Skip to main content Start of main content

To Speak Shadow

Tony Chakar, An Endless Quick Nightmare, 2011. The image reads: ‘Facts are of no importance. It doesn’t matter if something had happened behind that wall or not. Factuality is blindness, blindness to the world. / The past is here, now, as a fleeting image. The closer you look at it the further away it gets.’
Tony Chakar speaks of the weight of the past in today’s Beirut.
Tony Chakar, The Dialogue That Is Us, 2013, Sharjah: Sharjah Foundation, 2013. All images courtesy the artist
Tony Chakar, An Endless Quick Nightmare, 2011, series of 9 plates made for the Encuentro Internacional de Medellín 2011, 69 × 90cm each, detail. From top to bottom, the images read: ‘The further and further you get from the sea, the louder its sound’; ‘Every photograph taken in Lebanon before 1975 foretells the war to come. Every photograph is both a “this has been” and a “this will be”. In every photograph, what will be looks at us precisely at the moment when we decide to look away.’

Empires collapse. Gang leaders
Are strutting about like statesmen. The peoples
Can no longer be seen under all those armaments.
So the future lies in darkness and the forces of right
Are weak. All this was plain to you
When you destroyed a torturable body.
— Bertolt Brecht, ‘On the Suicide of the Refugee W.B.’01

As survivors of the First War (1975–90),02 we know that we owe our survival to nothing but blind, dumb luck. We were not saved by divine interventions brought by our mothers’ prayers; we were not spared because of the amount of prudence and suspicion that we exercised during that day that lasted fifteen years; and our infinite calculations to remain safe did nothing more than help us pass the time. Sheer blind, dumb luck: that’s what it was.

As witnesses of the First War, all we can do now is witness. And we witness, and we see the head of the beast rising again, but we are powerless to stop it. We tried to speak, but our words fell in front of us, at our feet, and never reached their target. We tried to speak only to discover that the language we were using had been destroyed during the wars, but we persisted, and we made ‘things’ — things that speak of that long day without naming it; things that speak of lack, of absences; things that proudly acknowledged and brandished the inadequacy of existing forms of art, as well as their own forms; things that were just things, but which were later recuperated as contemporary art. Walid Raad phrased it so simply in one of our conversations: ‘When I was making my videos, I never even imagined that anybody was going to watch them.’ But then, many people did.

Our ‘things’ ceased to be things and became passed, exhibited and scrutinised under the label of ‘contemporary art’; many other things are now passed under that label as well, and galleries are opening, further transforming things into art objects, and the interest of the international art market (a funny expression indeed) has not waned, and money is flowing for whoever decides to embark on a project… But what does that all mean, here, now? I look around me and I see a land utterly destroyed by past, present and future wars, a dreamscape of ruins all around, from Lebanon to Palestine to Syria to Iraq; I listen to people and discover, astonished, that concepts like laws, states, citizens and so on mean absolutely nothing; that they are aware of the fact that this land — their land and mine — is destroyed, like one is aware of being in a nightmare, and so they internalise their parts and act them out. Such is the case of these young Lebanese men, or Iraqi men, or Palestinian men, who go to fight in Syria, or Iraq, or Lebanon, and die. They die in what they view as a huge field of ruins, only good for incessant battles, extending from the Mediterranean coast to the mountains of Zagros, and from the mountains of Taurus to the deserts of Arabia. They die, leaving behind them video testimonies that circulate on YouTube — some of them quite poignant — where they say goodbye to the people who remain, who don’t go to this battlefield. The ones who remain are in deep sorrow, of course, like all people everywhere who lose their loved ones, but they hide it well behind a hollow heroic rhetoric, and the people around them help them by making a lot of noise: they speak loudly, make grand gestures, honk their car horns as they drive angrily, and then they dance. They dance as if filled with life and joy — but there is no life here in the land of sour milk and bitter honey; sometimes they even believe it, forgetting for an instant the ones that they themselves have lost along the way, while their danse macabre turns all genuine sorrow into sheer hollowness, only thinly veiled by rigid plastic-surgery expressions.

Tony Chakar, An Endless Quick Nightmare, 2011. The image reads: ‘Facts are of no importance. It doesn’t matter if something had happened behind that wall or not. Factuality is blindness, blindness to the world. / The past is here, now, as a fleeting image. The closer you look at it the further away it gets.’

As for witnesses, few of us remain here. Others have stopped believing in this land; many have been lured by the glitter of a successful career and a better life; and some have tried hard but were forced to leave because their lives were in danger. Such is the case, for instance, of the Syrian writer Yassin al-Haj Saleh, who published his ‘Goodbye to Syria’ today, 12 October 2013, on his Facebook account. People leave and we remain; people leave and I remain, and the space in which I’m allowed to move becomes narrower and narrower, emptier and emptier.

In these circumstances and conditions, making art objects to be put in the international art market seems whimsical — irresponsible even. With all images still on the same level, prior to the distinction and elevation of some images as art while the rest remain in the domain of the mundane, what does it mean for an artist to show the world the pictures of his or her body, when we’ve seen the body-internal (the Syrian rebel eating the heart of his dead enemy) or the body-lifeless (the images of dozens of dead children due to the Syrian regime’s use of chemical weapons)? Or, less dramatically and in reverse, what does it mean when the Museum of Modern Art in New York acquires the Occupy Wall Street print portfolio?

So, again: In these circumstances and conditions, what kind of witnessing is still possible? And what are the possible and adequate forms for such witnessing? At the end of the Lebanese wars, there was an ambiguous feeling that traditional artistic forms were unsuitable to tell the stories of the day that lasted fifteen years: they were too holistic, too abstract, too caught up in their own self-sufficiency; their narrative was too linear to account for the amount of destruction and the weight of the absences. On the other hand, there was a definite need to speak, to tell, to share. This activity was often achieved clumsily, as in the cinematic attempts of the early 1990s to reduce all the war to the destruction of Martyrs’ Square in Beirut or the ruined historical city centre. Sometimes other strategies were deployed, and though they were far from clumsy, they still need to be critically viewed. One of them consisted in collecting the small individual stories of those who survived the First War in order to construct not a main narrative, not a History — because that was impossible — but a historical tableau encompassing theoretical fragments that account for objective facts as well as small personal details that bring to life subjectivities utterly destroyed during and by the war. Another strategy bears the stigma of the inevitable nostalgia for what passed, what ceased to exist, including everyday life during the wars — because after the war the destruction of everything around us did not stop, it just took on other forms and acquired other names, like ‘reconstruction’, or the ‘building frenzy’, or simply ‘economic growth’ and ‘tourism’. When you wake up everyday to find yourself in a new city, it is only natural to cling to the sweetness of your childhood: old forgotten pop songs from the 1980s, arcade games that were one’s only pastime during the difficult teenage years, B-movies produced during the war and so on. In this strategy, these elements are meant to act like symbolic tokens that would, ideally, reconnect one with a lost — yet redeemable — past.

This past that weighs as heavily as stone.
Tread softly, for the soil of this earth
Is nothing but the crumbled dust of these bodies.
— Abū al-‘Ala’ al-Ma‘arrī03

I stand on the balcony, it is late evening; light is dimming, cars are passing by filled with strangers; people walk down below holding objects in their hands: candy boxes, flowers, grocery bags; in the apartments around me, people are busy living their daily lives, watching TV, going from room to room. And the past still weighs as heavily as stone.

‘During the Lebanese wars, not only were buildings demolished and lives taken, but language itself was destroyed. The same words that were used to incite the killing of those dear to me are being used now in postwar politics, and the hand that I shook today might be the hand that shook the hand that pulled the trigger that shot the bullet that murdered my father. Cain didn’t kill his brother from a lack of knowledge, but because he knew him too well. / Should there come should there come a man should there come a man to the world, today, with the beard of light of the patriarchs: he would, if he would speak of this time, he would only babble and babble, ever-, ever- more more.’

How, then, to speak it? The problem with most witnessing is that sometimes, even without knowing, it presupposes a direct relationship with the past; it assumes that the past is transparent; that the present, which is destroying that very past every single second, has no bearing on it; that it is enough to speak it ‘as it was’ and everything will be whole again. But this will not happen: what has been broken can never be mended.

In mystical traditions, especially the Judaic one, time is of a different essence than the sequential, linear time that we take for granted. Every second is the narrow gate from which the Messiah could enter — the end of this world and the start of a new one. So, what if, instead of the past being past and the present being present, the past was in the present? What if every second that passes contained the totality of the history of humanity and all its possible futures? What if every fragment, all that we see around us, contained the totality of the universe — ‘You think of yourself as nothing but a small speckle, and yet the larger universe was folded into you’, writes Ibn ’Arabī;.04

Tony Chakar, An Endless Quick Nightmare, 2011. The image reads: ‘Become a child again, altar boy, and speak that other language and release that stinging silence, for the brooms of the entire nation have worked hard to sweep away your childhood, to sweep away your language. So work, altar boy, on sweeping away their olden untimely retirement. Blow out the candle first before cursing the light of scandal.’

If the past is in the present, if the ‘true picture of the past flits by, [if] the past can be seized only as an image which flashes up at the instant when it can be recognised and is never seen again’,05 then we, the ones who survived the First War for no particular reason, have an obligation towards that past, towards the ones who passed away, towards the ones on whose crumbled dust we tread with every step we take. And the act of witnessing is nothing less than the seizing upon of these images of the past that flit by, in order to redeem them, to stop them from disappearing forever. The act of witnessing is nothing less than forcing the present to recognise that this past, which is in the present, is one of its own concerns.

Speaks true, who speaks shadows
— Paul Celan06

In Beirut, I walk — either to make sense of the city or as exercise; they say it’s good for the back. But even then, the past-in-the-present can strike you at any moment. While walking through Rue de Damas, I saw a massive building being constructed, right behind the Greek Melkite Archdiocese; since it’s still under construction, the plot is surrounded by a tall metal fence, on which the construction company hangs promotional posters of what the building will ultimately look like and how good it will be to live there. One of the posters shows in large perspective the building in its finished state. On the plot adjacent to the construction site, there’s an old house with visible traces from the battles that took place there during the Lebanese wars. For some reason the house has not been torn down or restored, and it looks abandoned. And so, we have a building from the present, under construction, a building from the future, in the form of a promotional poster, and a building ravaged by past wars; or maybe, the skeleton of the building under construction is the future of the building in the poster, now abandoned and ruined; or maybe, the war-torn building is the future of both buildings next to it, and not their past — which is not a far-fetched delusion in the current state of political turmoil dominating Lebanon and the region. This whole urban image acts like a vanitas, or a memento mori; death is telling us: ‘I am here, even here, in this fake plastic paradise you’re trying to construct over the crumbled dust of these bodies.’

Et in Arcadia ego’, death says. I move on.

Up ahead and to the right is Badaro Street: a long street lined with commerce at the ground level and residential and mixed-use floors above. Last year the municipality decided to renovate the street, the pavements, the infrastructure, etc. And so Badaro Street was under excavation for a long period; it was difficult to walk through because of all the machines and the trucks and the gravel and the sand — but the most noticeable element was a deep scar running along the street’s centre, showing the earth’s entrails. Then came the time to replace the sewage pipes, so the sewers were left open and they ran like a roaring river through the whole trench, a river of brown water, the excrements and waste of all the inhabitants of the street coming together into one foul-smelling entity… Probably the only place where unity and social equality will be achieved. I kept walking towards where Badaro Street ends, at Tahouita roundabout, a place infamous during the wars because it contained one of the checkpoints that separated East Beirut from West Beirut. At that point the river disappeared under the ground again, but I could still hear the sound of the water. I stopped and looked back: I had crossed the river Lethe, the river of Forgetfulness, and was now in Hades. I knew that my father was somewhere buried in a mass grave in this area, having been shot by a sniper. My mother had gone to get his body — ‘It was raining rain and bombs that day, and I was alone’, she told me years later, years after remaining absolutely silent about what had happened. She insisted on getting the body, despite being insulted and shot at by the Palestinian fighter at the roadblock ‘because there was a cross on the coffin’. She couldn’t go too far under the rain and the bombs, so she took him to the first church she saw, a Maronite church, to perform the last rites, and then they dumped the body along with others somewhere. In a mass grave. There, where I was standing, somewhere in Hades. ‘He is now buried with the Maronites, but what could I have done?’ She’s lucky to have made it out from there alive. And now she is 83. She is a survivor and a witness, and also for her the past is in the present. When she speaks to me, I listen; but I have a feeling that she wants me to be more than just a listener. She wants me to end what she couldn’t finish, but how am I to do that? Should I dive into the pit of the under-earth like Heracles and Orpheus? And even if I did, how will I be able to distinguish his bones from so many others? I could ask her for more details; I should ask her maybe, yes, I can I can I can I can’t ask her to tell more. I can’t, she is too fragile and besides, it probably won’t matter, probably not.

It does not get easier up there in the mountains, in that village where my grandfather comes from. They say it started at 4 p.m., on Friday, 9 September 1983. Suddenly they were all gone my kin I still don’t know how to speak that moment. I don’t know. I remember he was so tall I remember she had red hair and freckles I remember I used to run in the garden with him and catch frogs I remember she spoke slowly and had a nice smile. I don’t know what these bits of images mean, I don’t know how to arrange them, how to give them sense. I go there sometimes, during the summers; it’s beautiful there and I’m never alone. The ones with me also think it’s beautiful and the cedars are so close. They take lots of pictures because it’s beautiful there and they tell me it’s beautiful here and I smile and nod and these images from my memory fill my head but I don’t know how to speak them. So I remain silent.

When this land will die from its dreams
We will stand together, for the first time together
And all that we will see shall amaze us.

People sometimes tell me that I should leave. That I should give up on this land that this weight is too hard to bear that this land will always be the same that nothing will be fixed that I have the right to fulfil myself and be happy. To be happy. Sometimes I listen to them, and I am seduced by what they say — but then at other moments I am convinced that everything in this city is tied to me, to my presence; and that, if I leave, everything will fall apart, and Beirut, the 6,000-year-old city, will be nothing but a distant memory. A silly thought, of course. Nothing will happen if I leave and people will carry on with their lives. And I will carry on with mine, working, taking walks, talking to whomever is left here from my friends, seeing things end everywhere around me.

I have to go on I can’t go on I will go on.


  • Bertolt Brecht, ‘On the Suicide of the Refugee W.B.’, Poems 1913–56 (ed. John Willett, Ralph Manheim and Erich Fried, trans. John Willett), London: Methuen, 1979, p.363; also available at accessed on 12 October 2013).
  • What is usually called the Lebanese Civil War is a series of wars and occupations that took place between 1975 and 1990. The war was declared officially over in 1990 after the Taif Agreement, signed in the winter of 1989. Nonetheless, the Israeli occupation lasted until 2000, and the Syrian occupation until 2005, and — more importantly — the period since 1990 is often referred to by local writers as a ‘cold civil war’. The Lebanese have still not agreed on how the civil war started, what caused and sustained it or how it ended. My expression ‘the First War’ anticipates a second war yet to come.
  • Abū al-‘Alā’ al-Ma‘arrī, lament for the Faqih Al Hanafi Al Halabi, available at (last accessed on 12 October 2013). Translation the author’s.
  • Translation the author’s from the Arabic, available at (last accessed on 12 October 2013). See also Muhyiddin Ibn ’Arabī, Kernel of the Kernel (trans. Ismail Hakki Bursevi), Sherborne: Beshara Publications, 1981.
  • Walter Benjamin, ‘Theses on the Philosophy of History’ (1940), Illuminations (ed. Hannah Arendt, trans. Harry Zohn), New York: Schocken Books, 1968, p.255, also available at ∼∼andrewf/CONCEPT2.html (last accessed on 12 October 2013).
  • Paul Celan, ‘Speak, You Too’, Selections (trans. and ed. Pierre Joris), Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005, p.54, also available at (last accessed on 12 October 2013).