by Samer Mohdad
When popular uprisings were taking place in the countries bordering Lebanon, my book and subsequent exhibition project Beirut Mutations were only just starting to take shape. While many around the world were observing the unfolding developments with hope, I had the feeling that what other Arab countries were experiencing had already been tested in Lebanon, and that upcoming situations would be similar to those already experienced by the Lebanese.
It was time to declare loud and clear: “Let us not forget what we have been through over the last 30 years and remember the unhealed wounds created by the civil war.” By expressing the realities of the city through images and personal stories, Beirut Mutations aims to make the reader ‘experience’ Beirut as if he or she was in the city during the events depicted.
To me, Beirut is not just an ordinary city. Its neighborhoods are made up of the men, women, children, and paths along which I grew up. Throughout the last few decades, these landscapes have been transformed — not only on an architectural level, but also on human and social levels. At a first glance, it is easy to say that these transformations are the results of deeply ingrained ethnic tensions in the country. In fact, the recurring conflicts that created them are precisely driven by the greed of real estate promoters and speculators.
I see Beirut in the contexts of my beginnings as a photographer 25 years ago, when I started taking photographs of families displaced by conflict, and all the transformations that the city has since undergone. From the beginning of my photography career, I knew that I would tell this city’s story from my point of view as an “intimate outsider”, not belonging to any political militia or movement and not following any religion.
In the fall of 2012, the Beirut Mutations exhibition and book launch took place in the Lebanese capital. Among many of the attendees were those who had caused and waged the civil war only to reap profits in its aftermath. Some still govern the country today. Having previously suffered the consequences of being ‘politically incorrect’ and speaking out against these corrupt officials, I decided to remain quiet this time. I had learned that these sorts of policymakers refuse to understand or react positively to being confronted with these realities in public. The only outcome of a confrontation would be those present judging me as a frustrated artist or a madman.
Suddenly, as one of the officials walked past a large black-and-white image depicting armed teenagers guarding a bunker on the frontline in Beirut’s city center during the civil war, I noticed one of the kids in the image started moving. Another one behind him moved his rifle toward the official in question (then minister of energy) aimed at his head and shot him right between the eyes.
Don’t panic! This episode only transpired in my imagination. In reality, no actions are taken to condemn those who act to shatter peace and stability for their own benefits with no fear of punishment. But we can be almost certain that it would have happened, if only images could come alive.
During the mini-civil war in May 2008, when Hezbollah and its allies took control of Beirut by force, I was once again in the streets trying to take pictures of the ongoing battles. Armed teenagers stood at the city’s crossroads, and I felt as if I had traveled back in time. As I crossed on foot, I saw a government official, an ex-minister who had previously refused to exhibit my 1993 work on Lebanon’s war children at a venue in Beirut owned by the tourism ministry. The young militiamen at the checkpoint stopped his car and asked him to show his ID card I approached to take some photos of the scene.
To distract the youths from my camera in shooting mode, I started to argue with them, saying, “Come on guys, you should show some respect to our officials! This old man was our minister of tourism and he’s actually a member of parliament.”
Suddenly, one of the older masked militiamen, who had been a few steps away, intervened. “Mr. Samer, please do not take any pictures,” he said, looking over the youngsters and ordering them to release the official. “I remember you very well from when you used to come over to our barracks in the city center during the war and you used to picture us with your camera. Please leave and do not use any of the pictures you took from this scene, in case you took any. I hope to see you one day in other circumstances, so we can talk freely the way we used to in the past.”
People who let the historical mistake of war repeat are not worthy of being called human beings. They should be considered no better than animals, albeit with the wherewithal to hold a conversation. Despite the current situation in which even basic services are not adequately provided, until a week ago people in Lebanon did not react other then by words. It’s not difficult to find a group of people making strong arguments about what they think about political leaders of the county, but once they face those leaders, they all get in line to kiss the rulers’ hands, while the media addresses the officials as “Your Highness.”
While these officials continue to abuse Lebanese citizens, their spouses support their husbands by blinding and deafening the public. They have created various foundations, NGOs, and charity associations, using funds and aid from the EU and the U.S. to conduct activities aimed at silencing the people. Among these activities are annual festivals or marathons hosted under the ideal that life continues regardless of the horrible situations their husbands created. These activities distract the general public from the ills of the Lebanese society and government. For the last 50 years, the corrupt political elite in ruling positions hired their family and clan members into various positions in the government.
The current “you stink” movement is a sign that things may change. Organized against the corrupt government officials profiting from Beirut’s recent sanitation troubles, the movement has found its leadership in students, intellectuals, bloggers and civil society activists. They succeeded to take the issue to the streets, giving young people the opportunity to express their anger against their corrupted institutions.
The same sorts of disadvantaged youngsters I met in the streets of Beirut controlling the checkpoints during the May 2008 clashes, when peaceful movements became violent confrontations between political parties, have joined the demonstrations of today. Naturally these peaceful acts have offended the Lebanese upper class, and some proven corrupt political leaders have expressed a desire to join the “non-aligned” population’s counter-movement. Other political parties have co-opted the protestors’ slogans and decided to call for their own demonstration.
I have always wondered why policymakers, when they adopt an artist’s, a writer’s, or any another creative mind’s idea, ask academics to implement them. There are many conferences and round tables discussions organized by policymakers, where active players in civil society, education, and culture are invited to present their insights into what is going wrong in the society.
However, these conversations all end up picturing the utopia and fall short of pushing for real change. Meanwhile, politicians spend large amounts of money for these unproductive gatherings, and consulting firms with ex-officials on their boards receive money from international donors for the stated aim of “development and capacity building.” All the while taxpayers’ money and international aid are wasted, and those who conceived the ideas often remain on the sidelines, left to watch their ideals end up as backing for the money-making activities of a few political elites.
Samer Mohdad studied photography at L’École Supérieure des Arts Saint-Luc Liège, Belgium before lending his talents as a photojournalist to various international publications. An advocate for the support and preservation of Arab photography, Mohdad has spent the past thirty years showing the Arab world from the inside through his photo books and exhibitions.
[Photos courtesy of Samer Mohdad]