“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’ve written this paragraph as part of one of the sections in the installation “A Window to the World”; picking up from where I finished, one could ask the following: what would be left of the city for the person sipping coffee by the sea? Or, rather, maybe the tense of the question should be reversed: what was there before the ready-to-leave buildings on slender columns? An obvious answer of a geographical nature comes to mind: A narrow strip of land, flanked by two hills on its left and right, with the sea in front of it and the mountains behind it. Or is it the other way around? The coffee is Turkish you see, boiled a lot and very bitter: Is the sea in front of the city or behind it? Is Beirut leaning on the mountains, nourished by them, or is its back turned to them? Is the sea the final frontier to the west of a once vast Eastern Empire (Arab, Islamic or Levantine- it doesn’t matter anymore), or is it a challenge of expansion to a city always looking westward? A simple geographical description becomes charged with politics to the limit of catastrophe: some people call it the War, or the civil war, or the war of others on Lebanese soil, or the incidents, or the Lebanized wars (one of the manifestations of the catastrophic is exactly that: it has no name). But what the aporia of geography does is reveal Beirut as a terrible city. Terrible, like the God of the Gnostics, whose word would bring forth good and evil, life and death, construction and destruction. This face of the city would elude the occasional visitor, who would be presented with a more clement face: A city that expands, that opens up and embraces, an easy-going city where people eat well, drink well, dance well and are comfortable with making conversation. In fact, no one actually sees the city in retraction; when it is in that state it becomes unknowable, and would only manifest itself in multiple ruptures of experience. The debate over how should Martyrs’ Square be reconstructed after the war was one of those ruptures, with repercussions felt until this day, especially that in one way or another it was one of the causes for the assassination of prime minister Rafiq Hariri. The debate could be summarized as such: should Martyrs’ Square be opened to the sea, thus becoming a Parisian styled boulevard, or should it remain an enclosed square, in the traditional style of medieval Arab cities? What was debated was obviously more than the mere morphology of a square, in spite of the symbolic importance of that square in particular and its place in the history of modern Lebanon. Latent in that debate was Lebanon’s future; should it join the new economical world order and become a monetary paradise, thus refashioning its pre-war role as a country of a services, or should it get in line and accept the Syrian hegemony which purported to right the wrong of the 19th century European colonial forces, who “artificially” ripped Lebanon from its natural Motherland? Again: should Beirut look westward and open up to the sea or should it turn its back to it and look towards the mountains and beyond, towards Damascus, the “Beating Heart of Arabism”? Strangely enough, two of Beirut’s potential futures coexisted, un-peacefully, side by side for more than a decade, and even though the decision was taken by SOLIDERE (which had Rafiq Hariri behind it) to open the square to the sea, the plans remained on paper and Martyrs’ square remains un-built to this day. Furthermore, the constant collisions between these two projects would eventually lead to two things: First, the identification of Rafiq Hariri as the political leader par excellence by the Muslim Sunni community, and by other communities as a politician being practically persecuted by the forces of hegemony who never trusted him to begin with; that lead, secondly, to undermining the authority of traditional Sunni leaders who were always more comfortable looking beyond the mountains than towards the sea. Ultimately, this chain of events have lead to the assassination of Hariri, by an explosion targeting his car which was passing on a road siding the sea, with parts of the convoy and the bodies that it carried projected into the water. A few hours later, the body of the murdered was carried by hundreds of thousands to an empty esplanade waiting for its buildings, with the sea as its backdrop- an esplanade that people still insist on calling a “square”, whether Martyrs’ Square or Freedom Square as of late, and was buried there.
A city in retraction manifesting itself in a series of multiple ruptures: the rupture in the poetics of a place flanked by the Mediterranean and a biblical chain of mountains; the horizon line and a line constituting an “above”, with two different beyonds; a rupture in the relationship between a horizontal line and a curvilinear one hovering above it on the other side, and a rupture in how the people living on this strip of land experience what is above and what is below, what can and cannot be seen, what is near and what is far, and the limits between all of this. That is precisely what the sipper of coffee, turning his back to the city and facing the sea, tried to recapture, in full knowledge that there’s no mending what has been ruptured.