Beirut

By Arie Amaya-Akkermans


Photo: Gregory Buchakjian


“The time is out of joint. O cursed spite,

That ever I was born to set it right!

Nay, come, let's go together.” -Shakespeare, Hamlet


Just stay with me for a moment and you will be able to hear it. It won't take very long. I'm not going to recount the events, for you have seen and heard what took place; descriptions of horror and destruction are useless for us as distant witnesses – we are barred from the absoluteness of the instant. There's a fraction of a second that separates the real from the possible; you stand in front of the Great Silence, before the first scream, before the cracking of the first shard of glass, before the shattering of the bones against the walls that once provided shelter. It barely qualifies as an event, for it doesn't have any specific horizon – it splinters in all directions. It was an interval that connected two otherwise unrelated points in time, it's an interruption in the concrete terms of the here-and-now and there's nothing beyond that. Resultless and ephemeral, in this raw, acidic time, there's no transcendence or continuity. And when it comes to an end, in a few seconds, it has swallowed the whole of reality. Afterwards, you realize, to your amazement, that in spite of its spectacular violence, the moment lacks all propensities.

Yet a lack of propensities doesn't mean that there's no agency – someone did this. But political agency is no longer meaningful – freedom has turned into a rapid, vertiginous fall. And for the people of Beirut, now at the mercy of the recurring cycles of history, anything is possible – the individual has amalgamated into an undifferentiated whole, for which the boundary between life and death is minimal. The moment hasn't ended, you can still hear it: The screams, the shards, the bones, they continue, and their inkling, cracking, crumbling sounds, have replaced the tickling of the clock since August 4, 6:09 pm. They have begun marking time in an entirely different way, through incessant waiting. This isn't the apocalypse – that would be too easy, the end of the world – because the world isn't a given, it's not a thing that is just there and can suddenly end, but something we do together; a fragile human promise of permanence guaranteed by the presence of everyone. What came to an end here isn't time itself or the world, but the spatial-temporal logic of before/after with which we orient ourselves in reality. Time lies in total disarray; fragments, chance, fate, luck.

It is this disarray, the inability to coherently organize the facts of the world into a sequence that matches experience, what lies at the heart of my suspicion towards the vivid description of catastrophe; it might lead to metaphor, to the juxtaposition or explaining away of senseless human errors of the most despicable kind, for inevitable historical events – it lends legitimacy to a destiny that has been largely shaped by known actors. Beirut has always been about these metaphors; war has been a synonym for complexity, resilience, and even pluralism, defiance, “life”.


Generations of Western journalistic pornography have been predicated on this delusion, often shared by an ailing bourgeoisie, obsessed with the past, and wishing to tell their own story with more kindness than history has offered them. But at the very bottom of that 43 meter deep crater left in the port of Beirut, now regained by the sea, lies the end of that grand metaphor. Those who sank to its depths, in their extinction (they weren't just killed, they were obliterated), have a silent message for the onlookers: The center of the metaphor is mute and there's nothing beyond this point.

Hannah Arendt, writing in a dedication to Karl Jaspers, dated 1947, towards the end of World War II, “the factual territory opened up an abyss into which everyone is drawn who attempts after the fact to stand on that territory”, illustrates for us here-but-not-now, that nothing beyond this point doesn't necessarily mean abandoning hope – hopelessness is an extreme form of optimism, available only to those waiting to be saved. Beirut can always be rebuilt, it will be rebuilt and it has always done so, but the gaze of this abyss isn't only about a moral predicament.


What needs to be abandoned is courage, the courage and resilience to accept these facts, these metaphors, as unavoidable. As a virtue, courage might help us navigate certain human situations, but it is ineffectual when the world has literally fallen on your head; it can provide no permanence or meaning. It becomes necessary at this point to feel the loss, to grieve, to say, these things have happened, and they're irreversible. And this isn't just for Beirut: The unfathomable, indescribable scale of the destruction, points at the imminent systemic collapse of our current capitalist realism. This is now our history.

Even a revolution might fall short of our demands, for what is it necessary to change life. The political categories for navigating the present have become quickly outdated, as Rebecca Comay and Frank Ruda put it, when attempting to reframe the modern revolutionary project: “Philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world. For Hegel the point is to lose it – to delete it, to suspend it, to destroy it, to dash it to pieces – to refuse the world as we know it and create a new one.”


In such absence of clarity, when life is in total disarray, and so practically endangered, it will not suffice to glue back the fragments, as if they were merely houses in disrepair. Comay and Ruda continue: “The point is to punctuate history – to get to the point, to get to the point, to bring things to the point of transformation.” We have seen this in the streets of Beirut since October 2019, with people trying to change life, trying to get to the point, to get to the point... Over the past week, as protesters descend on Martyrs Square in central Beirut, it's become clear that this is no longer a matter of the viability of one rule over another. It is about the viability of life; practical, realizable utopias that transcend the present moment.

And not everything is lost. There's a ulterior ground beyond the world, an invisible place that still holds the human person together, namely the emotional ties of love and friendship and the ability to make and keep promises, creating temporary islands of certainty in an ocean of expanding impossibilities. However, this incredible display of care and solidarity born out of crisis, to be seen in the streets of Beirut today is, as Arendt was keen to note, the gift of people who have lost the world and can hardly survive for an hour the moment of their liberation. Love and solidarity will not be enough, putting things back together will not be enough, as long as the ground under your feet is empty – this has been tried before. It will be necessary to re-imagine a whole new world, as if for the first time. Times out of joint cannot be sewn back, as Agnes Heller elucidates through Shakespeare: “At this point it is enough to say that Hamlet sought with the help of his knowledge of men to put right a time that was out of joint; that was what he felt to be his mission and his duty. Time out of joint, however, could not be set right any longer.”


A new building, resting on a permanent but yet unfinishable foundation, remains the only certain, but radically impossible possibility. This is still the moment, there has been no other.

- In memory of Firas Dahwish.

Arie Amaya-Akkermans is a Colombian writer and critic living in Istanbul, formerly Beirut and Moscow. His writing on contemporary art has appeared on Hyperallergic, Canvas, Art Asia Pacific, Harper's Bazaar Art Arabia. At present, his work deals with philosophies of history, historical archaeology and the classical world. 

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