Tuesday, November 30, 2010

War Appeal

On my recent visit to Beirut, the traces of twenty-year-long civil war are still unmistakably there. They appear as small as bullet holes on a building’s façade, or as large as entire ghastly structures, bricked-up for safety.  The most notable of these is the infamous Holiday Inn, a monumental multi-story ruin, standing on a prime city site next to a brand-new swish InterContinental. (Built extra-strong to withstand an earthquake, it became a snipers’ lookout during the war, and no amount of grenades or rocket fire could bring it down.)

It is a journalistic cliché to liken these traces to scars on the city’s fabric. In the context of Lebanon, I would rather call them tattoos. Not only these jarring reminders of the not-so-distant past give the city its peculiar gritty character, they are sometimes used as a source of inspiration by contemporary Lebanese designers. There is, for example, a well-known night club B018, designed by Bernard Khoury in an underground bunker in the former war zone, complete with coffins for seats. One could say that traces of war give Beirut a feel of authenticity, something conspicuously lacking in many glittering capitals in the Middle East.

In his bizarre book What’s Wrong with Plastic Trees, Martin Krieger writes about background noise in the analogue LP records, which continue to fascinate the music buffs. “A certain level of what is conventionally defined as noise and distortion may contribute to that sense of realism and accuracy,“ he says. In other words, noise provides authenticity.

Like everything else, noise could probably be faked. But why would someone bother? Yet in design of today’s new cities, in the Gulf region and elsewhere, the imperfections and accidents are badly needed to achieve that exciting feel of an authentic, lived-in urban environment. We have to learn how to design, plan, and implement these accidents. No one wants to wait for a war.

Blogger Sam said...

Perhaps this explains the motivation behind those tacky stickers of bullet holes at trade shows?


November 30, 2010 at 9:16 AM  
Blogger RWordplay said...

Much that's interesting here, starting with your introduction to Martin Krieger, a writer, I have not heard of before today. I do agree with his assessment of "noise and distortion" that they add an element of authenticity. Here in the City noise is being suppressed and distortion filtered, i.e., The High Line is a good example. Inauthentic, insincere but right for our time.

There was something particularly disturbing about the Lebanese Civil war, hinted here at the mention of "snipers" who murdered for the pleasure of it. One of the most troubling films I ever saw was a European film, I think French/German, about the conflict—one image in particular, broke my heart, a sniper enters a room, puts his AK47 on the top of a polished concert grand piano, sits down and plays something lovely. The ease with which these people slaughtered and murdered each other was truly Biblical. The conflict went on for so long, and the new Beirut seems like a Miami during the filming of the eponymous TV series. I long to see "ancient" Lebanon but the new interest me as little as a visit to our own "Meatpacking District. I wrote one poem about the Civil War after reading an article in the TIMES, enjoy:

Death Of The Spanish Ambassador April 17,1989


After a ten-minute lull, the fourteen
Year-old civil war resumed
Taking the life of Petro Manuel de Aristegui,
Spanish Ambassador to Lebanon.

On page one of The New York Times
Is a photograph of the late Ambassador's living room.
Waist-high in rubble, it looks very much
Like one of our own rural homes
Once the flood water had receded.

Off to the side, nearly out of the picture,
Is Aristegui's Lebanese bodyguard.
Hands on hips, head bowed,
Not unlike a dog,
That's been caught in the garbage again.

It is this man who interests me.
This ordinary Joe, in ordinary clothes
Who could have just returned from the Jersey Shore
Or from buying tires at Sears.

It is this man who compels me to look.
This man who, despite his colossal incompetence,
In spite of enduring fourteen years of war,
And not withstanding the fact that in the last week
Another 200 of his people were killed
Has found the time to part his hair
And have his pants pressed

It is this man I want to know better.
This man whose shoulders shrug so easily
And who seems to know better than most
There's always someone with a broom
Waiting in the next room.


In the back of the room, in a niche in the wall
Intact as a platitude,
Is what looks like a Chinese vase.
I suspect there to remind us that come
What may the worse always wear itself out
Before it can finish the job.
Or is it that it’s always darkest
Before the dawn spills out like laughter.

And it’s in this spirit that the Times notes
The passing into oblivion of Tilting
Petro Manuel de Aristegui
Who died so he could return a metaphor.
And it's in this same spirit that I dedicate this poem
To his anonymous Pancho Sanchez.
A man who stood so full of life
In the wreckage of his employer's home
I could feel nothing but admiration for him.

December 1, 2010 at 7:25 PM  

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