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Lebanon in the Toilet

By April 21, 2008

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Nada Sehnaoui toilet exhibit, beirut

Question for Lebanon: "Haven't fifteen years of hiding in the toilets been enough?" (Photo courtesy of BloggingBeirut)

Nada Sehnaoui is a 48-year-old Lebanese artist based in Beirut "whose work, paintings, and installations," her Web site notes, "deal with issues of war, personal memory, public amnesia, the writing of history, and the construction of identity."

Several years ago she told Le Monde, the French daily, that her entire life has been marked by the Lebanese civil war, which ended in 1991. Studying in Boston at the time, she was shocked to discover that the war's end warranted nothing more than a couple of inches of print in the press (American newspapers were busy lathering ink on the first George Bush's Operation Desert Storm at the time). There's always been a gulf carved out of ignorance or indifference between Lebanese realities and whatever the world chooses to perceive about Lebanon.

Sehnaoui has been filling in the gulf with her conceptual artistry--a cross between Jenny Holzer's art-as-provocation and more contemplative, smaller-scale Christo, like her recent "Migratory Symphony," which features written histories of displayed on music stands; or the heftier, 20-ton installation, "Fractions of Memory," (2003) that filled Beirut's famous Martyrs Square with piles of newspapers symbolizing lost and recovered memories, and spaces, of the old city before the war.

Nada Sehnaoui
Defined by war, inspired by memory: Nada Sehnaoui is one of Lebanon's most provocative artists. (Photo courtesy of nadasehnaoui.com)
Sehnaoui's latest follows the same tone of arresting development. It opened on April 13, the date that any Lebanese with a memory carries around like a collective verdict: it was on April 13, 1975, that the war broke out. To commemorate the anniversary, Sehnaoui laid out 600 white toilet seats in one of the many vacant lots downtown (the place is being alternately destroyed, this time by the maws of re-development, and rebuilt), inviting people to use them to rest their heels and ask themselves the question Sehnaoui poses: "Haven't fifteen years of hiding in the toilets been enough?"

The ritual, during Lebanon's war, involved hiding in the toilet quite a bit when bombings and gun battles got to be a bit much, and the trudge down several flights of stairs to the nearest shelter got old. Many people got to know their porcelain and bowls, marble floors and medicine cabinets more intimately than they'd have wished, and sometimes more lastingly, more addictively, depending on what was in the medicine cabinet.

These days the Lebanese aren't hiding in that literal toilet, quite. But they're still hiding--from compromise, from themselves, from fear that another 1975 is around the bend. The country has been in constitutional crisis since last November, when its last president stepped down. Its sophomoric parliament has been unable to pick a successor.

The relatively pro-western government in place now, somewhat controlled by incapable reformists who've been promising Lebanon a renewal of democracy since 2005, is distrusted, scorned, virtually dismissed but for the only reality check that keeps a chunk of Lebanon's Christian and Sunni minorities from trashing the government altogether: the alternative, ready to fill the vacuum, is a Hezbollah-led coalition of Shiite and opportunistic Christians led by Gen. Michel Aoun, a self-aggrandizing megalomaniac who would sell his entire family (and throw in the in-laws) in exchange for the presidency. In the event, he's settled for an alliance with Hezbollah.

In the toilet indeed. Sehnaoui's exhibit, which runs until April 27, is sure to put many a Lebanese in mind for a good flushing--if only water enough were available.

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