Presented in 2012 at The Beirut Exhibition Centre
Wishful Beginnings is a project dealing with two simultaneously traumatic temporalities: the Lebanese Civil War and its immediate Post War reconstruction era. Both are experienced through the same location: Beirut’s once luxurious hotel district. In the first two years of the war that area was completely devastated by urban warfare with various militias fighting to control some of the city’s largest and tallest buildings. In the post war period some of these buildings would eventually be renovated while others still exist to this day as vast ruins amidst Beirut’s noisy urban development. Through a fiction I have developed we go through these two temporalities learning about Beirut’s history, its wars, its architecture and the stories that bind it all together.
CHAPTER 1 : 1982
Beirut had never been more beautiful. Or so I’ve read. A city besieged from within and without with some soldiers battling for survival and others for domination. From the land, from the sea, from the air, bombs were falling on the capital, transforming the city into an eerie landscape of ruins. The city had been subjected for weeks to the most intense aerial bombing since the end of World War Two. The Israeli army surrounding the city was busily writing the final act of their blitz: the fall of an Arab capital. War, however, rages until another game supplants it, and that night it was the world cup: the epic final between Italy and Brazil. The fighting is suspended. The soldiers put their guns down, and across all the fronts men are busy contemplating images of other men running across a green field after a ball. I do not know what happened that night, for I was not there. I know my uncle was killed, I know when I was born a few years later I was given his name. Kamal K. But nobody could ever tell me why his body was found studded with bullet holes under the Holiday Inn hotel in 1982. I hear stories and theories, speculations and thoughts, and the murderer still has no face. My parents rarely address the subject, and I’ve never had access to any of his personal belongings. Who is this stranger whose name I harbor?
CHAPTER 2: POST WAR BEIRUT: THE INVESTIGATION
Uncle, your body was found next to the Holiday Inn Hotel. How can I possibly have access to the crime scene? Maybe find some evidence? I need to start an investigation. Let us put it on the record that I, Kamal K, son of Hani K, solemnly declare the investigation over the murder of my uncle open. I will delve into the folds and plots of this war and find out the truth. Father, mother, it is time to speak up, tell me, whom should I talk to? Father says he has lost a brother; he is not willing to lose a son. It is a bitter past that is best forgotten. There is no truth to be found in the tortuous chaos of the Lebanese Civil War, even less in the madness of the Israeli invasion of 1982. So many people have been killed and have disappeared unaccounted for. How could a single incident- such as the murder of one man- leave any evidence behind? What is the murder of one man in a war that is responsible for more than two hundred thousand deaths? It is perhaps futile to come today and ask questions expecting to get conclusive answers. The Beirut of 1982 is no more; the PLO is gone, the Israelis are gone, the militias are gone…and all the memories we have kept to ourselves, those hidden wounds, how can we find them? But if you persist you will have to meet a woman called Mona and then a man called Farid. Ask them if they remember the name of Kamal K.
CHAPTER 3: SILENT CITY
Post war Beirut: who will speak to me? Who will tell me what happened? Who will tell me why it happened? Give me a list of names, give me numbers, and let me get in touch with that past. You say it is best to forget, but I need to know. I need to understand. I carry the name of a dead man and every time you all look at me you see him through me. You tell me it is now too late for that. We are rebuilding the country, trying to set up another future for me and for those who will come after. But I don’t want to live on a construction site, I want to take my time and walk amongst the ruins and listen to their stories. I don’t want this reconstruction, this urban plastic surgery where we patch up the bullet-ridden facades. Within all those walls lay legions of maimed and hopeless mad men and women. They have met my uncle, they have talked to him; some must have loved him, others not. Maybe I could meet one of his lovers; she would certainly have stories to share with me. Does the past of a man vanish with his disappearance? I will perhaps never uncover the truth behind my uncle’s murder, but now I am set to find out whatever endures. Let the silent city speak, let those who remember the life and death of Kamal K step up and talk to me.
CHAPTER 4 : HER
The man called Farid cannot be reached at the moment. Today he is some kind of a political consultant. During the war, it seems he was involved with a militia. I, however, reached a woman called Mona and something incredible happened. I met your lover today my uncle. And your lover has a daughter. And I fell in love with your lover’s daughter. Her name is Zahra, and I think you might have met her before; she is named after her aunt. Tell me, did you know that Mona’s family hasn’t spoken to my family ever since you were killed? Do you know why? Do you know that Mona’s little sister was killed with you that night? Do you know that Mona’s family blames you for the murder of their daughter? Do you know that both families never spoke again ever since? The day you were killed, you were coming back from a dinner in a hotel in West Beirut. As your car passed by the Holiday Inn, two gunmen came out of another car and opened fire. Several bullets hit you, and apparently you did not die instantly. Next to you rode Zahra, Mona’s sister. A single bullet hit her, she died instantly. Mona looked at me and wept. I looked at Zahra and wept. And she looked at me and in her eyes I saw it all happening all over again and I grew scared. Listen to me, I am in love with a girl, and we have already died together, her and I.
CHAPTER 5 : The Loveless City
Today we meet Farid. I say ‘we’ because Zahra is joining me in the investigation. She says that if I need to uncover the truth behind Kamal’s murder she too needs to know why Zahra was killed. And she got us the meeting. Farid invites us to one of his clubs, a crazy underground structure built in the quarantine, over the site of a mass grave, or so they say. For him, it is certain: the Israelis killed you. During the siege, you were apparently responsible for supplying the camps with drinking water and in his opinion that is what got you killed. Unless it was Zahra who was targeted. She used to work for the UN, and was giving travel visas to Palestinians. That is, unless you were killed because of an altercation with the bodyguard of an important warlord. After the meeting, Z and I walk across the city. We walk into the ruin of the yellow house, the ruin from which snipers operated during the war near the national museum. She holds my hand and kisses me. We then walked by the sea, but as the sun was setting and we were kissing I was pushed aside by a man wearing some uniform. He asked us for identity papers and tried molesting Z. She started screaming and we ran away. Why is Beirut such a hostile city for lovers?
CHAPTER 6 : MAPPING POSSIBILITIES
They are busy building, demolishing and rebuilding. All over town, you see them erecting crates inventing a new skyline for Beirut. The city is constantly reinventing itself. Old buildings and ruins are torn down, and concrete is poured. We pour concrete into our wounds, that’s what makes us so strong. Z is avoiding me. She thinks our first encounter was not very encouraging, and she blamed me for putting her in harms way. I find myself turning in circles in the city, by car, by foot; I am constantly trying to understand what holds this place together. The city is so charged with history, yet we are currently doing everything to erase it. All across the capital there are stories of detonations, deflagrations and explosions. Stories about those who died, and those who survived. Inscribed in the fabric of the city you can still read those stories, although most have been patched up or erased. At the same time, new tension points are emerging; new demarcation lines are being drawn. The political climate is very heavy; most fear that the verbal escalation between the various political factions will lead to armed confrontations. Despite the Civil War, resorting to violence for political gains is still viewed as a viable option. But where and when those eruptions of violence will take place is a great unknown for most. So in the meantime, we build, frenetically.
CHAPTER 7: WHISKEY AND MYSTICS AND MEN
My uncle I am proud of you. I told my friends that you were a friend of Farid, so they suggested we go and party in his club. We spent hours driving on the highway that links the city to the airport. The empty highway works like an artery linking the world to the heart of Lebanon: Beirut. As we were smoking up in the car, the lights coming from the outside were refracting in the curls of smoke creating a new dimension. Later, at the club a crazy incident happened: as the roof of the club was opening to the night sky, the music stopped and there were police officers surrounding the place. They stopped a bunch of guys for possession. When Farid saw me he took us under his wing and we went to his own private space where he told us about the crazy battles he had participated to during the war. He talked to us about the quarantine, and about the hotel district battles. He mentioned an interesting story about a battle to control the Holiday Inn and how you intervened with the Red Cross. Apparently there were fighters from different militias stuck on several floors of the hotel, each having called for reinforcements. Farid refers to this period as ”our wild years”. Apparently both of you had participated to May 68 in Paris. When the war started, it was all about revolutionary violence, changing a rotten system, even at the risk of burning everything to the ground.
CHAPTER 8 : GIRLFRIEND IN A COMA
I have to get Z to speak to me again. When we kissed that first time, we both agreed that we could not go to her place for her parents would not tolerate that, nor would my parents. So we kissed in the streets. But one cannot really kiss on the streets of Beirut. The last time, when we were by the sea, some security guard harassed us. Since we were in an isolated spot he jumped at us like a bird of prey with a hint of malice in his eyes; he was the kind of person who would take advantage of such situations. You can find all kinds of depravity in this city, which is socially accepted as long as it is not visible in the public realm. Behind closed doors, anything can happen with anyone. But in public, we are all extremely conservative, law- abiding, religious people. On the streets of Beirut you find frustrated young men just like me. Some with more means some with less, and they are all gazing at the women around them wondering when they will get lucky. You also find frustrated young women, although they voice out their frustration in a completely different way- sometimes with outrageously alluring outfits, the catch being that you can look for as much as you like, but you surely can’t touch. I miss Z. Maybe if I kill her, will that force her to come back to me? What if I produce a fake death notification and post it around town?
CHAPTER 9 : YA HABIBI
Z and I are bound to meet in ruins. That night we were at a concert in the skeleton of an old Lebanese house. We met by accident. Beirut is too small to keep us apart. We then went for a drive around town; we took the highway leading to the airport, going in circles around Beirut. The city is really tiny. Yet, within it, the inhabitants of certain neighborhoods feel such an antinomy towards others. The Christian suburb of Hazmieh is a few hundred meters away from the infamous Dahieh, Beirut’s Chiite bastion, which is equally not so far from Tariq El Jdideh, the Sunni bastion. Such a small territory for this stubborn history of conflicts that sees no end. Z indicates to me the points in the city where, according to her father, barricades are being prepared, usually around the offices of the political parties. Z says she hasn’t spoken to me because of the incident with the soldier. Apparently, a similar story happened to a friend of hers, but it had ended in a worse way than ours. I then share my desire to visit the Holiday Inn the next day. Apparently the structure has been left untouched since the end of the war, and I was really eager to document the site before real estate promoters decide of the fate of that carcass, Beirut’s largest building, and largest ruin. Z agrees to join me in the visit.
CHAPTER 10 : WISHFUL BEGINNINGS
It’s mad. The Holiday Inn is still the biggest building in Beirut to this day, and it stands bare and abandoned in the middle of town. What a gigantic ruin. Z and I are turning around the fence of the building, we find a breach and go in, and there we are, facing that monstrous wreck. There is no one. Z says the building has been left untouched since the end of the war, if we were to step inside we would find skeletons of dead warriors and other war relics. The entrances of the building have been blocked but we find a way to climb into a circular staircase that goes all the way up its 25 floors. It is like climbing in the entrails of a monster. Our hearts are pounding heavily; we finally access the first floor. The building has been entirely hollowed out from the inside. It’s a concrete skeleton with no separation walls, just one empty concrete slab after another. We reach the roof. I remember one of the war stories Farid told us. All militias had decided that as long as they did not fight in the hotel district there could still be hope. But the towers in that district would present such vantage points to control the city that they soon began to fight over the control of Beirut’s most prestigious area. In 1978, as a grand finale to a decisive battle, the last Lebanese Forces soldiers caught here were all thrown off the roof.
CHAPTER 11 : THE WATCHTOWER
My uncle, you wouldn’t believe it. That entire carcass is ours. Z and I can observe the whole city from here, and no one can see us. 25 floors of concrete, each floor thousands of square meters, all ours. We decide to establish our base on the roof of the building; from one side we are overlooking the Mediterranean- practically bathing in the refractions of the sea- and from the other side we loom over Beirut, watching over a city that is busily devouring its entrails to rebuild itself. Z and I are so excited; we go from one corner of the space to another, trying to determine exactly how much of the city one can see from here. No wonder so many fierce battles took place to control that structure during the war. Whoever can control that building would impose his will on the whole city. And the building is ours. Beirut, are you ready to live under the reign of lovers? We start discussing what to get up here, and how to furnish our little abode. We will need music. We will need a fridge. We will need a bed. Z looks confused, it is the first time we are all by ourselves in a space where no one can see us. How can this ruin of the war, visible by all, offer us in its gigantism a space so intimate and private? Z and I spend hours looking at each other, anticipating the moment when we will finally baptize the space with our union.
CHAPTER 12 : LITTLE DROP OF POISON
We have been coming regularly to the nest. Yes, we call it the nest now. Z’s mother is quite weary of her numerous disappearances with me. But we’re quite busy furnishing our new house. The tension around town is rising. Each political party blames the other for the escalation, and the media is constantly fuelling this unhealthy debate. On the radios and on television, you can always listen to political talk shows each addressing a specific public and exacerbating the tensions on the ground. There are constant arguments about the directions to take, about the traitors who align themselves with western agendas, about the inevitable war that is engulfing the region, and the role that we will have to play in it. Some say there is a conspiracy to draw a new map for this ailing Middle East. The time has come to overthrow those crippled totalitarian regimes that have governed the region for so long. But you’ve lived through all of that before my uncle. What was the Lebanese Civil War but a set of conspiracies embedded in each other like Russian dolls? Let us suppose you were killed today, and your body was found under the Holiday Inn, it would be equally challenging to find out who carried out the murder and why. What a strange country where crime can always go unpunished. There is no state of law in Lebanon, just angry frustrated boys who are willing to do anything to get some action.
CHAPTER 13 : VOGUE
Z says she has a surprise for me tonight. She will precede me to the nest, and I am to join her later in the evening. As I climb through the 25 floors of the building I could find scattered through the space candles lit in paper bags. Sometimes a single candle stood on its own lost at the confine of an endless dark path, some other times a group of candles created a beautiful warm atmosphere against the raw concrete of the space. Z wrote messages on each of those paper bags. I reach the nest, at a specific area on the top of the building, where a rotating restaurant used to be offering a panoramic view of Beirut. On the edge of that platform we installed our bed. When I get there, she has the whole space lit up with colored lights, I cannot see her but she orders me to sit through the speakers. I sit on a chair facing a curtain creating a tiny separation in the immensity of the space. Music starts and Z appears from behind the curtain dancing. She has me stuck to my chair, watching in awe as she unveils parts of her body to me. There is a wedding in a neighboring hotel, and fire works are filling the sky all around us. She is now entirely naked and I can only see her silhouette dancing against those shards of light exploding in the sky. She gets on top of me, I cannot describe it. I think I’m about to die.
CHAPTER 14 : FREEDOM
I want to free myself from this history, from this society, from all this repetition of ancestral beliefs and customs. In Lebanon we still practice the ritual of child sacrifice, and we commit the worst atrocities while feeling like saints. I would like to let go of it all, but at the same time I feel compelled to dig further into these stories of infanticides and fratricides. I do not know if Z and I will uncover any truth about your murder, my uncle. We sit in our nest and read stories about that senseless war. More than two hundred thousand people were killed and not a single person was held accountable. What is even more dramatic, the history of the civil war is still not taught to the younger generations. But what can we teach them? A moral imperative? Thou shall not kill? A chronology of the Lebanese Civil War? How many plots and subplots can a history book contain? In the mean time, the Lebanese youth learn the one-sided partisan stories of their parents each tainted with their share of massacres and pointless bloodshed perpetuating Lebanon’s fragmented and conflicting history. Imagine: you can meet sixteen-year-old kids who idolize some of the warlords despite all the harm they have brought on their respective communities. How many times can history repeat itself? Around the city right now there are other stories for other battles being drafted.
CHAPTER 15 : TURBULENCE
I passed by Farid’s HQ, there was a group of young men around and weapons were being distributed. An older man with a thick beard looked at me, he asked me for my name. When I told him, he hugged me and took me aside. He reprimanded me for being here; I told him I just wanted to see what was happening; he’s an old friend of yours apparently. I told him about my investigation. He laughed. For all he knew it might have been Farid who ordered the killing. Apparently one of the disregarded factors of the hotel battles was the looting of downtown Beirut. At the time, you blamed him for having abandoned 15 young boys from the Lebanese Forces as they were watching the back of his men while they looted certain shops. They were thrown off the roof of the building. Things are getting tense; I think I’d better leave. On specific corners of the streets, you could see young boys with guns posted, waiting for their orders, watching over the movements of the last civilians who were still not fully aware of the turmoil building up. At the parliament, the elected politicians were still arguing about an important decision in regards to the armed resistance against Israel; if they managed to pass a law that would threaten that resistance the country could slip into chaos. But how can they reach an understanding when half of them actually collaborated with the Israelis a decade earlier?
CHAPTER 16 : DABAKET
I left the HQ and headed to the nest. Z was waiting for me. On the way there young men were running down the streets carrying weapons. They were all heading towards rallying points, establishing new demarcation lines in the city. Z was worried, she had told her parents she was going to stay at a friend’s house. They asked her not to move and stay there. The night was ours, and we danced it away while the city was set ablaze by thugs and militias. Z was eager to show me the latest moves she had learned at her belly dancing class. The Middle East can be perceived as such a conservative place, but you can also encounter the most sexually exuberant practices here. We kept music on one sound system and a radio with the news on another creating a stereophonic cacophony of hysteria and despair. The different angles of the building offered several views of the fighting. We could follow what was being said on the radio and the real movement of the troops on the ground. It’s crazy to see how fast Beirut can slip into total chaos. A few hundred armed men on the streets can dictate their will on an entire population. From the nest, we could see those demarcation lines being drawn with fire and blood. But we felt safe, hidden behind the thick concrete walls of the Holiday Inn.
CHAPTER 17 : SMOKE
Game over my uncle: my parents want me to leave the country. The violence has calmed down but father thinks it is only a matter of time before things escalate again. When it will happen we do not know. It depends on the developments in the region: on the peace process with Israel, on the price of oil, on the American presidential elections, on the stability of the Saudi regime, the durability of the Iranian regime, the endurance of the Syrian dictatorship, the zealousness of religious extremists, the generosity of arms dealers, and the ability of our local leaders to juggle with all those variables to the benefit of all, and their pockets. Z and I have decided to offer Beirut a final gesture. On the streets to create barricades the militia boys had used hundreds of tires that were now piled up on the sides of roads. Z and I started collecting them, and it took us a lot of courage to take them up the 25 floors of the building. We will not leave our nest for others to use, the building will burn again just like it did in 1978. As soon as we lit the tires, a trail of thick black smoke started spreading from the roof of the building. We watched the reaction of the people on the street as they gathered around the building. TV reporters congregated too, sending live images of a carcass reenacting one of the most famous scenes of its history. Let this be a warning Beirut.
CHAPTER 18 : WOUND
I have been wounded my uncle. We were leaving the nest and I got a bullet in the leg coming from god knows where. The doctor says it was a stray bullet; otherwise it would have caused much more damage. My parents are determined to have me leave the country the soonest; father thinks the airport will be closed. I am wounded and I am going to leave the country. I think the investigation over your murder is closed now. I have come to understand that the encounter of a man and a bullet is a highly intimate affair into which no other person can interfere. What happens between a man and that little piece of blazing metal during the split seconds of their encounter will forever remain a mystery withheld by its enactors. I have survived, you have succumbed, it could be luck, but it could also be much more than that. Some would call it fate, others god’s will, in any case the randomness of it all is appalling. I will move to some city where people do not kill each other every time they disagree on something, where whatever you spend your life building cannot be erased haphazardly at the whim of an angry boy. Z is prevented from seeing me; I apparently behaved in a highly irresponsible fashion. Her parents went crazy when they learned about our Holiday Inn escapades. There is no room for lovers in Beirut.
CHAPTER 19 : TUNNELS
We leave in a panic. Blame the stars, the American elections, the Iranian upheaval, the Syrian dismemberment, the Saudi backwardness, the Israeli conspiracy, the plot, the subplot, it is time for yet another war, and it must be fought in the backstreets of Beirut. Father says the road to the airport will be closed any minute now and I must get there before it happens. We drive along empty streets, staying away from the points where roadblocks had been installed and armed confrontations had already begun. As we get to the tunnels that lead to the airport we realize that the roads had already been blocked. Father tries to talk to the men burning tires across the roads. They say I can still get to the airport by foot. It is only a kilometer away. Amidst smoke and fire I kiss father goodbye, get past the burning tires, and there I go, walking in the middle of a highway that will lead me to a plane that will tear me from the asylum. I am the only one walking in that direction. I pick up a few loose shells from the ground, a last souvenir from my wretched land. A group of young boys, not older than twelve stop me and question me about my name, and my religion. How can we so easily reenact those dark passages of our history? All the other men and boys carrying sticks and guns are heading to the entrails of the city. Beirut I abhor you.
CHAPTER 20 : IMPLOSION
It’s all over the international news. I saw the images repeatedly on any screen I could find. My love nest is gone. As an act of renewed faith in the future of Lebanon, the owners of the Holiday Inn have pulled the building down to build at its place Beirut’s tallest tower. A few months ago the country was ready to go up in flames and just as I turned my back they took advantage of the situation to take away my nest. Initially, the hotel, which opened in 1974, operated for just a few months before the militias transformed it into a playground of death and mayhem. Yet, investors are still optimistic about the future and towers keep erupting from Beirut’s tortuous urban scape. Thus, in split seconds, another layer of our history has vanished. Tell me Z, did you see the images? Did you witness the demolition live? Z, you’re still in Beirut, is the city weeping over the loss of this icon of the civil war? Didn’t you tell them that they could not do that; for it was there that the love between Z and K grew and developed? Has this love dematerialized into the cloud of smoke and rubble of the Holiday Inn? Where will we meet when I return to my beloved city? Beirut what will you ever remember once you will be filled with gleaming towers racing into the sky? Or will you just wait for another round of violence to see them turned into ruins?