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Always Struggle with the Object, Always Rewrite the World

So do you know how to love? You cannot answer, perhaps because you did not notice the atmospheric conditions when traveling from pole to pole: love and passion, rapture and infatuation, ardor and affection, fondness and devotion, blazing love and bewildering love, craving and caprice, dalliance and desire, longing and lust, admiration and attraction … and other adjectives fibbing before desires.
—Mahmoud Darwish1

 

Photographs by Fouad Elkoury

Early in the winter of 2015, the Archaeological Museum at the American University of Beirut quietly reopened its permanent display of Islamic art and architecture. Less a wing than a modest corner of a gallery, the collection there consists of a small, striking selection of objects dating from the start of the Umayyad era, in the seventh century, to the twilight of the Ottoman Empire, in the nineteenth. One vitrine holds the fragments of some fine twelfth-century sgraffito bowls, etched with the busts of women and horse-mounted hunters. Another vitrine offers an ornate glazed chalice; another, a turquoise-and-cobalt falcon, adorned with the word Allah on its tail. The centerpiece is a wall-mounted arrangement of deep blue decorative elements—flowers, vines, cascading leaves—from the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem, a site that marks a critical pivot in the story of the Prophet Muhammad. Over the course of a single night and on the back of al-Buraq, a winged horse with a human head that was given to him by the angel Gabriel, Muhammad traveled from Mecca to Jerusalem and on through the heavens and back again.

Known jointly as al-Isra and al-Miraj, the night journey has inspired artists through the ages. Sixteenth-century miniaturists depicted the prophet as a handsome, full-faced human figure, ascending on his steed. The Iraqi artist Shakir Hassan al-Said, cofounder of the Baghdad Modern Art Group, evoked Muhammad’s flight by burning holes through his paintings. For Said, who was deeply religious and heavily influenced by the writings of the Sufi mystic Hallaj, painting was a spiritual practice and abstraction a form of divine contemplation. The holes in Said’s canvases represented an approach to God, an opening to infinity, and the start of an ascension, such as Muhammad’s night flight. Similarly, in the black-and-white animation Al-Aqsa Park, from 2006, the Egyptian artist Wael Shawky, also inspired by Sufism, turns the Dome of the Rock into a Gravitron-like amusement-park ride—spinning, lifting, and tilting as an act of translation and a gesture of critique operating on several different levels at once. In 2010, the Lebanese artist Mohamed-Said Baalbaki created an elaborate pseudo-archaeological display based on the purported discovery of al-Buraq’s bones. It was the first in a projected trilogy of installations on al-Buraq, delving into a theoretical and theological enigma, toying with the seeming certainties of scientific knowledge, and presenting an intricate fiction to raise real questions about history, politics, and contemporary art in relation to one of the most contested religious sites on earth (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam all claim the Dome of the Rock, and before it the Temple Mount, for various and competing reasons). No one knows for sure how the floral fragments from the Dome of the Rock, which date from the sixteenth or seventeenth century, ended up at AUB. The best guess is that they were part of a collection of Palestinian pottery gifted to the museum between 1879 and 1890.

The third-oldest institution of its kind in the region—after the Egyptian Museum in Cairo and the Archaeological Museum in Istanbul—the story of the AUB museum starts earlier, in 1868, with another gift. This one came from the American consul in Cyprus, Luigi Palma di Cesnola, who donated a collection of Cypriot pottery to the then-new school. By all accounts a colorful character, Cesnola offered the rest of his collection—artifacts from the Bronze and Iron ages through to the eras of classical antiquity—to the Louvre and the Hermitage before selling it wholesale to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. And he never really let those objects go. He traveled with them to New York, where he joined the museum’s board and worked as its first director from 1879 until his death in 1904.

Fouad Elkoury, Sherihan, Cairo (1987), silver bromide print, 60 × 90 cm

Cesnola’s gift inspired a spate of subsequent donations, excavations, and acquisitions in Beirut, culminating in the official opening of the Archaeological Museum in 1902. The sandstone-colored building, known as Post Hall, looks to this day like a comic-book version of a small Crusader castle. It closed during World War II; Lebanon and Syria being under French mandate, they were pulled into the war as proxies, alongside Iraq, Palestine, Cyprus, and Greece, as Allied forces fought the Germans, Italians, and Vichy French from ports, roads, and airstrips giving access to the Middle East. Lebanon won its independence in 1943, and the museum reactivated its program after that. In a city with few such institutions to begin with, it was the only museum to remain open throughout Lebanon’s own long and bitter civil war. (The National Museum, situated on one of the major crossing points between East and West Beirut, was rather famously besieged during the conflict, as militias moved in and a handful of brave conservators packed the museum’s ancient mosaics and sarcophagi in concrete.) After the war, AUB began the slow, painstaking process of renovating and updating the museum, section by chronological section. By 2006, the building had been overhauled from the inside out. It reopened in June. A month later, the war between Israel and Hezbollah began.

Owing, perhaps, to the tumult of its recent history, the inauguration of the newly rehabilitated Islamic section—the last in the museum’s historical sequence—was sincere but subdued. John Carswell, the archaeologist who had determined the origins of the Jerusalem fragments in the 1950s, gave a talk on the Dome of the Rock. Carswell, who is British, had been a professor at AUB for twenty years, beginning in 1956. He was never attached to the department of archaeology, however, but rather to the department of fine arts, which was established in 1955, when the university recruited a handful of professors from the Art Institute of Chicago to bring the Bauhaus to Beirut, and to break the Beaux Arts style of arts education so prevalent in Lebanon’s French-speaking universities and faculties. (Some years later a protégé of Mies van der Rohe was hired to run AUB’s architecture department.)

On the same February evening that Carswell was giving his lecture at the Archaeological Museum, an exhibition of his curvy white sculptures from the 1960s, unknown until now, was just ending a three-month-long run at AUB’s contemporary art galleries. The show, titled Trans-Oriental Monochrome and curated by Octavian Esanu, had struggled, impressively, to unpack Carswell’s art and life, a dense composite of so many different materials, times, places, and things. For much of his career, Carswell’s hero was the fourteenth-century traveler Ibn Battuta. His art resembles the architecture of Oscar Niemeyer. To this day, he does not fit into any of the existing narratives that his work might otherwise enrich. The monochrome, as Esanu notes, has so far been discussed solely in the context of European and American art. No one has tackled the monochrome in the Middle East.2 When the story of modern art (and the language of abstraction) is altered, doubled, or expanded to accommodate the groundbreaking work of, say, Lygia Pape in Brazil, Nasreen Mohamedi in India, or Saloua Raouda Choucair in Lebanon, the necessary task is to consider the work of local artists overlooked or ignored by Western narratives. No one knows what to do with a man such as Carswell, a foreigner, assumed to be a man of privilege, who traveled east and stayed for a time but did not make Beirut his home.

Carswell went to art school, but he learned to draw on archaeological digs in Jericho, Athens, Crete, Sinai, Wadi Rum, southern Turkey, and on Jordan’s border with Saudi Arabia. He arrived in the region by steamer, a young man in love with Matisse. He took a taxi from Beirut to Damascus and then down through Jordan to Palestine. His movements mapped out a world of intrepid travel that is lost to us today. Like anyone now, Carswell was traveling at a time when Lebanon and Syria were technically at war with Israel, but he was making the trip before the war of 1967 and the occupations of the West Bank and Golan Heights; he also came before the peace deals with Jordan and Egypt, and before the first and second intifadas. In the midst of Syria’s current catastrophic civil war, it has been for the past four years too dangerous to cross from Beirut to the Bekaa and across the mountains to Damascus, a hundred-kilometer trip that once took an hour but now might cost you your life. Further, to cross into Israel from Jordan with the stamps of Arab states in your passport is a grueling affair that often ends in being turned away.

Carswell served as chair of AUB’s art department several times in the 1960s, a decade when it championed formal experimentation, critical inquiry, and—oddly enough, given the levels of pollution in Beirut today—environmental activism. He spent one fevered summer making most of the sculptures and paintings that were included in Trans-Oriental Monochrome, working in the studios of Nicely Hall, a building where I once studied and now teach. Like most of the university’s foreign faculty, Carswell left Lebanon at the start of the civil war. The art department closed down a year later, in 1976 (and remained so until 2006). He returned for a visit in the early 1990s, after the last chapters of the civil war had come to a close. “I happen to think there is a future in the past,” he said at the time, “and perhaps it would be a good idea to document that past and ponder on its implications for a new Beirut.” 3

*

A new Beirut but also an old one, among other aged cities that I love for obvious but also dubious reasons, including Istanbul, Sarajevo, Cairo, Alexandria, Tunis, Casablanca, and Algiers. Many of them have been destroyed at various points by war, famine, earthquake, and fire. Most of them I loved through books and films before I ever experienced them firsthand. All of them I traveled to ostensibly for work, my interest being the development of contemporary art practices in relation to complicated histories of violence, conflict, and trauma. To study that subject in a sustained way is to return again and again to the questions: What does contemporary art do, and how, and why, and for whom? What does it mean for the lives of these cities? And if contemporary art addresses simultaneously the past, present, and future of a single place, does it still make sense to call it contemporary art, or does it deserve another name? Would it be liberating to think of it as something else, somewhere else in time?

None of these questions, or their elusive answers, explain my love for these cities, nor why I have made the circuit of them my home. This, then, is an essay on something I am unwilling or unable to articulate about delusion and desire, distraction and description. Perhaps it’s simply a gesture toward the ardent and elliptical Mahmoud Darwish quotation with which I began this text. If I was first drawn to these cities by the art they have inspired, then I have come to love them for the ideas held (or withheld) in their forgotten or hidden histories, for their images that complicate the worlds of art and politics, the anecdotes that contradict the most mainstream of narratives, and the objects that dwell in their strange museums.

Consider the Alexandria of Lawrence Durrell’s Quartet or Ibrahim Abdel Meguid’s trilogy. Consider the sad, threadbare quality of C. P. Cavafy’s museum in that same city, an apartment full of rickety furniture and crumbling paperback editions of the poet’s books. Already at odds with the realities of the metropolis around it, the museum doesn’t seem long for this world, a phenomenon wholly of the past, like the image lodged in my mind of a thousand Greek grandmothers, all tiny, gray-haired women dressed in black, leaving the city en masse on a seasonal flight from El Nouzha airport, itself now closed. Consider the Casablanca of Souffles, the renegade journal of art, politics, and poetry. Consider, too, the Casablanca of its founder, the poet Abdellatif Laâbi:

I don’t feel
I’m from any country
she says
I have no roots anywhere
Maybe back there
when I used to pound
on the bars of separation
I felt at home
in the hollow of your hands
condemned to absence
And now
I will live everywhere
where this homeland
will not fade from your hands 4

Other cities: In Tunis, some years ago, I spent autumn days dazzled by the work of dancers and choreographers in the medina. Then, upon leaving, I was struck by the utter certainty, walking down Avenue Habib Bourguiba, where booksellers register their discontent by reading in public, that this was the place that held the key to the future of feminism, not only in North Africa and the Middle East but everywhere in the world. In Algiers, a year earlier, I was confused by the lack of physical similarities to Beirut. I was looking for bullet holes and the pockmarks of shelling. Someone finally told me that the scars of this civil war weren’t on any of the buildings; those would be found outside the city. In the capital, the fighting had been mostly hand to hand, up close, involving the slitting of throats.

Beirut, where I live, was for the journalist Samir Kassir and the novelist Elias Khoury an incubator for Arab modernity and radical democracy, respectively. It was in Beirut that the revolutionary Syrian playwright Saadallah Wannous performed the plays that were banned elsewhere in the region, such as The Rape (1990) and Rituals of Signs and Transformations (1994). And it was in Beirut that the Syrian poet Adonis founded the radical poetry journals Shi’r (1957–70) and Mawakif (1968–98) and formulated the thesis of his book Sufism and Surrealism (1995), the two movements joined by their certainty of an inner world, as well as by their desire to immerse themselves in it.

For Adonis, Sufism and Surrealism were each searching for some of the same things—freedom of thought, freedom of spirit, magic and imagination, the total melding of art and life—to the extent that he likened Surrealism to a pagan form of Sufism. It was a controversial argument. The Surrealists were lukewarm on the subject of God and generally dismissive of organized religion (although André Breton wrote favorably of an internal God and the experience of the divine). Shakir Hassan al-Said, for his part, rejected the comparison without responding to Adonis directly, arguing that Sufi contemplation was not to be confused with Surrealism’s interest in the unconscious, that these were different territories, with no good passage between them. And yet, Adonis made no claim that Sufism influenced Surrealism or vice versa, just that they were propelled by equally marginalized figures who traveled “along similar paths in search of a solution.” 5

More to the point, he brought the two together for an explicit purpose: to see things differently in times of extreme conflict and damaging dualisms; to break the oppositional thinking between absence and presence, man and machine, nature and industry; and to find a new way of thinking in which the two sides of a debate might embrace one another. The value of his endeavor today lies as much in his close, active readings of Breton, Paul Éluard, and Salvador Dalí alongside like treatments of Ibn Arabi, al-Ghazali, and al-Niffari, as much in his understanding of the night journey as an act of intense imagination and fierce love, as it does in the way he responds to specific circumstances, timely but in retrospect ahead of his time.

In the mid-1990s, Adonis was already addressing, albeit obliquely, the ways in which socially progressive and secular left-wing movements across the Arab world had failed, giving rise to brutally despotic regimes (à la the Assads in Syria), dictators putting a face of economic liberalization over military rule (Egypt under Anwar Sadat and Hosni Mubarak), or religious extremists who proved more serious about social welfare than their inflexibly old-school socialist rivals (Hezbollah et al.). Two decades later, those movements are still failing, in spectacular fashion, as seen in the ups and downs of the Arab Spring and accounting, perhaps, for the renewed interest in the possibilities of Sufism and Surrealism to move through this impasse.

Fouad Elkoury, The Ceiling, Institut Français d’Archéologie, Beirut (1991), silver bromide print, 50 × 62.5 cm

Imagine, for example, the emotional and intellectual shift from Beirut in its heyday, in the late 1960s, when Adonis’s journals carried mainstream cultural weight, to his quieter, more marginal exile in Paris, in the early 1990s, when he published both An Introduction to Arab Poetics and Sufism and Surrealism, two dense and difficult works appealing to the classical eras of Arabic poetry for malleable forms of relevance to the present. Imagine an earlier episode, which is strangely absent from the story Adonis tells (sadly, his blind spots have expanded in the decades since). The roots of Surrealism in the Middle East began in the 1930s, when the poet Georges Henein and the painter Ramses Younan started a collective known as Art and Freedom, named for a manifesto penned in Mexico City by Breton and Leon Trotsky. The group staged exhibitions, published new magazines, and issued manifestos of its own, which were printed in pamphlets and distributed by hand through the streets of Cairo. Henein was the son of an Italian and an Egyptian Copt. Some of Art and Freedom’s major benefactors were Egyptian Jews. The forces motivating the movement included its members’ opposition to (and fear of) nationalism, fascism, the rigid observance of tradition, rote learning, and escalating religiosity. Defending Surrealism against claims that it was a foreign import lifted wholesale from France, the painter Kamel al-Telmissany argued in a newspaper editorial that most of the ancient art in Egyptian museums was in fact Surrealist first and foremost. Soon after, Telmissany abandoned painting for Marxism and the making of films. He became known for realistic, protodocumentary depictions of working-class life in Cairo. This entire episode—which, at its most robust, lasted little more than a decade, until Henein’s break with Breton in 1948—is tucked into a time that is barely recognizable today, a time almost dangerously mythologized as a cosmopolitan paradise.

I am not sure if I am being honest or deceitful with myself about my love for this history, these cities. I am drawn to moments in the past when such cities were Arab and Jewish, communist and avant-garde; when they hosted a dozen different communities of Christians; when they were full of Italians and Greeks, Levantines, secret and mystical and heretical sects who traced their origins east. I am drawn, perhaps, to moments when foreigners were local, when they were a natural part of cultural life. Such mixtures of heritage make me feel at home and give me a sense of purpose, as if this lineage were the spirit of a place, a mark of its own inner world. For example, I love that Agatha Christie came out at a debutante ball in Cairo. I love that she shrugged off her first husband’s infidelities by jumping on the Orient Express and traveling east to the archaeological sites of Ur, where the reserved, regal wife of a studious archaeologist served as the basis of her victim in Murder in Mesopotamia (1936). I love that when Susan Sontag traveled to Sarajevo to stage Waiting for Godot in 1993, she learned enough Serbo-Croatian to say “hello,” “please,” “thank you,” and “not now,” the last being an utmost necessity for a writer in the world who is shooing the world away.

Two decades after Sontag, I found a museum in Sarajevo dedicated to the history of the siege in particular and to the Balkan wars more generally. I went there with an artist from Macedonia. Casting my eyes over a collection of shot bullets and spent shells, I was thinking cynically that every conceptual-art project that had come to characterize Beirut was here, without the authorship of any artists, when my companion disappeared. I looked around. He had vanished. Then I heard the long, slow sound of weeping. While I was surveying the objects, he had been reading the wall texts. One, about a child who lost his family, had made him drop to the ground in tears. The artist had a son—joy animated his entire body when he spoke of him—and he responded to the story as if it were, or could have been, his own.

Fouad Elkoury, Synagogue of Wadi Abou Jmil, Beirut (1991), color inkjet print, 50 × 62.5 cm

Now that I have a family, now that I spend my days watching the wonder of my daughter as she discovers the world, my fondness for strange old museums is easier for me to understand. I visit them for her, with her, and I try to imagine a trajectory linking a distant past to her future. They may have been my curiosity, these museums, but they are most certainly her heritage. In the region where I live, museums of antiquities tend to be quaint, eclectic, or bizarre, hopelessly unreconstructed in their politics and display styles. But I return to them less for the sake of an idiosyncratic encounter now than for solace and, increasingly, for answers, for evidence that the cities I love are in fact what I imagine them, believe them, want them, or need them to be—that they remain cities that are active, always changing, complicated, mixed up, open to the world, and tolerant of others; that they remain places where I can live and my daughter can belong; that they remain amalgamations of materials, energies, and stories to and from which we may continue to give and take. Etel Adnan once wrote that we leave a place in order not to stay. Perhaps I return to the museums of these cities to find reasons to stay.

*

At the start of 2015, I had never been to the American University of Beirut’s Archaeological Museum, despite having lived in the city for twelve years. These days I go once a week. It’s not only that I teach down the road. Events forced my hand: a museum destroyed in Mosul, ancient Assyrian cities razed to the ground, gunmen chasing museumgoers through galleries in Tunis, the relics of an incredibly old, rich, radically mixed-up world slipping through our hands. There was a time when archaeology museums were safe to a fault. Lately I’m not so sure. This is more than love. It’s the conviction that comes from embracing a certain future—a child, a family—in a place where that future now seems unsettled and unclear. ISIS, Syria, Hezbollah? Whither the promise of the so-called Arab Spring?

So, a confession: I went to the Archaeological Museum for a story, initially. I went in search of Muhammad. I wanted to know if there were depictions of the prophet among the examples of Islamic art and architecture. There were none, or at least none on display, and only then did I look around and allow my attention to drift. I took in the winged sphinxes, Greek goddesses, and winsome nudes carved in bone and ivory. I climbed to the mezzanine and spent long stretches of time studying a case full of amulets and talismans. It was around this time that ISIS began circulating video of its masked minions smashing up the antiquities museum in Mosul. (They have since taken over the ancient city of Palmyra, threatening some of the most extraordinary antiquities in the world, city scaled and extant for thousands of years.) The scholar Zainab Bahrani has defined these acts (without exaggeration) as ethnic cleansing. Not only that, she argues, these acts are a matter of historical erasure: the total obliteration of the religiously mixed heritage of the region, and with it the openness and aptitude for learning that passed through centuries in the history of Islamic scholarship.

The original enemies of the Wahhabis—the eighteenth-century sect that first floated the idea of there being a putative ban on figural representation and depictions of the prophet in Islam—were never the Shiites but rather the Sufis (this despite the clear animosity that exists between Saudi Arabia and Iran today and all that has been done to manipulate and exacerbate the Sunni-Shia rift). The Sufis were the original heretics and apostates, the primary threat that came from the bold and loose interpretation of texts, as opposed to strict adherence. In The Future of the Image (2007), Jacques Rancière sets up a stark opposition between radical democracy and reactionary mysticism, and, of course, in the precincts of contemporary art, assumed to be godless and strictly secular, anything about religion is suspect. And yet, in the writings of Etel Adnan and Jalal Toufic, in the lecture performances and installations of Tony Chakar, the return to Sufism and mystical thinking is constant. And it is present precisely for the purpose of reactivating a radical politics.

In her book-length experimental prose piece In the Heart of the Heart of Another Country, from 2005, Adnan delves into the physical, emotional, political, and spiritual conditions of being a woman in the Arab world, casting Oum Kalthoum as a stealth and unsuspecting Sufi mystic who reconciled body and spirit, escaped oppression through subtle eroticism, and changed Adnan’s life when, at the age of twelve, she saw her perform at Beirut’s Grand Theatre, which, though wrecked, is still standing in the city today, awaiting a renovation that may or may not come. In Ashura: This Blood Spilled in My Veins, also from 2005, Toufic tells the story of Hallaj’s execution to argue for the urgency of witnessing, and of continually returning to the active and daring interpretation of religious texts and principles, at a time when martyrdom was first being distorted by suicide bombings on an appallingly grand scale.

In his 2014 installation and related publication Of Other Worlds That Are in This One, named after similar quotations by Éluard and Rainer Maria Rilke, Chakar pairs images from a project exploring phone-camera photographs and facial-recognition software with excerpts from Abu Nawas, Hallaj, the Prophet Muhammad, the Gospel of Thomas, and Mother Teresa, among others. Exploring the effects of capitalism and technology on the body and language, Chakar’s use of mystical material is wholly metaphorical, seeking a breakthrough in seemingly circular discourse. In The Dialogue That Is Us, from 2013, Chakar considers, like Adonis, the Sufi notion (via Arthur Rimbaud’s “Je est un autre”) of listening by surrendering one’s own self to a universal other. The Dialogue is a complex play of words and images, with blocks of text in Arabic and English facing ink and pencil drawings of public monuments, architectural details, and copies of famous artworks. In the artist’s meandering, fragmentary, but nonetheless narrative path through ruins and memorials, he credits both Surrealist and Sufi strategies of breakaway and unburdening, set against the backdrop, divulged only in the epilogue, of the civil war in Syria, where again the secular left has crashed out in the face of religious fanaticism.

There is an important lineage here. Saloua Raouda Choucair’s language of modernist abstract forms—her sculptures known as “Poems,” “Duals,” and “Odes” of the 1960s and ’70s—were, in the critique of the artist, critic, and master calligrapher Samir Sayegh, an attempt to embody the oneness of the universe and union with the divine. For Adonis, the Sufis and Surrealists are linked not only in their knowledge of an interior world, their search for allegory and metaphor, their suspension of the senses, their explosions of language, and their desire to access the unseen. They are also linked, quite critically, by their refusal of otherness in times of extreme crisis, when it is precisely that sense of otherness that is instrumentalized in the service of a brutally separatist politics on the level of the Islamic State. The Egyptian Surrealists came together as Art and Freedom at a time in Cairo (the late 1930s) when fascism was casting a long shadow from Europe. By the 1960s, when Henein was forced into exile in France, the danger was nationalism. In the 1970s, when the Arab Surrealist movement wrote a sequel to Henein’s manifesto—“We explode the mosques and the streets with the scandal of sex returning to its body, bursting into flames at each encounter, secret until then”—the threat was religious fundamentalism. In defense of Rimbaud, for Adonis an orientalist Sufi poet par excellence, he quotes al-Niffari: “If you do not witness what cannot be said, you will shatter what can be said.” 6

*

In his magisterial, eponymous history of Beirut, Samir Kassir proves the city a far more coherent object of study than Lebanon, if for no other reason than the simple fact that it predates the state by five thousand years. And where Lebanon was always a construct, “Beirut was, and is, a very real place,” writes Kassir. What came together as a Roman colony passed through Byzantium, the expansion of Islam, the Crusades, the Muslim restoration under the Mamluks, four centuries of Ottoman rule and reformation, a brief but consequential interlude of Egyptian occupation, the French Mandate, the emergence of the modern state, and its self-destruction during the civil war and postwar reconstruction. “Beirut stands out among the cities of its age,” he writes, “not only for having helped to formulate the concept of Arab modernity, but also, and still more importantly, for having helped make it a living thing—even if, in doing so, Beirut lured itself into a dead end.” 7

Kassir’s Beirut is built around a pause, a conceptual ruse. He holds the city’s historic core in focus throughout the book, even as he explores Beirut’s growth in all directions. But when the historic core empties—when it is heavily damaged in the early days of the civil war and then largely abandoned until the start of reconstruction in the mid-1990s—Kassir sets it aside. When he picks up the story of Beirut again, it is well into the postwar period. In other words, he skips over the civil war entirely. “The temptation was great to speak of the city under siege, and of the ways in which it adapted to catastrophe,” he writes. “But to have given in to that temptation would have distorted my fundamental purpose in writing this book, which as the history of a city must be a tale of civility—even if this remains to be reinvented—and not a tale of its death.” 8

Fouad Elkoury, Nada at Dawn, Cairo (1990), silver bromide print, 72 × 90 cm

Kassir’s omission coincides with Carswell’s absence from Beirut, and so much else. For example, a body of work made in that same era by the photographer Fouad Elkoury. It’s an oeuvre that for years I have known but couldn’t see, looked at but couldn’t understand. I met Elkoury for the first time on the balcony of an old building that is now dwarfed on all sides by new construction. A luxury tower looms over it. A real-estate agent once tried to sell us an apartment there, off plan, telling us that even though the building would blot out the view of all its neighbors, the address would be like a secret, slipped into such an old, labyrinthine district. When I met Elkoury, this was a few years off and he had other, more pressing concerns. He had just survived cancer, and he had packed away all his cameras, pledging never to take another picture again. He would make films. He would write books. And his work did change significantly for several years, culminating in diaristic collage, some hyperlocal sociopolitical critique, narrative assemblage, and a lovely film about an art project delving into an archive of classical Arabic music. But in time Elkoury did take his cameras out and begin photographing again. And perhaps for that reason I feel it is a less of a trespass now to spend time among his images from the 1970s, ’80s, and ’90s. That and, following Carswell, I seem to be finding some necessary future in this past.

Consider a photograph from 1991 of a concrete boulder by the sea, a deep crack running straight through it like a scar; or the interiors of the National Museum, the synagogue in the old Jewish quarter of Wadi Abu Jamil, the ruined Opera and Rivoli cinemas; or the Roman Baths discovered beneath Place des Canons, shot below the imposing presence of a billboard advertising an orderly future vision of Beirut. (In the mid-1990s, the slogan for Solidere, the private real-estate company charged with the reconstruction and redevelopment of downtown Beirut, was “Ancient City of the Future”; Elkoury’s image is titled No Present; the billboard recycles a rendering of a master plan for Beirut from before the war, which was never implemented.) Consider a photograph from 1979 of an elaborate picnic in Baalbek, from a series on the civil war, which appears to me now as the epitome of femininity, decadence, the good life, and resistance, all in a sleeping face, a languidly bent arm, two straw hats, tall grass, and a silver tray piled high with fresh fruit. An image of the Egyptian actress Sherihan, alone in a Cairo movie theater, hunched in a fur coat, lips parted, face turned to the (imagined) wonder of an unseen film. A toppled garden statue in Lisbon, which speaks equally to beauty, ruins, and violence. A shot of Beirut’s Place de l’Étoile, battered in 1991, taken from behind the gate of a facing shop, which is so pierced with bullets that it appears as if a starry night sky has fallen into the frame. See too a photograph of Elkoury’s first wife, reclining on a couch with a fan covering her face, enacting the role of Kuchuk Hanem, the notorious courtesan with whom Gustave Flaubert fell tragically in love. Yasser Arafat, unmistakable in his keffiyeh even as he is photographed from behind, leaning onto the railing of the Atlantis, the ship that took him and the entire leadership of the Palestine Liberation Organization out of Beirut and into Athens and then on to a long-term exile in Tunis.

Fouad Elkoury, Arafat Arriving in Athens with Companions, Mediterranean Sea (1982), silver bromide print, 50 × 60 cm

Elkoury was born and raised in Paris. He went to the Architecture Association in London. Zaha Hadid, who had studied math at AUB, was his classmate. “No one understood a word of her final project,” Elkoury told me recently, eyeing the lines of her new building housing the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs, which looks like a retrofuturistic cruise ship docked behind Nicely Hall. In London, Elkoury met Vanessa Redgrave, joined the Workers Revolutionary Party, and got himself deported from the UK. He ended up in Beirut during the worst early days of the war. He worked on the set of Volker Schlöndorff’s Circle of Deceit (1981). He began taking pictures of the city in ruins, initiating an abiding interest in the long cycle of a city’s life when it is so devastated that nature reclaims it, overruns it, brings it back for some kind of renewal.

During the Israeli invasion of 1982, Elkoury made his way onto the Atlantis almost by chance. The siege was hard for everyone: Elkoury was eating teabags when he heard a rumor that the Palestinians were planning to leave. A contact told him to be ready to go the next morning. While his shots of Arafat earned him an agency contract and a proper career (even though, by the ironies of fate, the pictures were never published because the death of Grace Kelly became bigger news), frontline photojournalism didn’t last. Elkoury worked mostly in long series and deliberate sequences. He retraced the journey of Flaubert and Maxime du Camp in Egypt, eventually veering off script to pursue a story of his own. He made books, such as the accidental modern-day trilogy of the Middle East, which includes Palestine: L’envers du miroir (1996), Liban provisoire (1998), and Suite égyptienne (1999).

Fouad Elkoury, Arafat Welcoming Archbishop Capucci, Piraeus (1982), color inkjet print, 50 × 60 cm

On April Fools’ Day this year, Elkoury came to my class to speak to my students about his work. He came well prepared: a hard drive full of images and a story for every one. It turns out he is writing letters to his son, one image at a time, in preparation for a book about his life. If the subject of religion is questionable in contemporary art, so too is any talk of family or children. But there is something important here to contend with about the transmission of knowledge from one generation to the next, about the forms, objects, and images that come down to us through religion, through museums, through an artist’s archive. The Sufis, according to Adonis, must always struggle with the object to get to its essence, its magic, its secret. The poets, meanwhile, must always rewrite the world, renaming things and, in doing so, keeping thought and the process of thinking alive.

In the immediate aftermath of Lebanon’s civil war, Elkoury was one of six photographers (Robert Frank, Josef Koudelka, Raymond Depardon, René Burri, and Gabriele Basilico were the others) invited by the Hariri Foundation—an endeavor not without politics—to document the city as it was at the time, to fix it in images before it changed radically once more. Robert Frank was Elkoury’s hero. He asked to accompany him shooting one morning, good manners tripping over practicality as Elkoury offered Frank an umbrella in the rain. Frank smiled. “You can hold one of these and take pictures?” Then he asked Elkoury what he was looking for that day. Elkoury answered with something inane about light and shadow. And you? Frank said: “I’m looking for love.”

Fouad Elkoury, Kuchuk Hanem, Cairo (1990), silver bromide print, 72 × 90 cm

1 Mahmoud Darwish, In the Presence of Absence, trans. Sinan Antoon (Brooklyn, NY: Archipelago Books, 2011), p. 110.

2 To do so would be complicated, requiring one to separate imitation from simultaneity at a time when the field of evidence and art-historical scholarship is already thin. For example, there is to this day no standard textbook tracing the history of modern art in Lebanon; modernism in general has been neglected by scholars both in and of the region; academic resources tend to go more readily to the preservation of older heritage, seemingly more clear-cut in value and less complicated in politics. In terms of the built environment, the Beirut-based Arab Center for Architecture, newly established in its own space, is working to change this situation, as are scattershot efforts to support independent art-historical scholarship.

3 Quoted in Catherine Hansen, “John Carswell: In Retrospect,” in Trans-Oriental Monochrome: John Carswell, ed. Octavian Esanu (Beirut: AUB Art Galleries and Collections, 2014), p. 19.

4 Abdellatif Laâbi, “Just Love,” in The World’s Embrace: Selected Poems, trans. Anne George, Edris Makward, Victor Reinking, and Pierre Joris (San Francisco: City Lights, 2003), p. 57.

5 Adonis, Sufism and Surrealism, trans. Judith Cumberbatch (London: Saqi, 2005), p. 26.

6 Ibid., p. 212.

7 Samir Kassir, Beirut, trans. M. B. DeBevoise (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2010), p. 30.

8 Ibid.

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