As a child during the war, I would emerge from long periods spent underground sheltering from the bombing to discover a landscape dazed by destruction, the invasive smell of soot, the new state of things… Gradually, during the lull, in a slow epiphany, I would be struck, as violently as I had been by the disaster, by the changing of the seasons, the weather, the landscape that was still there, the jasmine that continued to flower.
The weather kept on changing: rain, sunshine. The day dawned and the night fell.
There was something happening other than what was happening, a different world operation.
Everything was cohabiting, coexisting in the chaos.
The cycle of nature, the mountains, were totally out of context: following their own destiny, their own time, with their own intensity, their own fragility. The mountains had no refuge, just like the elderly people we couldn’t take down to the shelters because they had difficulty moving. They were totally exposed, abandoned to the risks.
The mountains in Lebanon are on the frontier of atrocity and can at any given moment move to the other side, to that of innocence. As we all can.
At 15, I visited the Forest of Cedars for the first time. The lines of demarcation had just been drawn up and suddenly we could move more or less freely around the country/landscape – “more or less” because there were still the Syrian army barricades that scared us and traces of war everywhere. Once again, facing up to the desolation was mixed with a sense of marvel at the discovery of new landscapes. It was troubling crossing territories that until now had been forbidden. I asked my father to buy me a camera. That is how I started taking photographs, while discovering this other dimension of territory; or, rather, while devouring it.
While reading, I stumbled across this line by Deleuze: “Art preserves and it is the only thing in the world that is preserved. It preserves and is preserved in itself.” So what can I do apart from live and look at my landscape and preserve it? There are images to be made now. It becomes urgent for me to go out onto the terrain and to face up to the risk that the landscape might become inaccessible again. My impulse is both romantic and aggressive, amorous and combative. On one hand I would like to look at this landscape once more, and on the other I am driven by a desire to reconquer the land and to work it. There is desire and at the same time a process of grieving. But there is above all something that touches on my freedom.
So, how to conjugate that which falls within the realm of contemplation, of long duration, with emergency and disaster? How to swing from the reign of peace to that of war, to move forwards in a territory that is sometimes landscape and sometimes “terrain.” What place does this enormous and ancient mountainous body have in current reality, in our identity and in our imagination, in the current landscape? How to experience this “landscape” that is there, which surrounds us as much as it surrounds the horror?
Lots of people, seeing my images ask me if these images “are” Lebanon. “So that’s Lebanon?”
What is Lebanon after all? How to see it and how to depict it, what to say about it? Is it the garbage, the war? A sublimated touristic object/motif, idealised by promotional films like “Rise above Lebanon?” Is it a country sinking into catastrophe? Hell or Paradise?
I wanted to free the “landscape” from the “country.” I would like that to be possible… And yet the place that generates this tension between “country” and “landscape” is written in me. I may well only look at the nature of things, but all that is connected to the “country” lives intensely in the dynamic of my approach, pushing me towards my own landscape, even pushing me within my own body.
It is the “country” that threw me into the arms of the landscape.
Here everything is poetic. Here everything is political.
I have always been torn between the two in a triangular relationship, in complex realities, each one as real as the next.
Everywhere, militarised zones, dangerous frontiers, closed-off areas. This region is Christian, that one Muslim, here is the army, here is Syria… Systematically people ask me with a suspicious air what I am doing here and why I am taking photos. People sense that I am looking for something and that I am neither a tourist, nor a rambler.
Each point is strategic for one reason or another. Everything is meaningful; as much for me as for others. What for me is a lookout for the landscape is for another a lookout for danger, for the enemy…
So maybe my images/landscapes are both images/landscapes of peace and images/landscapes of war.
By Nadim Asfar
A version of this article appeared in print in Selections, The Urban Art Issue #37, pages 86-87