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Ziad Dallal: 'An Expression of the City'

An Expression of the City


In the 1970s the power of words exhibited itself like a Shakespearean fool. But like every performance which dares to open up a space for change, its reception was violent.

So God's scratched record went round and round and round and round again and mistakenly exclaimed: In the beginning was the word, and the word was with the Rhizome and the word was Multiplicity.

I have been thinking of Noor for a long period of time. He’d only appear fragmented, as if whatever material created him held the intensive potential of forming only bits and pieces of his body; was my imagination just another abortion? Sometimes, a male imagination lacks the maternal components of perfection. It wasn’t until chance whispered the ruinous lyrics that a muse came to my assistance, and Noor presented himself to me completely. I fell to level zero, weighed down by the immanence of his pathetic image. He looked old; few strands of grey hair sprung below his bowler hat. His eyes didn’t seem to move together symmetrically. His clean-shaven face revealed the wrinkles a life of toil and work would provide. But his fingers were smudged with an array of colours mixed together; his fingernails were dark as if he had touched the end of the rainbow and caused the collapse and merging of the seven colours. His hand reached out to his glasses and he took them off as if he didn’t need them, as if my imagination was at fault to put them on his face. He threw the glasses away and looked at me with a sense of disbelief and murderous horror. His sharp eyes made it seem as if I’d illegally nailed him to a reality he didn’t wish to be part of, and with a quick sudden movement, he kicked me to the ground and stomped on my body with successive superhuman stamps. But the floor was also a wall.

Noor took me underground and I saw the Rhizome.

The Rhizome is the hidden content of every plant. It lies underground and survives fires and fungus and parasitic insets. It connects to everything around it, to the rock and soil, to the roots of vegetation, to the bases of buildings and the ruins of ancient civilizations. It is like a vine, but it does not climb; it simply spreads like the heat of the black sun. One cannot demarcate neither beginning nor end. All of it seems like a massive middle-part, different plateaus connecting to each other like a neural network. It has no centre, and no organization. It is a multitude of labyrinths stringed together; each entrance is an exit, and each exit an entrance. On each gate, Ariadne’s thread becomes a part of Penelope’s web. The Rhizome network flows like the movement of nomads across vast deserts; the mapping of their movement spells out multiplicity; and the multiplicity excluded any possible trace of a victorious one over another.

In the 1970s multiplicity was misunderstood for the dividing line of a bipolar separation. Multiplicity became the opposite of unity. Blood was shed in excess, and the war had the quality of excessive consumption and not of conquest, as if the sun would cease to blaze if the bombs had stopped; the sun, they thought, was the fruit of their bloody madness.

“The sun is black!” Stray dogs howled as they scampered through the rubble of the continuously destroyed city. When rubble had covered the earth like the veil of Maya and nothing was left to destroy, the bombs headed elsewhere. The streets, resting after a period of explosive exhaustion, slowly witnessed a rite of spring in the form of greenery, and the deathly Green Line was created; the rhizome expressed itself through the green shrubbery. It grew along the horizontal street, not longing for the sun or the stars.

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Van Gogh would be ever more frustrated today; neither his brush strokes nor his cypress trees would or could satisfy this city. He’d cut off both ears, and all in vain. While arbour forests reach out vertically towards a sky, and the city of yesterday mirrored such growth, the city of today deceives. Don’t be mistaken by the façade of tall buildings: this city is the tain of the mirror; it identifies with difference and expands virulently in all directions like a rhizome. At each point, larval, embryonic, with the potential to trap within it all kinds of manifestations, but the manifest image remains voluptuous like Andres Serrano’s lower lip swelling like the reception of Piss Christ and Tarantino’s hackneyed brilliance: the space of previous products displayed in homage of a past still expanding and mushrooming like a drop of ink in water. The murderers of Guy Ritchie’s London crime sagas infuse it with a comic charm that seduces every observer. And every observer necessarily becomes an actor; and actors sustain the part. Of course, all of us actors know that we would not be seduced if we did not allow it. There is beauty in the hospitality we see in the tain of the mirror, the hospitality of no-reflection. “Be what you want to be,” the city tells me, “on condition that you don’t try to represent me.” So Van Gogh cuts off his ears when he looks at the tain of the mirror.

                                                                                                             *

"Longing and ambition promise nothing. Neither do beginnings. If any location is witness to that, it is Beirut" said Noor as he matter-of-factly tried, against his intentions, to satisfy the questions targeted towards him in the opening of his exhibition in the city centre of Beirut.  His answer came as a response to the multitude of questions, which, conflated as one, would be “why are all your paintings situated underground?”

The refreshments and finger-food pastries were being packed and disposed. The exhibition space, one of the corridors of Beirut Souks, looked much relieved by the absence of the eyes that incomprehensibly stared down paintings of different colours, yet of one theme. Noor walked along the lit corridor, alone with his art for the first time since it was collected and moved. The delicacy which he had painted and had tried to portray had vanished suddenly. Instead, all the canvases seemed glossed with the invisible markings of the phantom pupils of wandering eyes.  He felt an uncanny disconnection with the arrangement of colours in front of him. Frustrated, he hurried to his favourite painting.

He stood beneath it, humble like a son under his father’s eyes. Embroiled by Fate, read the small tag paper next to it. The rectangular canvas presented shadowy figures and formless shapes, as if it were a portrait of smoke. In its centre, a marble Jesus hung in mid-air, his hands enveloping the whole painting, extending beyond the boundaries of the canvas. Beneath the marble Jesus, a broken remnant of the crucifix lay trenched in the ground. On the side of the remnant, the word whore was blazoned with a curvy font, glaring like a fallen neon sign. Noor’s own Golgotha scene was located under soiled sky; the dark brown of the underground replaced the azure of the sky of martyrs so that in the horizon, it was revealed that this was all happening between two different levels of the crust of the earth, spreading horizontally in all directions so that not even Jesus’ arms can envelope its scope; this was not a beginning and not an end, but only a middle among many. Faintly, next to the blazoned whore, a simple grey glove lay beneath a diamond.

It was the diamond that calmed him down. 

He flashed back to the opening of the souks. Visitors and guides had flooded the Souks like swarming locusts. Passing through the Jewellery Souk, he had noticed all the women inside arranging the sparkling rocks with gloves in their hands, focused on positioning the necklaces perfectly around the synthetic neck. At that moment, the diamonds showed more than shine; they made visible Ariadne’s thread.

He had followed the thread through his own personal tour; the diamonds had led him to martyr’s square; and beyond that, to the basis of an old destroyed tower, the bourj. He had trotted like rapid fingers across a piano board, musically harmonizing every step along the thread.

With the prophetic sense of ecstatic urgency; he had seen that this city was built over loss. But it was the beautiful loss felt when purchasing a diamond, or when sacrificing a life.

The loss remained underground, hidden among the force-field of energy from matter annihilated. The inheritance from seven civilizations and seven destructions rumbled against cement and stone and gravel and glass. Noor had felt it and depicted it. And then there was of a womb scraping its insides; the thread undoing itself.

Diamonds are of most value, they say, that have passed through most jewellers’ hands. Whores by that rule are precious, he remembered.

He snapped out of his epiphany when he heard the explosion of fireworks by the nearby seaside. He looked around him and saw no one. Again he would leave his paintings alone. He wondered through the city centre. The street lights were yellow and bright. The cobblestones underneath him made the streets seem eerie; the downward street, Italian-based architecture, and the after-taste of wine made him feel like Montresor’s pawn.

The city seemed to spread in front of him like a chessboard. Beyond the board, the sea was a swallower of life. Every stride was one step closer to death; a buzzing in his ear reminded him of his waxing mortality. He was an exemplar case of the loneliness of success.

He continued to walk straightforwardly, like a pawn, until he saw a figure in the distance, swaying as if floating inches above the ground. She must be the queen, he thought, still transfixed upon the chess metaphor. The two figures came closer to each other and within seconds he could see her flowing hair and her loose cardigan, which reached her knees.

He veered his direction suddenly to the left, the signature kill-move of a pawn. But can a queen be captured by a pawn?

She stood still in front of him, waiting for a word; but the word didn’t come. Her eyes, brown, sparkled as she looked straight at him. He hid his hands in his pockets and was beginning to apologize when she spoke.

“And when the Lamb had opened the seventh seal, there was silence in heaven about the space of half an hour”. She gave him her hand and he accepted, the buzz in his ears still ringing.

“I know you,” she exclaimed, her thin wrists touching his aged ones.

“How?” He asked, forgetting who he was.

“That’s an odd question. You’re Noor.”

She led him back to the exhibition. His paintings still hung motionless. Embroiled By Fate in the centre. She led him to it. “What were you trying to represent?” Her question had a demanding tone to it. 

He looked at her, sneering. He let go of her hand and realized that she knew who he was; she knew his artwork, and he had yet to know her name.

“What’s your name?” he demanded in return.

“Nehmah,” she matter-of-factly stated, “so, why this mixture.”

“Look around you,” he said, trying to evade the question, as he tried to do with the journalists earlier.

“So this is the city? What fate is the city embroiled by?”

He felt smothered by her youthful presence. Nehmah the Queen, reversing the dynamics, choking him with a question she was entitled to ask. His face flushed with the redness of a dim flame, his blood filled his tired cheeks and forced him to raise eyebrows as he bellowed uncontrollably, “LOSS!”

“Yes, I knew that. Just wanted to be sure.” 

“So, are you satisfied?” he said angrily, cringing, snatching her hand violently. But she didn’t seem threatened.

“No. You’ve captured the essence of this city. You’re too nostalgic.”

“I am not! And there are no essences.”

“What makes a zebra a zebra?” She unsheathes her wit like a hidden dagger.

“A zebra is just an expression of its DNA. My painting is just another kind of expression.” 

“This whole exhibition is like a graveyard of things lost. What are you trying to bring back?”

“It’s not about bringing back.” He fell silent again. A part of him knew that she was right, but he did not want to admit it. Finally, he sighed and submitted, “Things always return, but they return differently. This is a mode of expression. You can get meaning out of this, but at the same time, you can get as many meanings as the pairs of eyes that see it. The only truth concerning meaning is that there are multiple meanings. Art is not a divine mirror.”

And in a space of a second he realized that Ariadne’s thread was just a part of Penelope’s web. She smiled and dragged him away from the exhibition, like a whore leading her client to the bedchamber. The buzzing in his ear resembled the sound of a trumpet. Was it the trumpet of the apocalypse? Or the sound of a Sacred Queen returning to her castle? 

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