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Specially commissioned contributions by guest bloggers

The Revolution within the Revolution: Art and Syria Today

Read the latest post from our guest blogger Aimee Dawson, for a broad overview and initial insight for those wanting to begin to know about art in Syria today:

In 2011, a small piece of graffiti demanding the fall of the Syrian regime instigated a vicious crackdown by the government upon its young perpetrators. This graffiti was arguably one of the catalysts that led to the Syrian Revolution, which has since deteriorated into the now four-year-long civil war. It is somewhat fitting then that today, the cultural and artistic responses in the war-torn country have been described as the only positive development of the conflict. Despite the widespread devastation – which has seen over 230,000 people killed, more than 4 million fleeing as refugees, and almost 8 million internally displaced[1] – Syrians have been responding to and documenting their crisis creatively, taking advantage of greater freedom of expression of an essentially collapsed state (compared to the fierce censorship that reigned during Assad’s unchallenged rule). That is not to say that artists are free from the repercussions of their work – many artists have been forced out of work, threatened, beaten, imprisoned, forced to leave the country or, in some cases, killed[2]. In spite of the danger, and beyond the sounds of shelling and bombardments that try to drown them out, many artists both inside and outside the country continue to battle against tyranny to make their voices, and those of the Syrian people, heard.

Screen Shot 2015-10-28 at 12.08.02

‘Bring down Bashar’ graffiti. Courtesy Jan Sefti, https://www.flickr.com/photos/8605011@N02/5614565122

Throwing out the rulebook

Marginal forms of artistic practice are taking on new agency in Syria; the boundary between art, politics and active citizenship is becoming increasingly fluid; and the Internet is providing a platform for expression and dissemination. Popularised art forms include graffiti, community interventions, graphic design, cartoons, comics and puppetry. These forms of visual communication work seamlessly alongside acts of protest and resistance – they are quick, simple and impactful, and carry the message of dissent.

Ali Ferzat is one of Syria’s best-known political cartoonists and has been publishing subtly subversive cartoons for decades in state-run newspapers such as Al Thawra (The Revolution). Since 2011, Ferzat’s cartoons have become less symbolic and more blatant in their derision of the state. A (likely government-organised) attack, in which he was beaten and both of his hands were broken, lead him to flee to Kuwait. He continues to produce images, whilst many more cartoonists and comic artists have risen to prominence. Comic4Syria are a group of artists who publish comics on their Facebook page that respond to the brutality of state-sponsored groups and tell everyday stories of resistance. Their comic strips act as a vent for the frustrations of the local public and offers insight for foreign audiences, for whom they write in English, into the conflict on the ground.

Comic4Syria – Chase. https://informationactivism.org/en/stories/minnesotascreening

Comic4Syria – Chase. https://informationactivism.org/en/stories/minnesotascreening

Increasingly, online platforms and social media have played a large role in making such art visible, which, considering the rapidly displaced population and growth of international solidarity, is an important tool for Syrian resistance. Many groups and collectives are using the Internet to disseminate their works and create a virtual community of support. Groups such as the Alshaab alsori aref tarekh (The Syrian People Know Their Way) collective produce striking posters and banners that can be downloaded and printed from social media sites to be used anywhere in the world[3], and which were employed heavily in protests throughout Syria in 2011. Another initiative, Art and Freedom (arte.liberte.syrie), uses a Facebook page as a symbolic artistic space for solidarity, allowing artists to post their work online in exchange for signing their names to show their support for the revolution.

Satire: dark humour for dark times

Alongside these artistic forms, satire emerges as one of the central threads running through the art being produced in and about Syria today[4]. Satire and mockery have long been a part of the cultural creativity in the country, as can be seen in the poems and plays of Mohammed Al-Maghout in the 1970s[5] and Ali Ferzat’s early anti-regime cartoons. One anonymous Syrian communication expert argues that the success and potency of satire in art lies in its ability to catch the regime and military off-guard: ‘They know how to play when arms are involved, but do not know how to react to mash-ups, parodies and irony’[6]. For the artists and citizens themselves, such art also acts as a reprise from the horrors and atrocities of daily life and as a space where people can feel a sense of control and autonomy. A member of Masasit Mati also argues that people need to ‘laugh and enjoy things’ in order to exist and that this retained sense of humour by the Syrians ‘shows us their strength and their determination to not just see themselves as victims’[7].

Top Goon puppets, by Masasit Mati. http://www.masasitmati.org

Top Goon puppets, by Masasit Mati. http://www.masasitmati.org

Masasit Mati is an anonymous art collective who use puppetry to ridicule both state and oppositional groups, which has risen to prominence as one of the most internationally popular creative enterprises to come out of the Syrian Revolution. The collective, who use the traditional Syrian art of puppetry, have now released three series of their satirical puppet videos Top Goon and have been viewed by thousands on their Facebook and YouTube sites. In 2013, the group took to the Syrian streets to bring puppetry back to the people, saying that despite the importance of the Internet in their art and message, they don’t want to be disconnected from the public on the ground. Unfortunately, increased shelling and attacks have forced them back into the confines of the digital world.

Satire has also taken on a performative guise in protests that adopt artistic elements. Such interventions include an incident where the seven main fountains of Damascus were dyed red, to represent the state’s killing of thousands of civilians. One of the fountains is located directly in front of Syria’s intelligence service headquarters; the dramatic red water symbolised both the state’s cruelty and their weakness, despite their military power, to prevent such actions.

Red fountains in Damascus. http://www.everydayrebellion.net/blood-fountains-against-the-civil-war-2/

Red fountains in Damascus. http://www.everydayrebellion.net/blood-fountains-against-the-civil-war-2/

Similarly, activist Ahmed Zaino released hundreds of ping-pong balls featuring the word hurriyah (Arabic for ‘freedom’) into the streets of Damascus, after which security forces helplessly chased, with some balls rolling into the grounds of Bashar al-Assad’s palace[8]. At times when the security forces attempted to prevent such interventions, artists and activists have responded imaginatively – when regime checkpoints prevented people from demonstrating around the infamous Clock Tower Square in Homs, people created their own miniature clock towers and protested around them instead.[9] These acts of creative subversion construct a physical space that the protestors can inhabit as well as highlighting glimmers of state weakness and futility.

The artistic production coming from and about Syria is monumental in all meanings of the word – in quantity, scope, and form but also in courage and resilience. The cultural outpouring since the 2011 revolution has created a legacy that cannot be erased as easily as the bombed-out cities and contested territories of Syria itself. What started as a political revolution has created a cultural revolution of sorts – a space that allows for greater freedom of expression and an urgent and constant topic of inspiration.

For more information on the arts and culture of Syria see: Syria Speaks: Art and Culture from the Frontline, eds. Malu Halasa, Zaher Omareen and Nawara Mahfoud (London: Saqi Books, 2014).

Aimee Dawson is a London-based writer and blogger on contemporary art from the Middle East and North Africa. She studied Arabic and Middle East Studies at the University of Exeter and spent a year living and studying in Cairo and Fez. She was the writer-in-residence for Shubbak Festival 2015, is a guest blogger for Nour Festival of Arts 2015, is the Editorial Assistant at Ibraaz.org, and the Editorial Intern at The Arts Newspaper. She has recently completed her Masters in Contemporary Art and Art Theory of Asia and Africa at the School of Oriental and African Studies, London. @amldawson

[1] ‘Syria’s Artists: Between Freedom and Tyranny’, The Syrian Observer, 24 June 2015, http://syrianobserver.com/EN/Features/29391/Syria_Artists_Between_Freedom_Tyranny
[2] Ibid.
[3] Malu Halasa, ‘Art of Resistance’, Index on Censorship, September 2012, 41:3, pp. 141-152.
[4] Malu Halasa (ed.), Culture in Definance: Continuing Traditions of Satire, Art, and the Struggle for Freedom in Syria (Amsterdam: Prince Claus Fund Gallery, 2012), http://www.princeclausfund.org/files/docs/2012%20Culture%20in%20Defiance.pdf
[5] Eyad N. Al-Samman, ‘Mohammed Ahmed Al-Maghout, the Syrian poet with a satiric pen’, The Yemen Times, 2009 http://www.arabworldbooks.com/Readers2009/articles/maghut_alsamman.htm
[6] Donatella Della Ratta, ‘Irony, Satire, and Humor in the Battle for Syria’, Muftah, 23 February 2012, http://muftah.org/irony-satire-and-humor-in-the-battle-for-syria/#.Vic8XxArJ0t
[7] Aimee Dawson, ‘Holding up a Mirror to the International Community: An Interview with Masasit Mati of Top Goon’, Shubbak Festival blog, 15 July 2015, http://www.shubbak.co.uk/holding-up-a-mirror-to-the-international-community-an-interview-with-massasit-mati-of-top-goon/
[8] ‘Syrian Activist Ahmed Fights With Ping Pong Balls’, Everyday Rebellion, http://www.everydayrebellion.net/tag/ahmed-zaino/
[9] Syria Speaks: Art and Culture from the Frontline, eds. Malu Halasa, Zaher Omareen and Nawara Mahfoud (London: Saqi Books, 2014).

Destruction and Creativity: ISIS, Artefacts and Art in the Middle East

Widespread outrage. National and international mourning. History redefined. These are the terms used to describe the destruction caused by Islamic State of Iraq and al-Shams (ISIS) who, since bursting into the international limelight by capturing Mosul in June 2014, have made acts of iconoclasm – the purposeful destruction and defacement of art and artefacts – key to their strategy of inducing fear, exerting power, and garnering support. The Temple of Baalshamin and the funeral towers in Palmyra, which both date back almost 2,000 years, are the latest targets in ISIS’s increasingly widespread and rapidly growing attack on history that now includes ancient sites in Nimrud, Hatra and Mosul in Iraq and Aleppo and Palmyra in Syria. These acts are constantly discussed in terms of Islamic fundamentalism and the ultimate loss and waste of human history– but is there more to iconoclasm than these reductionist portrayals?

Mideast Iraq Islamic State

ISIS destroying artefacts in Mosul Museum. www.theguardian.com

ISIS, Iconoclasm and the Media

Since June 2014, ISIS’s iconoclastic rampages have become regular features of news articles and broadcasts. But beyond this current media frenzy is a legacy of mediatisation of such iconoclasm. Another infamous example that garnered similar global outrage and attention was the Taliban’s destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas in Afghanistan in 2001. The Financial Times has also created a portfolio of recent iconoclasm, entitled ‘Artefacts Under Attack’, on their website covering Islamic extremist groups that have destroyed objects in Iraq, Syria, Mali, Egypt, Afghanistan and Libya. This mediatisation of the iconoclasm performed by ISIS and other Islamist groups has created an association that presents such destruction as inextricably linked to Islam, and vice versa. The lack of media coverage of any other form of iconoclasm, or any other brand of perpetrator or motive other than Islamic fundamentalism, further solidifies this association.

This presentation by the media misrepresents iconoclasm – it is not a purely Islamic, or religious, practice and it is not a new phenomenon. In fact, iconoclasm can be found in cultures across the world and throughout all time periods – even in the UK. The pervasiveness of iconoclasm as a practice lies in its signification: It is a symbolic visualisation of a challenge to or change of power. This was captured brilliantly in the Tate’s exhibition Art Under Attack (2013–2014), which showed the remains or documentation of iconoclastic acts in Britain or by the British, ranging from the 16th Century to today. The show included religiously inspired attacks on objects, such as during the Protestant Reformation; politically and socially motivated attacks such as those conducted by British Suffragettes; and contemporary iconoclastic acts that sought to challenge post-modern aesthetics.

Creativity Born from Destruction – Contemporary Responses to Iconoclasm

Whilst iconoclasm is understandably distressing and should be discouraged and prevented wherever possible, there is another side to such destruction. As renowned visual culture theorist W.J.T. Mitchell explains: “Iconoclasm is more than just the destruction of images; it is a ‘creative destruction’.” By this, Mitchell is discussing the layers of meaning that are added to an object each time it is modified in any way – even if that modification is destructive. But there is yet more creativity to be found in the inspirational qualities of iconoclastic practice – after declaring outrage and even experiencing a phase of mourning, people have an overwhelming desire to produce material responses. Artists are drawn to the destructive practices of iconoclasm both in terms of materiality and conceptuality. For some, their creativity is an act of memory, preservation and positive production; an act of nostalgia, mourning and a filling of a void; or an act of determination and defiance in the face of hostility and threat: more often than not it is a combination of all three and more besides.

Creative responses to destruction in the Middle East abound in the art world and, in particular, new technologies are rapidly becoming integral to such reflections. One of the most recent examples, which was well documented in the media, is the Bamiyan Buddha hologram created by Chinese couple Janson Yu and Liyan Hu in June 2015. The pair created and self-funded a projector at a reported cost of $120,000, travelled to Bamiyan to show the hologram, and then gifted the device to the Afghani government for future audiences to enjoy. This project went some way to restoring cultural patrimony and filling the physical, emotional and symbolic void left by the Taliban’s destruction.

Bamiyan Buddha hologram www.ibtimes.co.uk

Bamiyan Buddha hologram www.ibtimes.co.uk

Another example is Project Mosul who, in response to the iconoclastic acts of ISIS, are using virtual 3D modelling to recreate artefacts destroyed in Syria and Iraq. Project Mosul, a volunteer initiative based in 10 different European cities, is using crowd-funded images to create virtual 3D models of destroyed Iraqi artefacts in the hope of creating an online museum accessible to all. This method of recreation has also been taken up by The Institute for Digital Archaeology, a joint venture between Harvard and Oxford Universities, which is sending thousands of 3D digital cameras to parts of the Middle East where buildings and artefacts are considered ‘high-risk’ so that locals can capture their visual details. Such efforts bring back a sense of agency to those whose heritage is being destroyed and helps keep the objects and their meanings alive.

Project Mosul's online 3D gallery

Project Mosul’s online 3D gallery

Iranian-born artist Morehshin Allahyari is also utilising new technologies, choosing to reproduce artefacts destroyed by ISIS through 3D printing. Her project Material Speculation: ISIS (2015) has involved extensive meticulous research into the destroyed objects, which she found to be heavily under-documented, and then producing the resin copies based on the information she uncovered. Her work is particularly interesting due to the combination of the virtual and the physical – each of her 3D printed sculptures holds a USB drive and memory card containing images, maps, PDF files, and videos from her research into the object. For Allahyari’s replicas it is almost as if the objects themselves have a memory built in and her work is a clear response to a widely-held desire to make historical objects somehow ‘future proof’ – to remove the possibility for forces such as ISIS to wipe out historical narratives and differing views, consolidating their power.


Material Speculation: ISIS (2015), King Uthal and Lamassu


Material Speculation: ISIS (2015), King Uthal and Lamassu

These examples of contemporary art inspired by iconoclastic acts show how iconoclasm is part of a process of visual development. Beyond the horrors of destruction, artistic reflection on iconoclasm is developing our understanding of what art is, its purpose, and how it can ultimately further our understanding of collective memory, history and society. In this way, artists are performing important roles as archivists, mediators, and producers in the contentious act of iconoclasm. Innovative technologies, such as 3D printing, holograms and 3D virtual imagery are increasingly featured in contemporary art and bring new propositions and capabilities in the reinterpretation of destroyed artefacts and images. Whilst the future of historic Middle Eastern images and artefacts is uncertain, and new acts of destruction can be found in the news on an almost daily basis, it can be of some comfort to know that iconoclasm is inspiring new creativity and understanding for our contemporary world.

This blog post is based on a wider research project conducted for Aimee’s MA on Contemporary Art of the Middle East at the School of Oriental and African Studies, London.

Previous Mosaic Rooms events relevant to this subject include: Recorded Lecture: My House in Damascus

Aimee Dawson is a London-based writer and blogger on contemporary art from the Middle East and North Africa. She studied Arabic and Middle East Studies at the University of Exeter and spent a year living and studying in Cairo and Fez. She was the writer-in-residence for Shubbak Festival 2015, is a guest blogger for Nour Festival of Arts 2015, and is the Editorial Assistant at Ibraaz.org. She has recently completed her Masters in Contemporary Art and Art Theory of Asia and Africa at the School of Oriental and African Studies, London.


Atef Abu Saif: Life and Death in the Gaza Strip, Part II

© A.M. Qattan Foundation

© A.M. Qattan Foundation

Thursday, July 31

Last night was the calmest since the start of the war. We heard very few bombs, and saw only the occasional flash or surveillance balloon in the sky. Except for one enormous, deafening boom at the end of the night, nothing worried us. The focus of the onslaught might have moved to other areas of the Strip, Rafah perhaps.

We slept as we hadn’t slept in a month. The electricity came on just before 11 p.m., so we had the pleasure of watching TV for a few hours. We watched a movie, then all fell asleep together. We started the night scared, as always, imagining the shells hitting us directly, cutting us all to shreds. I was looking at my legs, as I had the night before, imagining them and the limbs of my children chopped up and mixed up, like meat. Amid these familiar thoughts, I fell asleep.

Many buildings have completely disappeared, as if a designer somewhere had Photoshopped them out of the picture.

When I wake up I don’t want to listen to the radio or phone a friend to ask about the latest developments. I want the morning to be like a normal morning, before the war. To start my day with a cup of coffee, to sip it in private for an hour. To look down from my window and watch the people in the street, to feel the pulse of the city around me.

I suggest to Hanna that we have a proper breakfast: hummus, foul, falafel. But after an hour of visiting all the restaurants in the neighborhood, my son Mostafa returns with the news that falafel can no longer be bought in Jabaliya camp. My father-in-law explains that this might be because falafel requires a lot of boiled oil, which in turn requires lots of gas. As there is still no clue when the war might end, everyone is saving every gas cylinder they have. Hanna suggests that the lack of parsley in the market might be another cause; parsley is essential for making good falafel.

My mother-in-law is watering her plants despite the shortage of water in the tanks. She keeps her plants in the living room in different pots arranged around the room. They make the house calmer, greener. There are 13 kinds of plants in this garden. Every morning she waters them and checks each leaf, remembers each one, and notices whenever a new leaf buds into life. She knows their length and their sheen. She always finds water for them.

A minute later she is complaining that our oldest child, Talal, is taking too much time in the shower. She finishes watering her plants and starts shouting at Talal to finish. From behind the door, he explains that he has only just started. She asks him to get out. It is enough to spend five minutes under the shower. Soon her plants are appreciating the water soaking into the soil around their roots.

I shave. The bathroom is very dark. The light coming from the little window is too feeble to shave in. I turn on the flashlight, and start shaving one-handed, shining the light at my jaw with the other hand. A Gaza TV journalist phones, making sure I will be ready in 30 minutes for an interview — they’re going to send me a taxi. After 10 minutes he calls to apologize that the taxi company has refused to send taxis to Jabaliya. They’re afraid their cars will be hit; Jabaliya is now a no-go zone.

I phone my friend Aed to ask about this. He confirms that he, too, has passed a very calm night, and he slept well. Aed has moved from his place on the north beach to his sister’s house in the quarter of Gaza City called Al Nasser. He asks me about Berri, the waiter at the Karawan Cafe — the most famous cafe waiter in Gaza. He is the best. “Is it open?” he asks, about the cafe. We decide to meet up and check. If not, we will look for another place to spend the morning. We have to recapture some normality, to reclaim some of the life we had before

In the evening, I meet Aed and suggest we try to find a restaurant somewhere that’s still serving falafel. But everywhere seems closed. Eventually, we try one called Akila, on Al-Wahda Street. It’s open and we both tuck in joyfully. Afterward we drive into the city, and try to take in the destruction on all sides. Broken glass seems to cover every square foot of the city. Few cars pass. Shops remain closed.

Many buildings have completely disappeared, as if a designer somewhere had Photoshopped them out of the picture — the designer being an F-16 pilot, a drone operator, a soldier in a tank.

Unfortunately the Karawan Cafe is closed, and Ranoosh Cafe likewise. There is no place to smoke a water pipe. Aed suggests that we take cold drinks and ice cream and go to our friend Salim’s house nearby. I find a shop, near Salim’s, where I can buy two bottles of cold water and two Cokes. The building opposite Salim’s has been completely destroyed. He hasn’t had water himself for two days. When we arrive he is working with other inhabitants in the building trying to fix the problem.

Salim’s building doesn’t have electricity; however, the building at the end of the street has its own generator. Salim and his neighbors have persuaded the occupants of the building on the end to run a line to theirs, just for a couple of hours, so they can pump water up to the tanks. But their attempts have so far failed as the line doesn’t seem to be connecting properly, or has some kind of break in it. Salim’s 70-year-old mother is fretting that the problem will never be fixed. It isn’t until 8 p.m. that the current is connected.

We eat ice cream, drink the Coke and smoke a water pipe, listening to the sound of the water tank slowly filling. We chat for a couple of hours, and then I leave him thinking about how to ration the water when the tank is full.

On my way back, I see people queuing in the hundreds to buy bread. Then the bombing starts up again and I rush back to Jabaliya. Hanna has been back to our flat to gather fresh clothes. The moment she got there, she tells me, an F-16 struck the building next to it — one surrounded by a small, beautiful orange orchard — destroying both.

Friday, Aug. 1

At the school next door to my father-in-law’s house, a United Nations organizer tells everyone that a three-day truce has been declared, starting from this morning, and the hope is that it will become permanent. He is not clear whether people should go back to their homes.

My kids are arguing with their mother about the usual: permission to go and play with their friends in the PlayStation shop near their grandfather’s house. In their eyes, there is no point in worrying. It is the longest break in the fighting so far, and people are starting to do all kinds of things once more.

On television, we hear of a Palestinian representative who has traveled to Cairo to negotiate the conditions of the cease-fire with the Egyptian government. My mother-in-law asks me, “Do you think they’ll come to an agreement?”

“I hope so,” I reply. She is not happy with my answer. She needs a definite answer. The war must end soon, she concludes, before it becomes a permanent component of our daily lives. When she hears the sound of the door closing behind the kids, she asks Hanna if she is sure it’s safe for them to go. Hanna is not convinced, I know, but says, “Of course.”

From the window of the living room I see hordes of people leaving the school opposite, heading north, west and east back toward their homes. Some have elected to stay, to “wait and see.” And many families have decided to divide in two; half going home to see if things are safe, to check on the house or the farm, the other half (including the children, of course) remaining in the school, should the first half fail to return.

It’s the same logic my friend Faraj is using when he distributes his family every night among different rooms of the house. His family of seven sleeps in three rooms. If a shell lands on one room, other members of the family will survive.

Yesterday, a farmer from the Sheikh Ejleen area, south of Gaza City, explained to me how he sneaked with his family back to the farm each morning at 6, to pick cucumbers, tomatoes, figs and grapes. The farmland is right beside the beach, and they work the fields in the early hours while the warships send missiles over their heads, toward the city. The grapes you get from Sheikh Ejleen are the best grapes you’re ever likely to taste.

Last night was one of the most violent of the war so far. Shells and rockets fell all through the small hours. Each night you become convinced the explosions are getting closer and closer, even if your rational brain knows they can’t always be. One of the rhythms of this war we’ve gotten used to is that particularly bad nights are usually followed by a truce, or an attempted truce. So it was a prerequisite that last night would be bad, being the eve of a three-day cease-fire.

It’s now 2 p.m. and my father-in-law is telling me the truce has just broken down. More than 70 people have been killed in Rafah. Hanna phones our oldest boys, Talal and Mostafa, on their cellphones asking them to return immediately.

“But the truce!” they argue.

“There is no truce.”

Saturday, Aug. 2

My throat hurts. It’s excruciatingly dry, and the discomfort has been joined by a pain in my chest and a weakness all over my body. When the sore throat started, Sarif, the pharmacist, told me it was probably sensitivity to all the concrete dust and smoke hanging in the city air.

Sarif is the owner of the Balsam Pharmacy. It is the oldest pharmacy in the camp, a business he inherited from his father. When I asked him two days ago, he assured me that my sore throat was normal given the amount of dust in the air, and told me not to worry. Hanna passed his pharmacy yesterday afternoon, and informed him that my pain was still as bad as ever. He gave her more medicine, which he promised would fix it. Yesterday morning, I could barely get out of bed, I felt so weak. So Hanna gave me the medicine in bed. Only at 3 p.m. did I get up and have something to eat.

My father-in-law informs me that the Israeli army might withdraw from one side of Beit Lahiya tonight. I had felt so sick during the night I wasn’t aware of what was happening. This is one of the miracles of falling sick in the time of war: Sleeping soundly and not noticing or caring about the world as it falls apart around you. That was how I passed last night, in pain but carefree.

But this afternoon I feel a bit more human. So there’s lots of news to catch up on.

My mother-in-law starts by lamenting the misfortune of her nieces, who had to spend the night on the street because of a drone attack. After the first rocket fell in the middle of the night, they fled into the street. They were lucky to be already awake when the first one struck; otherwise, they would not have been able to move fast enough to avoid the second, which hit the room they were in. They picked up their kids and ran. Now my mother-in-law’s brother is hosting some six families at his place, a total guest list of over 100! His house is beginning to resemble one of the United Nations schools.

The main mosque in the center of the camp was hit as well. The muezzin can no longer be heard. People avoid walking anywhere near the mosque now. In the old days, this was the only mosque in the camp. When I was a child I would pray there. It means many things to me; it’s central to my childhood memories and the person I was.

More than a hundred were killed in Rafah last night. This simple town on the border with Egypt, which has been quiet for most of the war, has suddenly become the center of a new wave of attacks. Israel has accused Palestinian soldiers there of capturing a soldier after a battle in which two other Israeli soldiers were killed. The Palestinians denied these accusations, so Israel broke the three-day truce and declared a whole new war on Rafah until the soldier was found. (It turned out he’d been killed in combat.)

Israel has been using local radio channels, hacking into the wavelength, to deliver its messages to Gazans. In the middle of listening to music at my friend Wafi’s house, we hear the broadcast cut short suddenly and the voice of an Israeli general threatening the people of Rafah. Any person walking in the street, any person driving a car will be hit. After the airwaves are given back to the station, we hear a flurry of new reports, including the head of a hospital in Rafah explaining that Israeli shells forced them to evacuate the hospital.

I can hear the sound of my kids playing cards with their grandmother in the next room. She has not felt calm for over a month. Nobody fears war more than she does. And yet she always manages to keep her composure. She is enjoying playing with the kids, despite the cries from little Jaffa.

It would seem that I have acquired a new job title: administrator of the Internet cafe. I spend more than an hour a day using the main, administrative computer in the cafe next to my father’s house. Power comes randomly — sometimes nothing for four days, sometimes only an hour in the middle of the day. I seem to have adjusted to this arbitrary pattern better than most, and have refined the timing of my arrival at the cafe through instinct and intuition.

Each day I’m there and ready, when it comes on, to check my emails, file my writing, and then, if I can, read the newspapers online. The manager of the cafe is very understanding and lets me use his main computer. In return I have to organize his online timetable for the use of other computers in the cafe.

For one shekel, customers can get online for 35 minutes. I have to go to the prepaid box and add their time. Some people prefer an open-ended slot. I simply need to double-click the box that marks that particular computer. I acquire little skills all the time. Customers shout out their requests to start or terminate a session from the front of the cafe, and I click the appropriate box accordingly, and carry on with my work. I have become an Internet cafe boy! The owner uses a huge generator. Most in the neighborhood bring their laptops, flashlights, cellphones to charge from there.

Hanna said that the first thing she wants to do when the war is finished is to go and see the damage in Beit Hanoun and Shujaya. The kids are screaming they want their iPads fixed. I just want to breathe clean air.

Sunday, Aug. 3

It’s an endless game. Nothing but a game. Last night, Israel announced the termination of its operations in some areas. But tonight four people from one family have been killed and others injured while asleep in a house that they fled to in my father’s district. Death followed them from Beit Hanoun, where they had lived peacefully for so many years, and tracked them down in Jabaliya. The rocket struck the very center of the house, bringing the whole block down with it. Concrete, shrapnel, bricks, great twists of iron, shards of glass — all collapsed into the same hole — announcing the end of this family.

The electricity comes on at about 1:30 a.m. Everyone in the house jumps from their beds. This is now a regular custom. All the kids plug in their cellphones to charge them. I plug in my laptop. My father-in-law checks to see if the water tank is empty. If it is, he has to turn the water pump on to fill the tank on the roof. Tonight is one of the few occasions when both the water supply and the electricity are working at the same time. Water is the only thing that can awaken my father-in-law from a deep slumber. It is his only obsession. In other times, when there was only water and no electricity, he would fill every spare bottle or pot with water so that we had reserves for when the tank was empty. For a couple of hours, he watches and checks on the tank’s levels. My mother-in-law starts washing all the clothes. Everybody tries to make the best of the electricity before it goes off again. We know we have two hours at most.

At the beginning of the war, in the first days of July, you thought this would be for only a few days more. After the first week passed, you told yourself one more week, just one more. Two weeks in, I told my wife Hanna, “Don’t worry, a few days, no more.” You keep shifting your guesses forward and before you know it you’re talking months, and war still looks young and lively. It’s not going anywhere. We may not have many days left, but the war has got plenty of life still in it.

Despite the Israeli army’s announcement that the people of Beit Lahiya and the Bedouin village should return to their homes, most of them don’t return.

Jabaliya has become impossibly overcrowded since displaced people from the northern parts of the Gaza Strip arrived. Every house in the camp is currently hosting three or four families. Thousands of people wander in the streets, their trauma palpable. Some have been blinded, some are having difficulty breathing, some look lost in a kind of trance, some tremble and shake with every step. All of them offer a picture of the catastrophe.

Another funeral passes in the street below. The bodies of three victims are carried on stretchers. You can see from the outline of the flags stretched over them that these aren’t bodies, these are body parts. Slogans are shouted angrily. Then the shouts are swallowed by silence, and all you can feel is pain behind the silence.

While playing in the living room, the kids have broken one of the pots their grandmother keeps her plants in. They were running after each other when one of them threw a pillow at the other and hit the pot. This is the most devastating thing that can happen, from their grandmother’s point of view. The children fall silent, as she moves sadly to fix her plant, which has been uprooted. I say, “It is very young. Not to worry. It’ll be O.K.” She does not reply. She is too busy undoing the wrong.

The hum of drones has returned, I can hear them hovering over our heads, choosing their next prey. It’s very hot. Jaffa is crying. My mother-in-law warns the kids not to touch her blessed plants. I write an essay that starts with the words “We are O.K. in Gaza.” But it’s a lie, we are never O.K. Nonetheless, hope is what you have even at the worst of times. It is the only thing that can’t be stripped from you. The moment you give it up you lose the most precious thing that nature and your humanity have endowed you with. Hope is your only weapon.

These diary entries were first published in the New York Times Times on 4 August, 2014.

Atef Abu Saif: Life and Death in the Gaza Strip, Part I


© A.M. Qattan Foundation

© A.M. Qattan Foundation

Sunday, July 27

For the last two hours we’ve heard nothing but sonic booms and the sound of rockets and mortars. Shells have fallen on our street a few hundred yards from my father-in-law’s house, where my wife and I, and our five kids, are staying, and on the street behind us.

My wife, Hanna, is arguing with the kids over what to buy to celebrate Eid, the holiday that marks the end of Ramadan. She has forbidden them to go to the grocery store, and she’s adamant that they won’t visit the Internet cafes or the PlayStation shop near my father’s place. They don’t understand the impossibility of shopping at a time of war.

Last night, we all became convinced that the tank fire would soon reach the Jabaliya refugee settlement, where our families live. All night long the tanks fired on the eastern side of the camp. The buildings on our street creaked and lurched, as if about to fall. Everything shifts with each strike. It’s as if you’re an extra in a disaster movie.

I jump to the window. A funeral is passing in the street below. A corpse covered by a blanket is carried on a stretcher on the shoulders of mourners. Some are shouting in anger. The funeral enters the cemetery, and the sound of the mourners fades like a cry in a dream. I count fewer than 20 mourners. During the first intifada (1987-91), when somebody was killed by the Israeli army, the whole camp would turn out to pay its respects. Now there are so many strikes in the middle of the day, so many Israeli drones patrolling the streets, that few mourners are prepared to take the risk.

Last night we all received a recorded message on our cellphones from the Israeli army, warning the people of Jabaliya, Beit Lahiya and Beit Hanoun that attacks on their homes were likely and advising people to leave. To where? I wondered.

As I do every night, I head down a street that houses one of the United Nations schools that’s acting as a refugee center. I presume this street is safer than the others. The army wouldn’t hesitate to attack one of these schools — they’ve hit several in the last three weeks, most recently in Beit Hanoun. But in mad times, you develop your own logic for survival.

Suddenly, electricity lights up the entire neighborhood. This burst of light can often be a false dawn, but this time it stays. After more than 80 hours, electricity has finally returned. Back home, the family has already decided to stay up tonight, and use the electricity that they’ve all missed so much. Hanna says we shouldn’t watch the news or anything related to the war.

We watch a television drama for 30 minutes or so — Ramadan is the month of drama on Arab television, and Hanna wants to find out what happens to her favorite characters, even though she’s missed most of the series — before the explosions make it impossible to follow the dialogue. I suggest turning over to a local channel to find out what’s happening. Hanna refuses. She says she’s fed up with the sight of corpses and rubble. Finally, she storms into another room.

There’s an influx of newly displaced people coming down the street to the school opposite us. The murmur of their conversations and the cries of their children are audible from my window. They stream past us into the school. These schools are already full, of course. There isn’t room for a single new refugee, let alone hundreds. The man in the United Nations school uses a bullhorn to ask the occupants to try to make room. Ultimately, they have to.

I listen to their stories from my window. The light from missile attacks covers the sky. For a moment the whole neighborhood is illuminated.

We sleep in the corridor of the house, near the stairs. It’s safer there. Once the kids are settled they quickly drop off. Then a bomb strikes nearby and they’re awake again, terrified. Little Jaffa, our youngest, is screaming. But, amazingly, they fall asleep again very quickly afterward.

I lie awake till past 6 a.m., throwing my head down on the pillow in various positions, with no success. The light from bombs comes into the corridor, and stares at me. When I try to close my eyes the light still shines through my eyelids.

Mercifully, it is the sound of Jaffa that wakes me around 10 — the sound of a game she’s playing on my cellphone, a game she plays every morning.

Monday, July 28

Today is Eid. After a month of fasting, Eid is a sigh of relief. The kids get up early, awakened by the hymns and chanting from the minarets of the surrounding mosques, while the sun is still struggling to get out of bed in the east. Normally, at Eid the kids play in the streets, excited by the pocket money from their parents. Eid is what every child waits for all year.

Last night, we all spent about two hours debating what kind of Eid we were going to have. The kids all wanted to celebrate Eid as it should be. This means buying them new clothes, having their hair cut (even if they had it cut just a week before), letting them blow their pocket money on toys and sweets. “It’s Eid!” they insist. “It’s Eid!” That’s their logic. Our argument, Hanna’s and mine, is that there are many children who lost their parents and cannot celebrate Eid this evening, and it would be very upsetting for them to see other children celebrating Eid, while they cannot. What about the displaced people camping in the schools, we say, who don’t have anywhere to live anymore?

Our arguments are falling on deaf ears. I succumb to the pressure and agree to buy them one new piece of clothing each, maybe a haircut. But no sweets, no toys.

Last night, I spent three hours walking through the market. There was a rumor about an extended truce, another 24 hours. Nobody has any real information. The conclusion you come to is that Gazans no longer care if a truce has been declared or not. They will have their own truce on Eid.

Yesterday the market was full of people, mainly buying clothes. A few shops were open selling sweets and chocolates. I could hardly move, it was so packed. I tried to buy the dried, salty fish you’re supposed to have on the morning of Eid. The fish is dried and stuffed with salt months before. You fry it and cook tomatoes in the oil left over from the fish. After a month of fasting you need a salty meal to encourage you to start drinking water again frequently. The key to everything is how you cook the fish. That’s the secret.

We fry the fish this morning, but we have no bread to eat it with. The electricity is out again. Everything in the fridge has to be thrown out: meat, chicken, even vegetables. My father-in-law agrees to set off on his bike to the bakery in the center of the camp. Luckily it’s open, and he returns, after less than one hour in line, laden with warm loaves.

I want to wash death clean off me, I want to remove any sign that it might leave on my body. I use every type of soap and shampoo I can find, all five of them.

I haven’t drunk cold water for three days. The larger supermarkets have their own generators, but they don’t waste the power on cold drinks. My friend Faraj told me that another friend, Wafi, had brought some ice from relatives living in an area that still had electricity. He gave Faraj some. I asked him if he could spare me some for a glass of water.

Quarrels broke out last night in the market. Displaced persons from Beit Hanoun felt that the shops selling sweets and chocolates were being insensitive. Shouts were heard, punches thrown. No one was badly injured. We managed to separate the aggressors on both sides and get them to explain their position on the matter. We kept repeating a common greeting — “Thank God Eid came while you are safe” — to remind them of how lucky they were.

Tuesday, July 29

To see death — to touch it with still-living flesh, to smell its saliva, to feel it in your hands, around you, on every corner of the street. To witness its brutality, its vulgarity, its mercilessness. To watch as bodies are scattered about in piles in front of you, like discarded exam papers at the end of a school term. One leg here, one arm there, an eye, a severed head, fingers, hair, intestines.

We are having lunch. We have barely started, when the sound of the tanks’ mortars thunders through the house. I jump to the window, convinced that the tank is next door. It’s actually 75 yards away. I catch the flash of a second missile just as it lands and watch the first billows of smoke rising above the rooftops. The targeted house is right beside the mosque my father-in-law has just gone to pray in. I run there, forgetting that the shelling is still going on.

When I get there, the mosque, mysteriously, is closed and appears unscathed. Then, along with everyone else on the street, I turn toward the targeted house. The building has been devastated. Men are already busy collecting pieces of meat that have become separated from the bodies lying all around us. I see scattered organs, severed limbs. I have to pick them up. I touch them. We manage to gather five corpses, place them on sheets and carry them to some of the private cars that have arrived to offer help.

An F-16 comes in close again, booming above us, terrifying us all over again. Several women from the surrounding neighborhood have barely been able to drag their children off the street, after the first attack. Another explosion. It seems the F-16 has come back for more. We run like the wind in the fields. There are about a hundred of us. There are women running alongside me as well as men, holding on to their clothes and their head scarves as they run, running as fast as the rest of us. The kids are crying, trying to keep up with their mothers.

I run into my father-in-law at the end of a narrow street. He is trying to call for more ambulances. I use my phone to call my mother-in-law to reassure her that her husband is safe. The network is busy. Finally, ambulances start to arrive. Someone shouts angrily at one of the drivers that they’re too late. The driver replies that there are targets all over Jabaliya: “We can’t respond to every call at the same time!”

We return to the site of the second attack with the ambulance drivers, and once again offer to help them gather remains. One driver seems to be in charge, and explains that we should leave the scene and let his team do their work alone. The narrow street leading to the new bomb site needs to be cleared of people so ambulances can get down it. We move into the main street, but the alleyway is still too narrow for the larger ambulances to fit.

I open the back and side doors of the ambulance, then return to help carry the stretchers, laden with heaps of torn flesh. Everything merges with everything else. I push my stretcher load deep inside the ambulance.

The long black hair of a woman is carried, all in one clump, with part of her head still attached. The hair is matted with blood like the hide of a sheep when it’s just been skinned. The remains of her body are like pieces of broken glass. We carry the remaining stretchers to the ambulance, heave them inside, and then slam the door shut. We hit the side of the ambulance, and it speeds away. On that stretcher there were two corpses merging into one pile of flesh. My whole body was dripping wet.

I return home. Hanna is frightened when she sees the bloodstain on my white pullover. She checks me all over to make sure it isn’t from some unnoticed injury. She makes me remove my pullover and starts to wash it immediately. She doesn’t want to see a trace of death for a moment longer.

Clouds of thick smoke rise above the eastern edge of the camp, pursued by flames. Strange shapes are cast onto the sky, like the shadows of ghosts, hovering above the camp, waiting, watching.

I take a shower. I wash properly for the first time since the start of the war. I wash every part of my body, every inch. I spend longer than I ever have rubbing the foam of the soap into every corner of my body. I want to wash death clean off me. I want to remove any sign that it might leave on my body. I use every type of soap and shampoo I can find, all five of them. Nobody calls or bangs on the door, wanting to use the bathroom, nobody asks me to finish the longest shower of my life. Nobody complains that this shower might use up the last of the water in the tank.

Wednesday, July 30

Beside me now lies a piece of metal: razor-sharp, a single, twisted edge. It belongs to the rocket that struck the United Nations’ Abu Hussein school this morning, a few yards from my father’s house, killing at least 15 people. The shrapnel sits in front of the school’s door. Violent, even in the way it sits there. When I see it, I flinch, as if it’s about to spring back to life. Carefully, I pick it up, study its horrifying shape. It may have killed someone on its journey, before resting here.
The rooms in the front half of the school look as if they’ve imploded. Five houses opposite the school were completely destroyed. In the first room of the school scores of displaced people had been taking shelter — people who had already escaped death back in Beit Lahiya. Without doubt, like all of us last night, they would have been wide-awake. Like the rest of us they would have been sitting there imagining the rocket was about to hit their room. Everyone expects Death, every night. He’s a visitor who observes no rules, respects no codes of behavior.

Water pipes dangle down from the walls like figures on a gallows. The mattresses that people had been sleeping on look like great sponges, dyed deep red, soaked.

In the morning, Hanna tells me there’s a rumor going around that they’ve hit one of the schools. Her worry is that our friends from Beit Hanoun will have been affected. Mostafa, my second son, thinks it was his school that was hit. He wants to come with me to see his classroom, inspect the damage. I refuse, point-blank. He asks if I can take a photo of his classroom so he can see what’s happened to his desk. I agree to this.

As it turns out the attack was not on Mostafa’s school, but on another, a few blocks away. Great hunks of concrete sit scattered around it when I arrive. Dust covers everything and everyone, making the displaced people still inhabiting it look white-haired and ancient. The water tanks that ought to be up on the roof now squat in the street. Water pipes dangle down from the walls like figures on a gallows. The mattresses that people had been sleeping on look like great sponges, dyed deep red, soaked. Each mattress could just as well be another body part. The cooking pot from which these people had been serving their dinner sits exactly as it was, with good food still in it. But no one will eat from it now.

The pair of shoes in the corner, the blackboard, the huge tree in front of the school, the clothes hanging out to dry in the playground, the benches under the tree, the notice board in the school assembly point, the clay pot in the front room, the blankets, the toilets, the broken tiles, the paintings on the walls of every classroom, the kids’ toys — each and every one of these has the imprint of death on it.

Part of my extended family has taken refuge in this school. I remember this fact only in the middle of wandering through the damage. I have two aunts who live in the very north of Beit Lahiya. Their sons and daughters, and their families in turn, had sought refuge in this school. I ask about them. They are not here. I phone my dad and ask if he has news about them. He informs me that my cousin Fathia’s husband and her son were injured and have been hospitalized. The rest of the relatives have returned to their homes near the border.

Many of the donkeys brought by the refugees were killed by the strike. Half a dozen lie in the road in front of the school. Their stomachs and intestines hang from their bellies. A seventh donkey is still alive, though critically injured.

Diab, my childhood friend, lives across the street from this school. I visit him and find him weeping at the loss of his cousins. I knew his cousins; they were our neighbors. With tears still rolling down his cheeks, Diab takes me to see the three ruined houses.

The fig tree in front of the homes is painted white with dust. Branches lie on the ground with fruit still on them, mocking us. Diab leads me through to a small room, where he clears a path through scattered children’s toys and points to the corner, where a 2-year-old boy was found, still alive. A little girl elsewhere in the house shouts happily that the big clock on the wall is still intact. This old clock hangs on the wall at the end of a very long, thin living room. The girl’s happiness is the only positive moment of the entire day.

The rest of the family has been injured. One boy is still hysterical after seeing the flesh of his father and his uncle, mixed together like meat in a butcher’s shop. They have yet to calm him down.

It is now the morning after perhaps the most difficult night of the war. The sky was lit up all night and the shells never stopped. As usual, it was all so close. As usual, we did not know where each rocket fell, exactly. We simply felt their reverberations and guessed where they might be coming from. My head was on the pillow for hours, but sleep never came.

Shells fell around us, closer and closer. Jaffa woke up at one point, when the explosions were closest. That was when they hit the United Nations school. The light in the sky caught her attention, and she said sleepily, “Papa, light!” and pointed to the sky. She did not know that death was carried in that light.

Now morning is here and everything is different. You see death on the faces of the people in the street. You feel it. This piece of metal — this fragment of a rocket in front of me, that has killed more than 15 innocent people — it reminds me of the light that Jaffa pointed to. It tells me Death is still around us, that it is not satisfied yet.

These diary entries were first published in the New York Times Times on 4 August, 2014.

We Wait Each Night for Death to Knock at the Door by Atef Abu Saif


Second post from our September guest blogger, Gazan author Atef Abu Saif.

© A.M. Qattan Foundation

© A.M. Qattan Foundation


Thursday, 24, July

The worst thing is when you realise you no longer understand what’s going on. Throughout the night, the tanks, drones, F16s and warships haven’t let up for a single minute. The explosions are constant, always sounding like they’re just next door. Sometimes you’re convinced that they’re in your very room, that you’ve finally been hit. Then you realise, another miss. My mobile has run out of battery, so I’m unable to listen to the news. Instead I lie in the dark and guess what’s going on, make up my own analysis.

In time, you start to distinguish between the different types of attack. By far the easiest distinction you learn to make is between an air attack, a tank attack, and an attack from the sea. The shells coming in from the sea are the largest in size, and the boom they make much deeper than anything else you hear. It’s an all-engulfing, all-encompassing kind of sound: you feel like the ground itself is being swallowed up. Tank rockets, by comparison, give off a much hollower sound. Their explosions leave more of an echo in the air, but you don’t feel it so much from beneath. Thirdly, a rocket dropped from an F16 produces an unmistakable, brilliant white light, as well as a long reverberation. A bomb from an F16 makes the whole street dance a little, sway for a good thirty seconds or so. You feel you might need to have to jump out of the window any minute, to escape the collapse. Different to all these, though, is the rocket you get from a drone. This rocket seems to have more personality — it projects a sharp yellow light up into the sky. A few seconds before a drone strike, a bright light spreads over the sky, as if the rocket is telling us: it’s dinner time, time to feast.

These are just impressions, of course. But impressions are what enable you to process the strange array of details you’re given. None of the attributes I’m assigning to these rockets may be true. In reality, I might be exaggerating the differences or imagining them completely. But when you sit each night in your living room waiting for death to not knock at your door, or send you a text message, telling you ‘death’s coming in one minute’s time’, when look for your future in a forest of darkness and see only the giant tree of the unknown, when you are unable to answer the one question your kids need an answer to (‘When is it is going to end, Dad?’), when you struggle to summon the strength you need each day, just to get through that day… in these situations, which are, of course, all the same situation, what else can you do, but form ‘impressions’.

Tonight we spend the whole night, until 5am, surrounded by this orchestra of explosion, trying to make sense of it. At 5:30am my father-in-law comes in from the mosque and shares the news he’s picked up from the people attending the dawn prayer. Six members of the Abu Eitta Family were killed while sleeping, just two hours ago. They had sought safety on the ground floor of the building, thinking that the physics of F16 rocket would agree with their logic. With no warning the rocket converted them into fragments. Elsewhere tanks are now approaching Jabaliya, our district, from the east, a region known as Ezbit Abdrabouh.

The war has divided the Strip into portions, separate courses, if you like, and the Lord of War is eating them one course at a time, savouring each one. When the invasion started three weeks ago, back when it was just air strikes, Ashijaia Quarter became the first course, with more than 120 killed and some 700 injured (a number that changes daily, of course, as more bodies are uncovered, more survivors pulled out of the rubble). After that, the Lord of War moved towards Beit Hanoon, then he ate his fill of Shijaia, then he decided he fancied a different piece of the Gaza-cake. The same sort of massacre took place each time, the same sort of mass exodus, only with different human individuals. Three days ago the focus shifted to Khoza’a, near Khan Younis. Thousands were displaced. Yesterday some 50 people were killed in Khoza’a alone.

Last night the tanks approached Ezbit Abdrabouh, which is just one kilometre from where we’re staying. Tank shells fell around us all day long. Most of the people have already left their homes over there. In the 2008/9 war, a famous massacre was committed in Ezbit Abdrabouh, it has since been acknowledged in the UN’s Goldstone Report. Everything was destroyed. Not a single house survived the destruction. Corpses remained under the rumble for a week.

The night before last, an F16 rocket struck two streets behind us. War teaches you how to adapt to its logic but it doesn’t share its biggest secret, of course: how to survive it. For instance, whenever there’s a war on you have to leave your windows half open, so the pressure from the blasts doesn’t blow them out. To be even safer, you should cover every pane of the window with adhesive tape, so that when it does break, the shards don’t fly indoors, or fall on people in the street below. It goes without saying you should never sleep anywhere near a window. The best place to sleep, people say, is near the stairs, preferably under them. The shell that fell two nights ago landed 150 metres away. The first thing you do in the seconds afterwards, once you’ve checked on your loved ones, is inspect the damage. Usually it’s just windows and doors. This shell, it turned out, landed smack in the middle of the Jabaliya cemetery. The dead do not fight wars, by and large, they’re too busy being dead, but on this occasion they were forced to participate in the suffering of the living. The next morning dirty, grey bones lay scattered about the broken gravestones. At the moment of impact, these old corpses must have flown upwards, into the air. I think about this moment. I wonder what might have happened to the spirits of these corpses in that split-second of flight, what they must have made of the living occupants of Gaza, sitting patiently in their living rooms, praying for survival.

Yesterday most of the talk in the street was about this miracle of survival. When everything is destroyed and everyone else is dead, you become a miracle you don’t quite understand. Everyone is talking about the five-month-old girl who survived a massacre that took everyone else in her family. This tiny baby was lying in a cradle. The masonry fell in a pyramid shape around her, protecting her. She made it by sheer chance. Yesterday, six days after the attack on Al Shijaia, rescue workers found a man still alive under the concrete – six days! Another little girl who survived, while her mother and brothers perished, was asked by a local TV presenter where her family was. ‘They’ve gone to be martyrs,’ she replied. She thinks that being a martyr is somewhere you go for a while, like a holiday. She went on to explain that she’s waiting for them to come back from ‘martyrdom’.

Some people will inevitably call these the miracles of Ramadan. It is believed that in Ramadan there is one particular night, within the last 10 days of the month, that is holier than all the others. It is the night that Gabriel conveyed the Koran to Mohammed. So I can hear my mother-in-law already: insisting all these incidents are the miracles of that night.

This Ramadan is different though. The spirit of the month has not once been felt. The sense of communion is gone, the fasting feels hollow. All the little details of the month have disappeared under the cacophony of war. The beautiful strains of the Musaharatti (the man who wakes us just before dawn for the sohor, the first meal) – he will play his drum as elegantly as always, singing the verses that call each and every member of the neighbourhood by name (including the children), but his songs won’t sound the same this year. My daughter, Jaffa, won’t enjoy hearing her name on the Musaharatti’s wake-up list.

I’ve just returned from the souk. It doesn’t look much like a souk this morning. Only a few shops and stalls are open, a few uninspiring vegetables. The cucumbers are pale, the tomatoes dry, the potatoes small and slightly putrid; the radishes have long since lost their lustre. I spent half an hour trying to find something good in all this. Most of the farmers have abandoned their fields. The vegetables left unpicked. The farmers are now all in the UNRWA school turned refugee centres, along with everyone else. The fields are empty. Only when someone is prepared to sneak back, to risk never coming back, will new produce reach the souk. The prices have risen on every stall, in some cases by as much as 1000%. Then I see something I don’t expect: a handful of young mothers are dragging their kids, unwillingly, into a clothes shop, as if it’s the start of a new school year. Many of the displaced people now living in the schools-turned-camps brought nothing with them, so after ten days into wearing the same dirty clothes, the women have decided to take action: their kids will have new clothes. Life must go on.

This diary entry was first published in the Sunday Times on 27 July, 2014.

“The more the war continues the greater this chorus of laments, the heavier the pain, the greater the loss.”


This September, Gazan author Atef Abu Saif is our guest blogger. He has written a number of war diaries describing the horrors of what life in Gaza has been like during the most recent siege. For those who missed them when they were published in the international press you can read them now here. We will be publishing one every week including a previously unpublished one.

Atef Abu Saif  was born in Jabalia refugee camp in the Gaza Strip in1973. He holds a bachelor’s degree from the University of Birzeit and a masters’ degree from Bradford. He is the author of four novels: Shadows in the Memory (1997), The Tale of the Harvest Night (1999), Snowball (2000), and The Salty Grape of Paradise (2003 & 2006). He also published a collection of short stories entitled Everything is Normal. In June 2014, he launched his new publication, The Book Of Gaza, at The Mosaic Rooms. Listen to the podcast here.


© The Book Of Gaza, cover artwork, Comma Press


Wednesday 23 July, 20014

This is Day 17. The chances of a truce are no better: the same talk everyday on the news, same discussions, same waiting. You simply have to wait and see when it will end. Sometimes you have the feeling that it’s not going to end. If there is a light at the end of the tunnel, it’s online: a pinprick, a flicker, and then you wonder if you saw it at all. Last night all talks of a truce failed. For 17 days we’ve heard the same set of statements, the same questions. Every day is better than the day still to come. This is how it is in Palestine; the past always looks better, sweeter. Because of this, Palestinians are more nostalgic than any other people. For nearly a century we have lived through a circle of violence, and each year it spirals deeper. We are always the losers. My Grandma, Eish, never saw a day go by without succumbing to a lament for her past. Then immediately after, she would lament for the day that awaited her, tomorrow. The more the war continues the greater this chorus of laments, the heavier the pain, the greater the loss.

Last evening, my sister-in-law, Huda, her son and three daughters, had to move to the place we’re staying, in Jabaliya Camp. They usually live to the south of Gaza City, in an area called Tal Al Hawa, its southernmost tip. For the last five days, tanks have bombarded the area. In one of these attacks, large chunks of debris from a house nearby flew in through the windows; half of another house inside of Huda’s house! My sister-in-law says they are used to this kind of thing. In every war that I can remember their house has been directly affected. In the 2008-9 war, half of the house collapsed when a rocket made a direct hit, entering the house horizontally through the lounge window. Her husband, Hatim, has refused to come with her to Jabaliya this time, however. He insists on staying, even though all his neighbours have left. Nobody remains on their street but him. Over the last couple of years he has developed a passion for keeping birds. He’s converted one room in his house into an aviary, in which he raises some 50 different kinds of birds, including hummingbirds, pigeons, and sparrows. He prefers to stay and take care of his birds – who else will look after them?

Now there are 14 of us all living in my father-in-law’s house, in Jabaliya. The house consists of just two rooms. This morning there is a long queue for the bathroom. Once inside you hear nothing but the calls of those queuing, encouraging you to finish as fast as you can. Over the last week most houses have started to face water shortages. As the electricity only comes on for few hours a day, and as those few hours are not necessary same hours that the water comes, it’s usually impossible to pump water back up into the water tanks on the roof of the house. To make matters worse, the water consumption for each house is usually that of several families squeezed into one: of the immediate family and extended families – of sisters’, brothers’, cousins’ families. Most of the people living in the eastern, northern, or coastal sides of Jabaliya, or in Beit Hannon and Beit Lahia, have had to move – under threat of shells and rockets – further into the centre of the Strip, to the Jabaliya Refugee Camp itself (already one its most densely populated areas). My own father spends most of his day watching the level in his water tank, obsessively. The other day he had to carry water in bottles from the neighbours’ tank. He himself is hosting two extra families inside his little house – that of my sister with her 12 family members, and that of his uncle, with his five family members – as well as the family of my brother, Ibrahim.

So I’m stood in the queue to use the bathroom – just as I will have to queue to buy bread from the bakery, later today. Usually it takes more than one hour to buy anything. You hate the queuing, but you have no choice. Life has to go on. If everyone stopped doing something they hated the whole wheel of life would stop. The people who seek refuge in the UNRWA school across the street from us, they have to queue, as well, to use the bathrooms, or to receive food. Queues are everywhere now. A few days ago we were living a normal life – waking up at 8am, washing our faces, brushing our teeth, having breakfast, starting our days and whatever our daily routines entailed. Now we have to abandon those routines and to live according to each and every moment. We have to improvise new habits amid the chaos. One of those new habits is queuing, queuing for everything. What good would it do to complain. Everyone has to complain internally. The situation is greater than your inconvenience, it’s more urgent than your discomfort. You are asked, like everybody else, to live up to the challenge. You are asked to be a soldier, a trooper, even if you’re not, to be a boy of the country, even if this makes you uncomfortable, even though you’re just a citizen with no power to be any more than that.

The refugees’ clothes hanging in the windows of the classrooms across the street make me think of tethered birds, dreaming of a chance fly away, to find more space. To get as far away as possible from the smell of Gaza, the stench of death.

Life is getting complicated. You wish that you were simpler and could accept things more easily. My little girl, Jaffa, was utterly terrified in the first week of the war. We couldn’t bring ourselves to explain what the sounds of the explosions were, but she could easily understand the fear written on each of our faces when we heard each one. After a week we started to tell her that these were the sounds of a door being closed quickly by Naem, her older brother. Jaffa, at 19 months old, accepted this logic and started to adapt to the situation. She even played with the idea. When hearing each explosion she now shouts “the dooooooor!”, and then calls out to Naem to stop slamming it. In Jaffa’s logic then, someone is slamming a door to keep us all imprisoned in this situation. Each door slam is a door slammed shut on the opportunity for peace. Each cry from Jaffa to her brother Naem to stop shutting the door is fruitless.

Yesterday morning, an F16 destroyed a house in this part of the neighbourhood. My old friend Naseem – now the British Palestinian – had came over from London just few days before the attacks started, to see his mother. She kept crying over the phone, wanting to see his new kids. Naseem left Gaza to study in London in 1996 and then stayed on. He left his restaurant in Hammersmith to pay a long-awaited visit to his mother. At 9 o’clock in the morning, while everyone was asleep, a rocket destroyed his house completely. Large pieces of masonry travelled an impossible distance, colliding with houses at the other end of the street. Some of them hit my fathers’ house. Naseem’s mother was killed. The explosion threw her body into the street. His two little girls were injured as well. One of them is currently in the Intensive Care Unit. Naseem himself was injured in his arm and neck. Last night we gathered to pay a tribute to this nice old lady of our street, Om Naseem. A few words and thoughts were shared. Afterwards Naseem explained to me that he had decided to move back to Gaza. He was going to sell his restaurant in Hammersmith and return to Gaza to be with his mother. Now, having seen death, having tasted it, the decision makes no sense to him.

Esa has to move from Beit Hanoon. He phoned me yesterday at 7:30 in the morning. When you receive a phone call at a time of war, you put your hand to your heart. You take what breath you can, before answering. His voice tells me all the neighbours left, or have died. He is alone with his wife and they are terrified. He wants to move out. He asks if he can use my flat in the Al Nasser quarter as it’s also been abandoned. After an hour he arrives to pick up the keys. The flat isn’t furnished – everything has been taken – so Esa sends his son to pick up furniture from friends in Jabaliya. In their white car, the son moves from house to house, collecting whatever will make their life easier. I manage to provide him with a Gaz cylinder through another friend, Faraj. In the night, Esa is finally happy – his voice over the phone tells me as much. Finally he is OK, his kids are OK. After seeing death on the streets around his house, having touched dead bodies to check for life, and having feared all day that he or his kids are next, he is finally sounding calm. “We made it, Atef!!! We are alive!!!”.

It is Day 17. It could be Day 27, or Day 37, or Day 70. No reason to think we are anywhere near the end of the game.

Rachel Dedman: My Home Is An Archive 4



© Sara Sukhun

The search for Guv feels far from over; Harout has passed me the phone numbers of all sorts of interesting people – the Curator at the Sursock Palace Museum in Beirut, which should have Guv’s works in their collection; other Professors at ALBA who worked alongside Guv himself; friends and neighbours who lived near him, who hang his paintings on their walls.

At a party in Lemontree House one night I relate to a stranger a little of this story, and reflect on how simply it started: with a name in a book from 1974. This project, which had an unambitious premise – to take the flat as a catalyst for thinking about Beirut – grew into something beyond the space, into correspondence, friendships, glimpses of history, of art history.

Guv had married a woman named Marie-Jeanne, while his brother Jacques married her sister Victoria. Arlette, my now-treasured correspondant, is therefore cousined to Jacques and Victoria’s son Robert twice over. It was Robert’s family, Arlette finally confirms from photos, who once lived in Lemontree House.

Reflecting once more upon the space, I became aware of my own contribution to its latest layer of life. In its current iteration, Lemontree House is representative of one kind of existence in Beirut – a home for twenty-something internationals renting for a few years at a time, in Lebanon for work or study. Just as previous occupants deserted their yearbooks and crockery, we will leave our marks upon the space in turn, in the form of boxes of pirated DVDs in their perennial plastic packets; in the three hundred-strong army of empty beer bottles on the back balcony, (a permanent installation, increasingly rain-spackled); in the irons and hair dryers and insect repellent devices – the electrical ephemera abandoned when airline baggage allowances strain resources.

Previous housemates have left their presence in strange but artful collages on the living room ceiling, in the peeling notes on the fridge and the football stickers pasted to the oven. No-one can remember quite how the large-scale cut-outs of Captain Haddock and Snowy the Dog made their way into the apartment, or whatever happened to Tintin. These things too constitute a layer of archaeological history, a generation of objects, that may – in thirty years – be curiosities themselves.

I sit on our ugly sofa, my feet on the low table in the centre of our living room, made from a wooden pallet. It is marked with paint, pen and burns from cigarettes, and sprawled with books, half-drunk coffee cups and discarded football cards – my flatmate Tom is collecting them for the World Cup. Motes of dust float in the half-light, which shimmers off a square ashtray, of translucent orange glass, tilted on the window sill.

In a corner of the living room, behind the television, sits a small faux-Christmas tree, flaunting its dulled lights all year long, tarted up around December. The paintings on the walls wear boas of yellow and black, whose feathers which float in the hot summer breeze of our industrial-size fan. The mild smell of burning incense issues from ubiquitous coils of green Vape, which smoulder slowly overnight to repel mosquitoes. Each day starts with emptying neat curls of ash into the bin.

Summer takes its toll on resources in Lebanon, and at the moment Beirut is subject to serious water shortages, as well as daily unscheduled power cuts. Sara has stuck long candles in old Almaza beers, which allow us to cook and get to bed when the lights are dead. Their flames flicker against the bottles’ thick green glass.

This stuff will constitute, as much as the Guverdjinians’, our left-behind, our untaken, and operate as a record of time. Such material feels uniquely articulate, in that it carries little immediate value beyond the nostalgic. Nothing is really worth anything – the richness of such an archive is located somewhere beyond the objects themselves. They constitute fragments of history, threads escaping from a frayed hem, fallen free from the densely woven mass of past, waiting to be tugged at.

Such things record time like soft layers of tissue paper occupy space. In thin sheets – translucent and frail – that waft over one another; overlapping, but never opaque.

Rachel Dedman: My Home Is An Archive 3


dedmanblog3© Rachel Dedman

I am rifling through a stack of ancient newspapers one day, when I receive a call. The magazine I am reading – Burda – is typical of the kind scattered across Lemontree House, a German fashion magazine from the 1960s. Inside, shiny-haired ladies with pointed shoes smile in knitted bathing suits and longline cardigans over kicky A-line skirts. Such periodicals come with sewing patterns so women might make the clothes they see within. To save space, multiple patterns are layered together on one sheet, numbered and coloured so the reader can distinguish between them. These featherlight papers resemble beautiful maps of strange waters, utterly unnavigable.

The woman on the phone is Christine Zacharias, who works at ALBA – the Academie Libanaise de Beaux Arts – to whom I had submitted a message online enquiring about Georges Guverdjinian, having discovered he was both a student and professor there. The school’s website only had a standardised online form to submit queries, and I hadn’t expected a reply. Christine had seen it, however, and got in touch – she and her husband had been taught by Guv, and her mother-in-law knew him too; she even had one of his aquarelles on her wall. Above all, Christine recommended I speak to Harout Torossian, an artist and good friend of Guv – they taught together at ALBA.

On a hot day about a week later, I meet Harout in ALBA’s outdoor café, where we sit and talk in the breezeless shade. Harout is an artist’s artist. All white hair, jaunty hat and gentlemanly French demeanour; he kisses my hand when we are introduced. He speaks no English, nor Arabic, issuing from an era where an Armenian-French hybrid was all you needed in Beirut; for many it still is, though most young people now speak English too.

At 80 years old, Harout is still a charmer, and a very successful painter; I had recognised his name from posters advertising a big retrospective exhibition a few months previously. He laughs in cheeky conspiratorial cackles. Based between Lebanon and Paris, when he is in Beirut he keeps a studio and flat in Bourj Hammoud, where he is currently painting a huge two-metre canvas of Adam and Eve, a private commission. The nude, the body – these are Torossian’s real loves. He makes me a gift of a recent monograph, a blue book filled with essays from other artists and friends, images of his paintings, and pages of photographs collaged together – of Harout and his pals, his family, other art bigwigs, and (he points out with great pride) the President of Lebanon. His paintings are gorgeous, constructing the body from a combination of brushstroke and the inherent texture of paint; academic, but with something vital captured too.

I ask him what it was like to be an artist in Beirut in the twentieth century. Before the civil war, he tells me, it was calm. There was a market for art, though not a great one, but if you had an exhibition, you would sell. Once the war started, many artists travelled abroad, emigrating to Europe. Harout stayed, and describes a strange equilibrium to his experience of the conflict – if there was a bomb here, there was a bomb there – referring to the split down Beirut’s Green Line between the city’s East and West. He confirms it was dangerous, every walk in the street might meet with an explosion; a remnant of the conflict that continues today, as bombs still rattle Dahiya, Beirut’s Southern suburbs, in the week we meet.

Harout trained as an artist in France initially, before returning to Lebanon to join ALBA in the third year they accepted students; Georges Guv was among the very first generation at the school. Harout confirms a few physical details about Guv I had gathered from the one small photograph I’d seen. Of mid-height, with brown-grey hair and a clean-shaven chin, Harout tells me Guv was a principled man, always polite, “and very loyal to his wife, extremely loyal”. Guv’s entry in the Index of Painters suggests he did not spend much time in the social scene that swirled around ALBA, an artist without any of the arrogance or pride a celebrated painter might have had then. As well as teaching undergraduates at ALBA in an academic manner (drawing, charcoal, oil painting), he also taught art to younger children, in an Armenian school whose name Harout could not recall. From the Index I had also learned that Guv served in the Lebanese Association for Tobbaconists, as “fonctionnaire a la Regie Libanaise des Tabacs et Tombacs” and ran a papeterie alongside his ALBA teaching.

Georges Guv, it seems, was in many ways an ordinary man, but one with an extraordinary depth of feeling. The person who left his tobacco post and stationery shop, who came home to his wife and children each night, was deeply affected by the problems of the world. Harout tells me that Guv felt keenly the suffering of humanity; and his painted forms were lively until catastrophe struck, when he would abandon colour. Harout describes Guv’s paintings from the civil war: using greys and dark tones, Guv enclosed his canvasses within a thin skein, stuck to the still-wet paint, this sticky shield closed a curtain on their darkness. These resonate with the drawings I’d seen, the spindly, armless forms floating in monochrome landscape, staring at something beyond the frame; imbued with a loneliness or melancholy.

blogpost3dedman© Georges ‘Guv’ Guverdjinian

This also chimed with what I had been gathering from Arlette, who was recounting in our email correspondence the full histories of her family. She described the difficult journeys her grandparents (Guv’s mother and father) undertook to Lebanon. In the great massacre of Armenians at Izmir, the family all miraculously survived, but were split from one another. The children – Guv, aged 3, and his sister, aged 6 – found themselves bundled onto a boat bound for a Greek island, while their mother was placed on a ship to Beirut. Their father was captured by the Turks, a lucky fate since the vast majority were slaughtered, but it was two years before he could escape and make his way to Lebanon. Here, with the help of his wife and an uncle who lived in Martyrs Square, they located the children, still living in Greece, and brought them to the city to join them.

The story of Guv’s journey to Beirut resonated powerfully with the images I had seen of his work. Having to flee a flaming city to Greece, aged only three, with no-one but his six year-old sister, must have been a traumatic and terrifying experience. Living there without either parent for two years, perhaps as isolated by language as by the unknown fate of his family, the lack-limbed female figures in his ambiguous drawings take on new potency. One can’t help but understand reports of his heightened compassion and sensitivity to suffering in terms of his harrowing early years, and imagine the amputated women as lingering emblem of separation from his mother. Witnessing the horrors of the civil war in Lebanon, decades later, must have been particularly haunting.

A generation on, Guv’s daughter Arlette remembers a peaceful and prosperous childhood growing up in Beirut, first in Geitawi, then in Gemmayze, a neighbourhood nearby. The children encountered no racism as a result of their Armenian heritage, though they were teased for their sub-standard Arabic, speaking nothing but French at home. Guv had exhibitions, television interviews, articles, and travelled all over the world. In 1975, however, the civil war changed a great deal. Arlette tells me that by this time she was living in New Jdeideh, a district outside Beirut, to the North, with two small children of her own. All of the close family who lived in dangerous zones in the city would come to stay with them to escape gunfire and bombings. They lived precariously, with little water and even less electricity, taking shelter with their children in the dirty basement of the apartment block, full of rats. Around a year into the war, a bomb fell onto their building, destroying the majority. The family had been out at the time, but this close call was the final straw for Arlette, who then hurriedly moved her family to Paris, where her brother Francois had relocated his young family just a few months before. Her parents, Guv and Marie-Jeanne, would stay in Beirut another 6 years, moving to Paris in 1982. Under such circumstances, one can imagine the lack of need, if not opportunity, to sell one’s home. After luggage is packed the house is shut up, all but the essentials left within, locked with fervent promises to return one day.

Rachel Dedman: My Home Is An Archive 2



© Sara Sukhun

In a cupboard off the side of the kitchen sits a tureen of sturdy white china, decorated with painted purple flowers and gold edging. One handle has broken off, and the swollen belly is stained in places. It comes with a set of dishes in a similar style. Lying prostrate behind another door is a soda shaker of glossy red enamel. Made by Sparklets of England in the 1950s, the brand’s name is embossed in the silver top. It is layered with dust, but forty-year-old soda still rolls around inside. I wonder if it would fizz if I opened it.

Dominating the room is an enormous, ancient beast of a refrigerator. Named the Kelvinator, the promise No Frost swirls jauntily across the freezer. The front is a yellow colour – once canary, now curdled milk. The handles are chrome, covered with dark leather. I could fit inside it.

The sink and work surfaces are cloudy grey marble. The latter are covered with spices and bottles of olive oil. The cupboards above them, lined with thinning paper and pasted with stickers of fruit – ubiquitous in the kitchens of old Beiruti homes – are filled with endless tiny cups for Turkish coffee. One set, of white enamel, features teeny handles patterned with flowers. On a low table by the door to the back balcony are three ceramic dishes shaped like crinkled leaves, in chipped yellow slip. The veins of the leaves are impressed into the bottom, where dust has collected. Miniature bunches of grapes and cherries, and little groups of nuts, are painted round its edges.

I love cooking in our kitchen today: adding olive oil to labneh for breakfast (the oil poured into old water bottles straight from a friend’s press), sprinkling zaatar over a hot cheese manouché, crushing garlic to add to thickly-stirred fava beans and chickpeas to make foul. Such foods are Lebanese staples, and I can’t help but think of their preparation in decades past in much the same way; of friends drinking the same coffee in the same cups, wine from the same glasses. Only perhaps Armenian favourites were also on the menu. My knowledge of Armenian cuisine is limited to outings to restaurants in Bourj Hammoud, but these have included bowls of itch, a kind of tabbouleh; kebab with sour cherries; basterma, cured beef; and – as those of my friends brave enough to try them attest – delicious fried baby sparrows.

The name Irma Guverdjinian continues to niggle at my mind. Google, however, yields absolutely no results for her full name, an apologetic error message appears instead. A search of Guverdjinian on its own, though, produces five. Most of these are irrelevant, but one hints at something fascinating. The first link that emerged from the depths of the internet was to an ancient-looking website called www.onefineart.com. Google had located a profile, in French, of an artist – Georges Guverdjinian, also known as Georges ‘Guv’. Quite lengthy and detailed, the article detailed Guv’s life and work.

Born in 1918 in Adana, Turkey, Georges Guverdjinian arrived in Lebanon in 1923, having only fortuitously escaped death in the massacre of Armenians and Greeks that occurred in Izmir the year before. He attended school in Achrafieh, and eventually studied at the Université de Saint Joseph. Guv was then among the first class at the Academic Libanaise de Beaux-Arts, Lebanon’s main art school, where he studied fine art, specialising in painting. The article goes on to describe his artistic philosophy – characterised by a sensitivity to human suffering – his approach, travel and various exhibitions. He showed his work all over Beirut, as well as in Europe. He received the Prix de Cinquantenaire du Génocide Arménien in 1965 and the Medaille de la Ville de Rome in 1972. He moved to France in the 1980s, where he continued to paint until his death.

I was intrigued. This name – Guverdjinian – utterly without Internet presence, had revealed an artist. And one who seemed fascinating and important. Was he related to Irma, to the family who once lived in my home? The name struck me as uncommon (according to Google it has vanished) so it seemed possible. Why could I find nothing else about the family? I take my search offline, scouring countless books for a mention of Georges Guverdjinian; mining art historical texts and artist dictionaries in Librarie Orientale and Librarie Antoine, in the bookshops of Hamra, and the bookshelves of Dawawine and Ashkal Alwan. Georges ‘Guv’ Guverdjinian seemed so interesting, so vital, and yet he appeared to leave little to history.

I email my friend Sarah at RectoVerso, an art library and research space in Monot, Beirut. I ask whether she knows anything about Georges Guverdjinian. She sends me back camera-phone snaps from an old French Index of Lebanese painters, with a small section on Guv. It reiterated the picture I was building from the article – of a thoughtful artist, a man “who sought to give form to his obsessions: the Armenian tragedy, and the suffering of the modern world”. I was aching to see images of his work.

A breakthrough came one day when searching for Georges Guverdjinian on Facebook. A fanpage exists, for an artist called GUV, whose introduction confirms this is the same man. The page also yields crucial information: ‘Guverdjinian’ can also be spelled ‘Koukerjinian’. This detail feels like finding treasure. Whereas Irma Guverdjinian had no web presence, the name Irma Koukerjinian gets hundreds of hits, and I begin to plunder the web for mention of others in the family.

The original article about Guv mentioned children – Francois, Arlette and Roger – so these I seek, along with Robert and Irma. I find reference them all, and begin to piece together a shaky family tree from the surface of the Internet – they are certainly related to Georges Guv. It seems that most of the family live abroad now, in the US and France predominantly. According to public census information Robert moved his family to California (corroborated by those tax forms), and then to Virginia. Irma is now a grown woman, whose profile picture on Facebook shows her smiling with flowers behind large sunglasses in Summer.

I begin to get in touch. What would their memories be of this space? Why did they change their name? Why did they leave Beirut? Can they tell me more about Guv?

Placing some stuff in a storage cupboard above the bathroom one day, I find a bag full of old children’s toys – an eerie remnant of past play. I pull out a 4×4 truck covered in small stickers, with orange headlights and large rear tyres. Inside a driver with a racing helmet sits behind the wheel. The words WILD WILLY are emblazoned on the back bumper. Though the toy is old, the brand still exists – there is a toyshop in Hamra with the same name. A doll with blonde straw for hair, and creepy soft-lashed eyes, appears stiff-limbed in a red dress and apron. A bedraggled bear with ears whose fur has rubbed away follows her. Such toys, which must sit, near-identical, in the attics of most families the world over, recall again the children who once played in the house – a memory reinforced by the ancient decals affixed to my bedroom window, of teddy bears catching butterflies in swinging nets.

DSC_0077© Sara Sukhun

I’m sitting on my bed, head resting against the same window, when my Facebook email pings. I had messaged the inbox associated with the GUV Facebook fanpage, and have just received a reply – from Arlette Koukerjinian, Guv’s daughter! In polite and effusive French, she tells me how thrilled she is to hear from someone interested in the work of her father, and is happy to answer my questions.

So begins our correspondence. Arlette explains that when the family translated their name from Arabic into French, the spelling shifted to Koukerjinian. She had moved to France to escape the Lebanese civil war, and her parents followed in 1982, remaining in Paris until Guv’s death in 1990. She also tells me that after Guv’s death his work was distributed among members of the family, and I finally access some images on the Facebook page. They are all simple photographs snapped shakily on a little camera, and presumably only of those pieces to which Arlette has access. The variety is striking: half are figurative, semi-surreal images in pen, of willowy lack-limbed female forms standing, inert, in ambiguous landscape. The other half are vibrant colour-fields, near-psychadelic in intensity, concerned with the physicality of paint.

One of the former drawings shows an elongated female nude, an armless Modigliani, half-obscured from us by the spindly, bare tendrils of a tree. Our gaze follows hers, turned towards the sun. Or is it the moon? The scene is built up by tiny pen-pricks, growing in density towards areas of dusky depth, spare and flickered in the light. The orb she gazes at appears bright and sun-like, but is formed from the negative space of the page. Like an optical illusion, the mind flicks the shape from sun to moon, day to night, while the ambiguous landscape gives nothing else away – writhing forms indicate the flora of hillside, but of ultimately unscaleable distance.

Such long female subjects appear to haunt Guv’s paintings too, which plunge these spindly forms into liquid seas of paint. In one, the rich expanse of deep purple background is broken by bubbling yellow semi-figures that rise up at the surface, a stark forest of stripped trees through which one might wade. The thick oil paint has blistered and cracked, forming welts on the canvas. Another, this time in gouache, wraps its spindly human forms in layers of thin slip, colour bleeding into the spaces between Guv’s pen. The figures, always multiple, though never connected, appear to loom from the watery surface.

myhomeisanarchive© Georges ‘Guv’ Guverdjinian

I have almost no information about these images, uploaded naked to Facebook. I don’t know their titles or their dates, the context of their creation. Something about them tells me they are sketches, experiments, the in-betweens on the way to finished pieces. My desire to see some complete ones, shiny and framed, dissipates. I realise that these works resonate, somehow, with the stuff of the flat; the books and the toys, the souvenirs and old letters: the intimate, liminal stuff that sits between the things you discard and the things you take with you. These images, fuzzy and distorted, seem suddenly to reflect this whole endeavour. My attempts to know Guv can only ever be partial, in the same manner I meet these images – filtered through decades, passed through the Internet, flattened by pixels.

Rachel Dedman: My Home Is An Archive 1


Over the next month, to coincide with our current exhibition My Sister Who Travels, Rachel Dedman is our special guest blogger. She presents a four-part feature entitled ‘My Home Is An Archive’ exploring the history of her apartment in Beirut through the articles left behind by past residents. Part one of the series is below.

Rachel Dedman is an independent curator and writer living and working in Beirut, Lebanon. Rachel is currently curating an exhibition for the Palestinian Museum (Birzeit) on Palestinian embroidery, a Franchise Exhibition of contemporary art from the Middle-East for apexart (New York), and is about to take up the post of Curator-in-Residence at 98weeks (Beirut) for the next year.


DSC_0004© Sara Sukhun

My home is an archive.

Never have I lived anywhere so surrounded by stuff; messy, dusty, beautiful and seemingly endless.

My flat is up a small street through the car park opposite Geitawi hospital, in East Beirut. There are no formal domestic addresses in most of the country, and no way of getting post delivered. People develop modes of navigation around the city that rely on language rather than Googlemaps.

Pink bougainvillea pepper the houses opposite, and the flowers drop onto the ancient cars parked beneath. Cats curl up on the twisted cardboard that covers the windscreens. An enormous lemon tree dominates our front garden and extends up to the second floor. It gives the house its name, and us fresh lemons for most of the year, until we can no longer reach them from our balcony.

Inside is a time-warp.

In the living room, two sofas and four armchairs are upholstered in polyester-silk, patterned in a patchwork style with a recurring motif of tulips. The palette includes creams, greens and taupes; once bright, they are now greying and frayed. A low coffee table, glass-topped with four legs – only three of which touch the ground – sits in the corner. Made of dark wood, and chipped a little, it was probably considered chic in the 1960s. On top of it is an old-fashioned telephone, with a dial you rotate with your finger. Black, glossy, heavy; there is a number printed on browned paper and tucked into a slot on the front – 32.59.58. Against a wall squats a ‘Solid State All-Transistor Quick Start’ television, set into a faux-bois casing, gathering dust.

There are three pictures on the walls. One is a faux-Impressionist painting of a city and the banks of its river; Paris, perhaps. It sits in an ugly frame, once bronze, now dusty buttercup. On the opposite wall, in a burnished ornate surround, a portrait of a young boy standing contrapposto in a dark landscape. Someone has added a cigarette to his flaneur fingers in pen. To its left, a cheap print of a Chinese scroll painting of a chase or hunt. Its frame is metallic, the print trapped in the prickly embrace of a chipboard mount.

Two chandeliers of frosted glass are suspended from the ceiling. On the larger, the eight arms are connected by strings of glass pendants, some of which are shaped like daisies. A number are broken, dangling loosely, catching the light. Cobwebs grow between them. Five of twelve bulbs work, one is missing altogether. The bulbs are shaped like candle flames, their holders circled by little impasto plastic drips, neat rivulets of wax held eternally mid-melt.

In the study space that extends from the living room towards the back of the flat, a central desk is littered with objects, including a large clock in dark wood, with an undulating frame around a central face. The numbers are in an art deco font, slender and affectedly curved. It still works if you wind up the back, though the tick is unbearable.

On a sideboard, several souvenirs from foreign travel dot the dark shelves amid piles of DVDs and ancient coffee sets. These include the ultimate paradigm of touristic ephemera: a bottle of coloured sand poured to create an image of a camel in a vast red desert, above which floats the word Jordan. Gold plastic facsimiles of the main sites in Paris sit on a flat pink pedestal – the Eiffel Tower, Arc du Triomphe, Notre-Dame. There is a lumpen candle in the shape of a heart, and a tiny bust of Napoleon Bonaparte.

In an imposing armoire against the opposite wall, approximately 40 copies of La Revue du Liban, dating from 1985 until 1992, are stacked on the bottom shelf. Many covers feature huge colour photographs of military men from the course of the civil war, and occasionally a foreign president. On top of the pile is tucked a table lamp of salmon china, with a white central panel painted with flowers. The double cord is wrapped around its neck, and it lacks a bulb, though its lampshade – white papery parchment frilled with short silk trim – sits nearby.

There are countless books here, but among them are twenty-one volumes of Collier’s Encyclopedia, in non-alphabetical order. The spines are blue and red, with gold lettering. By the same publishers, a set of ‘Junior Classics’ with titles such as Once Upon A Time and Call of Adventure. Predominant themes among novels are romance, whodunnit and science fiction, mostly published in the 1950s and 1960s. Titles include Pillow Talk by Marvin H. Albert from 1959, featuring soft-core sex-appeal caricatures of blond Americans on the cover; Reseau sous-marin by F.H. Ribes from 1965 – this cover features the word ESPIONNAGE emblazoned near a helicopter swooping over frothy ocean – and a collection of new French science fiction stories from 1968, the racy front designed by a Michel Desimon.

Near these are a host of children’s schoolbooks, for Maths, Geography, History, all in French. I find it strange here how demarcated education is along linguistic (and thus broader cultural) lines in Lebanon. Geitawi is a Christian area, where most people still speak French at home, even at the expense of Arabic. The books in the flat are in English, German, Arabic and Armenian, but the textbooks are all French, a relic of the impact of colonial history upon the academic and cultural development of Lebanese Christians, an influence still experienced today.

Picking up one of these books and idly flicking through it, I see a name in blue biro penned in the upper right-hand corner of the first page: Irma Guverdjinian. The book is called Le Francais – LIRE ECRIRE PARLER, a textbook designed for 6th grade children around 10 years old. The book is hard-backed and battered, the spine held together with tape. Printed in 1974, a fact betrayed by period typography as well as the publisher’s frank, the cover inexplicably features two elephants eating hay from the back of a red truck.

I had been living in the flat for many months at the point I found this book, and Irma’s name. I was of course aware, in that time, of the objects that filled the strange space of my home – whose décor and interior were a talking point with visitors – but I had not really thought much about them.

While I had considered these objects dusty novelties in my home, Irma’s book made me realise that, in actual fact, I am a guest in a space which has a long, rich history of its own. I became newly conscious of the things around me and the people once attached to them. A walk through the space felt like archaeology, peeling back layers of time – German magazines from the 1990s, newspapers from the 1980s, curtains from the 1970s, an AUB yearbook from the 1960s, letters from the 1950s. The flat contains multiple strata of time, but so jumbled together, so everywhere, that they aren’t really visible – until a name in a book tugs one layer free.

It struck me that this space, which my housemates and I inhabit as friends, was also for decades a family home. A home where children played and grew up, where teenagers studied for exams, where parents cooked meals and argued and did laundry and talked with their neighbours across the back courtyard.

The more I began to look, the more I spotted things that constituted relics of a family space. At the bottom of a book teaching Arithmetique Commerciale was the carefully printed name Robert Guverdjinian. Practice typing exercises – also Robert’s – slipped from the pages of an old notepad, his signature swirled at the bottom of pretend correspondence for a course in formal French composition. Other names appeared too, all Armenian, embroidered on blankets, scrawled in jotters, printed neatly in ancient birthday cards: Kasparian, Aintablian, Kradjian. The latter, Kradjian, is the surname of our landlord, Leo, who lives downstairs with his family still. This chimes with the palimpsestic nature of the flat’s contents; a space shared over the decades by aggregate branches of a large family, for cousins and aunts and other clans by marriage.

Looking at objects as clues, my housemate Sara and I began to speculate. Two large show-catalogues for German furniture, marked with notes and numbers in Arabic, suggested someone here was once a salesman – we flicked eagerly through both for a glimpse of the strange sofa-set that dominates our living room, but were disappointed. We trawled AUB yearbooks stashed in an old cabinet for mention of a Guverdjinian, scanning the rows of black-and-white ‘60s haircuts and cat-eye frames, our eyes catching at every Armenian surname, marked by the suffix –ian. Our imagination was set in play by the discovery of an incomplete California tax form for the year 1966; a postcard in German from friends abroad; by a self-help book entitled How to organize and sell a profitable real estate condominium. However eccentric and informal this archive – constituted of things left behind, of objects un-taken – it seemed to conjure up a powerful reflection of Beiruti life in the twentieth century: the multi-lingual, middle-class existence of the city’s Christian Armenians. In the books and china, a Franco-European influence is clear, though the practical administrative skills, export documents and foreign income forms indicate travel and connections to the USA.

DSC_0011© Sara Sukhun

Tens of thousands of Armenians came to Lebanon following the Armenian genocide in 1915, when millions were killed by the Turkish, expelled from their homeland, and forced to flee. They settled across the country, most in Bourj Hammoud, Beirut, near my home in Geitawi. By 1926 there were 75,000 Armenians in Lebanon, and the population was considered large enough to merit representation in parliament – which in Lebanon is divided strictly along confessional lines, supposedly representational of the country’s different religious demographics. Such a system lies at the root of Lebanon’s contemporary problems: sectarian in-fighting dominates the government, which is nowhere near representational today. Seats were originally assigned on the basis of a census in 1932, which – over 80 years later – is embarrassingly out of date. Another census hasn’t been taken since, for to do so would reveal the dramatic changes Beirut’s religious landscape has undergone, particularly the huge growth of Muslim populations – marginalised in the original parliamentary demarcation – and dramatically undermine the power of the Maronite and other Christian groups. Though integrated within Lebanon, Armenian life and culture is strong and distinct, particularly in Bourj Hammoud – brimming with restaurants, statuesque churches and the Armenian language. Haigazian University is an Armenian institution, located in Hamra, and one of the best in the country. Armenians attempted to stay neutral in Lebanon’s civil war (1975-1990), though the conflict reportedly fortified Armenians’ differentiation from other groups, and rigidified its ethnic boundaries.

The flat is a touchstone to such histories. Through its objects we have access to glimpses of lives and personalities, told through things left behind. We are not living in a blank space, after all, but in one filled and stretched and defined by previous inhabitants – their things most of all, but beneath those their tastes, their decisions, relationships and ideas.

Who are they? Why did they leave? Where are they now?


Guest Blogger: Ammar Haj Ahmad

#3 A Jigsaw Puzzle in Abu Nuwas’ Hands

by Ammar Haj Ahmad


Before the invention of the CD:

It is the second week of February and Valentine’s Day. In my hometown, people used to have different ways of dealing with this occasion. Some of them thought it was just a pretentious way to imitate western society, and others tried to find red clothes in their wardrobe to have ready to wear on the day. Some cassette shops, before the CD was invented, used to play love songs very loudly; most were really cheesy, but I liked them. And of course some people thought that the celebration of Valentine’s Day was completely forbidden and haram. What was really interesting and funny at the same time is that lots of young ‘lovers’ used to give what we, individually, thought of as the most unique present, but unfortunately was the most clichéd: a cassette of songs, which were the same on all the cassettes gifted on Valentine’s Day, as if Cupid’s bow and arrow were replaced that week by a sack like Santa’s, dropping hundreds of copies of the same cassette all over town.

The songs were: ‘Lady’ by Kenny Rogers and his shining armour, ‘Please Forgive Me’ by Bryan Adams, even if no problem existed between the couple to make the giver beg for forgiveness, and by the same singer ‘Everything I Do, I Do It for You,’ and the ‘everything’ the guy does is to walk less than 1km to stand on the veranda of his lover risking the parents’ or the neighbours’ reaction, or in front of the school so he can say ‘hi’. You would also find on the cassette ‘Careless Whispers’ by George Michael, though I have no idea where on earth someone can whisper in the ear of their lover in my hometown. But the best one among them all was ‘Last Christmas’ also by George Michael, although it was February and Christmas was so far away. Above all, I always appreciated what most of my people used to say: ‘We don’t need Valentine’s Day, love should be there all the time, not on a specific day only.’ And yes, love was there always… at weddings and funerals, through success and failure, fights and peace. I don’t remember a day when my mother didn’t share some of our meal with our neighbours, and they, of course, used to do the same. Love was always there, Valentine’s Day or not.

To be on stage drunk on cranberry juice and a poem:

The wheels of the rehearsals began to spin in Fez, Morocco. It was ‘One Thousand and One Nights,’ a play scheduled to be performed in Toronto in the summer of that year. Tim Supple, the director of the play, asked me to play Abu Nuwas, the poet famous for the ribald humour of his Mojoniyyat or “Obscene Poems”. I was terrified as Abu Nuwas is without a doubt one of the hardest characters to play on stage in a six-hour long show. Abu Nuwas was one of the most intelligent and knowledgeable poets of his time, in Iraq and ‘Bilad al-Sham’ (the Levant). He was known as the poet who took the Bedouin cloak off the Arabic poem and replaced it with an urban style. He always enjoyed shocking his society under the Abbasid caliphate, by writing openly about cultural and religious taboos.

I went to Tim after the rehearsal that day and asked him to give me a different role. I was so serious, which drove him to say one sentence only: ‘If you don’t trust yourself, trust me!’ Working on Abu Nuwas and getting to know him better was such a fascinating process, especially when listening to the great Lebanese singer Fairouz singing with her captivating voice one of his beautiful poems:

The lover is burdened with love

But singing makes him feel light

He is right to cry

For his love is dead serious

Yet you laugh playfully

While he cries his eyes out

You wonder at my sickness?!

It is my good health that is surprising!

For every time one reason for my sorrow is allayed

You replace it with another!

When he speaks about love, the smooth rhythm of his short poems suggests he took a sip of his wine before effortlessly writing each verse. With Harun Al-Rashid, the fifth Abbasid Caliph, Abu Nuwas was like the fool in Shakespeare’s plays – the smart one, and the one who, regardless of the eminence of the ruler, tells it to him like it is. Abu Nuwas was the voice of the people outside the gates of the palace. Even Al-Ma’moun had no tolerance for him and imprisoned him a few times. In love, Abu Nuwas was the same; he spoke clearly and openly of all the feelings he endured, without placing any boundaries or limits on their expression, unafraid of the opinion of society or rulers.

Each day, during the rehearsals, and although the bottle of wine was filled with cranberry juice, the experience of playing this great poet was pure joy.


So, in that week in February, I didn’t want to give her a cassette with the throaty voice of Bryan Adams on it, or ‘Hello’ by Lionel Richie with his existential question: ‘Is it me, you’re looking for?’ which goes beyond Hamlet’s ‘To be or not to be’. I wanted to give her something different, something that suited what I think Valentine’s Day is all about, to tell her that I’m the one and only for her, as she is for me. My hometown was one of two cities in Syria where girls and boys were allowed to study together. I went to our school early on that day many years ago, and rushed to her classroom with a plastic bag filled with beautiful white jasmines I had stolen the day before from the garden surrounding the neighbourhood’s Ba’ath party office. I put all the jasmines in her desk with a poem by Abu Nuwas in which he says:

Tell the one with the seductive glance

Yet surly face

The one whose beauty turns

Our hearts necks!

A single word of greeting

Appeases us

So for the sake of Christ’s soul

And in the name of the Cross

Stop for a second if you pass by

And greet us, O my love!

I was so excited thinking of the expression on her face when she found her present. But she didn’t show up, and I waited until nobody in her class was left in school. I couldn’t wait until the next day, but as soon as she saw me, she came over with a grin on her face, stretching out her arm and giving me back the poem, saying: ‘Ammar, Abu Nuwas wrote this poem to a boy, not a girl! Thanks anyway!’ She said that with complete confidence, leaving me drowning in a vast sea of frustration.

Around fifteen years later, this story made me laugh before going on stage in Toronto for the premier of ‘One Thousand and One Nights’, because I didn’t know at the time of that unforgettable Valentine’s Day that Abu Nuwas, besides writing about his love of women, hunting, drinking and knowledge, also wrote about his love of young boys. Taha Hussein, one of the most influential 20th century Egyptian writers, tells us that men’s love of boys was not expressed in Arabic poetry before the Abbasid era, so even in this Abu Nuwas was original.

Guest Blogger: Ammar Haj Ahmad


#2 The Expired Time Machine

by Ammar Haj Ahmad


Tiny house, Big Home

When you’re the youngest child in a big family, you do everything to get the attention that you think you need, from absolutely everybody. You cry easily if you don’t have your own glass of tea when the whole family are having theirs. I call it a ‘glass’ because that’s how we drink tea in Syria, in tiny beautiful glasses in which we pour the tea from a giant stainless-steel pot. You try your best to get involved and have an opinion on everything. You also want to learn about all the football players in the World Cup, so you can loudly recite their names like a live commentator while your older brothers are watching the match, so that they in turn can be amazed by your talent! You play, for no apparent reason, the role of the lonely child, sitting apart in the room next door, waiting for someone to call you over, even if it takes ages for the call to come! And that is exactly how I was.

But in spite of all the family activities into which I tried to poke my nose, there was one thing, only one, in which I could not participate until I became 11 years old. Before that age, I would only be allowed to listen with a vivid desire to one day be allowed to partake of this activity, for it was a terrific thing for a family, full of music, words, speech, performance, reading, reciting, gathering, tenderness, love, beauty, laughter, competing voices, soulful throats AND tea.  It was the “poetry competition” game, in which only classical Arabic poetry was admissible! These were the rules: one member of the family begins with a verse of a poem.; the rest of the family then need to find another verse which begins with the last letter with which the previous verse ended. And for a big working-class family, it was easy for us to form at least two or three teams. It didn’t cost anything and all you needed was a good knowledge of poetry and a sense of its musicality. It was a cheap yet incredibly rich game. The rounds went on for hours and there I sat listening to hundreds of beautiful verses of poetry, heavy lines describing wisdom, courageous words on generosity, and so many poems on unconditional, crazy love. Of course it is a technical game in a way as well, for you have to be able to remember as many verses as possible so you can readily find a verse that begins with the appropriate letter. And I always wanted to be a contender but my sources in those very early years were limited to what I heard from the family during the game, and it is of course a sort of nonsense to repeat literally what others are saying.


High Marks for a Love Poem

It is the time where I have to fill my soul and mind with poetry, love and DRAMA. I am a student in the Higher Institute of Dramatic Arts in Damascus, the old city with its incomparable ancient smell and brilliant beauty. It was only recently that I had taken part for the last time in the family poetry competition. And in the library of the Institute, the words of a beautiful piece of writing just landed in my hands. And I read:

To your eyes, your two planets That pour light into my own;
To the two dry springs that, like destiny
Never quench the thirst of the lost;

To your eyes, a heart sings out
That same heart that never stops bleeding;

Oh how the tongue that calls out for you
Wishes that its call should melt on its palate!

And I continued reading until the end! Here was a poem by Badr Shaker Al-Sayyab, entitled Whims, where he merges the classical way of writing poetry with modern free verse.

Al-Sayyab was one of the pioneers of Arabic modernism, alongside Nazek Al-Malaekah, Shazel Taqa and Abdul Wahab Al-Bayyati. Not only did he change the rules of classical Iraqi poetry, but of the entire Arab world. Al-Sayyab died in his thirties in bed, after experiencing a long illness, poverty and many one-sided-love affairs, which pushed him cruelly to his own solitude, and to his paper and pen. To quench the drought in his life, and allay his frustration at the lack of love and money, his poems are like strangled cries, to other countries and other people, filled with pain and despair.

When I read this poem, I decided to perform it in my elocution exam, for which I eventually got a high mark!


A Bow and Arrow with an Inaccurate Aim!

The curve of Regent Street in London is, for me, one of the most outstanding pieces of architecture I have ever seen. As you stand in the middle of it, you don’t know that it is going to open up to the beautiful Cupid with his bow and arrow standing on one leg in the middle of Piccadilly Circus. Looking up at this curve, you feel the timelessness of people’s movement, and you might for a second experience it as a river that has been turned upside down, the sky as its water. You experience for a second the contradiction between being surrounded by thousands of people, shops, flowers, buses black cabs, weirdos with cartoon-character costumes etc… and the fact that you are alone, where nostalgia unfolds its pages of longing, and walks shoulder to shoulder and step by step alongside you and all your memories, the memories of the footballers and the World Cup, the verses of poetry with the voices of the family members and the “poetry competitions”, the tea, the skill of pretending to be upset for no apparent reason the unconditional motherly love, Damascus and acting schools and my moments of failure, love and its betrayals when we become so clumsy if we’re happy and unbearable divas if we’re not. And of course this all leads to the lines of Al-Sayyab, knocking on the door of my longing to join me on my walk here in Regent Street:

A rupture already?
Before we have even finished our glasses?

Did you break them,
Before we even got drunk?

A rupture already, when Spring’s dew
Is still falling on a greenish summer?

A rupture? Will you prevent the eye
From looking when a light shimmers?

And do you plan to stop the reflection of my imagination,
Rising from the river, from flowing?[i]

I was standing there in front of Cupid, tourists taking pictures in his presence. I was staring at his arrow, which never worked with many people, people like Van Gogh or Sarah Kane! Here I was again, the child with the same voice and his own glass of tea, blaming Cupid and his mother Venus, that they never visited Al-Sayyab during his short life. And thinking to myself: will my family, with our growing number of nephews and nieces (and there are many of them), ever gather again to play that game? This time, I will have my own tea glass and I will read to them not only one verse of Al-Sayyab’s poem but all of it!

Don’t miss ‘Poetry from Iraq‘ (7pm, 20 February at The Mosaic Rooms) an evening of discussions, readings and screenings, chaired by Ammar Haj Ahmad.

[i] Both quotations are from Ahwa’ (Whims) by Bader Shaker Al-Sayyab

Guest Blogger: Ammar Haj Ahmad


ammar blog


by Ammar Haj Ahmad

It was the summer of 1998. I was excitedly packing my bag to go to Homs, travelling from my home town by the Euphrates river. The river is also known as Furat in Arabic and the adjective Furati is ascribed to every one who lives by or drinks from the waters of al-Furat in Syria and Iraq. I could not wait to meet Lara in the students’ poetry competition in Homs. Lara was 18 and I was 16. I had met her earlier that year in Aleppo where I attended another competition and three days was enough for me to know that I had found the love of my life. Of course, why not think that way? For me at that time everything outside my tiny hometown was international and mysterious…and to meet a girl from a different city and to fall in love was a triumph!

I arrived in Homs with my ripped “Adibas” bag, a rubbish copy of Adidas…that black Adibas bag was the same one I used when I went fishing, played basketball and most importantly when my friends and I went camping 100 or so feet away from our neighborhood.

I fetched the keys from the reception of the campus and I ran to my room, or rather our room, as we were three students from different cities in the same space. I put on some cheap deodorant, stowed my bag away, and walked quickly, each step the size of three. I looked for new comers to the competition. Some I knew, others were unknown to me. I still remember my outfit, how could I forget it?! We used to think that we were the best writers in the whole world: all the guys had the same Che-Guevara-Bonnet without a star, and a long scarf around the neck, hoping to grow a beard soon and have a pipe and the girls, all of them, didn’t like make up and loved to look sad!

“Lara is not coming” one of the ‘future-poets’ told me, without looking into my eyes, as if he wanted to exploit the moment for poetic purposes. I tried to digest or at least understand this brief piece of news that my friend had poured into me like boiling oil. It was only for a short time, a glimpse, before a girl broke the moment running in to tell us that Abdel-Wahab Al-Bayyati, the great Iraqi poet, was going to give us a two-part lecture on how to refine and polish our writing.

“This is absolutely insane! The timing is unbelievable!” I thought as not only had I never dreamt of meeting the great man in person, but the last letter I had sent to Lara was not actually a letter but a poem that Al-Bayyati had written to a girl also named Lara, which expressed my feelings towards ‘my’ Lara. At that moment one decision remained flapping its wings around my head: whether or not to travel back to my hometown, as I was simply terrified. But also how to find Lara and ask her where she was? I had no cellphone or phone-booth to call her from. Me, the sixteen-year old, Adibas poet! During this moment (which at the time I experienced as pure suffering) a fragment of Al-Bayyati’s poem burst through my head like an arrow:

I am exiled to my memory,
Imprisoned in my own words
I wander aimlessly under the rain and shout: Lara!
And the terrified wind responds: “Lara!”

In the Al-Hambra Palace,
In the rooms of the King’s fair harem,
I hear an Oriental ‘oud and the crying of a gazelle.

Awed, I approach the Arabic letters plaited with a thousand flowers.
I hear moaning,
Lara, is under the seven moons and the shining light,
She invites me to bring my face closer to hers. I cry feverishly
But a hand stretches out and throws me into a well of darkness,
Leaving behind on the carpet my harp and a ray of light from a dead morning…) 

“She did not leave her address” the manager of the theatre said,
Speaking tortuously.

As a sixteen year old it was fascinating for me to grasp this specific understanding of love, the ‘Furati’ one, where love is a tsunami that threatens to completely destroy life or create paradise and turn everything into utter happiness. In this vision, emotions are described openly and courageously, embracing the vulnerability of the Furati Lover.

Al-Bayyati was one of four Iraqi poets, along with Nazek Almlaekah, Bader Shaker Al-Sayyab and Shazel Taqah, whose work challenged the rules of the classical Arabic poem to create free verse inspired by the measures and music of images, rather than the conventional metres of classical Arabic poetry (known as bouhour). This approach creates imagery without boundaries or borders and gives the poet a stellar canvas to paint on with a brush made out of a planet or two!

In this poem, I am born then I am burned, dedicated to Lara, Al-Bayyati does exactly that, through the repetitive engine of words like crying, looking, suffering, dying, begging, losing, running without direction. He allows his vulnerability to be exposed in front of the lover, escaping the traditional image of the man, replacing strength with courage. By allowing his soul to speak freely, he paints the true colours of the human spirit.

Did I have similar feelings towards ‘my’ Lara? Did I feel the same rushing to Homs to see her, and then deciding just as quickly to go back to my hometown because I wanted to escape the tragedy of her failure to show up?

That meeting with Abdel-Wahab Al-Bayyati took place just a few months before he passed away. I learned a lot from him, especially how to write freely, yet with authenticity. I never told him about Lara. The overwhelmed, scared, weak and insecure teenager inside me kept everything to himself.

It is almost sixteen years since this story took place.

I never heard from Lara after that.

And now while I’m here in London, nearly half of Homs has been destroyed.

Only the poem is alive and dynamic, like water.

Ammar Haj Ahmad is a Syrian actor and poet based in London.

©Ammar Haj Ahmad and A.M. Qattan Foundation, 2014

Advice To Young Writers From Abdellatif Laâbi

It was a great honour to host the Moroccan poet, novelist, translator and political activist Abdellatif Laâbi at The Mosaic Rooms earlier this year. Here is the wonderful advice he had for young writers.

This blog post is from December 2013. 


-Be loyal to writing every day and accept its every demand.

-It must be central to your life and you must organise your life around it.

-Respect its values.

-Constant alertness.

-Constant persistence.

-Honesty with yourself as a precondition for honesty with others.

-The question that must remain superior to the answer.

-Tenderness towards wounding words.

-Don’t listen to loud and passing waves.

-Don’t worry about being retrograde.

-Avoid power in whatever form it comes.

-And if it tries to suck you in, resist it at any cost.

-You need to read twice as much as you write.

-Dictionaries are only cemeteries of words. But plant life in them.

-Be careful of ready language.

-Don’t sell it.

-But fight it in order to create your own private and personal language.

-Avoid poeticism if you are a poet.

-And do not abandon your poeticism if you are a novelist.

-Be your most severe critic.

-Look at what you write as a very modest piece of writing ready to be shared.

-Consider it a public property and not your own personal property.

-Don’t remain a prisoner of your environment.

-Go out, leave, and take your distance.

-Don’t respect borders and be not afraid of being lost.

-The earth all together is your homeland and all of humanity is your people.

-And everything you do and wherever you go do not forget where you came from.

-The earth, the mother that brought you to life, your human descendancy.

-Even if you become an old man don’t waste the child that you were once nor the dreams of youth.

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