Drawing Out Displacement

By Catherine Hamel

Being anchored by a sense of loss and longing is common for those who have experienced forced displacement. They live an unresolved existence, oscillating between the dangerously manipulative memories of a lost place and the difficulty of adaptation to new cultures and their accompanying space. It is a rich existence that defies stale comfort. Nothing is clearly understood.

Life relentlessly demands to be reinterpreted from a different point of view, often in a different language. Observed carelessly, the story of forced displacement is ubiquitous, a common trajectory of being deracinated, blown by the wind of politics, until the weeds are grafted on to new stems. It is an experiment, a novelty that reveals patterns of new growth. Whether memory is productive or destructive, whether the place one is uprooted from is ideal or flawed, longed for or forgotten, it is the violence of the movement that leaves its mark.

Beirut has been a city of departures. It is a city that I have experienced, but not a city that I have known. The first ten years it enveloped me, I was too young to navigate my own destiny. Intimate pockets of space formed my knowledge of it. War brought segregation, and I was too young to challenge the boundaries imposed by the conflict. Displaced to other countries, I became the eternal tourist whenever I returned, interlacing the space of other cities and other lives into its fabric, shadowed by the foreignness that would never leave me.

My bond to Beirut is akin to that of a face intimately known, the knowledge of a look in the eyes, a faint and mocking smile that lingers. But no, I could not describe that face to you, not with the clarity that would give it common and recognizable features. Such is the space of Beirut that bewilders me, a memory of an intimate look that haunts and is never regained. With the continuing destruction, the theft of war dulled the shine in those longed-for eyes. Age alone could have done the same. Experience changed the glances cast by my own eyes. All that remains is a pen that defiantly and single-mindedly traces and retraces the features of this elusive face.

The persistent line of my pen endures as a deliberate act of constantly searching the boundaries of my identity . The images formed from these lines are not meant to be representational. They are a device, a thinking tool, a foil. Images are extruded to evoke, provoke, remember, often with the hope to forget. The pen initially began to flow with the act of copying the eloquent words of writers who described their own numerous experiences of Beirut over the last 20 years. The words and their meaning would seep into my body through the act of duplication. As the hand records, the body is awakened to recall its own marks of memory buried deep within. Marks that were never visible scars and, therefore, never given recognition. The order of the alphabet was soon deformed and the marks of the pen began to record my own muted life of spaces witnessed, of spaces imagined, of spaces never told.

Initially, the flow of the pen combined with the untrained hand expressed chaos, as well as the recognizable stories that needed to be released. From chaos often emerges order. The more the pen drew, an extension of the body within, the more the longing and disorientation dissolved. Renewed interpretations surfaced with each retracing. Courage was summoned to dissect the features. Exposed for observation, reflections were confronted. The density of the experience emerged, with each retracing a new story to be told, emphasizing a different variable. Each retelling allowed for new understanding.

There is something ubiquitous about the lamentation of displacement. Yet the common trajectory does not diminish from its need to be told. The need to be heard. Although discovering and hearing unique experiences is overwhelming to many, there is unbearable cruelty in reducing millions of individual stories to their lowest common denominator. Some try to unravel the thread of their own story in a fabric woven of overwhelming grief; it is not easy to find listening ears. Maybe there is solace in finding willing eyes. Eyes willing to look through the eyes of one who is grafted, one who draws on the ink that flows in her veins.

Vol. 10/ nos. 46/47 (Winter/Spring 2004).

Copyright (c) 2004 by Al Jadid


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