Irreplaceable Cultural Loss
By Mulham Assir
28 October 2006
loss inflicted by the Israeli war on Lebanon is measured in the 1,400
people killed, the thousands maimed (with more continuing to be killed
and maimed by the hundreds of thousands of cluster bombs left behind),
the hundreds of thousands displaced or left homeless, and the wholesale
destruction of infrastructure essential to life.
And yet there is even more
loss, impossible to put a number to and irreplaceable.
Colonial wars of aggression
like the one waged by the US in Iraq or the slow genocide carried out
by the Jewish state against the Palestinian people have a more profoundly
destructive effect than the most brutal barbarian invasions of old because
they aim deeper, into the very soul of the nations under attack.
More than the lethal pounding
that levels structures and crushes lives, the attempt to reconfigure
"a new Middle East" by first "bombing it into the stone
age" attacks the country's identity, culture and national memory,
seen by the aggressor as stubborn obstacles to the new, featureless
global order at their command.
Repositories of national
identity, culture and collective memory (like the plundered and damaged
museums and ancient art of Iraq or the Orient House in Jerusalem from
which so many important historical documents were destroyed by the Israelis)
sustain national consciousness and a sense of national unity without
which a besieged nation under occupation collapses and splinters into
chaos, fear and sectarian violence.
In 1982, the Museum of Solidarity
with Palestine in Beirut was destroyed by Israeli bombardment and with
it priceless works of art were lost. In 2002, in one of the many Zionist
incursions into the West Bank, the IDF soldiers ransacked the Sakakini
Cultural Centre, blasted paintings and sculptures to smithereens and
stole the contents of the safe. They also expressed their desire for
peace and mutual respect by invading the Palestinian Authority Ministry
of Culture offices where they defecated in file cabinets and on copying
machines and smeared the walls with faeces.
Israel has been perpetrating
these vile acts against the Palestinian culture, its heritage and its
symbols since its early days and it did so in Lebanon repeatedly. This
time around the occupation was thwarted in Lebanon by the unflinching
heroism of the resistance forces, but the severed and jagged nerves
of cultural loss are in plain sight, jutting out of the mangled body
of the vastly devastated country. Even when it is not "targeted,"
the Zionist destruction is never random; it is purposeful: saturation
bombing is by definition and intent comprehensive, all-inclusive and
annihilating. "Nothing is safe [in Lebanon], as simple as that,"
Israeli Brig.-Gen. Dan Halutz said.
The number of Lebanese artists
who have lost their life's work as well as their treasured art collections
and books in the Zionist bombing orgies is not known at this time. Anecdotal
information comes through from time to time serendipitously and their
names line up in no particular order, irrespective of the artists' ages,
their religion or place of residence, their styles, or the height of
renown previously achieved, They are as diverse as Lebanon itself, yet
united, as Lebanon must remain, by one common denominator, that being
innocent victims of the Zionist aggression. Here are only a few, listed
simply in alphabetical order:
Abir Arbid, Ayman Baalbaki,
Fawzi Baalbaki (the father of the artists listed above and below), Saeed
Baalbaki, Noor Balooq, Ahmad Bazoun, Suzzane Chacaroun, Youssef Ghazzawi,
Izzah Hussian, Abdulla Kahil, Ali Qaessi, Akram Qansou.
Asked to comment on the loss
of their work, artists are typically reluctant to describe their feelings
about it given the tremendous loss in human life and the overall destruction
of the country. Yet they acknowledge the intent of cultural genocide
behind the devastation, noting (as one did):" They are trying to
kill us, not only physically, but spiritually as well, but they will
In an interview for Artenews
Youssef Ghazzawi said: "I see this war as one against our art and
culture, against our progress and development, a war against humanity.
We want to create beauty and they find an excuse to demolish us."
Youssef Ghazzawi and his
wife, Suzanne Chakaroun, lost their entire life's work (and a considerable
library) when their studio was destroyed by Zionist bombardments for
the third time (after previous destruction in 1977 and in 1983).
No single artist, no single
work encompasses the richness, diversity and depth of the Lebanese national
consciousness and culture, which are, however, diminished if bereft
of any one of them.
And yet there is more.
The images of some of the
lost art survive in digital records, ghostlike and forever refused to
the viewer as real art experience, like architectural drawings of long
lost marvels of marble and stone. One cannot walk around a digital image,
or view it from a different angle. It doesn't cast a shadow, itself
reduced to a shadow, a mere remembrance of a memory loss.
The symbolism of much of Lebanese art, although using its own individual
vocabulary of images unique to each individual artist, bears a strong
resemblance to that of Palestinian contemporary art. This is not surprising
because the realities that inform both as well as the emotions that
infuse them relate to similar themes: dignity in the face of humiliation,
endurance in adversity, faith in victory against unfavourable odds,
and the vitality, beauty, and unconquerable thirst for life of the offshoot
that grows in the cracks between hard rocks. They express the same aspirations
for freedom from occupation, the strength to prevail against aggression,
national identity and pride, thirst for beauty.
The extent of the Lebanese
artists' conscious identification with Palestinian art and the emotional
universe of the Palestinian artists varies. It ranges from an acute
sense of commonality, of being in the menacing cone of shadow of the
Zionist state, to a hope against hope for accommodation and a wishful
belief in the potential authenticity of the "progressive"
Zionist mantra of "we are two people willed by fate to share the
same space if only the extremists on both sides would let us do it peacefully."
The massive and indiscriminate Zionist onslaught on Lebanon, however,
has shattered that illusion for many Lebanese artists when they became
Lebanon is often described
as the noble phoenix that rises again and again out of its ashes, but
in Baalbaki's sculpture installation "Bonjour Wadi Abu Jamil"
it is not the mythological phoenix but a real, familiar and banal rooster
that is perched on top of a refugee's bundle of salvaged belongings.
The rooster calling the survivor to a new dawn and yet another rebirth
is just as much the spirit of Lebanon and now, in the aftermath of the
war, it brings to mind the humble and the poor in South Lebanon, the
foot soldiers of the resistance forces, who were steadfast, brave and
confident, possessed of exemplary sumoud. The Arabic virtue of sumoud
is a combination of strength, patience and perseverance for which there
is no direct equivalent in English. The Arab language needs this word
more than many other languages.
In its own way Baalbaki's
rooster illustrates sumoud as much as Palestinian artist's Ashraf Fawakhry's
donkey does in "I am Donkey," although both are that and much
These comments are not meant
to single out some works and artists; they are simply readily available
and largely random examples of Lebanese art that express the indomitable
spirit of people whom geography and history have placed in the crosshairs
of large and ruthless powers.
There is more to the Israeli
destruction of Lebanon than meets the eye. There is more, which is tragically
forever lost to the eye.
Not too long ago Ahmad Bazoun
reminded his colleagues that it was the savage, unspeakable destruction
of a whole Spanish Basque village that inspired Picasso to create his
most famous work, "Guernica," so that the memory of it will
never be lost. What artists, he asked in effect, could remain unmoved
by the sight of the devastation inflicted by the Israeli Blitzkrieg
on the southern Beiruti suburb of Al Dahiye? For that matter, the Lebanese
artists have a tragically vast reservoir of inspiration: Qana, Bint
Jbeil, Maroun el-Ras, Marwaheen and the many other southern towns and
villages ravaged by the Zionist barabarism.
Words are also a great preserver
of memory, as Mahmoud Darwish's poetry demonstrates ("I have learned
and dismantled all the words to construct a single one: Home."),
but they cannot convey, much less preserve, the sensorial, intellectual
and emotional experience of visual art because words inhabit a different
space in the individual and national consciousness.
Yet such an irretrievable
loss cannot be allowed to pass in silence. It would take a monument
of words to commemorate the loss: one made up of reverent remembrance
whispers, cries of anguish, and a thunderous refusal to forget both
the loss and the wound.
Mulham Assir is a Lebanese writer based in Beirut and
this discussion has
got out of hand and degenerated into
racial and ethnic abuse I've
removed the comment