About a City Floating Above Sadness and Memory: Beirut’s Story

Alaa Rashidi
Syrian Writer

The problematic question that arises when dealing with this disaster is, should we repair the damage and rebuild so that our memory moves on from what happened? Or should we preserve the memories that capture the disaster?

The collective memory about an event is formed through the collection of individual testimonies that narrate that event. With the popular demonstrations and their aftermath in Syria since 2011, the phenomenon of testimonies, protest documentations, arrest reports, immigration and displacement records has emerged in abundance. The Syrian community was not aware of this close relationship with the testimonies, but its need to document what was happening suddenly escalated during those days, alongside the number of works of fictional, literary and cinematic art in attempts to document the event, and those individual and artistic testimonials contributed in a large way to the narration of the historical event.

The explosion at the Beirut port witnessed a similar phenomenon. The explosion was preceded by a fire that lasted about 15 minutes before the spark ignited. These 15 minutes were enough, for dozens of cellphones from the city to have the time to film the fire. This desire of these photographers to inform about the event of the fire later formed the testimonies that would document the event – the explosion.

Marwa narrates the event with the same emotion that she felt that day, but this experience was one of senses, mind, soul and body, so how can the occurrence truly be narrated in its entirety?

The videos filmed by the Lebanese citizens ended up forming the individual testimonies that enabled us to narrate this historical collective event, and to archive it. Some of these videos end in the moment the explosion and its pressure spread over the city and destroying it, and in most of them those behind the lens were injured, in some cases even ended up dying. These citizens could be considered the witness martyrs, hence the convergence between the two words of “witness” and “martyr” (the two words are very close to each other in Arabic).

Likewise, in the context of Syria, there are many films and videos in which the photographers risk their lives to document what is happening.

The individuals who provide testimonials do not only present them to document the collective event, but rather they stem mainly from a subjective need for narration. Psychoanalysis is the science most aware of man’s need for narration, novelist Gabriel García Márquez calls his autobiography: “We live it to tell it”; We live life and its events so that we could tell them.

A Need For Narration

Weeks have passed since the port explosion, and Marwa continues to tell every visitor the moment they enter the house, her story with what happened that day, second by second; she would speak about how she tried to escape from the explosion while opening the door of her house, how she rose off the ground and fell meters away and got hurt. Marwa narrates the event with the same emotion that she felt that day, but this experience was one of senses, mind, soul and body, so how can the occurrence truly be narrated in its entirety?

No sensory-mental experience can be re-told completely, so in order to capture its memory, we need to narrate the same event from different angles and with different testimonies, and continue to do so infinitely.

Psychological support associations have adopted a hotline for those psychologically affected by the port explosion i.e. the narrators of the story, allocating a phone number to communicate and converse with mental health specialists. This means these organizations will end up having a large first-person archive of personal testimonies about this historical event, the aftermath of which we are trying to observe, and its manifestation in the collective memory.

The differences in social class reflects on the description of the collective event, and may lead to divisions between the main group, like with the Syrian event.

Catastrophe Creates Community

In his book, Collective Memory, Maurice Halbwachs shows that a giant group event unites individuals that were uninvolved before into a new group: the group that lived the event and was affected by it. This reminded me of a nighttime gathering of friends in Beirut, three weeks after the explosion, where a friend, Ayman, said: “May everyone be in safety, especially those who lived through the explosion.”

Three out of the eight attendees of the night had lived through the tremendous explosion, and resided in areas heavily affected by its impact, and this created a new bond between them, not a political, sectarian, professional or regional link, but rather a new one: the memory of the event that brought them together and made them a unit. The people who were affected by the Beirut Port explosion belong to different regions, multiple economic and cultural classes, to several political visions, and to various sects and religions, but what unites them was the event – the explosion. Ayman expresses this idea in popular Arab proverbs by saying: “Disaster gathers”, or “Tragedy gathers.”

Maurice Halbwachs writes: “The memory can withstand within us against time, starting only from the moment when we were forming a group with other witnesses, and we were thinking jointly … We remain connected with this group, remain able to identify with it and are able to integrate our history with its history.” So, how can separate groups share an event and bring their narratives together in memory?

Within the October 17 Revolution in Lebanon, two Syrian guards were the first victims of a building in the commercial center of the country, suffocating as a result of a fire in the building at night that was started during the events of the demonstrations. Likewise, in the Beirut Port explosion, the blood of 46 Syrian victims was shed, along with Lebanese, European and others… The disaster united groups that were once divided internationally.

The Difference In Memory

On the other hand, the differences in social class reflects on the description of the collective event, and may lead to divisions between the main group. For example, the expressions Syrians use in describing the ongoing Syrian event since 2011 often vary depending, and could include: the Uprising, Revolution, Crisis, Global war, Conspiracy and others … a research report entitled “Syria in Arab media content, Maher Samaan, Nalin Mulla, Louay Hamadeh” reveals the differences in the terminology used in the media to describe this major Syrian event, each one according to different political inclinations and ideological affiliations. This difference in terminology in the narration of a collective event creates splits and differences in the vision of the country’s history between the various factions within the same society, as is the case in Syria between opposition and loyalists; Hence the importance of following up the course of investigation into the causes that led to the explosion.

The same thing happened with the explosion of the Beirut port. Some insist that it was the result of an Israeli raid, others on a missile, while some use the word “explosion” to explain that it happened without an instigating agent, and that it was simply an event that resulted from a mistake, and others use the same term “explosion” to insist that it was deliberate and effective planning that caused it. There are also various attributes given to the event: disaster, crime, massacre … etc. Thus, the narrators are divided in seeing the same event according to their political convictions or their intellectual inclinations, and more precisely according to their views on the question: How should the collective event be narrated? So how should the country’s history be told? Hence, Maurice Halbwachs writes: “It is not enough to reconstruct the image of the past event piece by piece to obtain the memory. This should be reconstructed on the basis of common data and concepts present in our minds as well as in the minds of others, because they pass without interruption between the two sides.”

Syrians and Lebanese living outside their country, as exiles, expatriates or refugees, suffer from a disconnect between their individual memory and the memory of the new group that welcomed them.

Individual struggle to Influence Collective Memory

At the first level of group memory, memories of events and experiences that belong to the largest number of its members, remain. As for the memories that belong to a limited number of its members, and sometimes a single person of its members, although they are part of the group’s memory, recede to a background level in the memory of the group. Therefore, individuals should strive to express their memories and experiences, work to narrate them, to clarify their point of view about it, and to try to maintain their continuity in the history of the group.

During the Beirut port explosion, glass flew into the studio of the Syrian artist Muhammad Khayyatah in his studio in the Achrafieh area, tearing the paintings that were spread in the studio apart. Khayyatah decided to keep the sections of the torn paintings without restoring them, making them new works of art that preserve the memory of the explosion. As for the British artist, Abi Yusel, who lived in Beirut for nine years, he was painting a painting of Beirut at the moment of the port explosion. The glass flew into the canvas of his painting, which he decided to leave as part of the painting, explaining: “The glass stabbing the painting articulates the best expression of my vision and my experience in the city, and after the damage caused to the painting, the painting became complete in its theme’s expression”; The two artists brought their individual experiences through art into collective memory.

Collective Memory and Historical Memory

Collective memory envelops individual memories without being mixed in with them. It develops according to its own laws, and if some individual memories sometimes enter it, then those memories change their form. This means that individuals must strive for their individual memory to be part of and to influence the collective memory.

Just as individuals affect the collective memory, so the collective event also affects the lives of individuals. Of course, the collective memory imposes its weight on the memories of individuals, for example, the great collective events of disasters, wars, and revolutions impose themselves on individual memories and the way each of us narrates his history. Hence, there is no human biography that does not interfere with the major political, social and cultural events surrounding it.

The Problem With Dealing With the Memory of Disaster

The problematic question that arises when dealing with this disaster is, should we repair the damage and rebuild so that our memory moves on from what happened? Or should we preserve the memories that capture the disaster? In the nineties, the Lebanese civil war ended according to a collective agreement that adopted the saying “neither victor, nor loser.” This type of logic ended up influencing how the memory of the civil war was dealt with; Talking about the civil war became closer to a crime that seeks to perpetuate partisan and religious strife, rather than seeks to discuss what actually happened.

Memory has been dealt with in a way that is concealed or overlooked in order to go on to build the future. Films dealing with events from the artistic war were banned, and works of art that dealt with the memory of the war were banned, although psychology had taught us that overcoming a disaster or tragedy requires actually talking about it.

Today, with the reconstruction of the port and the affected areas of the city, it has been proposed to keep the waste of wheat as part of the memory of the event. Others wish to see a vibrant new Beirut without this dire memory, and with a modern and cosmopolitan port that does not bear anything from the visuals of the disaster. It is from these two opposing views that the problem of dealing with the catastrophic tragic memory arises.

In the documentary series produced by the BBC (A Guide to Art Lovers in the Cities), an episode is devoted to the city of Beirut. One of the most prominent artistic landmarks in which the filmmakers go to shoot at and talk about is “Beit Beirut”, the building turned museum that had been on the borders of the war. Al-Ahlia, which in recent years has been transformed into an artistic cultural space, with its design and engineering taking into account preserving the memory of the place that it was carrying during the civil war (the building was a suitable military site for the concentration of armed fighters in the opposing street war). The “Beirut Cultural House” attracted the filmmakers as a project that combined memory and reconstruction, and had an artistic specificity. But this specificity is a relative taste between individuals, and that spot I’ve chosen is but an artistic and cultural space, so can its experience be generalized to the entire city? To return the question again: Will we keep, in the future design of devastated areas, the effects on the collective disaster in Beirut, the city?

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