Lebanon’s National Railway History: Inspiring The Arts

Provocative Narratives about Lebanon’s National Railway History:
The Exhibition Lebanon on Rails, and the Lecture-Performance Nothing to Declare

Iante Gaia Roach and Nelida Nassar  09.24.2013

For the last three months, Lebanon has witnessed a flurry of activities around the theme of railways in the form of drawings, exhibitions, re-excavated historical documentation and a theatrical performance. This concern is not entirely recent since historically, it has attracted several artists: including theatre director Lucien Bou Rjeily, who wrote and directed a show set in the 50’s about buried treasures at the Rayak station; Daniele Genadry, who created a series of paintings depicting her journey along the Bekaa railroad; and numerous photographers, as well. The latest manifestations of interest in the subject are an exhibition and a play. The exhibition Lebanon on Rails moved to Beirut Souks before heading to the northern Lebanese city of Tripoli for its final stop, following its month-long show at the 2013 Beiteddine International Festival, in collaboration with the Australian Embassy and Solidere.

The exhibition is the brainchild of Elias Maalouf, the documentary filmmaker of Ya Tren and activist who is also the founder and director of the non-profit organization Train/Train, and of Eddy Choueiry, a photographer who has spent ten years taking pictures of the Lebanon’s train stations. “When it comes to transport Lebanon is a few hundred trains behind if not thousands,” says Maalouf. The exhibition attempts to call forth at least three layers of readings: nostalgic, militant and didactic.

The visitor is welcomed by a wooden trailer stationed in one of the Souks’ main arteries. It is a “handcar,” like the one seen in Lucky Luck’s comic strips, with a caption inviting viewers to pursue their visit to the gallery “Venue” where Lebanon on Rails continues. The exhibition proposes three contiguous narratives: Eddy Choueiry’s 25 lyrical still-life photographs that immortalize what is left of the stations, with stunning images of train cars and various equipment overgrown by wild vegetation; Elias Maalouf’s archival photographs and postcards; and an on-loan collection of historical documents from the the Lebanon National Railways Company. The exhibition’s central space is occupied by real specters from another age, ghosts of the past, including rusted signage and pieces of wrecked locomotives. But it is in Choueiry’s photographs, enlarged to 225 x 150 cm. that the imagery is particularly arresting. They will be published in a book entitled Lebanon on Rails that will be presented in November at the Beirut Book Fair.

Maalouf enthusiastically shares the stories, dreams, discoveries, trips and goals that Lebanon on Rails’ treasures elicit. He grew up in Ecuador, but the train narrative occupies a major part of his life story – specifically the Rayak station, which is close to the city of Zahle, the main station that was the link between Damascus and Beirut. In 2005, when the Syrian army withdrew from Lebanon, he returned to the country and to Rayak with the hope of making a documentary about the station that had captured his boyhood imagination and with an ardent desire to see part of it transformed into a state-run, not-for profit museum. “Upon arriving, I started filming when I saw smoke coming out of one of the dumpsters, and I found the station’s archive burning while the soldiers were departing. I rushed to see if there was something to save. I managed to retrieve some maps, plans and documents. But the soldiers saw me, they came back, and didn’t leave until everything had been reduced to ashes.”

Both Choueiry and Maalouf feel that they are invested with a mission: to preserve the history of the railroad in Lebanon and to do everything to bring back rail travel. Maalouf began a campaign to reinstate rail transportation, making visits to politicians and different ministers – tourism, transportation, and culture among others, after amassing large archives of his family’s documents — his uncle and grandfather worked at the Rayak station — as well as the material from railway employees and their descendants. Despite the way things are going, Maalouf does not despair of one day finding the train at the end of the station and waiting to hear it whistle once again.

Concurrently, at Ashkal Alwan, Dictaphone Group offered their own take, their own Lebanese train travel in a lecture-performance called Nothing to Declare. The group, an experimental theatre company, is composed of Tania Elkhoury, Petra Serhal (who is also a producer), and Abir Saksouk (who is also an architect). Nothing to Declare was partly developed during a residency at the prestigious Watermill Center, founded by Robert Wilson, in upstate New York, and was previously performed at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, in Austria and in Germany.

The piece, in line with the group’s previous research-based performances exploring the relationship between politics and public space in Lebanon, tells the story of the Lebanese national railroad. Founded in the 1890s during the colonial era and once comprising four passenger routes, it shut down completely in 1991. The lecture-performance is part of an evolving four-year project which aims to go beyond Lebanon’s borders and explore the story of the national railways in a number of other Arab countries, including Palestine, creating a different performance each time.

The three artists welcomed and seated audience members individually at the Ashkal Alwan multi-functional space, offering them nuts for the “journey.” A huge map of Lebanon was drawn on the floor in front of the blank wall facing the audience. The lights went off and Elkhoury began the performance with filmed footage screened on the back wall; often very beautiful visually, it documented only three separate journeys undertaken by the performers along the Lebanese railways, starting out from the Mar Mikhael station in East Beirut. The screening ranged from single images which covered the whole wall to two or three different films projected simultaneously. It was taken with different devices, including mobile phones: the performers in fact recount how many times they were forced to stop filming or indeed delete their footage by the soldiers they encountered at most ex-train stations on their separate journeys. In fact, the abandoned train stations have, for the greater part, been annexed to military bases or are patrolled by the military.

The performers wore the same clothes on stage as they did in the films – striking colors in Elkhoury and Serhal’s case, which would certainly help attract attention, contrary to their declared intentions. Each performer undertook a car journey alone, following the train track, which either led to or passed by their respective family villages. Elkhoury followed the northbound track, through Jounieh, Jbeil, Batroun, Tripoli and Aboudieh up to the Syrian border, where her family’s village is located. Serhal chose the eastern track, which passed through Beirut’s Furn el-Cheback and Jomhour before arriving at Riyak in the Beqaa Valley. Serhal did not reach the Syrian border due to security concerns, but continued until a place from which she could see Syria. Saksouk headed south, arriving at Naqoura which is near the UN-guarded border between Lebanon
and Israel.

The performers recounted their individual journeys in a mélange of travelogue, childhood memories, and historical-political information; they explained how the national rail system gradually ceased functioning during the civil war and has not been restored to service on account of the corrupt politicians who decided to make a considerable profit in real estate instead of tending to public infrastructure. The relationship between Lebanon, Syria and Israel thus features strongly in the show, along with the current situation on the Lebanese – Syrian border, with the influx of Syrian refugees and the camps they live in. The arrival of Palestinian refugees in 1948 is also alluded to, as they were transported from Palestine in trains, and those who made it to Tripoli remained in passenger cars for several days: this is how the Nahr el-Bared refugee camp was formed. The underlying tone of the piece is nostalgic, with many ironic moments. As one member of the trio would recount a part of her story, at times reading aloud – or pretending to read – from hand-written diaries, the others would sit on the floor, filling in the map of Lebanon and its rail, creating a relaxed and natural atmosphere.

Nothing to Declare is an important political indictment against the triumph of private interests and the real estate business, which has destroyed the beauty of the northern coastline, Beirut itself, and many other areas of Lebanon – and corrupted politicians, as well. It is also a brilliant attempt to shine a spotlight on a state of affairs that many among the younger generation question, namely the lack of both a national rail system within Lebanon and a rail connection between Lebanon and the rest of the Arab world. This lack is not the result of logistical reasons or natural barriers, but of the huge profits that were to be made. Moreover, the existence of a train which connected Lebanon to Palestine could not but embarrass Israel. Elkhoury, Serhal and Saksouk’s courage in undertaking such journeys and in presenting such a piece of work is impressive. The fourth journey is still being worked on. Nothing to Declare is extremely topical, with the Syrian conflict spilling over into Lebanon, heightening tension on its borders, including the one with Israel in the south; Syrian refugees are crossing into Lebanon and there has been an increase in the number of bombings, and killings.

The research methods used by the Dictaphone Group, however, are not entirely clear. The three performers convey information obtained on their journeys, but this could be entirely fictitious –though sadly that seems unlikely. Their narration alludes to archival research and interviews with members of the national railroad, which they say will soon be published. Such a publication is much needed in order to complement this beautifully-crafted, thought-provoking and highly moving performance. The audience certainly desires greater clarification concerning exactly which politicians, which occupying forces, and which private companies did what in order for it to be in a position to form an independent judgment regarding the fate of the National Lebanese Railway system.

The NGO Train/Train and the Dictaphone Group’s latest show share concerns about ecologically and economically sustainable means of transportation, and how to live and travel collectively. They share equal access to the same incomplete archives. Their parallel work has similar objectives. Train/Train’s main goals are to create awareness regarding the railway’s history by assembling its archives into a center of documentation, and, in particular, by preserving the history of Lebanese National Rail’s locomotives, which were manufactured in Australia, England, France, Germany, Switzerland and New Zealand. Incidentally, IMA Institut du Monde Arabe in Paris has expressed interest in showing the Lebanon on Rails exhibition. The Dictaphone Group, for its part, is reexamining the public space constituted by the train lines and attempting to understand its social and political implications. Ideally, Lebanon on Rails and Nothing to Declare could have been scheduled to be seen and performed under the same roof. This way, both initiatives would have been more comprehensive and provocative, creating a richer discourse, even if at times antagonistic, with the play’s more dissident reading of the same subject. Curiously, Lebanon on Rails is showing at the former headquarters of the Lebanon National Railways Company, though surely very few among the visitors will know that.

Lebanon’s railway narratives elicit the history of colonialism; for each foreign power attempted to leave its imprint on Lebanon, illustrating it with the different imported locomotives they left behind and the sections of the railroad system they built. But, above all, this is the story of borders being drawn and redraw and of the displacement of the Palestinians from their country to Lebanon in the north, and towards the camps where they have been waiting to have a state since 1948, that of the Jews who fled the European concentration camps that came south, to Palestine, to create the state of Israel. It is a human tragedy for both populations, leaving problems that sixty years later still remain unresolved. It is also the story about the Lebanese, whose lack of access to trains indicates a weakness in their country’s social fabric, the consequences of which are all too clear.

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