– Autumn/Winter 2019

Let This Darkness Be a Bell Tower

Tony Chakar

Burney Relief or Queen of the Night, baked clay relief panel, 49.5 x 37 x 4.8cm. Collection British Museum, London.

Rana El Nemer, an Egyptian artist living in Cairo, recently told me that she cannot even imagine what hope looks like. Considering the grim situation in Egypt since the 2013 military coup d’état this statement did not come as a surprise. She also told me that she had felt hope once. For a brief moment while driving the streets of Cairo in February 2011, shortly after the January 25 Revolution, she was able to imagine a place where she would just be, as herself; a place into which she was integrated into the (physical) space she was occupying. The backdrop to this overwhelming feeling was always, according to Rana, the tree-lined streets of Cairo, some pedestrians going about peacefully, a police station and some anti-police slogan graffitied on its wall.

I immediately understood. Living without hope, or not being able to imagine hope, is exactly how I lived during the Lebanese wars of 1975 to 1990. I also understand what it’s like to see something different. Not exactly hope, but something else: let’s call it a small possibility for a slightly different life. Sometime around 1992, when the state gathered the weapons of all the militias (except Hezbollah), and it became easy to move back and forth between the two Beiruts – East

  1. I borrow this title from a poem by Rainer Maria Rilke, from his 1923 collection Die Sonette an Orpheus (Sonnets to Orpheus).

  2. Paul Auster, In the Country of Last Things, Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1988, p.9.

  3. Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, Night Flight (trans. Stuart Gilbert), Harcourt, New York, 1974, p.71.

  4. Ibid.

  5. I direct the reader to the first twenty verses of Genesis, widely available online, to read in accompaniment with what follows.

  6. The etymology of Lucifer is the light bearer, the bringer of (obscure) light. He is also the Morning Star, hovering between the end of the night and the beginning of the day; in this sense he is outside the duality of darkness-light.

  7. In an article of 19 March 2019, Maurice Ayeq points to the profoundly conservative nature of
    the recent Arab revolutions. See الثورات العربية والثقافة المُحافِظة (Arab revolutions and conservative
    culture), Al-Jumhuriya, 19 March 2019, available at https:/www.aljumhuriya.net/ar/content/
    الثورات-العربية-والثقافة-المُحاف%D9%90ظة?fbclid=IwAR1Gps0duHFVmOPOUHRK0fGhFq1QOEtk00ADta 5cssRMz8OzzxOYzsGONT8 (last accessed on 23 April 2019).

  8. See Walter Benjamin, ‘Experience and Poverty’ (1933, trans. Rodney Livingstone), in M.W. Jennings et al. (ed.), Walter Benjamin: Selected Writings, Volume 2: Part 2: 1931–1934, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2005.