Zena El Khalil: Healing Beirut

Credit: Zena El Khalil

Credit: Zena El Khalil


"El Khalil sought to reawaken a Lebanese audience from a state of collective amnesia. Maybe this explains why the real affects of warfare in the city were only vaguely conveyed to me when I was growing up"

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Art writer Lizzy Vartanian Collier describes her journey of discovery at Zena El Khalil's site-specific exhibition of healing in Beirut.

The childhood my mother described to me in 1960s and 1970s Beirut consisted of aunties cooking together collectively everyday, my grandmother’s constant search for an exactly matching pair of shoes whenever she bought a new handbag, and the luxury of having British style sliced white bread as opposed to Arabic khobez at her birthday parties. As a result, the Beirut that she held dear to her heart and the memories of home that she passed to me was, for a very long time, a long way off from war and violence.

Yet my mother was born in the midst of the Israeli-Lebanese conflict, which began in 1948, its main phase lasting between 1970 and 2006. In June 1967, Beirut was rocked by the six-day war between Israel and Egypt, Syria, Jordan, Iraq and Lebanon. This prompted my family’s decision to leave their beloved Beirut in 1969, in fear of what might happen next, going on to settle in Sydney, Australia, following a month-long journey by boat. During the violence in 1978, after the beginning of the Civil War, my grandfather made a return trip to Beirut on his own in an effort to look for family members that he had not heard from since his departure. My mother begged him to let her accompany him, but he would not let her. She tells us that on his return to Sydney, he was a changed man. He died soon after from a heart attack and my mother strongly believes that the damage done to her treasured Beirut is what killed him. It is not so much of a surprise therefore, that my mother did not return to Lebanon to witness the dramatic change brought to Beirut by the war until 2016, when she made the decision to take my brother and I to visit her homeland. 

In the Sodeco district of Beirut, just 3km away from my mother’s childhood home that overlooked the Sanayeh Garden, lies Beit Beirut (the house of Beirut). The building is a historic landmark formerly known as the Barakat Building, designed by architect Youssef Aftimus in 1924 after being commissioned by Nicholas and Victoria Barakat. The huge structure originally housed eight large apartments that were home to middle-class families up until the civil war, reported as having erupted in 1975, lasting right up until 1990, in the midst of the Israeli-Lebanese conflict. Situated in the heart of the demarcation zone that separated the warring factions – east and west, Christian and Muslim – the building became home to numerous snipers and is now covered by hundreds of bullet holes, crumbling walls and graffiti. It stood in the midst of a killing zone. People stopped crossing and it became known as the green line as nature took over.

Following the civil war, the structure was all but destined for demolition, but was saved by political activists who campaigned for its survival thanks to a campaign spearheaded by Mona El Hallak. An architect herself, El Hallak worked tirelessly throughout the 1990s to bring attention to the building, finding potential buyers and archiving its history. In 2003 the municipality of Beirut issued a decree that stated an intention for the building to become a museum of memory and cultural centre. 

From the outside, the former Barakat Building still shows signs of its violent relationship with the civil war, but inside lies an open-air atrium, an inner courtyard and a spiral staircase covered in glass. The very first exhibition to take place inside Beit Beirut opened this summer in the form of Zena El Khalil's Sacred Catastrophe: Healing Lebanon.

Like me, El Khalil’s family is from Lebanon. At a special guided tour during Beirut Art Week, she told us how her family home in the south of the country had been used as an Israeli torture centre during the violence. Her practice involves making site-specific work in places that have endured great trauma and violence, having previously worked in concentration camps, prisons and the sites of oil spills.

El Khalil told of her frustration at the lack of a reconciliation process in Lebanon following the civil war, explaining that twenty years later, the wounds have still not healed. She spoke about a ‘collective amnesia’ in that part of the world, in which there is an effort to try to forget, accompanied by a danger of losing history and culture, and the threat of the next generation repeating these mistakes. Perhaps this amnesia explains why my mother’s trauma of leaving Beirut has always been relayed to me, but the reasons why and the state of the country was never really spoken about. In El Khalil’s exhibition however, the artist invites the viewer to reflect on the past, which then allows them to move forward.

El Khalil begins with investigating the land and state to understand its past. Her work involves conducting healing ceremonies for both the land and the local community. A certified yoga teacher, her process includes chanting and meditation: love, compassion, forgiveness, peace. She then lights a fire to transform negative energy to positive – fear and pain into love. From these ashes, El Khalil makes ink to paint with, which she uses to write the words that she chants across the walls of the building. These images appear like firework explosions across the building walls and hanging from drapes from the ceilings. El Khalil also buries some of this ash under the surrounding trees and vegetation, so that her actions are still connected to the space after she leaves.

In addition to the ash paintings, some have been embroidered with the words used in her mantras. These mantras also appear in white building blocks that have been placed on the floors of the building 108 times each (the number of energetic channels to the heart in yogic tradition).

Perhaps the most moving part of the exhibition was in an installation on the top floor of the building called 17,000 times forgiveness, which came in the form of 17,000 green wooden beams. Each piece of the work represented one of the 17,000 people still declared as missing from the Civil War. The green not only reflects the building’s location on the green line, but new life, and hope, rebuilding Lebanon. El Khalil also invited the community into the building on each night of the 40-day-long exhibition to come together to tell stories, opening up an arena for dialogue and reconciliation to generate peace. 

Throughout the exhibition, El Khalil sought to reawaken a Lebanese audience from a state of collective amnesia. Maybe this explains why the real affects of warfare in the city were only vaguely conveyed to me when I was growing up. Visiting the exhibition not only provided me with an awareness of Lebanon’s recent history, but also an understanding and awakening. The exhibition is over now, but Beit Beirut continues to remain open. The building would never have lasted if it weren't for campaigners like Mona El Hallak, who like El Khalil, worked to bring awareness of the past. Last year my mother's childhood home was the only building on her street to remain intact, and the only apartment in its block to still have its original balcony. This year the Ottoman balcony had been replaced by a metal one. In a city that is constantly tearing down its old buildings and reinventing itself, Beit Beirut operates as a museum of memory, with Zena El Khalil's exhibition reminding the Lebanese people of its not so distant past. 

 “Sacred Catastrophe: Healing Lebanon", Zena el Khalil’s exhibition and multi-disciplinary intervention, was open to the public at Beit Beirut for 40 days straight, including Sundays, from the 18th of September 2017.

Written by Lizzy Vartanian Collier

Rosie Leggett