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Disappearances and Visual Politics

Panel XI-28, 2023 Annual Meeting

On Sunday, November 5 at 8:30 am

Panel Description
  • Dr. Amir Moosavi -- Presenter
  • Dr. Naïma Hachad -- Presenter
  • Ms. Farah Atoui -- Presenter
  • Ms. Lara Balaa -- Presenter
  • Dr. Hasan Kujjah -- Presenter
  • Helen Makhdoumian -- Chair
  • Dr. Naïma Hachad
    Between 1956 and 1999, thousands of political opponents were arrested, tortured, arbitrarily detained, or disappeared without leaving a trace. In 2004, the Equity and Reconciliation Commission was mandated by King Mohammad VI to investigate past violations and compensate victims. Nos Lieux Interdits (2009) by Leila Kilani captures the process, in real-time, through the experience of four families. The rhythm of the documentary is modeled on the protagonists' bodies as they move from one space to another, recording their hesitant movements, anxious and shaky voices, and gestures expressing helplessness and despair. These embodied memories of political violence mirror the documentary’s cinematography, which uses aggressive and blinding brightness in contrast with a blackness that covers the entire screen at times as well as long silences to account for the ghostly presence of the absent bodies of those who never made it back to tell their stories. This paper analyzes how bodies perform ghostly narratives—haunted by the demand for ethical narrations and transmissions of silenced stories and histories of political violence—that decenter the state’s narrative—seeking to recast political violence as a thing of the past—and highlight an inherently flawed transitional justice and an unfinished reconciliation. Haunting, which yields an experience between the body as a witness and the viewer similar to what Joanne Lipson Freed defines as an “intense, temporary, and ultimately transformative encounter with unfathomable difference,” (36) has the potential of producing alternative processes of mourning and healing that counteract state-sponsored memorialization of political violence.
  • Ms. Lara Balaa
    In 2008, the Lebanese non-governmental organization Umam Documentation & Research (Umam D&R) partnered with several local and international organizations, including the International Committee for the Red Cross (ICRC), to produce the exhibition 'Missing.' Between 2008 and 2010, the exhibition toured different parts of Lebanon, presenting portraits of some of the estimated 17,415 victims who disappeared during the civil war (1975–1990). Under each portrait was the victim’s full name, date of birth, and date of disappearance. To promote the launch of the exhibition, a poster featuring a collection of thumbnail portraits was widely circulated. This paper examines the social life of the exhibition and its poster, focusing on the agency of images within the public sphere (Awad, 2020), along three dialogical instances: (1) the exhibition and the poster as it appeared on the walls of Beirut in 2008, (2) their feature in Eliane Raheb’s documentary film 'Sleepless Nights' (2012), and (3) the poster’s feature in Ghassan Halwani’s essay film 'Erased,___Ascent of the Invisible' (2018). I argue that the exhibition was an effort to promote the global discourse of transitional justice, which revolves around the figure of a passive victim and seeks finality in truth, while the two films are subversive takes of this discourse. Through image transformation and destruction, the films question the authority of this discourse as they counter truth with historicity and disrupt the clear categorization of victim and perpetrator. While the exhibition dilutes all forced disappearances into a single collective narrative, the films underline the personal in the collective, and re-politicize the disappearances by re-assigning responsibilities and re-distributing power among multiple agents.
  • Dr. Hasan Kujjah
    As a prominent form of intangible culture, elegiac poetry plays a notable role in transmitting cultural values of a particular city to others, as well as raising awareness about the war and its aftermath through lamenting this city. This research previews the elegiac poetry lamenting the city of Aleppo during the devastating war it suffered from in the second decade of 21st century. Poems are composed by hundreds of poets from variable cultures, ethnicities and languages, reflecting the various views of Aleppo as an “authentic” and cosmopolitan city, as the oldest inhabited city in the world that still alive, and as one of the richest cities in terms of culture and heritage. The research engages two intertwined approaches, in line with its nature: archival research and textual analysis methodologies. depending on 500+ sources (poetry collections, history studies, literary critiques, biographies, periodicals, specialized websites, symposiums and videos), the research includes five sections: introduction, overview of Aleppo in history and literary and overview of elegiac poetry lamenting cities, while the narration of the contemporary elegiac poetry on Aleppo begins in section 4, involving Arabic poems (classical qaṣīdas, blank verse and prose) and world poems from 5 continents. 1st part tackles the impressions about Aleppo before the war (ancient history, glorification, describing Aleppo’s virtues and Aleppians, longing, landmarks and figures). 2nd part covers war and its aftermath (destruction, sadness, helplessness, blaming culprits and laggards, patience and steadfastness, praying and optimism). The research doesn’t rehash Syrian war scenes through poets’ eyes, but rather aims to explore the actual and symbolic value of Aleppo to these poets, as reflected in their poems. Conclusions discuss the objective and quantitative aspects of those poems according to the relationship of poets to Aleppo, as we find that all poets, who come from Aleppo, reside in it, visited it or just know it, mention the city in a positive context of praise and glorification, first two categories write sentimentally and extensively, third and fourth are more figurative and declarative. Conclusions also discuss the spatial dimensions of Aleppo, due to the rare peculiarity of its geographical, historic, urban, civilized, humane, economic and cultural spaces, which conveys multiple facets of the city in the imagination of poets, fulfilling numerous functions, whether descriptive, emotional, realistic or symbolic, as poets had described the various aesthetic material and intangible qualities of Aleppo, such as art, architecture, music, literature, nature, cuisine, and people.
  • Ms. Farah Atoui
    How does Syrian migrant cinema counter the visual regime of the so-called refugee crisis? More specifically, what are some of the creative processes and aesthetic strategies mobilized by Syrian filmmakers to disrupt the dominant discourse of the “crisis,” to generate alternative narratives and representations, and to activate new modalities of political engagement? In this paper, I engage with Chaos (2018), an essay film by Syrian filmmaker Sara Fattahi as an instance of countervisualization that bring to visibility other realities of forced migration that make up Syrian refugees’ lived and embodied experiences: memories, narratives, feelings, and claims that have otherwise been denied or concealed by the dominant discourse of the “crisis.” Through a qualitative interpretive analysis of the film, and drawing on translator and writer Lina Mounzer’s reflection on the process of bearing witness to and translating experiences of war, I argue that Fattahi’s film bears witness to Syrian women’s experiences of war and exile, and translates their oral testimonies into cinematic images that engage the viewers as co-witnesses and solicit a different mode of relating. Fattahi combines an observational sensibility with an aesthetic of extreme close-ups and poetic imagery to generate a new politico-aesthetic language that makes visible and sensible the physical, emotional, and psychological effects of violence, loss, and displacement, creating a sense of proximate intimacy for the viewers and immersing them in these realities in ways that are sensorially, viscerally, and affectively engaging. In addition to foregrounding the voices of women, Chaos privileges the lived, felt, and embodied aspect of forced migration and exile—thoughts, feelings, dreams, inner worlds—which are usually absented, making the women’s stories, and the memories they hold, endure in the face of erasure and forgetting, while also disrupting media’s dominant frame and discourse on war and refugeehood. My broader argument is that this cinematic intervention constitutes an aesthetic and political contribution to a growing body/archive of films created by Syrians on the move as they attempt to (self)represent their lived experiences of war and displacement, to engage the world outside through the moving image, and to offer a collective response to the visual war waged by nation-states and global mainstream media on migrants and refugees. Such films rupture the visualization of the crisis and challenge the politics of hyper- and in-visibility onto which it is founded.
  • Dr. Amir Moosavi
    The Iran-Iraq War (1980-88) was the longest two-state, conventional war of the twentieth century. It engulfed both countries for most of the 1980s and its effects have lasted until today. During wartime, both governments produced massive amounts of state-sponsored literature that reinforced two official narratives of the war. Since the war ended, however, there has been a proliferation of writing about the conflict from a variety of perspectives that has considered a more comprehensive understanding of the war’s consequences and its victims. Most of the literature that has emerged as a challenge to the state narratives of “Saddam’s Qadisiyya” and the “Sacred Defense” have focused on the terrible human consequences of the war: physical and mental trauma narratives of soldiers and civilians, stories of widows, orphans, and refugees. Yet, the war also left behind myriad consequences on non-human victims and destroyed parts of the natural environment in the border regions between Iran and Iraq, and specifically the ecologically diverse border zone in Iran’s southwest and the Iraqi south. Extant studies by environmental and social scientists have focused on air and water pollution from weapons and spilt oil and the effects of leftover mines. Prose fiction, however, offers another perspective. This paper brings together two novels published in 2017, Haras (Pruning the Palm) by Iranian writer Nasim Mar’ashi, and al-Sabiliyyat (trans. The Old Woman and the River) by the late Kuwaiti writer Isma’il Fahd Isma’il, to show how writers of fiction have used the devastating effects of war on the peoples, animals and physical environment of the marshlands in the two countries to create alternative narratives of this long war. Moreover, this paper highlights how two prominent novelists working in Persian and Arabic, two literatures rarely brought together in comparative contents, have found common thematic grounds around the need to address environmental degradation in contemporary fiction. In so doing, it draws from recent critical work in animal studies and the ecocriticism (namely by Rob Nixon, Anat Pick, and the more recent work of Charis Olszok) to explore notions of victimhood, mourning, and loss across contemporary Arabic and Persian literatures.