BERLIN—“The furniture we buy at Ikea”, the speaker declares perched on a curved illuminated white stage, “is not made to be inherited, so at least this relieves you of sorrow”. The speaker, Hoda Barakat, Lebanese novelist and journalist, whose talk Short Cuts can be described as both biographical and humorous, as lyrical commentary on her émigré status in Paris since 1975, declares, as if a punch line: “people told me if I did not like it here, to pave over the ocean.” And so she has.

Barakat speaks in Arabic on the stage of Haus der Kulturen der Welt in Berlin, set on a weekend of ‘non-academic lectures’ that were included in Rabih Mroué’s program How Close Can We Get to the Light and Survive. On this rainy October weekend in Berlin, the poetic resonances as well as the simply beautiful allegories created a palpable cultural dissonance. Though staged traditionally, the event does not foster alienation, rather generates a type of love and camaraderie assembled between Rabih Mroué’s friends: Walid Raad, Lawrence Abu Hamdan, Joana Hadjithomas, Khalil Joreige, Lina Majdalanie, Mounira Al Solh and Akram Zaatari. Also present (if only in phantom form), Jean Luc Godard’s shot/counter shot metaphor, which was reference by multiple speakers throughout the two-day event. This dialectic, a tool referenced by experimental filmmakers as well as film scholars, is used to question what the counter image could be to a drone missile, an ISIS film, or simply an image of Jews standing next to Arab Palestinians.

Though impossible and also pointless to rank talks, Lina Majdalanie’s Do I Know You? struck a particular balance between metaphorical logic, humour, and speculation on the Arab face. Beginning with a parable where Majdalanie saw her husband, Mroué, yet recognized him as an older Palestinian intellectual, Majdalanie reveals that she suffers from prosopagnosia, a disorder where one fails to recognize faces. The talk, which was performed in French, explains how language conditions the understanding of faces, specifically the Arab face. From visage, connoting the notion of the English visa, to the Arabic wajeh that could also sound like woujha, meaning movement towards. What then does it mean to be towards a face or point a weapon at a face? If one lacks a face, can one therefore be killed?

Other tantalizing speeches included Lawrence Abu Hamdan’s, who’s work and analysis on constructing architecture of Saydnaya Prison, near Damascus, which Bashar al-Assad has used to detain enemies of the state. The prisoners are prohibited to make noise and are also blindfolded, so sound stands in for the primary receptacle of their memory. Hamdan works with victims to recover a spatial recognition of the space that is otherwise completely unknown to the public, concluding through his work that resistance to the crimes against humanity could also consist of a listening back, rather than a visual witnessing, or more typically: transgressive talking back.

How Close Can We Get to the Light and Survive took place at Haus der Kulturen der Welt from October 6th to the 7th

Featured image:  Rabih Mroué