This is essay was first published by Mashallah News in 2014 as part of a print publication called ‘Beirut Re-Collected.’ This is probably not the final proofed version--I can't seem to find that copy.

For a long time, my Zuckerbook profile featured Persona, Z and ‘The Navidson Record’ in its ‘favorite movies’ section. I was in film school at the time, so citing semi-obscure titles that I actually enjoyed didn’t seem too pretentious. While this consideration may apologize for the first two films, my third selection was a little more self-consciously odd. You see, ‘The Navidson Record’ was a significant, yet wholly fictional film described in House of Leaves, a novel by the American experimental writer, Mark Z. Danielewski. This book is difficult to explain; on one level, it is the story of Johnny Truant, our less than reliable narrator. On another level, it is the story and words of a mysterious scholar called Zampanò, whose work is found by Truant after his death. Finally, it’s the impossible story of the Navidson family, who live in a house whose internal dimensions keep expanding while looking normal when seen from the outside. The story of this house is captured in a film made by Will Navidson, who cannot help but obsess over his logic-defying home. Neither we nor Truant ever get to see Navidson’s record; we only learn about it through Doctor Zampanò’s notes, which Truant dutifully compiles for us.

Danielewski’s master stroke in this novel is his insistence on having Johnny tell us that Zampanò was blind.

So — a novel about an inexplicable house, documented in a missing film that was reviewed by a blind man, as told by an unreliable narrator? A postmodern masterpiece? A stimulating play on words? A cerebral waste of time? Yes, and a story that speaks to me in many ways.

Mark’s story may also help you better understand my own.

Some years ago, in 2005 or 2006, I can’t remember exactly — that period is one, blurry bloc in my mind — I too was tasked with documenting something singular on videotape. I was in film school at the time, you see, and the class I was taking involved producing a documentary. Our instructor had a deeply philosophical approach to the subject: like a shamanistic invocation, he would ask us repeatedly: “but what is your is?” A true documentary, we were told, must be on something that actually is. Not an idea. Not something to be. An is. Poverty is an idea and can’t be documented, but a poor man of flesh and blood exists; that man is.

My classmates and I agonized for weeks about our “is” with varying degrees of success. I couldn’t think of any exemplary person or story to document and found myself paralyzed by the weight of this ponderous ontology. What is? And, more importantly for me, what story was worth telling? You must remember that at this time, students like myself were caught up in what felt like historic times1. It was a time of marches against other marches, Lebanese flags against other Lebanese flags, checkpoints, car-bombs, and the incessant humming and buzzing of “The Truth,” that pregnant “is” hovering over us all like a high-tension power line.

I wanted to do something daring and meaningful, and my head was spinning with concepts and imagery pilfered from the skulls of giants, and so I pitched an impossible subject to my class. My ‘is’ would be the city and the student. I would simply go outside and point my camera at the winding roads around my campus, lurching with cars, interlarded with the comings and goings of students, and improvise from there.

I set off in a tiny crew of three to make a record of that time and place. We’d taken no more than two angles of the clogged intersection just outside our campus’ lower gate, when a large vehicle arrived, its shifty-eyed contents whispering from within to the uniformed police standing a few meters from where we were filming.

Our campus is right next door to Qoreitem Palace, the Hariri family’s home. After Rafik Hariri’s assassination, this area became highly securitized; the roads that ran alongside the palace were blocked off, and though this inconvenienced my daily commute quite significantly, I adapted and started parking several streets over, walking the rest of the way. To say that I actively thought about this rising appropriation of public space beyond everyday grumblings about traffic and the stupidity of the zigzagging2 we were subjected to would be a lie. Over the years, I had grown accustomed to seeing armed men and barricades everywhere; in front of my old high school, for example, there had been a Syrian army checkpoint. This just seemed like more of the same.

At the time, it didn’t occur to me that our camera would be looked at with suspicion. No ‘photography is verboten’ sign had been put up yet, and our equipment was as conspicuous as was possible with modern technology. Everything about our behavior was broadcasting: “we have nothing to hide.”

The uniformed police officer approached us and asked what we were doing. He spoke kindly and explained that we weren’t permitted to film so close to the palace. My friends and I insisted that we had no intention of filming any palace and so couldn’t possibly be a nuisance where we were standing. The officer smiled and said that photography was simply not allowed “two streets below and two streets above Qoreitem.”

So we agreed to move down two streets.

As we walked away, my friends complained about this treatment, but I was elated. I had made sure to keep the camera running while ‘the law’ was being laid upon us; “this is our is,” I told them. This was the collision of the student with the city.

So like a hallway that keeps on growing, we let the story unfold. I noticed a small garage plastered with images of that fallen giant who once lived two streets above. We approached its friendly, middle-aged proprietor and asked him whether he felt things had changed in the area since Mr. Hariri’s shocking murder. At first, the man spoke openly, but then he started to second-guess himself, his smile wavering. He asked us what our documentary was about, and I tried to be as transparent as possible. We were simply documenting the city, I said, and since we’d been urged away from our starting point, we found ourselves led to him and his posters. The old man made a few final, general comments that I felt were meant less for us, and more for the occupants of that house that must not be filmed, and we said our thank yous and goodbyes.

On we went, building up our record of the city as it presented itself to us: a series of posters of Saad Hariri, torn; a Lebanese flag hanging from a balcony, frayed; a medium shot of a street cat eating from a green, branded garbage receptacle; a close-up of the Syrian Social Nationalist maelstrom symbol on a yellow wall; a woman hanging up her laundry to dry; a minaret during the call for prayer.

I was filled with a feeling of satisfaction; the gamble had worked and the impossible object was manifesting itself. I decided that we’d done enough for that day, asking my friends to regroup early the next morning while I digested the shots we’d already taken. The next day, I excitedly announced my grand plan: we were going to film from the top of our university building. An electric giddiness shot through us as we hurried up the stairs and stood on a ledge outside the windows of a classroom we’d all been in at one point, and we aimed our camera at our illustrious neighbors next door.

“Shoot the cameras,” I said. “Make sure you get their movements.”

“Don’t you think they’ll see us?” someone asked.

“I want them to see us,” I said. “It’s not like we’re spying on anything we couldn’t see before. I mean, we’re not even trying to hide. We’ve got nothing to hide.”

We shifted our camera to film other neighboring balconies, and in a stroke of what I morbidly considered as good luck, I noticed what looked like Israeli jets flying overhead.

“Quick, quick, get that! Get that! Did you get that??”

“Yes yes got it!”

I couldn’t believe how smoothly the work was going; it was like our city was happy to share its story with us. I couldn’t quite name what it was we were documenting, but my whole body was tingling with excitement. This was our time and place, our sworn testimony — our Beirut.

My reverie was broken by orders barked from below. It was our university security looking visibly annoyed, telling us to get down. We complied, and as we went down the stairs I grew determined to follow this thread to the end: “keep the camera rolling!”

We were met at the main office by our stern head of security and an unidentified man whom I assumed was one of Hariri’s security personnel. I explained our project and insisted that we were doing nothing wrong; we were on university grounds; we were filming things that were visible to anyone who stuck their head out of that classroom window; we had the right to produce whatever we wanted as this was a university project, etc. etc. My discourse drew on everything from universal human rights to my own perceived entitlements as a student at an elite university, but I think what annoyed them the most was my immediate rejection of their seemingly reasonable terms. All they wanted, they claimed, was my videotape.

“We just need to make sure there’s nothing sensitive on it, that’s all.”

I refused, my anger and bombast fueled by a deadly mixture of adrenaline and too many issues of Adbusters. The tape was still rolling and this story needed telling. I told them that I wasn’t going to fail my course because of them. I said that they had no right to tell us what to do because of some vague security concerns. I insisted that this whole matter was null and void because Mr. Saad Hariri wasn’t even home: “he’s in Paris!”

Our head of security begrudgingly had his secretary call ‘the university lawyer,’ as he put it, to advise us on what rights we had. In the meantime, I kept talking. I spoke so much, my throat burned like a wound. At one point, our unnamed friend from Qoreitem security looked down and said: “you may be right, but I have to do my job.” I wonder if this admission, caught on tape, was ever used against him. Looking back now, I feel sorry for that man, standing there in his oversized leather jacket, but I still treasure that moment. I will probably keep treasuring that tiniest of victories for the rest of my life.

Eventually, the verdict was returned: we had no right to resist. The university had apparently decided that its role was the facilitation of Qoreitem security, and not the welfare of its own students. I cannot know who they called, or whether any real deliberation had taken place, but this was the picture presented to us: you must give up the tape. I refused again.

“Fine, then you will go down to the makhfar.” Cut.

“Fine, I’ll go.” Cut.

“Fine, you’re all going down then.” Fade to black.

And that's how they got me. “No, this is my project. The others had nothing to do with it.”

“Give up the tape or you’re all going down to the police station.”

I looked at my friends and felt like weeping. I can laugh at the memory now, but it was very painful at the time; my friends presented resolve but their eyes showed fear.

One of them spoke up: “it’s up to you, Jad.” Those words broke my heart, and I gave up the tape.

That friend is now a successful producer in a Lebanese television station and I couldn’t be prouder.

Flashback. The guards are making noises about giving back the video once they’d screened it. The empty case still sits in my room, the tape never returned.

The issue had grown behind the scenes; unbeknownst to me, our instructor was implicated in my actions. He was questioned about my motives. My mother was contacted and told that if she hadn’t already been known and welcome at Qoreitem, things could have been made worse. They told her that if anything were to happen at the Hariri residence in the coming years, I would be suspect.

This farce was hidden from me for a while by well-meaning people. My friends were questioned without my knowledge. When I finally found out, I felt awful for having put everyone in that situation, but I was mostly just angry.

I wonder what I would do if my videotape were returned today. Most likely, I’d cringe. I’d hate my voice, laugh at my stammering radicalism, and shake my head at the shots which in retrospect became so much more significant than they’d probably been. I’d be aghast at the misremembered details and my inflated sense of self. But mostly, I’d feel guilty about not trying again. My missing record of that time and place grows in significance because it does not exist, its story packing a bigger punch in its absence.


And just like in Danielewski’s troubling text, your reading of my story will hinge on a single detail: the promise I made to my old instructor to try again, a promise I never fulfilled. I was bitter and stopped caring, and as time went by, like so many things in this country, we both seemed happy to avoid each other and never speak of it again. And so, I will always be the maker of the greatest film that never existed.

No matter, the story is still unfolding. That thread I followed stretches on and the hallways are still growing. Though, it’s true, I may be as blind as Zampanò, as unreliable as Johnny Truant, my single-mindedness could have been as destructive as Will Navidson’s, a growling, unspeakable fact remains. It yawns wide, an abyss whose materiality is undeniable, as much as we try to ignore it and make due. What happened and keeps happening to our city simply is.

We owe it to ourselves to remember.


1 On February 14th 2005, former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri was assassinated in a massive car bomb, sparking a series of political upheavals and creating a tense, highly-securitized environment at its most intense in the following three to four years.
2 As Kirsten V. Monroe writes in ‘Being Mobile in Beirut,’ an article published in City & Society, vol. 23, issue 1: “[Metal barricades] were set up for about 30 meters, creating a passageway within the road itself. To keep from crashing into them, drivers had to adopt a zig-zag mobility, as if in a car commercial advertising the impressive handling of a new vehicle model. [...] Security installations of various types, temporary, semi-permanent, and even mobile, whereby caravans of security personnel accompanying political figures use vehicular and verbal means to clear public streets to allow for their unhindered passage, were embedded into the fabric of urban life.”