FLOWERS OF EVIL Area of uneasiness
FLOWERS OF EVIL Area of uneasiness
FLOWERS OF EVIL
A work of Etienne Krähenbühl TEXTS
David Collin Imane Humaydane-Younes PHOTOS
François Busson Daniel Hennequin Antoine Bersier Colin Mc Cormick Etienne Krähenbühl GRAPHICS
Arabad SA Fairouz Joudié / Hadrien Gliozzo www.arabad.ch PRINTERS
Imprimerie Saint-Paul, Fribourg
* The asterisks refer to the notes at the end of the book
FLOWERS OF EVIL Area of uneasiness A work of Etienne Kr채henb체hl Texts of David Collin and Imane Humaydane-Younes
Is that how things begin The Explosion The movement The earth in a state of gravity? Is that how things waste away? The star like the flesh Hate just like beauty? * Andrée Chedid, « Territoire du souffle » (Territory of Breath)
Foreword By François Barras, Swiss ambassador to the Lebanon and Hussein Rammal, Lebanese ambassador to Switzerland
You cannot quit the Lebanon unscathed because few countries arouse so many emotions. This country is a hymn to the beauty of the world which has everything to charm the visitor: a countryside which possesses the softness of the mediterranean, the majestic force of the mountains and the proximity of the vast deserts of the Orient, a tradition of incomparable hospitality among men and women of astonishing vitality and creativity. As an anthropologist I stand in wonder at every period of her history when I see the richness and diversity of her cultural and religious life. There, we still find the convivial and tolerant atmosphere of the Levant which unfortunately has disappeared elsewhere. It is also a land bruised by constant war, violence and political tension. This unsettling mixture of charm and of wounds touches our feelings to the quick: it is urgent not to lose an instant of the pleasures of life, a feeling of sadness and revolt at the tragic destiny of a whole country but especially the solidarity and the will to resist – a bearer of hope. The profound humanity of the Lebanon is very moving for me and causes me concern every day. François Barras Swiss ambassador to the Lebanon
Nobody can remain indifferent when we associate art and science, particularly when this art renders homage to our dear home-land – the Lebanon. These flowers, a symbol of past wounds bear artistic witness of great value to us. We offer our most sincere congratulations to the artist who created Flowers of Evil. Hussein Rammal Lebanese ambassador to Switzerland
FLOWERS OF EVIL A work of ÉTIENNE KRÄHENBÜHL Text by DAVID COLLIN
The former Prime Minister of the Lebanon was assassinated on the 14 February in a car-bombing attack in the heart of Beirut. Several other murder attempts followed which revived memories of brutality in the minds of the Lebanese and which devastated the country from 1975 to 1990. The country trembled again , it was covered with the rubble of war and wrecked the Lebanese hope for peace. Despite the destruction, an extraordinary popular mobilisation arose against this violence which was defying the Government. In 2006 a new war between Israel and the Hezbollah once again put The Lebanon to fire and sword. So the people lived the seeming fatality of an inevitable cycle of open or latent conflict. This interminable war has been going on for the last thirty years in the Lebanon. This Sword of Damocles, ever more threatening, hangs over the country and affects the Lebanese who are torn between an attitude of resignation, of discouragement and the will to resolve the problems, or rather we should say, not to allow violence govern their country. Of course, this does not depend solely on the Lebanese people who are perpetually caught in a stranglehold by their neighbours and by opposing forces in the interior of the country â€“ be they hawkish or resistants â€“ the people form movements of destruction which the others do not understand.
Sometimes this violence dies down but it is often revived by bombing attacks or by regional conflicts or even by local urban clashes like the ones which broke out between the Lebanese army and the Hezbollah. It was in this context that the Swiss sculptor Etienne Krähenbühl created a kind of memory field, a living field of sculptures inspired by the lively movements of the wheat stalks in the Lebanon. This work, so appropriately entitled “ Flowers of Evil ”, gathers fragments of voices, the frozen tears of the absent and becomes a poem which embodies the hopes of the living.
In a video film we can see these flowers perched on 1029 metal rods which the artist made with a shape memory form metal. By the magic of physics and thanks to the specific properties of this metal the rods oscillate according to the temperature and so cause waves of movement over the whole area of the field. These flowers are made out of 1029 pieces of shrapnel which were scattered over the mountains above Beirut. This field of flowers of evil resembles a garden of lavender and their delicate swaying movements are accompanied by a soundtrack of the composer Emil Elberger in which we can detect snatches of a maronite composition. A host of butterflies hover above the field of metal flowers. This recalls Japan to us, where butterflies symbolize the return of spirits back to nature. For example, in the film FUON (The wailing of the wind, 2004) which is placed on the island of Okinava, The director Higashi Yoichi tells how the young Shimazaki meets his mother and gradually discovers the treasures of the Island, the humid caves burrowed in to the cliffs above the sea. At the end of World War II the bodies of the Japanese kamikaze pilots were thrown up by the ocean after their last-ditch struggle. Shimazaki and his pals hear a sort of monotonous doleful chant which at first terrifies them as if they had seen a ghost until they realize that it is the wind howling trough the openings in the skulls of the kamikaze. All around the butterflies are congregating…*
On a carnation flower A white butterfly Or a lost soul* Haiku of Masuoka Shiki
In 2000 Etienne Krähenbühl was invited to Aley, in the Lebanon, to participate in a symposium of sculpture. When he met this population, so hungry for contact, he also discovered “ these fields of bruises*”; the open wounds were still in the flesh and the soul, in the earth and in the dust of this country mutilated by fire and sword. People spoke of their lives during the war as if it were an ancient legend, depicting their courageous fighters as if they were mythical heroes. They felt that their description was not sufficient and that more vivid evidence was necessary to convey the experience, so they rolled up their shirt sleeves and the calves of their legs to show the marks of shrapnel on their naked members. Stripped to the waist, they showed the stigmata and flesh shattered by the combat, declaiming their feats of arms for all to hear. “ The scars that you can see on our bodies ”, they echoed in unison, “ the parts that are full of scars, twisted, misshapen, bruised, you can touch them, you can see them, they are the proof that what we told you is not a fable. They are the realities of our lives in the flesh ”.
“The Wall and the souvenir”
Aley is a small tourist town inland from the Mediterranean coast at 800 metres and about 17 kilometres from Beirut. Here you walk on an astounding carpet of shrapnel, real undiluted fury. It is a game for the children to gather up these remnants of bombs, scattered everywhere; they place their baskets in front of the tourists, they have proudly assembled their souvenirs, they have paid homage to their fathers. Each relic tells of a missing person, hundreds of lost children, ghosts wandering in the ruins. During his visit to Aley, the sculptor Etienne Kr채henb체hl asked the children to bring him some fragments. Because he had come here to create a work of art in metal , he wanted to transform this material and make it into a memorial. When the children presented Etienne Kr채henb체hl with these deformed chunks of metal like sharpened flint, he was surprised at the rapidity and at the amount they had collected. The mountainside was strewn with these objects. He was also hypnotised by the material, by its weight and the density of the alloy and by the intensity of the emotion which they produced as well as his own astonishment at the sight of these objects. He trembled for a moment and then kept still.
He made a gesture of thanks without fully understanding the significance of the situation. Then he raised the piece of shrapnel to the sun which filtered through the branches of the only cedar tree left in the whole area. He decided to freeze the movement and place these murderous fragments on long supple rods. The splinters of metal would become flowers or spikes in a field of a thousand flowers of evil, suspended in the souvenirs of the winds. These bomb spikes burst the nights. The brutal depth of darkness, the heaviness of the mortar shells recall these giant red or black star like forms nesting in the hollows of the material. They are thick and threatening, They explode silently in the emptiness of a corner of the universe.
No horror in the world can out-do The cold cruelty of this icy sun And the immensity of the night which resembles ancient chaosâ€‰* Charles Baudelaire, Flowers of Evil
Flowers of Evil melt away into the night, the stems of shape memory form* alloy slump at twilight. The Flowers droop under the force of the cold, under the weight of their former function and they just hold on, thanks to the slender and fragile strength of the rods to which they are attached. The harmony is fascinating, shocking, it leaves us dumbfounded, it is marvellous and Flowers of Evil stand up to the ravages of time, bathed in rust and cutting edges. The people who approach them are far from feeling uneasy or in doubt facing these raised pikes of military lancers on the march; in the distance you can just make out the nourishing prospect of a field of blackened wheat, it is not clear but still creates an illusion; as we draw nearer we feel tiny shivers as we confront this uneasiness which returns at the sight of silex in bouquets. They glitter for a moment but what remains â€“ just hard cold metal. They are piping hot at the souvenir of the mid-day explosion, glacial as they curl up in the last shadows of night. The upright stance of the flowers is in stark contrast with the gravity of the charred and torn state of nature. It is the return of the memory of other violent scenes which today devastate the streets of the Lebanon and whole areas of Beirut.
With a touch of spleen and a touch of morbid melancholy Charles Baudelaire was obsessed by a feeling of nostalgia for a purity that could not exist. He composed “ Les Fleurs du Mal ” ( Flowers of Evil ). We cannot help feeling that these flowers are symptomatic of an unhealthy city that has had the lifeblood sucked out of it by modernity: Paris. The poem is closely akin to the sculpture and we could almost believe that Baudelaire is talking about the flowers of the Lebanon, he is thinking of another spectral city: Beirut, which was also penetrated by oblivion, written on all its walls, by all its corpses, by its rubble and by explosions of sharp memories.
The rich metal is completely atomized Now is the time when the trembling stem of each flower vanishes like the thin cloud of a thurible. The sounds and the perfumes move in the evening air: A melancholy waltz, a languid giddiness.â€‰* Charles Baudelaire, Les Fleurs du Mal
Dozens of car bombs were still projected against the walls in the Lebanon, deep in the depths of the soil, sprayed on the skin and in the corpses. Metal flowers murdered people, invisible bodies still roamed on the wind, murmuring across the fields of whirling shrapnel. The drooping flowers, stiffened in decrepitude turned into fossils by the sight of the cruel black sun. The poem and the sculpture, Flowers of Evil are both a call to the beauty of movement and the souvenir of never ceasing carnage. Hundreds of mortar shells fixed in time, memories still suspended, a field of souvenirs destroyed by the breeze and the heat, asking the spectators to assist at a phenomenon: a meeting that is apparently a contradiction between form and material that hug each other tightly and create an esthetical appeasement of woven stems, standing straight, bending again against the lively open place of a tragic souvenir. At the first faint light the flowers spring up again and regain their original form by a movement which restores them to their initial form. They are appeased and are a manifesto engraved in memory.
…EXTRACT BEAUTY FROM BEASTIALITY. *
A heavy cloud of dust and ashes fall slowly on the huge hole opened by the explosion of 14 February 2005 : a monstrous crater, a proof dug deep, of the bomb attack, debris all around, bodies scattered everywhere. The scene brings back to mind the televised pictures of panic, the weeping and tears, the unbearable spectre of a long murderous passage of the past. In the centre of this chaos, the twisted remains of something that no longer resembles an automobile, a black limousine which carried Rafiq Hariri to his death. The relics of war resurface when we observe the details, burned tyres on the macadam, engines ripped to pieces, anarchy in the transport of the wounded, sirens and alarm systems screeching in the empty streets of the city, so many scenes that we have witnessed, alas, too often. The gravity of the old battles are revived, we try to evaluate the forces of destruction involved, the enormous weight of the material which forge the mortar shells that are strewn in bits on the ground. It is a field of pain. The fragmented steel of so many explosions is to be found there, propulsed into the reality of our lives. ” Blood mingled with metal become Flowers of Evil* ”, they return to the centre and to the heart of a city paralysed by fear but firmly decided in their absolute refusal of any form of fatality; The Lebanese writer Mohamad Abi Samra notes : “ It is the weight of societies engrossed in thoughts of war… as if it were in their head, like a viper in the darkness ”.
When we refuse something today we are refusing to forget its existence; not to forget something which caused conflict in the country for fifteen years , never forget that violence always returns, the images of terror, the failings of politics, the repetition of the worst sufferings. In any case, how can you forget when bomb attacks, still explode in the capital and on the country roads, local clashes still occur to remind us of the worst moments of the civil war. How can we honour the memory and at the same time obliterate the horrifying souvenir from the hearth and from our mind? Perhaps by recognising the traces, the stigmata, by clarifying and classifying, by lining up the objects, by transforming the metal of death into the metal of life, the cataclysmic images will be a part of the pathetic album of all that we refuse. Anyway, flowers always flourish on the soil of The Lebanon, still cultivated by a secret hope of peace, metamorphosed by the poetic gesture of the sculptor. The scattered relics of the conflict are projected into the air and are to be found in the ambiguous and delicate field of Flowers of Evil. Etienne Kr채henb체hl sows the seeds of hope in spikes. It is a mirror of the unceasing work of the Arab Foundation for Visualisation in collecting, storing and exposing the dispersed memory of a culture, of a world destroyed and revivified; in giving a meaning to chaos, to past mistakes and to senseless behaviour. 10 000 negatives of the photos.
The artist and archivist and by force of circumstances – conference speaker, Waalid Raad* produced thorough and reliable files on 245 car bombs that blew up in The Lebanon between 1975 and 1991; a heap of emptiness displayed, an account of absurdity, a brilliant lesson to all. He, also, would have preferred not to re-live history, not to be forced to believe that it really took place but the facts are there. He analyses them mathematically before allowing us to meditate on the accumulation of numbers and photos. In an unvarying tone of voice during the conference he insists on the evidence, he explains the make and the model of the car, the typology of the engines. He projects the pictures of the car-bombs after the explosion on a wide screen; they are hardly recognizable, you can vaguely distinguish a pile of twisted metal and a mass of tangled cables tightly knotted and blackened. 40
Ejected into the clouds, the cars at first flew up silently into the sky after the deep echo of the explosion, then they fell with a heavy thud – a photo shot shows the path of the debris in the air – 15 metres above the ground. 145 photographs cut out of magazines as close as possible to the shapes of the objects, accompany this unerring demonstration, lists of models, of colours, of serial numbers, the year of construction and their mechanical performances. If these details seem to be, like Flowers of Evil , only tiny parts of history, yet they are condensed extracts of our memory as dazzling and naked as a poem.
One field may be like another, you see flowers or wheat on the horizon and a strange feeling of appeasement. There is a sentiment of zen in this field of metal ears of wheat, something which makes us think further ahead, beyond the eternal cycle of conflicts, beyond the influence of time. By walking through Flowers of Evil , by wandering in their vicinity, one becomes lucid and prudent, liberated from the helpless look of one who does not know or does not want to know. We have clearly decided that there should no longer be bomb fragments in our gardens. Brushed aside by the crisp winds, Flowers of Evil by Etienne Krähenbühl still sow the seeds of the message. Each ear of wheat splinter, each flower is a word which hurls out a “ no ”, a shout uttered by the last of the survivors.
AN A PROPOS ABOUT FLOWERS OF EVIL An interview of ÉTIENNE KRÄHENBÜHL by DAVID COLLIN Monday 4 July 2005
DC : In order to clarify the genealogy and the symbolic importance of The Flowers of Evil, let’s get back to the origins of the project. It all began in the Lebanon during a symposium on the subject of sculpture… EK : The Lord Mayor of the small village of Aley, just above Beirut, decided to organize a symposium to draw attention to a region which has been devasted by war. He wanted to invite artists who would be the guests and also the witnesses of past events and who would be asked to create original works of art. Prior to the war, Aley was the mountain resort for Beirut. People came for their holidays or the week-ends to be at an altitude where the climat was cool. After the war and seventeen years of destruction in the town, the Lord Mayor encouraged the inhabitants to re-build Aley. He incited the people to return and to each person who re-built a house he offered a sculpture by one of the invited artists. A parting gift in return for their work. During the first symposium most of the sculptors were from Beirut. They had different religious or political convictions. For the second symposium in 2000 the invited sculptors remained in residence for a month. I was able to live my passion in an extraordinary atmosphere and work on a site which dominated a majestic valley.
After 17 years of war, people no longer spoke to eachother. But Aley was to become a fascinating meeting place for me. In Switzerland there has not been war for such a long time that it is difficult to understand why people do not communicate after a bitter conflict. I was astounded by the discussions I had with the local people. Since I work with materials and particularly with metal I asked the children to bring me some bits of sharpnel with which they play. With this exploded metal, these scraps, these fragments scattered over the mountain side, I would make a sculpture. DC : What did you know of the civil war 1975 – 1990 before going to Lebanon? EK : I knew of the television pictures but not much else. Television showed gutted buildings, wrecked houses, check points, lives destroyed, families separated. I also had contact with Lebanese people who were living in Switzerland, like Fairouz the graphist, with whom I was working and with whom I studied in Fine Arts School. I was conversant with a certain reality in the Lebanon but before going there I could never have imagined that the concrete reality of war was so horrible, so destructive. DC : Before going there, did you already know the subject on which you were hoping to work? EK : Yes and no. Before I departed for the Lebanon my private life was rather hectic. I just had the idea that I would create a sculpture that would change with the wind and I was conscious that there was a lot of wind on the mountainside at Aley. This would be a sculpture offered to the wind : pieces of polished metal surmounted by slender shafts that would wave in the wind. The idea was to have a truncated square that would stand out against the sky. The Lord Mayor immediately accepted this project when it was presented to him. The work would be accomplished on site. In the course of operations, the fact that sharpnel was everywhere on the ground made me completely change my original idea.
DC : Why so many fragments on the Aley mountainside? EK : During the war, the mountain which overlooks Beirut was held by the Druzes.They fought fiercely to defend this key position. The militia fighters all attacked this strategic mountain during the seventeen years of civil war. When I thought of Flowers of Evil as the theme of my work I asked an official if I could have a hundred fragments of shrapnel to create the sculpture. He hailed three youngsters and in a few minutes they were back with the required number of pieces. At this precise moment I became conscious of the intensity of the destruction and I realized that I must analyse the collective memory of this tragedy. DC : Was it easy to have discussions with the inhabitants about what really happened on the mountain of Aley? EK : Since the organizers of the symposium were also active combatants there was a sort of respectful silence when I brought up the subject. Out of a sense of modesty and decency, I refrained from asking certain questions on the subject of the war. I had been invited to make a sculpture and not to lead an enquiry into the war. One of the most interesting aspects of a symposium like this is to be found in spontaneous meetings. In the evening, for example, when the discussion goes on late into the night on a balcony; that is where confidences were exchanged and whispered softly and that is where my strong desire to work on the stigmata of the war was born. From that moment, I had automatic access to the sites. When the former combatants saw Flowers of Evil , they were taken aback by my work and by the reasons which led me to create it. When they learned that I was talking about the stigmata of war, I was able to visit the sites at will and have many direct witnesses of events. But once Flowers of Evil was completed – bouquets of shrapnel which did not yet have a name, people saw it and asked with great perplexity what it was supposed to represent. Contemporary art in the Arab or
Lebanese world has not yet formed part of prevailing attitudes to art. They are traditional materials such as stone, gold or flashy jewellery, and this in rather abstract styles. They are closer to script than the figurative expression except for the human figure ; but once you enter the world of abstract art, then things become more delicate. Thanks to trainee interpreters and the technicians working on this project I had contacts that ran very deep. People even went so far as to bare their arms or legs and show me their wounds, the traces of war still apparent on their bodies. I was really shattered by this demonstration and I could never have imagined working on something so significant and so important. DC : The traces on the bodies was the missing element of the fragments found on the ground? EK : Yes, there are scars of an unspeakable nature, one could say ; because you can only see the traces that are left. Yet, the whole story is told. DC : This direct connexion between the wound and the traces in the flesh, must have rendered the project rather delicate, especially when you are face to face with the witnesses and the bodies? EK : When this event took place I thought of dropping the project, even though I had collected about ten kilos of these high explosive shells before returning to Switzerland. The fragments were huddled in a corner of my workshop and I was wondering how I could tell this story without falling into the anecdotal or the superficial. It took a long period of mental gestation to give a meaning to these objects and to my work. DC : A rather special meeting encouraged you to take up and modify the project with the fragments you had brought from the Lebanon:
EK : A large part of my research concerns materials which are called shape memory form. I carry out this research with the help of experts in the EPFL in order to put their results into practice or to develop techniques; This forms part of my activity. Then suddenly – a miracle! These two worlds collided. The idea of putting these pieces of shrapnel from Aley on top of shape memory form rods became evident in an instant. An artificial mineral completely created by man with the purpose of making a war explosive, that means using all his intelligence in favour of death now met up with an alloy deemed intelligent and used in favour of medicine – what a paradox! This alloy of nickel titane metal is used in several medical fields, as in heart operations for example. It was incredible to be able to blend these two metals with such strong symbolic content. Then Flowers of Evil became vegetal because the simple application of heat could give movement to the metal. DC : We find this duality of the medical instrument and the arms that kill in these meteorites which were formerly used as instruments or as arms. Like explosive shells meteorites also fall from the sky. EK : Quite true. In the mythology of metals, once we began to fabricate metal objects it was said they had fallen from the heavens because they were found on the ground as hard and resistant as a meteor. As soon as we had a celestial object in our hands two uses were open to us, either to build or to destroy. This duality is also to be found in the Bible where it is said : “ You will transform your arms into ploughshares ”. I don’t know if the traces of this myth are to be found in the Arab world but it certainly belongs to our cultural origins, it influences all communities to a large extent. DC : Let’s get back to shape memory form alloy and let’s see how time is a constant in your work. You often work on the element of duration and of memory. This project of Flowers of Evil show your principal preoccupation as an artist.
EK : Quite true, the question of suffering and of heartrending separations are ever present in my work and my life for such a long time. For me it is not simply an aesthetical way of presenting things. I can hear the echo of this issue deep down in my own person. The very concept of this work, of these pieces of shrapnel goes even further. I saw the memorial in Beirut created by the sculptor Armand when he stacked tanks on top of eachother. It is very strong, very powerful and perhaps megalomatic in a certain sense. I feel that we always erect monuments for the people who are dead, for those who have left this world, for people who can no longer see them. Why not build a memorial in honour of those who have been brushed aside or excluded because of their suffering or wounds. Why not allow them to alter the symbolism of Flowers of Evil into a symbol as “ grains of hope ”? Why not create a memorial where each injured person or somebody who has lost a dear one could plant one of these flowers as a symbol ; flowers which continue to wave according to time and the winds thanks to the memory of the alloys and will also symbolize the physical traces and the souvenirs? All the work of composition into the metal can also become simple writing, embellished with images and can offer hope to those who have lost all hope. DC : What, for you, is the difference between a memorial to the dead and a memorial to the living? EK : Today we have to face up to a new form of perversity. Previously, a war tried to kill as many people as possible. Now a war tries to wound the greatest number of people because we know by simple mathematical and cynical calculation that an injured person needs many carers to look after him; it calls for much energy and expense in equipment and in personnel. This system is truly perverse. The people who have been pushed aside after the war because of their wounds are both present and absent. When someone dies he has the right to honours and even a monument but what rights has a person who is suffering agony ?
DC : In your sculptures you almost always use metal, a rusted metal, attacked by time, by the cold and would seem untypical of you, but which often, and particularly in this case very clearly is closely allied to the flesh. These bomb fragments have injured, killed and gone right through human bodies. What effect has this had on your work? EK : In principle the sculptor or the artist gives a meaning to the material. In the context of this particular work the point is that when you look at it for the first time you perceive that it is very aesthetic, beauty is to be found in the movement and in its gracious lightness. In a large part of my work I contrast lightness and gravity – The Unbearable Lightness of the Cube, for example. I play with words in order to play with essential sentiments. It means that in this case we are bound together, we have a gravity that is literal and has a figurative sense. Consequently this work Flowers in Evil , at first sight seems delicate and gracious but once you read the message of the sculpture you are petrified. Then you also walk into a sort of perversity; beauty can be fearsome, it can generate a feeling of the extreme; it is striking in this case that a surface beauty penetrates the flesh thanks to a word or a picture formed by our imagination. I was quite surprised when I presented this work at some exhibitions to see that most people are also filled with wonder and are dumbfounded. It is most unusual to experience such an emotion. DC : They are flowers which cut and slice ; there is beauty in them but these flowers tear apart and penetrate bodies. EK : The object itself is aesthetically very beautiful but at the same time these fragments have been in the soil and in human beings for fifteen years and today they are to be found almost intact. So has man made objects which are transformed into rasor blades in order to devastate and they are allowed to get away with it. I think it is most important to render this perversity visually evident.
When one sees the work of Etienne Kr채henbuhl, Flowers of Evil, this text of Imane Humaydane-Younes is situated right in the centre. She is a Lebanese writer, who is impregnated by the question of civil war and the troubles which are doing violence to the Lebanon. She is a witness and she tells us some of the story.
ATTITUDE By IMANE HUMAYDANE-YOUNES Translated from Arab by Valérie Creusot
Ambiguous and complex… How otherwise can I describe my connection with Beirut, with the old and with the present-day Beirut. I suddenly realize that my souvenirs of the city are composed only of wars. That short period of my life which had only memories of some kind of conflict or other, must have been banished from my mind. In those days I went very rarely to Beirut. It is strange, but when I try to recall my years as a child my memory does not work in a straight line but rather a sinuous path, as if all the souvenirs which return to the surface are mixed up with experiences repeated by my elders. Certainly, I must also have lived through some of these events, at least in part, or perhaps I had just heard people talk of them. These memories, I suppose are linked to facts that lead me right back through a spiral or circular movement to the point of departure. After so many years of violence and wars, followed by doubtful periods of peace to which everybody tried to cling with a fragile hope, I always find myself back at zero. How many times have I said : “ Beirut was the city of my dreams ”. At present I am beginning to have my doubts about this “was the city”, I am no longer certain that this town ever really existed. But because you are feeling totally helpless and confused, you lose your sense of security and certitude, but is it really necessary to apologize? Maybe invent a story that you have never lived?
I never thought that I would have to live through another war after the interminable conflict which destroyed fifteen years of my youth. How was I to bear another war when I hadn’t – and never will – accept the previous one, nor the one before, nor the one before that…” It is the fourth war which we have seen since 1967” one of my friends reminded me during the conflict of last summer (12 July – 14 August). We never stop talking about war, whether it is about the one that is just behind us or the one which is just around the next corner. In Beirut, conversations about war reminds us of divine predictions: you are talking about a future based on the past.
In the middle of the 90s I had to renew my acquaintance with Beirut. It had just been wrecked by war. Each time I wandered through the streets, I saw a new building arise on the construction sites I was overcome by a feeling of nostalgia. I was nostalgic for the ruins buried under these brand new houses. Beirut seemed to be an immense cemetery of memories. In this debris of war which has been assembled by mechanical diggers for the property developers, remains a part of myself, a part of my flesh which only yesterday witnessed a violence which I can never forget. It is not sufficient simply to say “after the war” in order to situate a particular event of our past life: now we have to fix to exact war of which we are talking: the first? The second? The third? In 2006, Beirut went through an exhausting summer. Exhausted by violence with daily shelling. Yet, I felt quite safe in this café by the sea, “the Rawda”. This is characteristic of Beirut: death is quite close, and you know it, but you don’t feel nervous, you don’t even think of seeking shelter. Why should I be afraid? To be haunted by the fear of death is nothing but the fear of the unknown and in Beirut death is not something unknown. It can roam around, I would fall asleep and leave my door unlocked. The Israelian fleet was shelling the southern suburbs. Sitting at the “Rawda” I heard the mortar shells whistling over my head.
Instead of rushing home I stayed put in the café. Only a short distance separated me from death, a distance which depended on a slender chance: luck.. In another café of Beirut a waiter told me how an Israelian warship hit the summit of the new lighthouse of Beirut. He told the story with such detachment that I felt I was listening to a story that he had never lived but rather had his grandfather. “ We saw a boat approaching the shore. The men on board began shooting a hail of bullets into the water in the direction of the café, just to spread a bit of panic. It was no use, we merely stayed there observing them. Then they drew near to fire a rocket at the top of the lighthouse. This time we were so terrified that nearly everybody threw themselves into the sea!” In Beirut, we have no other choice but to flirt with death. To be a neighbour of death is a way of life here. Last summer, Monot street had become a hub of activity even before the war had ended. It was crowded every evening. We had become used to going out dancing within an ace of death. We could calculate exactly how near it was, but most of the time we were deafened by the music to the point that the little interior voice which tried to warn us, was drowned; the voice that suggested we should be surprised by a sudden increase in violence at dawn. When we met among friends we avoided the phrase “how are things?” We were simply happy to be still here, still alive. War limited the scope of my movements. I went from Achrafieh, the Sanayeh garden, Hamra street and then on to the area of the American University and from there down in the direction of the “Rawda” café. Even if my trips were shorter than usual, on the other hand they were more rapid and undertaken with more stress. The war of July 2006 came to make me conscious that I knew next to nothing about the southern part of Beirut. There, entire buildings were demolished and as they crumbled you could see the cots of children who had fallen asleep peacefully just as they had finished their evening bottle of milk.
I seemed to have had no souvenirs of my first meeting with Beirut but as soon as I began writing they suddenly came back to me. The door that opened up Beirut to me was the American University. My elder sister Samira who was thirteen years older than me was studying there. I was an eight-year-old when she brought me there. It was during the Easter holidays, I remember she had to spend her holidays in the boarding section to prepare for her trimestrial exams. The University was built on a small promontory going right down to the sea, it seemed to me a magic world. A world of people walking silently along the paths and across the lawns as if they did not want to make the slightest noise. A world of gigantic trees, tended to, all day long, even though they gave neither flowers nor fruit. In my village no trees were so well looked after. Even worse: nobody at all looked after them. At that time, the “common” decorative trees ended up as firewood in the stoves for heating in winter. I stayed for exactly three days in the American University. It was not only the door to Beirut but a miniature of this cosmopolitan city which I wanted to possess with just one look. On Easter Sunday morning from the balcony of the boarding section I saw my sister with her little basket hiding multi-coloured eggs here and there in the park. When she saw me she told to go instantly into the room. Soon her friends would be coming for the “egg hunt” and I must not know where she had hidden them. For what mysterious reason had Samira done that ? In our village we had fun breaking the Easter eggs, but we knew nothing about this custom “of the egg hunt.” Finally Samira’s friends arrived, babbling in English, happy as larks. In vain, I tried to understand them “you are too inquisitive” one of them said to me with a touch of a northern accent. “You want to know everything immediately. Patience. When you are older you will follow your sister’s example, you will come to study here.”
These young girls who had become the friends of Samira came from different regions and different social strata of the Lebanon. This short stay in Beirut when I was eight years old, showed me another side of my sister: a city dweller, as yet unknown to me. She was also, in her own way, a door which opened Beirut to me.
So, I discovered with fascination the street-side cafés around the American University and Hamra street. During the War of the 70s and the 80s and then after the fragile peace which followed, these closed down one after another. Some of them re-opened but under new names before closing again and this went on again and again. For example, “The Express” was almost empty, then became a “Pizza Hut” which in turn closed recently and again became “the Express”, the Modca” closed for good. Peace had forced it out of the area and it became a clothes shop (“Jack Jones”) which cleared out all traces of the former café. If they are not transformed into fashion shops, cafés or restaurants they are modified and became businesses of “Everything for Nothing”. Newspaper or magazine shops suffered the same fate, disappearance and a new short-time renaissance. Some were converted into clothing workshops where service uniforms for “good asiatics” who went into exile to work for a miserable salary (150 dollars per month). The cinemas ? Some are used today as warehouses (for local and imported goods) after having been a locale during the “fifteen year war” for torture centres used by members of the militia or by the Syrian secret service on kidnapped civilians. The aspect of Beirut is changing frenetically. Ever present in a perpetual masked ball, the town seems unable to find the best fancy dress for the occasion. The cafés, these restaurants which disappear, then re-open under new names… It is an interminable story of destruction, of re-construction and of changing identity. It is a city, a place whose existence is in abeyance, it lives, it dies, it comes back to life and so on…
New buildings arise next to constructions that are witness to the recent history of the city. They are close to each other but they are strained and silent as if they could not set up a conversation. No doubt, they are waiting for the next explosion of violence. Here, war does not belong to the past. It is the normal way of life. Beirut is overcome and then it is re-born. The cycle of life-deathresurrection is inscribed in our memories and moulds our attitude to daily events. It is impossible to fix any sort of a long term project. “Maybe to morrow”. “ We will see“ are the most frequent phrases that are used in Beirut, this signified the fragility of existence. It is a life that is always being postponed until next day without any guarantee of what will happen to morrow. Words which are braced up against the past, unable to construct anything in the present and demonstrate the fear of the future. To speak of the closure of a business and then of its re-opening, such is the daily bread of Beirut. To talk of a departure, of a return, then again of a departure without having even opened the bags. It is no different for certain parts of the town or of their names: they leave, they come back… only to depart again almost immediately. When Samir Kassir wrote his “ History of Beirut “ he most certainly wanted to patch together the fragments of this fractured memory. But of course he was assassinated. My daughter is a child of the new Beirut: of Hamra street in the 60s - 70s she has absolutely no souvenir, this street does not mean anything in particular for her. Hamra street is my own souvenir, it belongs to me; I had barely set up a friendship with this place when war came and torpedoed it. I will remain for ever in love with Hamra; between this street and myself there remains a relationship that has never been consummated. Moreover if I have not wept for Beirut from the depths of my soul, it is because I was not able to love the town as it deserved. In these conditions it is difficult to have a day of mourning. How do we know that those who lock the door and then return to unlock it,
do not act knowingly. In any case I like to think so. Perhaps they manage to interrupt an unfinished mourning, by necessity it must remain uncompleted. The transformation of places, the changes in names or shop signs would be just another way of digesting the war. I am nostalgic about the Beirut I never knew. I am ignorant of what it had been previously. People say “it was different then” supposing the Beirut of previously had never existed anyway? Supposing I was nostalgic for something that had never existed? Yet another sign of my confusion? I walk around Beirut – in war, Beirut in peace. It is a street, a café along the beach, an evening in a bar, reading a newspaper, maybe that of yesterday, but what does it matter? 65
It is Beirut in combat as if violence could never end and as if peace could never reign for ever. It is the city of an instant. Personally I am constantly divided between regrets for the past and fears for the future. Lost in the in-between. In the same instant, I am afraid to meet it face to face and also to let it go by. When, at last can I live with neither a feeling of nostalgia nor of apprehension? When can I live and taste the present to the full? I don’t want to write about Beirut as it was before. Much less to dream about it. I simply want to learn to live in the Beirut of today. Here and now.
Editions Flammarion, 1999. Andrée Chédid, of Lebanese origin, was born in Cairo in 1920
“ For me everything is in the present. There is in Japanese society a concept which suggest that anybody older than you is above you. In Okinawa things temporal are delayed and drawn out as if people lived longer than anywhere else. In Tokio yesterday is already well in the past. In Okinawa the past is present. And I learned from the citizens of Okinawa that human beings do not live without memory. Memory is not really in the past, it is the present”, the director explains. He also reminds us that the butterfly is the universal symbol of the spirit, a symbol of renaissance; its presence in Japan announces the death of a close relation, or the return of the spirit. The butterfly in Japan also represents a woman of easy virtue, a geisha or simply one of these Flowers of Evil , mentioned by Baudelaire. So, he named the old courtisanes of the cold quays of the Seine.
Haïku of Masuoka Shiki in Anhologie of a short Japanese poem, nrf-poésie, Gallimard, 2002, p. 112
This expression comes from Hélène Cixous in her preface to Chants de Mihyar le Damascène by the Syrian poet Adonis, nrf-poésie, Gallimard 2002.
“ De Profondis clamavi ” in Les Fleurs du Mal de Charles Beaudelaire, 1964, p. 59
The alloys of “ shape memory form ” change their form according to the temperature, and then assume their original situation. François Busson ( reporter ) and Rolf Gotthardt ( physicist and Professor at the “ Ecole polytechnique fédérale de Lausanne ” ) have written an excellent treatise : Mémoire de forme, formes en mémoire, Presses Polytechniques et universitaires romandes, 2002.
“ Harmonie du soir ” in Les Fleurs du Mal de Charles Beaudelaire, Garnier – Flammarion, 1964, p.33.
Drawn from the project of a preface in Les Fleurs du Mal by Charles Baudelaire, Garnier - Flammarion, 1964, p.243.
Complete quotation : “ Thousands of fragments of the soil of the Lebanon have fallen into a field of pain. They grew up in the lightness of the wind. They tell the story of what happened in these grave moments where blood mixed with metal became flowers of evil. ” (Etienne Krähenbühl).
“Field of pain On this red soil a grain of hope has been sown.”
Waalid Raad a multimedia Lebanese artist, lives in the U.S.A. He combines word for word analysis, photos and results. Raad documents the history of contemporary Lebanon in a project which started in 1999 : The Atlas Group.
“4000 Explosions in the lebanese sky landed in a field of pain. They were raised by the lighness of the wind. They tell the story of what happened in these dramatic moments where blood and iron were transformed into flowers of evil.”
MY THANKS GO TO
to François Barras, Swiss ambassador to Hussein Rammal, Lebanese ambassador to Fairouz, Hadrien and Aude to Emile Ellberger to Jean-Philippe Assal to Catherine and Bernard Labouchère to Fanny Mossière to my family and to all my Lebanese and Swiss friends who permitted me to be a witness against the absurd Supported by : Research and formation foundation for patients
Achevé d’imprimer en février 2008 à l’imprimerie Saint-Paul, Fribourg. Tiré à 1200 exemplaires. ISBN 978-2-88474-099-9
9 782884 740999
Published on Aug 13, 2011