War Diaries of a 30 Year-Old Woman by Lebanese artist and curator Zena el-Khalil
Translated and Introduction by Maymanah Farahat, Al-Jazeerah, August 4, 2006
With the current Israeli invasion of Lebanon, artists, writers, filmmakers, scholars and poets have been speaking out against the indiscriminate bombardment of civilians and the destruction of the country’s civil infrastructure. Many Lebanese have been publishing their daily experiences under the incursion via blogs and “diary entries” on websites such as the Electronic Intifada. Lebanese artist and curator Zena el-Khalil was one of the first to publish her accounts of life in Beirut at this time. Her writings call attention to the severity of the current situation and capture Lebanese civilian life as it is interrupted and assaulted by what was an unforeseen conflict.
In recent years, el-Khalil had returned to her native Lebanon to begin a sister project to Xanadu, a New York City gallery she established in 2003. Through Xanadu she has curated numerous art exhibitions and organized a residency program that provides Arab artists with the opportunity of working in a New York City studio on a quarterly basis. While living in the United States, el-Khalil was also instrumental in establishing Al Jisser, a nonprofit organization that promotes Arab art and culture. In 2002, she co-curated the groundbreaking art exhibition Williamsburg Bridges Palestine. The New York exhibition featured fifty artists from Palestine and its diaspora. Prior to the onset of this latest violence, el-Khalil had been actively curating and exhibiting in Beirut. She recently curated Shu Tabkha, Ya Mara?, an art exhibition that featured a variety of work by Lebanese female artists who challenge gender roles of the Arab world.
Below are excerpts from el-Khalil’s written entries that document daily life in Lebanon since the conflict began. Both candid and insightful, her writings provide a glimpse into the difficulties Arab artists face as their art, lives and communities are under siege. ArteNews has paired the entries with images of her recent work exhibited in I Love You, a solo exhibition held at Beirut’s esteemed Espace SD in May 2006. These images resonate and take on new meaning within the reality of Lebanon’s current state.
Thursday, July 13, 2006
For the last half hour or so, I have been watching the skyline outside my balcony. It is on fire. It's 4:14am.
At 3:28am this morning, I woke up to the sound of Israeli jets flying low over our skies in Beirut. I was just beginning to finally fall asleep, had racing thoughts in my mind all night, cramps in my stomach, fear... Just as I thought I was going to fall asleep, I heard the sound of jets, followed by one explosion after another.
It has calmed down now. I hear morning prayers in the distance.
I am at home with some friends who have taken refuge with us. A lot of them foreigners. We are trying to explain... Who, what, why... But, we're also trying to be normal. Because being normal is what got Lebanese through 20 some years of war. We are joking about how the airport is on fire because of all the alcohol in the duty free. We are trying to be normal.
Up until now, Israel has done the following:
• blown up our international airport, runways, and gas tanks for planes. No one can leave or enter the country.
• blown up small military domestic airports (both in the north and south)
• blown up all bridges and roads linking Beirut to the south
• blown up areas/villages of the south, everything from the deep south to Saida
• blown up ... As I type this now, another jet is flying by, it is so loud ... Continue... Blown up the suburbs (Dahiyeh)... Three missiles
• blown up the Beirut-Damascus road at several points
• we are surrounded at sea as well, there are military ships launching attacks
...Not watching TV anymore, but I know there is so much more going on.
Thousands evacuated their homes from the south today. They had to walk for miles because their cars could not cross the highway.
Another jet and another explosion. This is all going into Dahiyeh. I can see the red anti-aircraft tracer bullets being shot in retaliation. Pointless. The weapons Hizbullah have are old and outdated World War II leftovers from Russia... No match for Israeli technology.
Newest update, it's 4:26am, Israelis are attacking the city, Saida, from sea. They are targeting the bridge that connects to Saida.
Another really loud bomb. My heart is racing. I can only pretend to be brave.
Everything that is happening now is because Israel is trying to wipe out any trace of Hizballah in Lebanon. In the process of doing all this, they have wiped out our infrastructure. Our roads, bridges, etc., civilian homes, innocent lives.
It's 4:32am and I have a knot in my stomach. I am praying they don't hit the electricity. I want my Internet. I think it's the only thing that will help me stay normal.
Latest update: 9 missile raids into Dahiyeh in the last hour. There are now several parts of Beirut without electricity.
I am praying for the people in Dahiyeh... Another really really loud bomb. I guess that makes it 10 now.
I am angry now. The things that cross your mind... I just set up a new installation last week, now no one will get to see it.
I was just about ready to launch an international residency program here... Not going to happen now.
Was just planning to start a family... who wants to get pregnant now?
Ladies and gentlemen, I did not want to burden you with the troubles of war but I think it is really important that the world knows what is going on. We are under attack by Israel. It is unjust and unfair. I wonder what the media coverage is like out there.
All this must end. Israel must be stopped. This is so unjust and unfair. Everything we've worked on for the past 10 years is gone now. So, so, so unjust and unfair. We had so many cultural events planned for the summer... exhibits... concerts... plays, etc. — all gone.
Dear friends, pray for us. For this madness to end. Pray for the Lebanese people to stick through this together and not lose their cool.
Believe it or not, the sun is beginning to rise and I actually hear birds chirping.
Monday, July 17, 2006
Today I drove through downtown on my way to visit my parents. I was driving alone and was a bit nervous. First time in a car alone since this whole thing started ... But I had to see my parents.
I came across a red light and stopped. The streets were empty, and I caught myself wondering why I stopped and didn't just go through. Streets were totally empty - no other cars, no traffic police. Then I remembered my latest policy that is helping to keep me sane; that even under attack, we should not lose our manners. That even under attack, there are still some regulations we should abide by. Somehow, by not crossing the red light, I was able to maintain some dignity.
Then I looked into my rearview mirror and saw other cars approaching. I closed my eyes and in a fit of prayer wished that they would stop too. That somehow, if they didn't cross the light, it would indicate that somehow we are all thinking the same. I know most of you have heard about Lebanese drivers ... They never stop at red lights! Ladies and gentlemen, today, they stopped.
I opened my eyes and and then burst into tears. All the cars had stopped. Everyone was behaving. It was a ray of hope today. It's the little things that make you happy. I turned and smiled and nodded my head to the other drivers. Maybe they thought this bleached blond was flirting with them.
I don't want to write about all the miserable moments I had today. They were too many. And how can I find the words to really express my despair?
I don't want to write about the tears that fell when I heard about how the Israeli army bombed food storages today. They bombed wheat silos and vegetable storages. Now they want to starve us to death? About how they are now targeting Lebanese army outposts. Lebanese army who are not even fighting them. About the planes that are flying so low. About how my house starts to shake every time a bomb drops. About my worries now about food and water shortages. About the refugees who have lost so much, who are now living on the streets.
The biggest threat today has been to bomb our main electrical plant. The very same one they blew up a few years ago. If that one goes, we are without electricity. I remember that summer ... It was long and hot. I don't know what I would do without Internet. Dear friends, if you don't hear from me after this email it is only because I no longer have access.
I don't want to write about the cramp in my heart every time I hear the death toll rising. So many children! I don't want to write about how everything I have spent my whole life working for has disappeared in a matter of days. A matter of days ... my whole life has changed.
My whole life has changed and I did not ask for it. My whole life has changed without my consent. My whole life has changed because someone, not me, decided they were going to change it. Who said they could? Why didn't they ask me? I was supposed to be camping in the mountains (Chouf) this week. I was supposed to be working on a proposal to bring a New York artist out here next summer. It was supposed to be a surprise; I was going to set the whole thing up, get the funding and surprise him with it. People bought artwork from me, I am supposed to cash my checks. I am supposed to deliver art to people.
Two bombs just went off. My windows are shaking. Stupid me, I closed them to stop the mosquitoes from coming in. thank God they didn't just shatter. My heart - my heart is another story.
We are doing the best we can to help those in need. We are all playing our respective roles and finding roles to play. My sister has been working with the Zicco House/Helem rescue point. They have gotten a bank account open to accept donations so they can buy food, medicine, water, blankets, and mattresses. The ministries of heath and social affairs have proven to be ineffective. It is up to the civil society now to help out.
I can not thank you all enough for all your wonderful emails. They are filling me with life. Please forward the news ... I am so tired. But as long as I have electricity and Internet, I will continue to write. Until I lose my mind ... maybe by then I can get back into my studio again and paint.
To any Israelis who may read this: I have not learned to hate. I still believe in humanity. Violence begets violence. I know there are some of you protesting this. Thank you.
Saturday, July 22, 2006
Just heard the news and i feel sick to my stomach. the telecommunications towers in the north have been hit. i can't get through to any of my friends up there! liz, if you read this... hope you're ok. thinking about you and your family and friends... zeina, tried calling you in tripoli yesterday... i hope you're ok. i can't get through to anyone.
This is insane!
People are so afraid!! this is psychological warfare!! This is unjust and inhumane!
Everyone in Lebanon is a direct target. we are all sitting ducks.
Also heard today that the US is sending a new batch of weapons over to Israel. and that it's expedited delivery!
So, let me ask this question: if israel gets its weapons from the USA then by default doesn't that mean that the USA is at war with Lebanon? isn't that what they are saying about iran and the hizuballah? What did we ever do to the USA to get this? how can something like this be possible? how can mankind be so corrupt, greedy and inhuman?
I am so angry. i am so let down.
WORLD, where are you??? how can something like this be allowed to happen!
Why isn't this being stopped?
People are going crazy from stress, anxiety and depression. my head is constantly buzzing. i feel like i'm going to faint and vomit at the same time.
The Israeli army today blew up the satellite link for major tv news stations. ie: LBC International and Future International. most of the Arab world keeps in touch with what is going on here through those stations. now no more. how are they to know the truth? is Israel slowly trying to choke us?
I spoke with an Irish photojournalist today. she said that she took some pictures yesterday of civilians who were injured from the bombing. but she said that they would never get printed back home. why? because the newspaper would not want to disturb their viewers.
What kind of garbage is that????
I just got back from walking the dogs. the streets were pitch black. no electricity on the roads. i was so scared. the dogs were unhappy because i didn't let them off the lead. i was so afraid they would run off into the darkness and never come back.
I fear that one day i am going to wake up and everything around me will be black. it has already happened to more than half the population of Lebanon. why should it not happen to me?
Please, who ever is reading this, please pass on the word. please do whatever you can to help. tonight, so far, it has been very quiet. too quiet. we all fear that this is the calm before the storm. they have been dropping chemical bombs in the south. are they going to do the same with the rest of the country? i also heard they are using depleted uranium. does this mean that after this is all over with, we are going to be looking at a generation of cancer victims?
God, where are you?
Monday July 24, 2006
There is a very strong smell in the air tonight. I have smelled it before.
I was in NYC during the 9-11 attacks. For two months after the attacks, NYC smelled like Beirut smells like tonight.
It is a mixture of burnt buildings, electric fires, and charred bodies.
It is a putrid and nauseating smell.
I closed all the windows in the apartment, but now we are choking from this sweltering heat.
I went to see Maya today and she commented on how everyday in Beirut these days is like a Sunday... no one on the streets... all the shops closed... but really, it is a lot worse than that. tonight the electricity was out... beirut was so dark and silent.
Today i thought about my students in the Burj Al Barajni Palestinian Refugee Camp. They are caught in the middle of it all. Located right between the airport and Dahiye, i cannot imagine what they are going through. they already had water, medical and electrical shortages.. it must be so bad right now. my heart is breaking...
My sister, Lana, and I had started a class to economically empower young women of the camp. Lana organized it so that each month an artist would come in and teach the women of the camp a craft or artisan skill, so they could make crafts they could sell in order to help support their families. at the end of the classes we were going to have an exhibition of the works made. my month was july. i was only able to give two classes until this madness erupted. we were making objects out of paper mache. the last time i saw them, we were making mini people that represented different people of the camps. we used balloons to make the head, and chicken wire for the bodies... then we covered them with newspaper and glue.
Today i also thought about world domination. about how a few people control so much of what goes on today. it was too scary to continue the thought. so, i stopped.
Tuesday, July 25, 2006
We are almost up to 1 million refugees now. Israel invaded the south of lebanon. they are on lebanese soil now. They are attacking villages, one after the other.
Hizuballah continues to fire into israel. Israel continues to fire into lebanon. Civilian targets are still being hit. Today a hospital was hit. So were ambulances. What is this war? Why is this war?
Saturday, July 29, 2006
The latest in my inbox today... i have now heard from more than one source that these attacked have been planned all along.
"Of all of Israel's wars since 1948, this was the one for which Israel was most prepared," Gerald Steinberg, a political science professor at Israel's Bar-Ilan University, told the San Francisco Chronicle (7/21/05). "By 2004, the military campaign scheduled to last about three weeks that we're seeing now had already been blocked out and, in the last year or two, it's been simulated and rehearsed across the board." The Chronicle reported that a "senior Israeli army officer" has been giving PowerPoint presentations for more than a year to U.S. and other diplomats, journalists and think tanks" outlining the coming war with Lebanon, explaining that a combination of air and ground forces would target Hezbollah and "transportation and communication arteries."
Can someone tell me why i wasn't notified? they tell the press, but they don't tell me? boy do i feel stupid. Today i feel so stupid. For the last six years, i have been making plans. I have been building dreams. I got married. I bought a home. I painted. I exhibited. I made plans with people... for them to come here. i invested time, emotions, money, ideas, love... into lebanon. Or the last six years, i have been building bridges. From beirut to new york. From beirut to everywhere. For the last six years, i have made new friends. I have met with people. i have made contacts. i have made commitments. For the last six years, I promised people things. at work, at home, with friends... For the last six years, I have been encouraging others to paint, sculpt, draw, film, photograph, make, stick, sew, create... I promised them that their work would get somewhere... that it was so important to make work... that lebanon was embracing the arts.. and we just had to direct it. For the last six years, i promised my parents a family. i promised them grandchildren. Or the last six years, i promised my best friends a beirut that our kids would love. a beirut that would be healthy for ourselves and our friends. a beirut that would be unlike any other city in the world.
I just wish i got to see the power point presentation... then i wouldn't have wasted my time on so much hope. while i was building dreams... they were preparing my destruction. Why??
Yes, dear reader, i am becoming angry and cynical. this is what happens when you stop sleeping. This is what happens when you stop eating. this is what happens when your dreams are shattered. this is what happens when your country is violated. But, i will not hate. I will never hate. I am just really really disappointed by these people who feel they have the right to govern my life. Only thing left to do now is to resist. resist with love. my most powerful weapon that no one can touch.
I still love. I will always love. I love beirut