PRINT May 2015

Kaelen Wilson-Goldie

Fouad Elkoury, The Picnic, 1979, ink-jet print, 15 3/4 × 25 5/8". From the series “Civil War,” 1977–86.

IN SONALLAH IBRAHIM’S NOVEL Beirut, Beirut (1984), an unnamed Egyptian writer leaves his home in Cairo and boards a plane for the Lebanese capital. The year is 1980, and the writer has hidden a manuscript in the lining of his luggage. Detecting a lull or possibly an end to the civil war that broke out in Lebanon five years earlier (it would continue for another decade), he is traveling to see a publisher. His manuscript is politically damning and sexually daring and nobody in the Arab world will touch it—except possibly in Beirut, which is historically known for publishing books that would have been censored or banned everywhere else in the region. As soon as the writer arrives, however, he learns that a cease-fire has collapsed, fighting has resumed, and the office of his potential publisher, Adnan al-Sabbagh, has been bombed.

Newly translated into English, Beirut, Beirut captures something crucial about its namesake city as a place where the ability to pursue radical ideas (democracy, the documentary turn) sits uncomfortably close to the probability that those ideas will be betrayed, corrupted, or diminished along the way. The novel sets the stage for the assassination of Egyptian president Anwar Sadat in 1981, and the following year, the Israeli invasion of Lebanon and the Sabra and Shatila massacre. It foreshadows the collapsing promise of secular left-wing political movements across the region (repressed by the authoritarian regimes of Egypt, Syria, and Iraq; reduced to a brittle revolutionary rhetoric in Algeria; divided by ideological drift and the largesse of competing patrons in the civil wars of Lebanon and Yemen), which continues to haunt the realm of arts and letters in the Arab world today. It also anticipates many of the provocative approaches to history that a handful of Lebanese artists, writers, filmmakers, and theater directors would later embrace, in the years after the civil war came to an end, as a means of addressing what happened in Lebanon during the conflict, how artists and intellectuals lost their place in the rebuilding of Beirut in the postwar period, and why it was difficult to speak of their experiences or establish a mode of critical reflection in the postwar political order.

As Ibrahim’s novel shifts into gear, we learn that the publisher, Sabbagh, is out of the country and won’t return to Beirut. The writer, nonetheless, decides to stay, moving into the apartment of his childhood friend Wadia. He soon becomes entangled in the lives of two women. The first is the wealthy, beautiful Lamia, his publisher’s wife; they quickly fall into an awkward affair, which is complicated by Lamia’s relationship with another woman. The second is Antoinette, a militant filmmaker who is working on a documentary about the war. She is involved with a former Palestinian fighter so traumatized by the massacre of Tel al-Zaatar, a refugee camp in East Beirut that was besieged and destroyed by right-wing factions in 1976, that he no longer hears or speaks.

Antoinette has the structure of her film down, but she is too close to the material, lost in its details, and is unable to finish it. The writer agrees to help. After watching the rough cut on an editing machine, they imagine a solution: What the film needs is a strong narrative to pull everything together and out of its own abyss. Much of the rest of Ibrahim’s novel is a shot-by-shot description of the film: the raw material and working notes of the voice-over the writer will compose. In place of a tidy story, Ibrahim offers a rush and tumble of fragments—the front pages of newspapers, flashing headlines, paragraphs circled in pen, title cards, interview footage, eyewitness testimonies, landscapes, old newsreels, scenes of protests, explosions, bodies, sandbags, devastated women and children, blood in the streets, politicians’ speeches, flags, billboards, bullet holes: a city in ruins.

The defining strategies of Ibrahim’s novel—the fragmenting of narrative, the conflation of fact with fiction, the emphasis on the anecdotal, the creation of minor characters to intersect with major events, imagining whole archives of material where credible explanations (as well as traps, false starts, and digressions) might be found—are also, curiously, those of the so-called Beirut School. The name may be artificial, but it serves as a shorthand for the group of artists who emerged in close collaboration with one another in the late 1990s, including Walid Raad and The Atlas Group (1989–2004), Akram Zaatari, and Rabih Mroué, and who have had a profound influence on a subsequent generation of artists, such as Marwa Arsanios, Ahmad Ghossein, and Rayyane Tabet. Those younger artists, in turn, have come around to question the kinds of histories their predecessors privileged, in part by returning to the era of Beirut, Beirut to tell another kind of story, one rooted in private consciousness and autobiographical contexts. If Ibrahim’s writer, a foreigner in Beirut but a brother in the Arab world, comes to Lebanon to understand the dissolution of the political Left in Egypt (unlike most states in the region, Lebanon lays everything out in the open, including his friend Wadia’s betrayal), artists working today often turn their attention beyond or away from Beirut—a purposeful distraction in order to see the city differently and at the same time more clearly.

Akram Zaatari, Letter to a Refusing Pilot, 2013, HD video, color, sound, 34 minutes.

FIFTEEN YEARS have passed since the Atlas Group first began appearing in public lectures, film festivals, and exhibitions, presenting the work of a peculiar “foundation” devoted to the recent history of Lebanon, including (but not limited to) its wars. A long-term project by Raad, the Atlas Group was primarily concerned with the collection and study of documents, which are said to have been found, donated, or acquired by the foundation but are in fact mostly produced anew, explicitly as artworks, by Raad, occasionally in collaboration with others, including the architect Tony Chakar and the poet Bilal Khbeiz. The Atlas Group appeared around the same time as the creation of such actual brick-and-mortar institutions as Ashkal Alwan (1993), the Arab Image Foundation (1997), and Beirut DC (1999). (These, in turn, coincided with the formation of other organizations and initiatives that have long been forgotten, among them the Ayloul Festival [1997–2001]; the rejuvenation of Theatre de Beyrouth by Lebanese novelist Elias Khoury, who ran the theater from 1993 to 1998; and Image/Quest, purportedly Lebanon’s first festival of experimental film and video, organized by Moukhtar Kocache and Rasha Salti in 1995.)

Like Ibrahim’s novel, and the film that is cut and recut within its pages, Raad’s project is, famously, a fiction. It makes deliberate and consequential use of fragmentary and incidental documentary sources, including newspaper clippings, press archives, and appropriated photographs; other elements presented, pictured, or referenced in the Atlas Group archive include notebooks, Super 8 films, Polaroids, the intact engines of exploded cars, casts of the craters left behind by car-bomb blasts, and a collection of bullets, detonation devices, and shrapnel that Raad collected from the streets of Beirut during his youth.

All of this material is activated again and again—in works whose dates and titles are constantly shifting (as if refusing to be pinned down by the market or any other institution)—by characters Raad has created, among them the gambling historian Fadl Fakhouri, whose notebooks, donated to the foundation, as the story goes, yield works such as “Notebook Volume 72: Missing Lebanese Wars,1996–2002,” 2002, a series of prints detailing the bets Fakhouri and his colleagues placed not on the winning horses at a Sunday racetrack but on the margin of error in the finish-line photographs of the race printed in local newspapers the next day. (The Beirut Hippodrome, as it happens, is located behind the National Museum and adjacent to a famous pine forest that was planted by the French, bombed by the Israelis, and closed to the public by the municipality of Beirut ever since the civil war.) Another character, Operator #17, is an intelligence agent who is distracted from his surveillance work on a daily basis by the sight of the sun dunking into the Mediterranean. To the Atlas Group archive he contributes I only wish that I could weep, 2002, a video composed of his commonplace but oddly moving sunset footage, which captures, almost incidentally, the bustling life of Beirut’s most popular public space, its seaside Corniche.

In a place where no official gestures of reconciliation followed the end of the civil war, where warlords were granted amnesty from prosecution and swiftly entered the sphere of politics as cabinet members and parliamentarians, where scores of politicians have been assassinated and none of the crimes have been solved, it is not insignificant that many of Raad’s characters are men—not unlike Ibrahim’s novelist—men who are meant to play an investigative role in the political landscape of Beirut, whose jobs require them to search for evidence and piece together a narrative.

Their constant failures lend Raad’s project, for all its sly parafictions, an air of sadness and melancholy. Miraculous beginnings/No, Illness is neither here nor there, 1993/2003, 2003, for example, is a sequence of seemingly random images said to be the result of Fakhouri’s shooting one frame of Super 8 film every time he thought the war was over. Yussef Nassar, another character and the key figure bridging “My neck is thinner than a hair,” 1996/2001, and I was overcome by a momentary panic at the thought that they were right, 2002/2005, 2005, is a tireless ammunitions expert and explosives investigator who has the trust of all parties in the civil war and moves freely throughout Beirut, a rare thing in a divided city. He is also a tragic figure; none of the crimes on which he works are ever solved, and he never manages to prevent a car bombing—he only ever arrives after the fact. Again, the emphasis is on narratives that remain loose ends, incomplete and unresolved, open by necessity.

The Atlas Group emerged from a specific moment in Beirut when a community of artists who were at odds with Lebanon’s political elite and outside of the country’s fine arts establishment began meeting for reading groups and discussion sessions, debating their work as well as the postwar order. The unity of purpose that came to exist among artists such as Raad, Zaatari, Mroué, Chakar, and Khbeiz—as well as Ziad Abillama, Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige, Lamia Joreige, Marwan Rechmaoui, Walid Sadek, Jayce Salloum, Lina Saneh, and Jalal Toufic—has been somewhat overplayed in historical accounts of the era. But together they initiated a long-term, far-ranging conversation about the mechanisms of history and the ability of contemporary art to challenge or subvert it, using the city itself as material, setting, character, and plot.

For example, the performances of Mroué, who has been making theater works in Lebanon since the early ’90s, often deal with excess violence left over after the war. He also uses real-life anecdotes in his pieces to consider the place of an actor’s body onstage in a century mediated by the proliferation of screens—a line of inquiry that also studies an individual’s relationship to the state as subject or citizen.Enacting the impossibility of narrative resolution, Mroué’s Looking for a Missing Employee, 2003, untangles the story of a man who disappeared from Lebanon’s Ministry of Finance in 1996. The artist never appears onstage but narrates the events from a seat in the audience as he riffles through newspaper clippings and notes. By the end of the performance, he has disappeared, like his subject. Who’s Afraid of Representation, 2005, delves into the account of a civil servant, Hassan Maamoun, who turned up for work one day and gunned down his colleagues. Like Looking for a Missing Employee, it is based on a true story and at the same time questions the very notion of truth. In the work’s dramatic climax, Mroué, in the role of Maamoun, insists that the motives of his crime were political, economic, physiological, and sectarian, before complaining that during the long investigation and trial, he was never asked, and never able, to reenact his crime.

If the contexts of these artists’ works traffic in the actual and the conceptual, their material often centers on the invisibility of historically fraught ideas and on the impossibility of representing contested sites or occupied territories. Several early works by Zaatari and by Hadjithomas and Joreige deal with places, conflicts, and phenomena that cannot be seen, such as the border zone with Israel (in Zaatari’s All Is Well on the Border, 1997) and the prison in Khiam run by the South Lebanon Army, Israel’s proxy in the civil war. Hadjithomas and Joreige’s documentary film Khiam, 2000, chronicles the prison through the stories and possessions of former inmates. In 2006, they revisited the subject for two series of photographs, “Landscapes of Khiam”and “War Trophies”; the next year, when they could access the actual site, which had been bombed, turned into a museum, and bombed again, they made the follow-up film Khiam 2000–2007. That tendency to revisit a subject and reconsider a work, to continuously revise a documentary—like Antoinette’s never-finished film in Beirut, Beirut—treats history as fluid rather than fixed. And yet in a very quiet way, Hadjithomas and Joreige’s project in Khiam is also a group portrait of would-be artists, political detainees who make things by hand—necklaces, worry beads, drawings, a chessboard, a comb—to maintain their sanity and withstand their confinement.

Later works by Zaatari, such as In This House, 2005, and Letter to a Refusing Pilot, 2013, both of which exist as single-channel videos and multimedia installations, are quite literal in their unearthing of actual buried histories. In This House sends Zaatari on a search for a letter he heard about from a journalist and former leftist fighter, who tells him that after occupying a house in South Lebanon, he and his colleagues wrote a letter to the owners, tucked it into an old mortar casing, and buried it in the backyard. The story turned out to be true. Letter to a Refusing Pilot concerns another tale Zaatari heard as a boy involving an Israeli pilot who refused to bomb a building in South Lebanon because, as an architect, he knew it was a school. (This also turned out to be true.) Twenty-Eight Nights and a Poem, 2015, Zaatari’s latest film, brings his long-term study of a very different archive, the commercial-photography studio of Hashem El Madani in the port city of Sidon, twenty-five miles south of Beirut, to a grand culmination, illustrating how images, technology, and the preternatural adaptability of a lovely old man move through the history of a sidelined—if still politically battered—Arab city.

Rania Stephan, Memories for a Private Eye, 2015, digital video, color and black-and-white, sound, 30 minutes 50 seconds.

A NUMBER OF ARTISTS working in the wake of these figures, most but not all of them younger—among them Arsanios, Ghossein, Tabet, Roy Dib, and Rania Stephan—have added to the discussion, taking it elsewhere, making it messier and even more personal. For them, the tragedies of civil war are not a direct brush with violence but the emotional and psychological consequences of, say, living with your bags packed, or enduring your father’s absence because there was no work at home if you weren’t a fighter or a criminal, or growing up without an operative feminism because the leftist movements in the region as well as your artistic forebears failed to privilege that kind of inquiry. Here, the documentary turn becomes testimonial; there is a new vulnerability to understanding the remembered and rebuilt armature of the city, and a new interest in topics less present in the previous generation’s work, including women’s rights and Arab nationalism. With this more overtly autobiographical approach, contemporary artists have fundamentally altered the forms and aesthetics often associated with the Beirut School.

Arsanios’s installation All About Acapulco, 2010, as well as earlier animations such as I’ve Heard Stories 1, 2008, and I’ve Heard 3 Stories, 2009, consider the failures of modernism in the form of neighbors’ gossipy tidbits interspersed with real evidence concerning the traumas that certain buildings in Beirut have witnessed and endured. In a more recent series of works based on her ongoing research into the long-running Cairo arts journal Al-Hilal (The Crescent), Arsanios pinpoints the nexus of feminism, class structure, and the Left as more pressing areas of concern than the botched historical record. In the 2014 video version of Have You Ever Killed a Bear or Becoming Jamila (it was produced as a performance in 2012), she broadens her view of Beirut—a city she has described as at times overwhelming in its imposition of a unique rhythm and style—to consider what lingers of the claims made for Arab nationalism, third world-solidarity, and international socialism.

Similarly mining the history of the arts in the Arab world, Stephan’s videos are also far more forthcoming than anything ever attributed to the Atlas Group in the ways they privilege the personal. In Lebanon/War, Stephan wanders around the new ruins left by the conflict with Israel in the summer of 2006, interviewing the people she meets to learn what they’ve gone through. In Memories for a Private Eye, 2015, she turns to film noir and the ubiquity of genre conventions in detective fiction to deal with the death of her mother due to a car-bomb explosion in Beirut. She can’t talk about this tragedy or directly address it, but she can make a beautiful and strange pastiche of film fragments (including footage from videos shot in the ’80s and interviews with her father) that lets the viewer understand not simply that something awful happened but also how it felt and how it lingers.Dib’s films, such as A Spectacle of Privacy, 2014, depart further still from the earlier generation of contemporary artists, exploring the ways in which local and regional politics are inscribed onto the bodies of male lovers through intimate bedroom scenes shot in black-and-white.

Much of this recent art focuses on not only the personal devastation of war but that of its supposed epilogue, urban renewal: a central theme of Tabet’s Colosse aux pieds d’argile (Colossus with Feet of Clay), 2015—an installation of elements reclaimed from a destroyed nineteenth-century house and the construction site where Beirut’s tallest building is now rising in its place above the city. Whereas works from the ’90s such as Abillama’s Systeme Full Fill, 1996, used the physical remnants of conflict scattered throughout the city to aggressively critique the failures of Lebanon’s postwar political discourse, Colosse aux pieds d’argile turns attention to the ruthless economic development and architectural destruction that followed (largely without critical commentary). This turn toward financial structures is also accompanied by a shift away from Beirut itself and toward the state’s global imbrications: The multiple sculptures, drawings, and installations associated with Tabet’s long-term project on tapLine, an oil pipeline that once ran from Saudi Arabia to Sidon, is significant in both its divergence from the subject of Beirut and its consideration of Lebanon’s place in the wider region (for example, the dependence of its middle class on Gulf economies).

Ghossein’s films leave Beirut altogether to consider the strange, beautiful, and largely unexplored political, physical, and emotional topography of South Lebanon. Like Tabet, Ghossein delves into stories of economic migration that have remained otherwise untold, in part because they are often so politically paradoxical. In My Father Is Still a Communist, 2011, his father’s absence throughout the artist’s childhood is undercut by Ghossein’s growing realization that this parent, whom he had lionized as a great Communist fighter, was in fact engaged in the most base transaction of capital, as a guest worker in Saudi Arabia trying to support his wife and family back home. The Fourth Stage, 2015, goes further still. Its starting point is also a childhood memory: the artist’s travels around southern Lebanon one summer with a working magician. From there, Ghossein follows a bizarre and quizzical path through contemporary forms of Hezbollah-inspired celebration and commemoration—from vaguely fascist public sculptures to overdone, antiseptic cakes. There is no place for the magician’s trade in this new world, where everything is technical, regimented, produced for the cause.

These are works that no longer pose the historian’s question, What happened here? (Or, to quote from a phrase appearing again and again on title cards in the documentary within Beirut, Beirut: what happened to lebanon?) Instead, in navigating a region’s changing rituals of enchantment and disenchantment, they ask, What have we become? The query may be a more painful one, but it forces us to confront the ways in which “history” works on the self—how history is not confined to political or military events but permeates the very core of subjective experience, in all its contingency.

Marwa Arsanios, Have You Ever Killed a Bear or Becoming Jamila, 2014, digital video, color, sound, 25 minutes.

LEBANON IS NOT ALONE in having a history deficit. Almost all countries that have succumbed to perpetual civil war undergo episodes of sociocultural amnesia and erasure, falling back on the most vapid and superficial things that pop culture and late capitalism can offer. For more than twenty years, Lebanon’s Ministry of Education has been trying to establish a narrative for teaching children the highly contested history of their country in school. Political factors have blocked the initiative at every turn, to the extent that students’ syllabi still end at the moment of Lebanon’s independence in 1943. (The filmmaker Hady Zaccak captures this conundrum in his accomplished but wholly depressing documentary A History Lesson, made for Al Jazeera in 2010.)

To help fill this void, three great historians have offered up their work: Kamal Salibi, who passed away four years ago and who, in addition to more academic tomes including The Modern History of Lebanon (1965), wrote such popular, tenderhearted books as A House of Many Mansions (1988); Samir Kassir, with his magisterial 2004 Beirut (he was assassinated in 2005); and Fawwaz Traboulsi, a professor at the American University of Beirut, where he is currently formulating new ways of addressing the old subject of class structure in the Arab world. Indeed, it’s always tempting to regard Beirut as a laboratory for ongoing sociopolitical experiments of one kind or another. And to historicize the work that artists have been doing here since the ’90s has become an urgent critical task if for no other reason than to liberate them (as well as their predecessors and successors) from the weight of the civil war as their sole subject. (Among other things, the start of such a project has made it possible to return to the ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s photographs of Fouad Elkoury with fresh eyes.)

Artists may indeed be the best historians in and of Beirut, in no small part because they break all the rules of grand narrative storytelling, and their attention strays away from boldface political headlines to the details and cluttered layers of daily living. IN THE GEOGRAPHIC REGION THAT IS THE SOUTH, reads the opening intertitle of Ghossein’s The Fourth Stage, THINGS ARE OPEN TO MULTIPLE MEANINGS. . . . THE PAST NEVER PRECEDES THE PRESENT. . . . TIME PASSES BUT EVENTS FOLLOW NO SEQUENCE.

Undercutting any heroic plot, this temporality creates another kind of space for telling and for reception. Near the conclusion of Beirut, Beirut, its main characters attend a concert at the American University, Antoinette checking her gun before entering the concert hall. We are privy to one of the only moments in the novel when the writer shows any emotion: “I was swept away by a feeling of elation,” he says, and then “the pent-up dam burst”; he weeps throughout the rest of the performance. Afterward, “We had barely stepped out onto the street when we heard the sound of gunfire nearby.” In this scene, art is a transformative suspension from the difficult presentness of history. But it is also a way—albeit messy, incomplete, and suffused with the nostalgia of personal memory—in which to access that history, in all its shifting and future forms.

Kaelen Wilson-Goldie is a critic based in Beirut.