Further echoes of Baalbeck in Beirut

BEIRUT: It takes balls to try to make an exhibition out of Baalbeck.

How do you paraphrase a location that’s hosted 10,000 years of more-or-less continuous human habitation and the centuries of labor, commerce and superstition that sustained them, one that’s been appropriated by various imperialist narratives (from sometime before the Roman empire to sometime after the nation state), inspiring mounds of cultural production and exhibition (from the sacred architecture that helped legitimize Roman conquest, through Europe’s Orientalist fantasies and the various strains of archaeological and historical knowledge instrumentalized by imperial Europe, the Ottomans and the Lebanese republic, to the tourist industries that help service the whimsies of globalization)?

How to shoehorn all that freight into just a few rooms without deforming it, or making the complexities of the site’s contemporary political economy seem like a parochial afterthought?

This is the task London-based curator Vali Mahlouji was commissioned to accomplish. The result of his labors (with a host of collaborators) is the Sursock Museum’s “Baalbek, Archives of an Eternity.”

Whether this show works for you or not, it’s nothing if not ambitious.

The entrancing aura of Baalbeck’s archaeology, which Mahlouji references in his exhibition guide introduction, provides the bedrock of this show while being substantively absent from it.

On the wall outside the subbasement galleries housing the exhibition, visitors find a large-scale wall projection of an ethnographic film from 1920 titled “Geographie. Asia. In Syria: The ruins of Baalbeck temple, Lebanon.” Running a bit less than five minutes, the work is comprised of a series of secondslong tableaux, sometimes with folk-garbed humans in the frame to provide a sense of scale, interspersed among panning shots from within the temple complex.

The first gallery is dedicated to the 10,000 years of human habitation, commencing in 9,000 BC, summarized by a timeline running across three of the room’s four walls, the mass of text sometimes accompanied by a photo or sketch of a significant object. There are a few objects - a plinth, a bas relief, a couple of small altars and the headless, one-armed upper torso of a statue. Some bits of pottery rest in a vitrine.

Any recent museological innovations that might enliven this stuff and make it accessible to uninitiated visitors is absent in “Eternity.”

On the far side of the gallery, another vitrine holds a half-dozen texts - three manuscripts on loan from Saint Joseph University and the American University of Beirut, three first editions of 19th-century travel books, all making reference to the subject of this show.

From one of these accounts, Hamawi’s “Dictionary of the Countries,” “Eternity” highlights a Bedouin poem (dated c. 1219). Recited in a sound installation by Lebanese artist Nesrine Khodr, the Arabic-language poem depicts the narrator’s encounter with an alluring woman whose genitals he equates to the white cheese of Baalbek - a comparison evidently meant to be complimentary.

Like the ruins themselves, these literary references to Baalbeck gesture to traces of the site in the region’s historic cultural production. The curator’s selections reflect upon Baalbeck as a profane space, rather than a sacred (or as the exhibition guide sometimes writes “scared”) one - a choice perhaps informed by discursive contests over the “meaning” of Baalbeck today.

Drawing the attention of screen-conditioned viewers are a pair of projections. One scrolls through pertinent snippets of literature. Another is a drone-mounted camera tour of the ruins, a 21st-century iteration of the 1920 projection, though the occasional humans included within the contemporary frame aren’t posing in folkloric costume.

Much of the balance of the show is dedicated to the cultural production of appropriation.

The second gallery is devoted to 20th-century paintings (oils, watercolors and a 21st-century acrylic) of the ruins and their environs. Nearby are a selection of vintage Orientalist photos, sampling work by the usual suspects - Studio Bonfils, Tancrede Dumas, Francis Frith, James Graham and Jean-Baptiste Charlier.

It’s hardly an encyclopedic selection of historic photos of the site but it does have some significant pieces, including a pair of daguerreotypes by Joseph-Philibert Girault de Prangey, who is said to have taken the earliest extant prints of this region, dated 1843-44.

Visitors may derive some pleasure (or confusion) from the names Bonfils & Co. assigned the temples. Take the much-photographed monolithic entry to the medium-sized temple. In republican-era usage that’s the “Bacchus Temple,” but in the 19th century it was “Jupiter Temple.” It’s useful to be reminded that usage need not reflect accuracy.

Grand Liban, Mother France’s gift to its Lebanese clients, included the Bekaa and “Eternity” devotes a gallery to the republic’s cultural appropriation of Baalbeck.

A slideshow of images from the region in the early independence period plays out above a vitrine of documentation from this period, while one wall is devoted to a miniature retrospective of the work of Lebanese artist Rafic Charaf (1932-2003), tracing his transformation from a pro-Nasserist illustrator of the Baalbeck front of Lebanon’s 1958 civil war to a landscape painter interested in pursuing modernist trends.

More intriguing, perhaps, are the more banal expressions of this cultural annexation - the appearance of Baalbeck landscapes on the republic’s two-, three- and 25-piastre notes, say, or the use of its locations in popular commercial cinema and attendant ad posters.

It’s in this sector of “Eternity” that visitors will find a gallery dedicated to the Baalbeck International Festival and its long history of cultural exhibition. The space mingles still images of performers with silent black-and-white and color footage from various performances, as well as a folkloric dance performance a la Caracalla. The Daily Star didn’t notice any traces of Mashrou’ Leila’s memorable 2012 performance in the “Bacchus Temple.”

With the wall installation “The Battle of Baalbak: Politics of Space: Sites and City,” “Eternity” alludes to the enigma of Baalbeck town’s complex relationship to the archaeological site and the festival that, some suggest, transforms the ruins into an enclave of international entertainers for Beirut audiences.

Then, finally, “Eternity” shows the human face of contemporary Baalbeck in the form of seven video testimonials from individuals and couples from various sectors of the town’s demographic.

Some are notable figures, like former House Speaker Hussein al-Husseini and veteran Baalbecki poet Talal Haidar. Others are the beret-wearing, English-speaking cultural worker Yousef Haidar; the town’s Christian mukhtar George Awad and his wife Siham; Oumayma and Hammad Yaghi, long-standing members of Baalbeck’s bourgeoisie; Hala Othman, a chain-smoking muhajiba who may be a professional matchmaker; Cyrine Othman, who went to university in Beirut before returning to Baalbeck to raise her young family.

Each of these, often amusing if not comic, testimonies reproduce narratives of the town’s past and present that tend to reflect cultural differences springing from class and sectarian cleavages. They all share one feature, a belief that things are not as good as they were, at least in part because of the arrival of “strangers” in the town.

Many will find “Eternity” incomplete, but what depiction of eternity isn’t.

“Baalbek, Archives of an Eternity” is up through Sept. 22.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on August 08, 2019, on page 12.




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