A psychogeographic tour through Beirut


A few years ago, the photographer Rhea Karam was standing on the edge of a vacant lot in Hamra, taking pictures for a series about the urban landscape of Beirut. The space, surrounded by tall buildings on three sides with a street running along the fourth, was full of garbage. An expensive black sedan pulled up alongside Karam. A woman of a certain age – and of a certain type who would be affectionately or derisively addressed as tante (auntie) – cracked open one of the car’s windows and bombarded Karam with abuse. “How dare you take pictures of this trash!” she shouted. “In a city as beautiful as this, how dare you focus on such ugliness?” Karam was shocked but also amused. The woman had misread the situation. Karam had no intention of photographing ugliness. She was aiming, instead, for a radiant burst of graffiti on the far wall. Still, beyond missing the point by a laughably wide margin, the woman’s anger was instructive. For her, the party at fault was not a population that wantonly litters and recklessly pollutes its own environment on a daily basis. Nor was it a widespread culture of impunity that regards trash collection as a task beneath the dignity of the local citizenry, relegated instead to an army of migrant workers. No, at fault here was a young artist who deigned to document a few self-evident facts, which is symptomatic of how Beirutis see their city not as it is but how they want it, imagine it, or remember it to be. In Beirut, the politics of seeing often demand a willful and selective blindness, backed up by baseless rhetoric. Say Beirut is beautiful and beautiful it will be. Never mind the ample evidence supporting the contrary point of view, that Beirut is just as often dirty, ugly and vulgar, or beautiful only to those wealthy enough to afford a blight-blocking view.

more from Kaelen Wilson-Goldie at The National here.