Beirut, Alive but Dead

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“Beirut was, and is, a very real place,” journalist Samir Kassir wrote in his mammoth history of Lebanon’s capital, “whose playfulness and love of show and spectacle fail to conceal its inner seriousness.” Kassir was killed in a car bombing in June 2005, three and a half months after the former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri’s own assassination, along with 22 others, in a massive blast along the city’s Corniche on Valentine’s Day. Uncertainty and terror followed Hariri’s death, as the United Nations launched a high-profile investigation while car bombs and assassinations persisted, and thousands of Lebanese took to the streets to demand the withdrawal of Syrian soldiers and security forces – and thousands of others rallied around Hizbollah and its sponsor in Damascus. The mood and psychology of this moment in recent Lebanese history is the nominal plot of The Mehlis Report, the English-language debut of Rabee Jaber, the 2012 International Arabic Fiction Prize winner.

Architect Saman Yarid wanders Beirut, investing hopes for peace and answers to his city’s turmoil on the release of the UN investigation led by the German judge Detlev Mehlis. Saman is the last member of his family left in their sprawling home in Achrafieh; his sisters have moved abroad, save for Josephine, who was kidnapped in the civil war, and never found. But his story – late nights, long walks, and different girlfriends – leads into an imaginative excavation of the city’s brutal past and present, and the toll of Lebanon’s 15-year civil war, with 150,000 dead and an estimated 17,000 missing. In Jaber’s novel, Kassir’s “inner seriousness” of Beirut is, in fact, a parallel city of the dead, where those lost in the war wander a nearly empty city, always thirsty, and sit down to write their memoirs. And the “real” Beirut in the months after Hariri’s assassination, as the translator Kareem James Abu-Zeid told an interviewer, is really that “Beirut of the dead superimposed on the Beirut of the living”.

Read the rest at The National

In Our Orbit: What Was Lost

Frederick Deknatel | May 12, 2010 This article appeared in the May 31, 2010 edition of The Nation.

One day in the fall of 1970, as he was studying Arabic in a mountain village overlooking Beirut, Kai Bird heard on the BBC that a plane hijacked by a group of young Arab men, “secular Marxists and Palestinian nationalists,” had landed at Beirut’s international airport. From his perch in the mountains the 19-year-old Bird had a view of the plane on the tarmac; he did not know that his girlfriend was one of its passengers. She was a hostage of the Dawson’s Field hijackings, which violently thrust the Palestinians’ struggle for statehood into international view and ended with three empty airliners exploding at a former RAF airstrip in the Jordanian desert.

Bird’s girlfriend survived the ordeal, and her story is a window onto Bird’s uncommon, personal and privileged perspective on the Middle East. In Crossing Mandelbaum Gate: Coming of Age Between the Arabs and Israelis, 1956–1978 (Scribner; $30), Bird, a Nation contributing editor, sifts through his memories as the son of an American diplomat stationed in Jerusalem, Beirut and Cairo and sets them against the region’s history over three busy decades. The book’s title refers to the barbed-wired checkpoint that demarcated the 1949 armistice line between Israeli and Jordanian sections of Jerusalem, and through which Bird and his father drove daily en route to the Anglican Mission School in West Jerusalem from their home in Sheikh Jarrah. Minus his father, Bird and his younger sister and mother evacuated Jerusalem for Beirut in 1956 when Israel, France and Britain invaded Egypt in an attempt to topple Gamal Abdel Nasser and seize the Suez Canal—a conflict that did not end until the following year, when David Ben-Gurion, under threat of economic sanctions from President Eisenhower, ordered Israel’s withdrawal from the Sinai. A decade later, again without his father, Bird’s family fled Cairo for Athens before the outbreak of the Six-Day War. In the early 1960s the Birds lived in a dusty consular compound in Dhahran, in eastern Saudi Arabia, when the kingdom was comparatively open and not nearly as rich. Most expat families in the adjacent oil compound survived the desert with bathtub gin; Bird’s father smuggled in Scotch. During a second stint there in the 1970s, his parents counted among their friends Salem bin Laden, an urbane brother of Osama who “frequently dropped by our house in Riyadh and brought along his guitar so that he and Mother could play Joan Baez and Bob Dylan tunes.”

Bird’s memoir is about understanding but rejecting borders as they were being redrawn and reinforced in the postwar Middle East, which he had the liberty to do as an American expatriate growing up “out of place.” Bird uses the phrase deliberately: it’s a nod to Edward Said’s description of statelessness, though Bird never likens his own wanderings to those of a refugee. The politics of Bird’s parents were a product of the bygone era of empathic Arabists in the Foreign Service; their son shared their support of the Palestinians. As a university student in Beirut he saw the Palestinian resistance grow armed and stout in a city that was the region’s cultural capital on the eve of civil war. The wholeness of Bird’s Middle Eastern story is really a longing for the Jerusalem of his childhood, before Israel’s victory over Nasser and the Arabs in 1967, when Mandelbaum Gate was demolished and the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza began. “The Israelis proclaimed the city unified,” he writes. “It was not—and it is not.”

Bird was an earnest antiwar college student in the United States in the early 1970s when he met Susan Goldmark (whom he would later marry), and learned another lesson about dislocation. Goldmark is the daughter of Austrian Jews who fled the Holocaust, and stories of her parents’ escape to the Balkans and Italy and eventually to New York City came to serve as a foil for Bird’s view of Palestinian dispossession and Israeli aggression. Bird doesn’t equate their suffering but rather contemplates the collective failure of Israelis and Palestinians to reconcile their histories of loss and victimhood. Among his parents’ friends in Jerusalem was an Armenian family with long ties to the city. They fled in 1948 and returned two years later, but their property had been expropriated. “The Kalbians identified themselves as Christian, Arabic-speaking Armenians whose home was Palestine,” Bird writes. The nascent Jewish state “regarded them as non-Jews and therefore Arabs.” Eventually they immigrated to America. Bird links their displacement with the plight of Susan’s parents. In 1959 she and her mother returned to Graz to knock on the door of their old house, stolen during the war by a neighbor, “to see what she had lost.”

Bird admits that he has long avoided writing about the Middle East because “I did not wish to spend my entire life forlornly trying to rectify the injustices of the Nakba and the Shoah.” With its conviction and range, Crossing Mandelbaum Gate avoids that futility. Bird’s honest book recalls a remark of the historian Albert Hourani about the Six-Day War: “Victory is a much less profound experience than defeat.”

Link at The Nation (but behind the subscriber firewall).

Can conservationists save Oscar Niemeyer’s fairground in Lebanon?

A short piece in the Christian Science Monitor, following up on a visit to a modernist fairground relic in northern Lebanon.

By Frederick Deknatel, Contributor / April 20, 2010

Tripoli, Lebanon

An abandoned international fairground in Tripoli, Lebanon, designed by famed Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer – the architect behind Brasília and the United Nations Secretariat in New York, among other buildings – faces an uncertain future.

Nearly complete when Lebanon’s civil war began in 1975, the modernist international fairground was mostly abandoned throughout the fighting and the following two decades of reconciliation and reconstruction. A theater housed in an oversized concrete dome was reportedly used as a weapons dump by Syrian soldiers, who reinforced it with unsightly steel rods, still visible.

Named after Rashid Karami, a Tripoli native and 10-time prime minister who was assassinated in the last years of the civil war, the site is a forgotten, sprawling artifact of architectural modernism.

It tells part of the development story of the 1950s and ’60s, an era of political disruption and ambitious building projects.

Mr. Niemeyer had just completed his signature government buildings for Brasília, Brazil’s capital built on a savanna, when he accepted the commission from Lebanon’s government in the early 1960s. His 15 pavilions set amid an oval park expressed his commitment to reinforced concrete, from the ceremonial arch to the pyramid to the amphitheater, helipad, and curving exhibition hall.

Today the cracked, empty buildings get less attention than the grounds; a conservation group has restored the park’s flora and is now fighting for its architecture.

In 2006, the World Monuments Fund listed it as one of its 100 most endangered sites, in response to a failed plan to replace it with a tourist village based on Disneyland. For now, the maarad, or exhibition, as Niemeyer’s park is known locally, sits near the sea on the edge of the city, its only occupants curious visitors and residents out for a walk.

Beneath the remains in northern Lebanon – The National

I have an essay in this weekend’s Review section of Abu Dhabi’s The National based on a trip to an abandoned Oscar Niemeyer designed fairground in Tripoli late last fall. It’s great to share space in the always excellent Review — be sure to read Rajah Shehadeh’s review of Hillel Cohen’s Good Arabs and Robert Vitalis (author of America’s Kingdom: Mythmaking on the Saudi Oil Frontier) on the slow improvement in writing histories of Saudi Arabia.

My piece begins:

The abandoned fairground in Tripoli is only semi-public and we had to badger the guard to let us in. He suggested we visit the newer, smaller, and bland public park across the street, built by the Saudis. But that park hadn’t been designed by Oscar Niemeyer in the decade before Lebanon’s civil war, so two friends and I insisted, answering questions about our nationalities and motivation. “We just want to look,” I said “and take some pictures. We’re interested in the architecture.”

This sufficed and we entered a vast concrete expanse, like an unmarked car park, that led to the ramped entry pavilion of Niemeyer’s unfinished Rashid Karami International Fair Complex.

Commissioned by the Lebanese government in the 1960s shortly after the completion of Brasilia, whose buildings were designed by Niemeyer, the planned permanent exhibition centre in Tripoli is an artefact of Lebanon’s pre-war prosperity, a reminder of a place once called the “Switzerland of the Middle East.”

A bright Los Angeles Times dispatch in 1964 from the “plush playground of the Arab world” reads like it was written from Dubai two years ago: “Real estate values have soared as one glass-walled skyscraper after another has risen on the coveted coast in and around Beirut.” It closes with a nod to Niemeyer.

While the capital saw “oil-rich traders” in “air-conditioned Cadillacs” and billions of dollars of Kuwaiti and Saudi investments pour into its “stable banks”, industrial Tripoli in the north staked its development on a world-class international fairground.

Read the rest at The National. Or see it in PDF form as it appeared in print. Photos from my visit; should be added to my dormant Flickr page soon.

Don’t Let It Sink

A recent Huff Post of mine.

They can aim sea, sky, and earth at me, but they cannot root the aroma of coffee out of me. I shall make my coffee now. I will drink the coffee now. Right now, I will be sated with the aroma of coffee, that I may at least distinguish myself from a sheep and live one more day, or die, with the aroma of coffee all around me.

So begins a passage from Mahmoud Darwish’s Memory for Forgetfulness: August, Beirut, 1982. Under the terror of jets and shelling, the Israeli siege of Beirut, Darwish is making coffee. He takes it seriously, a refuge from the war and a brew to other thoughts. “Coffee should not be drunk in a hurry,” he writes. “It is the sister of time, and should be sipped slowly, slowly. Coffee is the sound of taste, the sound for the aroma. It is a meditation and a plunge into memories and the soul.”

Read the rest here.

The resistance option

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Robin Yassin-Kassab writes on EI:

Hamas isn’t Hizballah and Gaza isn’t Lebanon. The resistance in Gaza — which includes leftist and nationalist as well as Islamist forces — doesn’t have mountains to fight in. It has no strategic depth. It doesn’t have Syria behind it to keep supply lines open; instead it has Israel’s wall and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak’s goons. Lebanese civilians can flee north and east, while Gaza’s repeat-refugees have no escape. The Lebanese have their farms, and supplies from outside; Gaza has been under total siege for years. Hizballah has remarkable discipline and is surely the best-trained, most disciplined force in the region. Although it has made great strides, Hamas is still undisciplined. Crucially, Hizballah has air-tight intelligence control in Lebanon, while Gaza contains collaborators like maggots in a corpse.

But Hamas is still standing. On the rare occasions when Israel actually fought — rather than just called in air strikes — its soldiers reported “ferocious” resistance. Hamas withstood 22 days of the most barbaric bombing Zionism has yet stooped to, and did not surrender. Rocket fire continued from Gaza after Israel declared its unilateral ceasefire.

Let’s put this in context. In 1947-48 Zionist militias drove out more than 700,000 Palestinians without too much trouble. In 1967 it took Israel six days to destroy the Egyptian, Syrian and Jordanian armies, and to capture the West Bank, Gaza, the Golan Heights and the Egyptian Sinai Peninsula. Zionism’s last “victory” was the expulsion of the Palestine Liberation Organization from Beirut in 1982 — if it was a victory.

The long and bloody occupation of Lebanon gave birth to new forms of resistance. Where Arab states and armies had failed, popular resistance removed American and French forces from Beirut, and then steadily rolled back the Israelis. The first suicide bomber of the conflict was a Marxist woman of Christian background.

To and from West Beirut

Driving across the Biqa’ Valley:

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As we reentered Syria from Lebanon yesterday, a friend had his copy of al-Hayat, the Lebanese daily, seized by a border guard. “Not allowed,” he said simply as he snatched it out of his lap, reaching into our taxi’s back seat. 

A few days earlier we had left Damascus in the early morning, trying to beat the Eid al-Adha holiday traffic. We were only half successful, still having to sit in lines of cab and car traffic at the mountain border between the two countries, the line between the dry desert hills that drop down to the former oasis of Damascus on one side, and the fertile Biqa’ Valley on the other, which you cross in 10 minutes of fast driving before climbing into the craggy mountains and fog and under-construction bridges that eventually drop you down to the Mediterranean and the concrete cityscape of Beirut, which was mostly caked in smog last weekend, before sea breeze and a bit of rain cleared things up. 

The disconnect between the two cities is startling and it goes far beyond the prevalence of French, English and Western cafes in Beirut. West Beirut, save for the “incidents” in May — how many Lebanese referred to Hizballah and Amal’s take-over of the city last spring — is in many ways student neighborhood now, the posh kids from AUB going to Starbucks or eating sandwiches across from campus talking in English mostly, with the errant Arabic exclamation. It’s hard to imagine the city’s past amid this, but perhaps this is the truth of Beirut: the disconnect from it dusty neighbor, Damascus; the always looking across the Mediterranean, at least in certain parts of town; and the absurdity of Italian coffees and French newspapers in section of the city that Yasser Arafat vowed to turn into a “the graveyard of the invader and the Stalingrad of the Arabs” when the Israelis invaded in 1982. 

I bought Mahmoud Darwish’s Memory for Forgetfulness: August, Beirut, 1982 on Rue Hamra in West Beirut. He writes in the opening pages:

The dawn made of lead is still advancing from the direction of the sea, riding on sounds I haven’t heard before. The sea has been entirely packed into stray shells. It is changing its marine nature and turning into metal. Does death have all these names? We said we’d leave. Why then does this red-black-grey rain keep pouring over those leaving or staying, be they people, trees, or stones? We said we’d leave. “By sea?” they asked. “By sea,” we answered. Why then are they arming the foam and waves with this heavy artillery? Is it to hasten our steps to the sea? But first they must break the siege of the sea. They must clear the last path for the last threat of our blood. But they won’t do, so we won’t be leaving. I’ll go ahead then and make the coffee.”

West Beirut:

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Michel Aoun was here (apparently)

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This evening Bab Touma street was a awash with people waving Lebanese (and some Syrian) flags, singing songs of welcome, generally pushing and packing from the traffic circle near the original gate to the Maronite church a few hundred meters into the Old City. Michel Aoun was in town, or so we had heard. Originally word was out that there would be a demonstration/welcome of some sort near Souq al-Hamidiyeh. Two of us wandered through and nothing was unusual; so instead we bought some pistachio-flaked ice cream from Bakdash.

It turned out Aoun would be visiting the Maronite church on Sharia Bab Touma. The crowds were there. A television crew from Syria One was interviewing a selection of people; crowds of young Syrian boys poked their heads into the camera lighting, trying to get on tv. The street was lined with Lebanese flag banners; there were various security details — none very formal — handing out flags. Children and teenagers were chanting songs, welcoming Michel Aoun to Syria and singing their solidarity with Hezbollah (curious most of all, in the Christian Quarter of the Old City). 

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The actual arrival was a sea of pushing. The lights of the camera crew were the only indication that Aoun was pushing through the crowds and into the church. It was a remarkably packed place for a political visit. I would have imagined that the street would be cleared, that police would line the storefronts. Instead it was all flags and signing, with the odd sighting of starlet-looking folks who we assumed were selected Lebanese visitors, part of Aoun’s entourage. 

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My camera battery chose to die before I snapped a few shaky pictures of the crowd just after sunset. We didn’t linger long enough to see Aoun leave the church; maybe he left out the back. 

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Beirut-Damascus

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I sat in a backseat with two older women, muhajabas. We talked about the sea and language. I probably communicated the hardness of accents and grammar and agreement, but at least I said or should have said that I love the sea, as they said ‘But there is no sea (there).’ Up the road, across the anti hills not really mountains, and down to the oasis that has dried up: concrete. But the olive trees (are they olive trees?) or the shrubs at least, along the road, they scarlet in fall.

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Obama apparel and opinions

They’re selling Obama T-shirts at the knick-knack tourist shops on Qaimaria in the Old City now. Alongside grey “University of Damascus” tees (“since 1923″) and tees with the Iraqi flag now hang red tees and white tees and blue tees with Obama in raised white lettering across the front, in Arabic and English. They’re hot commodities, and the vendor who otherwise sells overpriced scarves must know the value of the shirts: he’s charging 450 Syrian lire now, almost 10 dollars. A friend on his way of the country bit the bullet and bought a few; a good welcome-home gift from Sham for friends in America. The shirts might say something about Obama’s popularity here; wearing his white and blue Obama tee, my friend was the target of plenty of warm hellos and congratulations in Damascus and especially over the weekend in Beirut. Every news stand from here to there is plastered with magazine and newspaper covers of Obama’s serious or beaming face (okay, they’re more numerous in Beirut). There were slurred high fives from night-lifers in Lebanon Saturday night, offering the typical line of Bush destroying America’s standing but Obama offering more than superficial redemption. One bartender said Obama’s election was the first time that he thought Americans had finally “made the right decision.”

“I’ve been following the news in the States since the early 1990s, since the first Gulf war. And I’ve been following the NBA.”

His dream was to move to LA and finally see a live game.

“I love the NBA, the Lakers, Kobe, Shaquille O’Neal. He plays where now? Arizona?”

“Yea, Phoenix.”

“Ah, the Suns.”

“What about the Celtics?” I had to ask. My brother scored season tickets high up near the roof of the new Garden last year just before the playoffs. We took in a few Celtics drubbings although both of us missed Game 7.

“I hate Larry Bird. I hate the Celtics. I follow the NBA for a long time: Jordan, Magic Johnson, Dr. J. But I hate Larry Bird.”

I didn’t argue, took another sip of my drink. At least he liked Obama, and here, now, in our time, isn’t that what matters?

Revisiting Beirut through documentary letters and ‘Boom Boom’

The following is a longer draft of a film review that appeared in The Indypendent.

“The War of 33” is a new independent documentary film about Israel’s July 2006 war on Lebanon, narrated by Hanady Salman, a young mother living in Beirut and working for a newspaper during the thirty-three days of bombings. Her reading of letters she wrote during the war narrates the film. In one scene, she describes her daughter’s reaction to the bombs: “This morning I stayed home ‘til noon,” she writes. “I played with Kinda, my poor little baby. She doesn’t understand what’s going on. The first time she heard the bombing she rushed to my arms, asking if this was fire works. I said no, this is Boom Boom, Ha Ha. And I started laughing. So now every time she hears the bombing she starts singing, Boom Boom, and she laughs.” Home video footage of Kinda bounding around the apartment underscores the disjunction of civilian life under Israeli bombardment.

There are shots of Salman reading from her apartment balcony after the war, the Mediterranean deeply blue in the background. There are shots of lit up night skies, of flattened neighborhoods. There are gruesome images, photos and video that were not shown in the US media. Dead children, bodies gray with concrete dust, are pulled from the rubble of an apartment building in Qana, a village in southern Lebanon bombed by Israel twice in ten years. In a letter dated July 30th 2006, when fifty-five civilians were initially presumed dead in an air strike, Salman writes with subdued outrage: “Only to let you know that a number of these civilians are handicapped – they were hit in the last Qana massacres in 1996. Only to let you know that CNN and BBC are hosting IDF spokespeople who tell the world that these civilians were warned to leave, but they just didn’t.”

The letter is read over footage of aid workers running down a street and of bodies in the apartment rubble in Qana. One of the victims, a young girl whose body is stuck under concrete, looks strangely like Mike Myers from “Halloween,” her face so dusted that it’s made vacant, but her hair is still dark. The aid workers try to pull her from the rubble and their inability to do so is excruciating. Before this scene a camera walks up the stairs of an apartment. It pans over a destroyed top floor, a clear view through sagging walls and ceiling to the neighborhood below. Everything is bombed, the buildings still standing have no windows and few walls and you cannot see any street. There is only rubble. One pile of structure looks like a perfect module of four floors, like knock-off Le Corbusier, the building as machine. Only it’s on its side, blackened, propped up on the foundation of another flattened building. Next to it stands an apartment in faded yellow and orange concrete. It looks likes its façade has gone through a Cuisinart and that it might fall over. I recognize the building right away. I saw it last spring, when I was in a taxicab in southern Beirut, trying to convince a Hizballah patrolman that I was a journalist.

I had arrived in Lebanon two days before. It was late April, a weeklong break from classes in Cairo and hopeful material for a newspaper there, Daily News Egypt, that I had been writing for since Christmas. Recognizing the apartment from the “War of 33” nearly a year later offered a weird sense of validation, as if my afternoon spent in southern Beirut had prepared me to watch the film and not only feel my own outrage and sympathy for Lebanon, but to recall the experience of visiting the neighborhood where, the previous summer, you couldn’t see the streets. Last April they were fairly clear, but barely asphalt, unlike shiny, empty Central Beirut. And there were no sidewalks, only piles of rubble. Looking at my photos and the still from the film, it seems the orange and yellow apartment has since welcomed back tenants. About half of the gutted balconies had new windows last April.

Judith Butler wrote the year after 9/11 that as the US government explains events through the hegemonic grammar of “terrorists,” positioning itself “exclusively as the sudden and indisputable victim of violence…”

“a frame for understanding violence emerges in tandem with the experience, and that the frame works both to preclude certain kinds of questions, certain kinds of historical inquiries, and to function as a moral justification for retaliation. It seems crucial to attend to this frame, since it decides, in a forceful way, what we can hear, whether a view will be taken as explanation or as exoneration, whether we can hear the difference, and abide by it.”

The demarcation of suffering from violence was projected in pale overcast last April in Beirut, the blackened and drooping rubble of concrete apartments spilled open. Sitting in the back of the cab of a driver who had agreed to show us the neighborhood, I remember gawking and snapping photos at the crumble of buildings, of buckled concrete and steel or iron trusses bent like guts. There were plenty of photos of bombed Beirut in the summer of 2006, always in the context of captured Israeli soldiers and Katyusha rockets falling on northern Israel, so there is no need to press the point of how a thousand Lebanese dead and all this rubble were framed on American TV and in print. It is the aftermath, the eight months of rot, of flattened houses and rubble becoming part of the neighborhood, that needs attending. The fact that I recognized the building from the documentary – I recognized it in its damage – and that I saw it in person nine months after the bombs fell, after the footage was shot, might adequately describe how much remains un-built and un-repaired in Lebanon. But it also says something about visiting and revisiting, about the sustainability of views.

As I sat in the back seat of the taxi, stopped at the entrance to the especially destroyed heart of the neighborhood of Hart Hreik in Beirut’s southern suburbs, trying to convince the Hizballah patrolman who had appeared so suddenly, walkie-talkie at bay, a machine gun slung on his shoulder, that I was a journalist, that — in broken Egyptian Arabic — that all I wanted was to see, to photograph some effects of the war, I like to think I was thinking about what any of this meant. As I tried to keep some calm about not really arguing with a Hizballah militiaman in Beirut who was insisting on seeing the photos I had taken on my camera, I wasn’t thinking about the what might happen or the gun on his shoulder — there are plenty of machine guns in Egypt. There was something strange, even absurd, like the baby girl laughing Boom Boom when the bombs fell on Beirut. It wasn’t the Lebanese militiaman – Hizballah – guarding his neighborhood from a Westerner with a camera, but me, with a camera and bad Arabic, wanting to see Israel’s destruction of southern Beirut for myself. The buildings were still rubble; they probably still are. They were not and are not in the American media view; the Lebanese, and the Palestinians, and the Iraqis, have not been awarded the primacy of suffering from terrorism that has been afforded Americans and Israelis for so long. But here I was, trying to break that and get a view, and I couldn’t get in. And it genuinely excited me. Boom Boom.

If understanding violence “emerges in tandem with the experience” how do we understand the aftermath of violence, in tandem with the experience of revisiting or seeing for the first time violence that occurred in the past? “Archive Fever,” a current show at the International Center of Photography in New York, includes “Front Page 9/12,” a collection of 100 front-page world newspapers from September 12, 2001 assembled by the German artist Hans-Peter Feldmann. Describing the installation, curator Okwui Enwezor wrote, “to revisit the events in representation is to engage with how the images have become emblematic of the aftermath rather than of the event itself. How does one then revisit, not the event itself, but its aftermath, its mediatized manifestation?”

I didn’t think the installation succeeded in its points because I didn’t know what all the newspapers co

vered in fireballs and the Twin Towers and devastated Lower Manhattan were supposed to say. But Enwezor’s analysis of the newspaper covers, his question about revisiting aftermath, has stuck with me, as I’ve watched Salman read her letters in the film and as I’ve gone over my own photographs from last spring in Beirut.

Visiting the aftermath of another war by Israel on Lebanon upfront for the first time. Revisiting the aftermath, far more immediate, in footage from a jarringly personal documentary, “The War of 33.” Sitting in a taxi with a camera during the visit and the Hizballah patrolman outside. Another truck approaches, another man in black paramilitary garb gets out. I’m only taking pictures, I’m telling them. They have been through bombing, lost relatives and friends. Did they inadvertently teach their children to laugh when the bombs fell like Hanady Salman – the mother, editor, and narrator – because how else do you cope? They have seen this leveled neighborhood everyday since the bombs fell from Israeli warplanes that summer. They are at the center here, and I’m trying to come in for a view to de-center my own American perspective. I’m not revisiting, but trying to see the aftermath, really, for the first time.

My photo of the apartment, April 2007

More photos.