PRINT October 2006

Walid Raad and Walid Sadek

I. This, too, must be repeated, even if it has become today the dominant abstraction disseminated in the Western and Arab popular press: Between July 12 and August 13, 2006, the so-called beginning and end of this most recent and ongoing Middle Eastern crisis, more than one thousand civilians died. Hundreds of soldiers died. Thousands of civilians were injured. Hundreds of thousands were displaced. Millions were scared. Countless were traumatized. Billions of dollars were lost. Billions of dollars were made.

Lebanon yet again in the summer of ’06, echoing the spring of ’96, the summer of ’93, the never-to-be-forgotten summer of ’82, and every other invasion, skirmish, clash, incursion, and battle between Israel and Lebanon over the past sixty years.

Surely we have all realized by now that while Lebanese blood is cheaper in the eyes of North American, European, Asian, and Arab policy makers than Israeli blood, it remains significantly more valuable than Palestinian blood, which itself is seemingly more valuable than Iraqi blood, which is itself seemingly more valuable than Afghan blood, which is itself seemingly more valuable than Somali blood, which is itself seemingly more valuable than the blood of millions of Arabs and Africans who have yet to be endowed by these policy makers with faces, veins, psychic lives, languages, feelings, names, memories, histories, and traditions.2

II. “Equally evil,” I heard a progressive-or-was-it-conservative acquaintance say of Hezbollah and the Israeli Army. Equally evil: the killing of 1,187 Lebanese civilians and the killing of 43 Israeli civilians. Equally evil: the killing of between 80 and 530 Hezbollah soldiers and the killing of 119 Israeli soldiers. Equally evil: the destruction of hundreds of cars, dozens of roads, thousands of trees, 2,000 homes and other properties in Israel3 and the destruction of 15,000 houses and homes in Dahiya alone (and 30,000 throughout Lebanon), 400 miles of roads, 150 bridges and interchanges (1 in 4 in the country),4 all national airports, electrical power plants, food-industry factories, warehouses, dams, television and radio stations, hospitals, ambulances, civil defense centers, schools, mosques, churches, communication networks, and 85 miles of seacoast after 15,000 tons of heavy fuel oil spilled onto Lebanon’s coast when Israel bombed the Jiyeh power station, causing the worst ecological crisis in Lebanon’s history.5 Equally evil: a Katyusha rocket filled with hundreds of tiny metal ball bearings and carrying a 22–220-pound warhead, and Popeyes, Nimrods, Delilahs, Spices, NTDs, MSOVs, and other devices with their 22–5,000-pound warheads. (While we are on the topic, did the same attentive analysts who counted and broadcast to the world the exact number of Katyushas hitting Israel every day also count and broadcast the exact number of explosive items dropped daily by Israel on Lebanon? Four thousand, in case you were wondering.)6 As my friend Lucien remarked, surely Anderson Cooper, who on CNN bravely disassembled Syrianor Iranian-supplied Katyushas to reveal the deadly metal ball bearings inside,7 could have taken the time to disassemble American-supplied M483A1 Dual Purpose Improved Conventional Munitions, or the American-supplied M26 cluster bombs to reveal the 644 M77 submunitions packed inside that devastated the Lebanese village of Blida on July 19, 2006.

III. Please try to understand me when I say this is not a call for evenhandedness. I am not asking that the American, European, or Arab mainstream press report in an impartial manner on this Middle Eastern knot. I have long ago disabused myself of this dominant fiction of impartiality, even as I thanklessly catalogue bias in this or that article, this or that statement, this or that clip; even as I continue to unpack ideological interest in everything spoken, written, imaged, and believed; even as I risk dying from laughter as I force myself (every time for the last time) to listen to NPR and the BBC, not to mention all the major American, French, British, and Arab networks, let alone CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, LBC, New TV, Al-Manar, or Al Jazeera. I almost did die from laughter in the past few weeks listening to Olmert, Peretz, Livni, Nasrallah, Seniora, Bush, Rice, Annan, Putin, Chirac, and to shameless Egyptian, Syrian, Lebanese, Jordanian, Palestinian, and other Arab leaders. This near-death experience reminded me of the essayist and artist Jalal Toufic, who writes:

All I ask of this world, to which I have already given three books, is that it become less laughable, so that I would be able to laugh again without dying of it. And that it does this soon, before my somberness becomes second nature. This era has made me somber not only through all the barbarisms and genocides it has perpetuated, but also through being so laughable. Even in this period of the utmost sadness for an Arab in general, and an Iraqi in specific, I fear dying of laughter more than of melancholic suicide, and thus I am more prone to relinquish my guard when it comes to being sad than to laughing at laughable phenomena.8

IV. Surely the Lebanese brought this upon themselves, I heard the same progressive-or-was-it-conservative voice say. Israel was only obliging, doing for the Lebanese what they would not do themselves: kill, decapitate, obliterate, incapacitate, cripple, destroy, neutralize, weaken, restrict, contain (I lost track of every verb used by Olmert, Peretz, Livni, Bush, Blair, and Rice and their generals to characterize this operation’s impact) Hezbollah. As if Hezbollah were some mole to be surgically removed from the Lebanese body. As if Hezbollah was not part and parcel of Lebanon’s political, social, cultural, and economic life. As if Hezbollah does not represent a million of Lebanon’s residents. For anyone still confused about this, please revisit the massive March 8, 2005, demonstration in downtown Beirut by Hezbollah and its allies (to be countered by the even larger crowd of March 14, 2005) that clearly demonstrated for anyone who still doubted it that Hezbollah, like its Lebanese counterparts, is also a vital political organ. Remove it and the whole body collapses. You cannot wish a million people away. Or can you? Oh yes, I almost forgot what many of us still suppose: that they, the Shiites of Lebanon—these men and women with dubious national allegiance—must all be ideological dupes, fooled by Iran and Syria, their judgment clouded by socioeconomic incentives, or better yet, by otherworldly considerations (that classic and weighty model of ideology that has yet to be abandoned by progressives and conservatives alike). Yes, that is right. That must be it.

V. A few of the false choices some of us face:

Unequivocal and publicly expressed support of the National Islamic Resistance.
Unequivocal and publicly expressed support of the National Islamic Resistance with reservations expressed privately, among those attuned to the complexity of Lebanese political life. (This category—those attuned to the complexity of Lebanese political life—remains without definition; or rather, its definitions are always postponed, altered arbitrarily it seems, given the class, race, gender, sexual orientation, religion, ethnicity, language, and fashion sense of those seeking membership.)
Publicly expressed support of the National Islamic Resistance with reservations expressed publicly about the timing and motives of Hezbollah’s capture of two Israeli soldiers, and the party’s unilateral decision to drag the country into a war it was not prepared for.
Publicly expressed support of the National Islamic Resistance, with reservations expressed publicly about the loss of Lebanese and Israeli civilian life, even as one does not privately give a damn about Israeli civilians given that they are all right-wing, or left-wing-on-every-other-issue-except-Palestine, racists-nouveaux-riches-Soviet-Union-fleeing, single-party-voting, trees-in-Israel-buying-Brooklyn-born-and-residing, Palestinian-baby-killers, nuke-’em-all-chanting, messianic, holier-than-thou, intent-on-ruling-the-world-expansionist-settler-Zionists anyway.
Unequivocal and publicly expressed support for Israel.
Unequivocal and publicly expressed support of Israel with reservations expressed privately, among those attuned to the complexity of Israeli political life and Jewish life in general. (This category—those attuned to the complexity of Israeli political life and Jewish life in general—remains without definition; or rather, its definitions are always postponed, altered arbitrarily it seems, given the class, race, gender, sexual orientation, religion, ethnicity, language, and fashion sense of those seeking membership.)
Unequivocal and publicly expressed support of Israel with reservations expressed publicly about Israel’s continued occupation of Lebanese and Palestinian land, the root cause of much of this nonsense, and an Israeli policy hijacked by generals’ overconfidence in Israeli military might.
Publicly expressed support for Israel with reservations expressed publicly about the high price paid by civilians in this conflict, even as privately one does not give a damn about Lebanese civilians since every Lebanese (with the exception of fine-cultured, Western-leaning, skiing-in-the-morning-swimming-in-the-afternoon, late-night-partying, designer-clad, Paris–New York–Berlin–London–São Paolo–hopping, French-speaking-middle-class, upper-middle-class, upper-class, and obscenely wealthy Christians, Sunnis, and Druze), every resident of south Lebanon and the southern suburbs is a martyr-at-heart, a Saddamlovin’-al-Qaeda-financing, seeker-of-virgins-in-heaven, Holocaust-denier, Ahmadinejad-lovin’, rabbitlike breeder of yet more anti-Semitic terrorists, suicide bombers, Hizbozos who all deserve to die anyway.

VI. I again follow Toufic, who writes:

While social scientists, whether sociologists, economists, etc., can provide us with more or less convincing reasons, and mystifiers can grossly nonplus us, valid literature and art provide us with intelligent and subtle incomprehension. One of the main troubles with the world is that, unlike art and literature, it allows only for the gross alternative: understanding/incomprehension. Contrariwise, art and literature do not provide us with the illusion of comprehending, of grasping, but allow us to keenly not understand, intimating to us that the alternative is not between comprehension and incomprehension, but between incomprehension in a gross manner and while expecting comprehension; and incomprehension in an intelligent and subtle manner. 9

Given what I have written so far, I suppose that I can benefit from reading this quotation one more time, and from heeding its call for “incomprehension in an intelligent and subtle manner.”

VII. Hot wars and cold wars. What had some artists, scholars, and writers, among others, noted time and again in their works of the past fifteen years? Had they not insisted—despite the officially sanctioned endings of the wars in Lebanon in the early ’90s, despite the celebratory rebuilding of downtown Beirut, despite the hundreds of gushing articles proclaiming Lebanon’s phoenixlike rise and cosmopolitanism—that Lebanon was in fact in the grip of a cold war? Did they not speak of a militarized south, north, east, and west? Of the rhetoric and logic of the hot wars as still shaping every aspect of contemporary life? Of evident and potentially explosive contradictions everywhere in Lebanon’s political, cultural, economic, and social landscape?

Why were so many visual artists, filmmakers, and writers speaking of, writing about, imaging, and performing surpassing disasters, latency, hysterical symptoms, sloth, the repressed, and the withdrawn?10 Did they not already produce the images of cities and villages in ruins even when those cities and villages had been rebuilt? Did they not already speak of, write about, image, and perform the destruction evident today in Haret Hreik, Dahiya, Khiyam, Ainata, Srifa, Qana, Aita al-Shaab, and Rmeish?

Or maybe we can also say that these artists, writers, sociologists, poets, journalists, filmmakers, writers, and architects have seen nothing in Haret Hreik, Khiyam, Aita al-Shaab, Rmeish, Tyre, Sidon, Ainata, Srifa, Qana, Marjayoun, and dozens of villages in south Lebanon. Surely we can say this, so long as this “I have seen nothing” is consistent with the Japanese man’s insistence in the beginning of Hiroshima mon amour that his well-meaning and well-informed French lover had seen nothing in Hiroshima, despite the museums and monuments she had visited there, despite the books and films she had consulted, despite the testimonies she had heard.11

VIII. A Question to Walid Sadek

The last few weeks of summer brought to mind a work by Walid Sadek in which the artist is represented in the arms of Sheik Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, tightly clutched to the leader’s body. It is not clear whether the larger-than-life Nasrallah is hugging or strangling the smaller-than-life Sadek; it is not clear whether Sadek relishes this rapprochement or whether he is suffocating as a result. (The image’s name, Better Left Untitled, 2000, is of no help in this regard.) As much as the work appears to be expressive and prognostic, eerily foreshadowing the unfolding political events of the past few years, I am reluctant to read it allegorically, and I am tempted instead to read it literally, as a real-life enlarged photograph of a fan in the arms of his idol—an impossible proposition that is made all the more evident by the crude digital insertion of Sadek into Nasrallah’s arms.

This past August, I asked Sadek to reflect again on some of the ideas, forms, feelings, and experiences that motivated the work’s production. Sadek replied:

I agree with your reluctance to read it allegorically and would like to propose it as an image that wishes itself to be read metonymically. In other words, it is an image made of contiguity. This is true at the level of visual construction as well as at the level of the desire that motivated its making. As I recall, this image was exhibited a few months after Hezbollah succeeded in forcing the occupying Israeli army to retreat from south Lebanon, an event that many, myself included, regarded with mixed feelings. For although it was a remarkable accomplishment against a feared Israeli army, I questioned, even doubted, the ability if not the willingness of Hezbollah to promote the liberation of south Lebanon as a key moment, an event that would begin the implementation of the Taif accord and thus the construction of the deferred second Lebanese Republic. I do recognize that Hezbollah cannot be solely blamed for that deferral. The other political and sectarian factions in Lebanon were certainly not so eager, at the time, to embark on a project of nation-state building. (It would also be historically incorrect not to mention the role played by the Syrian Baath regime in frustrating any fledgling attempt in this regard.) Nevertheless, the victory of Hezbollah marked a moment when it seemed that the party and its Shiite constituency were at last capable of negotiating their role and taking active part in an inter-Lebanese settlement that might beget, in turn, a central state and a common national imaginary, however fragile and discontinuous.

To return to this image six years after its making is to recognize it as a contribution to a national imagery, and by extension, imaginary. And yet because that imaginary could not be summoned unaffected by real social and political problems, this image can be said to perform rather than represent the contiguity of an uneasy embrace. If I may quickly recall the work of Roman Jakobson, the metonymic pole in the construction of language employs combination and contexture.12 As I view that image again, it is quite obvious that its visual construction wishes for the gestures of combination and contexture. It is a visual concoction of what I had wished to be a possible group portrait.

Stated in nonformal terms, this image wishes for an approach, my approach, to what had seemed until then to be a hermetic party structure and ideology and an urban sprawl, known generically as the southern suburb of Beirut, already organized and managed by Hezbollah as a self-sufficient enclave, not to say ghetto. That southern suburb was always presented by its inhabitants as proud and was seen as threateningly expansive by those living outside it. In both respects it stood as the obverse of the expansive openness of the reconstructed central district of Beirut locally known, after the private contracting company hired for the task of reconstruction, as Solidere. The liberation of the south on May 25, 2000, must have seemed then like an opportunity to open the gates of that urban and ideological enclave from within. Certainly the image under consideration entertained that possibility, if only as of clumsy (and perhaps slapstick) but necessary contiguity.13

That was then. The southern suburb is today in ruin. One would like to approach and mourn, to stand next to flattened buildings and insist that they were, not long ago, apartments with addresses and telephone numbers. And although the work of mourning proceeds in devious ways, it is nevertheless noticeable that this suburb is preoccupied with the promise of vengeance. Large red banners, printed with statements naming the United States as Israel’s weapons provider and implicating it in the surrounding devastation, hang over the remains of neighborhoods. It is an accusation accepted as axiomatic by most Lebanese. Yet the pride and legitimate anger that fuels those banners notwithstanding, it must be said that they also tax the internal Lebanese sociality, which is already strained by the war. These banners postpone mourning. They even demean grieving. They claim that in the face of a murderous Israeli war machine, we cannot shed tears, for that would be a form of capitulation. What these banners also do is colonize the southern suburb. They once again foreground the silence of the enclave before the hum of solacing. They insist on the unification of speech acts and look dubiously upon the digressions of grief. In other words, these banners make contiguity impossible.

Walid Raad is a New York–based artist and an associate professor in the School of Art at Cooper Union, New York.

Walid Sadek is an artist and writer based in Beirut.


1. On July 21, 2006, after spending a few weeks in Lebanon as part of our annual summer stay, and as a consequence of the worsening situation there, my family and I were evacuated on board the USS Nashville.

2. With regard to Iraq, an average of 110 Iraqis died every day in the month of July 2006. See Edward Wong and Damien Cave, “Number of Civilian Deaths Highest in July, Iraqis Say,” the New York Times, August 16, 2006.

3. Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs, “Assessing the Environmental Costs of the War in the North,” August 27, 2006,

4. Karby Leggett, “Fractured Land: Vast Rebuilding Job Looms in Lebanon; It, Too, Is Political,” the Wall Street Journal, August 16, 2006.

5. See Thanassis Cambanis and Rana Fil, “Weeks of Bombing Leave Nation in Ruins,” Boston Globe, August 5, 2006. See also Lauren Frayer, “Lebanon’s Month-Old Oil Slick Stinks,” the Washington Post, August 22, 2006,

6. Neil MacDonald, “Unexploded Bombs Add to Lebanese Woes,” Financial Times, August 16, 2006.

7. “Getting Personal with Katyusha Rockets,” Anderson Cooper, 360° Blog, July 26, 2006, See also Human Rights Watch, “Israeli Cluster Munitions Hit Civilians in Lebanon,”

8. Jalal Toufic, “If You Prick Us Do We Not Bleed? No,” Forthcoming, Berkeley, CA: Atelos, 2000: 44.

9. Kaelen Wilson-Goldie, “Interview with Jalal Toufic,” in Towards a Foreign Likeness Bent: Translation, Sausalito, CA: Duration Press, 2005,, p. 92.

10. I am thinking here of, among others, Ziad Abillama, Fadi Abdullah, Tony Chakar, Khalil Joreige, Lamia Joreige, Joana Hadjithomas, Bilal Khbeiz, Michel Lasserre, Rabih Mroueh, Marwan Richmaoui, Ghassan Salhab, Walid Sadek, Lina Saneh, Jalal Toufic, Paola Yacoub, and Akram Zaatari. It seems that visions of 1982 had been in the air lately: Zaatari recently revisited the 1982 invasion in his works This Day, 2003, and Saida, June 6, 1982, 2004. What had he anticipated as he took another look at diary entries and photographs produced in 1982, during another Israeli invasion of Lebanon? Did the six plumes of smoke represented in his composite photograph foreshadow the intensity of the 2006 bombing campaign? No. Were they meant to signify a city haunted by such past explosions? No, again. Why did Zaatari’s 1982 photograph take twenty-four years to develop?

11. Toufic has written extensively on this “you have seen nothing in Hiroshima.” Please consult his “Forthcoming,” Forthcoming, pp. 46–75.

12. Roman Jakobson, “Two Aspects of Language and Two Types of Aphasic Disturbances,” in Selected Writings II, Word and Language, Mouton, The Hague, 1971.

13. I suppose that this clumsiness must be said to stand on one level as an index of my sectarian and ideological heritage, which, although I have persistently analyzed and defamiliarized it in my work, is never completely shed—at least not within the Lebanon-scape of political and sectarian forced belongingness. But I suppose as well that contiguity is that which is never made available to us within this Lebanon-scape, for it might incur the unforeseeable incidences born of contiguity and, perhaps, of overlapping.