Artist-in-Residence Sabine El Chamaa
By Paul K. Saint-Amour, Dept. of English, Univ. of Pennsylvania
An elderly woman collects chunks of concrete from the ruins of an abandoned apartment building, takes them home, and in her bedroom builds a memorial wall. People in a city square speak to one another and, with a mixture of concern and curiosity, watch an unmanned drone circling overhead. A man and a woman, enveloped in rudimentary radiation outfits, sit side-by-side on a beach and brood on the costs of touching unclad. These afterimages from filmmaker Sabine El Chamaa’s work speak to her intimate acquaintance with war, to be sure. But they also bespeak her concern with the intimacies that persist and are lost in war—and with those intimacies that may be particular to war.
Although El Chamaa is Lebanese, she has suggested that the war that stretched from her fourth to her nineteenth year may have eclipsed, or at least fused with, her place of birth as the thing that most influenced her. “If it is Lebanon or if it is the war, I am not sure, I cannot differentiate.” A fifteen-year war that shapes one as profoundly as place: such a war is not an event but a condition. Even its hoped-for end only implies war’s resumption. “Growing up in Beirut,” El Chamaa once told me, “there were two questions you asked of war: when will this one end? And when will the next one begin?”
In a way, it was thanks to the perennial question of “the next one” that El Chamaa and I met. She had come to Philadelphia at the end of last summer to begin her term as the Middle East Center’s Artist in Residence. During a trip to the bookstore, she ran across the readings for my “War, Form, and Theory” seminar—a course preoccupied with war’s anticipatory temporalities—and contacted me, introducing herself and asking to audit. I welcomed her, but with some trepidation. Although the course was partly rooted in my parents’ encounters with war and the military, I had first-hand experience of neither, and this would likely be true of most or all of the other students. Here in Sabine El Chamaa was a person for whom war was not only a subject of art, scholarship, and political debate but a foundational experience and, for many years, a condition of everyday life. How, I wondered, would she respond to others’ more abstract and distanced view of war? And how would others find grounds for speech, knowing that she saw but didn’t share their distance?
After the first session I began to relax. Sabine was responsive and curious, making it clear that the last thing on her mind was asserting an exclusive right to any subject. Instead, she was a crucial participant in a seminar that gave the lie to distance, insisting on our shared proximity to war—as civilians in a time when civilians are primary targets; as citizens of several nations, all of them heavily armed and variously “rogue” in relation to international law; as members of families, institutions, professions, and religions profoundly shaped by war.
Yet Sabine continued to wrestle with the question of distance, as I learned when I signed on to be one of her faculty supervisors and we began to meet outside of class. Too often, she felt, post-modern theorists of war reproduced the distance-optics of technological warfare in their writings even as they criticized the ethics of such warfare. And there was a more personal dimension to the problem of distance. Again and again, she told me, friends from other countries would call her when Beirut was being bombarded and tell her two things: “I wish I could do something” and “Stay safe.” For Sabine, these were conflicting messages, the second avowing a wish for safety that the first disavowed any capacity or responsibility to help ensure. In response, she said, she wanted to make an installation whose viewers couldn’t help but “do something,” producing effects simply by their decisions about how to traverse the space and interact with the materials. This would be accomplished, she hoped, using a combination of tangible and digital objects that could bring the mediated question of one’s responsibility for distant others into contact with the immediate problem of “staying safe” in a place where violence is always oncoming.
In early December, I made my way in the bitter cold to the 40th Street Artist Residency where Sabine had installed “Fragments,” the open-platform multi-media piece that came out of her semester’s ruminations. The Residency is aptly named: one half of a red brick duplex in West Philadelphia, indistinguishable from the homes around it. Sabine opened the door and, lightly embracing the role of host, welcomed her viewers, took their coats, and showed them around the installation space. Yet here were strange objects for hospitality. Small tables on which sat miscellaneous-looking stacks of photographs, diagrams, and articles. Laptops where earbud-wearing viewers sat watching Sabine’s wartime interviews with civilians as well as more dreamlike pieces less clearly connected to war. Printouts of digital photos loosely arrayed along the Residency’s dusty floor—uncaptioned images that seemed, on closer inspection, to have been taken on a walk through Beirut after a raid had freshly devastated a neighborhood whose residents were beginning to sort through the rubble for salvage. And in a narrow backroom, a flat-screen television on which other visitors were watching more clips chosen from a stack of ill-labeled DVDs. About the rooms there was a sense of the homemade, the makeshift—as if these things had been laid out quickly, with whatever was to hand, and might need to be packed quickly or even left behind. A sense, too, that the piece was grappling not with discrete wars—the kinds with start and end dates, names, numerals—but with war, singular.
The various stations in the house were unnumbered so I wandered for a few minutes then sat down at a recently vacated laptop. I watched the civilians under the drone sketching portraits of one another and keeping, as they spoke to the person behind the camera, one eye always on the circling fleck. I heard Sabine’s voice asking them sympathetic questions then giving way, on another clip, to the music playing on the stereo of a car being driven through an inhospitable landscape. At another station, among stacks of other images and texts on a small table, I discovered Sabine’s copies of the readings for my seminar, complete with her underlinings and marginal notes. They seemed out of place, these essays written in French, British, and U.S. universities far from the places that had shaped and preoccupied the filmmaker. But now they, too, were documents in war, things that might have to be hurriedly packed or abandoned. And seeing these writings among photographs of rubble and copies of propaganda leaflets placed them in war’s production chain as well. They were, particularly the American ones, products of universities whose general education curricula were rooted in the hawkish Contemporary Civilization courses of the First World War; universities whose golden age had been underwritten by defense research-and-development money during the cold war.
I had been reading, viewing, and pondering “Fragments” for about an hour when Sabine summoned everyone to the Residency’s main room and asked us to circle our chairs. In tones that we recognized from the interviews we had watched, she asked us about what we had seen and heard, what sense we had made or refrained from making, what conversations we had had with ourselves as we moved along different itineraries through the installation and sifted through its materials. Our responses were timid at first: we were strangers, lacking the esprit de corps of a class and unused to the sound of our own voices after an hour of silent viewing. But Sabine set us at ease with her attentiveness and humor—and with the impression she gave of simply wanting to gather in our responses, however half-formed, and connect them with each other and with her own. Now this is what I most vividly remember of that evening: not the house or its contents or their unsafe curation but her hospitality amid the things of war.