A few years ago I bought a photograph by a Lebanese photographer called Ziad Antar. The photo depicts a sort of landmark of unfinished construction in a city that was, until recently, awash in the incomplete. Specifically it is the concrete carcass of a hotel near the southern limit of Beirut right on the Mediterranean Sea. In the foreground is a palm tree growing out of a neat square in a nicely built, wide sidewalk. The sidewalk has other neat squares, but they are devoid of palms. The street is littered with debris, not just litter, but concrete rubble, stones and other heavy objects that speak of destruction and then neglect. The palm tree itself, the symbol of glamorous locations from Tahiti to Rodeo Drive, has not been tended to and has an unfamiliar cluster of dead leaves hanging down underneath the blossom of jagged green ones. The tree and the sidewalk speak of prosperity, strolls by the sea and exciting parties, the hotel carcass whispers forlornly of dreams interrupted and potential glimpsed but then snatched away, just out of reach. The hotel carcass has capitulated to events and no longer cries for the loss of what had been within its grasp.
The series of photos is called Beirut Bereft. And I can’t think of a more accurate word to describe the emotions stirred up by looking at the picture. Today I was sitting and wondering at how that image, the 1/200th of a second of existence captured on paper, of a concrete hulk and a little foreground could make me feel bereft. And it dawned on me that it is not so much creating that feeling in me as awakening it. Because Beirut has caused many of us to feel bereft.
The civil war created two large classes of people. There were those who left, who built lives in America, Africa, the Persian Gulf countries and elsewhere. They were often successful, they married and had children and they thrived in their new homes. But they were bereft. They had lost the soil in which their seeds had been planted and had grown. They had left out of necessity and could not return because of the danger but also because the soil itself had burnt and changed in their absence, unable to support their ambitions.
The second class was made up of those who stayed. Those who managed to live in the moment so effectively that they could convince themselves that war’s end was imminent. And so they stayed in Beirut, around Beirut, in the mountains moving as the battles moved. They survived through caution and luck. But they were also bereft. They lost their destiny, like the hotel carcass in the photo.
The war in Lebanon seems to me, at least, somewhat unique, in that it was more like a TV series than a movie. It progressed in episodes, there were cliffhangers and no one could know when the series would end. Almost every episode ended with the hope of peace, and the following episodes would herald rebuilding, new windows to replace the old shattered ones, but then darkness would return and the cycle would start again. It was easy to believe at each of these junctures, that peace would be durable. It was easy for the exiles to return, and many did, only to have to rip themselves away from their roots again. It was easy for the survivors to believe that their lives were about to start, finally, only to have to face the destruction of their dreams again.
In the series of photographs that comprise Beirut Bereft, it is the sight of concrete carcasses that date not only from 1974, the start of the Civil War, but also 1976, 1978, 1984, 1986 and many other moments, to realize that people so believed in the beginning of normal life that they were willing to start building, to invest fortunes based on their optimism at all those times. The fact that the carcasses were abandoned, tells of the pain and loss the interruption of war caused.
Now, since I have lived here-it has been around five years, I am happy to say that many of those carcasses have been completed. They have been completed during my time here meaning they have been completed almost twenty years after the nominal end of the war. Others have been destroyed and replaced with new structures, an even more total form of achieving their objective. I am happy to say it because I see in that completion the actualization of dreams. As I see in the people around me the actualization of their dreams, at least sometimes. I see around me dreamers who are thwarted only by the vagaries of life, not by the circumstance of civil dissolution, hatred and societal collapse. Ziad Antar is a case in point. His photographic career got its start when he was given a stock of expired film, pre-war pellicles, that had been damaged by water, time and neglect, to practice with. He used this war detritus to create a series of photos called Expired which subsume the faults of the film into the emotional content of the work. Ziad has taken the war-waste and done some phoenix-type rising from its ashes. Feeding on the ashes.
The same holds for the talented among Beirut’s architects who have been able to exploit the reconstruction, the chaos of the city to build some remarkable buildings and also their careers. For at least a brief period, Beirut has allowed and even fed the dreams and destinies of its inhabitants. The exiles have been able to return and absorb the nutrients of their native habitat.
And yet, there remain buildings, including the Iconic Murr Tower that, prod us to recall the dangers that are only just out of sight, historically speaking, and just beneath the surface of the society. The Lebanese people are knitted together by a very thin fabric. It is thicker than it was, perhaps it is thicker than it has ever been, but no one really knows if it is thick enough. Certainly there are constant situations that threaten to tear it whether Israeli Violence, the Syrian Civil war, various domestic political intrigues, sectarian tensions, family feuds and even traffic incidents.
While Beirut, for once in my life, did not feel bereft for a few years, the advent of terrorist states, the continual Israeli violence, the support of many countries for terror actions in the region, the sectarian discord, have brought the whole feeling of possibility and promise to a halt yet again. And I wonder now, when I look at the image of the Hotel that never opened, whether the deep feeling of loss and sadness is not for me and my destiny.
Murr Tower (let’s hope it truly has expired)