Culture

‘Hysterically authentic’

Walid Raad projects the image of a man slightly uncomfortable in his body. It’s a common pose among those delegated to represent larger entities. It is accentuated by Raad’s fondness for the Beirut leisure suit ­ a fashion common among the French-educated intellectuals who frequent the Cafe Modca and the Cafe de Paris.

Raad is the executive director of the New York-based Atlas Group. According to its mission statement, this is a non-profit visual and cultural research foundation established in 1992 to facilitate research on Lebanon. Raad has spoken at a number of Beirut universities and academic conferences and was Atlas’ spokesman this week at the Ayloul Festival.

For the past four years Atlas has devoted its resources to Lebanese history ­ the possibilities and limits of writing what it terms “the histories of the recent Lebanese civil wars.” The project is entitled The Dead Weight of the Quarrel Hangs, a name it shares with the award-winning short film that documents some of the group’s findings.

The centerpiece of this project is the private archive of the eminent Lebanese historian Fadl Fakhouri, donated to the Atlas Group by Fakhouri’s widow. These notebooks, photographs, films and videotapes are a meticulous, if eccentric, document of Lebanon’s civil wars.

Raad shows me Volume 72 of Fakhouri’s notebooks.

“It’s a little-known fact,” he says, “that the major historians of the Lebanese civil wars were avid gamblers. Apparently they met every Sunday at the track ­ Marxists and Islamists bet on races one through seven. Maronite nationalists and socialists on races eight to 15.”

At the top of the page is taped a newspaper clipping of the photo finish, surrounded by notations on the race’s distance and duration, winning times, the historians’ initials and their wagers.

Raad slides his glasses back up the bridge if his nose with his middle finger. “The historians used to stand behind the track photographer, who would record the winning horse crossing the finish line. The historians convinced, or bribed, the photographer to snap only one picture as the winning horse arrived.

“Each historian wagered on precisely when the photographer would expose his frame, on how many fractions of a second before or after the horse crossed the finish line that the film would be exposed.”

I flipped through the notebook, page after page of notes on winning horses, their running times, and the historians’ bets on the track photographer’s reflexes. “Some might say,” I say, “that this tells us more about a few eccentric Lebanese historians than the history they wrote. The facts are the facts. These jokers just wrote them down.”

Raad blinks at me. Then he produces notebook Volume 38. He rifles the pages of the notebook like a tight stack of $50 bills. “This contains 145 cutout photographs of automobiles. They correspond to the exact make, model and color of every car that was used as a car bomb from 1975 to 1990.”

The cars’ lines are sometimes hard to distinguish, obscured by the hasty slashes of scissor blades. Fakhouri has penned Arabic commentaries adjacent each cutout. “The time, date, place, and size of the explosion,” says Raad. “The type of explosive. The model and year of car.”

I ask: “Have you ever had anyone question the authenticity of these documents?”

Raad replies: “People always question the hysterical authenticity of written documents. But as you can see, the notebooks are hysterically authentic.”

“‘Historically authentic’ you mean?” I ask.

“That’s what I said,” he smiles. “But to tell you the truth, Atlas isn’t that interested in the documents’ authenticity.

“Historians are obsessed with authenticity because it assumes that knowing what happened will explain why it happened. As if reason has something to do with human behavior. “Lebanon’s civil wars can’t be reasonably explained. But just because there’s no reason doesn’t mean the wars have no meaning.” He gestures to Volume 38.

“We’re less interested in using these documents to find out who is responsible for the car bombings than in getting people to respond to the memories they evoke.”

My cappuccino arrives. Raad opens another packet of Nescafe for himself. “You realize,” he says, nodding to my coffee, “they still use powdered milk to make those.”

Inquiries can be sent to Atlas Group via wraad@earthlink.net

 

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