How Mona El-Hallak is reconstructing Beirut’s ‘collective memory,’ one photograph at a time

A vintage photograph from the Photo Mario project. (Photo courtesy: Mona El-Hallak)
Updated 06 June 2018

How Mona El-Hallak is reconstructing Beirut’s ‘collective memory,’ one photograph at a time

BEIRUT: Mona El-Hallak is standing in what was once Photo Mario, a neighborhood photographer’s studio located in Beit Beirut in the Lebanese capital’s Sodeco district. In front of her are 80 negatives displayed in a glass cabinet.

“This one is my favorite,” she says, pointing at a medium-format negative. “See the twirls, the capillary breaks, the yellows, the blues. It’s artistic, the way it has deteriorated.”

The 80 negatives on show are just a fraction of the 8,000 that El-Hallak discovered when she first entered the building in 1994.

“When I looked at the photographs for the first time they would look back at me,” she recalls. “And because they’re negatives, they had these white eyes. There were men and women, girls and boys, families, portraits of couples. They had different styles of dress, different hairstyles, and posed in different ways. It was life in all its variety.

“I particularly remember a photograph that looked a lot like one my uncle had taken, and I realized that you identify with photographs beyond whether you know the person or not. You identify with a pose or a family portrait similar to one your own family had taken.”

It was this realization that led to the creation of the Photo Mario Archive Project, an initiative that seeks to recapture memories, not only of the studio and the neighborhood, but of the wider city via the identification of the photographer’s subjects and the recording of their stories. So far only three people have been identified.

“People think that the only aim of this project is to find these people and to tell their stories,” says El-Hallak, an architect and activist. “This is, of course, one aspect, but so many people who don’t know anybody in the photographs still look at them and talk about the memories that they trigger. I want all these stories.”

El-Hallak is consumed by the idea of Beirut’s collective memory. Her belief is that the city is the sum total of its people and their stories, and that maps are human, not geographic. To her the negatives are individual time capsules, and photography a “technology of memory.” Even Beit Beirut, an architectural marvel originally designed in a neo-Ottoman style by Youssef Aftimos in 1924, is nothing without the tales of its inhabitants.

Formerly known as the Barakat building, Beit Beirut was once a grand and impressive residential block made of ochre-colored sandstone. It still has an undeniable allure, despite its infamy as a snipers’ nest during Lebanon’s protracted civil war. Partially destroyed and neglected in the years that followed, it largely owes its existence to El-Hallak, who campaigned tirelessly to stop the building from being demolished. It has now been transformed by the architect Youssef Haidar into a museum to the memory of the city, although it remains, for the most part, controversially closed and unused.

Photo Mario’s tiny studio was located on a mezzanine level just above the ground-floor commercial space and reached via a steep set of stairs. Less than two meters high, it had an array of curtain backdrops, some of which can be seen in the photographs that El-Hallak has developed with the help of the Arab Fund for Arts and Culture (AFAC). The Arab Image Foundation assisted with the cleaning and restoration of the negatives.

Of those who have so far been identified, Dia El Turk was just two years old when his photograph was taken. In it, he sits in front of a wintery backdrop wearing a knitted outfit and lace-up ankle-boots. He was identified by his daughter Noura during AFAC’s 10th anniversary exhibition in Beit Beirut last November.

“It’s the only one we have left in the house,” says Noura, showing me a similar photograph of her father. It is almost identical, only portrait instead of landscape. “The outfit he’s wearing was knitted by my grandmother,” she adds with a smile.

“When I saw the picture it was like looking at my father’s past through my own eyes. I’m the one that lives in this country now, so it was such a beautiful parallel to see. It was very emotional. I hadn’t expected it to be.”

It is such emotion that El-Hallak hopes will drive her project forward. With thousands of negatives to be cleaned, restored and potentially developed, this is a long-term commitment. She even envisages a Photo Mario Cafeteria within Beit Beirut, with an additional digital platform allowing people to upload their photographs and stories. All, hopefully, will contribute to the permanent collection of the museum, creating a database of memory. “It’s like a constant exhibition of people’s portraits and a constant quest for identification,” she says.

The photographs — remnants of a bygone tradition of family portraiture — not only represent the past but are also a physical manifestation of Lebanese nostalgia; that idea of a pre-war golden age and the sometimes desperate attempts to salvage it. Uncropped, with distinctive black borders, they are intimate, peaceful, serene.

“Just looking at the picture it’s like 50 years passed by in front of my eyes,” says Dia from his home in Kuwait. “I can still remember the street, remember the smell of the street, how we used to go to the Sanayeh Garden to play, and how the streets were empty, with only a few cars.

“What I remember mostly from that time was a different environment. A different kind of culture. Everybody knew everybody. It was so beautiful and calm and green. Not like now. We knew everybody. Now you don’t know your neighbor.”

Dia’s photograph had been taken a few days before his family left Lebanon for Kuwait in 1965. Although they would return to Beirut for the summer every year, he wouldn’t move back to the country again until 1981, a year before the Israeli invasion of Lebanon. He would come and go for the next 15 years.

“Every time I left Lebanon I used to say goodbye to everyone as if I would never see them again,” says Dia, whose family was forced to move from Ras Al Nabaa to Hamra in 1987 due to the intensity of the fighting. “It broke my heart. Lebanon used to gather people, now it separates them. I think my story is like many Lebanese: My brother in Morocco, my sister in Cairo and my daughter in Lebanon.”

Haidar’s transformation of Beit Beirut — particularly the use of steel prosthetics and the demolition of a rear service staircase — has not been without its critics, El-Hallak among them. And a year-and-a-half after its completion, the building remains closed.

“For me, the Photo Mario project shows the municipality that this archive needs to be cleaned, restored and shown to the public,” says El-Hallak. “It’s kind of my first step to tell the municipality, ‘Do something about this building that makes the people appropriate it.’

“Every portrait has a story to tell that relates to life in the city before the war and reflects the socio-economic and demographic conditions of that time,” she continues. “This archive and the stories that it will bring back to Beit Beirut will reconstruct a part of our history.”

Screen Savers: The best TV shows of 2018

The best TV shows of 2018. (Shutterstock)
Updated 13 December 2018

Screen Savers: The best TV shows of 2018

  • Lineup of some of the best shows of 2018
  • From psycho killers to stellar spin-offs

DUBAI: From psycho killers to stellar spin-offs via dark comedy and romantic drama, here are the programs that we wasted the most work hours discussing this year. Warning: There will be spoilers.

The Handmaid’s Tale (Season Two)
After a first season that stayed fairly true to Margaret Atwood’s source novel, the dystopian drama took the theocratic Republic of Gilead into uncharted — and even bleaker, harder-to-watch — territory in its second season. Not everyone was on board (“The attempts to add more color and detail … ultimately register as brief pauses from the main event rather than necessary, interconnected sidebars,” wrote Vulture’s Jen Chaney), but, for us, season two more than justified its existence with its knuckle-whitening tension and of-the-moment examination of social issues.

Killing Eve
An unexpected, and hard-to-categorize, hit, “Killing Eve” mixed smart storytelling, thrilling action set-pieces and comedy (both dark and silly) to great effect, further boosting the reputation of showrunner Phoebe Waller-Bridge. Jodie Comer was a revelation as the paradoxically deadly-but-vulnerable assassin Villanelle, and Sandra Oh portrayed MI5 officer Eve Polanski’s confused love-hate obsession with her brilliantly.

Al Hayba (Season Two)
Director Samer Al-Barkawi’s drama about the arms-smuggling Sheikh El Jabal clan in a village on the Lebanon-Syria border was one of the big hits of Ramadan 2017, so expectations were high for this year’s follow-up (a prequel to the first season). The complex plot kept audiences gripped; Syrian actor Taim Hassan drew plaudits for his reprisal as the head of the clan; and Nicole Saba proved a solid replacement for season one star Nadine Njeim. A bit of social-media controversy (in which — shocker! — people online seemed to confuse fiction and fact) only made this more of a must-see.

Better Call Saul (Season Four)
Remarkably, this spinoff from what is widely regarded as one of the peaks of “peak TV” — “Breaking Bad” — looks like it may actually come close to eclipsing the dizzy heights reached by its parent show. Bob Odenkirk’s portrayal of Jimmy McGill’s transformation into the morally bankrupt Saul Goodman continues to dazzle, and the emotional back-and-forth between Jimmy and his girlfriend Kim (the excellent Rhea Seehorn) is the show’s dark heart. This season, too, had a payoff as brutal as anything “Breaking Bad” produced.

Atlanta (Season Two)
With his alter-ego Childish Gambino’s “This is America” and the sophomore season of this hip-hop comedy, Donald Glover proved himself one of 2018’s most powerful social commentators. Funny, frightening and thought-provoking, “Atlanta” built on its surprising, weird debut season to tackle heavy topics with surreal and subtle humor.

Show creator Jed Mercurio had already proven with “Line of Duty” that he has a knack for gripping, jeopardy-heavy thrillers with jaw-dropping cliffhangers (and a penchant for killing off lead characters), so the success of “Bodyguard” — described by The Guardian as “a modern take on a hero’s fable” — wasn’t a huge surprise. Keeley Hawes was superb as ambitious home secretary Julia Montague and Richard Madden played her police protection officer David Budd with a compelling blend of hard-edged heroism and morally compromised frustration.

Nadine Njeim switched from “Al Hayba” to another Ramadan hit, this romantic drama also starring Syrian actor Abed Fahd as lovers Ameera and Jaber respectively. The moving story saw Jaber struggling to come to terms with the loss of his family in a car crash and unexpectedly falling for Ameera, a poor young law student. More than just a simple love story, “Tareeq” tackled themes of loss, class prejudice, and sacrifice.

The Americans (Season Six)
It’s pretty rare for a well-loved TV show to wrap up with a satisfactory climax (remember “Lost”?), but “The Americans” — a downbeat, tense tale of Russian deep-cover agents in Reagan-era America — did it brilliantly, continuing the hugely engaging spy-thriller plot while equally successfully presenting an intense examination of a couple caught between loyalties to their homeland, their kids, their new home, and each other. All topped off with a powerful, slow-burn of a tragedy as parents and kids are separated, not always by choice.

Another show based around the life of an assassin that, like “Killing Eve,” covers comedy and drama by keeping the best bits of both genres to the fore. Bill Hader once again proved his acting chops (often by pretending to be unable to act) as the titular hitman trying to escape his violent life and begin anew. Henry Winkler was typically superb as his acting coach, and each episode had belly laughs and gut-wrenching violence aplenty.

Sacred Games
This tense, dense Indian thriller won critical acclaim for its thoughtful storyline and stellar performances from the whole cast. Saif Ali Khan was superb as cynical police officer Sartaj Singh, promised (via an anonymous tip-off) the opportunity to finally capture the powerful underworld boss Ganesh Gaitonde (the outstanding Nawazuddin Siddiqui), only to find himself caught up in a wide-ranging conspiracy that goes way beyond Mumbai’s gangland.

Julia Roberts made her small-screen debut in this compelling psychological thriller, adapted from the popular podcast about social worker Heidi Bergman helping a soldier adapt to life after deployment, and directed by “Mr. Robot” creator Sam Esmail. The time-hopping story was shot unusually (but successfully) by Esmail, with Bergman’s future life as a waitress presented in vertical frame. This apparent gimmick paid off beautifully in a scene where she suddenly regains her memory of her time as a social worker, and the screen expands to full-width.

The talented quartet of Levantine actors Bassel Khayyat, Bassem Moughnieh, Daniella Rahme and Dana Mardini, directed by Rami Hanna, made this one of 2018’s must-see Arabic dramas. Married couples Sami and Farah and Omar and Lina are long-term friends, sharing a passion for tango dancing. When Farah is killed in a car accident that leaves Omar in a coma, it becomes clear the two were having an affair. What follows is an emotionally fraught depiction of how their spouses deal with the fallout.

Babylon Berlin
Beautifully shot and wonderfully acted, this German crime drama, set in 1929 Berlin, was hugely ambitious, but successfully so. Volker Bruch excelled as Inspector Gereon Rath — the emotionally and mentally damaged self-medicating war veteran sent to Berlin to investigate an extortion racket and stumbling on a bigger conspiracy — but was regularly overshadowed by scene-stealing Peter Kurth as the morally ambiguous, often revolting Detective Chief Inspector Bruno Wolter.