Everything is relational and it is magnified here

Justine Youssef 

 

As I exit the terminal at Beirut-Rafic Hariri International Airport I walk into a two-meter high bulging sculpture that reads ‘AHLAN WA SAHLAN’. It is hardly bulging at all, actually. I blame my clumsiness on the thirty degree afternoon in Beirut and the high grade fever that I have brought with me from Sydney and its winter. The plaque adjacent to the sculpture translates the text into both English and French, casual twentieth century colonial hangovers: ‘WELCOME HOME/BIENVENUE CHEZ NOUS — A collaboration between Beirut Duty Free and the Lebanese Ministry of Tourism.’ Being welcomed back into this land by a neoliberal monument and its romantic sentiments of ‘home’ is bittersweet considering how difficult it is for many locals to both leave and stay here. If my familial circumstances were even the slightest bit different, this would hardly be the case. Falling victim to nationalist notions before, I photograph its expression in this sculpture, caution myself against imperialist induced patriotism and seek home in the people I know here.

 

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As I child I spent slow summers in my father’s mountain village in Minieh-Danniyeh, the district in northern Lebanon near Trablous. My father had always intended to move the family back, once the occupation was over, his visa had expired and he had saved enough money filling labour shortages in south-west Sydney. He was able to support his parents and siblings from abroad, but quickly learnt it was near impossible to sustain a life in our village when a full day’s work sees you paid $50 and a kilo of meat costs the same. I photographed these markings on the walls of our village school when I was a child and it was my screen saver for the longest time. I try to be independent on this trip, a conflicting endeavour considering how collectivist my experiences have previously been here.

 

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My family don’t know that I am visiting so I find myself a service, which is essentially the original UberPool, but more DIY. I direct the driver to a friend’s house in the coastal city of Jounieh. As we make our way out of Lebanon’s congested capital, I photograph a mural of a tree that appears alongside the only few trees lining the freeway. ‘Ente men aya day3a?,’ the driver asks. This translates to, ‘Which village are you from?,’ and is the beginning of an hour-long investigation into which thrice-removed kin we might have in common. Everything is relational and it is magnified here. In our village I am not ‘Justine’, I am ‘bent Nassr’ (daughter of Nassr) until I am married (as if). The driver tells me it will take between 40 minutes to 3 hours to get to Jounieh, encapsulating the concept of ‘Arab time’ and the state of the nation’s transportation system. I arrive in the record time of 1 hour and spend the night smoking watermelon head argileh on a rooftop with my oldest, dearest and most turbo friends. My virus worsens by the morning so I catch a ride to our village with friends who are seeking respite after a few days in Beirut. ‘The village is our come-down cure,’ the boys explain.

 

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It is a historic and sacred practice to pull through to the iconic ice cream shop, Bouza Salem, on the way to our village for kashta bouza. The drive to our village is long and the roads are rough, though somewhat smoother since they were paved by expatriates and the local rubbish tip shut down due to sectarian conflict. When open, the tip would cause some traffic delays, but its absence is contributing to the nation’s trash crisis which has left mountains lined with uncollected rubbish and locals vulnerable to methods of open waste burning. The effects are especially felt here where many residents lack proper access to healthcare. This economic condition is intertwined with the nation’s socio-political reality and a global system that benefits from the region’s continued reliance on foreign aid and other resources. 

 

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We arrive in our village after three snack-related detours. It has been years since I have visited ghidi here. Each time he crosses my mind I knock on wood so that we might have the chance to play 400 again. I take a photograph on his rooftop where grapevines grow in abundance and the mobile phone signals are the strongest. Hit with shingles when I was here as a child, I had spent weeks on this sofa recovering as my aunties lay a rose water soaked cloth over my face to calm the swelling. Today, I sit on the sofa outside our home, holding ghidi’s hand and eating bizir with my cousins. At night we sleep three cousins to a bed and wake up to either the roosters crowing or my aunty screaming at us to eat with her. I can’t tell which wake-up call shakes me more.

 

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Many of my cousins work through the summer. The men drive the service and work together as electricians or tilers. The women work in salons or as carers. Our families used to depend on agriculture in our village, with the cultivation of apples, pears and wheat proving most abundant. To this day, orchards are watered from the melted snow of the natural springs, the goats fertilise the land and rose bushes act as a natural pesticide. Things have shifted with my generation and although the farms are still tended to, this sector is witnessing a regression. I help my aunties farm the land then spend hours picking cucumber spikes out of my fingers.

 

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We fit seven cousins in a five-seater car and drive to the top of the mountain to fill water tanks  from the springs, dodging live wires until the electricity cuts out, then shooting empty cans to kill time. It smells like jasmine, lavender and burning trash this time of year. I discover that I have a deep affinity with vinyl car decals and there is no lack of them here. When the traffic calms down we catch three rides to the nearest city, Trablous, to buy fresh towels, eat kaak knafeh and roam the old souk.

 

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I never had the chance to finish high school, not many of my cousins did. We made our own platforms to process our experiences outside institutions; painting in old factories, bejeweling phone cases and carving little symbols into our skin before rubbing cool ash into the wound to mark ourselves forever. There is an element of world building and futurism in these gestures that I can’t quite articulate. These actions were freeing—the work of embellishing a worn out car with vinyl decals comes from that same space.

 

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Two villages away, a club has reopened after a decade of abandonment. We spend hours getting ready to go out. A ritual rich with insidious European beauty standards; sugar waxing arms, straightening every kink out of curly hair and contouring noses, all the while dancing and making each other laugh. There are wolves and white hyenas in these mountains. You can hear them at night so we carry sticks in the evening, hang blue beads for protection and tie up our hair so the ‘spirits’ don’t latch on.

 

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There are many stories in our village. I take out my phone and record the structures which once housed the elders who lived here. ‘Sheer El Arous’ is a rock on a nearby high cliff where women would bathe before marriage ceremonies. I ask endless questions of my aunties and uncles and document the healing practices I come across to ensure their preservation. I photograph a plant that makes a potent tea which helps to alleviate the virus I had brought with me. I watch my uncle distill the tea with the bark of a native tree to create a scent of attar similar to oud that repels snakes from the home.

 

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At times my questions fall on apathetic ears. Economic, social and political circumstances bind many to the region and leave them with limited work opportunities and worsening security conditions. The case is exacerbated for the displaced and domestic worker populations in the cities. The brain drain is real here. ‘If they gave them all their papers there’d be no one left. Wallah your son will get his visa and he won’t come back,’ the baker in the furen tells my aunty. She argues with him, ‘Ibni only has six months.’ ‘When did that stop anyone?,’ he finishes.

 

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Here is a fun drinking game to play at your cousin’s laylieh: each time someone says ‘3a2belik’ whisper ‘b3id el shar’. Take a shot of the arak ‘borrowed’ from your uncles table, since it is one of the only spirits that is not usually madroubeh. Take two shots if an aunty comments on your ‘child bearing hips’ and asks for your number for her unmarried nephew who is ‘so smart he could be an engineer’. Dance off the unsolicited compliments about how much weight you have gained and how little your nose looks ‘with all that makeup on’. Celebrate the women who wear dresses with the price tags still on, proud markers of outwitting the commodity exchange forces of capitalism. Bask in the light of homemade fireworks. Keep your fake butterfly tattoos hidden.Don’t post too much on Instagram or they will put the 3ayn on you.’

 

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I have so much time for my cousins and their weddings and on this occasion I attend my first in our village. It begins in the bedroom where lollies and flower petals are thrown on the bride’s bed as her closest relatives dance and sing. A zaffet meets the bridal party and together they dance in the streets towards the site of the ceremony. Elders toss rice and sing poetry while young women throw showers of sugar and flower petals out from the buildings above. One day I will recount this moment at Queerstories and focus on the glitter that fell from the bridesmaids dresses and coated the entire bridal party. The power cuts out at 2 A.M. but that stops nobody from dancing. The following day I find rice and petals in what feels like every crevice of my body.

 

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I move through many worlds here. On the coast there is Layla Kristy Feghali, a Plantcestral practitioner, aspiring ethno-botonist and, in my opinion, a healer. For years I have been transfixed by stories of her critical work online and I have the pleasure of finally meeting her at one of the last remaining public beaches near her village in the Batroun District, on the southern outskirts of Trablous. We visit a lotus pond  she has built within a public square. The pond is contained by the relics of a pre-Phoenician ceramic found close by and it hosts a blue lotus flower, a gift that travelled with her from Egypt. This public site was chosen as the plant is historically used communally as a consciousness raising tool. I watch Layla as she tends to an ancient carob tree that lives in her native garden. I bite into the fruit it bears. We find scarab beetles sucking nectar from purple globe thistles and she teaches me how to crush the spikes to eat the fruit inside.

 

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There are worlds here that I can only grasp because of my encounters in our village. In the capital I meet with graduates of the public university who build queer art spaces in derelict buildings; artist-run institutions that are core to the region’s developing contemporary art scene; and non-profit organisations that manage radical refuges for womxn and displaced people. The structures that necessitate these initiatives are entwined with those that prompt my encounter with the bulging sculpture that welcomed me ‘home’ on arrival at Beirut’s airport. They are the same as those that generate the smell of burning trash, the brain drain in our village, and the medicine of the blue lotus flower. There are no isolated encounters. Everything is relational and it is magnified here.

 

Author’s acknowledgements:
Thank you to Firstdraft and The Keir Foundation for supporting my travels to Beirut for research purposes. My warmest to Georgia Hobbs and Tian Zhang who travelled with me on the final leg of the trip as we met with many incredible artists, organisations and grassroots initiatives. Firstdraft is supported by the NSW Government through Create NSW, the Australian Government through the Australia Council, it’s arts funding and advisory body and the City of Sydney through its Accomodation Grant Program.

All photographs courtesy the author: Lebanon, August 2019.

 


 

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Justine Youssef is a contemporary artist who is currently living and working on the unceded territory of the Darug people. Her first solo exhibition, Justine Youssef: All Blessings, All Curses, was presented at 4A Centre for Contemporary Asian Art in 2018. In 2019 she was the recipient of the Copyright Agency’s John Fries Award which facilitated her attendance at Ashkal Alwan’s 8th edition of Home Works in Beirut. She is participating in the Parramatta Artist Studios studio program while working on the board of directors at Firstdraft and Pari.


 

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