Beirut, Lebanon – Beirut knows war, and often, it tries to forget.
It is one of the many cliches of the Lebanese capital’s post-war calm: The one-time “Paris of the Middle East” is still pock-marked with holes left by bullets and rocket-propelled grenades, the endless cranes and glossy billboards of a city forever under reconstruction, and the often rosy dispatches about Beirut’s latest exiles – Syrian artists who have made new lives in the swanky galleries of Beirut souqs, Hamra and Jemayzeh.
But that is only one side of Beirut’s Syrian community, the most visible side.
One night in June, Palestinian-Syrian dancer Hassan al-Rabeh threw himself from an apartment block, killing himself.
Rabeh’s death briefly shed light on the under-reported psychological plight of Syrian refugees in Lebanon, 41 percent of whom had considered suicide, according to a 2014 United Nations Population Fund report .
More recent reports point to a growing trend of suicides, drug addiction and alcoholism, particularly among younger Syrians.
is that you are not the centre of the universe: no one cares as much as you think, and life is still going on and people are still living.”]
What is it like to flee home, and then remember what happened there before you did? What does it feel like to never know when, or if, you will return? As exiled Syrian journalist and dissident Samar Yazbek once wrote, “Exile is exile, and nothing else. It means walking down the street and knowing that you don’t belong there”.
A new film by Beirut-based Syrian filmmaker Saeed al-Batal, one of the countless activists and artists who have settled in the city since 2011, records just that feeling by filming an imagined walk through Beirut, after fleeing a besieged neighbourhood in Damascus. It is filmed from the perspective of a semi-autobiographical character trying to make sense of where he is: a first-person exile’s view of exile.
“When I started filming, I’d been here for three months,” he recalled, while sitting inside a Beirut cafe. “I wanted to really record the emotional, deep-down awareness that I had … and I didn’t want to forget about it. Now, I feel I don’t really remember the feeling or the thought that was there, so this film will keep it.”
Batal (a pseudonym used to protect his family) worked as a citizen journalist, photographer and filmmaker inside the besieged eastern Ghouta area outside Damascus. After spending two years under siege there, he fled last year through one of the underground smuggling tunnels that not-so-clandestinely link eastern Ghouta with the city of Damascus.
He brought with him hours upon hours of footage, documenting everything from front-line clashes to cold winters under siege; and a friend being shot by a government sniper as he sings and walks down a street.
The filmmaker’s recent credits include Frontline (2015) and a new music video for rapper Nasserdayn Toufar, produced with the help of a team of media activists based in eastern Damascus. Batal’s latest short, To Be Continued…, was produced alongside Bidayyat, a non-profit production house in Beirut managed by veteran Syrian filmmaker Mohammad Ali Atassi, which has supported independent filmmakers from or inside Syria since 2013.
Batal’s film was screened at Beirut Arts Centre on November 16, as part of a Bidayyat workshop exhibition on documentary filmmaking.
The 20-minute black-and-white short, filmed from a first-person point of view, is haunted by trauma, unresolved memories and depression. The lens lingers, fascinated, over towering glass and concrete skyscrapers while the superimposed sounds of war – sporadic gunfire, jet engines and air strikes – implant Syria’s present onto Beirut’s past.
A flock of pigeons over Martyrs’ Square morph into a MiG jet ripping through the sky.
For Batal, the film records a time of uprooting and alienation, one that gave him a mirrored view of Beirut and the city he had left behind. “It was a kind of therapy … to walk around in a city with no destruction, no news happening, and just film. I wasn’t even sure if I could balance picture without destruction, because I always used to use [it] to balance my pictures [in Syria],” he said, remembering the contrasts between the two cities.
“There is no glass in the city of war,” Batal said, as he looked down into his coffee cup. “People here prize the highest apartment for the view, but we learnt to appreciate the basement for safety.”
But the differences were not irreconcilable. “With any war, if you zoom in enough, there are the same symptoms … a kind of suffering,” he suggested. “Beirut is a city that tried to cover it [suffering] in many layers – reconstruction projects, repairing buildings, planting trees – but it still shows. Trying to erase that from your memory is not the answer to prevent it from happening in the future.”
He is speaking of images seared into the memory of many Syrians, like chemical weapons attacks and front-line clashes. And yet here in Beirut, the air is filled with traffic on the street outside and the constant buzz of construction sites. Life continues.
“The most difficult discovery [arriving from Syria] is that you are not the centre of the universe: no one cares as much as you think, and life is still going on and people are still living,” Batal said. “If you’ve lived through a big crisis, you feel that that’s going to be the centre of the universe… especially if you witnessed things like chemical attacks.”
But people “got bored” of Syria, he said, adding that it is up to Syrians to change their approach. “I know that we [Syrians] are feeling … as if we own the right to be angry at the world, but we need to learn from these past five years. If we don’t come up with a solution, the world won’t care enough to solve our problems for us. We need to face the mirror.”
And what will happen if they choose not to “face the mirror”?
“A lot of Syrians … tried to erase the memory to try to deal with it,” said Batal. But, he continued, “the more you try to erase it, the further you go into darkness”.