+ SENSLESS REALM
Senseless Realm is an installation consisting of five panoramas exploring five gruesome stories from the Lebanese Civil War with each story relating to one of the senses. Its aim was to highlight the knowledge acquired by the senses in times of war and the often-deadly price one had to pay in return.
The Senseless Realm is a constructed space of ruins, mourning and melancholy in which five true tales from The Lebanese Civil War unfold. Each tale functions as a 19th century panorama in which a large cinematic landscape constructed out of hundreds of collaged images unfolds. The scrolls, which are twelve meters long each, are then presented within a frame that function as a viewing device allowing viewers to scroll through the image. Each collage deals specifically with gruesome tell tales of the war of which we however do not possess factual evidence. The point has thus been to reconstruct the narrative of each story using recycled images of the war belonging to the same period. The questions raised by the works revolve around the knowledge acquired in the exercise of war and about the meaning and transmission of that knowledge. In excavating and cutting through hundreds of harrowing images of destruction, desolation and horror can one claim to any kind of truth? The underlying assumption when looking at the faces of people in the exercise of war in that they are going through a learning experience. Ultimately, men at war are learning to kill: they engage in battles, chant slogans while acquiring the most forbidden knowledge of all. War legitimizes killing and when the most forbidden of acts becomes a reason to celebrate it casts its shadow on a whole society of culprits and survivors. The punishment for the knowledge thus acquired comes as a direct corruption of the senses. As the stories unfold, perpetrators, victims and survivors lose their sensuous faculties casting the very curse of this knowledge unto the viewer’s eyes.
+ SENSLESS REALM // BIRTHS
Today, we kill Arafat. We break the sound barrier and within a few minutes we’ll be flying over Beirut. Our information is precise: he will be attending a meeting in a building next to the Sanayeh gardens. We drop the bomb, the building vanishes, Arafat dies, and we win the war. It is known as a vacuum bomb: those near the ignition point will be obliterated. Those at the fringe will suffer many internal and invisible injuries: crushed inner organs, ruptured lungs and burst eardrums. All the people in and around the building will die, but this is the price to pay to kill Arafat. However he was not there. In his life long hide and seek game with death he skipped the meeting and was playing chess with foreign correspondents in another location. Starts the dance of the survivors: the wailing, the moaning and the muffled sounds one could hear coming from underneath the rubble. A pregnant woman found in the debris of a car nearby is rushed to a hospital. We are the summer of 82, the Israeli Defense Forces are pounding the Lebanese capital from land, sea and air with a wide array of explosive devices. The besieged city lacks all kind of resources: water, electricity, food... The pregnant woman is rushed into an operating room; her pulse is getting weaker and weaker. Outside, the city is reconfigured by a deadly rhythm of detonations. In another room another woman is giving birth. It was a long delivery, and she had been given an epidural. All across the hospital you could find patients and medical staff clinging to radios, listening to the chattering sounds emitted through air waves of hope and life, more pounding more explosions, more death…the news are hopeless…the city itself is going through the birth pangs of a malformed infant named Peace In Galilee…In the operating block, the woman who was rescued is now totally unconscious. If she dies, the child dies with her. She is dying. Her belly is sliced open, and a baby girl is saved from that mortal envelope. They would see later if the vacuum bomb caused her any harm, she could be blind, she could be deaf, she could be bleeding internally, but at this moment, the child lives, and it is miraculous. In the other room, the other woman is waiting for her birth pangs to begin, waiting for the pain to hit her, waiting to deliver to the world another survivor. But she is numbed by the painkillers, the fear, and the overwhelming sounds of explosions. In the exhilaration of the news of that baby saved from his dead mothers belly, the doctor and attendants leave the delivery room. The bombs keep on dropping, creating sound waves of death reverberating across the city shattering everything around their fiery blasts. The woman does not feel a thing. She cannot hear anything but these loud deflagrations. When the nurses get back into the room, horror strikes. The baby had slid from the uterus, left the cervix, extracted itself from the vagina and was laying stiff in between an absent woman’s legs. Unattended, it had chocked. In the suspended time of tragedy, lifeless women, and dead infants, Arafat stands on the balcony of another building watching Beirut burn ablaze: if this had been Jerusalem we would have stayed to the end, but Beirut is not ours to destroy…Beirut is not ours to destroy…
+ SENSLESS REALM // VESSELS
They came in peace”. Those are the words cast in the concrete of the memorial erected in memory of the 243 marines killed in Beirut in 1983. From their vessels, they used to fire inland 16-inch shells that became known as the flying Volkswagens, for each shell was the size of a Volks. The Americans were here to implement a peace plan for Lebanon, after the great folly known as Peace In Galilee. The Israelis had invaded the country, defeated the PLO, kicked out Arafat, and offered Bachir gemayel –the leader of the Lebanese Forces- a presidency that would only last 17 days. Upon his assassination, his followers committed a blind massacre against the inhabitants of the Sabra and Chatila camps, on the out- skirts of Beirut. More than a thousand people were killed. There were so many people buried under the ground that the earth was moving with rage, mourning and pain, with a feast of worms gargling in its belly. If you were to ask anyone what was the most terrible part of that episode: the smell. From the beginning of the war the biggest problem was the disposal of bodies. A massacre takes a few minutes to commit and takes little planning, but then you are left with those inanimate bodies. We would carry them, load them on trucks and drop them in valleys. With gravity fully applied on those lifeless bodies, their weights seemed tremendous. All over the country you would have found mass graves. In Sabra, the men even used bulldozers. But you cannot hide such crimes for very long, and often what betrays you the most is the horrid smell of death. It doesn’t take long after you’ve killed a person for the foul maggots and worms to consume their putrid corpses. The sight can be troubling, disquieting, but the smell…after a person has been drilled with bullets or torn apart by shrapnel, a combination of blood, urine, and fecal mat- ter spreads out around the corpse. Within hours, the carcasses bloat and a sickly sweet cloying scent emanates. Nothing can be as haunting and impenetrably nauseating or foul as the smell of death. In the capital, we were rounding up men; young leftists, Chiites, all potential threats… they would be stopped at checkpoints, detained, interrogated, and many would go missing. What happened to all those kidnapped people who never reappeared? When the waves of arrests and kidnappings became too intense, we were faced with a logistical problem: if we kill them all, what would we do with their bodies? We had those empty containers, left overs of our smuggling activities. Sometimes, we would detain up to 30 men in those containers. And sometimes, we would load a container on a boat and sail. The men entrapped within that metallic confine could not imagine what was about to happen to them. We would tell them that they were going to be transported to another location to be released. But once we had reached the sea at large, we would drop the container and watch it vanish in the vast watery grave. The descent would take a few minutes during which we could hear the outburst and supplications coming from the coffin. At the beginning, with the air it still contained, it would float. We would then open fire on it with our rifles, creating more opening for the air to leave, for the water to seep in, and the container with human content would sink where no man would ever find it again.
+ SENSLESS REALM // PORTALS
At the beginning, it wasn’t supposed to last very long, a few months, a year at most. The issue at hand was simple, the struggle was clear; over- throw the regime, turn the country into a secular state, unite the Arabs, and free Palestine. Armed with revolutionary zeal and fervor our only chance was violence. We had to defeat those reactionary militias fighting to protect the right-wing Christian political establishment. They often say: “We didn’t choose the war, the war chose us”. How did it all begin? Incidents: an escalating game of tit for tat aggressions and retalia- tions. And after the incidents came the battles, and after the battles, the trenches. Soon enough, we were dying on all sides, a constant flow of Martyrs. The respective parties would publish images of their exploits… tales of heroic assaults, tales of heroic resistance. In the published im- ages, they would draw a black line over the eyes of the soldiers in action. Most of us were not full-time soldiers at that time. We had other jobs, other occupations, and a civilian life to maintain. We would however publish in magazines, newspapers and posters the images of our Martyrs unaltered, passport photos for most, with their eyes heroically gazing into eternity. We, who survived battle after battle, had gazed into the eyes of death, an empty abyss of evil and pain. We have been consumed in a ball of fire through combat, dragged into a world of infinite death and destruction. You, yourself, as you scroll through those images, I warn you: we will display the putrid corpses of our victims. You can stop now, or then indict your eyes and tell them: “There you are, curse you, feast yourselves at that lovely sight”. You will ask me, what does it feel like to kill a man? And I’ll tell you, the most troubling thing in a corpse is those eyes, wide-opened. Shut them for they are windows to the under- world. So the most crucial thing in such circumstances is to protect oneself from that. You either believe in fetishes or you don’t. And for us, who strongly believe in the one and only god, a fetish is often needed to secure a relation with the Almighty. There are those talismans made of small silver cylindrical containers, in which you find a magic scroll, incantations, wishes, and protectors against the evil eye. But surely, there must be a better way to protect oneself against that evil eye, especially if you knew firsthand that the eye in question was evil. It was not the eye in itself as a separate organ, but as the window, the portal into the souls of men. From those men, one should seek protection, especially if you happen to have devoted your life to fighting them. In this case, you torture and kill. But before you kill, that is, before you make sure that life has definitely given up on that body, you watch your back. Torturing evil men is not a sport and you do not do it for fun. You torture to gain a certain knowledge to which you wouldn’t have access to otherwise. Information, that is certain, but beyond all the blabber related to the warring activities on the fields, you gain knowledge of just how much pain that person can endure. You hold his life within a suffering mass of nerves, waiting for that lucid moment at which the body and the mind associated are going to break and reveal themselves as one to you. And that is the spirit. But before that soul goes on wandering, slipping through its mortal envelope, you rip out the eyes off that body and keep them safe from decay. And the spirit rests there, stuck in a portal from which it cannot escape. This is how you protect yourself from the evil eye. In a closet, on a shelf, in a jar, away from light, they rest. I do not look at them often. But they are there.
+ SENSLESS REALM // TOYS
In 1975, Imam Moussa Sader thus spoke: “weapons are the ornaments of men”. All across Beirut’s misery belt, the deprived grouped and lis- tened: “if our plight goes unheeded we will attack the palaces and mansions of the rich and powerful… this is the outcry of the oppressed, the rise of a crushed but awakened community”. The misery belt turned into a ring of fire. Revolutionary violence was needed, a new world to be created. Merchants had already been visiting the country for a while. Residing in Beirut’s luxurious hotels, they would pay their respect to the various political factions and sell those metal toys that make little boys dream…supply meeting demand, the Christian regime faced with revo- lutionary violence had to fight to survive. By the outbreak of the Civil War, all the Lebanese communities were beautifully adorned and heavily armed. The Palestinians had set base here, and they had already opened a front in the south on the Lebanese Israeli border in order to free Palestine. Soon enough, an entire country with a history to write engaged in the exercise of war. When you look at the portraits of the martyrs each militia published you realize how young they all were. Is civil war even possible without the exhilaration with which oversexed young men risk their lives? Is civil war even possible without the excitement of young women at the sight of armed men in uniforms? Is civil war even pos- sible without the eagerness generated by the sight of guns and tanks in little boys? But soon enough, the exhilaration of the men turns them into killers, cripples and corpses. The excitement of young women leaves way for widows, tears and mourning. Only little boys keep their eagerness alive. And after the land is plundered, after the fighters have discharged the iron seeds of death and spread misery and grief, little boys look at this spectacle of ruins with awe. As the smoke of battles dissipates, little boys would run unto the stage of history and collect the leftovers, those priceless spoils of war: bullets, shrapnel, mortars. And every once in a while tragedy would hit, and little boys would also join history. In the summer of 1982 the Israeli Defense Forces invaded Lebanon to eradicate the Palestinian guerillas and install a friendly government in place. They managed to have Arafat and his men on boats deported to Tunis. They managed to have Bachir Gemayel, their Christian ally elected as President. Came the moment to sign a peace treaty, 35 years old Gemayel had a sudden outburst: there could be no peace agreement if all Leba- nese didn’t agree on it, and the men of the blue eyed Imam would certainly not agree. Talking to his father about that ill-fated meeting with the Israeli Prime Minister, Gemayel complained: “he treated me like a boy”. He would not live long enough to ponder on that thought, as he would be killed a few days later. Israel’s occupation and ever growing frustration with Lebanon would however last for much longer. From the vast ar- ray of explosive devices with which they littered Lebanese towns and villages, you could also sometimes find toys, the head of a doll, a football, discarded surviving witnesses amidst the rubble. And little boys caught in the thirst for collecting spoils of war would sometimes stumble unto those reminders that there are other toys, not made of metal, and other games to be played. But there are times at which any game can cost you your life and end with an explosion.
+ SENSLESS REALM // FEASTS
Beirut: capital of the good life! The city swarms with luxurious hotels, nightclubs, cafes and restaurants in which big business, regional poli- tics and whoring are conducted. All around the capital, surviving in a state of poverty and deprivation, refugee camps: Palestinians, who were expelled from their land in 1948, and Lebanese who had to flee southern Lebanon due to Israeli airstrikes. In stark contrast to the lavishness of the capital, the camps grew in a climate of repression and neglect- with no sanitation, no education, and no hope. What are the prospects of the hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees stationed in Lebanon since 1948? Trapped in a country that denied them any other right than being a refugee, and a motherland that has been usurped, they waited for the great Arab nations to free their land for them. And when the great Arab nations lost war after war and turned into crippled dictatorships, the refugees took arms and became the most nationalistic of all Arabs, patriots for a nation that still does not exist. Meanwhile the Lebanese were also developing their own sense of nationalism. But for that, they had to fight. They would have to see the blood of their various communities mix in the gutters of history to believe that they were all destined to live together. And so they fought. Then, having built up a strong appetite, they would feast. The war would be punctuated by sum- mits and negotiation rounds during which- like old Priam dining with Achilles after the former had slain his son Hector- they too would put aside all their feuds and think of food. Postponing their mourning and lamentation, gathering strength for the fights to come, they would meet around negotiation tables by day, banquets by night, and speculate on the nature of the fights to come. Soon enough, they would be fighting again. In the switching balance of allegiances during the Civil War, one of the most sinister moves saw Amal, the party founded by Moussa Sader, one of the main Lebanese Muslim militias, turn its guns on the Palestinian camps. They had been allies in their fight against the reactionary Christians, but now in the wake of the heavy price the Lebanese Chiites had paid in the course of the Israeli invasion of 82, the leadership of the Amal party developed a new discourse. Having been expelled from Lebanon in 82, Arafat must be stopped from coming back, the camps must be curbed. Going further than Maronites had ever been, they circled the camps and fired at point blank with T54 tanks into the densely packed dwellings. After a five months siege, on the brink of famine, the refugees of Burj Al Barajneh asked their religious authority to issue a fatwa allowing them to consume human meat. The rumors of cannibalism in the camps circulated in the capital. Finally, after years of conflicts and frustration, the Lebanese had suddenly found the solution to their Palestinian problem: let them eat each other. Putting in practice the old maxim “you are what you eat”, the Lebanese finally allowed the Palestinians to be as Palestinian as they could ever be. Anyhow, eating Palestin- ian flesh is as close to Palestine as they would ever get. The one surviving Palestinian refugee left, under a special resolution voted unanimously at the United Nations would then be allowed to cross the border into Israel, and, if he does not blow himself up on a landmine, hand over the keys of the houses those refugees took with them in 1948, to their now righteous owners.