'This city eats its own flesh to renew itself,' says Tony Chakar at a small table outside Le Barom�tre. Born in Beirut in 1968, Chakar is an architect, writer and artist, living with his mother who owns a small shop, and a very gifted city thinker. His essays, of which I've read some in The Eyeless Map (2003), investigate the way this city's turbulent past haunts the consciousness of its inhabitants. With him, as with the video artists, it is often hard to tell when historical knowledge blurs into myth and the contortions of memory. As he is the first talking head in his friend Choubassi's The Other Orange, I cannot watch him without noticing the ironical flickering behind his glasses. Most evenings, when midnight approaches, he emerges from a long day of teaching and writing to poise himself behind the computer at Le Barom�tre, a glass of whisky at hand. Carefully unshaven, the lips visibly thirsty for liquor and company, the eyes piercing but unfathomable, he is a fascinating regular among the cultural community of the Hamra neighborhood.
In the book Traces of Life (2003), the result of a research he did with colleague Naji Assi and their students of architecture into the maze of a poor laborer's neighborhood called Rouwaysset, he describes how densely populated slums like these create their own urban space. 'The relationship of a building in Rouwaysset with the surrounding buildings and spaces is a relationshiop of mutual and continually renewed violence - a violence that both defines the shape of these buildings and spaces and is defined by them.'
What strikes me is the use of the word violence. Building places for people to live, eat and make babies in is not usually associated with violence. And he is not talking about the violence that may come with the razing down of whole neighborhoods to create spaces of power (like in Ceausescu's Bucharest) or commerce (like the Jakarta shopping malls), he uses the word to describe the day-to-day push and shove of new additions to existing infrastructure, the perpetual festering of concrete, glass and iron that goes on so stubbornly in Beirut, that it makes it seductive - here more than in many other cities - to compare it to a living organism. Layer upon layer, it grows into a never-ending palimpsest of histories.
In The Eyeless Map he compares Beirut to Paris. 'Over there, unity is achieved almost effortlessly, and the walker is not faced with the obscure feeling of crossing unseen boundaries at each turn, around every corner. And he or she is not continuously offered glimpses of other times and places while walking around. After reading that, the idea of Beirut being formed by heavily contrasting fragments - each fragment producing its own meaning - seemed so natural and true. Furthermore, every fragment was living in a time of its own, in a temporality that was entirely different from the one right next to it (which made the reference to 'gateways to other worlds' so accurate). If one were to look at it from the outside, these fragments would make the city they belonged to completely unfathomable, even chaotic, and I started to believe that the only way of producing sense and meaning, the only way that these fragments could be united, was through direct experience, through the movement of our bodies in and out of every fragment.' Watching him walk away across the night streets after closing time, I understand how walking through the city is to him a way of understanding life, his own life. He has been walking Beirut all his life, and even the war didn't stop him. 'During the shellings I kept walking home by foot,' he tells me one night, 'always choosing the shortest way, as if I was invulnerable. As if they could never get me, as long as I carried on, denying the risk.'
Eyeless map 2
It reminds me of the appearance of angels in the streets during the siege of Sarajevo. Posters, drawings and photographs of angels somehow spread across the blasted walls of the city. A sense of the metaphysical, of holiness, hovered along the streets where a human being could be shot down at any given time. Wartime cities and the art of magical thinking, Tony Chakar can tell you about it.