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Translated by Anna Knight

The Stakes and Problematics of the Post-Civil War Lebanese Arts Scene: What Role Can the Works of Lebanese Artists Play in Contemporary History?

by Sirine Fattouh

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On 26 August 1991, the National Assembly voted a General Amnesty Law in the name of national reconciliation for the crimes committed during wartime. This law took into account war crimes committed prior to the date of 28 March 1991, in order to allow the Lebanese to live together once again. This Amnesty, far from leading to a national reconciliation, was experienced by the Lebanese as an institutionalised form of forgetting, that would leave their pain and suffering suspended. 

It is not a question of affirming that the 1991 Amnesty engendered a genuine amnesia among Lebanese, but its consequence was to increase the victims’ suffering and suspend their right to justice by prohibiting their access to the truth. 

The Amnesty had a number of consequences, including a historic void that allowed artists to appropriate their past by questioning it through their works, but also to reinvent it through fiction and fictional documentary. I will broach this question through the examples of two artworks: the film Ashbah Beirut [Phantom Beirut] by filmmaker Ghassan Salhab, which he directed in 1998, and the video installation Objects of War by artist Lamia Joreige. 

Ashbah Beirut [Phantom Beirut] is a fictional film in which sequences of interviews are inserted, where actors bear witness to their personal experience of the wars and the after-war period, directly to the camera.

The intrusions of the testimonies into the fiction are unexpected, interrupting the story’s chronology each time and creating radical breaks within the narrative. At the time the film was shot, seven years separated us from the Lebanese wars, the wounds were still open – the city was gradually rebuilding itself, while its inhabitants were still besieged by their wounds.  The transition from fiction to documentary is abrupt each time; we are plunged into the story of the film and then one of the characters confides their testimony to us. Once simple viewers, we thus become confidants. 

Between the reality, that of the Lebanese Civil War, and the film’s fiction, the testimonies highlight the filmmaker’s message: war and traumatisms alter our perception of a reality that is beyond brutal.

The dual roles that the actor/witnesses represent overlay these two temporalities of past/present. The fiction represents the past, performed by actors, and the documentary section stems from the present. The testimonies cause a rift and impose a new temporality, that of the memory that the actors present before the camera.

From the first shot, a voice, that of actress Darina al Joundi (Hanna, the sister of Khalil in the fiction), attests to her wounds. Her words emphasise the way in which a certain number of Lebanese people experienced the destruction and reconstruction of downtown Beirut at that time. A dying city that they tried at all costs to rebuild in haste, to plaster over the memory of the wars as quickly as possible. Downtown Beirut is a metaphor for the mental state of the Lebanese: destroyed, but not entirely, all that’s left are gaping ruins whose foundations are extremely fragile. 

To talk about his personal experience, Al Joundi uses the first person plural. Through this ‘we’, she attests that she belongs to a social group in order to legitimise her traumatic experience of the wars, because belonging to a group means affirming a strong sense of membership to an identity. Anthropologist Aïda Kanafani-Zahar explains: “The inscription of the ‘I’ in the ‘we’ expresses the need to belong to the memory of the group who lived through the whole tragedy. […] The testimony, despite its individual nature, somehow transcribes the collective memory of us all.”1 

That is what the actress focuses on after her testimony, when she affirms that everything seems to have been better during the war, which, in her view, seems paradoxically to have united people while the post-war period separated and destructured social relations. But the we also highlights the extent to which the I, and therefore her self, is fractured. And that is felt in the follow-up to her testimony, in which she constantly oscillates between I, they, and we.

While referring to Hannah Arendt, psychoanalyst Régine Waintrater affirms, in the conclusion of her book Sortir du génocide. Témoignages et survivance [After Genocide: Testimonies and Survival], the importance that the affective community can have for the subject bearing witness, and I quote: “the affective community plays a primordial role not only in remembrance, but also in the sense of existing: identity requires – as Hannah Arendt says – the confirmation of equals ‘worthy of confidence and faith’, whose representation in the self will enable the individual to survive the sometimes extreme trials and tribulations that they encounter.”2  

The affective community did play a primordial role in Lebanon during the fifteen years of war. And this affective community was not limited to next of kin, but also extended to neighbours and friends. What emerges in Al Joundi’s story and that of the other actors who also bear witness to their experience of the wars is a need for mutual recognition. In Al Joundi’s words, we detect a crystallisation and idealisation of the war period in which memory seems to have been altered by the traumatism. 

I will now turn my attention to the video installation Objects of War by artist Lamia Joreige, consisting of a series of filmed interviews that she began in 1999. The installation comprises several videos as well as objects donated by the people filmed. Each object provided relates to one of the Lebanese wars. The artist asked each person to relate their experience by presenting an object that reminds them of a specific event during this period. 

Mazen Kerbaj (also an artist) chose his son’s drawing of an airplane, aged five at the time, which he had completed by adding a burning city beneath the plane. In his testimony, Kerbaj, born in 1975, tries to understand how he could explain to his son what war is. He constantly tries to confront his own experience with the war during his childhood with that of his son. His relationship to the present is constantly troubled by his experience of the past and, as for actress Darina Al Joundi, it seems frozen in his past, for which he experiences a feeling of nostalgia. 

By giving the witness-objects that belonged to them to Lamia Joreige, the witnesses are entrusting part of their personal and intimate history to the artist. They know that the object will not be destroyed, but will be exhibited with their video narratives. The act of ridding themselves of an object that they are attached to and that also maintains a relationship to a traumatic story, can prove painful. It consists of allowing oneself to grieve for a part of one’s past, thanks to the object that serves as the go-between. Passing on an object from a traumatic past can turn out to be a reparatory gesture for some. The donated witness-object becomes part and parcel with the individuals filmed; it is a kind of trace of the wars that sometimes enables them to remember and sometimes to forget them, since, as ethnologist and historian Laurier Turgeon affirms: “The object in its relationship to forgetting is profoundly ambiguous, invested at once with a desire for attachment or rejection. It is sought out, cherished, or fled. It seems to be at once the auxiliary, a necessary support for forgetting, or, on the contrary, inimical to the grieving process. Forgetting thus wends its way between a desire for erasing and evacuating all material traces and seeking these out.  It is an oscillation between fleeing and seeking the past.”3

Witnesses symbolically rid themselves of part of their history, abandoning it along with the object to the artist and to future spectators. In donating their object and personal history, witnesses endow the artist with a responsibility, that of preserving their objects as well as circulating their words. In this sense, the artist relieves them of a part of their intimate history in relation to the traumatic event. 

The artworks analysed find their origins in the memorial void left by the institutional amnesty. Lebanese artists of the first generation of the postwar period apparently focused on building a collective story in a spontaneous and unconcerted way. These fragile traces, whose fate is one day doomed to perish, could be described as rejects of history, as philosopher Walter Benjamin understood it. It is by immersing ourselves in the rejects of official history, by fossicking in dark and uncertain corners, that we manage to extract from beneath the rubble fragments of histories, stories and memories combined. We must then patiently unravel them to attempt to understand what underpins these various memories and temporalities. Then assemble them in an order that is not their own, but that will bring out a new line of questioning. It is a question of making art a subject of history, as theorist Siegfried Kracauer did with cinema throughout his entire life. 

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Note from Beirut: on growth and abandon