PRINT October/November 2020


The Sursock Museum, Beirut, August 2020. Photo: Rowina Bou Harb.

IN THE SUMMER OF 551, a massive earthquake struck the Eastern Mediterranean. It was late in the reign of the Roman emperor Justinian I. Beirut at the time was famous for its law school. The city had already been settled for thousands of years. It had been destroyed and rebuilt several times over by ransacking armies who prized the maritime possibilities of its port. The quake of 551 triggered a fire, a landslide, and a devastating tsunami, which pulled back the sea and then pounded the coast. Beirut was leveled. More than thirty thousand people are thought to have died. The city remained in ruins for centuries.

Lebanon today lies along three major seismic fault lines. They run nearly parallel, from north to south: one right down the middle of the country, one just off the coast, and one under an eastern mountain range. Since 551, there have been several more earthquakes, including one in 1759, which killed forty thousand people, and another in 1956, where innumerable roadways and dwellings were wiped out. By all scientific accounts, Beirut can expect another big one soon.

On August 4, when a huge explosion rocked the city, many people, including me, were utterly convinced that the time had come for Beirut to be swallowed back into the earth by the cataclysmic quake it was due. The ground shook, buildings rattled, glass shattered. It seemed like the final, fatal break in an ugly, disorienting year of unnatural cracks and fissures. In political if not geological terms, Lebanon was already flailing about in a multilayered clusterfuck of economic collapse, popular uprising, and pandemic fallout.

All of the illusions about the country’s resilience, sophistication, and joie de vivre had fallen away. The place was being run by some half a dozen sectarian leaders, most of them former warlords, and by the clientelist networks they had sunk, like teeth, into the public administration and the army. All of them—the high officials, the petty bureaucrats—were kleptocratic and corrupt. For thirty years, since the end of Lebanon’s civil war, they had enriched only themselves, skimming off the top, taking kickbacks, undermining public works and utilities, and concealing chronic underdevelopment with a thick sheen of bling while shoving ordinary people into an ever more impoverished and ramshackle existence.

Anti-government protesters occupy a blast-damaged building, Beirut, August 8, 2020. Photo: Baris Dogrusoz.

The mood of al-thawra—the revolution, or protest movement, that broke out last fall—was notably dark, sometimes utopian but more frequently nihilistic. Some people banged on pots and pans, but many others wore full gas masks, helmets, and construction gloves to break apart building facades and throw things at soldiers. The ruling elites, known derogatorily as al-sulta, meaning “those who hold power or authority,” could not have cared less. Protesters swore at them (“fuckthasulta”) and cursed the mother of a particularly odious cabinet minister in viciously crude language. In turn, the security forces pummeled demonstrators with tear-gas canisters, rubber bullets, and birdshot. The state used Covid-19 restrictions to crush the people’s spirit of solidarity, criticism, and dissent. Meanwhile, the economy seized up, the government defaulted on its debt, banks enacted capital controls (without any legal framework), and the currency tumbled by more than 80 percent, making salaries worthless and cutting people off from their own savings.

By summer, according to the Financial Times’ David Gardner, Lebanon had “an economy shrinking so fast it’s almost impossible to measure. . . . Countries aren’t supposed to be able to go bankrupt—Lebanon has.” The blast on August 4, which was first reported to be an assassination attempt or an Israeli air strike but turned out to be an industrial accident caused by criminal negligence, was, in Gardner’s crisp phrasing, “the absolute epitome of a dysfunctional state run by people with absolutely zero regard for public welfare, public security, or public goods. All of that adds up to a country well on its way to becoming a failed state.”

Those of us who initially thought the explosion was an earthquake? We were lucky. We could think in that moment. We hadn’t been thrown several feet in the air or slammed into a wall or hairpinned over a balustrade or stabbed in the face by shards of flying glass. We hadn’t been crushed in our cars or buried in our homes. We didn’t need four hundred stitches and two prosthetic elbows and a lifetime of physical rehabilitation. Our backs hadn’t been pierced by so much glass that our spleens exploded. No. We had some capacity to reason, to match awful bodily sensations to grim historical facts.

But once we learned the real cause of what happened, it almost seemed that an earthquake would have been preferable. It could have been measured and analyzed as so much seismological data. Instead, we’re left with what sounds like the stupidest story ever. An embarrassingly inept government knowingly left a 2,750-ton cache of highly explosive ammonium nitrate to sit for six years in a poorly maintained warehouse on the waterfront, in the city’s historic core, and one day it just blew sky-high—wrecking neighborhoods, leveling hospitals, destroying lives. Nearly two hundred people were dead, six thousand wounded, and three hundred thousand left homeless in a minute. It’s likely we’ll never know exactly what happened, or why, let alone see anyone held accountable.

Mounira Al Solh in Sfeir-Semler Gallery, Beirut, August 2020.

“WHAT ARE THE ARTISTS GOING TO SAY?” asks the writer Lina Mounzer, eyes smiling over a surgical mask before answering her own question: “Who gives a shit!” It’s two and a half weeks after the blast and we have finagled our way past the guards and onto the campus of the American University of Beirut, which, in a break from the usual protocol, whether because of pandemic lockdown or post-explosion emergency law (who knows which?), is currently closed to all but essential staff. We’re sitting on a bench overlooking the deep blue sea, and Mounzer is telling me a story from the early days of the revolution, back in October 2019, when groups of artists and writers started coming together under the rubric of “cultural work.” One of the earliest such meetings was held in a garden downtown near a lonely public sculpture by Saloua Raouda Choucair. There was some initial excitement about what insights artists might offer into the demonstrations that had overwhelmed the country, followed by intense, even brutal debate over whether artists really had any role at all in a true revolution, in true class struggle.

At that October meeting, Mounzer recalls, “We were there to be bodies in the crowd. The priority was to go out and stand together and chant.” She pauses. “It was so beautiful, and it’s so emotional. I can’t believe we fucking lost that,” she says, meaning the fight to change the system that rules the country. But the protests had broken all the rules governing what could be said about the system; it was the first time such widespread disgust had so easily surpassed the usual dismissal that the Lebanese are too factional and bourgeois to demand real change. “Now we know it’s possible.” After those discussions, groups like Amileen wa Amilaat (the masculine and feminine forms of the word for “workers” in Arabic) and Mihaniyeen wa Mihaniyaat (the masculine and feminine forms of the word for “vocations,” or, more accurately, “those with vocations”) kept the momentum going, tapping into long-buried histories of how collective action—by unions, trade syndicates, even neighborhood associations and community organizations working to protect renters’ rights—had been systematically suppressed by Lebanon’s postwar ruling elite to the detriment of all sectors of public life, from the visual and performing arts (which were marginalized) to public schools (which were starved of funds and resources).

Mounzer and I were talking about priorities because the explosion had created fresh urgency around the difficult questions artists were already wrestling with. The arts were incredibly hard hit by the blast. Both the National and Sursock Museums sustained major structural damage. Several galleries were completely destroyed. Artists lost their studios, materials, and archives. Designers saw their showrooms and ateliers smashed to bits. Arts organizations already struggling to survive financially and politically were crippled by destruction they could ill afford to repair. And that grim list doesn’t even begin to reckon with the unthinkable loss of so many of the people who worked for them, who made things happen on a day-to-day basis, people who were killed or maimed or reduced to the misery of having no money to fix things and no second passport on which to leave.

Mina Image Center elevator, Beirut, August 2020. Photo: Baris Dogrusoz.

The blast was followed by a rush to send money—so many solidarity funds and emergency grants and GoFundMe campaigns—but it wasn’t enough. And there were those priorities to think about. Because what, after all, is the point of restoring a museum or an art center, which can’t even open in a pandemic, when so many people who would never go to those spaces anyway need food, shelter, and medical care? When what people really need is an end to the political order that has ruined their ability to sleep peacefully through the night and plan a future? When the situation is so dire that a petition for Lebanon to be recolonized by France is actually taken seriously and signed by more than sixty thousand people?

More to the point, as inspiring as the early relief efforts were, the fundraising campaigns were also troublingly familiar to people in the cultural sectors of this region, which have been on the receiving end of similar schemes for a good thirty years, from the start of the disaster-capitalist ’90s through the war in Lebanon in 2006 and the long sad story of the Arab Spring. It seems reasonable at this point to ask if that kind of funding ever made arts organizations more sustainable, democracy more attainable, or intellectuals better able to dismantle a lousy regime and construct an alternative. Those funds never brought accountability or justice. To my cynical eyes, that kind of emergency grant-making is a patch, a way of bringing things back to normal, restoring the status quo—which means keeping the sulta in place. If it has accomplished nothing else, the revolution has at least created the time and space to ask constantly and insistently: Where do you stand in relation to that power? “Disasters are irruptions in the system,” Mounzer tells me. “It’s not about dealing with the system but dismantling it. And acknowledging that everything good in this place is built on the back of someone else’s suffering.”

What, after all, is the point of restoring a museum or an art center when what people really need is an end to the political order?

The day before meeting Mounzer, I caught up with Edwin Nasr, a young writer who has a penchant for posing tough questions. In conversation and on social media, he’d been lobbing a number of prickly queries about the tactfulness of fundraising campaigns and the complicity of people—like him, like me, like us—involved in the arts: Which artists, writers, dealers, and designers were maintaining connections to some of the most egregious architects of Lebanon’s economic collapse? Hadn’t numerous arts enterprises been responsible for aggressively moving in and gentrifying the neighborhoods most devastated by the blast, leaving the largely working-class inhabitants of those areas to live precariously even before disaster struck? Why was an expat bar owner asking for a ludicrous amount of money to support new projects in Lebanon? Nasr was articulating his questions carefully, not in the style of bombastic callout culture, but rather in the spirit of uncompromising self-critique.

Beirut was supposedly still under a Covid-19 lockdown. We had nowhere to go, so Nasr and I walked in endless circles around Hamra, which may have put him in a reflective mood. During the revolution and immediately after the blast, there had been a lot of talk around town about resentment, a backlash against those Beirut-based arts initiatives whose organizers were fluent in English, took loads of foreign funding, and seemed entirely comfortable operating within a neoliberal order. So many of the city’s arts organizations that were most visible abroad had started out in extreme opposition to the government, he reminded me. But maybe they hadn’t yet stopped to consider the kind of power they themselves had reproduced.

Sirine Fattouh, Fida Bizri, and Sylvie Ballyot’s children’s art workshop, Beirut, August 19, 2020. Photo: Sirine Fattouh.

The months to come might be the time for that. Already, efforts on the ground were shifting. Ashkal Alwan, where windows were shattered and even the pipes had burst, was offering spaces to artists who had lost their studios. The organization was also recalibrating the next edition of its Home Workspace Program toward vocational training—survival skills for the economic apocalypse. The artist Sirine Fattouh organized a lovely open-ended workshop for the kids in her neighborhood who were traumatized by the explosion. Joumana Asseily, whose gallery Marfa (Arabic for “port”) was as close as could be to the blast site, vowed to stay and rebuild out of a love for the area and its people. The Beirut Art Center, which had its front door and back wall blown out, had given over the entirety of its building to NGOs that needed either storage space or a staging ground to box donations for families in need.

That is not to say that people were hopeful. Mainly they were angry. I heard many invocations of the noose, the gallows, the guillotine. Ashkal Alwan’s founder Christine Tohme, who always delights in rich language, described Lebanon’s political class as abusive and opportunistic, a group of bloodsucking skunks. I stopped by to see the artist duo Khalil Joreige and Joana Hadjithomas and found them picking through the wreckage of their studio. (Their apartment and the office of their film-production company were also destroyed.) Holding onto a cast-concrete artwork he had just discovered was cracked, Joreige said, “Usually a disaster is one thing at a time, not three. And we can’t even say this is a catastrophe, because the system is still in place.” Real catastrophe would have destroyed the system.

Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige, Wonder Beirut #8, 1998–2006, digital C-print on aluminum with face mounting, 27 1⁄2 × 41 3⁄8".

On one of my last days in the city, I sat down to hear from Haig Aivazian, an artist who, with the filmmaker Ahmad Ghossein, had taken over the artistic direction of the Beirut Art Center in January. As he told me about all the work he and others had been doing, the months of deliberations on how institutions should behave and what artists should do, I realized two things. I felt acutely guilty for having mostly left Beirut in 2017 after having lived there steadily for fifteen years, for having taken my children out of a city I love to give them a supposedly better life abroad, for not coming back often enough, for not sticking around longer when the city was on its knees, for being fine, unharmed, totally OK. But more importantly, outside of my own ego, I realized that what Beirut had contributed to art was never about spaces or collections or exhibitions, never about institutions per se or whether their funding needs were met or whether the money was effective. It was about the hard thinking that artists demanded of themselves and each other.

“Eventually the space will go,” Aivazian said of BAC. All that institutions really have, he explained, is “a record of the work they do. Right now, we talk about trying to maintain. It’s not about resilience but trying to have some continuity, trying to stay sane while trying to think together, write together, even feel together, regardless of the outcome. It’s not about the art that’s being made but the work people do as work, like any other profession. There’s a mode of thinking related to art that’s useful. The political urgency that the art world likes to claim can be put to use in a good way. Beirut is a super-intense testing ground for all the ills of the world,” he added. “I don’t love it. I’m entangled in it.”

What Beirut had contributed to art was never about spaces or collections. It was about the hard thinking that artists demanded of themselves and each other.

When I was working as a young (or younger) reporter at the height of Beirut’s postwar-reconstruction era, I remember, whenever the foundations were dug for some glitzy new real-estate project, the work would be continually halted by the inconvenient appearance of archaeological finds. Old cities built on the ruins of their own destruction are like that. In those days, people were always hoping to find some remnants of the Roman law school that made the city famous, before the sixth-century earthquake, in Justinian’s time. “But no archaeological trace was found,” wrote Samir Kassir in his magisterial history of Beirut. “It is quite possible, moreover, that no trace ever will be found, for the system of instruction in Roman antiquity, unlike that of modern or even medieval universities, did not require its own buildings.” The law school may have been no more than teachings under a tree. What mattered was the transmission of knowledge, the ideas shared, the people gathered to think together. The same might be said of the arts in Beirut. Maybe the spaces will go. Some buildings won’t be restored. A few organizations will never resume. The blast did tremendous damage. But the ideas will stay. Despite all of the hardship to come and the best efforts of the sulta to kill everything beyond its craven self-interest, the ideas have a life of their own. And they will continue to stimulate us, and make us do better, wherever we are.

Kaelen Wilson-Goldie is a critic based in New York and Beirut.