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The Impossible Archive of Beirut

Claire Launchbury
University of Leeds

Addressing how the postcolonial legacy of the French mandate has combined with
postcivil war memory cultures, this article assesses contemporary Lebanese
cultural production which has taken an archival turn. This archival turn is not,
however, a return to a form of empirical epistemology; instead, the works in ques
tion, converge, contest, and make contingent mutable truth forms, be they
narrative, performative, experiential, or judicial. The impossibility of archiving the
many traces of trauma and destruction still evident in the urban fabric of Beirut
leads artists to pursue parafictional dimensions where trust, plausibility, and decep
tion are deliberately demanded in the reception of the works. Working at the
interstitial boundary between the historical and the political, this archival turn is a
counter to stateled amnesia in postwar Lebanon, which prioritises nostalgia for
the heady days and nights when Beirut was the Paris of the Middle East, over
processes of transitional justice in which truth and reconciliation might properly
help to recognise the aftereffects of fifteen years of internecine conflict.

En se concentrant sur la manire dont lhritage postcolonial du mandat franais

sest entreml aux cultures de mmoire de laprsguerre civile au Liban, notre
article porte sur la production culturelle libanaise qui sest tourne vers larchive.
Ce tournant nest pas un retour vers une sorte dpistmologie empirique; en
revanche, les uvres examines questionnent, unissent, contestent et construisent
des revendications de vrit contingentes, qui adoptent diffrentes formes; elles
peuvent tre narratives, performatives, exprientielles ou juridiques. Limpossibi
lit darchiver les nombreuses traces du trauma ou de la destruction toujours
visibles dans le paysage urbain de Beyrouth amnent les artistes explorer plus
avant des dimensions parafictionnelles o la fiabilit, la plausibilit et la tromperie
sont dlibrment exiges au moment de la rception de luvre. En oprant la
frontire interstitielle entre lhistorique et le politique, ce retour aux archives sop
pose lamnsie tatique du Liban daprsguerre, qui privilgie la nostalgie des
jours et nuits de folie dune poque o Beyrouth tait le Paris du MoyenOrient
plutt que les processus de justice transitionnelle grce auxquels vrit et rconci
liation mettraient en lumire les rpercussions dun conflit fratricide qui a dur 15

Keywords: amnesia, archive, Lebanon, memory, postconflict

Independent from French control since 1943, the small state of Lebanon was
created by the archetypal founding postcolonial act of violence as it was parti-
tioned off from the neighbouring Arab state of Syria in a bid to protect the
Francosphres, vol. 3, no. 1 (2014) doi:10.3828/franc.2014.7
100 Claire Launchbury

interests of the largely francophone Maronite Christians of Mount Lebanon.1

This tiny country on the Eastern Mediterranean had been under French influ-
ence from at least the 1860s, an influence strengthened when France took on
the League of Nations mandate in 1920 following the fall of the Ottoman
Empire at the end of the First World War. The city was established as both a
regional and an international intellectual capital following the foundation of
the Universit Saint-Joseph in 1875 by the Jesuits and the earlier founding of
the Syrian Protestant College (later the American University of Beirut) in
More familiar now as a site of intercultural and occasionally international
conflict, Beirut as the capital metonym for Lebanon was ravaged during the
civil war that lasted from 1975 until 1991. The urban fabric was utterly
destroyed, the city divided and buildings transformed from dwelling places to
militia strongholds, cellars into prisons, sewers into bomb shelters. At the
nebulous end of the fighting in 1991 there remains disagreement about
when the conflict ended precisely an amnesty was legislated granting
impunity to almost all actors in the civil war. Only those who had assassi-
nated political leaders were subject to any form of post-conflict judicial
process. The resulting silence, expedient for the former militia leaders turned
politicians, was enacted on an urban fabric where unregulated buildings were
quickly erected over the unburied dead. Fragments, traces, remnants were
covered over, discourse silenced, replaced with nostalgia for pre-war excess
and future hopes pinned on the false promises of neo-liberal capitalism.
This article investigates the post-war archival turn in contemporary
cultural production which draws on a francophone legacy in Lebanon and
calls into question the authority of the archive, truth claims, and plausibility.
Taking a deliberate stand against the state-led amnesia in post-war Lebanon,
these artists work with difficult memories, trauma traces, and the possible
means by which they might be represented. While unsettling the epistemolog-
ical terrain and operating in between the political and the historical, these
artists seek deliberately to eschew pre-war nostalgia and tackle head on the
difficulty of everything that remains unstated in Lebanon.2

1 See Georges Corm, Le Liban contemporain: histoire et socit (Paris: La Dcouverte, 2012
2 Salah D. Hassan, UnStated: Narrating War in Lebanon, PMLA, 123.5 (2008), 162129.
The Impossible Archive of Beirut101
Paris of the Middle East

Much of Beirut was redesigned during the Mandate (192043) on pre-

existing Ottoman lines, but a French stamp was nevertheless impressed upon
the centre of the city with street names commemorating Gnral Weygand,
Marshall Foch, and, later, Gnral de Gaulle, as the Mandatory authorities
sought to make Beirut la vitrine de la France au Levant.3 Samir Kassirs
monumental book on the city describes the French-led alterations and their
purpose as a striking embodiment of the triumphalist style, with its expansive
perspectives and clean lines punctuated by monumental gestures that was
calculated to make it unmistakeably clear who was now in charge.4 With no
desire to preserve the past ( la Haussmann), the city was composed of a
combination of grand design softened by Italianate vocabulary and Baroque
decorative touches, themselves combined with other cosmopolitan influences
to form a uniquely Levantine composition.5 Similarly, Levantine-accented
French, an almost affected form of speech, was the language of everyday life
for a cosmopolitan elite, a class that sought to imitate Parisian social prac-
tices.6 The relationship between colonial authority and Le tout Beyrouth was
warm and Kassir goes as far as to argue that Parisian life was imitated so
successfully by [its] expanding middle class that the adoption of an imported
way of life became one of its chief characteristics, indeed one of the main
sources of its cohesion.7 French language also formed the basis of legal proce-
dures and education made French the second language after Arabic. If the
code civil underwrote justice in Lebanon, then the education system was
designed in accordance with the French model. A Lebanese baccalaurat
introduced in 1931 followed the French example and in schools where French
was the language of tuition pupils would be punished if heard speaking
Arabic at any time on the premises.
The Parisian centrepiece to Beiruts centre ville was the construction of the
Place de ltoile radiating in six directions, with the Abed clock tower, a gift
from a wealthy migr in Mexico, built in 1932 at its centre. This new clock
tower was built in counterpart to the older Ottoman one designed by Yusuf
Aftimos nearby at the Serail, which displayed time in both French and alla

3 Michael Davie, Introduction, Beyrouth, regards croiss (Tours: URBAMA, 1997), p. 5

4 Samir Kassir, Beirut, trans by M. B. DeBevoise (Berkeley: University of California Press,
2010 [2003]), p. 286.
5 Ibid., p. 287.
6 Ibid., p. 310.
7 Ibid., p. 318.
102 Claire Launchbury

Turca where twelve-hour segments corresponded to the beginning of sunset

and sunrise as though to acknowledge the citys hesitation between the time
of the world, dominated by European expansions, and that of an Empire that
refused to die.8 These contrasting yet neighbouring temporalities of East and
West set the scene in effect for the successful continuation of cosmopolitan
coexistence up to its catastrophic failure at the outbreak of the civil conflicts
which persisted from 13 April 1975 until an ambiguous, non-definitive cease-
fire was brokered following the Taef Agreement of 1989 and fighting stopped
completely in 1991.

Postwar Beirut

The series of conflicts which form the Lebanese civil war killed at least 170,000
people and wounded and maimed many more. It utterly destroyed the fabric
of Beirut. The former sunny playground for the young and wealthy jet set of
the 1960s became a sectarian war zone in which walking 100 metres became
a long and dangerous journey; the towering hotels of the Holiday Inn and the
Phoenicia, the sites of big battles between different factions who used their
height to wield power over opponents, and buildings conceived by their archi-
tects to give panoramic views, became the perfect nests for snipers. Une
atmosphre de fin du monde reigned in the destroyed, apocalyptic centre of the
city, according to photographer Raymond Depardon, who documented at close
quarters the fighting and its ruinous aftermath.9 The demarcation line, which
ran from the port southbound down the rue de Damas, became known as la
ligne verte on account of the trees and plants that broke through the urban
fabric of the uninhabited and uninhabitable centre. There were massacres in
refugee camps, bombing from within and without (both from the mountains
and the sea), and, during the summer of 1982, the city was under siege, then
invaded, by Israeli forces following the assassination of president-elect Bashir
Gemayal, which led to the horrific reprisals undertaken by the light of the
invading armys flares in the Palestinian camps at Sabra and Shatila.10
Today, Beirut asserts itself as a major hub of commerce that welcomes the

8 Ibid., p. 145.
9 See Raymond Depardon, Beyrouth, centre-ville (Paris: Points, 2010), unpag.
10 Responses to the siege and massacres have been numerous. See in particular, however,
Mahmoud Darwiche, Une mmoire pour loubli. Le temps: Beyrouth, le lieu; un jour
daot 1982, trans. by Yves Gonzalez-Quijano and Farouk Mardam-Bey (Arles: Actes Sud,
1994 [1987]) and the journal of Palestinian doctor Fathia Saoudi, LOubli rebelle,
Beyrouth 82 (Paris: LHarmattan, 1986); Jean Genets powerful response to witnessing the
The Impossible Archive of Beirut103

West and values associated with Western capitalism, typified by the develop-
ment of an identity with Phoenician roots in Mediterranean trade. Yet, it also
remains a site that seeks to retain an Arab identity, which encompasses adher-
ents of left-leaning liberal politics and the institutionally and militarily
powerful Islamic and resistance organisation, Hezbollah. These identities
inevitably form part of the topography of the city, so the southern regions of
Beirut, those targeted by Israeli air attacks during the 2006 war, where the
Palestinian refugee camps are located, are working class with a strong Islamic
identity, and the street names (if they exist) are in Arabic only. In parts of the
city which remain unmapped, the urban terrain is navigated by monuments
and even by the memories of the locations of monuments that no longer exist.
In contrast, the controversial redevelopment of the centre of Beirut is
managed by a private company, Solidere (Socit Libanaise de dveloppement
et reconstruction). This project is intended to restore the facades at least of
the French-styled capital of pre-war Beirut. The district has its own police
force, and the old souks were destroyed and replaced by a centre commercial,
with branches of Zara, Esprit, and other international retail chains. The street
names are again bilingual, in French and Arabic, including an homage to
recent French president, Jacques Chirac, a close friend of assassinated presi-
dent Rafic Hariri, who bankrolled the redevelopment. Maha Yahya goes so
far as to argue that the rebuilding of the central district and the processes
through which it was achieved brought the socioeconomic and political
transformations of Beirut begun by the French Mandate authorities to their
ultimate realisation.11
Traces of wartime borders still persist, however, and the scar of the green
line still broadly marks the Christian East and Muslim West. Borders such as
these offer us a critical trope allowing for decentred consideration of the
marginalised, the exiled, the displaced, but also, as Richard Robinson
suggests, the sites where cultural production works as a fabulation of geog-
raphy in which border zones are invoked through metaphors of invisibility,
weightlessness, and spectrality.12 Robinson draws upon Joe Cleary who

aftermath of Sabra and Shatila, Quatre heures Chatila published in the Revue dtudes
palestiniennes in 1982 has inspired its own circulation of cultural responses: LEnnemi
dclar, textes et entretiens choisis, 19701983, ed. by Albert Dichy (Paris: Gallimard,
2010 [1991]), pp. 175204.
11 Maha Yahya, Let the Dead be Dead: Communal National Narratives in the Post-Civil War
Reconstruction of Beirut, in Urban Imaginaries: Locating the Modern City, ed. by Alev
Cinar and Thomas Bender (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2007), p. 247.
12 Richard Robinson, Narratives of the European Border: A History of Nowhere
(Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007), p. 5.
104 Claire Launchbury

makes a connection between political territory, cartography, and texts where

borderline nowheres form a place of discursive invisibility even though a
border exists as a material and political construct, so that even in seemingly
redemptive narratives of romance across the border, where the fissure is
banished to the margins, it always returns as a displaced site of trauma. To
this urban landscape, I wish to add the complicating sense of the figure of the
archive, since the very temporalities of trace and trauma are configured in the
impossibility of the archive of Beirut. If an archive is a storehouse for material
deemed important for later retrieval with its own individual and complicated
temporalities, the city of Beirut offers up the repressed traces of trauma,
singular and collective, accidental and commemorative, and utterly disorgan-
ised.13 In Ole Mystads assessment of the urban morphology of post-war
Beirut, he describes the aesthetic potential of the Green Line as breath-
taking, as its architecture still keeps producing new forms that read as
transitional.14 One notable feature is the rehabilitation of La Maison jaune
situated at the intersection of the rue de Damas, the rue Monnot and the rue
de lIndpendance. A neo-Ottoman building designed by Youssef Afandi
Attimos, which became a central post for snipers during the war, it is
currently being restored although retaining its bullet-scarred exterior and
transformed into an urban cultural centre in a delayed project co-financed by
the Mairie de Paris.15
Antoine Boulads autobiographical series of formes brves, entitled Rue de
Damas, interpolated with photographs, outlines his 950 mtres denfance
along the street that became the demarcation line.16 The war is alluded to
indirectly and thrown into relief by the fragmentary prose poems, which,
avoiding almost all sense of nostalgia (except for the trams which feature on
the front cover on the book), recount experiences of sexual abuse, an earth-
quake, and a terrorist bomb attack on one of his beloved trams in 1958.
Boulad presents an urban meditation on his walking tour through the pous-
sires of memory, on the temporalities of the city and the subjects encounter
with many different others and objects as they reappear in the present of
reminiscence. Boulads text takes the form of short, independent fragments,

13 See Arlette Farges essay on the archive and its processes, Le Got de larchive (Paris: Seuil,
14 Ole Mystad, Morphogenesis of the Beirut Green Line: Theoretical Approaches between
Architecture and Geography (Note), Cahiers de gographie du Qubec, 42.117 (1998),
pp. 42135 (p. 428).
15 <http://www.beitbeirut.org/thehouse.html> [accessed 26 April 2014].
16 Antoine Boulad, Rue de Damas (Beirut: Saqi, 2008).
The Impossible Archive of Beirut105

the form of which leads to the archival projects to which I turn next. Rue de
Damas represents resistance by ordering the fragments into urban rather than
chronological order and in its reluctance to form an overarching childhood
narrative. Narrative absence combined with temporal disruption thus
provides the background to a contemporary archival mise-en-scne. Further-
more, I want to demonstrate how this archival turn in recent cultural
production by Lebanese artists deliberately plays upon matters of trust, plau-
sibility, authenticity, and truth-claims. The archive and the archival of
Beirut is an undetermined, unstable zone where multiple mediations of
multiple truths converge and contest.17

Impossible archives

Concepts of the historical in Lebanon are extremely vexed. In addition to the

amnesty of 1991, textbooks in Lebanese state schools conclude with inde-
pendence from France in 1943. The last census of the population occurred in
1932 and, fearful that an accurate account of the current population in
Lebanon would upset the already fragile communitarian power sharing, there
is no desire to undertake a new one. There is an absence of any systematic
archive in Lebanon: municipal archives were destroyed in a flood in 1983, the
national archives have been partially operational only since 1978, and the
port archives, offering the largest documentation of the late-Ottoman and
French mandate periods, cannot be consulted owing to the ambiguous status
between state and private company. As Hanssen and Genberg state: if
control over the national archives is thus meddled with by forces outside the
state [...] the nation state forfeits its role as the canonising subject, as the
mnemonic superego.18 This leaves a cultural field, then, in which individual
memories negotiate with state-led amnesia, and trauma-induced absences of
discursive space coexist with civil-led organisations determined to put recent
community history on record. How urban space becomes a representation of
the historical aporia of post-war Lebanon is explored in a series of projects in
which Beirut itself becomes an impossible archive. My exploration of these

17 See Okwui Enwezor, et al., Introduction, in Experiments with Truth: Transitional Justice
and the Processes of Truth and Reconciliation: Documenta 11_Platform 2, ed. Okwui
Enwezor, et al. (Kassel: Documenta, 2002), p. 15.
18 Jens-Peter Hannsen and Daniel Genberg, Beirut in Memoriam: A Kaleidoscopic Place out
of Focus, in Crisis and Memory in Islamic Societies, ed. by Angelika Neuwirth and
Andreas Pflitsch (Beirut: Ergon Verlag, 2001), pp. 24667.
106 Claire Launchbury

issues will begin with analysis of an early project by Walid Raad entitled The
Beirut Al-Hadath Archive. I will go on to examine some projects from his
later Atlas Group organisation, as well as Nada Sehnaouis installation
Atadhakkar (Fractions of Memory) (2003), and will conclude with discussion
of Wonder Beirut: The Story of a Pyromaniac Photographer (19972006), a
multimedia project by artists and filmmakers Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil
These different projects are all engaged in experiments with truth and they
raise important ethical questions about the contract between artist and
viewer. Carrie Lambert-Beatty has categorised such projects under the term
parafiction,19 a term that derives from both Grotowskis term parathe-
atrical and Rosalind Krausss definition of the paraliterary as that which
cannot be called criticism but cannot be called not-criticism.20 Archives are
invented, and although they cannot be determined historically they cannot be
negated fully either. Playing with a pragmatics of trust, the ludic games of
fake archives offer occasional subtle signifiers to be received only by those
aware of a certain cultural specificity use of actors familiar in Lebanon,
written or spoken phrases in Arabic which exclude the majority of Western
spectators of the installations. All these artists are very aware of their own
role and intervention in a global art market and they play around with the
limits of plausibility, engendered only in the encounter between the work and
its viewer in a performative turn. The hoax, the political staging of parafic-
tion, inevitably raises ethical questions about knowing deception. However,
Lambert-Beatty suggests that this can be justified because an audience is made
to wonder uncomfortably about the status of the claim the exhibits made, or
to go away in a strange kind of educated ignorance with their worldview
subtly altered perhaps in truthful ways by untruths.21 Such cultural
production, situated at the tense interstices between the political and the civil,
engages varied epistemological optics, encouraging spectators to view with
disbelief, belief, suspicion, certainty, and doubt. In the case of Beirut, and the
absence of any transitional truth and reconciliation process, Rustom
Bharuchas concern to define the volatile performative element that engages
with truth and reconciliation helps to provide a useful analogy. Concerned
less with empirical truth claims, these projects are theatrical stagings of the

19 Carrie Lambert-Beatty, Make-Believe: Parafiction and Plausibility, October, 129 (2009),

20 See Rosalind Krauss, Originality of the Avant Garde and Other Modernist Myths
(Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1983), pp. 29195.
21 Lambert-Beatty, Make-Believe, p. 56.
The Impossible Archive of Beirut107

archive because, as in theatre, truth is neither an absolute nor a given

indeed there is no one truth but many possible truths mutable, fluid, and
above all deviant.22

Walid Raad, The Beirut AlHadath Archive

Walid Raad is an artist who uses memoirs, archival projects, and the
recovery of material to challenge and subvert established historical narra-
tives, or, in their absence, the danger of establishing historical narratives. The
archival imaginary extant in many aspects of cultural production in Lebanon
is often signalled in the endeavour to discover the enlivening traces of the
marginal and the forgotten. Returning to the context of what Salah D. Hassan
has termed the unstated in relation to the Lebanese polity, the concept can
be extended to include that which elides the political lack of force the
unstated state: a state that is no longer a state, bereft of the means to uphold
or impose the rule of law with the semantic unstated: the silent nonc, the
repressed utterance, the censored, the unsaid.23 Indeed, Foucaults formula-
tion of the archive as le systme gnral de la formation et de la
transformation des noncs combines with Hassans consideration of the
unstated to explain in part why the archival has become such a central
feature in the attempt to reclaim civil memory in contemporary Lebanese
projects.24 In the case of Walid Raad, furthermore, the subverted figure of the
archive in this and the Atlas Group projects appears to present an amalgam of
both the post-traumatic and postcolonial.25 In line with what Hal Foster has
termed the archival impulse, Raads projects seek to make lost or displaced
historical information physically present but retrieved in a gesture of alterna-
tive knowledge or counter-memory.26 The Atlas Group states its mission as
to locate, preserve, study and produce audio, visual, literary and other arti-
facts that shed light on the contemporary history of Lebanon.27

22 Rustom Bharucha, Between Truth and Reconciliation: Experiments in Theatre and Public
Culture, in Experiments with Truth, Documenta 11_2, ed. by Okwui Enwezor et al.
(Kassel: Documenta, 2002), p. 362.
23 Hassan, UnStated, 162162.
24 Michel Foucault, LArchologie du savoir (Paris: Gallimard, 1969), p. 171.
25 On the Atlas Group, see <http://www.theatlasgroup. org/aga.html> and Kassandra Nakas
and Britta Schmitz (eds), The Atlas Group (19892004): A Project by Walid Raad
(Cologne: Walther Knig, 2006).
26 Hal Foster, An Archival Impulse, October, 110 (Autumn 2004), 4.
27 <http://www.theatlasgroup. org/aga.html> [accessed 24 July 2013].
108 Claire Launchbury

The Beirut Al-Hadath Archive Project takes its cues from the Situationists
in the guise of a much older collective project founded in 1967, the year of
the six-day war and the year of the artists birth.28 Al-Hadath translates
loosely as the event, and the term ahdath, events or les vnements works
in the same way as the troubles in Northern Ireland. I want to consider this
project in some detail because it concerns a playful parody of an archive and,
since street names are at issue, it is also a project articulated by the absence or
blurring of urban location. The rationale for the project is that in January
1975 the Al-Hadath organisation recruited 100 photographers to photo-
graph every street, store front, building, sign, vegetation, moving vehicle, and
other spaces of aesthetic, national, political, popular, functional, and cultural
significance in Beirut. This properly impossible task was further complicated
by the outbreak of the civil war in April of the same year and in order to
hinder the use of the images by any of the warring factions the photographers
were equipped with specially manufactured cameras and film. Although it
was essential that the date and time were accurately recorded, photographers
were instructed to list three street addresses for the location, of which one was
correct, and not to inform the organisation which it was. The photos were
subsequently donated to influential individuals, cultural organisations, and
other institutions in and outside of Lebanon.29 Control over the dissemina-
tion of the photographs, and the expressed desire not to let them fall into the
wrong hands, was a way for the Al-Hadath organisation to manage the mean-
ings, uses, and values simultaneously as commodities, as intelligence, or as
aesthetic texts. Boustanis Foreword to a presentation of a selection of
photographs taken on 12 January 1977 acknowledges a formal debt to the
work of the founder of photo-documentary experimentation, the Parisian
photographs of Eugene Atget, produced during Frances colonial heyday in
Lebanon.30 Atgets documents pour artistes were the product of twenty-five
years photographing Paris, building up an archive of 7,000 photographs,
consistently revising his filing system as he went along. Atgets work only
acquired its status as an artistic project through the attention given to it by the
Surrealists, who saw the kind of odd juxtapositions, latent narrative poten-
tial and sense of the merveilleux quotidien of their own projects.31

28 Walid Raad, The Beirut Al-Hadath Archive, Rethinking Marxism, 11.1 (1999), 1529.
29 Ibid., p. 15.
30 Boustanti, Foreword, ibid., p. 17.
31 Johnnie Gratton and Michael Sheringham, Introduction Tracking the Art of the Project:
History, Theory, Practice, in The Art of the Project : Projects and Experiments in Modern
French Culture, ed. by Johnnie Gratton and Michael Sheringham (New York: Berghahn
Books, 2005), p. 7.
The Impossible Archive of Beirut109

The conceit of the Al-Hadath project is critically [to] confront and

examine issues of power, space, time and trauma.32 Each photograph is cate-
gorised by plate number, an archive catalogue number, year, time, location,
and collection. The location co-ordinates are supposed to correspond to the
map of section 28, and all photos were taken at precisely 8.34 a.m. by a
selection of the photographers. Each image depicts a shop front: the photos
are, in spite of the circumstances in which they were taken, dispassionate, but
through the perpetual destruction and rebuilding that marked the civil war
their precise location, known only to the photographer, risks not being recov-
erable. Indeed, the impossibility of their indexicality and their recovery gives
the project a sense of poignancy in spite of the neutrality of its parameters.
Raads later project entitled My neck is thinner than a hair presents a series
of photographs of the wreckage left following car bombings in Beirut. The
project investigates the public and private events, discourses, objects and
experiences surrounding the 3,641 car bombs that were detonated during this
period.33 Raads conceit is that since the only part of a car to remain intact
was the engine, a competition developed between the news photographers to
be the first to capture an image of the exploded car. The photos and their
reverse are displayed with the documentary traces pointing to the date, the
studio, the photographer, and a series of referential keywords. Exhibited side
by side in vertical and horizontal rows, any individual sense of indexicality
becomes subsumed by the meta-intervention of the archive on display. Again,
the desire is to exhaust the archive and include every photo of every car
bomb. Sidestepping the human cost of the bombs, the project organises traces
leaving the viewer to contemplate the epistemological gaps left in the archival

Nada Sehnaoui, Atadhakkar (Fractions of Memory)

Nada Sehnaoui (born 1960), exhibited a large-scale installation in 2003 on

the Place des Martyrs (see Figure 1). Entitled Atadhakkar (Fractions of
Memory), her project developed from four advertisements she placed in news-
papers requesting personal memories of the central district of Beirut before its
destruction during the war. People were asked

32 Raad, The Beirut Al-Hadath Archive, p. 18.

33 Quoted in Nakas and Schmitz, p. 96.
110 Claire Launchbury

Figure 1 Atadhakkar (Fractions of Memory) (JulyAugust 2003), Place des martyrs,


Do you have a memory of daily life in downtown Beirut before the start of the
war in 1975? If you wish to share this memory with the public, please: write a
text recalling this memory, on one white page or more, in the language of your
choice, handwritten or typed, signed or anonymous, and send this text to the
following address.

Responses were then displayed atop 360 separate structures arranged in a

grid across the square.34 Each structure was formed of a pile of newspapers
and on some Sehnaoui left a blank page for missing texts and lost memo-
ries.35 For Sune Haugbolle, this installation feeds into the coping mechanism
of nostalgia, which is perceived, he argues, not as a problem but as the sweet
part of memory that gives meaning to the present.36 Yet, the project was
about reclamation of urban space: the installation created in downtown
Beirut on a lot near Martyr Square, emptied twice, first, by the war and then

34 <http://www.nadasehnaoui.com/installations2.html> [accessed 25 July 2013].

35 Ibid.
36 Sune Haugbolle, War and Memory in Lebanon (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press,
2010), p. 119.
The Impossible Archive of Beirut111

by the reconstruction, invited passers-by to reclaim the twice erased heart of

the city.37 It is a project which confronts the post-war amnesty head on. By
reclaiming physical space in the city, Sehnaoui seeks to bring back the urban
dweller to those lost spaces.38
The centre of Beirut was destroyed by the war and emptied of its people:
her project reinvests the terrain vague of formerly central places of urban
activity such as the Place des Martyrs with the memories of the people who
were prevented from visiting there for fifteen years while it became the
playing fields of militias of all sorts.39 The memories of pre-war Beirut remi-
nisce about taking the tram, shopping in the souks, and teenage romances in
the plush seats of the Rivoli Cinema. This project surely resists the charge that
nostalgia for pre-war Beirut works to place the years of the war within some
form of parenthesis. Sehnaouis engagement with public memory and its
public display works also to counter and to confront the overriding sense of
compulsory forgetting. Sharing a desire with Walid Raad to bring the private
and above all the domestic into the open, her installation Havent fifteen years
of hiding in the toilets been enough? displayed 600 toilets arranged in a grid
in downtown Beirut, playing with the altered meanings the object obtained as
a result of the conflict: the bathroom became a refuge and a bomb shelter.40


In this exposition of a range of contemporary cultural productions in Lebanon,

which draws upon archival figures to confront the viewer with unsettling
claims to truth, the parafictional dimension of the projects underwrites the
problem of narrating the history of the civil war in Beirut. Countering both
amnesia and nostalgia, the turn towards fabulated conceits in the guise of
authenticity presents theatrical stagings of the archive. Artists and filmmakers
Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige, in an unusual gesture for their work,
invented the story of a pyromaniac photographer, Abdallah Farah, active
from 1968, at the peak of Beiruts fame as a tourist destination for the inter-

37 Intervention to Subtitled: With Narratives from Lebanon 2012.

38 With Inside Outside: Nada Sehnaoui in Conversation with Laura Allsop (2 May 2012),
Ibraaz: <http://www.ibraaz.org/interviews/25> [accessed 25 July 2013].
39 Haugbolle, p. 118.
40 The installation was subtitled, We learn to live together like citizens or die together like
idiots, With Inside Outside.
112 Claire Launchbury

national jet set.41 In the Wonder Beirut project, the photographer begins to
damage his own postcards drawn from photos taken before the war in
imitation of the destruction he witnessed in the city. His acts are all about
inscription on the surface of the postcards he dates the impacts of shells and
tries to trace their trajectory. Moreover, this takes us back to the ontology of
the photograph: the inscription of light through burning and the traces of
light and fire create an indexical rapport.42 Defining two processes, the
historical and the plastic, Hadjithomas and Joreiges fictional photographer
creates new mimetic images that both inscribe the destruction and create a
palimpsestic record of the city. The photographer sets on his mission to
destroy the images by registering the ruination of the city motivated by the
fact that these images no longer refer to anything: the Place des Martyrs or the
Souks had been devastated. The project itself outlines a chronological trajec-
tory in its exhibition as it moves through two major stages. Once the
postcards have been burned during the early years of the conflict, the next
stage is to document the war by taking photos of his neighbourhood, but he
stops developing them altogether, on the grounds of material shortage,
initially, but also because it is enough for him to take them and take detailed
notes of the images. The latent image and its invisibility are presented as an
increasing obsession for Hadjithomas and Joreige, who seek to make a cata-
logue raisonn of his undeveloped work by deciphering the very detailed
notes he made about the photographs taken. Indeed, one of their friends, a
critic, knowingly named, in an already evidently Borgesian construction,
Pierre Mnard, is enraptured by the subterranean body of work, endlessly
heroic, unequalled and, certainly, perpetually unaccomplished, a sublime
attempt to capture each passing minute, fleeting time, running time.43 The
project targets a growing nostalgia for the glory days of Beirut and cautions
against bracketing off the civil war and including it only marginally in our
contemporary history.44 Effectively re-inscribing the effects of war onto the
images that promote nostalgia, the project marks the desire (and it is an
archival desire) to resist the repression of war memories indicted by the

41 Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige, Wonder Beirut: The Story of a Pyromaniac Photog-
rapher (19972006). See: <http://hadjithomasjoreige.com/wonder-beirut> [accessed 26
April 2014].
42 See Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige, OK, Ill Show You My Work, Al adab (2001),
37, cited in Jalal Toufic, The Withdrawal of Tradition Past a Surpassing Disaster (Los
Angeles, CA: Redcat, 2009), p. 75 and Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige, Latency,
Homeworks (2002), 4049 (p. 43).
43 See Hadjithomas and Joreige, OK, Ill Show You My Work, p. 43.
44 Hadjithomas and Joreige, Latency, p. 40.
The Impossible Archive of Beirut113

amnesty of 1991. It also calls into play once more the interaction of the
fictional, parafictional, and factual in the post-war cultural field in Lebanon.
The indexicality of these latent images offers a space for an imaginary that in
some ways fills in for historical traces. Though never entirely false in their
truth-claims, the images call into question the basis of historical truth-claims
much more broadly.
These projects in different ways both attest to and critique the post-war
amnesia so widely cited in Lebanon. However, they also in themselves
acknowledge and occasionally embody their own absence of closure. If no
state-led historical narrative is possible (government attempts to introduce a
unified history textbook into the school curriculum have repeatedly failed),
the artists here are not themselves seeking to replace or restate another
version. They attest to the impossibility of such discourses in an environment
where, despite the best efforts of keeping memory files open, elements of
society, as well as politicians, are content to forget. In particular, the contro-
versies surrounding the rebuilding of the central district which found their
way into Autour de la maison rose (1999), a feature film by Joana
Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige, speak to a neo-colonialisation of the space in
a form of orientalist pastiche, recreating what was a French imposition in the
first place, as a means of bypassing the events of the civil war.45 The impos-
sible archive of Beirut, then, is a condition of both post-war and postcolonial
legacies in which neither has been persuasively documented. These two layers
of unspoken traces interact with each other palimpsestically, as the over-
writing of unstated war trauma occasionally exposes the latent traces of an
earlier period of colonialism.
In conclusion, then, Beirut is a city whose rhythm was utterly disrupted at
every level during the civil war: every space took on new meaning, ancient
ruins were exposed by the destruction of the contemporary civil war.
Meaning in urban space was altered sometimes according to identification
with a particular faction or in new war-prescribed usages: luxury rooftop bars
were hideouts for snipers, cellars were both prisons and refuges, home and
dwelling place were destabilised by threats from bombing from air and sea.
The rue de Damas was a ligne verte because of the shrubs and plants that
grew through the neglected tarmac of this no-mans-land. The presence of city
space as an impossible archive is here rendered as a traumatic palimpsest of
multiple traces that refuse and resist the simplicity of narrative coherence.

45 See Saree Makdisi, Reconstructing History in Central Beirut, special issue: Lebanon and
Syria: The Geopolitics of Change, Middle East Report, 203 (1997), 2325, 30.