BEIRUT: In 1983, Petra Serhal was born – not in a hospital, but at a checkpoint between Beirut and Mount Lebanon. Her parents were fleeing violence in the mountains and while her father was being questioned, her mother went into labor. “During the Civil War, being able to pass checkpoints depended on your sect,” she recalls. “You either passed or got killed. My family passed, but for my mother’s bad luck I decided to leave her womb backwards ... maybe because I sensed that there was a direction problem on that intersection.”
This satirical anecdote is one of the many strands of historical narrative that make up “Nothing to Declare.”
The latest collaborative work by artist Tania El Khoury, architect Abir Saksouk and performer and producer Serhal – who together make up Dictaphone Group – is emblematic of their interests. Dictaphone’s performances, which are usually site-specific, are concerned with breaking down barriers and exploring public space.
“Nothing to Declare,” a touring lecture performance, employs a physical exploration of Lebanon’s defunct train lines as a way to reflect on the physical and metaphorical borders and barriers, both within the country and around it.
The trio performed in Arabic at Ashkal Alwan Wednesday and Thursday, following English-language performances at the Edinburgh Festival last month.
Khoury explains that while the essential fabric of the piece – the physical journey along what’s left of today’s tracks combined with research about the functioning train lines and stations of the past – remains the same, each performance is tailored to the specific audience and locale.
“Nothing to Declare” is arguably more performance than lecture. The research-based project is rich with information, some factual, some anecdotal, about Lebanon’s past and present, but the delivery is far from dry. Imaginative and visually stimulating, the performance juxtaposes pre-recorded film footage with live speech.
Beginning at the abandoned train station in Mar Mikhael, each woman followed a distinct track, El Khoury heading north toward Tripoli, Serhal east into the Bekaa Valley, and Saksouk south toward Naqoura.
Each journey was captured on film. The resulting footage is projected onto a large screen behind the performers, who recount their experiences by turns, in time with the film. At times, all three narrative strands play in unison. Then two freeze, leaving the third to play out alone, accompanied by the relevant performer’s account. Occasionally a single channel will take over the whole screen, three experiences coalescing into a cinematic vista.
The performance area is delimited by an enormous map of Lebanon, laid on the floor in front of the screen. During the course of the performance, the three women gradually fill in inked pathways, marking the three train lines and the defunct stations. Many of these still exist today, whether standing derelict, transformed into bus parks or housing, or used as military bases.
This process gives “Nothing to Declare” a playful, relaxed aspect. Each performer alternates between recounting their experiences, and lounging casually on the paper flooring, scribbling away with felt-tipped pens.
The film footage, much of it hypnotizing shots of the Lebanese landscape sliding horizontally past a car window, is varied and for the most part beautifully shot. Some is filmed using handheld video cameras, some stolen at checkpoints on a spycam. Still other sections are captured via a mobile phone camera, propped unobtrusively on a dashboard.
As the performers recount the number of times each was stopped, questioned and ordered to hand over and delete footage, the challenges involved in what initially appears to be a relatively simple endeavor become clear.
Lebanon’s internal checkpoints come to dominate the narrative, breaking a linear journey into a series of small sections, each punctuated by a potentially fraught encounter with the military, whose attitudes toward the project vary, seemingly arbitrarily.
As each track is traced, poignant stories are uncovered, from when the last train ran along each stretch and the circumstances of this final journey, to what has become of the tracks and stations today. Personal anecdotes and childhood memories are supplemented by reported and enacted encounters with everyone from employees to the people who live on the old tracks today, some nostalgic, others humorous.
Together, these begin to form a multifaceted vision of the uniting role the trains played in linking prewar Lebanon not only to the outside world – now rendered inaccessible by increasingly dangerous borders – but in connecting people within the country to one another.
Sectarian divisions had no bearing on the trains, as Serhal explains. The eastern line ran through Maronite, Druze, Sunni and Shiite villages and towns, carrying passengers from each sect. Unsurprisingly, perhaps, it was this line that was the first to cease functioning. The last time it was used was in 1976, a year after the outbreak of the war.
The Lebanese Railway and Public Transport Authority still exists – a new director was appointed earlier this year – and talk of reviving the railway periodically springs up, before bleeding away to nothing.
Instead, Lebanon’s wealth today is built on real estate, and the 90,000 hectares of land belonging to Railway Authority have been picked away piecemeal by developers or sold off in chunks by corrupt politicians.
As the “ Lebanon on Rails” photography exhibition on show at Solidere’s “The Venue” in Beirut Souks shows, today the railway is for most little more than a turned page in Lebanon’s history – fodder for a quaint, nostalgic museum display.
In “Nothing to Declare” the railway, which ceased to function during the Civil War, becomes a symbol of all that Lebanon lost in the 15-year conflict, and which has yet to be regained.
To find out more visit www.dictaphonegroup.com.