show how the imaginary is always partial.
Bahrain is not only offering windows into its present and imagined past but also a strong criticism about the interplay between both and atomizing any attempt at a grand narrative which is fueled by images alone.
Musicologist Hasan Hujairi writes in his essay “Bahrain’s transformed soundscapes”: “Such sounds may still exist, or may have never existed at all. However, in light of the events which took the region by storm – Bahrain notwithstanding – these sounds are no longer the same.” What sounds are those? The megaphones at the top of minarets? Construction sites? Political unrest?
Is Bahrain aware that in the age of the Internet the production of one’s own space is unavoidably intertwined with the images that proliferate in abundance? Hujairi concludes his short essay with: “Sound is fleeting by physical nature. By the time a word is uttered, it has already drifted off into the unknown. Yet what was found to happen in Bahrain since the events of 2011 is that much has been documented and transmitted through the Internet by the use of smart phone. Sound has ever since been immortalized digitally.”
Perhaps the exhibition wasn’t exactly architectural but up to a point, it is an acute reflection of how politics and architecture redeem each other in the sense that the political notion of public space is an essentially architectural one as in the space in which things appear in the world.
The essence of Bahrain that is transmitted through the screens seems a lot more fictional and ungraspable than the way in which images try to shape this reality; this is because visualizing something as abstract public space in practice may be one of the most difficult procedures, that of the panoramic view: “Of course, savoring the miniaturizing of a public space both deep and wide in painting is a far more complex pleasure than, say, daydreaming in historical museums over tabletop models of the scenography of the past.”
A panoramic view is always perplexing, complex and overarching; it requires viewing with different eyes all at the same time. But the question for the consumer of images remains open: “After all, a photograph is not an opinion. Or is it?”
 Ronald Beiner, “Our Relationship to Architecture as a Mode of Shared Citizenship: Some Arendtian Thoughts” in Techné, Vol. 9. http://scholar.lib.vt.edu/ejournals/SPT/v9n1/beiner.html
 Nikos Papastergiadis, Spatial Aesthetics: Art, Place and the Everyday(Amsterdam: Institute of Network Cultures, 2010): 26.
 Henri Lefebvre, The Production of Space (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 1991): 68-168.
 Jean Baudrillard, “The Evil Demon of Images” in The Continental Aesthetics Reader, ed. Clive Cazeaux (London: Routledge, 2000): 444.
 Sarah Kofman, “The Melancholy of Art” in Selected Writings (Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 2007): 210-211.
 Sandra Lehmann, Wirklichkeitsglaube und Überschreitung: Entwurf einer Metaphysik (Vienna, Austria: Turia + Kant, 2012): 35.
 Susan Sontag, “The Pleasure of the Image” in Where the Stress Falls (New York: Picador, 2001): 143.
 Susan Sontag, “A Photograph Is Not An Opinion. Or Is It?” in Where the Stress Falls (New York: Picador, 2001): 251.