SWEET MEMORIES IN BEIRUT:
A WHOLE WORLD OF COMMUNICATIONS
Everywhere in the world, there are disagreements about the way that ‘official history’ ought to be written. The difference in Lebanon is that the source of such disagreements – the exclusivity of groups and the separations between them – is so embedded in the country’s social, and even physical, structure that it is treated practically as a fact of life.
When even the constitution defines people along confessional lines – and when confessional significance is attached to just about everything from where you live to the way you honk your car horn – exclusivity is the norm.
The problem in this kind of atmosphere is not just that common ground is hard to find, but that it is hard to find because no one expects to find it. Rather than finding a version of history’s events that all parties can agree on, the ‘Sweet memories’ project focuses on personal memories as a way of telling the story of history. In these memories, and in the way that we can all recognize something familiar in them, a common ground is recognized without our even trying to find it. The project’s conceptual point of departure was conceived at Beirut’s National Museum.
Although it wasn’t always the case, the historical narrative now told by the collection on public display at the National Museum stops abruptly in the Mamluk era. The Museum isn’t an encyclopedic institution but rather an antiquities museum. Still, in the absence of any other public museums to tell the rest of the story or serve as a storehouse for the full scope of Lebanon’s official history, the country’s institutional memory hasn’t caught up with the collective memories of its people. From this perspective the idea that ‘The Lost Room of the Lebanese National Museum’, should display a collection of memories from random people on the streets of Beirut was born. The project took intentionally an uncomplicated view of a complicated situation.
The inspiration for ‘Sweet Memories’ came out of the perception that space in Lebanon, even sidewalks, works to keep people divided. ‘Sweet Memories’ can be described as an attempt to reclaim these spaces by making explicit the possibility of sharing memories. The project shows how people really remember and what they really remember. People don’t necessarily remember the political connotations of a place. They remember the quieter things, which they experienced there.
For example, one of Reem’s fondest memories is of a ‘confessional tree’ situated in front of the medical gate of the American University Beirut. Since there was no place to go to enjoy any privacy, she would often go there with her two best friends on a Sunday afternoon. There they would sit, eat ice cream and confess to one another their innermost secrets. No stone was left unturned.
Another memory came from Joe. He told: ‘I was eight or nine years old and was coming back from school. It was a rather intense day of bombshelling and you could hear the light infantry fights which made it hard for me to concentrate on my studies. My Dad came in and told me that if I could finish my studies in an hour, he would take me to the amusement park in Dora. The Luna park still exists. And so I did. And so he kept his word. When we reached the amusement park, of course it was closed. My Dad talked to the manager who turned out to be even crazier than my Dad. And he opened the amusement park just for me. I stayed there with my own personal amusement park for a couple of hours jumping from one game to the other. The bomb shells were still dropping, but for those two hours, I couldn’t hear them.’
Or the story of a worker at Beirut’s disfunctional train station, he showed his beautiful tree house. It was modelled on the old water tank for trains standing close by. To the man it worked as a sanctuary in a country of which he is proud and happy to live in. The only time he left Lebanon was before the war when he was visiting his love in Ukraine. They enjoyed the company of one another for twenty-five days, and than the time of goodbye came. And since the war started in Lebanon all he is left with, when he is spending time in his tree house, is a dream of a girl from Kiev.
Another fun tale came from Elie Tehme. He decided to play a joke on his colleague Joseph. He pretended to be a secret admirer called Christine, who happened to be deeply interested. He caught the guy’s attention through sexy phone calls. By the end of the week she had him right where she wanted him, pledging “I am yours, in body and soul, let’s meet”. The date was to take place in café Automatic, in Downtown Beirut. At 11 sharp, Joseph was dressed up waiting for the girl in red holding a blue rose in his hand. At the other edge of the street, the whole staff was observing the event, yet Joseph still has no knowledge of what really happened.
About 20 of these private stories where collected in Beirut during a few days in the summer of 2007. After identifying and creating symbols for five categories of memories – escape, romance, childhood, heroism and adventure – graffiti was used to mark the physical locations of the remembrances. (If you happen to be walking around the Luna Park in Manara, keep your eyes peeled for a stenciled ice cream cone graffitied onto a wall.) An installation at Studio Beirut (Gemmazeh Street) mapped out all the Sweet memories and places in the city in an attempt to give a hint of what the Lost Room of the Lebanese National Museum could be about.
In some ways the Lost Room refers to the idea of ‘the gesture’ indicated common ground and with that, the possibility of communication opens up. People smile when they read the sweet memories partly because the memories are just great stories – but more so because they recognize something in them. Each and every one of them – like the gesture – reveals to us a shared world. All it takes is a simple gesture – an ice cream cone stenciled on the wall – to allow us to see the potential. Once we can see beyond the normal patterns, a whole world of communication will open up.
0 – Sweet Memories, 2007
Partizan Publik: Christian Ernsten. Christiaan Fruneaux. Janmaat Joost
[Netherlands] think/action tank. Amsterdam
mixed media / size varies
concept: Partizan Publik
text: Susan Crile. Christian Ernsten
photography: Dirk-Jan Visser
research: the Studio Beirut Summer School 2007 participants
Partizan Publik is a think and action tank devoted to a braver society. The Partizans explore, produce and implement social, political and cultural instruments, which generate positive and sustainable change to people and their surroundings. As such we take part in the complex and continuous process of global social engineering.