Let’s dream of forbidden questions

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As I was filming a dirty toddler wobble around her mother begging for money from passersby next to a signage pole on one of the corners of Hamra Street in Beirut, something attacked my camera with “Click. Stop. Now!” a baseless command I complied with in fear for my lens. “Everything could be solved with a conversation,” I repeated to myself until I looked up to find out it was an unhappy policeman that thought I was filming him: big trouble. Conversations sometimes don’t solve things with policemen.

We deleted the video even if he had nothing to do with it. I was immediately told it was, has always been and will always be illegal to film in Hamra. I was ordered to pack my camera as I was being reminded of how lucky I am that my memory card was not confiscated and that the best option is to continue my life now as if nothing happened. His friend followed me around to make sure I don’t go back to my mischievous ways and press record.

I don’t care about these men, in the sense that I don’t particularly feel the urge to explain what I’m doing to them. I’m sure they know I’m not going to blow them up. I’m a man with a camera and a bag full of sketchbooks. My most valuable accessory is a pair of spectacles I bought from Cairo to trick me into seeing the Golden Age of Arabia on loop through their frames. I am, like most young Lebanese men and women, not a threat to national security.

They know. I’m sure they do. None of the assassinations, terrorist attacks or anything of that sort was done by any of us. I don’t see how a decision to restrict any kind relationship with this city will help with anything. It’s actually destructive to limit inhabitants’ consumption of their cities to mere choreographies of things that are allowed. How will these cities grow if not through conversations with their people?

Beirut has been on the path of exponentially increasing paranoia for quite some time now. It’s obviously not new that Lebanese security measures are the worst enemies of the Lebanese people. To live here is to submit to often-stupid claims of ownership. Beyond its artillery-ridden imagination, the Lebanese government does not own Lebanon. We should know that. We should act accordingly. It is very pressing for us to reclaim Lebanese liberalism before it’s too late.

Historically, Beirut was the region’s outlet. Hushed Arabs came here to speak. Now, the Lebanese barely do. It’s alarming because this Beiruti freedom, if not salvaged, could get swallowed up into the region’s constant quest to conquer individual thought. This hushing of our freedoms is actually more dangerous than most political debates happening in contemporary Lebanon, because it touches upon our identity on every possible scale.

While having lunch with a friend on the same Hamra Street that I cannot photograph or film, we were discussing the landscape of artistic production in lieu of the massive art funding and developments in the Gulf. With Qatar and the Emirates keen on spectacularly placing themselves on the international art map, film festivals, art shows and workshops are being established along with a roster of top museum and gallery franchises. “Imagine the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi has no artwork on sex,” he said, “History will state that Arabs never produced such works.”

Institutions, museums in this case, are how facts and ideas become legitimate parts of communally approved history. If the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi collection will not be able to include different facets of Arab art, then some will inevitably get scratched out of history. It’s sad and hilarious at the same time. This is a critical phase of our modern identity, and we’re raising generation after generation of complacent servant-citizens.

Banning people from practicing their basic rights breeds complacent servant-citizens and the latter breed dead states. Instead of treating this stretch of land like a possible hub for free thought and dynamic production, we’re killing it. I like to think there’s still potential though. I dream of a situation where freedom dilutes censorship, quite literally having too many works that don’t fit the system’s norms, exceeding the time needed to censor them. More questions. I dream of more questions.

Let’s dream of forbidden questions, and work on answering them alone and together. I’m still filming Beirut. I have been doing so for more than 10 years, and will continue to do so, forbidden or not. I also dream of the police inviting me for coffee, on the sidewalk not at the police station, to discuss my latest interventions – the demolition of the fence closing off the Daliyeh area on this city’s coast (readying it for privatization) for example. I want them to tell me that they miss their sea too.

Raafat Majzoub is an architect, author and artist living in Beirut

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