This essay was presented by Tony Chakar to Documenta 12 magazine's trans-regional meeting. (www.documenta12.de)
My non-presence with you is not a coincidence; traveling to Hong Kong would have been difficult in the circumstances that you know very well, but with the lifting of the Israeli siege it wouldn't have been impossible. And yet, I took the conscious decision not to travel abroad, not to be physically present and instead, to let a text I've written represent me. I could try and explain the reasons for my decision, like not wanting to bother with the paperwork process of obtaining the visa, or that after weeks of constant Israeli bombardments I feel too weak to take a long flight, or too weak to explain to anyone, once I arrive, what had happened and why, and especially too weak, or maybe too proud, to see even the faintest hint of pity in anyone's eyes. All of these are valid enough reasons for a person not to travel, but in fact the deep reason for my non-appearance is elsewhere.
In order for me to try and explain it, I should take a few steps back. During the long weeks of the latest Israeli aggression on my country, which felt more like centuries, I was completely paralysed, and all I managed to write was the following:
I've got my own little Hiroshima right here in my pocket.
Sometimes I take it out, I put it on the table, and ponder.
It will take us countless years and several generations to grasp the immensity of the catastrophe that has (and is) struck us- and these women who now wear black, and who become more and more numerous with each passing day- these women are not only mourning their loved ones, but they are mourning hope itself.
Where are God's angels when you need them? I just want one of them to whisper in my ear that things are going to be ok, maybe then I can breathe again.
Obviously, this was not enough - in spite of the numerous replies I received when I sent this text by email. It is certainly not enough if measured to the immensity of the catastrophe that has come to pass over my country. The space of the catastrophe and its time are very strange formations that can only be grasped if directly experienced and then measured to the "obvious", to what we all take for granted, to a normal state of things. The reasons for my non-presence lie precisely in this catastrophic time, and this catastrophic space, that I am yet to leave. As long as I remain in them, I will always be able to say: I am no one. I am no one, and I am legion. I am a million screaming banshees that have no name, roaming about an indefinite space that is all inside, that has no limits, that has no outside (note that the double siege established by both Israel and Syria over the sea, the air and the land transformed Lebanon into an unreachable island, a lost land). I am no one, and yet I am a howling Jezebel that can be everywhere she wishes, when she wishes: I can be in the halls of the United Nations in New York, floating around Dan Gillerman, Israel's ambassador to the UN, shutting his mouth with my thousand hands, to stop him from saying that Israel is bombarding Lebanon for its own good, or I can haunt the dreams of John Bolton, the US ambassador to the UN, when he dreams of the Lebanese victims who in his eyes are not equal, even in their death, to the Israeli victims because the first died in "self-defence", while the latter were victims of terrorism; I can even go underground, to the Hizballah tunnels, and find the un-findable Hassan Nassrallah, take him by my thousand hands, and give him a thousand shakes, and tell him with my thousand voices that there can be no victory over this field of ruins, and that I am sick of seeing women in black mourning their loved ones, and that all I want is to be able to "cultivate my garden".
For these reasons I cannot be in Hong Kong: if I were to travel, I would have to go to embassies and airports, to present papers and documents that state exactly who I am and where is my place in this world-structure that we all share. I will have to regain my pre-catastrophic status of a specific person, with a specific position in a specific society, and I am simply not ready or willing to see that happening, at least for now. I don't want to "forget what happened" and return to normality. I am not willing and I am not ready to do that. So, in short, you can consider this paper as a message in a bottle, coming to you from across the seas, from a lost island.
As I said before, the space of the catastrophe is an infinite space that is all inside, and if I were to use a rather facile and reductive analogy (reductive because it concretises what cannot be concretised), I'd say that the closest representation for such a space would be one of Piranese's prison drawings. In addition to these qualifications, I would say, purely empirically, that catastrophic space and catastrophic time are absolutely irrational, and absolutely logical. I write "empirically", and I'll give some examples: we all regained our war reflexes, and those who were too young to have any, acquired some very quickly; one of those reflexes is to "hide under"? To hide under anything actually, anything available, and it is known that the safest places are the ones that are well hidden under the ground, like basements or obscure staircases of apartment buildings; but still, many people decided that they wanted to hide on rooftops and tried to inhabit the top floors of apartment buildings. The logical reasons for this irrational behaviour are simple: these people could not stand the idea of dying asphyxiated under the rubbles of an entirely destroyed building, a very probable event with the extensive use by the Israeli army of implosion bombs and bombs that we still need to find a name for; also, choosing top floors means that one is safe enough from the shrapnel of cluster bombs that exploded on the streets. In catastrophic time, Beirut became an Upside-down City. Here's another example: during the aggression, the Israeli planes targeted bridges, tunnels, trucks, and small motorcycles. One is hardly aware of the abundance of these in normal times, but once they became targeted, moving around Beirut by car became a riddle; how to go from this point to that one without crossing a bridge, or driving behind a truck, or encountering a small motorcycle? In order to do so, each person-driver had to reinvent a mental map of the city, with black gaps for tunnels and bridges, and always taking into account the fact that chaotic variables (trucks, motorcycles, electricity cuts leaving streets in absolute darkness, or the worse variable yet: the shelling) that can never be correctly calculated. And once one gets to where he was going, he will have to calculate again the return trip, taking into account all of these variables, and if the shelling started, superimposing on the original mental map other maps, made through calculating the time between seeing the flash from the blasts and hearing the sound of the impact (thus acquiring some knowledge on the distance of the shelling). In catastrophic times, Beirut became the Kingdom of Unrelated Points and Infinite Calculations. Another example: a friend of mine had a war-dream since she was a child. In her dream, bombs are falling everywhere, but she cannot hear them; she knows the bombs are falling, like one knows in a dream, and yet there are no sounds of explosion. For a moment the bombs stop, she looks under the bed, and BOOM!, a bomb blows up in her face. There is nothing particularly unusual about that dream, except that, during this war, a mutual friend of ours had the exact same dream. Exactly the same, only in her dream, she's the one in the bed and not the original dreamer. Weeks after that incident was related to us by its protagonists, and in spite of the ceasefire, a third friend had a similar dream- not exactly the same though, but a variation on the same theme: in his dream, he is in his bed sleeping, and the sound of the bombs is deafening, and yet he cannot leave his bed. He jumps out of the bed but remains in it, and the bombs keep on falling. In catastrophic times, Beirut became the City of Borrowed and Inverted Dreams.
For some observers, especially from the outside, and more especially if the observers were observing the events through the insipid and dull screens of televisions, it would be very tempting to say that what happened transformed or reverted a modern city to a pre-modern, primitive space. The readiness to take such hasty conclusions is enhanced by the fact that, for almost 150 years now, the discourse on the "civilised self" and the "primitive other", of the "good savage", is well into effect. And in fact, many things that I've read emphasize the technological advancements of the Israeli army in the face of the "primitiveness" of the weapons used against them (an easy-enough analogy in the Occupied Palestinian Territories- but the same can apply to Hizballah's rockets, which have a very low level of accuracy). Do not fool yourselves: catastrophic space and catastrophic time are absolutely modern; they are modern in their irrationality, and their logical systems; in fact, they are the underside of modernity, the other world that lies behind the mirror traversed by Alice, Lewis Carroll's character, and yes, during the war we lived in Wonderland. And while the inhabitants of Beirut and its heavily bombarded southern suburb, along with the hundreds of thousands of the displaced from southern Lebanon, whose villages were absolutely erased, lived in universes of allegorical times and allegorical spaces brought forth by the catastrophe, and invented logical but irrational mental maps to guide them through the Kingdom of Unrelated Points, and borrowed each others' dreams- while all of that was happening then, both the Israeli army and Hizballah fighters were using modernist maps made of Cartesian points and precise coordinates, one more efficiently than the other, but still. They both shared the same conception of space: an absolute space of mathematics and geometry, a space with no place for allegorical time or existential memories. In such a space, both are not un-important, they simply have no place to be. The Israeli army and the fighters of Hizballah were both victims of modernity's biggest project: the geometrisation of the world. What is tragic is that they're both unaware of how much their mutual conceptions of the world are similar, and of how oppressive and violent their world is.
To conclude, allow me to return to something I had written before the latest Israeli aggression; I've written this for my last installation, "A Window to the World":
"Given the right circumstances, the appropriate standpoint (preferably with one's back against the sea) and the correct angle of vision (preferably looking obliquely), one would have the distinct feeling that all the buildings in Beirut are packed-up and ready to leave; most of them stand on slender columns that would aid them in their journey; their antennas and dish receptors look like fancy hats that one would wear on such a voyage; their balconies are empty suitcases and boxes waiting to be filled by the small histories that unfold in every apartment: long hours of anguish and fleeting moments of excitement. At those times, Beirut would resemble a large horde of escape boats aimlessly fleeing a sinking ship, and it would be the best time to sip a cup of coffee by the sea."
I want to return to this text to say that I am tired. I am tired of living for the sole purpose of accompanying friends to the airport (or to ports as of late, for them to be evacuated on ships to distant countries) in order for me to bid them goodbye and to wish them safe journeys. And frankly, I cannot imagine my life far from this place; true, this is the only country I have- but mostly, it is here that I learned the meaning of the words "here" and "there", and all my life I've been measuring the distance between them, and testing boundaries. My only solace is the firm knowledge that, even after centuries of my death, Beirut will always remain the dim and flickering light that guides all those who are lost in the deserts of the Orient, whether real or imagined. So send us your weak, your marginals, your unwanted, your freaks and monsters. In catastrophic times they shall become kings and queens, from under this cedar tree to the ends of the earth.