LEBANON: Artist remembers the stench of war
Lebanese artist Nada Sahnaoui took her people by surprise when she chose a rather uncoventional tool to lament the damage caused by her country’s infamous civil war and warn against the reoccurrence of the same calamity: toilets, a whole bunch of them.
Under the title, “Haven’t 15 years of hiding in the toilets been enough?” Sehnaoui installed 600 toilets in downtown Beirut, a city contemplating its murky future amid political divisions.
“From 1975 to 1990, the Lebanese people used to hide from the bombings in their toilets where there were no glass windows,” says Sehnaoui while sitting on one of her toilets at sunset. “Now, we hear war drums and we may be killing each other again. This is why I am raising the question: have we not had enough?”
Sahnaoui’s public installation comes on the occasion of the 33rd anniversary of the start of Lebanon’s civil war that lasted for 15, years leaving 150,000 killed and 300,000 injured. Hundreds of Lebanese marched on Sunday along the Green Line that divided Beirut into a Christian East and a Muslim West, raising banners that read “Our unity. Our Salvation.”
Sehnaoui’s installation elicited contradictory reactions. A female Lebanese merchant scanned the lines of white toilets installed in the middle of the street and laughed saying: “It is funny."
But her neighbor, a man who seems in his early 1950s grumbled: “It is a vulgar idea. Plus this woman did not live the war; she was in Boston most of the time.”
Sehnaoui admits that her new project is outlandish. But she argues it's effective. “The idea shocked me when it came to me, but wars are more shocking than toilets,” says the artist who spent many years studying art and film in France and United States.
Most of Sehnaoui’s work seeks to resurrect the memory of the atrocities committed on the sidelines of the civil war. “The Lebanese people have amnesia; they decided that nothing happened," she says. "They don’t hold anyone accountable for what happened."
Her new installation comes amid a deep rift between a pro-Western government and a pro-Syrian opposition that puts the country on the edge of a new civil war. “The situation in Lebanon is difficult but not impossible; we can solve the problem,” she adds. “Through my work, I am trying to tell the young generation, 'Don’t destroy your country and yourselves through violent means.'”
Across downtown Beirut, another artist came up with an unconventional idea to commemorate the country’s civil strife. It is an exhibit depicting the war of words rather than the war of tanks, bullets and rockets. With tens of posters, the exhibit underscores the propaganda campaigns of Lebanon’s different factions during the war.
Between anti-Syrian slogans, communist ethos, Koranic verses and nationalist and pan-Arab catch phrases, the exhibit provides its visitors with an illustrative understanding of the political discourse and the motivations of each Lebanese faction.
—Noha El-Hennawy in Beirut
Photos: From top, artist Neda Sehnaoui sits amid her toilet installation (Noha El-Hennawy). Sehnaoui's hundreds of toilets shown installed in an empty lot in downtown Beirut (Noha El-Hennawy). Young Lebanese march to commemorate the start of the 1975-1990 civil war (Borzou Daragahi). Propaganda posters dating back to Lebanon's civil war are shown in a cultural center in downtown Beirut (Noha El-Hennawy).