Ellie Violet Bramley

'Nothing to Declare'

Nothing to Declare

"In Lebanon, as elsewhere, misery is most visible in the peripheries, control is most apparent on the margins… As one person put it ‘borders are a tremendous opportunity to make people suffer’”

- Dictaphone Group


In 2011, Tania El Khoury and Abir Saksouk, two members of live art performance group Dictaphone Group, were invited to a bloggers’ meeting in Tunisia. El Khoury was prevented from going by lengthy visa procedures. Saksouk went, only to discover that her colleague and friend had not been the only one prevented from travelling – none of the Palestinians invited had been given visas. 


Sadly, this is nothing unusual. But it struck the pair as ironic: the event was supposed to facilitate “Arab bloggers coming together to talk about inter-solidarity; how knowledge and revolution moves around in the Arab world.” And yet, Khoury explains, “we have such awful visa systems between each other.”


Dictaphone Group, which also includes performance artist Petra Serhal, had for some time been interested in borders – “specific sites for the exercise of violence and the manifestation of oppression” - and places to which travel is forbidden. They started looking at maps, and through maps, at trains. Khoury explains: “I was reading a bit about trains and how in Europe, for example, when trains started to be used, people started to think that any sort of identity was old fashioned and backward.” But “with the world war… with the security excuse, then it went back to discrimination and limiting certain people from certain places.” Trains say a lot about borders in general, and about the Arab world, and Lebanon in particular.


Nothing To Declare, Dictaphone’s most recent project, grew from this. A lecture-performance, it breaks the mold as the group’s first non-site-specific work (“we’re not going to take people to the borders”,) but deals characteristically with a politically charged issue through “findings and stories produced through multi-disciplinary research on space and oral history.” This time: Lebanon’s long-defunct railway.


Lebanon’s trains used to be part of a wider, border-crossing network – the old Hijaz railway that spanned the region, connecting the Arab world – Syria, Jordan, Saudi Arabia. Now the tracks are overgrown with weeds and competing histories. The stations peppering them also have pasts as military bases and torture chambers.


The group decided to take a journey along the abandoned train tracks of Lebanon, each going in the direction of the area in which they grew up: Serhal went east over the mountains in the direction of Damascus; Saksouk went south towards the border with Palestine; and Khoury travelled to the north and Tripoli.


First rehearsed at the Watermill Center in New York in May of this year, Nothing To Declare is a research-based performance that, like all work by the group, is very informative. Khoury explains: “the whole point of Dictaphone is mixing academic research with performance and art.” Through performance, the group in a sense popularizes academic research.  This seems fitting – the group’s work often deals with ways those in power privatize and monopolize what should be public. Through its work, for instance its This Sea Is Mine project last summer, the group brings information about these activities, otherwise either unavailable or available only in the pages of international academic journals, to the public.


While Nothing To Declare does not shy away from heavy information – “about the recent history from the Ottoman Empire, and who built the trains and how, and what happened to them during the war” – the performance aspect, along with the interspersed personal narratives, makes it accessible. Khoury explains, “there is the whole layer of testimonies, then there are our journeys, personal journeys – we went there so there is what we saw and who we met.”


The train lines speak volumes about the way colonialism’s border-drawing ways have affected the region, along with the divisions of the civil war (“that never ended”): “obviously the civil war we all know it: the violence, how the militia took over each part and how they used it, and the corruption - people were stealing it to make money using the material. And then after that it’s also really interesting how the state has used a lot this idea of the weak state – we’re so weak we can’t even get the electricity working; we’re so weak… there’s this famous thing: there’s always a poor person in the street going on the TV and going: “wayn al doule” ('where’s the state?') So it worked a lot on this. It uses this ‘where is the state, it’s not present, to actually justify all the militarization.”


The trains show, according to Khoury, “How Lebanon became Lebanon. In Tripoli they made their own trains with their own money. They didn’t come to Beirut.” Instead, “they went north to Aleppo and to Istanbul and to Paris. They didn’t come to Beirut until 35 years later – they didn’t care, it shows how it wasn’t like ‘this nation with Beirut at the center.’…They didn’t really care about this whole identity. This is why it’s a little bit forced.”


In southern areas, ties to a unified Lebanese identity were so flimsy that residents wanted to be part of Palestine. A fascinating part of the lecture-performance is where Abir passes the UN checkpoint in Naquora and arrives at the Lebanese army checkpoint “that marked the end of Lebanon:” “it felt surreal, like a fake act of Lebanese sovereignty between UN military forces and Israeli soldiers.”  This prompts a look at history: “before 1948, this spot used to be an economic exchange point with neighboring Palestinian cities. It would transform into a market where people exchanged fruits for goods imported by train from Haifa. In fact, these relations were so strong that some villages on the Lebanese side of the newly formed border aspired to join Palestine.”


Residents of Khoury’s home village in Akkar used not to see the border between themselves (“Lebanese”) and the families – many of whom were related – just over the mountains in the countryside around Homs (“Syrian”) as a real demarcation. As recently as just before the current uprising in Syria, villagers used frequently to cross what is nominally the border to visit neighboring villages, or the souks of Homs. Now, says Khoury, regime snipers are stationed in the mountains, targeting shepherds whose families have been roaming those lands for centuries.


How very quickly times have changed. With Lebanon currently effectively in a state of land-lock, stories of fluid borders and easy commercial relations over them, seem particularly poignant. Was the group aware of just how prescient these issues were when they were first developing the project?


“We didn’t really think about it until we got there. So we didn’t really think about it as an image, as being locked inside until we actually started to go, and then it just feels like that. One of us just arrived in front of occupied Palestine, two of us… Petra couldn’t even get close to the border with Syria. I went to the border and there was heavy shelling... in Akkar.”


The Lebanese-ness of the story must work very differently depending on the audience.  Perhaps unused to checkpoints and such rigid borders, international audiences will have to stretch more than a Lebanese audience to appreciate certain aspects, but this is where the personal testimonies come into play. “Nearly every audience that saw us agrees it’s moving,” says Khoury. “It is about placing yourself, your body, in situations that are sometimes dangerous, sometimes bizarre. People feel with that, even if it’s a journey that happened miles away.”


She concedes that “with a Lebanese audience it’s much more about them being politically aware of the situation. So, I heard a lot of people saying it’s very important, we need to all know this. Some people say these are places that I know really well but I don’t know what happened to them and it’s good to be reminded of how things get fucked.” What’s more the group is able to go more into the details: “you don’t need to explain everything. You don’t need to say ‘Hariri, who is Hariri…”


Nothing To Declare is an evolving project. It has already been performed to audiences at George Mason University, Virginia; Fusefox Festival in Austin, Texas; Tanzquartier Vien; and Forest Fringe at the Edinburgh Festival. The plan now is to develop the research further and produce a publication that tells the story of their journeys and their research findings, as well as the performance script. The performance will be shown again in Beirut, as well as in other Lebanese cities.



For details of future performances, you can check the Dictaphone Group website here.

(Image via www.dictaphonegroup.com)

“It is about placing yourself, your body, in situations that are sometimes dangerous, sometimes bizarre. People feel with that, even if it’s a journey that happened miles away.”