A Nation Without Histor(ies)

An Essay by Hamed Yousefi
Northwestern University

A Nation Without Histor(ies)
Reflections on Al Yom Archive and the Non-Linearity of Time in Lebanon

 

October 1st, 2018. It is the deadline to submit this writing.

October 1st, 1981. A car bomb explodes on Afif El Teybi street in Beirut. This photograph documents the dramatic event moments after its happening.

 

 

 

 

                                        

Afif El Teybi (alternative spelling: Tibi) founded Al Yom newspaper in 1937. This essay is about that newspaper and its archive of photographs currently kept at the Arab Image Foundation in Beirut. That the essay's deadline coincides with the anniversary of the explosion is merely incidental. Explosions were so frequent during the long years of the Lebanese Civil War(s) that, statistically speaking, there is always a chance that any deadline would coincide with a deadly event, one way or another. Considering the centrality of photojournalism in reporting such events, it is also likely that there would always be a photograph of the incident. This particular photograph—it is worth clarifying—is not from Al Yom archive. By 1981, Al Yom was already closed down, and I came across the photograph on the twitter account of another newspaper Al Safir.[1]

            Nevertheless, what is not incidental in my online searches about Afif El Teybi, founder of Al Yom, is the extent to which the street overshadows the man who gave it his name. In English, Google's first suggested link is to airbnb flats on Rue Afif El Teybi followed by links to websites such as roomster.com and placesmap.net. In Arabic, the algorithm links to cultural and social events that took place in the area: Afif El Teybi Festival from 2016, the above-mentioned car bomb in 1981, and the killing of a 26 year old man in 2015. The young man's story is accompanied by grotesque images on Google, showing his dead body thrown in the warehouse of a women's clothing shop on Afif El Teybi street. He wears blue jeans and his hands are seemingly tied up at his back. Unlike the majority of the photojournalism of the Civil Wars, this photograph is devoid of notable photographic authorship in terms of composition and formal quality. The digital image is most probably taken by an amateur photographer on a cellphone.[2] The story of the young man's murder on Janoubia website connects the incident to another “brutal” murder that took place around the same time on a busy road leading to Beirut International Airport. “During the rush hour, some citizens exchanged insults and a fight resulted in the death of Hussein Ali Borjkali who attacked A. A. with a cleaver and was, in response, shot by him in the head.” At the end, the webpage includes a cellphone video of Hussein Ali Borjkali's dead body on tarmac, a pool of fresh blood running around his head. There is violence in these images, and also in their online dissemination.

            There is, moreover, another kind of violence against Afif El Teybi, a four-times president of Lebanon's Press Association, whose legacy is obscured by the fact that it was once celebrated through the naming of a street after him—his commemoration becoming the means by which he is forgotten as a man and eternalized as a street sign.

Amongst the cacophony of online information about Afif El Teybi street, one short opinion-piece on the local news and advertising website saidacity.net specifically deals with Afif El Teybi, the man. Operating as a meta-analysis of the situation, the article entitled “Afif El Taybi Is a Chief Journalist...Not a Street” begins by protesting the waning of historical memory amongst Lebanese people who live or work around Afif El Taybi street but do not know anything about this man. According to the author, most of these people are oblivious of the cultural figure who gave his name to their street. The opening lines of the article read:

Few know him despite the fame of the street named after him: Afif El Teybi. Ask the people of the street about the man who lived among them 'by name,' and they answer in negative or by guessing: 'Perhaps he was a nobleman, a patriot, or a martyr...' And what else? No additional information. If you search archives after him, there is not much sensation or news. The Press Association, which he presided over for four consecutive rounds since 1958, has less than two pages on him.”[3]

 


[1]   https://twitter.com/assafir/status/649550964207276033

[2]   http://janoubia.com/2015/09/04/من-قتل-ابن-الـ26-عاما-في-الطريق-الجديدة؟/

[3]   https://www.saidacity.net/news/61335/
This essay, written by Rola Abdullah, is republished on Saida City website in September 2010 from Al Mustaqbal.

            

 

In order to counter collective forgetfulness, numerous private and collective organizations have emerged in Lebanon in recent years. At UMAM, one of the more successful private archival initiatives dedicated to collecting publications and historical documents scattered as a result of the Civil Wars, there are seventeen copies of Al Yom newspaper. While the information file at the Arab Image Foundation specifies that “the paper closed down in August 1975, when its headquarter in the Aazarieh Building was bombed during the early years of the Lebanese Civil War,” UMAM has at least nine issues from 1976, after the supposed closure of the paper. This number of copies amounts to more than half of the total of hardcopies of Al Yom newspaper available at UMAM, as if the newspaper began enjoying its life at the archive of UMAM only after its presumed death in the real world according to the archive of AIF. Such misplacing of life and death is reminiscent of a biographical note at the end of Jalal Toufic's collected essays Forthcoming: Second Edition, where the author introduces himself as follows: “Jalal Toufic is a thinker and a mortal to death. He was born in 1962 in Beirut or Baghdad and died before dying in 1989 in Evanston, Illinois.”[1] We may venture to say that “death before dying” is not just an idiosyncrasy of Toufic's thought, it is a recurrent theme in Lebanese contemporary intellectual experience.

            The state of affairs in Lebanon after the “official” ending of the Civil Wars is such that one gets tempted to think of time in a different way. To take accidental coincidences seriously. To reside in the overlap between commemoration and forgetting. To see the sequential order of life and death interchangeably. To consider the past lost and its recovery consigned to initiatives such as UMAM, which, by necessity, embark on programmatic plans oriented toward the future in order to arrive at a point in time when/where past is once again put together and becomes comprehensible. To see the past as “not yet,” and the future as “the return,” because it is the future that is potentially impregnated with the recuperation of the past.

            My own research on the archive of photographs from Al Yom newspaper was, at every step, an experience in the non-linearity of time. The archive, currently at the Arab Image Foundation, arrived here because of a sequence of fortuitous, or rather unfortunate, coincidences that escape predictability. After the explosion at Al Yom building,

The newspaper's archives were further damaged in 1989, when a bomb hit the room in which they were stored. The remains were moved to Walid El-Tibi's apartment in Hamra, where they were kept until his death in 2005, when the family cleared their apartment. The photographs were left behind in plastic bags and cardboard boxes and were intended to be thrown away. Zeina Arida, [the former director of AIF and current head of Sursock Museum] whose parents lived in the same building, spotted them and arranged for bringing them to the AIF. This collection was kept aside without any selection until a count was made recently.[2]

There are more than 16,000 printed photographs in the collection, their pre-archive organization as arbitrary as the trajectory of their provenance. In their original classification, Al Yom had its archive of photographs arranged in yellow envelopes based on subject-matter. At least that is the understanding of Clémence Cottard, Head of Collections at the AIF, who received the photographs in that form. More than half of the collection still maintains this original organization. The heaviest and thickest envelopes in this series are those pertain to Lebanese political leaders, tagged under their names. However, there is another group of envelopes that does not follow original classification. According to Cottard, before she arrived at the Foundation, an intern was asked to work on the collection. What this intern did was that he/she took some of the photographs out of their original envelopes, rearranged them based on size (large, small, …), media (photographic print, negative, newspaper clipping, …), or condition (damaged, folded, framed, ...), and put them in new acid-free white envelopes. Cottard considers this rearrangement “genocidal” because it compromises the original organization of an archive beyond recovery.[3] What the AIF intern has done is to substitute content with form, to upset the centrality of subject-matter and replace it with attributes of medium.

 


[1]   Jalal Toufic, Forthcoming: Second Edition (Berlin: Strenberg Press, 2014), 256.

[2]   Author's interview with Clémence Cottard, Head of Collections at the AIF, 11 September 2018.

[3]   Ibid.

 

The disjointedness in the current organization of photographs in Al Yom archive lends itself to a further nonlinearization of time. I open a yellow envelop of photographs tagged under the name of Shi'a leader Musa al-Sadr. Smaller photographs are on top, larger photographs at the back. In one picture Musa al-Sadr sits on a sofa drinking tea with Takieddine Solh who was the 23rd Prime Minister of Lebanon from 1973 to 1974. From this external information I gather that the picture is taken before the beginning of the Civil War in 1975. In another photograph Sadr is seen speaking to a gathering of men; the first two rows occupied by Shia' clergy, while a man holding a big rifle guards the meeting from the balcony in the foreground.

 

In the third picture, he is younger and comfortably chats with Christian and Muslim leaders. In the fourth, Sadr is at the center of a group of men visiting a war stricken urban neighborhood. A large military vehicle occupies the right half of the image and multiple posters of Egyptian nationalist leader Gamal Abdel-Nasser are seen on a wall behind the men. Nasser is defaced in two of the posters. In the fifth photograph, Sadr is sat on the floor next to left-wing Daruz leader Kamal Jumblatt, looking concerned.

 

I open a white envelop of “large format” photographs, and there, amongst images from moon landing and mass killings, there are more images of Sadr from different stages of his political career. One can rearrange these according to the historical order of political events, but that would be further damaging the “authenticity” of the collection's “original” organization. There is an irreducible unease, if not contradiction, at the heart of my attempt to understand Lebanese history by working as an art historian on the archive of Al Yom at AIF.

            The question emerging from all of this concerns the peculiarities of Lebanon: what is it that makes nonlinear time so prevalent in the experience of history in this nation? In his seminal work on the origins and spread of nationalism, Benedict Anderson combines two of Walter Benjamin's seemingly unrelated philosophical concepts;  homogeneous empty time (progressive time) and the mechanically (or technologically) reproducible image. Anderson argues that nationalism is at its core the process of homogenizing multiple temporalities within the nation through the reproducible image, which he considers in terms of print and print capitalism, that is, newspapers, novels, photographs, radio waves, etc.[1] What Anderson does not deal with in his book is the role played in the process of homogenization through print capitalism by the modern institution of the state. What the case of Lebanon can demonstrate to us is that without the state, print capitalism is still capable of synchronizing members of each national subgroup, but fails to subsume multiple subgroups under an umbrella narrative. The state is required in order to produce a linear progression of history as the trajectory of the nation in its totality, otherwise—as we see in Lebanon—every national subgroup would claim its own history as the only mythical origin of the nation, and the conflict between various national subgroups remains unsuppressed. In its totality, a nation without the state thus experiences progressive time negatively, as a lack, that is, as something missing from the nation's everyday operation. In other words, it is the role of the state to bring together various moments of history and organize them linearly in the form of a unified narrative that is then presented to the entire people as part of the process of their subject-formation. National archives and high school history books are essential institutions in this process. In Lebanon, neither of these two institutions are properly functional. This means that that in many occasions, the national history is not readily available as a linear narrative, while scattered private, often foreign grant-funded archival initiatives reproduce the disjointedness inherent in the experience of time by various economic and cultural sub-groups within the nation. This may be one explanation for why class division and religious fragmentation dominates the national imaginary to such extent.

            In Forthcoming: Second Edition, Jalal Toufic speaks of “the nonlinear time and the non-exclusive disjunction reigning in death and dying before (physically) dying.”[2] This is one way to understand the Lebanese experience of historical time. I happen to find this approach more mystifying than helpful. The frequency of death that punctuates the progression of life in Lebanon is not so much a mystery than the result of the absence of a functional state which, in other places, covers up the death and presents life as linear progression. Images of death are frequent in all neoliberal states, but in the Lebanese imaginary they remain unsettled in a different way partly because, unlike in other modern capitalist nations, there is not a functional institution of law/state to watchfully and vigilantly hoist the death out of the picture, and sublimate it into a historically homogeneous narrative of national progression and continuation of life.

 


[1]   Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism (London: Verso, 2006), “Introduction” and “Chapter 1: Cultural Roots,” ebook.

[2]   Jalal Toufic, Forthcoming: Second Edition (Berlin: Strenberg Press, 2014), 17.

 

Death therefore remains unresolved in Lebanon.

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All Contents
Text
Afif El Teybi
Countering collective forgetfulness
Nonlinearity of time
DEATH