WALID RA'AD

Walid Ra’ad, a Libanese refugee, is trained as a photographer and holds a PhD in Visual and Cultural Studies. He analyses mass media images and narratives on war, more precisely in the context of the Lebanese civil war that started in 1975. To Ra’ad, ‘war’ is not a given chronology of facts, but an abstraction constituted by various discourses. When one tries to write a history of ‘The Lebanese Civil War’, notions like ‘experience’, ‘time’, ‘evidence’, ‘testimony’ all intermingle. Together, they form and forge the ‘facts’, reconstructing the (real) physical and psychic violence.

°1967, lives in New York (USA).

Walid Ra’ad was born in 1967 into a family from Chbanieh, a village in Mount Lebanon. He was eight years old when civil war broke out in Beirut between Christian and Palestinian, Muslim and Druze militias. The 1982 Israeli invasion and occupation of Lebanon, and the subsequent military and geo-political complications that followed Israel’s retreat from Mount Lebanon forced Walid to leave Beirut to pursue his studies in the United States. Initially focussed on becoming a doctor, Walid Ra’ad soon turned to photography, studying at the Rochester Institute of Technology in New York State and the University of Rochester where he completed a doctorate in Visual and Cultural Studies. This academic period was also for Walid an opportunity to reflect on his own identity as an Arab, a middle class Lebanese subject living in the United States, and to explore his own family’s history. His investigation of photography as a historical and critical discourse, and his extended residence in the United States also led to his examination of the images of Lebanon and of the Lebanese civil wars that had been blanketing the Western and Arab mass media since 1975. Since then Walid Ra’ad has not stopped questioning the relation between the available and the obliterated memories and images of his own past and of the Lebanese civil wars.

In 1993 he returned to Beirut for a year with Jayce Salloum to film and interview prisoners held in Southern Lebanon, which led to the film Up to the South. Fascinated by the photographic and historical works of Marville and Atget in Paris, he photographed his capital city being rebuilt - a wall photographed one day was no longer there the next, every shot he took invalidated the last. He read Walter Benjamin’s On Some Motifs in Baudelaire which led him to Bergson (the human being consciously chooses the object that opens up his past), before being guided towards Proust and Remembrance of Things Past (the recovery of memory is hastened by an accidental confrontation with an inanimate object, such as the commonplace madeleine). Benjamin also led him to Freud and to his method of deciphering in the unconscious what is stubbornly repressed.

During this year, Walid Ra’ad met Maha Traboulsi, a Lebanese artist who had formed the Atlas Group in 1976 and which Walid represents today. Maha had formed the Atlas Group in order to address some of the unexamined dimensions of the Lebanese civil wars and in order to challenge the reductive and dominant geo-political analyses of the on-going conflicts. Inspired by the concept of the hysterical symptom in psychoanalysis and by trauma research in the humanities, she set about detecting the hysterical symptoms of the civil wars as they were manifest in Lebanon’s audio-visual culture. She repeatedly stated that: "We have to discover, in the sense that we have to invent the stories that will convincingly establish in popular minds a link between the detected hysterical symptoms and the traumatic events and situations that have produced such symptoms. We have to integrate these traumatic events into the associative chain of meaning in language, and as such to diffuse their affective power to disrupt our healthy functioning."

The work the Atlas Group did behind the scenes and that was concerned with the Lebanese civil wars - collecting evidence from archives, photos and film - was concretised in several projects, such as The Dead Weight of a Quarrel Hangs, a ongoing video project which investigates the possibilities and limits of writing a history of the Lebanese wars. All parts are short fake documentaries, hysterical symptoms of sorts, that present imaginary events constructed out of innocent and everyday material. The tapes do not document what happened, but what can be imagined, what can be said, what can be taken for granted, what can appear as rational, sayable, and thinkable about the wars. Voices feed us contradictory information, questioning the construction of personal histories and collective knowledge while at the same time re-enacting such a script. In a similar way Hostage: The Bachar Tapes (2001) offers a critical view on "The Western Hostage Crisis", which refers to the abduction and detention of Westerners like Terry Anderson, and Terry Waite in Lebanon in the 80s and early 90s by "Islamic militants". This crisis is examined through the testimony of Souheil Bachar - a conceptual character - who was held hostage in Lebanon between 1983 and 1993.

With these projects Ra’ad examines the Lebanese civil war, not as an already given chronology of events, dates, personalities, massacres, and invasions, but rather as an abstraction constituted by various discourses. For him this war is not a self-evident episode, an inert fact of nature, it is not constituted by unified and coherent objects situated in the world. "On the contrary, it is constituted by and through various actions, situations, people, and accounts. Not attempting to situate the war in this or that event, person, space or time, I ask and attempt to answer the following question: How does one write a history of ’The Lebanese Civil War?’". "How do we represent traumatic events of collective historical dimensions when the very notion of experience is itself in question? How do we approach the facts of the war, not in their crude facticity, but "through the complicated mediations by which facts acquire their immediacy?" How does one witness the passing of an extremely violent present? What particular conceptions of experience, of modes of assimilating the data of the world can we presuppose when we speak of the physical and psychic violence of the civil war? What conception of time, evidence, testimony, history, and writing do we invoke?"

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