On building and sustaining

A collage of six men diving

Men diving. Credit: Patchwork of Narratives

I woke up Sunday morning wanting to read more about Lebanon. Two of my best friends from university are from Beirut, and the uninformed, almost selfish me at the time never got around to inquire them more about their beautiful country. I know that the country at the edge of the Mediterranean, despite boasting a population of over 18 religious communities, is a small one — no less than 12,000 sq kilometres — in fact 12 times smaller than the New York state. The country is roughly rectangular in shape, that my friend Sami told me that you could drive from one end of the country to the other only within 2 hours. Newly recovering from the Civil War that lasted from 1975 till 1990, Beirut in particular was nicknamed ‘Paris of the East’ after World War II, attributed to the fact that Lebanon was once colonised by the French and that was where the cultural and intellectual influences came from. There were plans of me visiting, but something got in the way (two things actually — my PhD and then the current Lebanese revolution) so I told them I’ll finish this PhD first and while at it they’d need to yallah get a new, shiny, trusty government before I come visit.

I realised all these years I have always been interested in the matters of human organisation, maybe partly due to the fact that I was used to managing a team before. I am interested in the dynamics of people in a team, and that no two teams are ever the same, and despite multiple articles posted about how to build the perfect team, there is in fact, no perfect team. More so than ever, I am interested in the matters of collective solidarity and action of people who converge together united by one goal or shared grievances — and despite all odds and complexities of their backgrounds — an organisation emerges amidst these all. By now, you would probably have recognised I am talking about social movements, a research area I feel very strongly about. I am also interested in the contradiction of this scenario — where within the rigidness of organisation, entropy still makes way, of which plans were constructed to the most meticulous details yet some parts still fail. For the life of me, I don’t have the best examples right now, except that if you have ever watched La Casa de Papel, you would understand what I’d mean. All in all, building is just one the first steps, sustaining the organisation is another work to consider.

While Internet trawling about Lebanon, I found Patchwork of Narratives, apparently an exhibition catalogue for an urban project at Färgfabriken where cities are examined through stories, symbols, prejudice and expectations interweaving with the physical infrastructure. The thing about cities — especially the ones rebuilt out of wars and destruction — are often caused by the greed and intervention of others (I’m looking at you America). This edition particularly tries to capture the souls of Mostar and Beirut, two cities which carry traumatic history and are facing great challenges. “The effects of the destruction during the war can be divided into two categories: physical and mental consequences. The physical ones are the most visible — roofs, frames, windows and parts of facades have been blown away by grenades and bullets destroying buildings and creating vacant dwellings next to the streets that are full with grenade shell holes”, a reminder of what the cities once went through, their dwellers unable to forget, as long as the buildings are still there. “How could one commence his or her own mental reconstruction when the physical environment is destroyed? “

I have always heard about the Old Bridge of Mostar, and its tradition. “One of the most important traditions of Mostar is the diving off of the Old Bridge, which has occurred since 1567. It used to be a ritual where young men dove off the bridge in order to prove their manliness and impress young women.” The tradition is carried until today, where little boys learned to dive until they are skillful enough to do that on their own. A diving competition is held every year. It is said that every Mostarac man had ever dived from the bridge.

Of all the things man builds, nothing in my eyes is better and more valuable than bridges. Bridges are more import than the houses, brighter than the temples, because they are intended for a greater number of people; they are everybody’s property and equal to all, useful, always erected in a meaningful way, at the point where the highest number of human needs cross. — Ivo Andrić, The Bridge on the Drina (1945).

What’s interesting is that shared architecture like the Old Bridge, forms a heteropolis, which refers to an urban assemblage that thrives on differences. “In that single space there is the piecing together of all sorts of people and narratives.” Mostar itself was said to mean ‘bridge-keeper’ after Suleiman the Magnificent commissioned for it to be built in 1557. When the bridge was attacked in 1993, it destroyed the very idea and identity of Mostar where the fear of the Other through the ‘bridging’ is shredded away, until the bridge was rebuilt in 2004.

There has never been an original Whole into which all parts could once again harmoniously fit, but only antagonistic pieces that different forces try to exploit and put together in conflicting ways.

All of this reminds me also of the book called Frankenstein in Baghdad — it is a small book, but had strongly impacted my understanding on wars, survival, and rebuilding lives so much, along with An Unnecessary Woman — all of these stories about resilience and reclaiming any semblance of normal life (is it any?) after wars. Rebuilding is already a work by itself, sustaining it is another.

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