Dossier | Surviving Beyond The Green Line | esse arts + opinions

Dossier | Surviving Beyond The Green Line

  • Johnny Alam, Beirut’s Green Line, 2015. Photo: courtesy of the artist
  • Lamia Joreige, video still, Here and Perhaps Elsewhere, 2003. Photo: ©Lamia Joreige, courtesy of the artist & Taymour Grahne Gallery, New York

Surviving Beyond The Green Line
By Mirna Boyadjian

A photograph taken in 1982 by Franco-Iranian photojournalist Abbas shows, among the ruins of downtown Beirut, a street entirely covered with dense vegetation that stretches indefinitely into the distance. During the Lebanese civil war from 1975 to 1990, Damascus Street became a no-man’s-land known as the Green Line (1) due to the wild vegetation that had invaded its deserted spaces. From Martyrs’ Square to Mount Lebanon, Damascus Street constituted the dividing line between two sectors of the capital, each defined by a confessional identity. East Beirut was controlled by Christian Phalangists, whereas West Beirut was controlled by Muslim parties, the Palestine Liberation Organization, and revolutionary leftists.

The Green Line became the bloody battleground for fighting between Christian and Muslim militias — not to mention confrontations between groups of the same faith — and the site of thousands of abductions. It was a frightening place, one that was best avoided. For this reason, the majority of Beirutians born during the war did not cross the city until 1989, when calm was restored to the territory. In Je me souviens, cartoonist Zeina Abirached evokes this reality by telling how, as a girl, she was surprised that people from East Beirut spoke the same language as her, since she had the impression that she was visiting a foreign country. (2) Often compared to the Berlin Wall, (3) the Green Line represents a frontier that is obviously much more than a simple line.

Johnny Alam, artist and curator of the exhibition Art on a Green Line, (4) addresses the origins of the territorial segregation of groups based on their denomination, by revisiting a decisive period in history that sheds light on a complex phenomenon that has unjustly been reduced to a simple conflict between Muslims and Christians: 1920 – 43, a time when Lebanon was under French trusteeship. The collage Beirut’s Green Line superimposes a map of the Green Line, drawn up by the American University of Beirut (in collaboration with Østfold University College, Norway) (5) in the wake of the civil war, over a map of Beirut dating from 1920 – 43. Following the dismantling of the Ottoman Empire around 1920, the League of Nations had mandated France to develop certain regions, sparking an unprecedented geopolitical redefinition. Moreover, the annexation of Beirut into the Mount Lebanon Mutasarrifate, a former subdivision of the empire, was a direct result and presided over the creation of Lebanon as we know it today.

The superimposition of the two cartographic drawings prompts a careful examination of the role of French colonial intervention in the construction of a history of Lebanon that is still controversial today. (6) According to Alam, textbooks help to sustain an imaginary of confessional division that existed at the dawn of the nation-state in 1920. This discourse endorses the view that Christians were in favour of the nation-state, whereas Muslims would have preferred to join a greater Arab nation. (7) It also ignores France’s ideological and political interest vis-à-vis the empire through its support of Mount Lebanon’s Christian Maronite community following the hostilities between the Maronites and the Druze in the 1840s. This reduces the possibility of a more balanced explanation.

In addition to questioning the division of the Lebanese people with respect to Lebanon’s colonial history, Alam highlights the difficulty that the Lebanese government has had to date in reaching a consensus on the modern history of the country, (8) given that power is shared pro rata among the different faiths. Unresolved conflicts live on in the collective imagination despite efforts to physically reconstruct the city in the aftermath of the war. In this context, the path of the Green Line traced by the artist with a green thread is reminiscent of a surgical suture binding a deep wound. This metaphor was also invoked in 1996 by architect Joseph L. Nasr to criticize the radical redevelopment of the Green Line — especially the downtown zone — by a government advocating a form of collective amnesia: “Rather than allow this vital cut to ‘heal’ by developing a scar on its own, decisions were made in both cases to ‘suture’ it, that is, in a planned way, sew the torn urban fabric.” (9) Healing cannot occur at the pace of material reconstruction. In Alam’s view, it demands a profound rereading of history.

In 2005, Hassan Choubassi conceived an underground transport system for Beirut, borrowing the visual syntax of subway maps typical of most large cities. Only, Beirut Metro Map evokes a fictitious subway, as Beirut has never had such a system. Running north-south is the legendary Green Line, which seems impassable from either side by the subway lines operating on an east-west axis. The only way to cross is via one of the seven pedestrian crosswalks positioned at specific locations. It is the legend of the map that reveals the highly symbolic dimension of the demarcation line, which, despite the end of the war, has lost none of its resonance. The trip from Barbir to the Hippodrome, for example, is described as follows: “To go from UL Fine Arts II to Barometer in Hamra region, take Metro line E1 in the direction of Charles Helou-Port until you reach the Hippodrome. Jamila Haboush crossed to west Beirut, through the Museum crossing point, to collect the body of her husband, the taxi driver who was killed while driving some people to the airport on the other side of the city.” (10) The reference to tragic events (fictitious or real) linked with the war is disconcerting, for, at first glance, the map resembles any other. Yet the information provided stands in stark contrast with what is usually provided on subway maps. This strategy densifies the line, giving it a consistence above and beyond its invisibility. Even though the transport system is imagined, it nevertheless lends tangibility to this “ghostly line” that has had “very real consequences for people’s movements.”(11)

The pedestrian crossing points echo the improvised security checkpoints maintained by various militias along the Green Line, at which thousands of people were kidnapped during the war. In the film Here and Perhaps Elsewhere (2003), Lamia Joreige shifts perspective by adopting an ethnographic approach to this phenomenon. “Do you know people who were abducted here during the hostilities?” she asks the locals she meets as she follows the Green Line. Camera in hand, Joreige conducts a field study aiming not to find the disappeared, but to evoke their memory through the stories of survivors. To establish contact, she shows them photographs taken during the war. Fascinated and moved, some examine the images intensely, recollecting the past; others prefer to withhold the names of the disappeared, and still others speak candidly of the tragic events, going as far as to show photographs of the abducted. Thus, through these testimonies, we vicariously experience the connection that unites all these individuals regardless of their faith: the loss of loved ones. This impression is even more striking when, during a casual conversation with the artist, a man discloses unsuspected details on the disappearance of his uncle, Alfred Junior Kettaneh. Joreige thus gives us a sense of both the scale of collective mourning and the ongoing resonance of the Green Line — its daily, living reality.

It is the vitality that persists despite the war that is evoked in the photographic essay by Fouad Elkoury. (12) In wartime, life and death intertwine in a fragile coexistence. One journey stands out in this regard. Returning to Beirut in 1982 following a long sojourn in Paris, the photographer relates that he was at first troubled to see Israelis in the flesh. He then describes how, having to cross his city [sa ville in French] “to reach the Western zone, he hastened through the maze of alleys, as a precaution, hugging the walls until he reached the door of the Museum, which was the line of demarcation between the two zones.” The risks taken by Elkoury as he travelled the Green Line to reach his residence by no means exhaust the force of life, as the rest of the story clearly illustrates. Once he entered his dirty and empty house, he writes, he discovered “in the kitchen, that, miraculously, the refrigerator was working. In the fridge was a fresh bottle of fizzy orangeade…. Thus, after a complicated and exhausting seventy-four-hour journey,” (13) he settled down on his balcony, a glass of juice in hand, happy to feel that he was in Beirut. It was this that he wished to immortalize and share with the world.

[Translated from the French by Louise Ashcroft]

(1) The toponym “Green Line” was also used in reference to the frontiers established by the Arab-Israeli Armistice Agreements of 1949, on which the State of Israel was founded.
(2) Zeina Abirached, Je me souviens (Paris: Éditions Cambourakis, 2008).
(3) Joseph L. Nasr, “Beirut/Berlin: Choices in Planning for the Suture of Two Divided Cities,” Journal of Planning Education and Research 16 (September 1996): 27 — 40.
(4) This exhibition, in which the works discussed in this article were presented, was held at the Carleton Curatorial Laboratory at Carleton University Art Gallery from January 19 to April 14, 2015.
(5) “The Beirut Green Line, 1975 – 1990,” Al Mashriq, The Levant: Cultural riches from the countries of the Eastern Mediterranean, accessed September 1, 2015,
(6) A second artwork, Origins of the Green Line: A Media Archaeology (2015), is very revealing in its questioning of the disparity between the Lebanese historical narrative and the version told by the French concerning the bloody conflicts of 1841 and 1860 between the Christians and the Druze of Mount Lebanon, a region that would become the Mount Lebanon Mutasarrifate before being annexed to Beirut under French colonial rule.
(7) Johnny Alam, Art on a Green Line, consulted September 1, 2015,
(8) Numerous articles address this question. On the fortieth anniversary of the civil war, on April 13, 2015, the following article appeared in the newspaper La Presse: Andréane Williams, “Liban: la guerre civile, ou l’oubliée des manuels scolaires,” consulted September 1, 2015,
(9) Nasr, “Beirut/Berlin,” 28.
(10) Hassan Choubassi, “Beirut Metro Map,” Mapping Beirut, December 22, 2009, consulted September 10, 2015,
(11) Tim Ingold, Lines: A Brief History (London and New York: Routledge, 2007), 49.
(12) Fouad Elkoury, Écrit sur l’image. Fouad Elkoury. Beyrouth aller-retour (Paris: Éditions de l’Étoile, 1984).
(13) Ibid. (our translation).

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