by Abbas Beydoun

We know where the faces of Gilbert Hage are looking. Their eyes are tied to the mechanical eye of the camera. There are no illusions in these faces. They are camera - made and do not say anything else. They do not say that they are snapshots of life stolen by the camera. They do not say that they are an imitation of life. What they say is the opposite. They obey the machine. They pose the way it wants them to pose: a facial pose with no expression; the only pose that we believe is an imitation of the machine. What these faces want is not documentation, registration, narration or description. What they want is just the image – the image that is superior to the moment, to current life, to expressions and feelings, superior, even, to the subject.

The photographed faces will not remember anything about themselves in this image. If they think about anything, it will not be other than their pose before the photographer and the camera’s eye that is focused on them. The photographed faces will not really find themselves in these photographs. They will find something else, that which they cannot be other than in death or disappearance – or unless they go beyond themselves, or find themselves in another framework. They may or may not laugh at themselves in the image, but they know they are in an image for another time. They are postponed for what comes next, or in state of embalmment, similar to stuffed birds and animals.

We will not say that the photographer’s studio is necessarily a laboratory for embalmment, but facing the photographs of Gilbert Hage, we dare to say it is. It is not perpetuation that the faces want from these photographs. They do not necessarily find themselves sublimed and deified in them. They may laugh at them. They may find these photographs suitable for just a quick use – on a passport or identity card. They may make several copies, because a passport or an identity card requires more than one copy. And as always with copies, if there is an extra that was not used, it is easily ignored or thrown away.

Abbas Beydoun

Each one of us carries such a photograph in his pocket and rarely looks at it without being surprised, as if he cannot believe that it is possible to be so far from oneself. These are photographs that explain us to others, for whom we are nothing more than anonymities; they compare our faces to their photographs on the passport or the identity card, for example, or compare them to the sketch of a fugitive, pictures of wanted or missing persons. They are our images when we do not need to be ourselves, except as much as is of concern to others, when we are to them an expectation, a blessing or a particularity.
These photographs are nothing more than pure images. They are the language of the machine and its idea. They are our image when we are nothing more than an image: they are identical and non-identical. They do not aspire to anything other than themselves and the place they left for the camera’s eye. If they indicate anything, it will be a characteristic in the general. They exist just so that one will not disappear into everyone else and become the same face. They offer the same image with a detailed difference, which prevents one from going to jail instead of someone else, because one may be too much someone else.
Maybe Gilbert Hage wants to tell us about our pre and prior existence in the camera, about our virtual image, about our pure and complete image that does not fit us completely except in our absence. These faces that posed for the camera do not want to put in it except what they consider as the camera’s share and duty, as it is always easier to lend ourselves to some machine – like a voice machine – and wait for it to show our prior and virtual image.

Thus, there are machines of the voice and art, and we look at the eye of the machine, and wait for it to give us those general images that are distinguishable by only one difference, which may be only the name and the signature. Nations and races show off this misty generality, as competition cannot take place except when the same exam is given to all. The competition takes place between these virtual images that are made by the same machine or similar machines. Patriotisms, for example, share a similar language. How scary it is to find that something of the language of Nazism exists, intentionally or unintentionally, in the language of Le Pen and other nationalists. By dint of a face being white, blond or black, a boy or a woman, it authorizes the camera to make an image of that characteristic that exceeds it or exemplifies it. Doubtless in the eye of the Soviet socialist camera the world was one; colors, races and circumstances were just minor differences.

Gilbert Hage: Charbel El Fakhry

A short time before the Lebanese civil war, congresses of the Lebanese Communist Party were certain that the Lebanese society was being redistributed into classes. The Lebanese liberals had no doubt that we were less than a modern state, where blocs and groups organize around political and economic visions and interests. The Communists did not believe that we were there, but did not doubt that we had started on the path to a modern state – and the liberals, too. All considered the existing particularities a condition of chaos and dispersal before reaching the mainstream avenue, the pure image where differences are restricted to a minimum number and a minimum of characteristics. But differences do not need a number or a characteristic to become suddenly decisive or hegemonic.
We will talk about this later. What concerns me now are the machines that make images tailored to their size and give us the impression that we are imitating them. What concerns me is this need for images that always exceeds our particularities and turns us ourselves into some sort of image. This is no naivety or ignorance; we are not supposed to accuse photographers of superiority to – or detachment from – reality. Reality lacks specificity and is not always honest and right; it also includes delusion and illusion. Also, reality appears in all forms and conditions; it may be just a set of tools from which we select what is suitable and ignore what is not. This is no naivety or ignorance; this is a need to look inside ourselves for patterns that we do not know, or that we do not want to know from whence they came: Are they just generated by the machine we posed for? Did they come by chance, or occur to us by chance, coming from anywhere to suddenly be-come an essential, unchangeable element in our definition or presentation of ourselves?
Nationalisms were the perseverance of elites in the beginning of the last century and now are the pulse of the street. We do not yet know if there were earlier examples of Yassir Arafat, Saddam Hussein and even Osama bin Laden. We do not even know how these or those became hegemonic patterns. The dislocation and floating around of images is an absurd process. Images may appear strange and confusing at the beginning, until they start to fit us and become all of our ideas about ourselves. Of course, there is this need for the general, but also the need for difference, which lies mostly in particularities and images, but may suddenly emerge as a border between selves and other selves. This difference is a mere repetition or a mere designation. What does it mean to be Arab, German or French other than repeating that designation every time or adding it every time, as if it were an indispensable signature? Making images is also making differences.
The faces of Gilbert Hage are not distinguishable anything at first glance. Their eyes, colors and features are distinguishable, of course, but what they want to say is that they – in spite of that – do not have any other idea about themselves. Despite that, we see that the moment that they differ from one another – under any circumstance – is not far. The name, the color or the sex can suddenly become an impenetrable border. Of course, an evanescent image can fall onto a deeply rooted bias, feed into it and from it. Even in this case, the bias under the new name becomes more invisible and the image remains clearer and more prominent.
As of now, we do not have a clearly idea about the basis and source of the Jihadist current. According to Ignacio Silone, it is nationalist chauvinism concealed under a new la-bel. But nationalist tendencies were once built on a hidden bias, too. This is a vicious circle. Yet the image that is a general pattern can breed from itself a fatal difference, as Amin Maalouf describes it in Identités meurtrières.(1)
We do not easily trace an analysis for this, but things that are in their beginning techniques or projections become later frightful prophecies.
The image can show latent things, but that is not the point. What is important is that there is not a necessary relationship between the image and its subject; between them exists a distance that is left to chance, improvisation and purely arbitrary. But with an incomprehensible power, they become in an instance one body.
The term “patriotic” during the Lebanese war was hegemonic in each of the two warring sides. Their sharing of the term did not mean anything or cast any doubts on their fighting. Those who talk about Jihad disagree about its meaning, and their practices range from converting people through dialogue, to cutting off heads with knives blunt from sacrifices. Yet Jihad remains an example and an image that fits everything without any difference because the arbitrary presence of the term is matched by the arbitrary presence of the image

Gilbert Hage: Sara Badr The photographs that are prepared on calculated sizes and conditions for the passport are completely strange to their subject. The photograph someone prepares for his own use is different because it is more beautiful and expressive; he can imagine himself in it or believes he is in it. But the standard photograph, that of the passport, becomes his official photograph – the authoritative image – and other photographs become of minor and partial importance. Let us look into this strange congruence of something that is either in-congruent or has not sought congruence – something similar to the arbitrariness of signification, as supposed by de Saussure.
If the term “chair” unequivocally indicates a chair, we cannot know at what point in time the term “chair” and the chair itself were separate.

That is impossible, at least theoretically. But between the photograph and its subject, between patriotism and Jihad and their manifestations, exists at least a time distance. Theoretically, we can imagine them separate or distant. We are surprised; therefore, that they suddenly fit together as if they are of the same element.
The first encounter between image and subject tends to confusing and unstable, there are differences, areas of overlap that vary and change, but soon they begin to fit, merge into each other and become one. Arabism in the beginning was a Christian seedling, and then suddenly it became one with Islam, only to be identified with a certain sect or confession later on. Also, an image can make its own history. Salafites (2) say they are faithful to the heritage of their ancestors, but the heritage as they see it does not include translation, logical theology, philosophy, poetry and narration. Where and what is this heritage, then?
If we remember that the Chinese claim that they invented tea before China came into being, we understand that the tie between original photographs and oldness is delusive and unreal. These photographs’ claim to history is without any base, but history itself cannot evolve into a legend, a sanctuary or a shield unless furnished with authoritative or “original” images, as if history is a trick played by images so that they look older than they are. Even though images in their reality do not have a past, they take possession of a past – or the past – which is not difficult for them because science or evidence is not required. For the purpose of instigation, nothing is easier than to don the attires of science and history, and nothing is more easily spread and believed than instigation.
Just say that something is in danger and everyone will get agitated. Just say that our nation, our culture, the cedar tree or the palm tree is in danger and you will find listeners and a political bloc. It is not necessary for the issue to be bigger or smaller; instigation is not defined by its subject, but by its bias. It is nothing more than a competition of hatred, a display of fanaticisms of all sorts. And even if the instigator is hated or an oppressor, instigation may still succeed, because nations are rarely healed of the need for bias of some sort. If defeats and suffering accumulate in a people, they may lend themselves to any bias, especially the bias that accuses foreigners and collaborators. On several occasions, an oppressor’s end was sidestepped because of such a bias, and a decayed rule succeeded in surviving by reviving such a bias. Even nations that are relatively cured are not safe of catching the disease again.
It would be enough for the current golden age in Japan to disappear and for America to cease its support, and imperial nationalism would inflict Japanese youths. Most likely, such instigation would not even need strength or solidity; it can be daft and childish and still succeed. Another example is this childish competition between trees: Arab palm trees, Palestinian orange trees, Lebanese cedar trees, etc. But the Chinese say that the history of six thousand years emanates with the smell of tea. The image descends upon the subject and between them sometimes is what is between tea and Chinese national pride - pure arbitrariness. Between them is what is between football goals and national victory. Pure arbitrariness, but active intellectuals do not abstain from encouraging it and molding what exists between tea and national pride into poems, speeches, philosophy and thought. It is not wrong to say that much of our culture was absorbed by such acrobatics and that this is what further delays the birth of a real culture and intellectuals.

If Marx spoke of the transformation of the idea into power, fanaticisms can turn caution, fear or envy into power. There is an image that falls arbitrarily on a smaller subject that relies in turn on a factor that we are too shy or embarrassed to announce or name. It can be flagrant ambitions, a small competition or a childish envy. Thus, we are in an unbreakable circle – or circles. If we look at the photographs of ancestors that are still hanging on our walls, with their coiled moustaches and eagle eyes, we feel some sort of fear. These photographs, taken out of their context and time, still retain some of their influence, which is the influence of the image, no more. It can be difficult for us to imagine that our photographs will hang one day on the walls of grandchildren with the same effect. Abusive power is an innate potential of any image that comes upon – even by chance or hazard – a bias, a fanaticism or a subject.
These words could seem frivolous or a major sacrilege. What we take with such lightness once was worshipped and adored by millions; millions died for it. In Iraq today this paradox exists: the absurdity of what is happening is only paralleled by the momentum and violence with which this absurdity occurs. That way, words are countered by themselves. We understand that necessity, causality and logical consideration are not what give things their strengths or mightiness. The outcome may indicate that things have a hidden logic and what we see as incomprehensible surges is really a manifestation of history and its incomprehensible ways. I do not want to rule this out, but simply awaiting the outcome leaves with nothing to say. The lesson here is always for those who come afterwards; be-fore that, we only have the appearance. The appearance shows us that what emerges from overwhelming violence is not always of the same element as the event itself or within the boundaries of its need. It seems to us that something other than the reason, the incentive and the need is involved. It is something imaginary, instinctive and chanceful. Here instigation succeeds with pestilential power, with contagious repetition, nothing more.

For the Arabs, the West was deceitful and aggressive: Sykes-Picot and the establishment of Israel. I am talking about modern times, of course; speaking of the Crusaders is old and remote. Although both events were hot and fresh, fundamentalist Islamic movements chose to appease the West in Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the Arab countries, for reasons specific to that time. Thus was the approach the grandfathers of bin Laden or his fathers.
What happened to make Islamic fundamentalism, after the wound was soothed or almost soothed, take this turn and move to destroy and chase the West and its people everywhere? This is, of course, no absurdity, but at least the reasons are all that apparent. Maybe this makes identities murderous – but also strange. Identities are strange because they do not learn as much as they forget lessons. Most probably, every time they retire they gain strength. They sleep and wake up, like the People of the Cave (3), in another time. They come back with the same discourse, slogans and symbols without any difference. They make exactly the same old mistakes and repeat their same behavior. If something changes, they become more stubborn, simplistic and isolated.
That is more regression than change. Identities rarely do anything other than moving for-ward on the same road, even if they face calamity with open eyes. If we calculate our defeats, we will be stunned to know that a whole century was wasted here. From the first to the last attack, things are almost repeated verbatim, and there seems to be no readiness, any readiness, to correct mistakes or slipups. One movement after another, things end with no lessons. One is bit by the same snake over and over again. From 1948, even from 1936, to the repeated Gulf wars, and from 1956 to 1967 and 1973, the mill, the discourse, the machine, the slipups and the results do not change.
When Americans speak of American values, the talk is confident. The renowned Huntington names them and includes the English language, Christianity and religious observance, as well as the English conception of law, rights, individuality, work values and the belief that man can create a heaven on earth. This may help us understand what Bush meant by the American style after September 11. Many Arabs will celebrate these values and say they have similar ones – the Arabic language, Islam and religious observance – and opposite values: chivalry, generosity and familial solidarity. We will remember that the message of American intellectuals to the world has been built on these values.

But if we realize that Huntington says this out of fear that the influx of Latinos will distort this system with a non-English tongue and a non-Protestant religion … once we learn this, we will find that Bush and Huntington are making things much easier for us and are saving us much embarrassment – for the tune of these values suits all peoples.
The question is whether the intellectuals are the guardians of mainstream values and whether culture is truly the worship or consecration of stable values. Out of a need for equality, we are seduced to see that the legend is the same here and there. Anyway, it was not an Arab who first matched Bush’s discourse with bin Laden’s.

But this, despite its appeal and satisfaction, is dangerous. It makes us equal of the worst and raises the danger of facing the worst. It even makes us watch what exacerbates in our land and home as if it were a game of nations that does not concern us. The danger is a political nihilism that makes all options equal. America produces every now and then a childish right-wing trend; France, for example, can do the same (Le Pen), or Austria and Holland. But this does not put democracy and oppressive paranoia on the same par. Nor does it make anti- Americanism a sole political religion or the sole source of every policy.
Equality in being the worst is the biggest pretext for self-acquittal. The Lebanese war, faced with such equality, seems unable to reach an end. It ended in closed parallelism.
Gilbert Hage: Yves Atallah

The two patriotisms were paralleled in their wretchedness and became miserable. The misery and defeat of Lebanism is no less than the misery and defeat of Arabism. Their tragic presence does not allow any of them to be a solution or a way out. It is enough to see the besiegement of these two patriotisms inside and outside the country to understand that taking as a pretext an old lineage or a geographic distinction is not enough anymore.
What we are in now is sad patriotisms; and I am not sure if sad patriotisms are suited to be a real hope. Sad patriotisms are a waste of the self in murderous feelings without horizon. They are a mere retreat. If we look into the political language of young people today, we see that it is the same language of their fathers, even their forefathers, without a difference. Sad patriotisms are also self-eulogy and sentimental isolation and an a priori feeling of defeat. These cannot be active identities; most probably they are restless, misty and fragmented identities.
However, and even though we are hearing a lot of the prewar language these days, and even language from the beginning of the last century, nobody feels that things have stayed the same. Possibly this language reverberates in an ideological void, or rather in a space of despicable non -history, where rhetorical mechanisms are spinning and grinding, without any discernible link between the signifier and the signified. Such a language tends to obfuscate the real ideological and political stalemate we are in, and allows the remnants of ideologies to resurface anew. The war did not only leave us with the debris of a society, the debris of a state and the debris of politics; it also left us with ideological and intellectual debris. At some point in time, all bets seemed to be equal, whether they were placed on the West or on the Arabs, on the interior or on the exterior. They appeared to be bets placed on a defeat, or on a lie.
Most probably, the first to clamp down on the various Lebanese factions were their real and imaginary patrons. All of a sudden they found themselves without any bets, and their approaches dissolved into rhetoric without any base or substance, deriving power from itself only. Thus, we understand how we are entering a zone where nothing seems to be defined and everything vague, while the blaring horns of ideology still insinuate the contrary. Are we still in a war of identities and patriotisms? Are we facing again two op-posed patriotisms and identities, or are we actually inside a vague circle between two defeated identities and patriotisms? What is the meaning of a Lebanon that faces economic failure and exists under patronage? What is the meaning of a Lebanon plagued by demographic drain and a disturbed confessional balance, amidst a general state of bankruptcy in the Arab world, and a divided West? Can we really conceptualize this situation and describe it as the confrontation of two opposed patriotisms and identities? Are we not facing the remnants, the debris of two patriotisms, while we are – in reality – stuck inside an intermediate circle between them and of them, a circle that we have no exact understanding of what it should be or mean? Lebanism was born from the Lebanese dream and Arabism from an Arab dream. What has become of these two dreams today? Surely they are in a state of defeat. What can result from a defeated Lebanism and a defeated Arabism?
If we take a closer look, we would say that the idea of “Lebanist” superiority collapsed while Lebanon remained for all, and that Arabism faces a dilemma while the Arabic language remains for all. If we take even a closer look, we would see that sectarian confrontation is more public and staged than substantial and real. In the past, sectarian resentment was a dark driving force that that remained camouflaged and was thus capable of creating different ideological levels and intermixing with other elements. But the clear and public sectarian confrontation that we are witnessing now gives the impression that sectarianism is no longer a driving force, but rather a tool or a tactical device, and also a clear expression of political bankruptcy.
Thus, it can be said that in the murky area where we live now, the most unbelievable thing is what is called reality. The most unbelievable things are the photographs that, hanging as they are unchanged on the walls, claim eternity. The same applies to terms and political slogans, even values adapted from most recent times. As if we are left without a language. In this intermediate grey area, there is a latency similar to fermentation, to a state of atrophy or protracted agony. It maybe this or that. The grey hour may be long or short, but a borrowed language will not become a truth. No matter how long that reverberation lasts, it will not become real time.
Maybe it is a difficult lingering; time is awaiting its people. It is difficult to leave the tunnel of big patriotisms to enter something simpler than a state of insecurity. It is hard to equal them with dreams of the same magnitude. Nothing can match up to big paranoia, big congestion or big hatred. If we want to reach the shore, we will find ourselves outside our gigantic nightmares and dreams. Disappointment will be there at all times; peace is always cold and, of course, not exciting. These slow, incremental improvements in the fields of coexistence – as they call it –, personal freedom and in private life, the making of a mother tongue or multilingualism, and maybe some sort of international snobbism, with time will become a tradition by itself. This will be cold and long process, it will not develop into a dream or a nightmare of sorts, but the definitions of the world and man have become more and more dispersed and contradicting.
Maybe we are overstretching the work of Gilbert Hage or putting words into his mouth. Hage does not seek to deify the machine, he tries to deify man. Faced by this equality in photographs, I am prompted to think of Warhol or Giacometti. Most probably, this repeti-tion is closer to a Bachian concerto or some sort of a hymn. But we forget that the characters of Hajj have eyes and that these eyes glare more when the faces are similar. They glare more without leaving the human condition, but they always retain the power of not melting away, of returning again to the beginning.

Translated from Arabic by Abdelrahman Ayas

Lecture held at the vernissage of the exhibition "Ici & Maintenant" by Gilbert Hage, arranged for the occasion of the opening of the Middle East Office on November 3, 2004 at Espace SD, Beirut and displayed in Berlin during the international conference "Identity vs. Globalization?" organized by the main office of hbf.

First Published in As-Safir Newspaper, Beirut, 19/11/2004.

Abbas Beydounis a well-known Lebanese poet, journalist, essayist and literature critic. Since 1997 he works as Cultural Editor of As-Safir newspaper in Beirut.
Copyright of all translations published on this website © Heinrich Böll Foundation - Middle East Office
Copyright of the images published on this page © Gilbert Hage, Beirut


  1. Engl.: Amin Maalouf: In the Name of Identity : Violence and the Need to Belong. New York, 2001.
  2. Reference to the religious-revivalist Islamic “Salifiyah”- movement, which argues to follow the practices and beliefs of "the sound forefathers" (Arabic As-Salaf As-Salih).
  3. The story of The people of the Cave is narrated in a Surah of the Koran by the same name, and was adapted by the Egyptian playwright Tawfiq Al-Hakim in a play by the same title.

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