Wednesday, August 5, 2009


The Glare Is Everywhere and Nowhere A Shadow

- Maxim Gorky, "Boredom"

This sentence is an excerpt from Maxim Gorky's "Boredom", in which he describes and analyses Cooney Island, from its impact, its build, and ultimately its mere existence.

This blog is not about Gorky or his works, although they might be featured occasionally.

The sentence The Glare Is Everywhere and Nowhere A Shadow is a reflection of the blog's contents and intentions. The blog is a look at hidden layers in metropolitan life, be it in the domains of architecture, sociology, art, and every other phantom story the metropolis has to offer, although all that appears at first is a surface with an effortless glare. The blog will feature essays, photographs, prose, and poems about the problematic of modern life, especially in the city of Beirut, portrayed in diverse domains, works ranging from my writings and works, to those of established artists, from true reports to complete fiction.

I hope you enjoy browsing through this blog, and appreciate any intervention.

Hisham Awad

Beirut, Lebanon

Space As The Only Image (part 1)

A city that seems to only come close to functionality when confronted with exceptional situations, relies on constant and focused shifts from a space-inhabited city to an image-inhabited defined city. A proper comprehension of this reality needs not only a scholar's apprehension, but more essentially a citizen's. Since the image and the space in a war-inhabited space like Beirut, are not only complementary but also interchangeable, one needs to study their separate existences and modes of functioning. Those situations that provoke this shift vary from the common to the rare, the universal to the specific, the natural to the radical.

Part I: War, when there is no time for the image.

The image projects only space.

A space undergoing an imminent deterioration (a war space) does not project a future image (like a structure or space being built). Its future image, is: One: Too well-known to be conceived. Two: Too catastrophic to be conceived (both physically, and as a moral-crusher).

The image(s) of a space in crisis assumes a certain objectivity that is very difficult to doubt. That is, both filmed and photographed spaces in crisis (spaces during war for example), come across as objective portraits of a deteriorating space. An image becomes as factual as the actual space because the image shifts meaning. It no longer is the image as the representation, but the image as proof, and that is probably why all war photographs look the same. A dead body in a bombarded building in Sarajevo looks like a dead body in Iraq. Space that are "unbuilt" gain back their primitive constituent: the very material it is made of, and only when space has no choice but to project its purely physical aspect does the image lose its features.

It is even possible to say that an image projects only space in these circumstances (as opposed to projecting its existence and functions as an image) because it is only "ethical" to do so. War leaves no time for the image to develop as an autonomous entity, although it permits space to be an entity that is quite self-sufficient. A "war-space" is self-explanatory and ultimately self-refrential, a "war-image" is dependent on the "war-space" and since the image is portraying a space that is self-explanatory, the image assumes an obligation to portray the space in a very short time, as a space of conflict. In other words, the image has to be a sort of a mediator between the space and those who can not experience it directly, and for that reason, a "war-image" is indispensable to comprehend spaces ravaged by war. The difference between "experienced" space and "seen" space, at times of war, is a difference of intensity. A "war-image" being a mediator, doesn't suffice to describe an entire space. We tried panoramic photographs, successive photographs, time-lapse photographs, but the main obstacle is that experiencing space offers, rather imposes, a momentary impression of it. Experienced space, even if seen in parts, or at different times, is always a whole, a succession of wholes, a seen "war-space" is always a fragment.

The only "time" war offers for the image, is a time that is "inclusive". The printed images (posters, pamphlets...) in war-time are only functional as images because they are only made possible under certain spatial circumstances. A spy or an activist fleeing a "war-space" leaves, as a trace, an image (a graffiti, a pamphlet, a poster). A photographer arriving at a "war-space" takes an image that is both conditioned by the limitations of the penetrable space and the time it offers before it gets altered, or even destroyed. We all know war photographs that are "spontaneous", a photograph taken at the exact moment where the space bore witness to a change in it. This is not a matter of chance only, it is more so a matter of the permissibility of space. 

Bourj Hammoud

Three essential activities for the facilitation of the tourist's "ethical" exploration of Bourj Hammoud

by Hisham Awad

1. The tourist's guide to loyally photographing Bourj Hammoud's Bridge 

  Uncharted territory -ranging from a land ravaged by war to an interior with intimate stories to tell- should always be experienced with new eyes. Historical discoveries of new lands, and re-discoveries of deserted ones, have proved, though, the impossibility of new perceptions, for colonial eyes from one side, and nostalgic eyes on the other, know no better than to look at these territories through eyes that belong to other spaces and different times.

  From grand discoveries such as The New World, to small stumble-upons like an alley in a city like Beirut, one has to create alternative ways to view a space, because every space sets its own set of rules that are neither ignorable nor flexible.

Places like Bourj Hammoud, specifically the region under the colossal bridge, go as far as to redefine relationships that previously seemed trivial, the most important of which is that between light and shadow. 

Going back home with nice photographs taken under Bourj Hammoud's bridge is not an option, at least not an ethical one. Loyally illustrating the uncompromising bridge asks from the tourist to get rid of all quest for estheticism. Proper lighting in photographs should be the least of the your worries, since sufficient light in the actual Bourj Hammoud space was never the bridge's priority either. Upon the entry to Bourj Hammoud, it becomes instantly clear that this place is like no other, since it is big and functional enough to be a space that is independent of adjacent spaces, yet inevitably brings to mind that it is only a sub-space, a sub-entity. Hidden, physically bound by the concrete layer that separates two entirely different views of the city ( that above the bridge, where the mute highway going to Achrafieh hides every residential any social aspect of what lie s beneath the bridge); Bourj Hammoud has small physical expectations, minimal architectural ambitions: a limited volume of buildings so that they don't overlap the bridge, no public space... 

Standing on the either end of the region under the bridge, the concrete horizon is well defined, the expectations are instantly set. In broad daylight, there's more shadow than light. Light penetrates through small divergences between sections of the bridge, gently hinting that the space is almost, but not yet, apocalyptical. The day resembles the night. Dark, sonically industrial, visually residential.

The a guide to " loyally " photograph life under the bridge:

1.Stand at the highway side that takes you to sin-el-fil. You're facing the bridge.

Take out your camera and set your shutter speed to 160. Take a photograph.

2. Start walking under the bridge. Take a photograph, at the same shutter speed and overall settings.

3. Keep going. Take a photograph.

4.Keep on taking photographs with the same shutter speed, no matter the light.

You'll notice that your photos will be sometimes well exposed, sometimes not. Sometimes completely dark. You should compromise your esthetics, since Bourj Hammoud is probably the only street where the light changes that much, where the bridge touches the buildings, then gets away, then gives way to another one. Where in daylight, sun is more abundant than shadow, and at night, the bridge seems to politely disappear into the street.

Yes, you will come back with dark prints, overexposed ones, abstractions of space and experience. It is "ethical", nonetheless.

2. Participating in the imagined inauguration of the transferred Armenian Monument

 As you are walking under the shadows cast by the concrete, you're going to notice groups of people, all heading in the same direction. Follow them.

As the groups start to get bigger and the individual walking faster, your curiosity will be kindled. They are all dressed up, their faces brim with joy. They are impatient.

All gets clearer the moment the traffic becomes overwhelming, the chats between the citizens innumerable. You can feel the hype, even through indiscernible Armenian talks.

There it is, the reason for all the commotion. A block of iron, in the middle of the Bourj Hammoud center place. The nearby shops are closed, the kids and the elderly are witnessing the transfer of one of the most important Armenian monuments for the martyrs of the massacre. 

After considerable controversy and debate amidst Armenian figures and citizens back in Armenia over the necessity of transferring (thus letting go) a monument all the way to Lebanon. The answer was then very convincing, though mute. It was effortlessly manifested by the citizens of Bourj Hammoud, so flawlessly present in their longing, their nostalgia, even in their mundane everyday actions.

The unveiling of the base of the monument (an iron monolith) has been the subject of conversation for around a month, here in Bourj Hammoud. The monument that has long been present in Bourj Hammoud, at least in the form of a printed image on the calendars of the political parties in Bourj Hammoud), has started to occupy actual space, at a time where for an entire hour (that of the inauguration); time was suspended, more like stretched,  75 years in the Armenian past (1915 as the onset of the Armenian Genocide) and one hour in the Lebanese present.

3. Jermuk: The Armenian sparkling water.


The festive inauguration was tiring. It's almost 35 degrees outside. When dehydrated, Bourj Hammoud also offers Armenian sparkling water, of quality that rivals the most well-known of French and American sparkling waters, though exclusive of course.

Jermuk, the brand name of the water is the name of a city in the Southern Armenian province of Vayots Dzor. Actually, if someone would look closely at the names of streets and shops in Bourj Hammoud, he will notice that it looks like an Armenian region, with names like Arax Street, which is originally the name of a river located in and along the countries of Turkey, Armenia, Iran, and Azerbaijan. Shoe shops like "Yerevan"  which is also the name of the Armenian capital also figure.

Bourj Hammoud is a sort of a Lebanese equivalent of America's Chinatown.

To drink a bottle of Armenian sparkling water in a cafĂ© in the center of Bourj Hammoud next to an oversize object/statue of Coca-Cola is not an everyday sight, it is one of Bourj Hammoud's  appreciated offerings. 

While walking to a grocery store, you will stumble upon Armenian posters that fill up the walls, Armenian you heard among the citizens. Bourj Hammoud lives a permanent conflict. It is a desired mutation of Armenia, but it has all the problems any other area in Beirut faces: electricity cuts, water shortage, no parking spaces. This duality destroys Bourj Hammoud's illusion of an alternative Armenia, its harsh realities make it seem no different from Karm el Zeitoun, from Karantina...