|'Independence 05' strives to grasp Beirut's recent metamorphosis
|Christian catafago's book explores the Vibrant city's many faces
"You have two people in this text," says Christian Catafago, leaning over a table in a dark Gemmayzeh bar and laying a hand gently on the cover of a book he has just produced called "Independence 05," featuring photographs and writings inspired by the public demonstrations that have been overwhelming Downtown Beirut for two months now.
"You have the young woman I'm looking for in Centre Ville at the beginning and haven't found yet. And actually," he adds, "I still haven't found her and the story ends there. And you have an older woman who is coming from the mountain. I haven't dwelled on the details, but it's also Beirut. When someone loves a city the way you love Beirut, it's just the way you feel toward it. You can try to impersonate that city in a single person, yet at the same time it has many faces. And just like all unjust and unresolved love affairs, you can never fully grasp the subject."
"Independence 05" is a slim soft-cover volume of just under 100 pages. The now infamous red, white and green "Independence 05" sticker wraps around the outside. Inside are some 70 photographs, all taken in one night with a Leica and a Hasselblad camera. Catafago wrote the accompanying text - episodic, diaristic, and accidental in tone - over the course of a single weekend. His book is addressed, as he suggests, to a woman, to a city, and also to a generation that surprised even itself.
Though he studied and worked as an architect until 2000, and though he has since earned an MBA and a master's degree in finance (the field in which he presently works), Catafago has produced at least three bodies of artwork over the past two years.
"Taking pictures is very important to me because it's a way of expressing myself and my feelings that would otherwise submerge me," he explains. "I'm a little bit intense in what I do so it's important to me. I'm not taking pictures or doing books just for the fun of it. I mean, mostly I do it for fun, but there are always certain occurrences."
Working with artist and curator Nada Sehnaoui, he mounted an exhibition in 2003 at the now-defunct contemporary art gallery above the Fennel Restaurant in Clemenceau called "Beirut Eyes," a haunting series of images that depicted the city in ruins, catching Catafago's projection of an unblinking gaze against the texture of crumbling buildings. That show was a subtle rumination on the fate of those who disappeared in Lebanon during the civil war. A few months ago, Catafago published a long, rectangular book of pictures and text called "Je me souviens deja (I Already Remember)," about a young unnamed woman returning to Beirut from Montreal. "Independence 05" picks up where that book left off. It is messier and edgier than its predecessor - the pictures less clean, the words less precise. But it does have an audacious and infective sense of urgency.
Catagago's book represents an early attempt to grasp in artistic terms the magnitude of all the events that have erupted in Lebanon lately. As such, it is a first draft, still sketchy, not yet refined. But it nonetheless captures the experience of being set adrift in Martyrs' Square amid a churning sea of people, flags, illuminated mobile phones, ever cheekier protest banners, and all the while being encircled by a rush of honking cars packed with young people and protruding flags.
Published in an edition of 3,000 copies and set to coincide with April 13, "Independence 05" attempts to take a half step back and assess the current situation. "This book is dedicated to the youth," Catafago explains, "the Lebanese youth, but also to the people who did this, this great logo." He taps the cover again. "Because I think they did a great job and they really could concentrate at one moment on the essence of something. I just loved it. That's why I used the logo for the cover and only for the cover with nothing else."
That logo repeats throughout the book in pictures, as it does throughout the city itself now. When asked whether the placement of the "Independence 05" stickers are still following a logic whereby such traces - affixed to indeterminate and interstitial spaces - are used to mark the political orientation of specific urban neighborhoods and obstruct more fluid circulation, Catafago says: "This was very true until a year ago, somehow. And now you see some cross-references. You remember the whole 'Stop Solidere' thing?" he asks, in reference to the campaign of small stop-sign stickers that appeared on building facades, parking posts, and street signs throughout Beirut over the past six months (many of them have since been modified by black stickers reading "The Truth"). "You saw them everywhere except Solidere. You remember the blue posters we saw about 1559? They were in some designated areas. What's amazing now is that we are seeing these cross-references all over Beirut. Things that would belong on one side, you see on the other. I won't say it's a reunion because that wouldn't be right, but it's some sort of coming together."
Catafago seems intensely aware of how precarious and tenuous that sense of coming together may be. His book is very much directed at the young people protesting, as if to say to them, be careful, think about what is really going on now and about what may come next.
"The woman in the first book," he says, "I've transposed her into the second and I've accentuated the gap in age between us. And I've talked to her a little bit more, like, 'Okay, do this, do that.' It's not really preposterous but now, it's like, 'Get a grasp of your own life.'"
There is a long literary tradition in which a city, a country, or a homeland is cast as a female character. It is a tendency that cuts across nations and cultures, such that one may speak of the New York novel in similar terms to the London novel. One may sense in both poetry and prose the way a city such as Cairo or Beirut overwhelms a literary endeavor to the extent that each place becomes not a backdrop but a full-blown character.
Beirut is particularly complex in this regard. Engendered as a woman, she is often portrayed as both mistress and muse, beloved and whore. This stems, in part, from the ways in which Beirut resists being fixed. A few years ago, the scholar Saree Makdisi remarked in the journal Tamass that Beirut in the age of Solidere was trying so hard to be what it was that it almost seemed to fail in the attempt. The architect Hashim Sarkis, writing a particularly clear-sighted essay in the journal Parachute about how postwar novelists had reconstituted the city in the work, similarly noted that Beirut under reconstruction was "like a teenager going through growing pains, the city has become strange to its own body."
Catafago's text builds on this tradition. One may wish he had taken more time with his images, more reflection in his text. But he addresses the city like a father or friend sitting someone down for a tough talk. The script may be improvised and unpolished, but it is powerful nonetheless.
Catafago says he hopes to reach three people with "Independence 05." "First," he says, "the one with whom I start the book. Second, the young Lebanese guy or girl who should understand that whatever he or she does will be used by others, will be transformed, but that he or she needs to continue. This generation should understand that they should never [engage in] witch hunting. They should just go forward, the rest is not important. Third, the usual suspects in the opposition, because they have the tendency to bring things back to ground zero." Using reference to de Tocqueville and more, Catafago suggests that they "elevate their concerns."
Still, more than anything, his book is a kind of concerned eulogy. "I'm very impressed by the Lebanese youth," he says, "their energy and forwardness. I hope something will come out of it. What's amazing is that they really went to the core of it, somehow, at some point, at the beginning. And now, as I said, I hope something will come out of it."
The Daily Star