A country that takes me in, a country,
And a country that throws me away,
"Tourism" is defined in the French dictionary Le Petit Larousse as "the action of taking a voyage for one's own pleasure". Next to the definition is an example that is supposed to further clarify the meaning of the word: The development of international tourism allows the people of the world to get to know each other better.
The example does not contradict the definition, but it confuses the meaning instead of clarifying it: in the definition tourism is a source of pleasure, while in the example the same act produces knowledge. Furthermore, the Petit Larousse doesn't specify what kind of knowledge is produced, how is it channelled and to which purposes, etc. Le Petit Larousse doesn't mention either the conditions that a person has to fill in order to become a tourist (except for the fact that she or he is driven by pleasure), maybe because of the lack of space, or maybe because the edition dates back to 1962, when times were indeed more optimistic than they are today.
For instance, if I were to go to any European embassy, and ask for a visa to a certain country because I want to "take a voyage for my own pleasure" I would be dismissed in less then a second. There is a 'proper' procedure to apply for a visa, and it involves a lot of effort and paper work. For the individual person, the collection of knowledge will probably start there, in the embassy, and its purpose is not to know who the visa applicant is, but who (s)he's not; in that sense a knowledge of the subject is already established in the form of a representation. Arabs (or, lately, Muslims) are what they are, and they certainly don't take a trip abroad for pleasure. They have other, more sinister motives: in the best case scenario they go to Europe as tourists, but they remain there as illegal immigrants; or worse, they go to Europe to join one of the Islamists terror groups, maybe join a Bin Laden cell and blow something up, kill innocent people. Arabs are angry and despaired, and they have no room in their lives for pleasure- hence the paperwork: Passport, identity card, photographs, a photocopy of one's account in the bank, an official letter from one's employer stating that the person in question is indeed working and will come back to his or her work, an official paper about the person's state (married, single, how many brothers and sisters, etc), an official invitation from the European country in question, stating exactly how long will the person stay and what will (s)he be doing, a letter from the hotel where the person is staying confirming the reservation, a photocopy of the plane ticket, a stamped letter from the tourist police in the country in question, and so forth. It doesn't stop there: when in the embassy a very detailed questionnaire has to be filled in a hostile and almost claustrophobic space, resembling a waiting room in a hospital, under the watching eyes of the security guards and the embassy people who are so busy that they forget simple acts of politeness, like smiling or saying thank you or please (maybe it's the effect of the bullet-proof glass they're standing behind), and if the person is lucky he will get a visa for a limited period, after waiting for 2 to 3 weeks. This exhausting procedure either means that Europeans have a very peculiar sense of pleasure, or that they think that they know 'these people' well enough to deny them even the notion of pleasure: the right wing by excluding them and the left wing by defending the right of the Arabs (or Muslims) to live a life devoid of pleasure, by considering this a cultural value, a proof of their otherness that should be respected and/or tolerated.
Generalizing is not good, of course, and I know that not all Europeans fit in the categories I described above. But regardless of individuals, what concerns me are certain representations that make it impossible for certain people to 'ascend' to the status of tourists (judging from the visa procedure, it is an ascension). These representations tend to be fully operational even if someone is experiencing a reality that contradicts them. In fact I believe that they even tend to replace that reality, and people's mobility (the development of international tourism) is further reinforcing that state of things, in the sense that 'getting to know other people' only reinforces the ideological construct, the representation, instead of shattering it. These representations are produced en masse, and they lead their existence in the world of images, so to speak, completely oblivious to the 'real' world.
Considering the quantity of literature written on this subject I wouldn't have brought it up, if it wasn't for a passing remark in the proposal for the Tour-isms project, where my name is mentioned as being from "Beirut/Middle-East". Beirut is one of those cities that belong to their region more than they belong to the country they're in, true, and in fact it has played this role since the middle of the 19th century- but that inevitably leads to the question: what or where is Beirut's "region"? Where is its area of influence? What are the relations that the city establishes with the region it belongs to?
It would be interesting, but not within the scope of this article, to research the historical origins of the term (Middle-East, or 'Mid-East' as of late), when it was first used, in which circumstances and by whom. I don't have answers to these questions, but what I do know is that the Middle-East is not the Middle-East like Europe is Europe (at least not now). The term- which in itself doesn't mean anything: the middle of whose east? - is highly volatile, ever shifting and, most of all, it is being constructed by the flesh and blood of real men and women, and incessant wars. In that sense the Middle-East cannot be constructed as a tourist attraction, and by having a quick look at the media-images that come out of this vaguely determined (geographically- but also politically and culturally) region of the world, it is hardly any surprise: stone-throwing Palestinian kids, angry Iraqis jumping up and down with their hands in the air, Israeli victims of suicide bombers, huge Egyptian demonstrations, and so on. The Middle-East is a battle scene and that's the end of it- and that is very well captured by not only the media, but also by the graphic designers of computer games, such as Delta Force, where several operations take place in a Middle-East filled with deserts, ruins, tents and 'bad guys' whose skin is dark and who wear the inevitable beard. Maybe these images are too simplistic for the sophisticated audience that will eventually read this article, in the sense that the audience will not be easily duped by them, but I believe that they should not be dismissed solely on that basis- after all, how many people play Delta Force (me among them) and how many people will read this article? The sheer imbalance in numbers is embarrassing; and the profuse presence of these representations makes it impossible to even imagine that any sort of life can exist in these parts. Not only are Middle-Easterners impossible tourists, but they are also impossible human beings- and tours for non-humans haven't been invented yet.
What follows is an e-mail I received from a friend of mine studying in Europe. I've written asking him about some news I heard about him not wanting to come back to Lebanon again. This is his reply:
Thank you for your e-mail [...]. I am well thank you for asking [...].
So you want me to come back? Why? To work in politics? As an attorney? As a journalist? To live with my parents? To have rotten relationships with rotten people in cities where the oppression of each individual is the rule and where liberty is only authorized for blind masses?
It's disgusting, horrible, noisy, vulgar, oppressing, castrating, traumatizing, and you want me to come back?
To die of boredom?
Ok I know I'm exaggerating, but if it wasn't for this ambiance, this intellectual endeavour that you guys are creating, Lebanon would not hold any interest for me whatsoever; that doesn't mean that it is not a load that I keep carrying on my shoulders, but with no pleasure.
I cannot think of these regions without imagining masses of barbarism, of vanity, of chauvinism and this incredible lust for blood [...].
We'll talk later of all this, meanwhile I wish you happy holidays and a good new year. Pass on my regards to everyone.
Home sweet home. In spite of the violence of these words they still constitute a representation, and they were only put here to help me further my ideas:
Representations are not simply made in the 'West' and consumed in the 'East' (or the Middle-east, or the Orient, or the Levant, or the Arab World, or the Islamic World, etc); they have been internalized to a very large extent, and people have been acting upon them, either to conform to the image or to refuse it (which is not the same as resisting it). Conforming to the representation of Arabs means ending up exactly like Saddam Hussein, a disarmed madman being examined by rational scientific doctors; to refuse means fleeing this land of barbarism to where civilization is- not as tourists of course, but as people with a load on our shoulders when we walk the civilized streets, on our faces when we are gazed upon, in our accents when we talk to civilized people using their civilized language. People who try their hardest to masquerade as gentlemen.
Tourism thus becomes doubly and implacably impossible: this barbaric land can only export barbarians (who sometimes masquerade as civilized people) and is certainly not a place to be visited. The cycle of representations is complete.
Home sweet home, take 2: how can such representations be resisted? It's an ambitious project, true, but it's not like there's something better to do. In the conditions I described above the battle seems extremely difficult, and I strongly believe that it cannot be won with the production of 'counter-images', because no matter how good these images are, they will be interpreted according to pre-existing paradigms, systems of thought that an individual has no control over. In these conditions images can become mute and self-mutilating, and in a sense only texts can save them from themselves. The process is long and complicated, and to be honest I don't believe that it has reached a theoretical maturity that would allow it to be laid down on paper in a clear fashion. Instead I will go into the production details of a joint project between Walid Raad and myself; the project was called "We Can Make Rain but No One Came to Ask", and it was presented in Frankfurt lately. The project consisted of ('digitally corrected') images- in fact only one image, that of a building I will describe later, graphs, a text in the form of an e-mail from me to Walid, and a conversation between us, and later with the audience. The end result was supposed to be yet another representation of Beirut (a Lebanese, Middle-Eastern and/or Arab city), but a representation that takes into account the complexity of the city and, hopefully, that would point out the impossibility of taking a 'snapshot' of it, or of dwelling in it. Beirut- or at least some of it- transforms its citizens into permanent tourists, into urban nomadic masses that are always ready to perform in a spectacle that is yet to see the light. The status of performing tourists makes dwelling impossible (in the sense defined by Heidegger, but also Adorno to some extent); it turns any image taken by any camera into a post-card in the making- this is why our image was digitally corrected, to make it look as if it was a façade drawn by an architectural firm, still unspoiled by any traces that might be left on it by time. Finally, the e-mail contains a lot of references that might seem cryptic to a Western audience, but that can be clarified with a little bit of effort from the part of that audience; after all, when being asked to perform all the time, one tends to cling to his right to be lazy. The only reference that I will clarify is the one to "the only city I got", which comes directly from Ahmad Baydoun, who said recently that "Lebanon is the only country I got, and even though I know its flaws, I do not feel the need to be apologetic about them". Baydoun's text was written in response to the declarations of Mr. Khatami, the Iranian president who upon visiting Lebanon almost considered it to be a paradise on earth, a model of religious coexistence that should be studied by the entire region.
I think I already told you that 50 people or so from the Rietveld Academy in Amsterdam came to Beirut for a project they are involved in. They contacted many people, including me, and organized activities (presentations, lectures ...) with them; I wasn't really in the mood for an indoor presentation, especially now that the weather is so mild and beautiful, so I gave them a text I had previously written and suggested that I take them for an evening walk around Ashrafieh. We started in Sassine Square, and it was a bit chaotic, since 25 people showed up, enough for the authorities to arrest us on the basis of staging an illegal demonstration. Our walk took us to the road parallel to the Damascus road, where the Centre Culturel Français is, from the side of the Lycée Français- you know that road, it's deserted at night (and it was dark already) with very few street lamps and not a lot of constructions, just a few old houses here and there, and if you continue straight ahead you'd be right behind the Jewish and Evangelical cemeteries. As we were walking we passed alongside this strange white construction, a cross between an elongated ziggurat and a flattened Egyptian pyramid, the tallest building in the area and the most well-lit by a street lamp. Obviously it attracted a lot of curiosity and a lot of questions were asked- questions to which I had only a few answers; I know that building very well, but I know nothing of it except for an urban legend surrounding it with more mystery: I was told, when I was a kid, that the building was constructed by one man, an architect, who then locked himself inside and later committed suicide, and his spirit still haunts the place, you know, the usual. I was sharing this information with the Dutch group, insisting that the building has long been abandoned, when the light above the main door was lit, the door opened and someone went in, nothing unusual, just a regular man entering casually in what seems to be a regular house- his house.
You could of course imagine how surprised and embarrassed I was- my authority on the subject of Beirut being shattered by the simple opening of a door- but one of my Dutch hosts didn't even give me the chance to catch my breath; he was next to the door in an instant talking to the man I mentioned above, and the next thing I know he was signaling to the rest of us to follow him inside. I was practically the last one to go in, only to find that a conversation between the house's owner and the Dutch group had already started.
The inside was dark, only lit by a few scattered yellowish light bulbs that couldn't possibly provide enough light to fill the entirety of the space- maybe this was the reason why I decided not to say a word, and to blend in with the group pretending that I too was Dutch, just like them. I think that was a good strategy, letting someone else take over, because it allowed me to quietly recover from my embarrassment, and it was only then that I really started to notice what was around me. The house had always fascinated me, not just the shape of it but also because to me it was associated with a vague feeling of danger due to its location in an area in close proximity to what used to be the demarcation lines during the war (the owner will later tell us that during that time the house was hastily converted into a barracks). But I never got to go inside before now and maybe this is good because as a kid I wouldn't have recognized the Bauhaus furniture (mainly Mies Van der Rohe and Breuer) or the intentional absence of doors throughout the whole space.
Even the people who live in the house right now, the grandson of the poet who showed us the house, a second man who didn't say a word but who carried all the keys to the newly installed doors, and an old lady with really arched feet smiling all the time and nodding her head, these three people don't seem to be really convinced that they live there, you can hardly see any traces of them around the house, a forgotten coat on an empty chair, or maybe a book next to a used ashtray- in fact I didn't see any furniture (save for the wrapped Bauhaus chairs and tables) that they might have used. I think the best verb that I could find to describe the way in which they inhabited the house was 'to float'. They floated in the house.
My impressions were confirmed, I'd even say enhanced, when the grandson offered to finish the tour by a visit to the garden that lay behind the house. We accessed it through a narrow corridor that led to a room transformed into an office, the only one that had decent lighting and the only space that was furnished in a way that indicated that it was actually used; from there a simple unassuming door opens and we were transported to what I thought was a different space and time. It was not the first time that I visited and was pleasantly surprised by such gardens, and God knows how many of those are in Beirut, but this garden was different, my eyes couldn't find the fence that separated it from the ordinary derelict outside; the lawn was obviously very well tended, and the vegetation was lush and- here is a word I never thought I would use- exotic. Mango trees were right next to lemon, cherry and pine trees, strange flowers grew right under the jasmine bushes, surrounded by roses in full bloom, and so on and so on- in fact, how would I know how to describe a garden? Ask me to describe a street and I'd do that, in full details- but how would my description do justice to something as alien to me as this? And as if this wasn't enough, the objects scattered around the garden accentuated its strangeness: pillars from ancient Egypt, statues of forgotten artists or poets, a stone arch that formed an enclave big enough for a rusting metallic chair and a marble top table; it seemed that there was a surprise object everywhere I looked, and coupled with the odor of the vegetation the whole space was overwhelming. But still, the garden was tended in the same way as the house: preserved in their original state, as if petrified after a trauma or a catastrophe that forever changed the course of their history.
It took me some time to figure out what that catastrophe was- and even now I can only speculate, even though there are some undeniable evidences; for instance, what forced the users to block the huge windows that allowed large quantities of light to overflow the space of the house? What prompted them to add doors in an otherwise free flowing space? Why did they choose to float in the house instead of inhabiting it? The answer might seem simple, but it isn't: it was the war. But not the violence of the war, rather the war as a symbol of a world coming to an end and the beginning of a new era. The house with its modern furniture and its refined exotic garden are themselves evidences of the intentions of their creator, of his wish to belong to something larger than the house itself, to a certain mode de vie****, to a modernity that was then associated, at least to the poet Charles Corm, with the ideals of the European avant-garde (hence the Bauhaus furniture). In fact, and with the benefit of hindsight, I don't believe that this was only an individual's endeavor. The house was supposed to act as an advanced post for a certain Beirut, where the air smelled like freedom, a place where all the weary but ambitious could go, and here I repeat a familiar caricature: the confessionally and ethnically persecuted, the newly formed bourgeoisie who couldn't stand the rigidity of other Arab cities, the intellectuals who wanted to change the world, the peasants who could not resist the magnetism of the urban tower of Babel being constructed before their very eyes (literarily: they saw the city from their houses in the mountains that surrounded it). I know this Beirut, or rather I know of it; you and I were six years old when a chain of lebanized wars put each fragment of the Lebanese society against all the others, and compelled each of those fragments to systematically destroy everything that surrounded it- people and buildings of course, but mostly a certain idea of Lebanon, and even at times the country itself. That house is one of the things that remained from that old city, like these aristocrats who fled from the Russian Revolution, old and destitute, but still acting out their old way of life, as if acting out the old way of life will make it the rule again, will revive it.
But now we are told that these wars are over, and you know how annoyed I get when people, especially intellectuals, try to find alibis for their insignificance by throwing Beirut of the 60s in everyone's face. The question asks itself: if the pre-war period was Beirut's golden age, why did so many people try to destroy it with such intent and determination? Do you know that Omar Zo'onni's song where he talks of Beirut as a "flower blooming before its time"? Well it was, in so many ways. From the moment it started taking shape, Beirut- I mean the actual city- started betraying the idea of Beirut and of Lebanon in general. It was caught in a paradox actually; the idea of a refuge cannot refuse anyone, but the actual place was acutely aware of its limitations, and of the consequences of its actions. Everybody knew that the place was heading for a total meltdown. Did you ever wonder why there are more, much more, Lebanese abroad than in Lebanon itself, and they all go to listen to Fayruz when she sings in their city, and they all cry and become all choked up with emotions, but they never come back?
When the war officially ended in 1990, we were promised that the phoenix would rise again from its ashes, and that the future would be blindingly bright. Beirut was to become the Hong Kong of the Middle East, with so much money pouring in that we wouldn't know what to do with it. But that hypothetical future depended on peace in the entire region, and peace felt so close with the Madrid peace talks. The whole region was negotiating peace in Spain and we were reinventing Beirut to accommodate busy men with black suits coming to us from all around the world, driving around in expensive German cars, eating caviar and drinking champagne- doesn't it feel like I'm describing a SOLIDERE poster from 1992? Even better: their posters promised that we can all become like these men, and people started buying the company's shares as if they were bread. Peace never came nor did the blinding future. Its traces are still there though, in the downtown region, but instead of the high-rise towers of the original project we have cafés, pubs, restaurants and nightclubs. We substituted the connected-to-the-world-businessmen with the position of the permanent tourist. Everyone visits the new downtown as a tourist and nobody lives there. We go, we dance till morning and then we leave but we never stay. And we dance, we dance everywhere, not just in nightclubs, but in restaurants too, on the tables if we have to; we even dance on mass graves, like in the B018, where the architect designed the tables to look like tombstones, while we listen to the new Lebanese pop, and then we complain about it, we say that it's too cheap, comparing it to the pre-war period, when we had Fayruz and Baalbek, skiing in the snow covered mountains in the morning and then taking a swim in the Mediterranean in the afternoon. "Let the golden age begin!", but it never does.
We dance in a fragmented city not even unified by a myth. In a city torn apart by competing projects: the mutated globalized businessmen project, that has now adjusted itself to accommodating dancing tourists, and which operates like a city superimposed on another city, with overhead bridges and tunnels directly connecting the Centre Ville to the airport or the hotel region, so that the tourists don't have to see the other Beirut; the project of Beirut as a perpetual Stalingrad, the city that resists and defies the Israelis, the Americans, and the whole world if it had to, constantly on the watch, believing its paranoiac delusions; the project, or what remains of it, of Beirut as a haven for the economy of the individual, the small businessman, the shop owner, the flashy dandy who opens a restaurant where the waiters are unconvincingly as arrogant as the ones in Paris, and so on; and there are those who are still waiting for the wine they were promised, the new wine dying on the vine as the song goes. These projects compete fiercely over the smallest bit of space available, and they send out spies to other parts of the city- a perpetual territorial pissing contest- spies in the form of outposts, like the new ABC mall in Ashrafieh, or in the form of a bridge bypassing the Ouzai area in the southern suburb, or in the form of a wheeled demonstration, such as the one organized by Hezbollah, when cars decorated with colored flags and loud speakers roamed the streets of Ashrafieh, arriving and stopping in Sassine square.
Walid, you asked me to talk about Beirut and I did. It is a crazy city, yes, but it's the only city I got. Sometimes I think that I worry too much, after all the city has been around for 5000 years, and that gives things a bit of perspective; but sometimes I get overwhelmed by the state of things and I ask for a bit of kindness, for the possibility of a safe place where people can sit down, giving their backs to others without fearing them. But this is not going to happen soon is it?
Take care my friend, and see you in Frankfurt soon.
Tony Chakar ©
Beirut, January 2003.