Letter to Coreia

Coreia 2020English
Coreia, #2, March 2020, p. 3.

item doc

Contextual note
This text is part of the bilingual (English/Arabic) collection and publication series 'Cairography', which was initiated by HaRaKa (Egypt) and supported by Sarma (Belgium). It features in Cairography #2, also referred to as the 'Emergency Edition' (January 2021), edited by Adham Hafez, Ismail Fayed, and Myriam Van Imschoot and supported by Moussem Nomadic Arts Center in response to a year of losses, between a deadly pandemic and a series of political catastrophes. An Arabic version is available on Sarma. This text was originally published in Portuguese in Coreia, #2, 2020.

Dear Coreia,

You asked me to contribute to your third installment, your third body, which will carry the number two. I am writing this letter on my way to South Korea – a striking resemblance between Coreia and Korea somehow blesses this writing. And on the way, I might have flown over a city where I spent two weeks with your editor João, one in 2015, one in 2019: Beirut. As airspace above Iran and Iraq didn’t entirely close but is widely avoided by international air traffic, I would propose that we just assume that I flew over Lebanon and then further East, above the Middle of the East. But we both know that one rarely travels in straight lines. Would you let me borrow your body so that I can put down some words as a memento of events to be recorded?

On an occasion like this, flying along a mental line which is actually a bumpy curve, I would like to recount a story which happened a mere ten days before I visited Beirut last October. As if it were an echo from a future protest, I had attended a climate sit-in together with my students. Actually, we were supposed to do other things that weekend - to discuss their research proposals which they would execute throughout the coming year. But they adamantly insisted on joining the protests, and so we did: class suspended, and a space made for questions reaching far beyond aesthetic concerns. Indeed, we made space for a question present in most of us today, trying to rethink our personal and collective horizons in the gloom of climate catastrophe. A question, at this very moment, literally elevated in mid-air. The image: about 450 people gathering on a square in Brussels, discussing and exchanging, occupying a physical space with the mental space they are occupied with. It reminded me somehow of the few gatherings I attended during Occupy Frankfurt in 2011. To give space and, by giving it, also taking it. To claim space and to share it again. A forth and back of space-taking and space-giving. And then suddenly the police entered the square. As I said before, I’d like to think that we move in curved lines, but the police only moved in straight lines. The straight lines entered the square through the three main roads. The straight line of moving squads, the straight line of moving batons and canisters, the straight lines of moving entities dividing us into three sections, three herds of cattle, the straight line of water gushing out of a canon targeting three old ladies on the ground. The pepper spray, the plastic strips around our wrists: we were immobilized for six hours on the cold ground, just to let us understand clearly that one should not ask a question and make space for them. My students, myself and 450 other people got arrested via a beautiful but painful master choreography orchestrated by the police. For the State to question means to offend, to attack, to subvert the rules of our society. But while being dragged to the bus, I caught a glimpse of doubt - compassion, maybe - within the policeman who had a wet shine on his retina: at that moment a hopeful, wetted curve in a striated space.

An instance of choreo-police had hit us and led us to understand, or rather to sense, the concrete, immediate effects of what it means to be subordinated by the State. A direct line between ideologically challenging formations and questions, and their aftereffects taking the form of bruised wrists and a week of restless nights. Of course, how could we not always embody the effects of State? But here, the bruise, the subdermal hematoma, became a concrete visualization of what it means to be a citizen today, of what it means to have the State under your skin. When one asks Google how long it takes for a hematoma to go away, the answer is quite simple: one has to wait. The prime machine of surveillance capitalism tells us to wait. I laugh. A passing of time to visually erase the aftereffects of physical trauma. An issue of display, of epidermis, of screen, an organ which forms the boundary between outside and inside. But what really happened was a forced swallowing of the red and the blue pill at once: the simultaneous experience of both dormancy and insurgency, of arousal and perplexity. The body and mind both visualize and are marked by the State, the matrix they are caught by. And we became its sign.

And as we are traveling forwards, I am traveling backwards while reading Beirut Mon Amour, a short text by Paul B. Preciado revisiting his visit to Beirut and Home Works, the arts festival hosted and organized by Ashkal Alwan, in 2015. I was there as well: the bombs in Beirut right before the assaults in Paris, the stench, the confusion. A fine, sketchy line of memory, yet strong enough to keep me in its bind. Paul finishes his text with a Serbo-Croatian saying: “’Hope is the greatest whore.’ I want to get into bed with that whore. I want to sit down next to her and wash her feet. Because that whore is all that’s left of us, and she is the greatest.” I cannot think but wanting to sleep with her too.

And there in Beirut, in 2019, embodiments of hope. On the second day of our stay, we dancingly attended the opening party of the Home Works festival. I remember the long velvet corridors of the club as if they were Lynchian pathways, yet curved, not straight. We were feisty, Deena Abdelwahed was playing, it was hot – at the time we did not know its foreshadowing powers. We had left a club and people were wary about the fact that no taxis would show up. But once in a car, we saw the piles of tires burning. The roads were blocked, the air was black. “Something like les gillets jaunes!” the taxi driver laughed. Another class suspended. The next day the whole city was blocked: its main crossings were temporarily crossed out by vast piles of burning plastic. The air was thick. As in Beirut one travels by car and rarely by foot; a simple blockage caused people to take to the streets, walking. After having missed my appointments during the day, I finally was able to meet up with a friend, Madlen, for a delicious Lebanese dinner. But over baba ganoush and fattoush something had changed: the atmosphere got grim and city noises and clamour pulled us onto the streets. The image: thousands of anonymous masks driving scooters, back and forth, seemingly uncontrolled but clearly, decidedly moving and turning. We dug deeper into the mass. The air was hot and sizzling, a mix of exhaust, burning plastic and the pheromones of revolt. We found ourselves on a crossroad, a meeting point of seven roads, with an old, sturdy tree in the middle, surrounded by a small perch of dry grass. A huge bang, fire in the distance, scooters coming into our direction, thousands of people running, screaming in a language we did not understand. Madlen suggested climbing into the tree, and though I thought it was a joke, I quickly realized she meant it. The tree was a possibility of safety, of a pragmatic symbolism, a rooted anchor, a symbolic form of pragmatism. I said there would be better occasions than this to climb trees. Some minutes later, the incredibility of silence hit us. I peeked from behind the tree and saw the army lining up about 60 meters in front of us. Everyone was gone except for a young boy who, with his face covered by a shawl, told us to stay put. A second later, a strange smell. It took a split-second to realize I couldn’t breathe. Pulling Madlen with me, we left our shelter and ran away in front of the army. A gas had made  us unable to breathe, which forced us to run away in order to be able to breathe again. And when we did, people cheered at us and shouted: “Welcome to Lebanon!”. A welcome had filled our lungs. And together we entered the masses again. The next day we heard the army had been shooting with real bullets. HomeWorks got cancelled, their statement ending with a clear incentive: “See you on the streets.” The revolution had begun. 

The local and the global and their turbulences had entered my body and been made explicit: once by means of plastic strips and once by a toxic substance entering the lungs, leaving a sticky layer on the skin. For some, home, or the image of a home, brings comfort and a reconciliation with the self. In ancient Greek literature, nostos is both the theme and the genre of experiencing and recounting the return home after a tumultuous journey, escaping death or coming back from war. Home is traditionally seen as the place where one lands safely - it is where one is supposedly to order things, the order which can be then stirred up again by the great outdoors. But what if we can’t shed the maelstrom of those tumultuous journeys, what if it keeps on residing within us, what if it enters our homes? As I stood before the elevator to my apartment, grappling with those questions and trying to formulate how I could place myself - there or elsewhere - to reformulate an oikostwo men addressed me and a friend, Lars, and caught me in the most intimate place, a kernel of love and desire. We couldn’t understand what they were saying, and eventually this glossal confusion hinted at the use of our tongues. The tongue, glossa, is an apparatus of both language and love. The image: one of them started singing YMCA, that bouncy track by the Village People, but added counterpoint by making obscene gestures with his hands and mouth - like an airy blowjob. I only got the reference afterwards, that piece of gay disco, as I was too caught up in the frivolous melody of the aggression of the moment, or not expecting cultural references while being caught in crossfire. One tried to hit my head but missed and instead scratched the surface of my right cheek. The other thought he was going a little too far and pushed him in the elevator. But before the door closed the most enthusiastic one of them moved his thumb, slowly, horizontally along his neck, gesturing the potential of murder and shouted “Next time!”. Next time, I think, what a beautiful thought, another chance to reinvent oneself. An invention of a new self, of a new home.

Coreia, let’s keep on recounting these stories. Let’s write them down to not forget. See you on the streets. See you next time.