مرة أخرى، ازيل بسلاسة
again, rubbed smooth
two moments to begin
It is 1997 and I am in a car leaving Beirut International Airport, going northeast into the mountains. In my mindscape the city has not yet been rebuilt – looking at the buildings flashing by I could see great holes where walls should have been. Sheets were hung in the gaps, serving as fluid, billowing membranes in place of concrete. If the wind blew just enough, a brief glimpse of someone’s interior life would come into view, then, again return to being veiled from the outsider’s gaze. As a child these damage marks did not consciously register as signifiers of ‘war’. The buildings receded into the distance as the car continued forth, becoming blurred dots on the coastline. It is 2019 and I am in an art gallery staring at a rough painted line of two colors intersecting, vertically separating two parts of the same wall. The colors compete for primacy neither one ceding to the other its saturated power. I wonder why the line is not distinct in its definition, yet its blur is too deliberate to be accidental. What is this gesture standing in for? What is its presence covering up; yet in its attempted masking, what is it revealing to me? As I gain some distance from it, it becomes clearer – still my memory permanently recorded this blurred overlap, so it is perceivable as I walk away, backwards.
parallax as palimpsest
Parallax is a function of visual perception. On humans, the eyes are frontally positioned in different, symmetrical places on the head, so that they are always seeing two different views simultaneously. The brain corrects this, and, in so doing people are able to perceive depth and distance in relation to objects. It is a tool of estimation, not exactitudes – and as any person will admit, the brain likes to play its tricks on the senses, so sometimes the gauge lacks in accuracy. To have an accurate gauge of distance is important when aiming at a target – ask any sniper or hunter how much a fraction of error made the difference of whether or not they hit their object of focus. Astronomers use parallax to measure unfathomable distances, for example earth to a star in another galaxy – this is called stellar parallax. How do historians measure the distance between past and present? How accurate is their depth perception?
Try, for a second, to use an instrument of visual perception in order to gain an understanding of time. More specifically, use it to gauge how a series of moments and events are collapsed in to a period – ‘War.’ General historians writing on the Lebanese Civil War will say that the war began in 1975 and ended in 1990, not distinguishing conflicts that happened in between. It has been represented in photographs, journalistic writing, art, and cinema – and yet no definitive history has been chosen as the singular history to teach in primary schooling. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, as one definitive and totalizing account of history would come at the erasure of many other accounts. The civil war’s visual markers are everywhere in the present, however the ‘facts’ of it are continuously repressed. The snipers might be gone, the green line dissolved – its absence fills all of the streets and spaces between buildings. Constructing high-rise, luxury buildings over the events will not erase them from the present – this happens over any site where a war occurred, societies try to reconstruct over the devastated city scape as if to say, “that period is over now,” when really everyone is living on top of and alongside a pile of bones and rubble (archeologist will try to exhume this later). Moments do not simply begin and end like two dots on the map of time – they reverberate, sending ripples outwards. These ripples, or moments, overlap and intersect with each other ad infinitum. This begs the question: did the civil war really end? Aren’t the same ideological conflicts playing out in the present? Perhaps nothing is ever resolved. Societies, like their historians, enjoy pretending that their depth perception is accurate – that the problems from the previous day will not leak into today or tomorrow. Yesterday is today, and every tomorrow, without resolution, is recorded on top of the other. Historians have terrible case of parallax vision, but people tend to believe that their vision is calibrated properly. This is where the psychoanalysts and theorists come in.
Our brain is constantly playing tricks on our perception of time.
space as time
Spaces confuse our perception of time as well. The Beirut cityscape is not planned in a way where pedestrians or cyclists have easy access to different sections of the city – the space wants to remain fragmented, keeping us in the respective spaces we belong in.
We would soon come to realize this if we take a walk through a city like Beirut. Take Martyr’s Square as an easy example. It is a merging of several temporalities concentrated in a small fraction of the city. First, we will see a bunch of contemporary offices and luxury apartments, next to that a few parking lots. We will then walk up to what looks like a construction site and realize that once paved-over Roman ruins are being dug up and restored. Facing that is the Martyr’s Square monument, the Grand Mosque, a church, and in the close distance, ‘The Egg.’ The Egg is a more perfect monument to the war because it does not try to freeze people in time – which is difficult to do – even with photography and videos. Instead, the Egg is marked by scars of people’s actions; it holds the empty space where people once stood in time. It is a present record of passed time.
Next, we move to the seaside – Zaytouna Bay, St. Georges hotel and resort. The street is named after Rafic El Hariri. It is the spot where Prime Minister Rafic Hariri’s car exploded in 2005. During the civil war, militias occupied the Holiday Inn (which we can see from this spot), and much of St. Georges hotel was severely damaged. The area was reconstructed in the time when Hariri’s company Solidere began purchasing and rebuilding the area in the years after the fighting stopped. St. Georges was in the process of being restored in those years, yet it is not owned by the Solidere developing company. The 2005 explosion destroyed the restoration of St. Georges, and subsequently the owners of St. Georges are in a legal battle with Solidere over the property. This space is a fight for the capitalization of time. We could argue that the owners of St. Georges want to resurrect the glory years of Beirut, when the crème de la crème visited their hotel. But we know better – they want to reimpose a physical site where the upper echelons of society can play while the lower rungs of the socio-economic system suffer without access to drinkable water and basic human rights. We could say Saad Hariri, the mourning son, would like to monopolize this part of the city in order to commemorate his late father, but that would be too sentimental.
Money is not sentimental, neither is time. They are both indifferent to us, the people walking through these spaces.
remembering layered over forgetting
So now, in the present, what you are seeing is an absent memory being retraced, brought into this moment. This memory can’t be represented realistically, it is blurred, abstracted, and as you move around your perception of it will shift. It is signifying what the blurred line on the gallery wall is disavowing. If you move closer to the visual, it will break up into a series of colored points, all creating the illusion of a piece of architecture enclosed in a vitrine.
start over again
I reenter the gallery space, with a new vision. The exhibitions occurring at the same time, one outside, one inside simultaneously create a space for a future dialogue – a future moment that incorporates what was forgotten in the service of time.
I drive past those areas I once passed on the way from the airport as a child. The city has since been rebuilt. Those buildings of my memory are no longer there, they are concealed by new construction. Even the route I once took is intersected by a labyrinth of new roads and points of access. The physical signifiers of war become buried, and yet they still manage to sublimate and resurface in different ways. A trick of the brain.