On the Haneen exhibit; A Collective Work of Lebanese and Syrian Artists on the Impact of War on Childhood; curated by Chadi Aoun and commissioned by UNICEF
“People’s sharp tongue and insults were harsher than death” – Abdelwakil Al-Ibrahim
by Evgenia Valais
It was quiet in the house that was turned into art to commemorate the children who bear, or bore, the brunt of the lashes of the ongoing Syrian war, except for the incessant beep of car horns battling for dominance over the soft music. If you are ever in Beyt Beirut, you will notice the car horns signal all the time. You can hear them get louder if you stare into the bullet holes through the wall, and become hypnotised by the kaleidoscope of a seperate world out in the street. I was inside, but the spotless glass window made me feel like I was outside floating in the thick air.The balcony didn’t have a floor. My little wooden stool wouldn’t be able to stay suspended forever, I thought. It wouldn’t be long before I hit the concrete below. After some minutes of gazing into the kaleidoscope, I instinctively flinched, grabbing for the rusted rail of the balcony through the glass, at which I spotted the most spectacular thing. In the distance, a group of school children with short black hair and long black hair were darting around a basketball pitch playing together. Only the tiny corner of the playground jutted out into my view. I wanted to grab that corner and drag it across the world, so all of earth would be filled by those kids playing basketball, and there was no room for anything else.
After my visit to Beyt Beirut, I could not stop noticing the reconciliatory nature of Lebanon. That the kids play basketball together, despite the past. The truths of the civil war that ended in 1990 are often hidden, hence the past is a mystery for many, so Lebanon has secret ways of showing it is moving forward. The flames of resurrection are silent. They blazed brightest when I spoke to university students about the current political system, and whether or not they are happy with the present situation. “Do you think confessionalism will work?” I blurted out later that evening after getting into a conversation with a student, that, for some reason, had M&M’s, Skittles and Maltesers spilling out of his ‘emergency backpack’ at all times. “No, ya3ni, something needs to change.” I was surprised by his automatic answer. By the fact that change is sought for by the young community, and is recognised as necessary. Two little fires lit up his eyes.
The other day, I was supposed to meet up with some friends at a coffee shop. When I got there the whole place was glowing. They had managed to spark a discussion about Lebanon’s current reality with some university students studying politics, architecture and developmental economics, all from different sects, but friends nonetheless. ‘Inseparable’ was the word they used to describe themselves. “Sectarianism is not there for people’s beliefs, it is there for people’s needs” is the
phrase that tied together our one-and-a-half hour long conversation together nicely, announced passionately by the to-be architect. As we sipped on what was left of our coffee, and said our goodbyes, I never felt warmer, because it was buttressed for me that the kids are reconciling and seeking to amend, fervently, loudly, unapologetically.
“People’s sharp tongue and insults were harsher than death.” This is the resonating conclusion Abdelwakil Al-Ibrahim, an 11 year old boy from Aleppo seeking refuge in Lebanon, came to. If I had to choose anyone I met from the whole trip that could relate to this saying the most it would probably be a cluster of old Lebanese couples who had lived through the war, shuffling down the stairs of the cinema after watching the oscar nominated “The Insult,” which, with a refreshing bluntness, addresses the weight words can carry in Lebanon. They were all perched at the very top of the viewing room, so as they descended, hand in hand, they were illuminated in soft blues and greens by the projector in the back. I couldn’t take my eyes off of them, and in that moment I remembered the words my friend had told me a few days ago “On a practical perspective, a film can’t make peace, but on an emotional perspective, it can, and that’s what films should do.” I really don’t know what this cane-clad group was feeling, but the way they held onto eachother told me it wasn’t just for physical support.
Lebanon, in its discreet way, showed me that because people’s tongues are becoming soft instead of sharp, because people are giving compliments instead of insults, and are accepting that time has smoothed insults into meaningless jokes, that basketball pitch has been spreading. Maybe it is a miracle that I even saw its little corner at all.
Life does its best to burn through the harshness.