Beirut: the last available lies

Lebanese artist Ghassan Halwani in talk with Angelika Stepken.

Ghassan, you gave a lecture a short time ago at Villa Romana and started speaking about the two kinds of time you live in: one of them being the Western art system with its logic and its market, but also its period of concentration, and the other being your far tenser time in Beirut, where you work mainly as an activist. Could you explain what this means for you, living with or between two times?

Living within two moments simultaneously is a fairly problematic thing. This started when I was younger, after I left Lebanon for Paris to continue my university studies. The truth behind my departure, however, was not to study, but to escape military service, which was obligatory back then. As you can imagine, my background and my goals were very different from those of my European friends in the classroom; this was compounded by the circumstances and times I grew up in in Beirut. I didn’t have any longer-term plan for my studies; my ambitions were limited to short-term material achievements.
Prior to my arrival in Europe, I would gone through some highly emotional and physical experiences. And then I encountered the theoretical part of my education: the history of Western art, intellectual currents, schools of thought and movements, and all of it coming mainly from a European experience. At the beginning, it came as a shock to realize that my previous experiences did not apply in this context and at this time in the world. But after the shock subsided, I opened up and was ready to acknowledge and learn Western intellectual history and the world’s leading contemporary practices.
In 2005, I decided to quit my studies in Paris for another tangible physical reason: the assassination of the Lebanese prime minister. I learned about the incident as I was standing at the door to the classroom. We were about to discuss a section of Roland Barthes’s La Chambre Claire. It was a very violent moment in Beirut, and I realized that if I crossed the threshold and entered the classroom, I would be entering Europe’s realm, and I decided not to. I was sure a new period was about to begin in Lebanon and the region.

You were studying photography at the time?

Yes. And at the moment I decided to quit, I sensed very clearly that I was split between European time and Middle Eastern time.

… So it is not about living in another reality, but in another time?

Yes. I am not sure how exactly to distinguish between the two terms. I can think of one example: Western Europe’s experience with war occurring on its own territory. Today, Western Europe thinks about these wars from a distance, as part of its past. We could say that today, Western Europe lives in the future of its past wars on its own land. In the Middle East, we are currently living in a time of war, in the present.
The decision to leave Europe meant abandoning my European perspective. During my presence there, and under the influence of my studies, my ambitions shifted from local and personal interests to embrace universal discussions and timeless subjects and practices. So my decision to return to Beirut meant reentering a local discussion with a highly specific public.

I wonder if that is necessarily a contradiction?

It is not a contradiction, but a change in the language and tools used. And there is certainly a clear difference in what I aim for in that discussion. To maintain a discussion within the locality of a region means to specify the social and political discussions involved, which renders my work a technical achievement. To take it outside the locality maintains the project into more of a discussion.

Did you experience these two kinds of time again during your stay in Florence?

While I was in Florence, I felt very far from the other side of the Mediterranean Sea. Rather than taking an airplane, I felt I needed to swim to the other side to realize how far away I was. And when I tried to swim to the other side, I realized that I had no arms, like the ancient classical female statues of the West. This feeling was a product of my own Western baggage. What I mean is, I felt the need to be closer to my own regional experience. But sometimes, when I work from an art platform in Beirut, I experience that same distance. I feel the influence of my foreign experiences.

In what ways?

For example, in the discussions rising around the subject of memorials. It makes me wonder—where does this idea of memorials dedicated to several subjects in relation to the Lebanese war come from? We have not even resolved the issues of the civil war yet, so isn’t it too soon to be thinking of memorials? Someone was talking about a memorial for the people who went missing during the civil war. We’re still looking for these people, it is a huge crime, but the artist is already one step ahead, living in another time with all these foreign influences and experiences, all ready to erect his memorial.
From another perspective, a film of mine was shown several times in Europe in programs titled Films from Beirut, or Young Artists from the Middle East, or Lebanese Film Program, and so on. Every time I followed the discussion, I realized that the film was perceived as a film about war, whereas in reality it was an adaptation of a fairy tale. I suspect the problem has to do with the strategy the programming takes.
This causes me to doubt that we have to make certain decisions in order to be more efficient when we confront a global public.

But what would happen if you avoided such efficiency? Would you become more intimate with a local public? You also mentioned another conflict, between being an artist and an activist…

As I said earlier, I believe that tailoring my work’s language toward a local public means to me adopting a technical strategy for approaching the subject, in which my aim is to initiate local discussion or action. This does not exclude showing the work abroad, in case an opportunity arises. This necessitates a decision regarding whether I approach the matter from an artistic perspective or an activist perspective. I am not saying there’s necessarily a contradiction between the two. But when I take an artistic approach, I take a certain issue and make it the subject of my personal work. I take the time I need to do this, and then I present it when I am ready. When I choose an activist approach, however, I am abstracting myself from the image, and I implement different tools and languages. And certainly the timing between the two choices is completely different.

But it seems to me that your long-term project on the visibility of the missing people enabled these realities, these two states of being to overlap.

Yes. Earlier, I had drawn a clear line that I decided I would never cross: bringing the cause of the missing people into my art practice. Now I am crossing this line. My relation to this cause is very complicated. As a result of my own personal involvement, I have always been active in this cause; for years now I have been working with the committee of the families of the missing people. A few years ago I took part in a workshop with the International Red Cross that focused on how to deal with the situation of mass graves. Physically and politically.

May I interrupt you for a moment? When you arrived in Florence, you found a book on the missing people in our library and immediately asked me: why is this here? Where is it from? Only weeks later, during your lecture, did I learn that this is a very personal issue for you, because your father disappeared.

Yes, he was kidnapped from the house in 1982. And I was very shocked to discover the book in the Villa library. In the beginning, I visited the library several times, and a few weeks later the book of the missing people from Lebanon suddenly jumped out at me. That initial moment was very intense. It is not a very large library, and there’s only one book about Lebanon, and it is about the missing people. I immediately felt the fear from the perspective of these institutions’ work. I mean the institution behind making the book—and the fact that it’s able to place a copy in the library of a place as far away from Lebanon as Florence.

I interrupted you at the point where you were talking about the Red Cross workshop…

Yes, the workshop about the mass graves seemed to be a kind of fantasy in terms of putting all this learning about violence to action. You’re barely allowed to take photos in Beirut, and so how could we imagine getting permission to dig on a crime site!
Your earlier question addressed how I crossed the line and brought the cause of the missing into my artistic practice today.
In April 2008, I was walking very close to a wall in a street in Beirut; suddenly something very small caught my attention. I stopped to have a look at it. It was a very small printed image, around two centimeters in size, of my father’s face. A part of his chin, his ear, and his hair were scratched. It was the first time I had encountered an image of him in public. It was a violent moment. The image was very small, part of a huge grid of nearly one hundred photographs on a poster announcing an exhibition about the missing persons, put on by an archiving institution. It is the same institution behind the book in the Villa’s library.

The UMAM project, which published the catalogue you found in our library?

Yes. My first impression during that brutal encounter was the feeling that I was losing this same person a second time. Inside that grid, he seemed anonymous, collapsed in order to fit the format. Whether it is the format of the cause or of the design.
I had a pencil with me, and so I started filling in the scratched parts of his face, to heal them. When I confronted the moment, I realized that new layers of feelings were emerging in my relationship to this old, well-known story of mine. Something different was coming out, something beyond the struggle for truth and the activist work. But I did not do anything about it. That moment tormented me for a long time. Two years later I took part in the workshop about the mass graves, as I mentioned before. After absorbing all the information I learned there, my inability to put it to action made me think about crossing the line I would set for myself.
In February 2013, almost six years after the incident with the poster in the street, I was still tormented by what had happened. I decided to try to find this poster again. Instead of excavating the land to recover the bodies, I dug my way through six years of advertisements on the walls of Beirut, looking for the small printed faces buried underneath. Doing this turned out to be richer than I thought. The layers of posters became like an archive of what had happened in the country during the past six years.
When I started finding the faces, they were in terrible shape from all the rain, sun, and paste. Most of the persons depicted were no longer recognizable.
It is also an inherently contradictory process, because when the posters first appeared, you were very opposed to using these people’s faces in a way as public as this. And now, six years later, you view them as a layer of forgotten history.
Someone has unleashed the beast. Let the beast be! You cannot start something of such magnitude and then let it to be forgotten.

Is the reality of the missing people still present in Lebanon today? Or is it as hidden as the posters?

It is an ongoing battle to keep them present among the constantly changing realities of the country. It is very difficult to keep them visible, with all that has happened and is still happening, especially in a state that’s eager to erase the traces of the civil war, that’s committed to forgetting.

No one was ever made politically responsible?

No. Instead, it is a crime of once again killing the corpses of those killed earlier. The first crime was cleared by a general amnesty in 1991. I always wonder if the amnesty extends to this new crime.

You were talking about how, through rediscovering these layers of public images, you were also confronted with the changes that have taken place in the city, the new construction sites, new economic strategies. Before we started this interview, you showed me some new drawings. Are these works the next step in detaching the missing from real space and bringing them to another level of narration, of artistic language?

The first place I went to search for these images was the site of the poster incident in 2008, a parking lot. When I got there, I wandered around the area for a while. It was strange that I was not able find the wall, or even the parking lot. I began to doubt myself. After a while I succeeded in locating it, or rather where it used to be. In its place was a huge, newly erected building, which had disoriented me. The wall was gone; the city changes very fast. Ideals, landscapes, ambitions, trend — even the laws change, so they can be squeezed into any corrupt project they need to.
When I realized that I was unable to understand all the different complex layers I was encountering during this archaeological work, I decided to film the process.
Now, I make these drawings because I started to think of it all in a project mode. But I’m still very doubtful about this change and about what I am doing.
When I finally found the fragments of the posters on two walls in the city, I identified the persons, healed the faces of those I recognized, wrote their names, their dates of births, the dates and places of their kidnappings. And left them there. There was nothing beyond that. No project, no exhibition…
It came as a happy surprise that the young guys hired to install the posters in the streets chose not to cover over the faces—ever again, actually. They took care to put their posters up around them.

A sign of attention and respect?

Yes, it was beautiful, a form of adoption and concern. I felt a kind of support and understanding that came across in a simple way, without words or any sort of presentation.
But as I’ve said, after that I started to elaborate on this with a project that I still call into doubt every day.
I am convinced—but I hesitate in saying this—that the cause needs a new form of approach, especially among the younger generations. They act as if they had no clue about the horrible realities that have taken place on the land they’re walking around on.
A very sad, but very important accident made me think about how urgent it is to begin a new form of writing about the cause. A mother of two missing children was hit by a car and killed on the spot. She was the last member of this family. The family was now extinct. As we were about to bury her, we realized that her DNA provided the last means for identifying her two missing children, if their bodies were ever recovered. At the last moment, a small sample of her DNA was extracted. Suddenly, her DNA seemed to me to be a legacy of truth.

The DNA as a seed for truth, for future history?

Theoretically, yes. But I’m not all that optimistic about truth in future history, although we want to at least establish the true identity of the persons that we hope to recover. It certainly led me to compare a truth of this kind with the ones the militias are still quarrelling about in terms of whether or not to include them in the history books of the school curriculum.

Do you have some kind of story line, or does the project tend to develop from fragments and images?

The project works more in the form of an anthology of poems. Each act is an attempt to read through one of the key events that directly affect the traces of these missing persons. Examples of these key events, incidents, or circumstances are the law of general amnesty, the reconstruction strategy over crime sites, the measures taken by the state, the wars that came after the civil war, the representation of the missing persons inside our society, the death of the woman I just mentioned…
A visualization of such key events may allow for a better understanding of why some people still want to search, exhume, and identify.

The drawings you showed me earlier seemed to speak to several different social and physical layers of urban life in Beirut. Yet isn’t the main subject still the missing?

Yes, but all these different layers commingle and are connected.

… Is this about the culture of a country, what people are speaking about and what not, what is visible, what is hidden?

Yes, exactly, it is about scratching the representative figures and new ideals within our society to reveal what’s been hidden behind these new walls. We have a lot of secrets. I wonder how we are able to function as a society, with so many secrets. We are using our last resources: the last available lies. At some point, it’s all bound to collapse or explode. I hope it will be a collapse.

Because it would make a kind of reconciliation process possible?

Probably! I believe we need one true common story, and the easiest one is the one that can be scientifically proven. None of our contemporary stories is eligible or is acknowledged by everyone. Stories about the civil war come in many versions in order to fit each community’s politics and ambitions.
In Sarajevo and in Cyprus, for example, fighting communities had to work together on cases of the missing and mass graves. They were forced to take part in a scientific and technical process. The local communities had to do the heavy and hard work—dig, exhume, and identify—and not the international organizations. The international organizations provided the technical information and supervised the work, but that was it.

Now you’re drawing a connection between the local and the global, which was a difficult issue at the beginning of our talk. In what form or format will you deal with it in the future?

All these cases of missing persons all around the world have something very much in common. At a later stage, Pinochet scattered the bones of his victims in the Atacama Desert, in an attempt to erase the evidence of the crime. In Lebanon, thousands of bodies were thrown in the Mediterranean Sea and God knows where. In Argentina, the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo led a similar struggle to that of the mothers in Lebanon.
I understand that there is a common denominator, either in the logic of the perpetrator or in the struggle of the mothers or in the way a society deals with its murky past. How a criminal treats with his crime or how a person treats with his loss seems to lie in human nature, rather than in geographical experience. In my project, I am focusing on the local and individual experiences within the paradoxical realities of Beirut. I believe that these individual experiences are very similar to those lived in Sarajevo, Chile… But there is one major difference: In many cases in these other countries, the families were able to recover the remains of their missing relatives. In our case, we can only speculate on what such recovery would mean and what its impact would be.

You are planning to return to Beirut after three months in residency at the Villa. Several other artists are thinking about leaving Beirut, due to the high tension of political events and the huge difficulties in everyday living conditions.

It is getting harder now for everyone. I have tried to live elsewhere, but there is always something that draws me back to Beirut. It is like a black hole. I am concerned about what is happening in Lebanon and the region, but not as an artist or an activist. I have everything there: my family, my friends, my stories. It is horrible to be outside the country and to read about what is happening there in the newspapers.