Charlotte Bank Projects


The Fragility of Being

       Autumn Impressions from Beirut


an essay by Charlotte Bank


After a lapse of several years, I visited Beirut in autumn 2007.  I met a  town caught between hectic large scale restoration work and fearful expectations for the future. This is a very personal reflective essay on history, identity and contemplation.
published March 2008


In October 2007 I visited Lebanon again after a lapse of several years, the country I would have spent my childhood in, had it not been for the civil war that shook the country from 1975 to 1990 (and to some, it has not really stopped, too many issues remain open and unsolved).

Visiting Beirut in Autumn 2007 with presidential elections awaiting was a schizophrenic experience. What I met was a town seemingly under siege. Sealed off streets - even complete quarters - heavily armed soldiers (though some of them did seem rather bored by their vigil and were more preoccupied with their mobile phones and the passing girls, than actually "on guard") and security checks at the door of almost every shop conveyed a feeling of lurking danger. What effects this has on people in the long run can only be guessed at.

It is impossible to escape the feeling of a glaring contrast between the hectic construction activity and the heavy security presence; the rather artificial, almost aggressive optimism on the surface and the sense of imminent danger underneath it. The Central District is one large construction site, but the apparent strength disperses as soon as one scratches a bit on the surface. Photographing is forbidden in most places, though it's not always easy to make out exactlly what is forbidden and what not. Faced with a rather unfriendly security man and a not much friendlier soldier after taking a picture of the panorama of construction work and a large poster inscribed "Stop Solidère" nicely showing the civil protest against tha megalomaniac plans of this company that seemingly owns downtown Beirut, I decided not to attempt any further efforts of documentation and kept my camera in my bag.

The reconstruction plans of the company Solidère is just one example of the artificiality of this "New Beirut", it remains a controversial and much discussed issue of post-Civil War Lebanon. The ambitious plan of Solidère to act "not simply as a real estate company but as a city making institution" (Solidère website) appears to be forced down over the head of the city's population. As Saree Makdisi has put it, Solidère represents the "final colonization of the state, the public sphere and civil society by capital" (Saree Makdisi: Laying Claim to Beirut: Urban Narrative and Spatial Identity in the Age of Solidère, Critical Inquiry, Vol. 23, Spring 1997). Whereas the idea of creating a "Garden of Forgiveness" might sound very romantic and idealistic, it strikes one as highly suspect that the plans for the new central district are being realized through forced house and land seizure. It seems rather to keep the wounds of the city open than heal them. Reconciliation is a process that needs to come from society itself through long term commitment, it involves a complicated negotiation of historical and philosophical parameters, it cannot be forced upon a city by an unreflected declaration from a building company.

This concept of "creating one's own past", of destroying the last material trace of the real past and at the same time reclaim the idea of history for commercial purposes is highly problematic. The self-contradiction is evident. For the sake of financial gain, the past is re-modeled; those features that suit the purpose of the day are picked out, and what is unwanted is conveniently discarded. It is very typical of our time to regard everything with a "pick and choose" mentality. As a result, our sense of the past is distorted, we shop in history's supermarket, take whatever suits us and leave the rest. Thus we create our own picture of past centuries, tailored to our needs of here and now. We escape form all unpleasant reflection and subdue our minds with easy consumerism. The healthy and healing reflection on history and its mistakes cannot take place in the glaring lights and top-volume music of modern shopping malls.

Beirut and its citizens are being deprived of their history and together with it, of their city. The new city that arises has no connection to the conflicts of the past, it is easy and comfortable, a "finely crafted site one might expect at disney world" (Adirenne Fricke: Forever Nearing the Finish Line: Heritage Policy and the Problem of Memory in Postwar Beirut, International Journal of Cultural Property, 2005:12) without posing any disturbing questions. The great danger lies in falling into a kind of collective insomnia, reminiscent of Germany after the Second World War. In many German rebuilt cities, the old urban structure was abandoned in favour of modern planning. Feverous rebuilding activities erased old urban layouts, leaving many cities strangely detached from their former identity and characteristics - strangely detached from their proper, often age-old names.

After conflicts that leave such heavy scars on a country's collective memory and so many deep crevices in the texture of society, as is the case both in Postwar Lebanon and Post WW2 and -Nazi era Germany, striving to forget the trauma is only natural and an actual yearning for a healing amnesia is very human. Only after a long period of time, reflection on the war and the events leading up to it was undertaken in Germany. One could think that falling into a collective amnesia is the only way that allows a country and a people to move forward after disaster. This is very nicely illustrated in Lamia Joreige's video "Here and Perhaps Elsewhere", where hardly any of the people interviewed seem to remember anything about people having been abducted during the war. But by shutting out the unpleasant memories of the recent past, one risks losing an important part of one's identity. To use Jalal Toufic's words, "when the ghost is banished or repressed, people turn into zombies" (Jalal Toufic: Transit Visa to Post-War Lebanon!, "Disorientation" Exhibition Catalogue, House of World Cultures, Berlin 2003).

It seems easier to connect to a more distant past, recast the setting and recreate a new city space. In the Central District, rebuilt in the old French colonial style, this is exactly what is happening; the city space is remade, not repaired (Adrienne Fricke, Forever Nearing the Finish Line). Instead of coming to terms with the city's turbulent past, a fiction is created, one of elegance and opulence, just one of those "comfortable legends that keep one from reflecting" (Elias Khoury, Beyrouth et la Meditéranée. Langue double, langue plurielle; Elias Khoury et Ahmad Beydoun: La Méditerranée libanaise, Paris 2000). The ghost mentioned before is kept away, the ghost of past traumas and mistakes. But to ignore this ghost is to risk a repetition of the old mistakes. And that is why a complete history is necessary for human existence.

Being deprived of important parts of their own history is part of the collective trauma of formerly colonized people and an essential part of postcolonial projects is to regain and reclaim that history. Cities and history are closely linked and the history of cities is often a disturbing one, a history of turbulences, civil unrest and violence. But this is only one side of the cultural entity "City". Beirut with its urban history dating back to the end of the 3rd Millennium BCE has suffered quite a number of destructions throughout history. As a prosperous commercial city with far reaching connections, it often gave rise to jealousy from other towns, resulting in violent attacks and wars.

But a threat of violence was never a deterrent for people to settle in cities, too important were the other aspects, such as cultural and economic significance. Cities represent "models of refinement and culture", the "most precious collective invention of civilization, second only to language itself in the transmission of culture", to quote Lewis Mumford, but their fragile balance leave them on the brink of the risk to fall down into barbarism and destruction.

The history of cities has throughout the ages been one of upheavals of all kinds, disruptive internal forces and natural disasters. Cities are highly complex social structures offering space to a large number of different and even rivalling communities built on such varying concepts as professions, ethnicity, education, politics and economy. This diversity is what guarantees the life and cultural dynamics of the city, but it also holds the inherent danger of getting out of balance with possible disastrous effects.

The universality of dangers facing cities makes the fate of Beirut the possible fate of every city. Symbolizing "the archetypal city" (Mona Takieddin Amyumi: The Image of the City. Wounded Beirut, Alif:Journal of Comparative Poetics, 1987), the model of every city in all times as an extremely fragile construct with all the possibilities and dangers inherent in this phenomenon, the fate of Beirut seems to have a deeper human significance than the fate of other war-torn cities. It reminds every city dweller of the fragility of their own existence. This also explains the wide international interest, works by Lebanese artsist are gaining, despite the very "local" character of their subject matter. With their focus on issues of war, the fragmentation of society and dislocation, they have brought exactly this universality into the consciousness of the world.



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