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.


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