I do want to do something.

Dangerous Flirtations. On “Hashem El Madani Itinirary. An Ongoing Project by Akram Zaatari”
November 6, 2007, 11:48 pm
Filed under: Beirut notes


Coming from Beirut and wondering in Saida’s old souks felt good. This feeling developed in an economy of loss and gain; the loss of Beirut’s imagined old feel, its souks and the fact that people are actually occupying the streets and inhabiting it, transposed on Saida. I have never known Beirut “before”, but Saida became a site of projection, always in relation to Beirut, to what it “could have been like” (before the war). A present time, that would become the restoration of a past, in another space. The closer I examine my imaginary temporal dislocations and misconceptions, the more the gap stretches between my desire and not only its impossible realization but also the politics it responds to. My search for a certain lost “authenticity” that could only confirm my touristic gaze.

In fact, we were almost all tourists looking at the photographs taken in the early 50’s by Hashem El Madani’s and placed by the Arab Image Foundation in the places where they were originally taken around Saida’s old souk. The sites where the photographs are placed are indicated in a map which has a complex legend (“1. Photograph placed in the location where it was initially taken. 2. Photograph taken in this location but placed elsewhere. 3.Photograph taken in a different location but placed here”). This layered lineage could be seen as an inverted archeology where the object is placed on the site its creation, historicizing as well as reactivating those sites.  It is this return that interests me, a return to what and from where?

A return created by the Arab Image Foundation and Akram Zaatari’s “ongoing project”. At the opening, Hashem El Madani (the photographer) was present. Although I had some doubts about the awareness of his role in this whole project, it seems that Akram Zaatari really wants him to have a participative role in it (he is being interviewed in the catalogue). I am tempted to speculate on Zaatari’s relation with El Madani. El Madani is a living archive. I have been told that he has an impressive and precise memory, but, most of all, he has looked in a lot of eyes, mostly gone by now. Has as looked at Saida through its inhabitants faces and not only recorded them but participated in the historical recording/construction of the city’s inhabitants, their activities, their families and their love stories. He has mapped the city’s social life through individuals portraits, and when asked by Akram Zaatari “ Is there a particular person you regret not being able to  photograph” he answers “ I would have liked to photograph all the residents of Saida, because this is were I live” (Hashem El Madani Studio Practices.An ongoing projecy by Akram Zaatari, The Arab Image Foundation/ Mind the Gap. P. 15). This inexhaustible desire is where the boundaries of representation are touched upon, and if I can speculate, it is with these very limits that Akram Zaatari is flirting with. Within the shifting boundary that delimits the role of documentation and the drive behind it; between one all encompassing desire and the regulation, classification and understanding of a historical narrative. And, it is, according to me,the flirtatious nature of the archive that renders it interesting.

When transposed in the space of the souk (it is the first project of the Arab Image Foundation were the photographs are placed in their original location), this flirtatious relation can have some unexpected effects, a fantasy confronted with the actuality of a situation.  The before/ after dialectic of the  superimposition of the photgraphes in their original location produces something that dissolvesthe narrative. I was entering space, lived spaces, actives one.  I entered a small barber shop were three men were getting shaved and a caffe where there was only masculine presence. I penetrated spaces where I was not meant to be. This activation was quite violent. The nostalgia for what it “might have been like” or the attempt of creating a before/after link was completely overshadowed by my experience of the spaces I was in.

As for the shop workers, they swiftly transformed and appropriated this intrusion, actualizing it through the creation of another narrative where they become a part of it.


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