Tony Chakar

…To the Ends of the Earth
by Tony Chakar

My non-presence is not a coincidence; traveling to Hong Kong would have been difficult under the current circumstances (with which you are very familiar), but with the lifting of the Israeli siege it wouldn’t have been impossible.1 Yet I took the conscious decision not to travel abroad, not to be physically present and instead, to let my text represent me. I could try to explain my decision and this would include reasons such as not wanting to bother with the paperwork necessary to obtain the required visa, or that after weeks of constant Israeli bombardments I felt too weak to take a long flight, or too weak to explain to anyone once I arrived what had happened and why, and especially too weak, or maybe too proud, to see even the faintest hint of pity in anyone’s eyes. All of these are valid enough reasons for a person not to travel, but in fact the strongest reason for my non-appearance is more profound.

In order to explain it I should take a few steps back. During the long weeks (it felt like centuries!) of the latest Israeli aggression on my country, I was completely paralyzed and all I managed to write was the following:

Little Hiroshima
I’ve got my own little Hiroshima right here in my pocket.
Sometimes I take it out, I put it on the table, and ponder.
It will take us countless years and several generations to grasp the immensity of the catastrophe that has struck (and continues to strike) us. These women who now wear black and who become more and more numerous with each passing day, these women mourn not only their loved ones, but hope itself.
Where are God’s angels when you need them? I just want one of them to whisper
in my ear that things are going to be ok. Maybe then I can breathe again.

Obviously, this was not enough. Despite the numerous replies I received after sending this text by email. It is certainly not sufficient when measured against the immensity of the catastrophe that has come to pass over my country. The space of the catastrophe and its time are very strange formations that can only be grasped if directly experienced and then compared to the ‘obvious’, to what we all take for granted, to a normal state of things. The reasons for my non-presence lie precisely in this catastrophic time and space, one that I have yet to leave. As long as I remain in them, I will always be able to say: I am no one. I am no one and I am legion. I am a million screaming banshees that have no name, roaming an indefinite space all inside, that has no limits, that has no outside. (Note that the double siege established by both Israel and Syria over sea, air and land has transformed Lebanon into an unreachable island, a lost land.) I am no one and yet I am a howling Jezebel that can be everywhere she wishes, whenever she wishes. I can be in the halls of the United Nations in New York, floating around Dan Gillerman, Israel’s ambassador to the UN, shutting his mouth with my thousand hands, to stop him from saying that Israel is bombarding Lebanon for its own good, or I can haunt the dreams of John Bolton, the US ambassador to the UN, when he dreams of Lebanese victims who in his eyes are not equal, even in their death, to Israeli victims, because the first died in ‘self-defense’, while the latter were victims of terrorism. I can even go underground, to the Hezbollah tunnels and find the un-findable Hassan Nassrallah, take him by my thousand hands and give him a thousand shakes while telling him with my thousand voices that there can be no victory over this field of ruins and that I am sick of seeing women in black mourning their loved ones; all I want is to be able to ‘cultivate my garden’. For these reasons I cannot be in Hong Kong. If I were to travel, I would have to go to embassies and airports, to present papers and documents that state exactly who I am and where my place in this world we all share is. I would have to regain my pre-catastrophic status as a specific person with a specific position in a specific society and I am simply not ready or willing to see that happen, at least for now. I don’t want to ‘forget what happened’ and return to normality. I am neither willing nor ready to do that. So, in short, you can consider this paper a message in a bottle, coming to you from across the seas, from a lost island.

As I said before, the catastrophe is an infinite space that is all inside. If I were to use a rather facile and reductive analogy (reductive because it concretizes what cannot be concretized), I’d say that the closest representation for such a space would be one of Piranesi’s prison drawings. In addition to these qualifications, I observe empirically that catastrophic space and catastrophic time are absolutely irrational and absolutely logical. I write ‘empirically’ so I’ll give some examples: we all regained our war reflexes and those who were too young to have any acquired them very quickly. One of these is to ‘hide under’…to hide under anything actually, anything available, and it is known that the safest places are underground, like basements or the unused staircases of apartment buildings. Despite knowing this, many people hide on rooftops and inhabit the top floors of apartment buildings. The logical reasons for this irrational behavior are simple: they could not stand the idea of asphyxiating under the rubble of a destroyed building, a very probable event given the extensive use of implosion bombs and bombs we still need to find a name for by the Israeli army. Choosing top floors also means that one is safe from the shrapnel of cluster bombs that exploded on the streets. In catastrophic time, Beirut became an Upside-down City. Here’s another example: the Israeli planes targeted bridges, tunnels, trucks, and small motorcycles. One is hardly aware of the abundance of these in normal times, but once they became targeted, moving around Beirut by car became a real problem. How can one get from A to B without crossing a bridge, driving behind a truck, or encountering a small motorcycle? In order to do so, each person-driver had to reinvent their mental map of the city, discounting tunnels and bridges and always taking into account the fact that chaotic variables (trucks, motorcycles, electricity cuts leaving streets in absolute darkness, or the worse variable of shelling) can never be correctly calculated. And if you’re lucky enough to arrive in one piece one then immediately begins to calculate the return trip, again taking into account all of these variables. And if the shelling starts up again this must be done superimposing onto the original mental map other maps made by calculating the time between seeing the flash from the blasts and hearing the sound of the impact (thus acquiring some knowledge of the distance of the shelling). In catastrophic times, Beirut became the Kingdom of Unrelated Points and Infinite Calculations. Another example: a friend of mine suffered with a war-dream ever since she was a child. In her dream bombs are falling everywhere, but she cannot hear them; she knows the bombs are falling, like one knows in a dream, and yet there are no sounds of explosion. For a moment the bombs stop, she looks under the bed, and boom!, a bomb blows up in her face. There is nothing particularly unusual about that dream, except that, in this war, a mutual friend of ours had the exact same dream. Exactly the same except that in her dream, she’s the one in the bed and not the original dreamer. Weeks after that incident was related to us by its protagonists, and in spite of the ceasefire, a third friend had a similar dream. His was not exactly the same however, but a variation on the same theme: in his dream he is sleeping in bed and although the sound of the bombs is deafening, he cannot leave his bed. He jumps out of bed but remains in it and the bombs keep on falling. In catastrophic times, Beirut became the City of Borrowed and Inverted Dreams.

For some observers, especially outside observers, and more especially if they were observing the events through insipid and dull television screens, it would be very tempting to say that what happened transformed or reverted a modern city to a pre-modern, primitive space. The readiness to reach such hasty conclusions is enhanced by the fact that for almost 150 years now discourse on the ‘civilized self’ and the ‘primitive other’, on the ‘good savage’ is well established. In fact many things I’ve read emphasize the technological advancements of the Israeli army in the face of the ‘primitiveness’ of the weapons used against them (an easy-enough analogy in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, but the same can apply to Hezbollah’s rockets which have a very low accuracy). Do not fool yourselves: catastrophic space and catastrophic time are absolutely modern; they are modern in their irrationality and their logical systems; they are the underside of modernity, the other world that lies behind the mirror traversed by Alice, Lewis Carroll’s character, and yes, during the war we lived in Wonderland. While the inhabitants of Beirut and its heavily bombarded southern suburbs along with the hundreds of thousands of displaced people from southern Lebanon whose villages were absolutely destroyed, lived in universes of allegorical times and allegorical spaces brought forth by the catastrophe and invented logical but irrational mental maps to guide them through the Kingdom of Unrelated Points and borrowed each others’ dreams, both the Israeli army and Hezbollah fighters were using modernist maps made of Cartesian points and precise coordinates, one more efficient than the other. They both shared the same conception of space: an absolute space of mathematics and geometry, a space with no place for allegorical time or existential memories. In such a space both are not unimportant, they simply have no place to be. The Israeli army and the Hezbollah fighters were both victims of modernity’s biggest project: the geometrization of the world. What is tragic is that they’re both unaware of how much their mutual conceptions of the world are similar and of how oppressive and violent their world is.

To conclude, allow me to return to something I wrote before the latest Israeli aggression; I’ve written this for my last installation, ‘A Window to the World’: ‘Given the right circumstances, the appropriate standpoint (preferably with one’s back against the sea) and the correct angle of vision (preferably looking obliquely), one would have the distinct feeling that all the buildings in Beirut are packed-up and ready to leave; most of them stand on slender columns that would aid them in their journey; their antennas and dish receptors look like fancy hats one might wear on such a voyage; their balconies are empty suitcases and boxes waiting to be filled by the small histories that unfold in every apartment: long hours of anguish and fleeting moments of excitement. At those times Beirut resembles a large horde of escape boats aimlessly fleeing a sinking ship, and it would be the best time to sip a cup of coffee by the sea.’ I want to return to this text to say that I am tired. I am tired of living for the sole purpose of accompanying friends to the airport (or lately to ports for evacuation) in order to bid them goodbye and wish them safe journeys. Frankly, I cannot imagine my life far from this place; true, this is the only country I have, but mostly it is here that I learned the meaning of the words ‘here’ and ‘there’. All my life I’ve been measuring the distance between these two points and testing boundaries. My only solace is the firm knowledge that, even centuries after my death, Beirut will always remain the dim and flickering light that guides all those who are lost in the deserts of the Orient, whether real or imagined. So send us your weak, your marginals, your unwanted, your freaks and monsters. In catastrophic times they shall become kings and queens, from under this cedar tree to the ends of the earth.

1. This text was written for the Documenta 12 Magazines Transregional Meeting in Hong Kong, held on September 10–14. As Tony Chakar explains, he decided not to leave Beirut, and the text was read by another participant in the meeting.