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The Yale Journal of Criticism 15.2 (2002) 393-424

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Beirut Reborn:
The Political Aesthetics of Auto-Destruction

Miriam Cooke


Beirut is photogenic. Always has been. Always will be. Ironically, the Lebanese civil war made it even more so. During the war (1975-1990) and afterwards the urban violence was obsessively photographed and then packaged in increasingly expensive and glossy format. Two books of photographs depicting the generalized violence in the Burj, or "Central District," emblematize key moments in the representation of Beirut at war. While Harb Lubnan (Lebanon's War, 1978) memorializes a moral story at the heart of the war, Beirut City Centre (1992) remembers its traces in order to forget them, to use Barbie Zelizer's haunting terminology. In Women and the War Story (1997), I read Harb Lubnan as a visual, but also moral, framing of the Lebanese War Story. 1 Beirut City Centre tells quite another story, one that defies moralizing and encourages amnesia. Whereas the first was the two-year work of one Lebanese photographer, documenting the first two years of the war that in 1978 seemed to be over, the second compiled images of the incinerated Downtown taken in a ten-day period by six foreign art photographers in November 1991.


The images in Harb Lubnan depict militiamen walking through recognizable, though destroyed, Beirut sites. Those in Beirut City Centre overwhelmingly do not. One photograph titled "The Mar Marun District" depicts two men seated inside a cafe distorted through the glare of the glass. Another image parallels a man in a hair salon poster with three almost identical men staring straight into the camera ready to be shot for another barber's poster. A man and a woman sit in a bombed-out room smoking narguilehs, casually leaning against chairs. This cameo image, "The Cafe de la Paix," looks like a stage set. One of the few candid shots is of a man stretching out his arm to block the camera lens. Some piece together bits of photographs, women smiling happily during a distant summer holiday escapade and now lying torn on the asphalt. Others shoot disembodied hands or masks hanging on a clothesline. The people and pieces of people look as though they have been added to other images to create a montage. [End Page 393]

These photographs are quite unlike the images in the earlier album. Whereas Harb Lubnan presents the perpetrators before, during, and after their acts of violence, in some cases looking complicitously at the photographer, here there are no accusatory looks to compel a moral self-positioning. As for recognizable sites, few who stayed during the war and walked through the ruins immediately after the Downtown was opened up in 1991 can identify the locations of most of the images.

It is not surprising that the pre-war Downtown has been forgotten. During the past twenty five years much has changed in that area. Four images show schematically how the Place des Canons (aka Martyrs' Square) has been transformed. In the beginning was the Downtown of the 1950s and 1960s (see Figure 1). This picture postcard that is still for sale in hotel lobbies today promises a site on a tour. Yet that Place des Canons is long gone. The postcard is a relic. Then came the war. When it was over its traces were recorded for Beirut City Centre by the world's leading photographers, including the Swiss-American Robert Frank (b. 1924), Italian Gabriele Basilico (b. 1944), French-Lebanese Fouad Elkoury (b. 1952) and three Magnum Photographers: Czech Josef Koudelka (b. 1938), Swiss Rene Burri (b. 1933) and the French Raymond Depardon (b. 1942). All except Fouad Elkoury took at least one photograph of the Place des Canons.

Koudelka's Place des Canons, shot through four panels of shattered windowpanes, presents pieces of the destroyed Downtown (see Figure 2). Depardon's Place des Canons is a hot ochre representation of an anonymous wall that at first glance does not appear to be substantially damaged (see Figure 3). As I argue below, Depardon's...


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